16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine
Above all, it seems to me that it was the very doctrines
which they preached which were the real reason for the inexplicable
success of Christianity. Those doctrines took hold on the heart
and conscience of the individual, so that this new religion
was likely no other. Because of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
[who] was rich but for your sakes he became poor, that you might
become rich through his poverty”, the Corinthian converts should
share their money with their poorer brethren in Jerusalem. Doctrine
had a profound and practical import in daily life, quite unlike
any other religion. And so it should be with us today. Studies of
new religions in the Roman empire have found that they usually fizzled
out if the state was opposed to them. Christianity is the one great
exception. Rodney Stark concludes: “I believe that it was the religion's
particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the
most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history.
And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way
they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that
led to the rise of Christianity” (1).
The message of the love of God was radically different
to that of the pagan religions. " For God so loved the world
. . ." would have been a new paradigm. The gods were thought
not to care how we treat each other. They could be induced
to exchange services for sacrifices. But the idea of grace
was totally new- that God does something for nothing, even giving
His only begotten son. The philosophers regarded grace, mercy and
pity as pathological emotions- defects of character to be avoided
by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned
help or relief, it was contrary to justice, which was the important
concept at the time. Cultured human beings had to as it were
" curb the impulse" to be kind- to watch the spectacle
of men being torn to death by lions was the order of the day. E.A.
Judge quotes examples of ancient philosophy which taught that "
the cry of the undeserving for mercy [must go] unanswered."
Judge continued: " Pity was a defect of character unworthy
of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up.
It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed
the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over
its borders" . And yet the Truth declared that “God is
love”, and He requires His people to manifest the love and outpoured
grace which He has shown in the cross.
There was a great thirst for religion at the time of the
1st century, just as there is in our own time. And there were many religions
on offer, as today- what E.R. Dodds called " a bewildering mass of
alternatives. There were too many cults, too many mysteries, too many
philosophies of life to choose from" . And yet against this background,
Christianity was exclusive; one couldn’t be a Christian and also dabble
in the other cults. For there was only one Lord and Master, and one God.
There can be no doubt that early Christian doctrine met the religious
needs of society. Isis was a cult which spread at roughly the same time
as Christianity. In a study of 22 Graeco-Roman cities, Rodney Stark found:
“that I can report a highly significant correlation of .67 between the
expansion of Isis and the expansion of Christianity. Where Isis went,
Christianity followed”. We must ask whether we are meeting the so evident
religious need of the world around us- or whether we are mismatched to
their needs. People then were desperately interested in religion, and
yet disillusioned with it. The excavations of the walls of Pompeii abound
in extremely blasphemous graffiti and drawings, some of them very obscene
as well, often directed against the gods. It was a world like ours.
Although people often appealed to various gods for help, it was
not assumed that the gods truly cared about humans- Aristotle taught that
gods could feel no love for mere humans. And yet there was growing experimentation
and interest in religion. The growth of Christianity shows that early
Christian doctrine clearly connected with the needs. It’s not that we
can change the doctrines of the Truth to make them interesting for our
society- rather must we offer them to people in such a way as they see
their practical outworking, and they see their own need for salvation
revealed to them…and thereby they are attracted.
In the end, as today, it was the unique teachings of early Christian
doctrine which attracted men and women to conversion. That God should
love the world would have been something totally radical
to the first century audience. And that He should actually care
how we treat one another was likewise a major paradigm break. E.A.
Judge(2) shows in some detail that
the surrounding philosophy regarded mercy and pity as emotions to
be avoided by all rational people. “Mercy is not governed by reason…[therefore
humans must] curb the impulse…the cry of the undeserving for mercy
must go unanswered…pity was a defect of character unworthy of the
wise…it was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had
removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them
over its borders”. Yet the Truth taught that God is love, He is
mercy, and we must respond to His superabounding grace in lives
of outlived kindness and mercy toward others. True love must extend
beyond natural family to all who call on the Lord Jesus, in whatever
place (1 Cor. 1:2). We have spoken of how the example of the early
community played a major role in conversion. And so it did. But
it was only as the doctrines of Christianity were acted out in daily
life that the change in human lives became apparent.
A Clear Focus
The early church had a clear focus; they knew what was core teaching, and they taught it. The 21st century church has become so caught up over interpretation and correct theology that this clarity, the crystal clear focus upon the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, God's grace in Him and the appropriate human response, has all become sadly muted. Statements of faith within fellowships and denominations tend to get longer rather than shorter as time goes on; bridging documents, clarificatory statements, riders to this clause and that point, just keep on accreting. Until the true Christian church has gone just the way of Rabbinic Judaism, endlessly adding explanations to interpretations, notes in the margin, until one reaches a point where the simple message of the basic Gospel has become shrouded in such obscurity that it takes a long time to teach someone about it. And there is rarely a moment in that long explanation when the person becomes convicted of the personal truth of Christ, and wishes to give their lives to it in the abandon of devotion which characterized the 1st century converts. We need to remember that any 'doctrine' we arrive at is the result of a survey of the Biblical facts and an attempt to coordinate those facts and present them in the form of a doctrine. And it is only an attempt. Whilst truth is truth, on the other hand we must hold in mind our intellectual and spiritual fallibility- and that of whatever doctrinal tradition we have come from. God did not send down from Heaven a set of bullet points, a theology. He gave us instead His Son. And even then, as Job perceived, how little a portion is ultimately heard of God (Job 26:14). At the day of judgment, we will understand how we were faithful in "a very little" (Lk. 19:17). "The truth" is the reality of the Lord Jesus, that He was and is and shall come again; that in Him, in His death and resurrection, we are saved. All else is "a very little". We are saved by grace, not intellectual accuracy or purity of interpretation. Yet we all struggle with being saved by grace; we would far rather we could earn that great salvation. We would prefer if it were available only to those who passed a Bible knowledge quiz or a theology test. We're very good at giving ourselves grace, cutting ourselves some slack; but not so good at accepting the gift of grace from God. The fact that we shall be saved by grace through faith, through child-like trust, "and that not of [ourselves]", not of our intellectual prowess nor depth of understanding, is a huge barrier to so many of our generation. It was less so amongst the illiterate of the first century Mediterranean world.
No Division Over Interpretation
The clear focus upon Jesus and the experience of personal reconcilliation with God in Him meant that there was little scope for division over any other matters. Christianity developed out of Judaism, and the early believers were intended to continue attendance at the synagogue until they were cast out (Jn. 16:2). Christian believers are pictured as still attending the synagogue in James 2:2 Gk; the implication of Mt. 5:23 is that Christ’s first followers sill made offerings, and surely Mt. 17:24 implies they were expected by Jesus to continue to pay the temple tax. But Judaism then and now placed more emphasis on practical living than on what we might call doctrine or theology; it was “not a system and never had a creed” (3) or ‘statement of faith’. There were wide variations in how the Bible was interpreted. “With the Pharisees moral theology (Halachah) was fixed, but not expository or doctrinal theology (Haggadah)” (4). The various Rabbis had different and contradictory interpretations of Scripture- there are very inconsistent interpretations offered throughout books like 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection, Sadducees didn’t (Acts 23:8). Because there was no defined ‘statement of faith’, there were few accusations of heresy in departing from an agreed body of doctrine. What mattered was practical living. It has truly been observed that “It is remarkable how Jewish theology, owing to its lack of system, was able, as it were, to dabble in ideas” (5). This attitude is continued in the New Testament; no statement of faith is presented, no body of doctrine is explicitly set in stone, and false teaching and heresy was nearly always in the context of a false way of life. Pharisees, Sadduccees and Essenes (John the Baptist’s followers) were all converted into Christianity (Acts 6:7; 15:5; 19:1-5). There is no specific statement that they dropped all their previous understandings; indeed Acts 15:5 shows that there were Christians who still called themselves “Pharisees”. The uniting and defining feature was their common acceptance of Jesus as Messiah, baptism into Him and commitment to Him. The “one faith” referred to the believers’ faith in one and the same person- the one Lord, Jesus (Eph. 4:4-6), rather than only one set of doctrinal propositions about Jesus being “the faith” and all else being apostate. Given the breadth of doctrinal belief within the synagogue system, it’s highly significant that the Lord assumed His followers would remain within that system until they were cast out. He established no principle of leaving a community because one disagrees with some of their theological tenets. He in fact taught the opposite; that there is no guilt by association by such things, and His emphasis was on the heart and human behaviour being transformed. It seems to me a romanticizing of the New Testament evidence to suggest that the early church was totally doctrinally united, but was soon fractured by doctrinal declension from a specific set of doctrines and interpretations which were set in stone by the apostles. Rather the amazing unity of the church was and is remarkable in that it was achieved despite and in the face of those differences. What split the church was fleshly behaviour, which in turn utilized doctrinal differences to justify the various divisions. Truly, “Not even within the New Testament is there convincing evidence of a simple, early unity within the church” in theological matters (6). This is not to say that Biblical interpretation is unimportant; there is indeed “another Jesus” whom the New Testament doesn’t know nor preach. My point rather is that there was no fixed statement of faith in the New Testament, no concept that there was “saving truth” in Biblical interpretation, rather was salvation posited in the person and work of the Lord Jesus; and there was not division between those “in Christ” over matters of theological interpretation.
(6) Edwyn Bevan, Symbolism
And Belief (London: Allen & Unwin, 1938) p. 210.
(1) Rodney Stark, The
Rise of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
(2) E.A. Judge in P.T.
O’Brien, God Who Is Rich In Mercy, Sydney: Macquarrie University
Press, 1986 pp. 107-121.
(3) R.T. Herford, The Pharisees (New York: Macmillan, 1924) p. 13.
(4) L.E. Elliott-Binns, Galilean Christianity (Chicago: Allenson, 1956) p.50.
(5) C.G. Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings (London: Macmillan, 1930) p. 25.
(6) Paul J. Achtemeir, Paul and the Jerusalem Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005) p. 1.