This is the 4th 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.
“This also is a part of the Church’s teaching, that the world was made and took its beginning at a certain time, and is to be destroyed on account of its wickedness. But what existed before this world, or what will exist after it, has not become certainly known to the many, for there is no clear statement regarding it in the teaching of the Church.”
This point is also not hard for us to accept. We understand that God made the world out of nothing by his Word, not out of existing matter. Only God existed from eternity. And I believe very few of us would claim to know exactly what the new heavens and new earth is going to be like.
“Then, finally, that the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine things. Respecting which there is one opinion throughout the whole Church, that the whole law is indeed spiritual; but that the spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge.”
This is an important point for our day. Many have revived the old Judaizing heresy that Paul and the Early Chruch fought so hard to stamp out. The Hebraic Roots movement has sought to spread the lie that Christians must obey the Torah (Law of Moses). They are able to twist around Paul’s words to make him say just the opposite of what he taught. But thankfully, we have the teaching of the Early Church to clarify Paul’s arguments, and the Judaizers don’t have the ability to twists such a vast amount of literature.
They Early Church Fathers all agreed that the Old Testament was a type and was no longer to be followed in the literal way. The Law of Moses was a type for the Law of Christ. The Law of Christ is most thoroughly expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said we were to make disciples by teaching them to obey all that he commanded. Judaizers would try to say that this means we are to teach the Law of Moses with all of its laws, but Jesus’ commands are primarily moral in nature and are summed up in loving God and loving others. Christians are not lawless, we are under the Law of Christ, but we are not under the Law of Moses. Jesus says those that don’t obey him, will not inherit eternal life (Matt. 7:21-27. The sacrifices of the Old Covenant were a type that was fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. Circumcision was a shadow of the removal of sinful flesh that we receive when we are made part of the new creation in Jesus Christ. Our Covenant meal is not done celebrating deliverance from Egypt once a year, but as the predestined holy people we celebrate the covenant meal weekly on the day of the Resurrection (i.e. Lord’s Supper).
They taught that many of the Old Testament Laws were given because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of that day. The sacrificial system was given in order to keep the Jews from worshiping in an idolatrous fashion. Divorce was allowed because they were going to do it anyway in the hardness of their hearts. They were given food laws to both separate them from idolatrous nations and to remind them every meal that they were under the rule of the Creator. The Sabbath was given so that weekly they would re-enact what the God did on the seventh day; so they were forced to remember the Creator.
But in the New Covenant we have been given new hearts by the Spirit of God. We now remember not only that God is the Creator on a moment by moment basis, but we also recognize him as the Redeemer and Creator of the new creation on the first day of the week. We no longer need to be quarantined and separated from the nations by food laws, instead we are sent into the world as a witness because the Spirit of God is in us to bring about transformation.
Those who hold to the letter of Law will argue for historical context and literal application of the Law of Moses. But the Early Church unanimously interpreted the Old Testament through the Revelation of the Gospel revealed to the Apostles. This is the reason the Apostles nearly always use the Old Testament verses out of context. They are not using the modern grammatical historical approach of interpretation. Instead they are using the interpretation that Christ revealed to them.
“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” (Luke 24:44-47)
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” (Eph. 3:4-5)
“But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is the veil taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” (2 Cor. 3:14-16)
The Early Church taught that the Law of Moses was no longer in effect because it had been fulfilled. Many nowadays might argue that this is a twisting of the Old Testament Scriptures, and that is the exact argument that the Judaizers and Jews of the first few centuries argued. But there are only two ways to interpret the Old Testament: 1. In the Jewish way 2. In the Apostolic way. Ignatius (about 100 A.D.) wrote warning Christians not to be deceived by people who tried to get them to obey the Torah. He summarized his argument in this way, “Christianity didn’t accept Judaism, but Judaism accepted Christianity.” To argue that Christians must still obey Torah is to twist the Apostolic Scriptures and to ignore the universal practice of the Apostolic Church.
What Origen Didn’t Say
Origen wrote his summary of what the Early Church universally agreed upon in the preface of his book “First Principles.” He obviously was not meaning to be comprehensive but only touched on the points of agreement that would affect the subjects he was about to discuss in the main body of his book. For that reason I will conclude with this summary of the Early Church teaching with the Apostles’ Creed. The Early Church called this the “Rule of Faith.” Actually there are different versions of it throughout the Early Church writings. It wasn’t necessarily one inflexible list, but a summary of Apostolic teaching. It is the substance of the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It was not meant to answer every question our overly curious minds, influenced by the European Enlightenment, can come up with like the systematic theologies of later centuries. Instead it was a summary of the doctrine the Apostles taught. Actually, the doctrines of the Apostles included both these articles of faith as well as the commands and practices that they passed on to the Church, but for now we will still with the points of belief.
Most of the Apostles’ Creed was covered in Origen’s summary, so I will only make note of the points that he didn’t include.
1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy universal church: the communion of saints:
Actually, Origen covered this by inference. He continually referred to what the Church universally believed. This assumes that such a Holy Church exists. It is this article that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, as well as any other organization that claims to be the one true church, twisted for their own benefit. The Early Church used the universal teaching of the Church to refute sects that arose. They appealed to the fact that the Church leaders all the way back to the Apostles taught the same things, and they could prove it. In this way they could call anyone teaching something different unorthodox innovators. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox later imagined that having a line of bishops that went back to the Apostles assured that they were the true Church and that their teaching had authority. The problem is that the reason the Early Church used such a line of argument was because the universal Church still actually taught the same thing. They often said it wasn’t just the organizational line of bishops that proved that they were the true Apostolic Church, but that the teaching had not changed. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and any others who pretend to be the “true Church” don’t have a leg to stand on when they teach things contrary to what the Early Chruch taught.
10. The forgiveness of sins:
The Early Church did not just teach that Jesus died on the Cross, but that he died for the forgiveness of sins. They taught that one who repented of their sins could be “born again” into a new life through the waters of baptism. By this they did not mean that the waters of baptism had some magical and automatic power, but that through identifying with Christ by a living faith through the covenantal sign of Baptism God would receive the person who was turning to Christ into his holy people, the Church. They would at that time be given the seal of the Holy Spirit.
“Having been buried with him [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven all our trespasses.” (Col. 2:12-13)
“And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away you sins, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16)
“Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
“On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them….” (Acts 19:5-6 – In Ephesus)
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of you salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…” (Eph. 1:13)
And the two verses that the Early Church seemed to use the most often to speak of being reborn to a new and forgiven life through baptism:
“Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy by the washing of regeneration [rebirth] and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5)
11. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.
2 thoughts on “The Ancient Faith (Part 4)”
I feel you’ve placed too much stock in Origen’s objectivity and the notion of universal agreement in the early church (especially that of the 3rd century). He may have attempted to summarize what he knew of apostolic Christianity, but his objectivity was limited to his context as it was tainted by the theological and philosophical diversity prevalent in third-century Alexandria. As an Alexandrian scholar and a committed Neo-Platonist, his systemization of the allegorical method of interpretation as well as his strong commitment to Platonic dualism led to clear heresy. He held the notion of the pre-existence and transmigration of souls, baptism of purifying fire in the other world, the ministry of human spirits in the afterlife, and the persistence of inherent good present in every life (which led to restorationism). He also spiritualized the resurrection, mysticized the Second Advent, and allegorized eschatological prophecies. So when he presents his summary that you’ve latched onto in his preface, he’s not presenting things objectively before his descent into error as you portray it. His presentation of apostolic Christianity runs in tandem with his already forming convictions, and contradicts the writings of Justin, Melito, Theophilus, Tatian, Iranaeus, Novatian, and Arnobius on a couple serious points: primarily that of the nature of the soul. So when he says “the apostolic teaching is that the soul having a substance and life of its own, shall, after its departure from the world…”, he’s propagating the sentiments of the Neo-Platonists who were convinced the Apostles actually taught this. Yet Justin Martyr alone, much closer to apostolic tradition than Origen, makes it very clear to the contrary:
“What is man but the reasonable animal composed of body and soul? Is the soul by itself man? No; but the soul of man. Would the body be called man? No, but it is called the body of man. If, then, neither of these is by itself man, but that which is made up of the two together is called man, and God has called man to life and resurrection, He has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body.” (On the Resurrection, cap. 8, in ANF, vol. 1, pp. 297-98)
“If you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this [truth], and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians.” (Dialogue With Trypho, chap. 80. in ANF, vol. 1, p. 239)
Justin asserts an anthropology of the soul more akin to conditionalism than that of dualism and blasts the notion of a soul ascending to heaven apart from the body and before the resurrection as ridiculous. What’s amazing about this is that before his conversion, Justin was a convinced Platonist. So the fact that his conversion led to a drastic shift in his beliefs on the anthropological constitution of man is significant evidence of what the apostles actually taught. When Origen argues that the apostles taught substance dualism, he’s in complete contradiction to earlier church fathers I listed (who argue that the soul dies with the body and is raised with the body). And this betrays the fact that there was diversity of opinion concerning the nature of the soul in the early church, especially in Alexandrian Egypt (the cesspool of pagan syncretism).
Furthermore, when Origen asserts that, “the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most” as well as “the spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge” … he’s tainted with his commitment to allegorical exegesis and the gnostic notion of special revelation of deeper meaning in Scripture to the initiated few. You discuss, in your other posts on how to read the Old Testament, the notion of Apostolic revelation with regards to the fact that the Apostles used Old Testament Scriptures “out of context” because they had deeper revelation. Yet they rarely if ever used the allegorical method (except perhaps in Galatians 4). Instead they used OT Scripture in a typological rather than predictive sense, they saw Jesus living out Old Testament Israel’s story in His own life, they used implicatures in OT Scripture to make a point, and they interpreted OT Scriptures Christocentrically (John 12:41, Rom 10:13, etc.) The verses they used really weren’t so much “out of context” as they were “applied to the context of Christ (Yahweh in flesh)” who typologically fulfilled them. The Apostle’s revelation was the person of Christ in the work of Yahweh, not a special revelation of exegetical gnosis concerning what the passages actually meant beneath the surface.
Furthermore, the notion that the mysteries of the Kingdom were completely hidden from the prophets and revealed only to the Apostles is a bit farfetched when we encounter passages like 1 Peter 1:10-12 which asserts that they did have some level of revelation (albeit incomplete) concerning Christ and the church to come. After all, they conversed with the pre-incarnate Christ on many occasions and carefully searched out these mysteries through the Holy Spirit’s guidance. So when Origen asserts special revelation hidden beneath Scripture that only the initiated in Christ have access to, he’s arguing under the subtle cloud of gnosis which leads directly to his systematic allegorization method and the subsequent syncretized heresies he espouses. (After all, his clouded allegorical distortions can be defended by his argument for special revelation). So his point here (i.e. that those who have the Holy Spirit-given gift of “the word of wisdom and knowledge” are the only ones who can see the spiritual meaning of the law) is off-base. Any Christian with a revelation of Christ (especially in the work of Yahweh) can readily see the spiritual meaning. It’s not some sort of “apostolic method” of reading Scripture, it’s simply Christ in us shining through every ounce of Scripture.
I almost forgot Oirgen’s assertion that the Apostles taught “free-will” and “volition” of “rational souls”. In reality, such key phrases are not “clearly defined in the teaching of the Church” as Origen asserts. He, again, syncretizes Alexandrian Greek philosophy and asserts its pet doctrines upon apostolic teaching. Though there is certainly the implicature of volition of choice in the writings of earlier Church fathers, Origen is going a step too far in syncretizing His philosophical pet terms with Apostolic Christianity. In any case, I honestly don’t understand how you can place your foundation of simply Christian Orthodoxy upon Origen of all ancient theologians to consider.
As I mentioned, I read the guys who came before him & whatever we might say about his views his summary is accurate. Simply read the orthodox fathers who came before him. Thx for the input. Gbu!