By Bro. Thomas Weisser
Thomas Weisser is pastor of Independence United Pentecostal Church in Monmouth, OR and has served on the youth committee of the Oregon District. A graduate of Apostolic Bible Institute, he has written three books. He has also conducted Oneness Heritage seminars in a number of churches in Oregon and California.
What was the Early Church like? The answer varies from church to church. to a Catholic, the answer is Catholic - with Peter sitting in the Pontiff's chair. To a Protestant, Peter was a Luther-like figure preaching justification by faith alone. Some concepts of the Early Church are ridiculous. It is important for us to have a clear picture.
Just as the Law was instituted at Sinai and remained the unchanging ideal for Jews, so with Pentecost (Acts 2) and the Church. Early Christianity, rather than being primitive, presents to us an ideal to be sought after.
Many conceptualize the church of the first century as unorganized charismatic groups with myriad variations in doctrines. The New Testament strongly disagrees with this assessment. An objective reader will conclude the Early Church was organized and had a developed faith.
The question we are primarily concerned with is: What was this faith in regards to God? Historical evidence points to a conclusion that the Early Church was not Trinitarian. What was it then? Significant facts point to it being Modalist.
"There is little doubt that baptism was practiced by the first Christians as a kind of initiatory rite, when they received new believers into their community. Also, we can be quite certain that this baptism was given 'into the name of Jesus' or, at least, that it was referred to as 'into the name of Jesus'"1 This is a quote from a recent issue of Studia Theologica by Lars Hartman. He goes on to say this baptism " implied a rather 'high' Christology"2 on the part of early Christians.
E. C. Whitaker writes, "Similarly, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in the middle of the second century, Thecla is represented as baptizing herself and saying, 'In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize myself for the last day.' If we may assume that we have here a case of the formula in ordinary use adapted to extraordinary circumstances, then it appears that the formula in ordinary use must have been 'I baptize thee in the name of Jesus Christ.' This not only brings our evidence for a baptismal formula of this type to a very early date; it also strengthens the view, suggested in the Acts of the Apostles, that an invocation of Jesus Christ had a place in the baptismal practice of the Early Church."3
A modern Oneness or Modalist believer welcomes the above statements from the theological community. The records of the Acts of the Apostles clearly point to baptism in Jesus' name as the universal practice of the Early Church.4
This not only implies an advanced Christology as Hartman supposes. It also strongly implies something that most theologians and historians have missed: the Early Church was Modalist. Instead of attaching three personalities to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost they recognized them as three modes, or manifestations, of the One God. The saving name they gave to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost was Jesus. Indeed, this idea is not foreign to the New Testament for Jesus identified Himself with all three titles.5
The next question that comes to mind is: What about Matthew 28:19? This verse of Scripture simply says to baptize "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost".6 This really does no more than strengthen the Modalist stand. For it is obvious that, if these words did indeed come from Christ, the Apostles interpreted them the way a Modalist would; i.e. to baptize in the name of Jesus Christ. The only reasonable and logical explanation for the difference between Matthew 28:19 and Acts is that the Early Church was Modalist.
The Didache is an ancient writing attributed to the Apostles. Since the discovery of an eleventh-century copy of it in 1875, it has been the subject of great controversy. Various dates have been ascribed to it and authorities have yet to agree on a date.7 The problem that we must consider is that some say it was written in the first century.
The particular part we are concerned with is Didache 7:
But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize. Having first recited all these things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water; and if thou art not able in cold then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.8
Many Trinitarians claim this proves the Early Church was Trinitarian. Let us first consider that we are dealing with a forgery. Although it is ascribed to the Apostles they probably never saw it.
Secondly, the internal evidence points to Didache 7 as an interpolation, or later addition. In Didache 9, which deals with communion, the writer says, "But let no one eat or drink of this eucharistic thanksgiving, but they that have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord hath said: Give not that which is holy to the dogs."9 Shortly after saying baptism should be performed in the titles Father, Son and Holy Spirit he states the absolute necessity of being baptized in the name of the Lord (i.e. Jesus - the same Greek word as in Acts 10:48). This represents an obvious contradiction and gives validity to the argument Didache 7 is an interpolation.
Thirdly, the writer's approval of baptism by pouring presents a problem with dating it in the first century. Bigg points out that this must have been written after AD 250.10 He argues that pouring was generally unacceptable in baptism as late as Cyprian (c. 250).11 Therefore, Didache 7 could be no earlier than the late third century.
Baptism in the Early Church (first century) was in the name of Jesus Christ. The Apparent contradiction of Matthew 28:19 is clarified when we consider that the Early Church was Modalist. Didache 7 is an interpolation written no earlier than the late third century.
A popular term for the Early Church is primitive. The implication is that it was destined to become sophisticated as time passed. This does not agree with New Testament writings.
We read there was an established, recognized faith.12 This faith was established "upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone."13 And this faith once delivered to the saints should be sought after.14
The general idea of an evolving or formulating faith holds no credence with the New Testament.
Harold O. J. Brown in his recent book heresies says, "It is a simple and undeniable historical fact that...the doctrine of the Trinity...was not present in a full and well defined, generally accepted form until the fourth or fifth centuries."15 The written evidence points to a gradual development of Trinitarianism from the descending triad of Tertullian to the three co-equal, co-eternal persons of the Athanasian Creed.
Even Fortman states, "There is no formal doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament writers, if this means an explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons."16 The question comes to mind, "If the first century Church did not give us written evidence they were Trinitarian how can we assume they were?" Certainly any one of the New Testament writers were capable of expressing basic Trinitarian dogma. If they were not, then God, whose thoughts are above ours, could have inspired them to articulate it.
A casual reader of the New Testament is able to conclude no real problem existed concerning the Godhead. John warned about those who denied Jesus is the Christ17 and Jude warned about men who denied the Lord,18 but these men had obviously left the Church. Even the strong language of the first three chapters of Revelation does not reveal a problem with first century belief concerning the Godhead. It appears that beleif in One Lord had been established and that the titles Father, Son and Holy Spirit presented no problem.
On the other hand, if the New Testament is inspired and prophetic as any fundamentalist trinitarian would agree, something is missing. Where is there any indication that a greater understanding of the Godhead would follow? I find none, and certainly this presents a tremendous obstacle for the fundamental trinitarian.
While the Church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles [New Testament] and prophets [Old Testament]"19 and not Chalcedon, it is amazing how freely Trinitarians lean on this post-apostolic creed. Whenever we read in the New Testament about the future it is a gloomy picture.
Paul wrote to Timothy, "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter [following] times some shall depart from the faith giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils."20 Immediately before this Paul emphasized that "God was manifest in the flesh".21 Again he said, "The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."22
Jude tells us of "mockers" (deriders) who have seperated themselves and given themselves to their natural senses.23 A perfect example of this deriding carnal behavior can be seen in Tertullian. His Against Praxeas fulfills Jude's prophecy. We are talking about the father of the Trinity.
The problem a Trinitarian faces is that there is no indication of developed Trinitarianism in the New Testament. Many try to overcome this by saying Trinitarianism was implicitly believed. This cannot be proved or disproved but there is no reason, if it is true, why God would keep it a secret for decades, especially if its belief is a prerequisite to salvation as the Athanasian Creed brazenly says.
Beware lest any man spoil you [take you captive] through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth [keeps dwelling] all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.24 [John's note: The word dwelleth actually means "takes up permanent residence"]Paul here explicitly mentioned philosophy as something that would take a believer away from Christ. The philosophy Paul was talking about here is the philosophy of men as opposed to the truth of God. Apparently, he was warning that the philosophy of men could rob the church of an understanding that the fulness of the Godhead is in Christ.
The predominant philosophy of the third and fourth centuries in the Roman Empire was Neoplatonic. It was begun by Plotinus, who was not a Christian. In the early third century this phiilosophy grew tremendously throughout the Empire. At first it was the greatest antagonist to Christianity. Later, it actually became assimilated into the Catholic Church, and a union shown in the creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries was the result. That this philosophy had a tremendous impact on the formulation of Trinitarian thinking is supported by many sources.
Platonism had a marked influence on Christianity. It entered from many channels, among them the Hellenistic Jew Philo, who was utilized by some early Christian writers, and through Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and the writings which bore the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. The term Logos, which was extensively employed by Christians as they thought about the relationship of Christ to God, came from Greek philosophy, perhaps by way of both Stoicism and Platonism.25
From the middle of the fourth century onward, however, Christian thought was strongly influenced by Neo-Platonic philosophy and mysticism. In the East Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Synesius of Cyrene, and Nenesius of Emesa and, in the West, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, and Augustine made abundant use of Plotinus or Porphory, frequently without citing them...The encounter between Neoplatonism and Christianity thus conditions the entire history of Western philosophy.26
The dogma of the Trinity and the drama of the redemption must be interpreted in a manner that would be consistent with this priori definition of the deity of God [one essence, three persons]. Neoplatonic elements were unmistakably present in this definition, but in setting it forth Augustine believed himself to be - and he was - expressing the Catholic creed.27
The Catholic creed of the trinity is not the belief of the Early Church. The Logos Christology of the philosophers (most of the Fathers fit under this description) fell far short of early Christian Christology.
Many Trinitarians agree with the historical fact that Trinitarianism evolved or was formulated. The irony is that after admitting this, they continue to say that Trinitarianism is a Bible doctrine. Both these could not be true. Either the Trinity was developed or it was there all the time.
The fact is that it appeared after the New Testament was written. Another fact is that Jude exhorted us to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints."28 Jude was written c. AD 80 and he was telling us to look back to the beginning of the Church (i.e. Acts). Trinitarians are telling us to look ahead from Early Christianity to the Creeds of Nicea, Chalcedon, and so on. Which voice will we heed?
Some Trinitarians claim that because the canonizers were Trinitarian the writers of the New Testament were also. They assume the approval placed upon the New Testament by Trinitarians implies strongly that the first century Church was Trinitarian. I imagine the implication is that had the writers not been Trinitarian the canonizers would have disapproved.
This may sound good to someone trying to prove the Early Church was Trinitarian. Before we jump to conclusions, let us see what a few Trinitarians say about the canon:
The church councils only acted at a later time, when the decisions had already been made in a practical way.29
The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.30
we never find a church council saying in effect, "We have reviewed this writing and found it to be good; henceforth, it will be considered part of the canon." Instead of conferring canonicity on a book, the pronouncements were always statements of recognizing what the scattered congregations already considered canonical.31
the Catholics, of course, conceive the canonizers as a special breed on a par with the Apostles. The general Protestant position is that the canonizers approved books already accepted as divinely inspired (except when attacking the Oneness position). The latter is a more accurate assumption. But even though the canonizers were Trinitarian what does it prove? It certainly does not necessitate the New Testament being Trinitarian. It is hard to prove anything by association. Any prosecutor who tries to prove a man guilty simply because he was in the vicinity of the crime is going to lose his case.
Considering the canonizers, an interesting comparison can be seen in Scripture. The main duty of scribes in Jesus' day was to copy and therefore preserve the Old Testament. Jesus said, "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not."32 Jesus continued His discourse on scribes by saying they were "hypocrites, fools, blind, whited sepulchres, full of iniquity."33 He ended by asking the question, "How can ye escape the damnation of hell?"34
Clearly, just because the scribes were preserving Scripture did not make them holy or even good judges of holiness for themselves. If this was true for the scribes it could also be true of the canonizers.
In conclusion let us examine our reasons for the Early Church being Oneness or Modalist as opposed to Trinitarian.