Lesson One
Lesson Two
Lesson Three
Lesson Four
Lesson Five
Lesson Six
Lesson Seven
Lesson Eight
Lesson Nine
Lesson Ten
Lesson Eleven
Lesson Twelve
Lesson Thirteen
Lesson Fourteen
Lesson Fifteen
Lesson Sixteen
Lesson Seventeen
Lesson Eighteen
Lesson Nineteen
Lesson Twenty
Lesson Twenty-One
Lesson Twenty-Two
Lesson Twenty-Three
Lesson Twenty-Four
Course Wrap-Up
Course Completion
1 Activity | 1 Assessment


In this our last lecture, I would like to take a moment for us to review what we’ve learned and to provide some practical instruction in how to take this mass of material and assimilate it and especially to prepare for examinations. In many ways this is the most important part of the course. You’ve listened with me to many hours of tapes, and much information has been given to you. I’m sure you’ve studied hard, but I’d like to give some practical advice in how to develop a way to study this material so that it can be brought not only into the mind but into the heart as well, because as we bring these facts and figures into our minds, my hope is that this information is not just put into a notebook and placed on the shelf which grows yellow with age, but rather the information from this time period in the ancient church can provide for you a bridge for analysis of twentieth-century issues and twentieth-century problems.

So as we conclude this course, we should spend some time once again tracing the highlights of what we have learned. We’ve covered five hundred years of fascinating material from a practical, theological, and historical perspective. We begin at the beginning. Why study the ancient church period? We studied this period because we learn about the Bible and its interpretation. We learn about the history of the development of certain doctrines. We learn the roots of today’s church, and we learn to guard against certain practical and theological errors.

How is church history divided? We have been developing a timeline which by now should be rather well-etched in your memories. Go with me in that timeline as you reproduce it in your own minds. First, after the writing of the New Testament, we have the apostolic fathers, then the apologists, then the pre-Nicene age, the post-Nicene age, and the conciliar epoch. Can you name certain figures from each of these periods? Do you know what the major theological issues were during these time periods? Do you know some of the concomitant political, social, and economic events that come with these time periods? How about exegetical methodology? Are you familiar with the schools of exegesis that we’ve outlined? If you are going to be taking an exam in this course, these are the types of questions that will most likely appear on that exam.

And so before we begin our final last sweep through the history of the ancient church, let me give to you the advice that I would strongly underline for those of you who truly want to master the information of the ancient church. In the lectures, in these twenty-four lectures, we have been discussing many different aspects of life and teaching in the ancient church period, but as you can imagine, there is a great amount of material that I was not able to communicate to you solely through tapes. And what I would like to do is give another study outline for how one can master especially the theology of the ancient church period.

As you look at the handout concerning the bibliography for this course and as you remember through the tapes, I have referred once or twice, or maybe a half dozen times, to what I call the textbook for this course, and that is a book written by J. N. D. Kelly. His name appears in our printed bibliography. In that textbook called Early Christian Doctrines or Early Christian Theology, we see an index in the back. So if you have that book and you want to fully understand the theology of this period which I was not able to go into in sufficient detail to have a complete grasp, turn with me to the back of the book in Kelly, and you’ll notice, if you have especially the fifth edition published in 1977 or later, an index to various theological topics.

The way in which I pursued this course is through a chronological survey. I went century by century, person by person. The best way to understand the theology of this age is to now take Kelly, if you haven’t been doing it with me, and read through Kelly’s book as he takes the various doctrines. Instead of going century by century, he takes a doctrine and sweeps through the history of the development of that doctrine from what we could call a loci perspective. He begins, for example, with the doctrine of the Trinity and runs through that doctrine up to the Council of Nicea. Or he begins with the doctrine of Christ and runs through that in terms of the broad sweep of that doctrine rather than following the chronological method which is the best lecture method. So assuming now for those of you who want to master the material of this course, you’ve read Kelly’s book. You’ve gone with it in the outline that comes with the readings.

The next piece of practical advice I would give to you is to go to the index and go backwards through Kelly’s book in this manner. For example, the person of Origen was only lectured upon in short detail. I hardly talked about his theology. I talked about his life. Do you remember his passion? Do you remember his brilliance? Do you remember how he quickly became head of the catechetical school? But I didn’t talk too much about his views of salvation, his views of Christ, his views of God. I talked about them in only a summary fashion. If you turn to the index in Kelly’s book, you’ll be able to take a look at the places where Origen is mentioned throughout that textbook, and I would suggest that using that index you go through the various passages in this one book. That’s a practical suggestion for mastering the material that is not given in the lectures.

The lectures are independent in themselves; that is, you can just listen to the lectures and not read the textbook and have a good grasp of the period called the ancient church. This further suggestion is one that I would make for mastering this material so that you can be a good teacher of those that God has placed in your care, a good teacher of the history of the development of the doctrine. I hope that practical advice will prove helpful to you.

Let’s turn our attention now to the whole course—The Ancient Church—and take one more quick look through the era so that I can highlight for you the points that I consider to be especially important so that you can have, as you’ve gone through it now, as all the material is now familiar to you, you can sit back and reflect upon what you’ve heard through these twenty-four hours of lectures. Sit back, reflect upon that material, and so put it together in your brain in a way that is organized according to the way that you feel most comfortable with.

We’ve talked about why we are even taking this course and the practical advantages concerning understanding Scripture, understanding doctrine, and understanding practical life. We’ve talked about the relationship between philosophy and theology. I don’t know if you remember twenty-four lectures ago when I first introduced the relationship between the philosophical schools of the ancient church and theology. And I didn’t give a tremendous amount of detail on that relationship, but what I wanted to point out was that in many ways the philosophical schools of that time period influenced the way in which theology was done. And as you talk to modern-day theologians or philosophers of theology, apologists, it’s often maintained, and I think this is certainly the case in the period of the ancient church, that the philosophers set the agenda for the theologians, and that can be said in both good ways and bad ways. The philosophers are the ones who play the tune and the theologians learned to dance. The philosophers set the questions that it takes the theologians a generation to answer. However you want to portray that relationship, certainly in the period of the ancient church, the philosophies of Neo-Platonism, which I talked about briefly, a Stoic philosophy, these philosophical systems influenced the way theology was done.

Let me highlight especially the influence of philosophy and theology in terms of Trinitarian theology. In general, we note that Neo-Platonism, the philosophy that finds its roots in Plato, had as the idea of the supreme being in that philosophical system, a being which was wholly other, was utterly transcendent, was even beyond being. And we find in the Christian church, especially people like Origen whom I mentioned just a few minutes ago, the same type of terminology being applied to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Savior. In other words, philosophical culture so influenced the theologizing of the ancient church that unless we understand some of these philosophical backgrounds, the whole theology of the age will become incomprehensible. So what is the relationship between philosophy and theology in the ancient church? One of great interpenetration, one of, in a sense, the philosophy setting the agenda for the theologizing.

As we move ahead, again looking at the whole sweep of our course now, as we moved ahead, especially into the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, we’ll see a descending spiral of the influence of philosophy or pagan philosophy influencing the church. The reason for that is quite easy to see in terms of social relationships. In other words, from the ascendency of Constantine as the sole Christian emperor, we find a decline in pagan philosophy. The reason being that Greek philosophy, Greek heathendom was illegal, and so Christianity begins to develop more independently of philosophical speculation in the later part of our course. That’s a major question, a major theme, that I wanted to make sure I cover before the end of the course, that you understand the mutual relationship between philosophy and theology, especially in the earliest years of Christianity.

There are some other important themes that I would like to emphasize before we finish our course together, and let’s take a look again at the beginning and move through the sweep of history. I’ve mentioned to you the important timeline that you should be able to reproduce, especially if you are thinking of taking the examination for this course. We have in the first period after the writing of the New Testament that group called the apostolic fathers and following them the apologists. Do you remember any of the apostolic fathers now without looking at your lecture outline? I mentioned about ten. Some of them are more important than others, but we see in general with the apostolic fathers certain themes coming to the forefront. We see the passion for Jesus Christ as these brave men face persecution, face the scorn of their society, as these brave men face martyrdom, as they saw their parishioners, as they saw their own children being martyred for the sake of Christ. We see in the apostolic fathers a glimpse at a community developing in its self-identity, coming out of the Jewish community, a group separating itself from the Greek community, and then the two communities learning to live with each other.

We think of Ignatius and his letters, and we think of the developing church life as the church begins to wrestle with the Lord’s Supper and with baptism and how these things are to be done. We see a new and fresh era in the church with the apostolic fathers, and yet we also see a time of great theological naiveté. We see a struggling with the Scriptures that seems to us primitive, and it is primitive because they don’t have the centuries of tradition and the tremendous teaching which we are privileged to have in the twentieth century.

And then we move ahead to the time period of the apologists, and what do you remember about the apologists? What were the most important things the apologists wanted to communicate? Remember, the Christianity of that time was an illegal religion. What were some of the grounds for its illegality? Cannibalism, incest—these were the charges made against us—atheism. The Christians at this time wanted to present their faith as a legitimate philosophical system. Christianity is a legitimate philosophy that should be permitted within the empire.

Why would they call Christianity a philosophy? Not many of us today would want to do that. The reason that the apologists call Christianity a legitimate philosophy is that Christianity answers or attempts to answer, it does answer, the questions philosophers ask. It answers the questions of being and why is there life, what is the meaning of life; Christianity answers these questions in a very different way from competing philosophical systems. And so the Christians of the apologetic era, the apologists, hope for more than to be left alone, left with freedom to exist. There were a number of apologists; over a dozen names were given to you. I hope that you can identify a few of these names and that you can tell us what is unique about some of these apologists and how they made certain developments over their predecessors.

Next I would remind you of the earliest ways in which the Christian church interpreted Scriptures. Again summarizing, we see some basic themes both in the apostolic fathers and in the apologists, and given the twentieth-century context of this course, that is, that all of us are living in the twentieth century, perhaps one of the most important practical lessons which we can learn from this time period is that the apostolic fathers and apologists held without a doubt a theory of Scripture that could be defined as infallibility or inerrancy; that is, they held in general to what we would call a mechanical theory of inspiration. Justin Martyr talks about God blowing into His prophets as a flute player blows into his flute, and that the prophets would be the likely instrument that produces the beautiful music which God wants to communicate.

And so we see and can apply to twentieth-century debates the unified teaching in the apostolic fathers and the apologists concerning a doctrine of Scripture. Later on we’re going to see that that Scripture is going to be interpreted in a strange way, even while the doctrine of infallibility or inerrancy is maintained, and we’ll talk about that in just a moment.

Next, as we take a look at the grand themes of our course, we turn our attention to persecution in the ancient church, and this is a time period that always causes me to reflect as I think about what we’ve learned, and it’s a time of encouragement for us as we listen and learn about the persecution that was ours as a church. Again, summarizing some of the practical information that I want us to take home with us in applying the lessons of the ancient church to the twentieth century, first I would emphasize that the time period of persecution was a time of richness in the church. The church was particularly pure. The church did not have an excess baggage of those who were nominal Christians. The church theologically was once again rather naïve; they had not developed fully the questions of doctrine which the answers to which are ours in the twentieth century, but it was a time of blessing, and so I would hasten to add that God’s blessing of the church, whether it’s in the fourth or third or second century or the twentieth century, does not always mean that it’s a time of material prosperity for Christians. Because we are in material prosperity does not mean that we are particularly blessed by God. And on the other hand, if a time of great tribulation occurs, if a time of persecution occurs, this does not mean that God is withdrawing His benefits to the church.

We lived for our first two hundred years as a persecuted minority, as a group that faced death, and were we to go back to a time period similar to that, it would be my opinion that this would not mean the withholding of God’s blessing to us, but rather God in His providence could once again move us into a time of persecution and a time of lack of material prosperity. And so be encouraged by this important part of our church’s past—the time period of persecution. Be encouraged by the faithfulness of the church to stand under persecution, the faithful witness of the church to stand under these time periods.

Also be aware that in times of persecution, the church will also have the lapsed, and we talked about the problem of the lapsed in terms of discipline in the ancient church period. How do we deal with those brothers and sisters who lapsed in some ways, who in some ways compromised the faith? Certainly in the twentieth century the problem of discipline is one of the most important problems of church life. How do we deal with brothers and sisters who lapse in some ways from the faith? Take the lessons learned from this period called the ancient church and attempt to build bridges to twentieth-century issues. As this information is brought into your memory banks, think about it, reflect upon it, and use it to help you establish your own position as to how we deal with the lapsed in the faith.

Then we move on theologically to some important Western and Eastern writers. We talked Irenaeus of Lyon, for example, as sort of a bridge figure from the earliest time periods, the time period of the apologists before we move into what we call the pre-Nicene theological era. And I would make a strong suggestion as I mentioned in the first part of this lecture to go to the back of Kelly’s book and take a look at Irenaeus using the index which you find there. Irenaeus gave us two things that are important even in the twentieth century. First of all is his theory of recapitulation: that Jesus Christ in His humanity recapitulated, lived through again, all the stages of human life redeeming each one. This important theory was a great Christological development that is used throughout the ancient church period.

And the second thing that he gave us was the beginning of the discipline which we would call today biblical theology. Irenaeus is the first one in the history of the church to reflect upon the history God’s dealing with His people from Genesis through Revelation as a history of theological development, and today in twentieth-century America, the discipline of historical theology is of tremendous importance, and in many ways Irenaeus is the father of that discipline.

We also have some other writers, Western writers of the third century—Tertullian, Hippolytus, Novatian, Cyprian, and Lactantius. Some, for example Novatian, are known for the schism named after him. But can you tell me some important facts about their lives and some of the things that they taught? What are some the insights to the ancient church which we have from them? Certainly we have further theological development in each one of these writers, and we get some glimpses, especially of church life, in the ancient church from them, from Tertullian especially. Tertullian begins to develop the Latin language as the lingua franca, the standard language in the church in the Western part of the empire.

And at the same time period, we have in the Eastern church the development of the great theologians—men like Clement of Alexandria and Origen—and Origen especially is such a fascinating figure. I have some concluding comments that I want to make concerning him. In many ways Origen is one of the most brilliant theologians of this time period. He was precocious. Even at the age of eighteen he was able to be a professor of theology, and his corpus, the amount of material which we have from Origen, is huge. One could spend one’s entire life studying just the corpus of Origen. It’s about forty volumes, a tremendous amount of material. We know he had, for example, as many as seven secretaries writing down every word that the man said. He was considered so brilliant in his lifetime. And I hasten to add, although I want to talk about the interpretation of Scripture during this time period, that Origen held what we would call the doctrine of inerrancy or infallibility. Nevertheless, and this is one of the most important points concerning scriptural interpretation that we need to learn from the ancient church period, although he held to inerrancy, that did not stop him from developing an extremely strange hermeneutic, a strange way of interpreting that infallible Bible.

And so a warning comes to me in the twentieth century and to you the listener as well, that even as we hold to this doctrine of Scripture, we must develop a way of interpreting that Scripture which is informed from the Scriptures themselves. Origen, who lived quite a long time before the Reformation, did not have the insights of the Reformation to lean upon in terms of how one interprets the Scripture, and it is the Reformation itself which gives us the important principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture. At least the Reformation itself strongly emphasizes that teaching, but the roots of that teaching are found in the ancient church, but they’re certainly not found in Origen.

What do we have in Origen? I mentioned a few minutes ago the influence of philosophy upon Origen’s theologizing. His God became this transcendent other, this God who was so beyond being that we couldn’t even speak of Him and that Jesus Christ is some type of a subordinate lesser God. How did he get that teaching? It came from his own culture, the philosophy of his own age. Likewise, his way of interpreting the Scriptures came from his culture. He let the philosophy and that which was avant-garde for his day mold the way in which he examined God’s Word. My warning, which I take to myself as well as to all of us, is to be on our guard as we as twentieth-century Christians interpret the Scriptures. Yes, we might hold to the doctrine of infallibility or inerrancy, but we must be very careful in our hermeneutic, in our way in which we take that Bible and interpret it for today, and to be on our guard to let the Scriptures be our guide for how the Scriptures should be interpreted. I’d like to spend a long time on that. Since this is a church in the ancient church and not hermeneutics, I’ll leave that for my colleagues in the other field.

Moving on, we have seen some other important new things developing in the church which are quite important for us in the twentieth century, especially the development of creeds. We have an entire epoch, which we’ll run through very quickly since we have just recently done that in the lectures, called the conciliar epoch or the conciliar era. This is after 381. But we have in the earliest time periods the development of creeds and credal forms in the ancient church. We noticed as we looked at these creeds that there were creeds in general in the earliest Christian church, but more precisely we don’t have creeds in the second and third denturies as we understand them with the definition of creed today; that is, that the church would stand up and pronounce a creed.

What we rather have are ideas like baptismal interrogations where the church began to solidify a set of questions and answers asked between the pastor and the person about to be baptized, but we do have the positive development of creeds as a raison d’etre for the congregation, as a reason for being, as a molding of their self-identity, as they would stand and say, “I believe in.” And we have that with the Apostles’ Creed, for example, which I hasten to remind you was not written by the apostles and isn’t from the time of the apostles, but the Apostles’ Creed and other credal forms provided a unification in the church, a community of expression that united brothers and sisters in Christ in their beliefs. And creeds themselves are going to provide a negative function later on, especially in the fourth century with the Creed of Nicea, a function which also provides hedges for that confessional life of the congregation. I believe in this, but I also do not believe this other thing. So creeds provide an important function in church history, and many churches use creeds today, and I would emphasize that creeds not only provide the negative function of telling those what they can’t believe, those members of the church, but it can also form a positive function in reminding the community of the faithful that these are the reasons we are coming together on Sunday.

Then we moved into the Nicene age, an exciting age of political events, social events, and theology. Perhaps this is the highlight of the course in terms of pure excitement and interest as we think about people like Athanasius who stood against the world. Athanasius, who had the hairs of his face plucked out by his fellow theologians. Athanasius, who spends twenty years in exile living in the wilderness because the emperors say that he’s wrong and that he must be expelled from the empire. A man of tremendous courage, a man who stood against principalities, against powers, to defend the deity of his Savior.

We have Arius the brilliant theologian who provided a rival soteriology, and I think that we in the twentieth century are finally coming to understand Arius better than the histories of theology of prior centuries. Arius was not just some type of an ivory-tower philosopher who was presenting some interesting philosophical ideas much like Origen, but rather what Arius was doing, and this is why it was a matter of great struggle in the church, was presenting a rival soteriology. Arius believed, as far as we can reconstruct, that the man Jesus of Nazareth was indwelt with the Logos and by a combination of the power of God and the efforts of this man was catapulted into a semi-divine being. And the teaching of Arius was that you too could be saved in the same way in which Jesus Christ was saved—through your own efforts in combination with the indwelling Spirit of God.

And in many ways the battles of the Nicene age are our own battles in the twentieth century, and here I don’t believe that I need to fully elaborate and develop twentieth-century themes, but the theme of human works in combination with the work of God is certainly a question that has been with the church from the ancient church period through the period of the Reformation and in our own day. And in the twentieth century, there are very few Arians running around, although some twentieth-century theologians have been charged with Arianism. But the questions that began in that time period are questions that are still with us, and there’s still room for further discussion and debate and development in these important areas of theology.

So we have in the Nicene age the question of Arianism, the courage of Athanasius, other people in the field of battle like Eusebius of Caesarea, and finally that will move us into the theology of the Cappadocian fathers, continuing in the East. I would remind you once again if we’re looking at the Cappadocians, of the importance of the Nicene Creed that if you are in a church which holds to the Nicene Creed, that that creed which you confess was not written at Nicea but is a creed that was accepted in Constantinople and then canonized once again in 451 at Chalcedon. The Nicene Creed although does represent the theology of that time period, and remember these creeds and the Council of Nicea dealt with some important, practical questions which we talked about in the lecture, and I would call to your attention again.

We are reminded of the important new change in AD 312 to 313 with the rise of Constantine as sole emperor and the quick change from persecuted minority to state-supported religion. Christianity goes from the catechumens to the cathedrals almost overnight. In between 325 and 381 we have the rise of different emperors who either placed orthodoxy, that is, the Nicene faith, as the sole religion, or they become sympathetic to Arianism. We even have Julian the Apostate who lets everybody come in so that they continue to fight with each other. So we have in between 325 and 381, and that’s usually a good exam question, to trace the events between those two eras. Wwe have tremendous political, economic, and theological development. We see the church moving from 325 being forced to subscribe to the Nicene Creed to the Council of Constantinople in 381 where the church has resolved the issues.

We have, for example, the rise of a heretical teaching called Eunomianism, that Aetius and Eunomius, for example, were the main figures there and that Jesus is unlike the Father. This swing of the pendulum to that extreme of Eunomianism woke the church up to the problems that you have when you don’t confess the homoousios relationship between the Son and the Father, and therefore that important resolution in 381 with the creed and council of Constantinople.

Then we have the Cappadocian fathers and their complex Trinitarian development as they talk about identifying particularities and hypothesis. Do you remember that discussion? The important phrase, mia ousia treis hypotheses, one ousia, three hypotheses, a bottom-line teaching that we get form the Cappadocian fathers. We see the development finally in the Cappadocians in the post-Nicene age of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Up until this time period, the Father and the Son become the objects of intense theological examination, but the Holy Spirit in a sense is left behind in the church’s articulations. Finally, once again, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is picked up, and that’s between 325 and 381.

And concomitant with this theological development is the important scriptural exegetical school known as the Antiochene exegesis. John Chrysostom is one of the main proponents of this good school of biblical interpretation where the historical-grammatical method is used, and here we finally move away from the extremes of people like Origen, who uses allegory, who makes every word mean whatever Origen wants that word to mean, to a sober and sound exegetical school that will because of the power and the influence of John Chrysostom finally win the day to the great advantage of the church.

Then we begin to have the movement as the Eastern church in some ways declines in importance, the movement going to the West with the rise of men like Ambrose and Augustine and the great Trinitarian advances made by Augustine, the important church/state relationships pounded through by Ambrose. Then once again the pendulum goes to the East as Christology becomes the focus of great and intense debate and discussion, the debates that we just talked about in our last few lectures as to the nature of the incarnate Christ.

The West on the other hand does not have the philosophical sophistication to have those types of questions and developments.

We have the rise of the hierarchy in the church with the demise of the Roman Empire. It’s often said that the papacy sits upon the seat of the deposed emperor. In other words, the pope becomes the new emperor of the Western church as the pope and the church itself provides for unity and political solidarity.

And so that terminates our look, our quick run through the history of the ancient church, and in conclusion I would only like to say one parting thing. I hope you’ve had half as much fun going through these tapes as I’ve had giving them to you, and I hope the material that you’ve learned will be of great use to you in your ministry and service for the kingdom of Christ.

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Lesson Materials

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