Video Transcript: Unit 2 Lecture 3
Here is a difficult question to answer: How does Christianity relate to other faiths? What makes the Christian faith unique? How is the faith that has been handed down to us different from the faith that has been handed down in other religions?
We need to examine how the early church dealt with that difficult question. For from its very beginning the church has had to distinguish between what is faithful to the Holy Word of God and what is divergent from God's Word. The early church had to stake out a position that said, this is what we believe and how it is expressed and that is not what the Christian church believes.
There is considerable debate in church history circles as to the origins of a very early problem in the churches with regard to what is known as Gnosticism. Paul's letter to the Colossians which we referred to last week when speaking of the mystery religions of Greek origins also has a hint of a problem with what we today call Gnosticism.
The Christian Gnosticism may have been developed by the Simon Magus we find in the book of Acts. Gnosticism itself had a much earlier origin, but there is some evidence that Simon was so disappointed with peter's rebuke when he asked to buy the ability to give the Holy Spirit to others that he decided he would be a teacher of Christianity as he understood it. What that led to was the first of the heresies that the church had to deal with.
Christian Gnosticism had a variety of main teachings:
1.Everything that is physical and tangible is evil. What that meant for the church was that these teachers were saying that God could not have been the creator of the heavens AND the earth because the earth was physical.
2.Further, since everything that is physical was evil, Jesus did not become a human being as we are. They taught that it was a sub-God that entered Jesus at his baptism and left him before he died. This was because God could not have anything to do with death and dying.
3.The hope of salvation was that a person's spirit could escape from the physical body in order to return to the father of spirits. The whole concept of a resurrection was not possible since no one would want to have a physical body in heaven. In fact, no one could have a physical body in heaven since that would entail bringing the evil physical matter into the holy spiritual realm.
4.Simon and his followers would only teach this to others if they were paid a sum of money and would promise not to divulge the secrets of the faith. As such, they bore a great resemblance to the mystery religions and their practices. Simon is regarded by all the church fathers as the one who first started the idea that Christianity could be combined with the faiths that were found around them. He is the father of heresy. His influence is still seen today in the many ways that people want to take the Christian faith and make it into a different form of a faith that someone already has.
Another branch in the Christian church which slowly gave way to history was a group called the Nazarenes. These are not the Nazarene denomination of today. Rather these were people who held both the Jewish faith and customs and the Christian faith. Here are some idea of what the Nazarenes taught as described by the church father Jerome.
·in Jesus as Messiah:
The Nazarenes... accept Messiah in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law.
--Jerome, On. Is. 8:14
·in the Virgin Birth:
They believe thatMessiah, theSon of God, was born of the Virgin Mary.
--Jerome, Letter 75 Jerome to Augustine
·in Jesus as the Son of God:
Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Cæsarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Saviour quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew. Wherefore these two forms exist "Out of Egypt have I called my son,” and "for he shall be called a Nazarene.”
--Jerome, Lives of Illustrius Men Ch.3
Another church father who records information about the Nazarenes was Epiphanius of Salamis. He tells us these things
They have no different ideas, but confess everything exactly as the Law proclaims it and in the Jewish fashion - except for their belief in Christ, if you please! For they acknowledge both the resurrection of the dead and the divine creation of all things, and declare that God is one, and that his Son is Jesus Christ.
--Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2
·Adhering to circumcision and the Law of Moses:
They disagree with Jews because they have come to faith in Christ; but since they are still fettered by the Law - circumcision, the Sabbath, and the rest - they are not in accord with the Christians.
--Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.4
·Use of Old Testament and New Testament:
They use not only the New Testament but the Old Testament as well, as the Jews do.
--Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.7.2
·Use of Hebrew and Aramaic New Testament source texts:
They have the Gospel according to Matthew in its entirety in Hebrew. For it is clear that they still preserve this, in the Hebrew alphabet, as it was originally written.
--Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 29.9.4
The last group I want to point out to you is the group that we might call the Christian descendants of the Pharisees. They were known as the Ebionites which means the Poor Ones. They were intent on teaching that Jesus was a man just like any of us. His Messiahship came about because he was the one person who perfectly obeyed God and so showed us all the way to do so.
In their teaching Jesus was not the son of God. He was instead a good example for us to follow. But the key to salvation was in keeping the Law of Moses perfectly. So all the ceremonial laws were carefully observed. And they were convinced of the necessity of a ritual immersion in water as often as possible for the forgiveness of sins. Their importance stems from the idea that they attempted to bring a Jewish flavor to Christianity and impose on all the believers the idea that only those who fully converted to Judaism could possibly be Christians. All others were lacking.
These are only a few ideas from ancient history. But they show that the evil one has been busy right from the beginning of the church to tempt the followers of Jesus to turn away from a faith that is from God and that righteousness is from God from first to last. Instead the evil one wants us to think of ways to make sure that we can do this or that in order to be saved. It becomes our task to walk in the right way or God will refuse to save us. But the Scriptures which have guided the church in the truth of God for all the ages reminds us that Jesus is the Savior. In him alone can we find our hope of glory. May that be our desire as we live for him.