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Sound doctrine in the History of Christianity

Doctrine matters to modern Christians. While less and less Christians are picking the church they attend based on particulars of their statement of faith, most still do. Even those who don't pick churches this way still have specific views that are of major importance to them.


Our books consistently maintain 4-star and better ratings despite the occasional 1- and 2-star ratings from people angry because we have no respect for sacred cows.

Doctrine mattered to the apostles, too, but I suspect most modern Christians would be surprised at which doctrines matter most.

Sound Doctrine as Defined by the Apostle Paul

The apostle Paul explains them to Titus in the following passage:

Jump Down the Page

For those that have already read this page, there is a list of specific historical teachings at the bottom of this page.

Don't skip reading the page if you haven't! Those specific doctrines aren't worth anything if they don't settle you in your faith or encourage you to holiness.

Speak the things which befit sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, honorable, sensible, healthy in faith, in love and in patience.

[Speak to] the older women, likewise, that their behavior be appropriate to sacredness, not false accusers, not prone to much wine, teachers of good things; so that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, pure, keepers of their home, good, submitted to their own husbands, so that the Word of God will not be blasphemed.

In the same way exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine, showing incorruption, integrity, sincerity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned… .

Encourage servants to be obedient to their own masters and to serve them satisfactorily in everything, not talking back and not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that they may honor the doctrine of God our Savior in everything. (Tit. 2:1-10)</p>

Not what you normally see in a "statement of faith," is it? Notice all the "to be's" rather than "to believe's"? (Well, you had to notice, since I highlighted them all; sorry.)

Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles?

Scholars argue about whether Paul wrote the pastoral letters (Titus, 1 Timothy, and 2 Timothy). I'm a Christian, and I'm writing this history from the perspective of a Christian. I believe we have more evidence than secular scholars. We have the testimony of the Spirit of God.

The testimony of the Spirit through generations of Christians is that the pastoral letters are from Paul. Let secular scholars debate that. We are Christians, and it is okay for us to trust the testimony of the Spirit through the Church, which is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).

One note on that. I'm not talking about trusting the Roman Catholics or a particular denomination. In the case of the pastoral epistles, Christians from all centuries and all perspectives have relied on the pastoral letters. It's a powerful, long-lasting, and unanimous testimony.

This is Paul's definition of "sound doctrine."

Other apostles agree:

  • James said that pure and undefiled religion is to support the widows and orphans and stay undefiled from the world (Jam. 1:26).
  • When Peter says the end is near, he exhorts Christians to be sober, pray, and to love one another in order to cover a multitude of sins. No mention is made of correcting our systematic theology (1 Pet. 4:7-8).
  • Jesus mentions coming back like a thief in the night repeatedly. In every case he warns us to be careful of our behavior, not our doctrine (e.g., Luke 12:45-46).
  • The Book of Revelation has seven letters to churches from Jesus. All of them address the works of those churches, not their doctrinal teachings (Rev. ch. 2-3).
  • Matthew reports Jesus as saying that when he judges the sheep and the goats, his only concern will be their kindness towards others (Matt. 25:31-46).

These things line up with Titus 2:1-10, which makes sound doctrine to be the teaching that produces godly living.

Paul emphasizes this in the 2nd letter to Timothy:

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

The foundation uniting Christians is their choice to depart from iniquity!

This is important. For hundreds of years Christians have been fighting over doctrine, and their idea of sound teaching has to do with beliefs about eternal security, the nature of salvation, the Trinity, spiritual gifts, etc. I even heard about one denomination that divided over whether churches were allowed to support orphanages!

In the meantime, the way Christians live has become less and less important.

Ignatius of Antioch was appointed a bishop by the apostle John. The church he led was the apostle Paul's home church (Antioch). He gave his life for Christ—in great joy— in A.D. 110. On the way to his martyrdom, he wrote:

The tree is made manifest by its fruit; so those that profess themselves to be Christians shall be recognised by their conduct. (Epistle to the Ephesians 14).

Ignatius obviously picked up Paul's emphasis on behavior. It's not a surprise, considering his position as the lead elder of Paul's home church.

However, I think we underestimate how much we've lost over the centuries. The sentence I just quoted for you isn't too shocking. You can read it and think, "Okay, the early church had a certain emphasis on behavior, and today we overemphasize theology."

However, the sentence before the one I just quoted is shocking.

No man making a profession of faith sinneth; nor does he that possesses love hate anyone.

We can temper this a bit. The Greek language Ignatius wrote in has both a "continual" and a "punctiliar" sense to its verbs. Ignatius is using the "continual" sense, the same way John did in 1 John 3:7. This passage could be translated, "No man making a profession of faith goes on sinning."

However … 

What About Us Today?

Even if we temper what Ignatius said, what about us today?

When a person joins one of our churches, it is normal for him to be shown a statement of faith and agree to it. But how many churches inform their members that a person who makes a true profession of faith stops sinning?

Worse, our statements of faith generally consist of doctrines that can be taught in a classroom but have little or no effect on our lives.

Look at Paul's "statement of faith" in Titus two. Its doctrines would make for a very short new person's class, but it asks a lot concerning our way of living.

The Apostles' Doctrine Concerned Godly Behavior

Ignatius is not unique. Reading the writings of the earliest Christians can be a breathtaking experience for a modern Christian.

Justin Martyr, for example, writing in A.D. 150, said:

There is no other way than this: to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins, and for the rest, to live sinless lives. (First Apology 44).


Let's Get Back to Doctrine

Doctrine needs to be practical. It is doctrine that is according to godliness (1 Tim. 6:3) that matters.

Modern Christianity has wandered from that, and our doctrine is very impractical. It's easily taught in a classroom, but it has no or little application to real life.

On the last day, Jesus will ask us about what we've done, not how well we've understood theology (Matt. 25:31-46).

We've grown too smart for our own good—or for doing good.

Paul knew what would happen to those who lost the focus on a transforming righteousness imparted from God. He has us pegged when he says:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud and knows nothing, but is obsessed with debates and arguments, from which come envy, strife, slander, evil  suspicions, and empty pratter from men with ruined minds, destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness. From such withdraw yourself. (1 Tim. 6:3-5)

It's time for us to refocus.

Links to Particular Doctrines

Every early church had a set of basic doctrines it required members to accept. It was called The Rule of Faith. It's like our modern statement of faith, but usually more basic.

And the early church never lost sight of the fact that behavior is more important than belief.

Those that profess themselves to be Christians shall be recognised by their conduct.

– Ignatius of Antioch

If any of the following doctrines are going to cause you to stumble or seek Christ less, then ignore them!

See what's above on this page. It is your submission to Jesus Christ that marks you as a Christian, not your understanding of the Trinity or any other theological issue. God showed Peter that he accepts all those of any nation who fear him and work righteousness (Acts 10:35).

On the other hand, many people struggle with modern day doctrines. The things I write about below are a wonderful collection of Bible teachings based on what those raised in the apostles' churches taught. They take the contradiction and confusion out of Bible study.

First, the doctrine that will be on many minds if you've read the page above is: What about salvation by faith?

There's also a page on the grace of God that is a logical extension of salvation by faith. Finally, the doctrines of faith, grace, and the judgment are combined together in one long page called Sola Fide.

There's a very practical teaching on the Word of God. It is clear, it is Scriptural, and it's historical, but it's flies in the face of some modern traditons enough that I've added an objection page and a discussion page.

Baptism is important to cover. It's a controversial topic today, but there's not any other doctrine so clear from both a historic and Scriptural standpoint.

I also cover some common objections to that doctrine.

As an aside, frequently asked about, we have a page on the early Christian understanding of the baptism of the dead as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29.

Once that's resolved, The History of the Trinity is particularly worth going through! The Creed or Apostles Creed that most Christians consider the fount of orthodoxy addresses only the issue of Jesus Christ, his purpose, and his divinity. (I agree that the Nicene or Apostles Creed needs to be the basic theology that all Christians must agree with.)

I have now done a full page on TULIP, the five points of Calvinism, as well. There is also a page on the substitutionary atonement that was invented by St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas during the Middle Ages.

I've been studying Nicea and the early church with particular reference to the Trinity for 19 years, and I believe those few pages are the most thorough and accurate treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity on the internet.

My ideas on the Trinity first came from some extensive Bible study with a friend way back in 1983. Once they were developed, I realized that the Nicene Creed said exactly what I was saying.

In 1990 I began to read the writings of the 2nd century church, and I was not surprised to find out that they were saying exactly what I was saying. Finally, I recently received one more confirmation when an Orthodox Church member wrote me to tell me that the Eastern Orthodox Churches still hold to the early Church and Nicene views of the Trinity, just as I describe it.

That's not really a surprise. Men like Athenagoras (A.D. 177), Tertullian (200), and Eusebius (323) go into great detail on the subject of the Trinity. I've debated a number of Catholic apologists on both the Nicene Creed and the early church fathers, and so I've established what can and can't be defended. One of those Catholic apologists even ended up calling Tertullian a heretic!

Tertullian's not the heretic. He taught exactly what the Nicene Creed and the Bible teach. It's modern Christians who don't know how to answer the Jehovah's Witnesses when they quote " … that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (Jn. 17:3). The JW's predecessors, the Arians, didn't bother quoting that verse because they already knew their Nicaean rivals understood and quoted the verse.

Another issue modern Christians struggle with and argue about concerns the role of the Law of Moses. It can be difficult to reconcile Jesus' statements in Matthew 5:17-20 with Paul's teachings on the Law, but it was no problem for the early churches.

Particularly interesting is their approach to sacrifices. You'll find much on that from the early Christians themselves in the quotes section.

A pet peeve of mine is the dishonest history being paraded around by Sabbath-keeping denominations. We can disagree on doctrine and get along, but when you make up history and deceive people, God will send you to hell. The story of how the Church began to honor the 1st day (or rather, 8th day) has been greatly distorted by false teachers. I give you the real and verifiable Sabbath to Sunday story.

There's some Roman Catholic doctrines that I want to address here because of their interest to a wide group of people. Infant Baptism is a major one, and it's history is thought-provoking and challenging. Purgatory is another that has some interesting history—not about Purgatory itself—to teach us.

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