by Envoy Steve
I recently heard that a popular idea
spreading around - particularly on Tik Tok of all places (and
even in large parts of the church) - is that before the early
church Council of Nicea in 325 AD that there was no such thing
as "orthodoxy" (right belief) - but that the idea of shared,
universal beliefs was the means by which the newly formed
Christian and Roman Empire (under Constantine) limited and
controlled the beliefs, values, and practices of a broad-tent
Christianity that didn't care much for doctrine! The theory
suggests that "heterodoxy" (i.e., a smorgasbord of beliefs)
was more widely accepted during the first three centuries of
Christianity and that the idea of "orthodoxy" was never a part
of the early Church!
How does one respond to such an idea?
By returning to the earliest sources to examine the evidence
for ourselves. I must warn you, that this theory doesn't seem
to jive with the writings of deeply respected early church
leaders! But I get ahead of myself!
Background - Irenaeus & Valentinus
One of those sources was written by
Irenaeus (130-202 AD), who was the disciple of Polycarp (69 -
155 AD), who was the disciple of John the Apostle!
Irenaeus was born in Smyrna in Asia
Minor (roughly 35 miles from Ephesus), where he was raised in
a Christian family. In Revelation 2:8-11, we read Jesus'
words, where he commends the Church of Smyrna for suffering
harsh persecution for the faith - and yet they REMAINED TRUE
to the gospel. These Christians were fed to lions, crucified,
killed by wild dogs, set on fire, burned at the stake, and
even boiled in oil! If you were a Christian who grew up in
Smyrna, you were either insane - or you really (I mean,
REALLY) believed the gospel!
Irenaeus' mentor, Polycarp, was the
bishop of Smyrna in the midst of these persecutions - and most
likely was present when the book of Revelation was being
written (possibly by Polycarp's mentor, the Apostle John). In
155 AD, Polycarp was taken to Rome where it was demanded that
he recant his faith. His response was that for, "Eighty-six
years I have served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I
blaspheme my King?" Polycarp was martyred for his faith by
being burned alive in the Coliseum in Rome. Again, not
something you would do for beliefs you casually adopted...
These were beliefs he was not only willing to live for - but
he would die for them!
[Side note: We need to think seriously
about how much we ACTUALLY believe what we say we believe in.
Do we really know what we believe? Are we willing to stand
against the flow of culture for those beliefs? Did you just
sign on the dotted line so you could be part of some group or
wear a fancy badge or set of clothes? Are you willing to live
for your beliefs? How about willing to suffer? How about
willing to die? Okay, things got dark quickly. Let's
Iranaeus chose to follow in the
footsteps of his parents and mentor, becoming the leader of
the church in Lungdunum in Gaul (present-day Lyon, France)
following the martyrdom of Pothinus. He was the second bishop
to oversee this church.
During this time, Iranaeus was exposed
to the expanding influence of the heresy known as "Gnosticism"
- which was being championed by a theologian named Valentinus
(100-180 AD), who began to teach in Alexandria and then
expanded to Rome where he opened a major school of thought
that had wide influence. Valentinus was a brilliant
intellectual who had come under the influence of the Gnostic
philosopher, Basilides. He also was a follower of Theudas, who
had been a follower of Paul the Apostle, but then also shifted
into a Gnostic form of Christianity.
Valentinus was convinced he was
destined to become a bishop (senior leader) in the church
because he was considered an able man in both genius and
eloquence. He was highly ambitious, but when he was
overlooked, became quite vengeful and committed to
exterminating the truth! His influence spread far and wide and
tickled the ears of many who bought into his highly
For anyone who watched the Marvel
movie, "The Eternals" - well, many of those ideas came from
Valentinus as his fellow Gnostic philosophers! He believed
that at the beginning of time, there were 30 Aeons (Eternals)
[you can Google this, but there were 8 Ogdoad Aeons + 10 Decad
Aeons + 12 Dedecad Aeons] - and that the Bible affirms these
ideas (which it doesn't).
Iranaeus considered himself neither a
genius nor eloquent - but he DEEPLY BELIEVED in the TRUTH of
the gospel, and he wasn't afraid to STAND UP for these beliefs
- even if this were to result in persecution. Growing up in
Smyrna and witnessing Polycarp's ministry had prepared him
that being a true disciple meant taking up a cross and
following Jesus, not metaphorically - literally!
In a series of books entitled, "Against
Heresies," Irenaeus begins to systematically unpack
Valentinus' teachings to prove how they are founded on
absolutely false assumptions. In his advice, we find a TON OF
WISDOM for how we should discern error, correct it, and
realign and defend the true gospel.
Here is some of Irenaeus' advice:
"These men falsify the oracles of God
and prove themselves
EVIL INTERPRETERS OF THE GOOD WORD OF REVELATION. They
also OVERTHROW THE FAITH OF MANY, by DRAWING THEM AWAY, UNDER
A PRETENCE OF SUPERIOR KNOWLEDGE, from Him who rounded and
adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something MORE
EXCELLENT AND SUBLIME TO REVEAL, THAN GOD who created the
heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein."
Do you ever hear people saying this?
That they have found a "better way" to understand the gospel?
When you hear this, we need to be on our guard!
"By means of specious [misleading in
appearance] and plausible [that which seems like it makes
sense] words, they CUNNINGLY ALLURE the simple-minded to
INQUIRE INTO THEIR SYSTEM, but they nevertheless clumsily
DESTROY THEM, while they initiate them into their blasphemous
and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge ['they' being
Gnostics and Platonic philosophers believed had created the
universe]; and these simple ones are UNABLE, even in such a
matter, to DISTINGUISH FALSEHOOD FROM TRUTH."
This same process is extremely popular
today. We call it "narrative displacement" - where ideas that
"sound" like they are good and even Christian are actually
rooted in ideas that are actually anti-Christian. These
flourish particularly when discipleship is lacking and
believers have not been trained in strong beliefs and are
susceptible to counterfeit gospels. During these times, it
"seems" like something is Christian because it uses similar
words. This creates a vacuum where "novel interpretations" can
be offered - which quickly lead many from truth to falsehood,
often without the individual even realizing it!
"ERROR, indeed, IS NEVER SET FORTH IN
ITS NAKED DEFORMITY, lest, being thus exposed, it should at
once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an
attractive dress so as, by its outward form, to make it appear
to the inexperienced, MORE TRUE THAN THE TRUTH ITSELF."
This is what was happening with
Valentinus - and is happening even in our own world today.
Irenaeus says, "...they proceed when they find anything in the
multitude of things contained in the Scriptures which they can
adopt and accommodate to their baseless speculations."
So Irenaeus begins to outline the ideas
of Gnosticism and tackles how they are inconsistent with the
true Christian faith. Wait a second... I thought there wasn't
an "orthodox" Christian faith until Constantine - when those
Church Councils were formed to remove all the heterodoxy that
made the early church so vibrant??? Let's see what the guy who
knew the guy who knew John who knew Jesus has to say in the
tenth chapter of his first book - a chapter entitled, "Unity
of the Faith of the Church Throughout the Whole World"!
He begins by stating how the entire
Christian world of his time (about a century and a half before
that first Council) believed the same thing! Don't believe me
- listen to Irenaeus:
"The Church, though dispersed through
our whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received
FROM THE APOSTLES and their disciples THIS FAITH:"
And here comes what we might call
"sound doctrine" or "Orthodoxy":
"She believes in ONE GOD, the FATHER
ALMIGHTY, MAKER OF HEAVEN, AND EARTH, AND THE SEA, and ALL
THINGS THAT ARE IN THEM; and in ONE CHRIST JESUS, THE SON OF
GOD, WHO BECAME INCARNATE FOR OUR SALVATION; and in the HOLY
SPIRIT, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations
of God, and the advents, and the birth, and the ascension into
heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and
His future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the
Father "to gather all things in one," and to raise up anew all
flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus,
our LORD, and GOD, and SAVIOR, and KING, according to the will
of the invisible Father, 'every knee should bow, of things in
heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and
that every tongue should confess' to Him, and that He should
execute JUST JUDGMENT towards all; that He may send 'spiritual
wickedness,' and the angels who transgressed and became
apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and
wicked, and profane among men, into EVERLASTING FIRE; but may,
in the exercise of His GRACE, confer immortality on the
RIGHTEOUS, and HOLY, and those who have KEPT HIS COMMANDMENTS,
and have PERSEVERED IN HIS LOVE, some from the beginning of
the Chrisitan course, and others from the date of their
REPENTANCE, and may surround them with an everlasting joy."
Wow! That sounds pretty orthodox! It
also is quite consistent with the Niceaen Creed... and much of
what is considered the orthodox beliefs of the church. These
are qualities that have remained the same. That means they
Does the gospel need to be
'contextualized' or adapted to new cultures? Absolutely! And
Irenaeus agrees. However, he distinguishes that while there
might be unique expressions of different cultural contexts,
there is a UNIVERSAL TRUTH that unites ALL BELIEVERS ACROSS
SPACE AND TIME. This is a CRITICAL point. In other words: If
you don't believe the main teachings, you cannot call yourself
"As I have already observed, the
Church, having received this preaching and this faith,
although SCATTERED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE WORLD, YET, AS IF
OCCUPYING BUT ONE HOUSE, CAREFULLY PRESERVES IT. She also
believes that these POINTS OF DOCTRINE JUST AS IF SHE HAD BUT
ONE SOUL, and one and the SAME HEART, and she PROCLAIMS them
and TEACHES them, and HANDS THEM DOWN, with PERFECT HARMONY,
as if she possessed only ONE MOUTH.
For, although the LANGUAGES of the
world are dissimilar, yet the IMPORT OF THE TRADITION IS ONE
AND THE SAME. For the Churches which have been planted in
GERMANY DO NOT BELIEVE OR HAND DOWN ANYTHING DIFFERENT, nor do
those in SPAIN, nor those in GAUL, nor those in the EAST, nor
those in EGYPT, nor those in LIBYA, nor those which have been
established in the CENTRAL REGIONS of the world.
But AS THE SUN, the creature of God, is
ONE AND THE SAME THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE WORLD, so also the
PREACHING OF THE TRUTH SHINETH EVERYWHERE and ENLIGHTENS ALL
MEN THAT ARE WILLING TO COME TO A KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH."
So, while the gospel might be
communicated in different cultures - we preach the SAME gospel
that has been embraced and celebrated since Jesus commissioned
the early Church. This is why Catherine and William Booth
emphasized the "pure gospel" - make sure we aren't preaching a
false gospel - or false doctrine for that matter! Our aim is
to root ourselves firmly in the Bible and the consensual
Christian tradition. We must examine ourselves to make sure we
haven't been swayed by a false message!
In her sermons on "Aggressive
Christianity," Catherine Booth laid out her second
indispensable condition is "a PURE GOSPEL."
She states, "I mean by that, God's own
pure metal, the unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ. There
seems, now-a-days, in the Church and the world, as many
different views of the Gospel as there are of secondary
matters and of minor doctrines. One person has one notion of
the Gospel, another has another until there has come to be a
fearful distraction in the minds of many who are constantly
listening to what is called the Gospel. May God the Holy Ghost
help us this afternoon to look at it impartially and
May God certainly help us today as He
did Irenaeus and as He did countless, faithful believers to
hold tight to sound doctrine. Here are some final thoughts
from Scripture to reflect on:
"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch
out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles
contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid
them" (Romans 16:17).
"So that we may no longer be children,
tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind
of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful
schemes" (Ephesians 4:14).
"Retain the standard of sound words
which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are
in Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 1:13).
"In pointing out these things to the
brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus,
constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the
sound doctrine which you have been following" (1 Timothy 4:6).
"Preach the word; be ready in season
and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete
patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will
not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will
accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,
and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off
into myths" (2 Timothy 4:2-4).
"But as for you, teach what accords
with sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1).
"Knowing this first of all, that no
prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation"
(2 Peter 1:20).
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit,
but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for
many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John