01.1 The Patristic Age

The time of the apostles is the apostolic age. The period right after is called the subapostolic age. Actually, the period of the first few centuries of Christianity has several names including the “time of the apostolic fathers”, the “high patristic age” age, or just “the patristic age”. Names of these fathers include (but not limited to) Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardes, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Eusebius, Arius, Athanasius, Augustine, and Jerome.

There were a number of things going on in this period. The church was spreading in all directions. Some have more documentation of what went on, especially in this early period, like the happenings in Alexandria, and Rome. Some we have less to go on, like the churches in India, and Ethiopia.

There were numerous movements during this period. The church initially had little structure. The Catholic movement changed this with its emphasis on the power and place of bishops, and its movement away from charismatic gifts and offices. The church taught that the bishops and deacons replaced apostles and prophets. “Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.”[1] The Church, in the form of its hierarchy of bishops, defined itself as the depository of truth and the ruling authority in such matters. Part of what affected this change were heretical movements, the Gnostic and Montanist movements. Montanism especially marked a period where the prophetic ministry was viewed suspiciously to say the least. These heretical sects along with persecution from government authority also started a movement where Christian apologists defended the faith from assaults from both within and without. This developed into the beginnings of the first Christian theologians.

Within Christian theology are numerous movements throughout the millennia. During the patristic era the first major theological movements dealt with Christology; the study of Christ, who he was, and what he is in relationship to God the Father, the holy spirit, and to us. Other topics were also discussed including the authority of the church, which writings were authoritative, the role of clergy, divorce and remarriage, the observance of Easter, eschatology, the Eucharist, free will and predestination, grace, hell and punishment, heresies, hermeneutics, martyrdom, mysteries and sacraments, ordination, philosophy and its value (it had varying degrees of acceptance), reincarnation, salvation (including universal salvation), sin (including original sin), and the role of women. The teachings of this period form the tradition that is much of theological doctrine and practice to this day. It is because of the influence of these men who fathered Christianity as we know it that these men are called the church fathers.

Within a century the church changed from a small Judaistic assembly localized around Jerusalem under the leadership of the spirit-led Apostles and Prophets to an international assembly of congregations under the growing power of bishoprics spreading around the known world. These bishops did not always agree. Some of the most influential early church fathers would later be called heretical.

In the period of first century the emphasis went from power and leading of the holy spirit to the power of the bishops to define theology. This power to the bishops certainly came with good reason; the defense of the faith on multiple fronts. As we have seen in the Old Testament good reason does not mean that it is God’s choice. An example of something happening for good reason but not being God’s choice would be Israel being ruled by kings.

Theology, especially the refining of doctrinal issues, grew to a place of increasing importance in the single century after Christ. Signs, miracles, wonders, charismatic ministries still appeared, however, they were relegated to the background as the church increasingly rejected any revelation after the Apostles as authoritative, and philosophical concepts, and the systematizing of theology grew in prominence. Again, what happened is simply what happened, of itself an event does not mean that it either was or wasn’t God’s primary choice or, for that matter, God’s choice at all. That is what we want to look at in this study.

[1] The Didache, Chapter 15, from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html

© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

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