This is the 2nd post in a series about the teachings of the Early Church Fathers (100 A.D. – 300 A.D.). We are using Origen’s summary of the Church’s teaching found in the preface of his book “First Principles.” For the first post in the series click here.
“Secondly, That Jesus Christ Himself, who came (into the world), was born of the Father before all creatures; that, after He had been the servant of the Father in the creation of all things- ‘For by Him were all things made’ -He in the last times, divesting Himself (of His glory), became a man, and was incarnate although God, and while made a man remained the God which He was; that He assumed a body like to our own, differing in this respect only, that it was born of a virgin and of the Holy Spirit: that this Jesus Christ was truly born, and did truly suffer, and did not endure this death common (to man) in appearance only, but did truly die; that He did truly rise from the dead; and that after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up (into heaven).”
It is clear from this that the Early Church was not of the “Oneness” persuasion. They did not imagine that the Father and the Son were just different manifestations of the same divine Person. Neither were the Early Church leaders Arians. They did not teach that the One who was begotten was less God than the One who begot Him. Finally Origen makes it clear that the unitarian view that Jesus was just a man who was made lord & merely called the son of God, was not held by the Church.
We also see that they made it very clear that what we read in the four Gospels is to be taken as real history; it is not to be spiritualized as the Gnostics of their day and the Christian Science followers of our day attempt to do. Jesus was a real flesh and blood human being, not a spirit only appearing as such. They would have called the Muslims who deny that Jesus died on the Cross and affirm that Jesus made Judas take his place liars, just as they did the Gnostics who invented that lie.
“Then, Thirdly, the apostles related that the Holy Spirit was associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son. But in His case it is not clearly distinguished whether He is to be regarded as born or innate, or also as a Son of God or not: for these are points which have to be inquired into out of sacred Scripture according to the best of our ability, and which demand careful investigation. And that this Spirit inspired each one of the saints, whether prophets or apostles; and that there was not one Spirit in the men of the old dispensation, and another in those who were inspired at the advent of Christ, is most clearly taught throughout the Churches.”
Some might be taken aback when they read this section. But it is a great example of Origen’s integrity. His purpose in the preface of his book was to lay down clearly exactly what they Apostle’s had passed onto the Church. He didn’t want any theological opinions to be mixed in with this summary. To be sure he was opinionated, but before he shared his opinions he wanted to lay down in the preface the things that no orthodox Christian from the time of the Apostles would deny or argue about. For this reason he says that the Apostles did not tell us if the Holy Spirit was “begotten” like the Son. He makes it clear that the Spirit shares the divine glory of the Godhead, but he refuses to say more than that.
After these three points (the first of which was in the first post) we see that the Early Church was Trinitarian. They might not define all the terms the way we would, but that doesn’t prove that they are wrong; if anything it should humble us and show us that our way of speaking is not the original way the Church spoke. With our fancy philosophical words we might be able to paint a clearer picture of than they did, but that doesn’t mean it is an accurate picture. They believed in One God who begot a Son from all eternity through which He created all things. And this One God has a Spirit that has taught and inspired men from the beginning of the World. God, His Son, and His Spirit are not three gods, but they share the same divine glory from all eternity.
“After these points, also, the apostolic teaching is that the soul having a substance and life of its own, shall, after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this: and also that there is a time of resurrection from the dead, when this body, which now ‘is sown in corruption, shall rise in incorruption,’ and that which ‘is sown in dishonor will rise in glory.’”
Origen is here simply saying, “Christians believe in life after death and a judgment that will determine how they spend that afterlife.” I hear the question, “What about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone?!” Well, if by “faith” you mean trusting in, and submitting to, Jesus Christ then the Early Church taught just that. If you mean our past sins being forgiven because of his shed blood when we come to Christ in true repentance and sincere surrender, then the Early Church taught just that. If you mean merely believing that Jesus died for our sins and trusting that obedience is either optional or only a sovereign work (fruits) of God alone, then they would call you a heretic.
They believed that people could be forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ. And they believed that their faith would be judged by the obedient life that came from that faith. They believed that “many are called, but few are chosen.” One that accepts the invitation to the wedding feast of the Lamb, but does not change his clothes will be cast out into outer darkness.
Before you boldly condemn all the Church Fathers, please consider these biblical passages that they took very seriously:
“He [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” (Heb. 5:9)
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.” (Rev. 22:12)
“…but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection of the dead…” (Luke 20:35)
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36)
“…all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28-29)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…. And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Mat. 7:21-23)
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, to that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)
“He will render each according to his works” (Rom. 2:6)
“And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear…” (1 Pet. 1:17)
This is not a complete list of Scriptures related to this topic by any means. But even if we explain all of these verses away through the clever sophistry we learned from our preferred systematic theology, the Early Church did not have the boldness to do so. If we can’t understand how we can be “saved by grace through faith” and yet judged worthy or unworthy “according to our deeds,” then we should sit at the feet of the Early Church Fathers and listen to what they have to say. They knew exactly how both of these biblical truths complemented one another. Who knows, maybe they understood the Apostles even better than the Pope or Martin Luther did.
To Be Continued…