Many critics like to claim that the Christian faith we know today is not the earliest form of Christianity. Instead, they say there were many competing versions of Christianity in the first century—often with wildly diverging beliefs about God, Jesus, and salvation—that were all vying for supremacy. Over the centuries, the narrative goes, “orthodox” Christianity was the most aggressive form, suppressing all other forms and crowding them out. Therefore, they conclude, the Christian faith we know today is invalid. It just happened to be the “winner” among competing mythologies simply because its adherents were more aggressive, ruthless, and shrewd than those who followed other “Christianities.”
Three Points on Orthodoxy and Heresy
To put it simply, the narrative above is incorrect. Those who propagate it display an ignorance of history, an unwillingness to accept evidence, or a combination of both. When honestly assessing the history of Christianity, a few points become very clear:
- The core beliefs of the Christian faith were set very early in Christian history (early- to mid-first century), starting with Jesus himself, and then spreading forth from his Apostles. The teachings of the Apostolic churches regarding the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, and grace and salvation were quite consistent. They were then—and are today—Christian orthodoxy.
- There were some early questions and disagreements that the early churches had to address. For example, one issue dealt with whether Gentile Christians should have to follow the Jewish laws (i.e. related to circumcision, dietary laws, etc.). Those questions were answered very early on by the Apostles using reason guided by Jesus’s teaching on related matters. None of these questions constituted “competing Christianities.”
- Some “competing Christianities” did arise. However, they all came about much later, starting as heretical off-shoots in the 2nd century or after. They were not earlier than “orthodox” Christianity. They did not compete within a milieu of equally valid Christian-oriented mythologies from which “orthodoxy” simply emerged as the winner. Christian orthodoxy was established at the very beginning in the first century by Jesus and the Apostles. Only later did some groups create heretical off-shoots against which the orthodox faith needed to defend itself.
Here, we take a quick look at the primary heresies that cropped up to threaten early Christianity. Any Christian should have an understanding of these heresies, their basic belief systems, and their origins. This understanding is helpful in debunking the assertion that orthodox Christian teaching was not original Christian teaching.
Ebionites were a Jewish Christian sect that recognized Jesus as the Messiah but denied his divinity. No Ebionite writing dates to before the year 120 A.D.1 They were very focused on following the old Jewish law, and considered it a necessity. Looking back, their roots can be detected in those early Jewish Christians who believed that Gentile Christians should have to follow the Jewish laws regarding circumcision, dietary restrictions, and so on. However, those early “Judaizers” believed in the divinity of Christ, unlike the Ebionites.
Gnosticism is a broad term that describes a number of different groups that adopted “Gnostic” beliefs. “Gnostic” comes from the Greek term, gnosis, meaning knowledge. Gnostic groups claimed to possess secret or hidden knowledge about the universe and about salvation.
Various gnostic “gospels” were developed in the second and third centuries. Those gospels were late, falsely attributed to apostolic authors, and claimed to contain secret knowledge passed on to the authors by Jesus. The content of these gospels ranges from the bizarre to the comical. Examples include the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Judas, and others.
While there was variation between Gnostic groups, there were some basic beliefs held in common. For example, most believed that the physical world was evil and corrupt, and that the spiritual world was perfect and good. The physical body, according to Gnostic thought, is a corrupt prison from which the good soul must escape. They believed that Jesus never actually had a body, only that it appeared that way to people. He was, in their minds, a spiritual being posing as a person.
Gnostics viewed the Old Testament with disdain, believing that the God of the Jews was evil, corrupt, and petty. According to the Gnostics, it was this God who created the physical world. Jesus, on the other hand, was sent by a higher, more spiritual God, to reveal the true secrets of salvation.
Gnostics were viewed as heretical by the early churches. Gnosticism arose in the 2nd century, and basically died out in the 4th. Various Christian thinkers wrote to counter Gnostic thought during that time.
Marcionism was a Gnostic-oriented heresy that was founded by a rich, excommunicated business man (Marcion of Sinope) in the 140’s A.D. Marcionism taught that the God of the Old Testament was a different God from that of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament was corrupt and petty, and had created the flawed physical world. The God of the New Testament, however, was righteous and just. This righteous God, according to Marcion, sent Jesus to usher in universal salvation for all people.
In keeping with Gnostic thought, Marcion possessed the docetic belief that Jesus did not actually possess a physical body. Instead, Jesus was a spiritual being who simply posed as a man.
The Gnostic beliefs in Marcionism, combined with the doctrine of universal salvation, were heretical and opposed to Christian orthodoxy. The early churches argued against this heresy. For example, the church father, Tertullian, wrote a lengthy take-down of Marcionism entitled Against Marcion. By the end of the second century, Marcionism had splintered into various factions, and was basically gone by the fifth.
Arias was a pastor in Alexandria, Egypt in around 318 A.D. He taught his congregation that Jesus was created by God, and that Jesus was separate from—and subordinate to—God. This teaching ran counter to the scripturally-based belief that Jesus was God in the flesh, co-eternal with the Father, and that Jesus and God were “of the same substance,” two united but distinct aspects of the Godhead.
Arianism began to spread and became such a problem that the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to debate and settle the matter. Arianism was utterly repudiated at the Council, which produced the Nicene Creed to articulate the orthodox belief. Arianism continued to exist, however. It wasn’t until the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. that Arianism was finally buried and the Nicene Creed assumed its final form.
Incidentally, careless historians and anti-Christian critics often claim that the Council of Nicaea was where the church first determined that Jesus was divine (and that the earliest Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ). This is clearly false. Christian doctrine from the earliest days asserted the divinity of Christ (the Arians included). The Council of Nicaea simply debated the nature of that divinity: Was Jesus created (like an angel) or was he co-eternal with the Father? True Christianity has always asserted the latter.
Donatism was a breakaway movement that started in Carthage following the Great Persecution around 303 A.D. A deacon named Donas, along with his followers, insisted that no one who had given way under torture or the threat of torture during the Great Persecution could be considered true Christians.
Donas formed a new church and re-baptized its followers. Donatism became a very exclusive, elitist, and fanatical faith. It was heretical in that it compromised the basic Christian doctrines of grace and forgiveness. It also came exceedingly close to a “salvation by works” theology, which also goes against basic Christian teaching. Donatism was strongly opposed by the Christian church, and one of its greatest opponents was Saint Augustine.
Donatism was strong in North Africa by 400 A.D., but gradually died out after that. It was finally destroyed not by Christian orthodoxy, but by the rise of Islam in North Africa.2 Unfortunately, the rise of Islam ultimately destroyed orthodox Christianity there, as well.
Nestorius was Bishop of Constantinople in 428 A.D. He rejected the title “God Bearer” for Mary because he asserted that Jesus was just a person when Mary carried him in her womb. Nestorius separated Jesus’s divine and human natures. Christianity teaches that Jesus was simultaneously fully divine and fully human. Nestorius believed something more akin to “adoptionism” in which Jesus was born just a man, but who was later “adopted” by God as his son.
Nestorianism was opposed as a heresy. It was defeated at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. and was finally buried at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.
The preceding list of heresies is not comprehensive, but it does provide a good idea of what the early church was facing. Scholar Craig Evans sums it up nicely when he says that those who “…speak of ‘lost Christianities’ are talking about individuals and groups who moved away from the earlier, widely attested teaching of Jesus and the first generation of his followers. These hypothetical Christianities did not exist in the middle of the first century. But lack of evidence and anachronism need not prevent the creation of novel scenarios. All one needs is imagination and an uninformed readership.”3
- Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2006, p. 202.
- Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers, An Evangelical Introduction, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007, p. 230.
- Evans, p. 203.