Dan Popp
The early church
A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers
By Dan Popp
September 16, 2009

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter. —
Proverbs 25:2, NASB

This is not all Dan Brown's fault.

By the time The Da Vinci Code became popular I had already heard plenty of slander against the early church:

The "Trinity" was invented by the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Constantine banned books from the Bible.

Paul changed the gospel.

Jesus is cool, but the disciples misunderstood his message.

There are lots of errors in the Bible.

The gospel was lost in the first century.

There were many valid expressions of Christianity until Rome crushed them.

That kind of thing. Brown's self-indulgent fantasy was merely the last straw. It launched my safari into the writings of the leaders of the infant church. After all, we don't need to speculate as to what happened way back then; we have primary source documents, and lots of them, translated into English. The world of the early Christians isn't dark and mysterious, except to those who prefer a mediocre yarn to the facts.

So I bought The Ante Nicene Fathers and began to read. It's a 9-volume collection (plus index) of nearly all the surviving Christian literature from the days of the Apostles to the Council of Nicaea. You can find the texts online for free — I just happen to prefer printed books.

From time to time, interspersed with articles of the more usual kind, I hope to bring you a series on what I found — Lord (and the Editor) willing. And what I found was sometimes tedious, sometimes surprising; sometimes profound, sometimes mundane; sometimes dismaying, sometimes inspiring; and occasionally beautiful.

Now, some readers may question my credentials for presenting such a series. I'm not a theologian. I have no training other than many years of amateur Bible study and a few haphazardly-chosen history books. But while my gleanings from the texts in The Ante Nicene Fathers must fall very far short of a good seminary course, they're not nothing. Even as untrained laymen, we can observe, for instance, whether a certain topic is present or absent. If someone says, "The early Christians didn't believe in hell," we can open the books to almost any page and find references to the "eternal fire" of "punishment for the unrighteous." It's there. If someone accuses our ancient brethren of misogyny, we can note the absence of any evidence for that charge.

Beyond that, even the untutored can sense differences between how the first- and second-century Christians perceived a matter, and how we talk about it today. We can learn what they said, what they believed, what they did. We can find out what their battles were, and how they fought them.

Are you curious to know whether the early church baptized infants? What they thought happened to the bread and the wine? What kind of leadership they had? How they felt about abortion? How they anticipated the Lord's return? I hope to bring you articles on those and other issues, starting with a piece on The Early Church and the Trinity.

A good storyteller wouldn't break the suspense, but I'll let the cat out of the bag right now: Jesus and Mary Magdalene don't have offspring living in France. There isn't any evidence in the written record of suppressed goddess-worship in the early church. The true story is much more engaging than that.

As I read The Ante Nicene Fathers, my own faith was confirmed in a lot of ways. My brothers and sisters who lived long ago and far away cherished the same faith in the very same Christ that I know. Yet I did encounter some surprises in their practices, and these revelations have left me even less satisfied with contemporary American expressions of Christianity. Not all my questions about them have been answered. Some matters were unclear to them, too. Nor were they immune to error. When we read the words of ancient Christians I think we should resist the urge to romanticize; we aren't looking inside a perfect church — just the church closer to its founding.

What really happened in the first few centuries of Christianity? If you're curious — and for some odd reason unwilling to take Dan Brown's word for it — I hope you'll join my little expedition back to The Early Church.

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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