Picture the Christian ekklesias, or assemblies, in the first hundred or so years after the resurrection of Christ. They had in their hands the Old Testament canon which Jews and Christians alike hold to be divinely inspired Scripture, the latter understanding that these writings find their fulfilment in Jesus the Messiah. From the 40s AD onwards they had the writings of Paul successively circulating and probably by the end of the century gathered into a single volume and regarded as “Scripture” (2 Pet 3:16). From the 60s onward the gospels began to circulate, compiled from eyewitness sources such as collections of sayings of Jesus and “memoirs” of the apostles. By the end of the first century, there was an almost uniform acknowledgement of which writings were “Scripture,” to be used in worship and for edification. These writings were characterised by an acknowledged apostolic connection or authority.
Later heresies in the church, such as that of Marcion (who wanted to shrink the canon) and Montanus (who wanted to add to it) forced the church to settle the matter of Scriptural authority by committing to a written list, or canon, of writings. These formed what we know as the New Testament. In contrast, apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works, particularly later Gnostic or proto-Gnostic works such as the “Gospel of Thomas” did not receive the same status. Nor did the much revered writings of the early church fathers such as Polycarp, who had been direct disciples of the apostles. The authority of the Word of God was paramount.
Nevertheless, the early church produced a significant volume of literature and began this process of writing even before the NT was itself complete. Most of these writings are no longer extant, some are known by quoted fragments or references in later literature and a small number have been preserved. What did they write about? The earliest Christian writers did not compile systematic doctrinal treatises, as far as we know. Instead, they wrote pastoral letters, handbooks for life and ministry, and apologetics to defend the Christian faith to the antagonistic world of their day. As various heresies, such as Docetism and Gnosticism crept into the church, Christians wrote polemical treatises against them. The fundamental doctrines of the very early church are seen within all these writings, informing their arguments and supporting their advice. Their writings are permeated with Scriptural citations and allusions and their references to the deity of Christ demonstrate this was simply accepted as fact.
As time went on, particularly when the burden of persecution was lifted, Christian thinkers gave more attention to addressing issues of doctrine in their own right. Appropriately, some of the earliest considerations involved the nature of the Godhead and the person of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Christianity had its roots in Judaism and was decidedly monotheistic in contrast to the Graeco-Roman world and the eastern mystical religions. Nevertheless, the clear teaching of Scripture was that Jesus was divine as well as human, and needed to be included within the identity of “God” without sacrificing either monotheism or the distinctiveness of Father, Son and Spirit. As Stephen Holmes (Quest for the Trinity, 57–58) explains,
Certainly the technical terminology and conceptuality necessary to give a tight account of how it is possible to speak of one God existing in three hypostases is only developed in the fourth century, but we should see this not so much as the development of a new confession, as the discovery of the necessary theology to give firm intellectual grounding to an idea that is so deeply engraved in Christian devotion and confession as to be inescapable. The early Christians worshiped the Trinity from the first; the tale of the development of Trinitarian theology is an account of how they came to find a satisfying way of speaking of the One they worshiped.”
So, as the church wrestled with how these truths should be understood, there was a development of doctrinal thought that nevertheless had its basis firmly rooted in Scripture. It was only much later that the papacy claimed the sole right to interpret and supersede Scripture as the ultimate authority. An understanding of God as one in essence/identity/ divinity but triune in expression/outworking/personhood can thus be traced from the earliest post-NT times through to today in mainstream Christianity. In contrast, doctrines such as the nature of salvation underwent enormous change during the medieval Roman Catholic period, to be reevaluated at the Reformation. Denominations or sects that have emerged since the post-Enlightenment period in the 1800s, such as the Christadelphians, typically reject these centuries of theological discussion and claim to return to the “original apostolic faith.” Such self-styled “remnants/rediscoverers of original Christianity” espouse the view that “Christendom,” by which they mean essentially all of the Christian church in its various forms over the centuries, rapidly departed from the truth of the New Testament into apostasy and have remained tainted with it ever since.
But was the development of doctrine a departure from Scripture, or a deeper engagement with it? Did the truth quickly become distorted and disappear with occasional, short-lived rediscoveries, or were certain truths understood fairly consistently through the ages? The answer seems to be, some of both, depending on which doctrines are considered. Very early on, the church was engaged in answering the question, “Who is God?” from which emerged the Trinitarian answer to what might seem a Scriptural paradox. This was closely followed by the fourth and fifth century Christological controversies which produced a greater understanding of the person of Christ. In contrast, Protestants as a group would agree that the medieval Roman Catholic Church departed significantly from Scriptural teaching in many areas (Mariolatry and sacramentalism, for instance) . In the Reformation period, with a fresh look at the Bible itself, major doctrinal positions were revised — actually rediscovered — to better align with Scripture, most notably those with respect to salvation, authority, the nature of the church and the sacraments. Interestingly, the essentials of the doctrine of the triune God and the divine and human natures of the Saviour were upheld, because they were shown to be scriptural rather than a product of the Roman apostasy.
Periodically, the church was convicted by the need to produce a statement of doctrinal interpretation that was regarded as normative. Such statements mark major landmarks in the history of Christian faith and were typically a response to controversy. For example, the early church fathers believed that Christ was divine, but was this divinity intrinsically his, as orthodoxy argued, or was it derived or bestowed on a mere superior creature, as Arius taught? The argument came to a head, and was resolved in favour of the Son being eternal with the Father and of the same essence, because this was seen as best according with the whole Scriptural testimony. The very fact that through the ages and even today, humans applied their intellects (and presuppositions) to God’s word and arrived at different conclusions necessitated this process of deliberation and clarification. Questions arise which need to be answered, and interpretations are proposed which need to be debated in the light of Scripture. Inevitably, in order to avoid further confusion and express doctrine in context, statements of belief are required. Thus the trajectory of doctrinal development has been neither haphazard nor necessarily divergent. (This same process of wrestling with Scriptural teaching in order to achieve concordance concerning what the Bible means is also claimed by Christadelphians when they argue that their pioneers “discovered” the unifying truth of the doctrine of “God manifestation” and expressed it in the way they did.)
That is not to say that mistakes weren’t made along the way, or that significant deviations from orthodoxy did not prevail from time to time. The teachings of Origen, for example, were very heavily influenced by Platonist philosophy and not entirely consistent with Trinitarian orthodoxy. Sometimes the Greek theologians seemed to head off down very complex, esoteric or even irrelevant lines of thought because that was the way they were intellectually wired. In contrast, the Latin theologians were more inclined to state things in clear-cut, “this is the way it is” concepts and accepted that if Scripture said it, don’t try to over-think it. The Greeks were much more inclined to tease doctrines out to the nth degree, and wind up misunderstanding alternate positions. Also, the Greek and Latin theologians spoke different languages with different nuances and semantic ranges for translated words, which led to misunderstandings. The Greeks were typically more interested in the distinctiveness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whereas the Latins were more focused on the unity of the Godhead; yet both acknowledged a triune God. When their arguments are closely examined, apart from the extreme positions which were ultimately rejected by the various early Councils, they are seen to be the complementary sides of the same issue. God is not three in the same sense in which he is one, and from the perspective of an over-emphasis on either unity or distinctiveness, the other sense can appear dubious. Similarly, the Bible portrays Jesus as fully human, but also as divine. It is possible to overemphasise one of these natures to the underplaying of the other.
The major creeds of the early church, Apostolic, Nicene and Athanasian, and Chalcedonian definition, were written to summarise the conclusions which emerged from such periods of doctrinal controversy. They need to be understood in this context, as I have previously argued. None of these three state everything that was believed by orthodox Christians at the time, but they concentrate on the truth of Scripture as against the prevailing heresies of the day. The later Confessions of the denominations which emerged from the Reformation are more comprehensive. This is because many more doctrines had been thought about in detail in the interim and some represented a significant contrast to the teachings of the medieval Roman Catholic church. On the doctrines of Scripture, the Godhead, Jesus Christ, and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone they are in agreement. They disagree chiefly on things like the nature of the Lord’s supper and baptism and the nature and government of the church, because those were the big controversies of that era. (The Christadelphian Statement of Faith and list of Doctrines to be Rejected is also a document of its time, addressing the issues which early Christadelphians believed are fundamental and in which they differ from the “churches.”) Sometimes the creeds and confessions stated doctrines to be rejected, for example the anathematisation of Arianism in the addendum to the Nicene Creed. This can be open to misinterpretation if the nature of those controversial views is not understood. (The Christadelphian list of doctrines to be rejected has 35 elements because their doctrines are so distinct from those of mainstream Christians and other post-Enlightenment sects.)
In conclusion, doctrinal development throughout the history of the church is not to be dismissed as consistently divergent from Scripture, but as the natural expansion of thought in the context of the church’s growth, encounters with alternative ideas and heresies and the ongoing desire to explore the richness of God’s truth. Certainly there were divergences from truth heading into the dark ages, but the doctrine of the triune nature of God and the divinity of Christ can readily be shown to be among the earliest and most consistent beliefs. There is a clear continuity of thought from the apostolic period through the early church as it began to wrestle in a deeper sense with the questions evoked by a confession of Christ as Lord and God (John 20:28; Rom 10:9). To “search the scriptures” and appreciate their riches (Psa 119:97–105; Prov 25:2; Acts 17:11; 2 Tim 3:14–17) has always been the duty and delight of God’s people.
Donald K. McKim, Theological Turning Points: Major issues in Christian Thought. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988). A very readable explanation of the development of major Christian doctrines and the controversies that marked turning points n Christian thought. The first two chapters, “Trinitarian Controversy: Who is God?” and “Christological Controversy: Who is Jesus Christ?” are particularly relevant to our current discussion.
Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012) Holmes explores the whole 2000 year history of the doctrine of God and challenges some recent interpretations.
Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ: Did the early Christians misrepresent Jesus? (UK: Mentor, 1997). Focuses on the first five centuries of development of the doctrine of the Trinity and person of Christ.