Ep. 053: The Patristic Era (Church History Pt.1)
Early Church History
When it comes to engaging the present culture with the gospel, one of the most important things we can do is engage the past culture of the church – early church history. In short, there is an immense benefit in studying church history. Church history is our family tree, so to speak, and studying it helps us know who we are and where we came from. That’s why we, at indoubt, decided it would be beneficial to take four episodes and tackle the four major time periods since Jesus ascended – that being the Patristic Era, the Medieval Period, the Reformation, and the Modern Era. Committed to bringing us the major movements and people through these periods is Dr. Michael Haykin, a church history professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Because this content is heavy, we decided to split the four episodes into two separate 2-week series. So, without any more explanation, here we are beginning the first 2-week series looking this week at the Patristic Era, and then next week at the Medieval Period.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
I’m excited to begin a new 2-week series digging into the topic of church history. Joining me to do much more of the talking than me is Dr. Michael Haykin. Thanks for coming on the show.
Pleasure to be with you.
Dr. Haykin is a professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as director of The Andrew Fuller Centre for Baptist Studies. It’s great to be chatting with you today, about this specific subject. Michael has actually committed to taking us through four time periods in regards to some of the major moves and figures in and through church history beginning this week with the Patristic era and its heritage – looking at years 100-700 AD.
But before we jump in there, Michael, would you mind telling us a little bit about who you are personally? And maybe tell us when church history became a topic of interest for you.
Yeah, it’s a pleasure. I’ve always loved history. I was born in England, so I had the privilege of growing up in a context where there was a lot of history. I mean, older history around. You could see the visible remains of medieval fortresses and castles and things like that. I can’t remember a time I really didn’t feel passionately about history. Obviously as a boy it’s directed differently – the questions you’re asking are different. But I can’t remember, as I said, a time when I didn’t passionately love history; and, really, that history is my goal. So when I was converted at the age of twenty, it was in some ways logical for the Lord to direct my path into an area that the Lord had already given me these desires unbeknownst to me obviously. And so, providentially the Lord has been very kind and gracious over the years to give me positions where I can teach history and get paid for what I love.
That’s great. And how long have you been at the current seminary you teach at now?
I started teaching there part-time (adjunct) in 2002, and full-time beginning January 2008.
Key Events of the Early Church
Okay, that’s great. Thanks for that little story, that’s awesome. Well, let’s jump in here Michael. The Patristic era and its heritage. And you’ve called this “Jesus Christ is Lord.’” So, tell us about this.
Yeah, the history of the church begins really with the bulk of Acts, depending on how you view things theologically. There would be some, obviously, who argue that the church stretches back into the Old Testament. There’s certainly a unity to God’s people, but something distinctly new takes place in the period following our Lord’s death and resurrection. This body of people that we call the church.
The first history book written by Luke is the book of Acts – it records how the church began to grow from its origins in Jerusalem, pushing out into the neighbouring areas of Samaria and Galilee. And then by the end of the time we get to the book of Acts, the church is proclaiming the gospel through the apostle of Paul in the heart of the Roman empire, which is Rome. Although Christianity did go beyond the Roman Empire, I mean, we have evidence of Christian missions in areas like what we call the Sudan today and Ethiopia (then called the Axum). And the church also was active in Iran and the Indian subcontinent.
The main focus of the church was moving east from Jerusalem and west into the Roman Empire, which really dominated the entire Mediterranean basin.
The Roman Empire was, at the time of our Lord’s life and ministry and the early church as described in the book of Acts, probably encompassed of some 70 million people – stretched from modern Britain down to North Africa, from the straits of (Tirbolta?) all the way over into what is now the Middle East. At one point as far as Babylon – which would be in Southern Iraq. So it’s a huge, huge area geographically, and multicultural. And it’s a world of significant poverty, probably 30-40% of people were poor. Significant slavery – maybe anywhere between 20-30%, maybe as high as 40% slaves. There was a very small minority who what we would call middle-class, unlike our culture which is a very large middle-class – the middle-class around the world would be about 8% today. And then a very large, well, a very small but a stupendously wealthy upper-class, about 2% of the Empire. And it’s a military dictatorship; that’s significant.
When the gospel begins to be proclaimed, a lot of the people who first hear it are illiterate and poor. They have no political power – it’s not a democracy in any way, shape or form. One contemporary sociologist, named Rodney Stark, has estimated that beginning from a few thousand believers around 40 AD, which is, if you do the statistics, probably around .0017% of the population, but by the year 300 AD it’s over 6 million – about 10 % of the population. An those are conservative estimates – maybe more. And all this is done without the means of modern technology. There’s no printing press, there’s no radio podcasts, there’s no television, there are no outdoor crusades like we saw in the mid-20th Century – people like Billy Graham.
Christianity by the 70’s (AD) is illegal, and for a variety of reasons the Roman State persecutes the church and that really is the situation up until the early 300s (AD). And so the church’s message of new life in Christ of grace and forgiveness, of remarkable lived witness, the morality of the early Christian believers, and then the prayer (praying for the salvation of unbelievers) are central factors in the growth of the church. And obviously, also, the work of the Holy Spirit. And using the Word of God and using the heard Word of God, because, as I said, most of these people were illiterate.
Significant persecution dominates this period. The church at the very beginning – that is a church of martyrs. The word “martyr” itself is a very interesting word. It’s the word that Jesus uses in the Greek in Acts 1 when He says, “You shall be my witnesses.” And the Greek word there being martus. And martus means “witnesses.” At that point it doesn’t mean our technical word “martyr,” but by the end of the New Testament period the word martus, martyrs, had come to mean somebody bears witness to Christ to the point of death. And so the linguistic changes in that word are, I mean, the indication of what’s going on publicly: the church’s persecution.
Places, Constantine, and Heresies
Now, where was the hub of Christianity at this point? Would it be Jerusalem? Or Antioch?
No. As the church moves out of Jerusalem it begins to really plant itself deeply in various Gentile areas. Alexandria is critical – probably a city of 300 to 400 thousand. Ephesus is also critical, again, about the same number of people. And Rome. Rome has a million people.
By the middle of the 100s (AD) there’s probably something between 70-80 house churches, and each house church would probably have anywhere between 40-100 people who would regularly attend it. Jerusalem does not become a prominent centre to Christianity, particularly because of two wars – the Jewish war between 66-73 AD, which ends in the destruction of the temple, and the second Jewish war in the 130s (AD), where afterwards the Romans basically expel all the Jews from Judea.
Persecution was brutal – probably the last great persecution was around 300 (AD) – between 303-312 AD – particularly in the Eastern Roman Empire where there were probably thousands of martyrs. And that comes to an end with the Emperor Constantine.
Constantine has been in the history of the church– historians have had a love-hate relationship with him. And also, it’s not clear to historians sometimes how to interpret his life. He professes faith in Christ, professes to be a believer, but some of his actions as a politician sometimes leave that much to be–. But also the changes he introduces are enormously far reaching. So whether or not he was genuine in his profession of faith, I think as far as we can tell, I would argue that he believed that he was a Christian. But whatever take we make about Constantine, the changes are enormous. He wedged together church and state, or, he begins to wedge together church and state in a way that is still with us. For instance, the reason why ministers here in Canada have tax breaks is because of Constantine’s legislation. This would change the whole complex, the complexion rather of Christianity.
At the beginning of the 4th Century the church has grown to the point of 10% of the Roman Empire. Areas like upper and lower Egypt (where Alexandria is) are enormously important. Also Asia Minor along the coast (the Western coast of what is now Turkey). Rome and Carthage in North Africa – other major centres of Christianity. At the beginning of the 4th century it’s illegal to be a Christian; at the end of the 4th Century (with the domination of the church in the Roman Empirical politics) it’s illegal to be a Pagan. And the church now has turned the tables. The church is now shutting down, closing down Pagan temples. And not surprisingly, you get a vast influx of people into the church and the growth of what will dominate the Medieval period, which is a nominal Christianity.
The other main issue in this early period (first, the church is the church of martyrs) is in the whole area of the importance of orthodoxy. And the church finds herself battling a variety of heresies. Heresy being a commitment to beliefs that are a denial of fundamental truths of the gospel.
Probably the first major heresy that the church fights is what we call Gnosticism, which emerges probably at the end of the New Testament period. It denies the goodness of the material realm, denies the resurrection of the body, denies the reality of the incarnation of the lord Jesus, and denies His resurrection. And very interestingly because it’s kind of made a comeback in recent years in New Age thinking, where the argument is that the spirit, the soul – the inner-person – is what alone is genuine and real and lasting, and the body is simply a shell. And so the early church has to fight that, defending the reality of the incarnation, defending the goodness of the material realm, and defending the fact that God is a good creator.
The second major heresy that the church fights is Arianism, named after a man named Arius who probably really didn’t have much to do with the eventual propagation of the beliefs. This emerges in the 4th Century. Arianism is a denial of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. It argues that He (Jesus) is a god; and very similar really, modern Jehovah’s Witnesses are basically Arianists. So the 4th Century is a period dominated by discussions about the Trinity: how do we think about God? Who is God? And by the end you have the great promulgation of what’s called the Nicene Creed of 381 AD, in which Jesus is described as being one with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is said to be worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son, and therefore, obviously, fully God.
Key People of the Early Church
Who were some of the heavey-hitter theologians that we should know about that were battling the heresies like Gnosticism and Arianism and so forth?
In Gnosticism probably the key figure is Irenaeus, he died around the year 200 AD. He spent most of his ministry in what we know as Southern France, but at that time Lyons – the Romans called it Lugdunum. He wrote a major work called Against Heresies. In the 4th Century, probably the key figure is Basil of Caesarea, who died in 379 AD. He wrote a great book called On the Holy Spirit, which is published in 375 AD. It’s a major scriptural defence, very much scriptural defence of the deity of the Holy Spirit. And then the other great theologian of that period who is one of the great gifts I think of the early church to the later church is Augustine. Augustine writes a definitive work on the Trinity which was published in the early 400s (AD). His book the Confessions is probably one of the great classics of Christianity – a must read. Born in 354 AD he was converted in 386 AD, baptized in 387 AD, and by the end of the following decade, 395 AD, he was a Bishop of Hippo – a Roman town on the shores of the Mediterranean in North Africa. And for the next five years he was a pastor, preacher, and also authored around over 200 books.
Oh my goodness.
Yeah, just a master literary heritage – and we have most of them today.
And you can’t understand the Middle Ages or the Reformation if you don’t have some understanding of Augustine’s thought.
He’s just a remarkable figure. It’s good, mostly, but also certain areas where we would disagree with him. He would argue, for instance, that there’s no salvation outside of the visible church. He doesn’t link that church to the Bishop of Rome, but definitely that would be an idea at the time of the Reformation to oppose the Reformation by the Roman Church. But, just an enormously important figure, and an enormously attractive figure too in many ways.
The Formation of the New Testament
Yeah, definitely. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the canon of Scripture as well was finalized in the 4th Century, and in that case, until that point, how was the Bible (as we would call it) being used in that period before it was finalized in one canon?
Yes, the canon – well, all of the books that we call the New Testament are written in the 1st Century. By the 2nd Century, 90% of those books are recognized as Holy Scripture. There are some that are debated, they’re known as the antilegomena, the disputed books. There were seven of them; the book of Hebrews, 2 Peter, James, 2 and 3 John , Jude, and Revelation. Generally speaking, those books were initially accepted as canon and then for a variety of reasons towards the end of the 2nd Century with the battles of Gnosticism (which denied some of the canonicity of these books), you start to find some of these disputed books (these are the only ones that were ever disputed) challenged as to whether or not they’re Scripture. By the 4th Century, pretty well the canon as we know it has been recognized. And there are counsels in the 4th Century that recognize what we call the canon of the New Testament. That’s one of the great gifts of this Patristic era to us; the canon of Holy Scripture.
Now, we have to wrap up this first episode here, but in looking at this Patristic era, you’ve given us some obviously great points: heretical views, Scriptures, some major theologians that we should recognize today and know about, specifically Augustine, but what would you say was the one overall theme, or, something that you could say, you know, when you talk about the Patristic period this is something that’s of utter importance?
The Most Important Thing in the Early Church
I think probably the most significant thing of the early church is the Trinity. The early church thought long and hard about who is God? And the hammering out of the doctrine of the Trinity is just a tremendous gift. And we as evangelicals have really, I mean, we assume the Trinity, we don’t think Trinity, and the doctrine of the Trinity is rarely preached and taught publicly from the pulpit. We really need to get back to doing that.
That’s so good. Before we end this conversation, what could you say as almost a teaser of what we’ll get into next week when we start to dig into more of the Medieval period?
Well, we’ll be looking at the way in which the Patristic period ends with the rise of Islam, obviously a major topic today – the presence of Islam. And the loss of biblical literacy, and how that led to a loss of the gospel, yet God’s faithfulness to His people and the men and women who sought to preserve the gospel during the Medieval period.
Thanks so much Michael, and I look forward to hearing from you next week.
Thank you, great to be with you.