We are going to take a look at some of the main Church Fathers that had the most influence on the development of Christian theology and we are going to look into the Gnostics a little deeper.
The Church Fathers were early teachers and defenders of Christianity. They had many contacts with Rabbinic Judaism and their teachers and they believed they were a help in battling paganism. On the other hand, they battled Rabbinic Judaism as Christianity developed, too.
The Gnostics believed in dualism (as did Plato) in that there is good and bad, light and darkness, spirit and flesh and so forth. Gnostics believed that the material creation was evil but “embers” of the divine could be seen in certain individuals. God sends down a savior who reveals secret knowledge and traditions (gnosis) to them and they are “saved.”
Most Gnostics were ascetic and didn’t really think that marriage was good because it brought more souls into this world which resulted in bondage to the “dark side.” Most Gnostics rejected the Old Testament because it presented an “inferior” God because he created the evil, materialistic world they saw. They saw the Old Testament God as bloody, caused wars, and earthly minded. On the other hand, the New Testament God was one of love and mercy, and was heavenly minded.
Christianity absorbed many of these Gnostic issues into their developing theology. The Old Testament was “allegorized” to keep the peace among church members and going so far as to say that the Torah was never meant to be taken literally. These ideas will have a tremendous impact on how Christians saw the Torah. Many Gnostic groups tried to remove Christianity from any Jewish foundation and rejected the Israelite God as arrogant.
As a result, the idea of a “fulfilled Judaism” emerged and Christianity embraced Greek philosophy. The end result was Christianity was neither Judaic or Hellenistic in total, but a “new” covenant was now in place between God and man through “Jesus.”
Now, if you want more detail into Gnosticism there are volumes written about it, but let’s look at some Church Fathers, but keep in mind that Christian commentaries will treat these guys as heroes but we need to see them as who they were and see where we would disagree with them.
Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons in 177 AD and was a student of Polycarp, who supposedly studied under the Apostle John, according to Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine. He fought Gnosticism and supported basic, Christian doctrines like creation, that “Jesus” died to save mankind, the resurrection of the body and that God revealed himself through the Scriptures and the covenants revealed there. He believed that the Messiah was the second Adam who successfully passed where Adam failed and that the “virgin Mary” was the new “Eve.” He believed that “the Church” preserved standard beliefs handed down from the Apostles through the teachers in the Church.
This concept will be important in that he believes that the “Church” is the authority, and whoever the “Church” recognizes and ordains as a teacher. You do not have the authority to interpret things for yourself or outside of the “Church” approved teachers.
This practice can still be seen today in some Christian denominations. The rule of truth, or canon, preserved in the Church was the only way you could interpret Scripture. How did early Greek and the non-Jewish Christianity interpret Scripture? In Hebrew thought there are four levels called “pardes” made up of the peshat (literal), remez (hint), drash (explore, ask, parabolic) and sowd (mystery, secret, hidden) levels. Also, Rabbi Hillel develop his seven laws that are very basic but helpful. In short, the Hebraic method of interpretation is that the interpretation must fit the words of the text, from the viewpoint of lexicology (word meanings), grammar and syntax (the way the verse is put together). It must fit the context of the subject matter and it must not contradict any other passage of Scripture.
In Christianity, by the second century, they moved away from this Hebraic way to what was called the “allegorical method” that tried to find a hidden meaning in everything. The allegorical method went on the attack against the literal method of the Jews. As a result, Rabbinic Judaism responded by rejecting all allegorical interpretations, even the ones they previously had for centuries. There will be reactions and counter-reactions that will mold Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
A major Church Father was a man named Origen, who was born in 185 AD and the most successful allegorist of Scripture. He believed that the Bible was composed by the Spirit and that there were two meanings, one obvious and one hidden. Only those who are gifted by the Spirit with the word of wisdom and the word of knowledge will be able to recognize these hidden meanings.
The allegorical method made it hard for pagans to criticize the Old Testament because they couldn’t “pin down” a specific meaning. Origen “discovered” secret meanings to Scripture that fit into Greek and Gnostic philosophies. He was a prolific writer and he believed in three levels of meaning: the literal, the moral application and the spiritual (allegorical) mysteries of the Christian faith. He believed that martyrs attained a special status and even tried to go to Rome to be thrown to lions, but was stopped by his mother. He castrates himself to come as close to martyrdom as he could.
Another Church Father is Justin Martyr. He was a pagan convert and was a second century “apologist” (defended the Christian faith). As a young man, he searched Greek philosophy for truth and met an older man who pointed to the Jewish prophets who spoke of Messiah. He had already seen the morals of Christians and how they bravely went to their death as martyrs, and converted to Christianity. He took his new beliefs into Greek philosophical schools because he now had a more perfect philosophy. He believed that the God of Plato was the God of the Bible, that Socrates was like Abraham before there was Christ.
His first defense of Christianity was addressed to an Emperor of Rome who didn’t have a good understanding of Christianity. He wrote another one complaining about injustice in murdering people who had committed no crimes except that they professed a faith in Christ. The most famous of his works is called the Dialogue with Trypho, who was a Jewish man (and may be Rabbi Tarphon) who objected to the way Christians broke the Torah. Justin argued that the Torah was done away with in Christ, and it is a valuable example on how early Christians interpreted the Scriptures. Justin was martyred in Rome in 165 AD and believed that his death was an example for other Christian martyrs.
The next Church Father we will look at briefly is a man named Tertullian. He was an author who wrote in Latin and “set the table” for theological debates by using certain Latin words. He believed that one should reject any philosophy that was not true to his work, since he had shown that pagan intellectual achievements could be made to serve Christianity. But, we shouldn’t have anything to do with paganism, but he didn’t necessarily hold to that view. Many of his ideas went beyond biblical requirements in regards to remarriage, church discipline and fasting. He also opposed any attempt to run from persecution, again believing that you could attain a special status in the Kingdom of God.
So, what he have happening is that the Faith was centered in Jerusalem in 70 AD, but as time went on and the Jewish believers were scattered and lost their influence, the Faith moved away from Hebrew thought and towards Greek philosophy. As time approached 325 AD and Constantine, it has moved even closer to Greek philosophy as each generation passed. This will affect Church doctrine which is based on a creed put forward by the now “catholic” church.
Church doctrine is not based on the Bible, but on how the Church interprets the Bible, called a creed. The Council of Nicea will put forward the Nicene Creed, for example. Language is changing also as we move towards Constantine and the Council. If you take the basic statements of what everyone says during this period you might say they weren’t that far off, but when you analyze what they are meaning, there is a world of difference.
If you asked Christian ministers or Christians in general if Socrates and Plato were Christians, they would say “no.” But Church Fathers like Justin Martyr would say “yes.” What we have is a Church that accepted the writings of these Church Fathers without really knowing what they believed. How did it happen? It happened because the Council of Nicea accepted these people as “church fathers” and they were the authority, not the Bible.
Another factor was Constantine. He did not become a Christian until his deathbed. Many think it was before, but it wasn’t. Do you know why he didn’t? It was because it was not politically necessary to do so, or considered the best thing at the time. It was better to be the head of paganism and he was called the “Pontifex Maximus” which was the highest pagan priestly office in Rome. Caesar Augustus, who was worshipped as a god, had that title and nobody would say he was a believer. Constantine needed the Christians to consolidate his power, but he also needed to be able to control it.
So, he “officiated” over the Council of Nicea and he was the head of the pagan religions, and wasn’t even a Christian. This council will lay down Church doctrine for all time. The Church Fathers had to conform to “orthodox doctrine” and guess who decided which one was to be a church father? Constantine! They had to agree with a man who was the head of a mystery religion called Mithraism. The early Church Fathers will put forth the teaching that church tradition, not based on Jewish tradition, was doctrine by the second century.
By the second century, the four levels of Jewish interpretation called “pardes” will be ignored because the first level says that you cannot throw out the literal interpretation. As a side note, Jewish mystics of the Middle Ages did this and only accepted the mystical interpretation, and they got into trouble also. By allegorizing, they didn’t have to know the literal meaning or even believe it.
When talking about the New Testament, you have to remember who was reading it in the second century. The dominant culture was Hellenistic and they were reading it in Greek, the language of the philosophers and they had numerous names for God (Ever wonder why it is taught that all of the New Testament was written in Greek? It wasn’t).
In Greek, the word for knowledge is “gnosis” and in Hebrew it is “da’at” but they mean two different things. Da’at is the knowledge of God based on the Torah/Scriptures. Gnosis is the knowledge of God based on how you feel (revealed spiritualism). Ever heard someone say “the Spirit showed me” when they studied something? How you “feel” does not determine truth.
Now, allegory has its place and it is contained in the “drash” level of Jewish interpretation, but you cannot discard the literal along with it. In Part 5, we will start by discussing a man named Marcion and discuss a few more thing on Gnosticism and get into Dualism, Montanism and show how they contributed the Christianity and Replacement Theology.