Reviewing Early Christian Doctrines

Sometime ago, Fr. Robert asked me to pick up J.N.D. Kelly’s book, Early Christian Doctrines. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to devote to it that I would like (of that many could say that about many things), but at the close of the first chapter, I have decided to strike up a conversation with a few of the more interesting points that stuck out at me. I like Dr. Kelly’s writing style, although he seems to make a few statements but then leaves enough wiggle room for others to draw different conclusions.

Kelly (pg5) draws a distinction between Irenaeus and Tertullian’s view of Scripture, which might be considered High with Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen who distinguished Christianity into two types. One, the simple – which was applauded by Tertullian, although he lamented that the simple refused to believe in the Trinity – was a lower class of believers based on faith, or the literal acceptance of the truths declared in Scripture and the Church’s teaching. The second type of Christian was the gnostic, a higher form of knowledge or revelation. Their belief was founded on the Bible, but tried to constantly dig deeper, searching for an esoteric meaning. (This would lead Origen to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church in later centuries.) Origen and his master in studies, Kelly says, would disparage the simple believers, founded only on faith (literal understanding) regard the ‘enlightened’ ones as perfect and specially privileged by God. Later, Kelly mentions that Clement of Alexandria ‘freely applied the title ‘gnostics’ to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith’.

The idea of a secret form, or deeper form, of knowledge than that of Scriptures was used by Clement of Alexandria and his protégé. Clement, Kelly says, regarded tradition as ‘stemming from the apostles and including quasi-Gnostic speculations’ while for Origen the secret gnosis ‘seems to have consisted of an esoteric theology based on the Bible’ but in both cases we see that this secret knowledge was ‘reserved for the intellectual elite of the Church.’ It is clear that Clement and the Alexandrian School confused the secret Gnostic Tradition with the true foundation of the Apostles. What’s more, is that Origen considered the canon of doctrine as those things in current acceptance by ‘ordinary Christians’. Dr. Kelly states, ‘Though it’s (the body of beliefs) contents coincided with those of the Bible, it was formally independent of the Bible.’

In discussing the actual development of the thought of Tradition as a force, Kelly notes that in the early Church, the fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp, others) treated the Old Testament (the Septuagint, including the Deuterocanon, or Apocrypha) and the Apostolic Tradition as ‘virtually coincident.’ This relation is not that difficult to assume. The Apostles were Jews, men whose religion had been focused around the written law, so for them to completely forsake their upbringing (Christianity was the fulfillment of Judaism, not a completely separate religion) and focus instead on oral tradition would be unthinkable. We can see from the Epistle to the Hebrews what extent the Old Testament played in developing the theology of the Church. The author of Hebrews did not refer to verbal traditions, but concrete words.

Kelly then goes on to state that before Clement of Alexandria, the ‘apostolic testimony had not yet come to be known as ‘tradition’. Justin Martyr used the word only five times and then only in reference to the Jewish teachers. Polycarp, in his surviving letter, spoke of the ‘word transmitted from the beginning’ (Even John spoke of the transmission of testimony from the beginning in his first epistle, while still not yet meaning Tradition) while Justin spoke of the handing down of the Eucharist. We can concede that to Dr. Kelly that the ideas were sustained in embryo, but if we can embryonic development as something inspired, we can create a great deal of doctrines, fully matured, cloned from mere phrases and thoughts of long dead people. Doctrine cannot be held in embryonic form, using thoughts and ideas to birth it.

As a third point, the author uses Ignatius and 2nd Clement’s directives to followed the bishops and elders as grounds that the early Church felt that the ‘hierarchy which succeeded the apostles inherited the gospel message’ meaning that the bishops and elders, endowed with the Spirit were ‘divinely authorized custodians of the apostolic preaching.’ In truth, Ignatius did more than invited people to listen to those that bore the rule of the Church, but could this rightly be judge to mean that they were the mouth pieces of Tradition? Ignatius, following Paul, rightly saw that the inspired hierarchy of the Church was a safe guard against doctrines and traditions of man, not the inventor of them, nor the keepers.

Irenaeus believe that Tradition was independent of written documents. Once you begin to separate the two, you then begin to create you own doctrine, independent of the Church. Irenaeus pointed out that the barbarian tribes of Europe (he was in Lyons in modern day France) received the faith without the written documents. That question is easily answered in that the Gospel message is not doctrine, although doctrine later informs the person as to the meaning of the Gospel message. Paul didn’t demand a book for the lost, but a preacher sent from God. He does his bit to counter the Gnostics however, in focusing on the fact that revelation is open and very public (contrary to Clement’s secret gnosis).

Kelly states that Irenaeus makes two points about doctrine. Irenaeus points to the unbroken like of apostolic succession of bishops in the great sees, such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome. The issue with this is that at one time or another, every see what vacated, forcibly or otherwise, by the rightful bishop or lines of bishops. Avilius of Alexandria (Abilius in the West), also known as Sabellius, Milius or Melyos served as the third bishop of Alexandria between 83 and 95. In the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea, it is recorded that, upon the death of Anianus of Alexandria, all the suffragan bishops of his area converged in Alexandria where they conferred with the laity about the next appointment to the position. Having cast lots, they unanimously voted for Avilius to succeed him, based on Avilius’ reputation for chastity and his knowledge of Christ. If Irenaeus is correct on his theory of an unbroken chain of apostolic bishops as the preserver of the Faith, then we see that the corruption of the Church started in Alexandria, which beget the world Clement, Origen, and the Stoic philosopher that started the school, Pantaenus.

Turning to Tertullian, we find that Kelly argues that the father of Latin Theology did not ‘confine the apostolic tradition to the New Testament. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian relied on the unbroken chain apostolic bishops. (As we have seen, this was broken in Alexandria by the close of the 1st century of Christianity. The see of Jerusalem would only last another 40 years before it succumbed to revolt). If this was a guarantee, then the promise was void. Tertullian, however, was, according to Kelly, emphatic that a secret revelation did not exist. It is noted that both Tertullian and Irenaeus ministered a generation before Clement and Origen.

Dr. Kelly goes on to state that the ‘unwritten tradition (Tertullian) considered to be virtually identical with the ‘rule of faith,’ which he preferred to Scripture. (pg 40) This ‘rule of faith’ (regula fidei) was not a concrete creed, but instead a pattern that Tertullian felt could test the Christianity of a person. This ‘rule’ was not centrally known in the East and cannot be found in the Scriptures, but according to some, is encompassed by Scripture. When arguing with those that he considered heretics (he was a schismatic himself), he was ‘profoundly convinced of the futility of arguing with heretics merely on the basis of Scripture.’

Moving into the third and fourth centuries, Kelly argues that the ‘basis of tradition became broader and more explicit’. The Church began to draw more on the Fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp) that descended directly from the Apostles. The liturgies developed in certain parts of the Church were themselves taken as a basis for doctrine. Kelly notes that Basil relied upon ‘tradition embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit’.

¶Pondering Tertullian and Irenaeus’ war, and indeed the early Church, with Gnosticism, I can understand the idea that Scriptures might be regulated as a secondary defense measure, especially when your opponents so quickly quote Scripture back at you; however, I believe that Scripture must first be the rule of Faith, no matter the opponent.

What drew me in was the difference between Tertullian/Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria/Origen in their view of Christians. It seemed Tertullian had more faith in the simple doctrines and the majority of the people than Clement did. Tertullian sought to defend the Faith while Clement sought to bring it into a philosophical realm. Yet the entire cast of characters are united by the Catholic Church as Fathers in the creation of the Trinity when it seems to me that they could not have been more different.

I look forward to our discussion.


When I refer to Kelly, it is meant Dr. J.N.D. Kelly’s book, Early Christian Doctrines (1978, Harper San Francisco)

In the Catholic Church this term is applied to all non-metropolitan bishops (that is, diocesan bishops of dioceses within a metropolitan’s province, and auxiliary bishops).

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11 Replies to “Reviewing Early Christian Doctrines”

  1. Well, I’m not sure what I think of your choice of words here— “creation of the Trinity.” Do you think the concept is merely the work of the church, or do you believe God is indeed three in one?

    Scripture never focuses on the personhood(s) of God in a way that Trinitarians would like, but, I think it does give sound evidence for the Trinity— therefore, if they were simply drawing conclusions from Scripture (and not through Scripture), they would all conclude the Truth regardless of their differences.

    Look at me capitalizing stuff! I’m a wannabe Catholic myself, it seems. 🙂

  2. I think the concept is a doctrinal progression formulated over centuries of work by scholars and philosophers, each building upon the last generation, forgetting that foundation of doctrine is the Word of God. I do not believe that you can find a fully expressed doctrine of the Trinity in the Scriptures. I believe that if you misconstrue, interpret in a different light than that which the words were first penned, you can find an embryonic stasis for the Trinity. Again, doctrine does not need to be birthed.

    Thanks for the comment and as you can tell by my Discussion page, I welcome it!

  3. Polycarp, we ‘fly’ on different levels for sure. I don’t put much stock in Gnostic literature as it has lead many into false doctrines. The history that substaniates biblical facts are my only concerns, thus, the reason I don’t view Tertullian and his past in the ‘trinity’, but only after his conversion. Why would I consider them when his conversion denounced them. I also stay with true historical documents of marytrdom, and the supression of the true church. I still want to mention Isaiah 28:1-15 as it was given from God. That alone, takes away an interest in the Gnostic authors for me..but that doesn’t make you wrong..I fully understand your love for history!
    http://lanis.wordpress.com has a newer version on the above.

  4. Lanis, I am not reviewing Gnostic documents or literature. Dr. J.N.D. Kelly has what many assume to be an outstanding book, Early Christian Doctrines, that Fr. Robert has asked for me to read and join in a discussion. This was my review of a chapter speaking about the development of Tradition.

    For me, understanding the history of the Trinity helps to defend my view point.

  5. Thanks for the introduction to this book. Certainly one to add to my reading list. While I agree for Christians, “scripture must first be the rule of Faith,” absent the apostolic succession or other form of oral tradition, what criteria are properly used to interpret it? Many parts of the Bible are difficult to say the least, and several parts are on their face contradictory and require non-obvious resolution. Resolving these difficulties has been the challenge to church fathers since the first century. Even Paul was in debate with others over the meaning of Christianity and the scriptures hadn’t even been written down yet. It is hard to say that the correct interpretation is clear to all.

    So without a continuous tradition providing interpretation of difficult scripture, what basis should Christians use to avoid schism and heresy? What “rule of faith” should Christians use in exegesis?

  6. Pantheophany, thank you for the comments concerning my ‘review’. I am wholly inadequate in this area, but I hope to improve as I progress.

    I have wrestled sometime with this issue. If the Scripture is the rule of Faith, then under which interpretation do we live by? Traditional interpretations differ from sphere to sphere. We can simply say that the holy Spirit must guide us, but in the end, I am not happy with that answer because that is the same basis that too people many apply. As a fundamentalist, my first instinct is to reject any notion of Tradition, but sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, I see a Tradition that had developed in certain aspects of the Service, so I have reconsidered my view on Tradition.

    In understanding the mysteries of the Old Testament, I would imply a typological interpretation in trying to understand prophecies or other difficult passages, and have them point to the New Testament. I readily accept the notion that Augustine put so eloquently into words,

    In the Old Testament the New is concealed; in the New the Old is revealed.

    I believe that a correct interpretation would involve cultural context in a very large way. Take the logos in John’s gospel. Over the 330 or so times that this word is used in the Greek New Testament, we find that only John, and only about 4 or 5 times, uses it in a theological fashion, yet he does not imply some great theological mystery by using it. Now, we can decide to go either the Greek philosophy, which is what Justin did, perhaps to Philo, or the the Septuagint and the Wisdom books of the Deuterocanon. We then have to decide which one of these the Apostles would have used. I believe that the evidence would maintain that the Apostles would have used The Septuagint to develop their understanding of the Logos, and indeed other words used in the Greek New Testament. If we see logos in light of Wisdom (of Solomon), then we can see that a distinction between God the Father and the Logos is not implied. The Logos, as is Sophia, is an emanation from the Father.

    For the parables, we have to return to a cultural context in attempting to understand the scene in which the listeners set. Taking the Prodigal Son, I can find no greater resource on the cultural context than Kenneth Bailey’s books. I believe it is necessary to understand the listeners to these parables to find the meaning. Now, this is not to say that the meaning has changed, only in that Christ used those things around Him to impart Truth.

    For theology, I do think that it some fashion we can look at the primitive Church and read their words. As you know from reading this blog, I believe that the early Church was ‘oneness’ in view point of God and Christ. We can trace this view back through the years and the Fathers, although most certainly some at a later date did not agree.

    I believe that we can find the correct interpretation through diligent scholarship and by a simple reading of the passage. And in the end, we are guided by the Spirit of God. I realize that this may not answer your question, but I believe that the more we discuss this, the more that my position will solidify for you.

  7. I need to study these posts much more deeply, but some early thoughts:

    * You may be interested in The Art of Reading Scripture. You will likely disagree with many of the essayists. So do I (for different reasons). But it is helpful to read other modern scholarly thoughts on this subject.

    * Clearly the Gospel writers were familiar with LXX, probably to the exclusion of the works in Hebrew. I think it likely that the author of Matthew’s famous (mis)translation of Hebrew alma into Greek parthenos is because he was reading LXX rather than Hebrew. (That Matthew was also quoting wildly out of context isn’t surprising. He did that a lot.) So I have no problem with your use of LXX in interpretation of Biblical Greek. But doesn’t the Gospel writers’ reliance on a defective Greek translation of Hebrew undermine the claim of Gospel infallibility? While I don’t agree with several of his assertions, I can’t help but quote Rabbi Tovia Singer here: “Did the passing of 500 years since His last book cause God to forget how to read Hebrew that He would need to rely on a translation? Why would God need to quote from the Septuagint?”

    * This leads to my bigger question (and I admit that I still need to study your earlier postings more deeply; the answers may be in there). How can a Pentecostal church be Sola Scriptura? At Pentecost, there was no NT scripture and there wouldn’t be for decades. It wouldn’t be canonized for centuries, and then by the people who established the doctrines you reject. How can we trust Athanasius’ list from 367 as Divine but reject his doctrine of Trinity from five years earlier? Why not the Gnostic gospels if we’re going to accept the selections of heretics?

  8. Pantheophany, I hope that you enjoy my latest post on Early Christian doctrines, as I deal a bit on interpretation of the Scriptures.

    I will have to check your recommendation out. As you can tell, the books that I most enjoy reading are those that I disagree with.

    Who calls the Septuagint defective? Sure, the Jews do, but we have to remember that the Jews themselves use the Septuagint (or how else would the Apostles been so steeped in it?) I think that I might have said this at some point on this blog but I do not believe that the Septuagint was considered a literal translation, but instead an interpretative translation, along the lines of perhaps the NIV, which employs a thought for thought translation. It was a controversy in the early Church with the Jews about the use of the Septuagint. Reading some history of the subject, you can see that the Church charged the Jews with changing the accepted text so that Christianity would loose it’s legs. I believe that Justin challenged Trypho several times on this.

    Not Pentecostal, but I will answer. If we deny Tradition as an effective force, the we are denying Christianity for a century. Granted, we know that some communities held certain books as inspired. Perhaps one community had only John and his Epistles, while another held Luke and Romans, yet these scriptures are inspired and provide a doctrinal system not unlike the sum of the parts. We know from history that the Church Fathers quoted NT books and this was before Nicea. Canonization did not just happen with Athansius, as we have surviving canon lists that predate his by centuries.

  9. Not Pentecostal

    I was trying to use this in the most literal sense to capture Doctrine #2 from your list. Do you have a preferred adjective that doesn’t muddy the waters even further?

    Who calls the Septuagint defective?

    Here I am specifically pointing to the mistranslation of alma which spawned the Matthew’s misplaced virgin birth “prophesy fulfillment.” It is possible that Matthew independently made this mistranslation, but it seems more likely that he relied on LXX. That Justin and Trypho argued over LXX is a source of wonderment for me, much as modern Christian study of English texts is a wonderment. If God gave His Word to us, why would anyone not study it in the language God chose to use? At least Muslims get this.

    I’m not claiming that Athansius canonized the books, but his is the first list that matches the modern canon. Why do you accept his list rather than any of the earlier ones?

    The Church Fathers also quoted non-NT books in the same way they quote (what eventually became) NT books. Clement quotes Judith in the same way he quotes Esther. Paul quoted the Book of Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses and other non-canonical works.

    Before you can say that the Bible is the infallible word of God, you have to decide what the Bible even is. How have you decided?

  10. Pantheophany,

    I would just prefer TCOJC, Church, or Christian.

    I do not believe that the alma in Hebrew as used in Isaiah is a mistranslation in the LXX. Two reasons: 1.) A young maiden was supposed to a virgin and 2.) A young woman giving birth is not a miracle. I believe that the translators of the LXX translated the thought behind Isaiah’s use of the word. One does not to look past the Fall to see a prophecy of the Virgin Birth of Christ. I am a student of the Greek New Testament, or at least try to be, so I am more concerned with the Greek of that section of books. Since they used the LXX, of that we can agree, I believe that it is important to study the LXX in relation to the thoughts and meanings of the words employed in the Greek New Testament, however in studying the Old Testament, we should study it in the Hebrew.

    As I understand it, Athansius didn’t finalize a canon himself, but his list contributed to the offical canon. Some will tell you that the canon was not settled until the Council of Trent some 1100 years later. I believe that the Canon was centrally recognized as a core group of books. These books do not disagree with each other, rather complimenting each other. Each of these books have apostolic authority, either in writing as with Paul, or in presence as in Luke and Mark.

    Indeed the Church Fathers do quote books no in the NT, but Judith is in the Deuterocanon and for some, that is canonical. I am unaware that Paul quotes the Book of Jubilees, but I do know that Jude quotes Enoch and the Assumption. The answer that I offer is that these two books have not survived unadulterated, and may have been so in the time of Jude, but the essential truth was there, and it was the truth that was quoted.

    I believe that the Spirit of God guided the formation of the Canon and that canon can be verified by doctrinal standards.

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