Many Christians today long for a time when the Church was purer in doctrine and more pious in practice, when “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). The first five “Christian centuries”—the five hundred years after the Lord’s ascension—seem like a time when this dream was a reality. Yet we find the same problems then as now: political and cultural pressure, moral bankruptcy, and endless controversies over the teaching of Scripture.
This first article addresses this last problem. What was to blame for all the controversies in the early Church? It depends on whom you consult.
Many experts say that Christian doctrine developed during this time. At first, there was a variety of doctrines—until men stepped in. Men invented the Trinity and defined who Jesus was. Men decided which books belonged in the Bible and which ones didn’t. Without the work of men, there would be no unity of doctrine, and no possibility of unity, because the Bible did not provide it. As one expert puts it: “Many suppose the Bible is a seamless garment of God’s literal pronouncements from Genesis through Revelation. It is not.” There are as many doctrines as there are men who wrote the Bible. When disagreements arise, the fault is not in ourselves, but in our Scriptures.
But what do those Scriptures say? Around the year 67, as he prepared to die for his faith, St. Peter wrote, Count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16 ESV). This is a remarkable passage for three reasons. First, the two apostles had disagreed sharply several years before. Peter had begun to confuse faith with works and Paul confronted him publicly. This passage shows that Peter repented and was reconciled to Paul. Second, it states that controversies come because men distort the Word of God to suit themselves. Third, the epistles of St. Paul, at this early date, are counted equal to “the other Scriptures.” The word of the prophets and the word of the apostles are both God’s Word. Both Testaments are inspired of God and united in proclaiming Jesus Christ the Savior.
God guaranteed the unity of Scripture in the Old Testament: “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:39 ESV). In the New Testament, Paul wrote that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Through baptism, we are united in the death and resurrection of Jesus. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:19-20 ESV).
Through the unity of the Scriptures, God reveals the unity He desires with us. His Son promised that those who listen to His voice “shall be one fold” under “one shepherd” (John 10:16 KJV). By His Word, the Spirit gathers sinners into the “one holy Christian and Apostolic Church” and “keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith” (Explanation to the Third Article). The desire for reunion with the one Apostolic Church has already been granted—it is ours by faith!
You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Peter 3:17-18 ESV). Jesus Himself promises that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). He is the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life.
As we walk through these first five Christian centuries together, the Holy Scriptures will be our unfailing guide. They are the fountainhead of pure doctrine, the seamless robe woven in one piece from top to bottom around the Person of Jesus Christ.
For further reading: Luke 24:36-49; John 17:20-26; John 19:23-24; Galatians 1:6-2:16; 2 Peter 1:16-21.
Rev. Christian Eisenbeis
First Trinity Lutheran Church