Thinking about Salvation in Early Christianity (Part I)

diamaid-macculloch-christianityBy the early fourth century, the Christianity had spread across the Roman world with surprising speed, tenacity, and relative uniformity of belief. While the early Church was by no means completely uniform in doctrine, belief, or practice, the vast majority of Christians professed what has become known as Christian Orthodoxy.[1] Heresies such as Docetism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism, while threatening the fledgling Church, were never serious threats in the way that the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries were. Chief among the divisions in the fourth century was the question of the deity of Jesus of Nazareth:[2] was the founder of the Church human? Was He divine? Was He somehow both? The answer to this question was important for historical reasons, but was even more important for its soteriological implications.

Soteriology is quite literally “the doctrine of salvation.”[3] But by the fourth century, there were many doctrines of salvation. Some Christians, such as Paul of Samosata, denied that Jesus was fully divine; the Gnostics denied that Jesus was actually human; Arius proclaimed that while Jesus was God, He was created and not eternal. Within this debate about the divinity of Christ, salvation became a very important concern, as the various sides of the debate used soteriology to provide support for their respective positions.[4] The kerygma (proclamation) of Christianity had always centered on Jesus Christ as the source of the good news of the true God and salvation for all who believed in Him.[5] It is not surprising, therefore, to see that in the midst of even the most technical and philosophical debates, the early Church was greatly concerned with understanding the soteriological implications of orthodox Christian Christology.[6] Since each competing Christological claim appealed to the words of scripture for support, the Church looked to their history in order to answer the question of what salvation mean for earlier followers of Jesus.

The Early Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers

Making sense of pre-Nicene writings on soteriology does not come easy, in large part due to the context of the pre-Nicene Fathers, who were often far more concerned with addressing a specific question or theological position than outlining a systematic doctrine of salvation.[7] Because of the “occasional” nature of most early Christian writings (including those now found in the New Testament), the formation of specific salvation-related doctrine took a relatively long period of time. J.N.D. Kelly writes that, “Indeed, while the conviction of redemption through Christ has always been the motive force of Christian faith, no final and universally accepted definition has been formulated to this day.”[8] While this does not mean that specific ideas (doctrines) concerning salvation were not held by the earliest followers of Jesus, it is clear from a historical review that they were concerned more with other issues (such as the propagation of the news of Christ’s resurrection) than with the development of soteriological doctrine. For example, the notion of atonement, that Christ took sins of humanity upon Himself in order to make them right before God, is attested among the writings of the earliest Church Fathers, though the focus of these statements tends to involve the central salvific elements (the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord) than issues of sin, atonement and what it means to be “saved.”[9]

The second century saw the rise of the Apologists and with them a more systemized view of salvation, including an emphasis on body-soul duality, reflections regarding human nature, the impact of Adam’s sin of human freedom, and the importance of Christ’s work on the cross.[10] Following the lead of the Apostle Paul, many of the Church Fathers viewed Christ as the second Adam, who obeyed God where the first Adam had disobeyed and fallen.[11] As early as Justine Martyr (d. 165 CE) and Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202 CE) we see the importance of a Pauline soteriology within the Church.[12] Questions still remained about the specific roles of God and humanity within the working out of salvation, though many early Christians appear to have viewed this relationship as no large problem. Maurice Wiles writes that for the Early Church Fathers, “the initial, objective saving act of Christ, the preaching of the word calling forth the response of faith, even the endowment of man with freedom of the will which makes a response of faith a meaningful possibility –all these were evidences of the prior working of the grace of God to which the man who responds contributes nothing. The response of faith alone was man’s part. It might be only a small thing, no greater than a grain of mustard seed. But it at least must be man’s part.”[13]


[1] Maurice Wiles. The Making of Christian Doctrine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 94. [2] Roger E. Olson. The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999. 151. [3] Oxford Dictionaries. “Soteriology”. Oxford University Press, – 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2011. [4] Maurice Wiles. The Christian Fathers. London: SCM Press, 1966. 83-6. [5] Wiles, Doctrine, 95. [6] Ibid. [7] J.W.C. Wand. A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500. London: Routledge, 1994. 66-142. [8] J.N.D. Kelly. Early Christian Doctrines. Fifth ed. London: Continuum, 2009. 163. [9] Ibid., 164-5. [10] Ibid., 166-170. [11] Wiles, Fathers, 101. [12] Kelly, 170-2. [13] Wiles, Fathers, 104-5.

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