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Early Church History Newsletter: The Simple Faith of the Apostles
August 06, 2009

Return to Apostolic Faith and Unity?

Contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

– Jude 3

Jude, the Lord's brother, tells us to take up a battle on behalf of "the faith once for all delivered to the saints."

I wish I was making things real easy and only telling stories.

This newsletter requires desire. It's simple, but you have to want this extremely useful information if you're going to get to the end of it. I just couldn't figure out how to tease and delight you all the way to the end.

So I have to rely on the innate importance of this information.

If Christians all knew—no, lived—this, it would change the world.

What faith?

This newsletter is devoted to giving you an easy way to know what the faith that the apostles delivered to the saints actually is.

The Apostolic Faith

I know it's not exciting or titillating to see a long quote. Please don't let me lose you here. You don't have to read the quote now. You can skip right to my comments; however, giving you this kind of "straight from the horse's mouth" information is what this newsletter is all about.

If you don't read it now, save it for later! These words are over 18 centuries old!

The Basic Faith Comes from the Apostles

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:

The Faith of the Apostles

[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, earth, the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit.

[The Holy Spirit] proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, the advents, the birth from a virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord. [He also proclaimed] his manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, so that every knee should bow … to Christ Jesus, our Lord, God, Savior, and King, and that every tongue should confess to Him.

[He will be manifested] so that he may execute just judgment towards all; he will send spiritual wickednesses and the angels who transgressed and became apostates—together with the ungodly, unrighteous, wicked, and profane among men—into everlasting fire. In the exercise of his grace, however, he will confer immortality on the righteous, the holy, and those who have kept his commandments and persevered in His love … and will surround them with everlasting glory.

Preserving the Faith

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart. She proclaims them, teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. …

The Faith Cannot Be Changed

Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master. Nor, on the other hand, will he who cannot speak well inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little, diminish it.

One may bring out the meaning of those things which have been spoken in parables, and accommodate them to the general scheme of the faith; explain the operation and dispensation of God connected with human salvation; … set forth why it is that one and the same God has made some things temporal and some eternal, some heavenly and others earthly; understand for what reason God, though invisible, manifested Himself to the prophets not under one form, but differently to different individuals; and show why it was that more than one covenant was given to mankind … For in reference to these points and others of a like nature, the apostle exclaims, "Oh! the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are his judgments, and His ways past finding out!"

– Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:10:1-4

The Three Basics of the Apostolic Faith

There are three basic factors found in this quote by Irenaeus, which is absolutely typical of the rest of the early Christian writings.

1. The Faith Is Apostolic, Not Just Scriptural

Notice that he begins by saying that the Church has received the faith "from the apostles and from their disciples."

I have an entire page on the apostolic tradition, but I want to approach the subject from a different direction in this newsletter.

  • The Purpose of the Bible

    In the Bible, we read:

    All Scripture is breathed by God, and it is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

    The Scriptures were given to help us walk in the faith that was given to us by the apostles. They are to equip us for every good work, to teach us righteousness, and to provide correction and rebuke when we wander from the way.

    But we're already supposed to know the way from which we should not wander!

    The faith was given to the church by the apostles. The Scriptures were given to help us walk in that faith, but the faith was supposed to already have been given to us.

  • Less Is More

    Malcolm Gladwell's excellent book, Blink, contains a fascinating section on why less is more.

    It can be extremely hard to tell whether a person is having a heart attack. In older people a bad case of heartburn is often mistaken for a heart attack, and a heart attack is occasionally mistaken for a bad case of heartburn. In my own father's case, he was tested for a heart attack numerous times over two years before doctors discovered his problem was his gall bladder.

    There is a chart now that can be seen in most emergency rooms giving just four symptoms of a heart attack. There are numerous other symptoms besides these four, but almost every hospital emergency room will check just those four.

    Why?

    Because the many symptoms doctors know about were too many to sort through. When research led doctors to limit themselves to these four symptoms, they were right 95% of the time, a remarkable improvement.

    Our modern attempts to recreate the basics of the faith from the Bible are obviously failing miserably. There are thousands of denominations and hundreds of views of what doctrines are important to the Church.

    The result is a horrible mess of division and worldliness.

    The apostles did not leave their own churches struggling their way through over a thousand pages of Scripture in order to determine what was important. The apostles simply told the leaders of the churchs what was important.

    Commit the things which you have heard from me in front of many witnesses to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:2)

    Irenaeus tells us above that is exactly what Timothy did. The apostles and their disciples committed to "faithful men" the basics of the faith, and they taught others also.

  • The Rule of Faith

    Those basics were called the Rule of Faith, and they are repeated in much the same words as Irenaeus gives them above throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In the 4th century, the Rule of Faith of the church in Caesarea was reviewed and adjusted to become the Nicene Creed.

    The Nicene Creed, also known in a slightly different version as the Apostles Creed, became the standard "Rule of Faith" for the entire Church, a development that would not have been a problem had it not become a source of contention for centuries afterward.

    In fact, were we to properly use the Nicene Creed today, it might become a tremendous source of unity.

2. There Are Very Few Basic Doctrines That Are Important to the Faith

Although the quote above from Irenaeus is quite long as a quote in an email newsletter, it is very short as a summation of all the important doctrines of the Christian faith.

Yet that is exactly what the early church considered it to be!

The theological issues covered in Irenaeus' rule of faith above and in the Nicene Creed are few and simple:

The Basics of the Faith

God is the creator of everything. He created all things through his Son, who existed in the beginning with him, came to earth and was born of a virgin, died for our sins, rose bodily from the grave, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

On top of this, those early rules of faith expressed a belief in the Holy Spirit, but no explanation of him was ever given except that he spoke through the prophets.

These simple beliefs were all that were required of Christians to be considered orthodox and in unity with the Church.

3. Simple Beliefs Are at the Heart of Unity

Such simple beliefs really can maintain unity. We have not yet mentioned one very important issue.

The sure foundation of God stands firm, having this seal: The Lord knows those who are his, and let those who name the name of Christ depart from iniquity. (2 Tim. 2:19)

The unity that is given to the Church is a spiritual unity. That spiritual unity, if we maintain it, will lead to unity in our belief (Eph. 4:3 & 13).

That spiritual unity, however, will not begin unless "those who name the name of Christ depart from inquity."

We are warned by Paul not to have fellowship with anyone who calls themselves a Christian unless they have forsaken sexual immorality, greed, abusive, language, and drunkenness (1 Cor. 5:11). This is because Christ can have no fellowship with Belial (2 Cor. 6:15), and those who are Christ's have "crucified the flesh with its lusts and desires" (Gal. 5:24).

Unity will never be produced by studying doctrine or church history. In fact, modern theological doctrines often destroy the spiritual unity that is already there among those who follow Christ wholeheartedly.

Here's why …

Why a Simple Faith Is Essential to Unity

God has never been concerned about carefully-constructed doctrines. He has always been opposed to things that appeal to the human mind and human wisdom.

Negative references to human wisdom abound. In Jer. 9:23, God tells wise men not to boast in their wisdom. The one who boasts, God says, should boast in knowing and understanding God.

Paul adds numerous similar references, telling us that God has chosen things that seem foolish to human minds specifically so that with them he might confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27). Therefore, he says, he determined never to preach the Gospel with "wisdom of words" (1 Cor. 1:17).

Instead, he chose the power of God (2:4-5).

The power of God is not just any power. God is not concerned about giving men signs, either. God is concerned about the one thing that only God can produce: righteousness.

I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. (Rom. 1:16-17)

Therefore God, wanting to display his righteousness in human beings and to leave human wisdom helplessly behind, provides a faith that is light on doctrines that can be expressed in words and heavy on a new way of living.

The apostle John says this in the most frightening and powerful of terms:

Here is how we know if we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. He who claims to know him but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
   Whoever keeps his word, in him the love of God is truly perfected. This is how we know we are in him. The one who says that he abides in him ought to walk even as he walked. (1 Jn. 2:3-6)

The apostle Paul puts it a little differently:

[Jesus Christ] gave himself for us so that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works. (Tit. 2:14)

God, as you can see, is much more concerned about behavior than dogma.

A Summation of the Simple Faith of the Apostles

Doctrinally, the Nicene Creed is an excellent and typical rule of faith. If you want to know what faith the apostles handed to the early church, you can find the essential doctrines in the Nicene Creed.

To that simple faith must be added obedience to Christ. John told us that we do not know God if we don't keep his commandments. Paul told the churches not to have fellowship with us if we practiced sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed, and other similar sins.

The real Gospel of Christ produces righteousness, and that righteousness is the beginning and primary part of the simple faith of the apostles.

The sure foundation of God stands firm, having this seal:

"The Lord knows those who are his"

and

"Let those who name the name of Christ depart from iniquity."

– 2 Tim. 2:19

Not that I have found any division among you, but exceptional purity. … As many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return to the unity of the Church, these shall belong to God also.

– Ignatius, Letter to the Philadelphians 3, A.D. 110




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