JAC Online

No Orthodoxy?
by Envoy Steve Bussey

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 continue!].


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 syncretistic ideas!


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!


"Against Heresies"


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!


Irenaeus continues:


"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!


Irenaeus warns:


"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 DON'T CHANGE.


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 a Christian.


Irenaeus continues:


"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.




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 carefully."


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 4:1).







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