This is a 2018 post in which I have added a little more information for clarification.
The writing of the early church fathers is a wonderful resource for 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 (although burnings happened way before that). 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. Consequently, it must be acknowledged that the themes and messages in what documents still exist are biased in favor of the Catholic Churches teaching and practices.
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 possibly 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. When the Roman Catholic Church points to early church documents we need to remember that opposing viewpoints were constantly being searched out and destroyed. Of course, some documents survived but the document cleansing process ensured that other viewpoints, for example, the Biblical Unitarian view, would be minimalized.
If it looks like the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church line up with the early church fathers, that is clearly by design. The Roman Catholic Church worked to maintain writings that they agreed with and to declare writings that they disagreed with as heretical and thus marked for the burn pile.
I grieve for those believers who suffered and even died even if some of their beliefs were in error.
An example of lost writings being relevant today is the writings of Sabellius in the early third century that has some similarities to 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 in some times and places.
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.
Of course, the original Christians did not believe this, they believed that God alone is preeternal and God over all. Jesus was a man, the anointed one, fathered by God in Mary’s womb, who preached the Kingdom and ministered for that short while, crucified while sinless to be the payment for the sins of all who would claim that blessing, and was raised in an incorruptible body from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father, and will return for his followers at some future time. Holy Spirit is what God is because he is holy and he is spirit. The Father put spirit on people in the Old Testament and in people in the New Testament as a loving connection to them and empowering them to manifest that holy spirit to others around them.
Sabellius is an example of a person being persecuted and/or early manuscripts being destroyed because they were declared heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Sabellius’ writings no longer exist.
A later example of persecution for heretical beliefs is Michael Servetus who was given the death sentence not only by the Inquisitors but even Calvin lobbied for his execution.[ii]
Here’s a beaut of an example where we have lost the writings on important issues: the teaching of Arius. Arius is totally vilified in some quarters. The following is a parody about Arius being the biggest loser of all time.
Arius Was Theology’s Biggest Loser
We thought about it a long time before giving Arius “The Biggest Loser of All Time” Award! He was a big deal in his home town but was crushed by Athanasius at the Nicene Council. History has not been at all kind to Arius’ memory even though no one really knows what he actually believed. Thankfully, all his writings were banned and burned after the Nicene Council to prevent the spread of his dangerously heretical ideas! The only thing we really know about his teachings is what his critics had to say about him. Some modern commentators allege that this may have given us a slanted view but who knows? Here to accept his consolation prize and finally speak for himself is the “Father of all Heretics”, Arius of Alexandria![iv]
Of course, it is only a parody but can you see the irony in the quote above? Arius is hated although no one knows what he truly believed. His writings were ordered to be burned. All we have to read about him is what his detractors say. Would you want the only information about you to be only what your detractors say about you? We don’t know if Arius taught what the original Christians taught (see T 1.10 Tradition in Original Christianity, Part 10, The Apostles taught the Father alone was God, one of the Most Hidden Truths in Christianity Today for more on that), but he is certainly going to be closer to what the original Christians believed than the new thinkers of the time; Athanasius (who is proclaimed a great hero) and the other Trinitarians. You and I will probably never read his unadulterated views.
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 similarly to what Sabellius taught back in the third century as best as we can ascertain.
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. After all, 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 after a disciple cut off Malchus’ ear. Would our Lord 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.
These are the facts, sad, but true. Be aware.
[i] New Advent Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07256b.htm
[ii] Encyclopedia Brittanica Online, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michael-Servetus
(c) 20-18-2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. last revised 11/29/23