Losing The Faith (1/22)
The Acts of the Apostles covers a very brief period of time – perhaps 35 years – from the ascension of Christ to the imprisonment of Paul at Rome. The entire New Testament was completed before the end of the first century, and there is no inspired record of ecclesial life after the death of the apostles. Nevertheless, what happened after the Acts of the Apostles must be of interest to us. We know that apostasy developed very quickly when the apostles were no longer on the scene. It should be helpful to us today to understand how and why such a “falling away” from the Truth occurred after the first century.
The writers of the New Testament laid down a sound and lasting foundation. Its merit is especially obvious when the apostolic writings are compared with those that came after them. Almost immediately after they appeared, the gospels and epistles were accepted as Scripture, and so they have been preserved intact. A distinction was made very early between the books of the New Testament and the writings of those who came after the apostles, even though these later works had considerable effect upon the apostate church and its doctrines.
After the Acts
In the second century, there were ecclesias in all parts of the Roman Empire, and the Christian religion in both its pure and contaminated forms spread into all segments of society. By the end of the third century, Christianity composed a sizeable minority of the Empire’s population. The new faith was tested by periodic persecutions, some of them severe, and by association with the world of paganism; and internal ecclesial developments threatened the purity of the gospel.
“But some most worthless persons are in the habit of carrying about the name of Jesus Christ in wicked guile, while yet they practice things unworthy of God, and hold opinions contrary to the doctrine of Christ” – Ignatius (AD 100).
With the passing of the apostles and their authority, problems were multiplied, and very soon there were many divisions and factions within the ecclesial world. While the Christian movement continued to sustain remarkable growth in numbers, it was struggling with misunderstandings and heresies.
Much has been written about the Gnostic sects that arose very soon after the apostles’ day. These schools of thought were based in the old pagan philosophies and were highly detrimental to the Truth. Although the leading Gnostic sects were cut off from the mainstream community, they persisted for a hundred years or more.
For some time, there continued to be a Jewish element in the ecclesia, striving to hold onto the Law of Moses. The Ebionites, one of these groups, were adamant in their effort to retain the Hebrew character of Christianity and soon isolated themselves as a separate faction.
As more and more Gentiles were becoming Christians, they would have a tendency to reject the Jewish aspect of the body altogether. The Marcionites (and others) wanted to discard the Old Testament and denied any connection between it and the writings of the apostles. It was their intention to merge Christian concepts with existing theosophical learning, to form a hybrid religion of all “truth” and knowledge.
The church itself tried to steer a middle course, rejecting both the Jewish and pagan extremes. This effort was not entirely successful. With some rapidity, mainstream Christianity became saturated with Greek philosophical thought and reasoning. This is very clearly seen in the writings of the “fathers of the church.”
We often make the point that pagan philosophy played a part in producing wrong doctrines as the apostate church developed. But we may not realize to what a really great extent this was the case until we research the writings of the post-apostolic period.
The pagan logicians especially influenced those who wrote during the latter half of the second century. Some prominent Christian teachers had been philosophers of the various Greek schools, and they went to great lengths to reconcile Christian teaching with these philosophies.
It has rightly been observed that the church was first Hellenized (influenced by pagan Greek philosophy), then Romanized (influenced by Roman thought and custom) in the early centuries of its history.