A common claim among critics of Christianity is that early Christian doctrine was a bit of a mess. What we believe now—about the incarnation, divinity of Jesus, etc.—was a late development within the early Christian movement. And, so the implication goes, the earliest Christians did not necessarily believe the same things as later Christians.
Now, it must be said that such a criticism is partly true. The early Christian movement was not monolithic, to be sure. There was quite a bit of theological diversity, and it took a few generations to work out some of the kinks. I cover this doctrinal diversity in my book Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (IVP Academic, 2018).
Even so, I think we can see the seeds of many of our core doctrines at a remarkably early point. Yes, it took time to develop these ideas. But it doesn’t seem like they were late impositions on the church as is so often claimed.
A good example of this phenomenon is an amazing paragraph in one of our earliest Christian apologies. Aristides, a converted Athenian philosopher, wrote an apology to emperor Hadrian around 125 A.D. As such, it is one of the earliest patristic writings we possess. It is a lengthy treatise which compares the God of Christianity with the gods of the barbarians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks.
But, at one point, he summarizes what Christians believe in a manner that would rival even the Apostle’s Creed: [Read more…]