Original Christianity was much simpler. In contrast, the scope of modern theology is mind-boggling. Studying Christianity today in depth requires learning and comparing numerous “ologies” and “isms”. There is Soteriology (salvation), Christology (Christ), Eschatology (end times), Angelology (angels), Ecclesiology (church), Hamartiology (sin), Bibliology (bible), Pneumatology (spirit) besides Theology (God). There is covenentism, dispensationalism, ecumenicism, sacerdotalism, trinitarianism, amd unitarianism. There is inerrancy vs. infallibility. (No attempt is being made to give complete lists here, just examples to show how intricate the study is.) Studying Christian theology requires comparing hermeneutics (theories of interpretation) and systematic theologies (systems of belief based on all of the aforementioned isms and ologies). The end result is various movements and traditions that result in a great degree of disagreement on many topics between groups in the Christian faith. (See “So Many Denominations”)
This intense level of study and analysis with its resulting disagreements didn’t exist in original Christianity. David Bercot writes in his introduction to A DICTIONARY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN BELIEFS, “Pease remember that what the early Christian writers do not say can often be just as important as what they do say. In some cases, the early Christian writers knew nothing at all about some of the doctrines that certain Christians today regard as fundamental tenets of the faith.” i He gives two principles early Christian theology. “(1) the earliest Christians focused on living in the light of the Christian message and explaining that message to nonbelievers rather than on sharpening their theological prowess, and (2) early Christian doctrine is less elaborate and less defined and later formulations.”ii
What Was Early Christian Doctrine
Early Christian doctrine centered on basic truths about Jesus Christ and guides to living, that Jesus was the promised messiah, he accomplished redemption for men, and as the redeemed of the Lord, we need to follow his lead in living as he would have us.
For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures;1Co 15:3-4
But now hath Christ been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of them that are asleep.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then they that are Christ’s, at his coming.
Then cometh the end, when he shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have abolished all rule and all authority and power.
For he must reign, till he hath put all his enemies under his feet.
The last enemy that shall be abolished is death.
For, He put all things in subjection under his feet. But when he saith, All things are put in subjection, it is evident that he is excepted who did subject all things unto him.
And when all things have been subjected unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subjected to him that did subject all things unto him, that God may be all in all. 1Co 15:20-28
1Co 15:58 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord. 1Co 15:58
These verses make a few crucial points about what was important in original Christian doctrine:
- Christ’s death and resurrection fulfilled the scriptures
- Christ’s death made our resurrection to eternal life possible
- Christ shall rule over all
- (Except that Christ is subject to the Father)
- Therefore we should always abound in the work of the Lord
Preaching in the Gospels and the Book of Acts
There are no records where Jesus preached about covenantism, dispensationalism, ecumenicism, trinitarianism vs. unitarianism, or the intricacies of the “ologies” mentioned above. Jesus certainly talked about sin, salvation, the end times, God the Father, and eternal life. But Jesus preached a very simple gospel, speaking simple truths in parables and significantly, healing people and performing miracles to deliver people.
And Jesus went about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness. Mat 9:35
Jesus quoted Isaiah the Prophet to specify the scope of his preaching:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovering of sight to the blind, To set at liberty them that are bruised,Luke 4:18
When asked by the followers of John how they should know that Jesus was the Christ Jesus answered:
And he answered and said unto them, Go and tell John the things which ye have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good tidings preached to them.Luke 7:22
This is such a simple message, that Jesus provides a way to reconcile with the Father and live in the kingdom where God is king, providing deliverance to help people rise above the pitfalls of the world. Jesus instructed his disciples to continue this same message after he left:
and he said unto them, Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day;
Luk 24:47 and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations,…Luk 24:46-47
Preaching in the Book of Acts
Original Christianity’s birth and growth centered around accepting Christ, receiving the spirit, manifesting the spirit, and fellowshipping together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The preaching that was done centered on the law and the prophets, and the fulfillment of the Law in Christ. In Acts chapter 2 Peter proclaimed that what was happening was like that prophesied by the prophet Joel. In Acts chapter 3 Peter preached how Jesus fulfilled the word brought down by Moses. In Acts chapter 7 we have teaching on leaders from Abraham to Moses, and how people regularly resisted the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 8 we see Philip teaching the eunuch from the Scriptures about Jesus.
Regularly and consistently we see the simple doctrinal preaching of original Christianity in the book of Acts. The preaching centers on Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. The preaching talks about Israel and their response to the spirit compared to how we should respond to the spirit. The holy spirit is at the center of much of the preaching and doctrine. It is a simple and powerful message. The power of the message is emphasized by the signs, miracles, wonders, and manifestations that accompany the preaching.
We see in the book of Acts that original Christians were charged to follow “the apostles’ doctrine.” “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching…Act 2:42 ” The Apostles taught what Jesus had taught them as we can read in the gospels. They taught how what was going on related to the law and the prophets. There were also some new things, that the gentiles were now part of the redemption, and what that meant. With the outpouring of the holy spirit, there were truths to be imparted about spiritual gifts and manifestations. But it was still the same basic message, Jesus provides the way for redemption and eternal life. Part of that way is accepting Jesus as Lord because we recognize what he accomplished in being raised from the dead. Another part of the Christian life is learning to live this life in the loving manner Christ teaches. Believers following the spirit are transformed from doing the works of the world to doing loving acts in the love of God.
When we read about the believers in the time of Jesus and in Peter and Paul’s ministries we must remember that the epistles didn’t exist until sometime near the end of the book of Acts and weren’t widespread until later. Certainly, Paul’s writings are more complicated than the simple sermons that are seen in the Book of Acts. In fact, they are much more sophisticated than the parables of Jesus. And, especially the books to the Corinthians give a lot of reproof because those folks made a lot of mistakes, but that served to clarify what was legitimate doctrine in the church age especially compared to the Law. But, even considering the scope of the topics in the epistles theology in original Christianity was much simpler. Numerous doctrinal concepts like the doctrines of inerrancy, infallibility, original sin, the sacraments, the trinity, Mariology, eternal security, predestination and more simply didn’t exist at this time. And there was some confusion as to what some of Paul’s writings meant. Look at what it says in 2 Peter:
even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you;
as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. 2Pe 3:15b-16
The simple fact that a large number of doctrinal disagreements are based in part on Paul’s writings shows that people have been wrestling too much with Paul’s and other writings.
The growth and power that was manifested in original Christianity is the model for all growth. So should its simpler theology. There is a huge lesson here.
(c) 2009-2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. last revised 8/10/2023