The writing of the early church fathers is a wonderful resource in learning what early Christians believed and how different elements of the church including doctrines and rites developed. However, the problem with reading the early church fathers is that the Roman Catholic Church burned writings they didn’t agree with. The process was simple. They labeled what didn’t agree with their doctrine as heresy and labeled the writers as heretics. The result: heretics lost their financial standing in the world or worse (death) and their writings were burned.
And we lost valuable resources and insights.
This was no small effort. The first law causing this cleansing came in 382, by Theodosius, a Christian Emporer. Slaves could even earn their freedom by ratting out their “heretical” masters! The Roman Catholic Church acknowledges it.
Here’s proof, an excerpt from the New Advent Encyclopedia, a Catholic media:
Heretical teachers were forbidden to propagate their doctrines publicly or privately; to hold public disputations; to ordain bishops, presbyters, or any other clergy; to hold religious meetings; to build conventicles or to avail themselves of money bequeathed to them for that purpose. Slaves were allowed to inform against their heretical masters and to purchase their freedom by coming over to the Church. The children of heretical parents were denied their patrimony and inheritance unless they returned to the Catholic Church. The books of heretics were ordered to be burned.” ( Vide “Codex Theodosianus”, lib. XVI, tit. 5, “De Haereticis”.)[i]
Theodosius is said to be the first who pronounced heresy a capital crime; this law was passed in 382 AD against the Encratites, the Saccophori, the Hydroparastatae, and the Manichaeans.
This policy was in force for many centuries.
For this reason, reading what remains of the writings of the early church does not reflect the totality of the early Christian experience.
There are clues to what some “heretical” writers wrote in the apologist’s writings that wrote against a particular heresy. However, what was written against a “heresy” is probably biased as well as possibly misconstrued.
I write this post with sadness as I feel a great sense of loss as to what some of the lost writings might have told us. I grieve for those believers.
An example of lost writings being relevant today are the writings of Sabellius in the early third century and the Oneness Pentecostal movement today. Sabellianism, also called Modal Monarchianism, holds that the Father is God, the Christ is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. They are all the same God in different modes, but there is one God. They are not different persons, they are different modes or operations of one God.
To some, this is splitting hairs on explaining how the father, his son, and the holy spirit work, but to Trinitarian apologists, this is literally blasphemy even worthy of death.
The Roman Church outlawed this line of reasoning but it has continued to be believed by many professing Christians at the risk of even death. An example is Michael Servetus who was given the death sentence not only by the Inquisitors but even Calvin lobbied for his execution.[ii]
How would Jesus have treated these people, even assuming their views were wrong or heretical? Do you remember the story of Jesus being captured before his passion?
And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luk 22:49-51 ESV)
Can anyone see our Lord commanding the death of anyone let alone men like Sabellius or Servatus? I think not!
Fortunately, Calvin’s condemnation of Servatus started a Protestant controversy against the death penalty for heresy, but it just goes to show how much the evil influence of ungodly Roman Catholic doctrines was brought with the Reformers into the Reformation. And what a tragedy it was and still is that many popular early Christian writers were attacked and even killed and their writings destroyed.
For your information, there are millions[iii] of Oneness Pentecostals that rigorously believe in basically what Sabellius taught back in the third century.
What is amazing to me is that Calvin, a Protestant, lobbied for the execution of Servetus because Calvin was a heretic to the Roman Catholics because he was a Protestant. The protestant doctrine of sola scriptura among other things was declared a heresy. If the sanitizing practice set in Law by Theodosius was still in practice every non-Catholic follower would be persecuted or killed and their writings burned. Where would we be then?
Our Lord healed the ear of Malchus who came at him with the sword and a disciple cut off the ear. Would he then turn around and kill a heretic? The thought of Christians killing Christians over doctrinal disagreements is horrific, as is the sanitizing of the record of the historical writings
[i] New Advent Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07256b.htm
[ii] Encyclopedia Brittanica Online, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michael-Servetus