What Can We Learn from the Ancient Church?

by Stefana Dan Laing

Antiquity is Trending. A look back into ancient Christianity is a fascinating journey. The early church produced colorful personalities, foundational theology and varieties of devotional practice. The richness of its catechetical instruction, liturgical practice and iconography can stir us to desire an encounter with God using ancient modes of study and worship. Some see that period as a kind of Golden Age of strong, stalwart martyrs, fiery apologists, extraordinary (meaning “eccentric”) ascetics and eloquent preachers, perhaps wanting to appropriate aspects of the early church uncritically. Others believe that the early church is too far removed historically and culturally for retrieval, and perhaps some of the early church’s practices and teachings even conflict with Protestant commitments. Nonetheless, it is possible to retrieve something valuable from the early Christians. A movement gaining popularity among evangelicals is the “retrieval and renewal” movement, pioneered by Baylor professor Daniel H. Williams, who sees the sources available from the church fathers as resources for the renewal of the contemporary church.[1] So what can the contemporary church learn from the ancient church of the Lord Jesus Christ?

1. Love Jesus supremely

In Phil. 3:10-11, Paul writes of his desire to know Jesus and the fellowship of his sufferings, to become like Him in His death, but also to know the power of the resurrection. A basic tenet of discipleship for early Christians was the “imitation of Christ” (imitatio Christi), a distinctive feature of all the church’s generations, from the first disciples and martyrs to the second- and third-century suffering church, including figures like the teacher Origen, the bishops Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, the youthful and intrepid visionary Perpetua and her equally brave servant Felicitas, Phileas the Egyptian bishop and many others. This trait continued into the centuries after the toleration of Christianity, reflected among the desert ascetics (a term that means something like “athletes in training”) like Antony the Egyptian hermit, among the stable domestic ascetics like Macrina and Peter (sister and brother of the great Cappadocians Gregory of Nyssa and Basil of Caesarea), and among the ascetic-minded pilgrims, theologians and non-cloistered believers like Melania of Rome, who were driven to serve and sacrifice, by the “wound of love” for Jesus and by their desire for union with the beautiful Heavenly Bridegroom.[2] Antony, for example, taught his disciples that at the core of their monastic endeavors there should exist a powerful love for Jesus and that they should not “prefer anything in the world to the love of Christ.”[3]

Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus in Syria composed in the fifth century a History of the Monks of Syria, ending with an epilogue entitled “On Divine Love.” He explains that, inspired by the Bride in the Song of Songs, ascetics read Jesus’s words, but also longed to hear His voice and see His face; that is, to receive a vision of Him.[4] Theodoret’s extended conclusion clarifies the impulse of the ascetic, monastic, and contemplative vocation: love for Jesus. Divine love for Jesus is a “wound,” a “goad” and a “spark” that bursts into flame fueling the life of discipleship longer the more time a believer engages the Lord through the Scriptures and holy contemplation. “Let us too conceive this longing,” Theodoret writes, “let us become bewitched by the beauty of the Bridegroom, . . . and so in our love be maintainers of his laws.”[5] Love for Jesus was not only the driving impulse but also the goal of the ascetic life. Let us at the core of our discipleship love Jesus fervently—let us love the Master and be driven to service and self-sacrifice by this love.

2. Know the Scriptures and the fundamentals of the Christian faith

We have a great advantage today over the early believers. In our country there are Bibles aplenty, and we can own multiple copies in different formats, with a specialized focus and various study aids. In the first few centuries, however, “bibles” as we know them now, were unavailable. The church did place a strong emphasis on the apostolic preaching and the Rule of Faith, which summarized the basic tenets of the Christian faith before the production and promulgation of the Nicene Creed (AD 325). The use of the Creed as a baseline enabled believers to engage outsiders evangelistically, and to protect their church fellowship in love and truth. For example, in his work Against Heresies, the bishop Irenaeus roundly criticized Gnostics of all stripes for misinterpreting the Scriptures to suit their own theological myth. Indeed, in earlier centuries, the young pastor, Timothy, had received encouragement from his mentor, the apostle Paul, to “guard the deposit” in the context of warning against false teachers who have “swerved from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20-21) and who have misled other believers (2 Tim. 2:16-18). Paul emphasized that Timothy was to know and teach “sound doctrine” to protect other believers within the fellowship and to also correct opponents hoping that they will return to a sound faith (2 Tim. 2:25-26).

Sometimes arguing with detractors took on an urgent or even polemical tone, and in the periods of persecution, accusations often meant that lives were at stake. Even in the New Testament, portions of Galatians, 2 John and Jude speak harshly against false teachers. Bishop Irenaeus nonetheless indicates that out of love, these corrective arguments constitute a desire for false teachers to come around to sound doctrine, and so we “hold out our hand to them,” hoping they will be turned back by God.[6] The apologists’ ministry was important both inside and outside the church, and the foundation of their work was sound doctrine, along with knowing and understanding their culture and engaging it willingly. Knowledge of the faith came through rehearsing and memorizing the Rule of Faith and later the Creed, reinforced by strong biblical and doctrinal preaching and through catechesis of baptismal candidates, a catechesis that was mainly an exposition of the Creed. Even today, teaching the Nicene Creed as an expression of our biblical faith is essential for discipleship inside the church, as well as for evangelistic engagement outside our walls.

3. Live in a heavenly mindset

Often we hear the saying that someone is so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good. Actually the spiritual directors of the early church encouraged a heavenly cast of mind, which could produce quite a lot of earthly good. For example, if one dwells on God, His Word and the ideals of the kingdom, one is more likely to live out these ideals in daily life. This mindset impacts our understanding of (among other things) family, no longer defined as just our own parents and siblings, but we also see “apostles, prophets and martyrs” and believers of all ages in the church’s history as our family members. Jesus’s view of “family” certainly extended beyond Mary and His siblings, to include “whoever does the will of God” (Mk. 3:33-35), continuing, “he is my brother and sister and mother.” Our definition of family expands to include others who uphold the values of our Father’s household. When Phileas of Thmuis was on trial (AD 305), the court authorities tried to coerce him to deny his faith by having his family attend court to distress him emotionally. However, the account of his trial indicates that he was like a rock, “claiming that the apostles and martyrs were his kin.”[7]

Living in a heavenly mindset is a choice, and it admits the conclusion that the believer lives in two realms, the earthly and heavenly, simultaneously. That realization of earthly residence with heavenly citizenship (as in Augustine’s magisterial apology) impacts our view of life as we know it. Our view of earthly pleasures, possessions, government, the church and a future we anticipate are all impacted. Earthly pleasures and goods are to be held lightly; they are temporary and not to be loved as 1 John 2:15-17 admonishes us. Many early Christians took this admonition to heart and were also convicted by Jesus’s words to the rich young man in Mark 10:21, and His exclamation in 10:23, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” For example, Melania the Younger and her husband, Pinian, teach us to be insanely generous. Seriously. Their wealth (mostly in real estate) was so great that it spread out over several provinces. When they tried to sell it off and give the money to various church ministries, their family got the government involved to prevent them from doing so. Their attempt to give away such a huge inheritance was considered an act of sheer insanity. The couple’s mindset, that all their goods belonged to the Lord, was spurring them to amazing acts of philanthropy. They had become detached from earthly goods so they could be generous. This couple gave away enormous sums to churches, monastic houses and impoverished communities, including—among others—the church and community of Augustine’s friend Alypius, who later was consecrated bishop of a church in Thagaste, Augustine's hometown.[8]

Indeed, the New Testament gives the injunction not to “love the world” because it is “passing away” (1 Cor. 7, 1 Jn. 2) and is under the sway of “the ruler of this world” (Jn. 12:31, 14:30). In this view, the world is fallen, broken, imperfect and often constitutes the nexus of spiritual warfare when earthly and heavenly priorities clash. This was the Christians’ view as they faced government-sponsored persecution for refusing to worship Caesar, calling Christ Lord instead. As the apologists explained, Christians understood persecution as stemming from the devil and his demons; demonic powers were behind idol worship, and they deceived earthly rulers into warring against the church.[9] Christians also held a view of time and power in which Caesar’s reign was limited and temporal, by contrast to the true Sovereign, Christ, who reigned eternally in heaven. This concept emerges like a “tagline” in a number of martyrdom accounts, conveying something like Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days who rules sovereignly and unopposed by the earthly kings who come and go (Dn. 7:13-14, 26-27).[10] Interestingly, this concept emerged powerfully during and after the 2016 national election.[11]

Because this world is under the devil’s sway, no earthly institution can provide perfect justice, harmony and peace. In the face of contentious elections and critical Supreme Court rulings, we should pray for justice and righteousness but should not expect it; it is fully certain only in God’s kingdom in the Heavenly City, when every citizen has been transformed by the Holy Spirit from the inside out. This future and eternal state of righteousness constitutes the consummation of the Christian life and human history, and it is our destiny.[12] In the meantime, between creation, re-creation, and final telos, operating within an early Christian metaphysical framework, we get a sense of what disciples of Jesus can realistically expect in this life: houses, lands, brothers, sisters, children, mothers, “with persecutions” (Mk. 10:29-30), and the latter is mentioned in other New Testament contexts as well. However, we can also expect the comforting presence of Jesus, the heavenly Bridegroom with us; the love of God “in Christ” to be inseparable from us; the knowledge of God’s sovereign rule over all, guiding history to its ordained telos; and the ever-present Holy Spirit who teaches, guides and sanctifies us, and convicts the world through our witness (our “martyria”)—whether we live or die. These aspects of a realistic discipleship were fully embraced by ancient believers.

4. Remember the saints

If there is one thing the Bible makes abundantly clear, it is that remembrance is not optional. The Lord consistently admonished Israel to remember Him and His covenant, the ancient paths of wisdom, and His mighty deeds of redemption on Israel’s behalf. Jesus commanded His disciples whenever they come together at table and in worship to remember Him and the new covenant He established by His blood. The New Testament witness reinforces this command (1 Cor. 11), and the later church prioritized the Lord’s Table, calling it the Great Eucharistia or Thanksgiving. Whenever the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, it remembers Jesus in the way He commanded, proclaiming His death and return, as well as the eschatological feast He will one day share with His church. During feasts of the church year like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, the great Lenten fast, Easter and Pentecost, we remember Christ by commemorating the events of His life. By remembering saints and martyrs, either on the anniversary of their martyrdom or at All Saints’ Day, we honor their lives as Christ’s followers who walked the path of self-denying discipleship before us and testified by their lives and deaths to their Lord. These ancient disciples, drawn from all walks of life, following and serving the Lord of the church in every era—these women and men constitute the “great cloud of witnesses” before whom we live out our own witness; and they also constitute—in the Nicene phrase—the “communion of the saints” with whom we will one day enjoy “life everlasting.”

In the meantime, we can retrieve these several aspects of the ancient church: love the Lord of the church supremely and imitate His example; know the Scripture and the sound faith passed down through the church’s creeds; live faithfully and courageously between earthly and heavenly realities; and remember the Lord and the communion of all His saints, together with whom we also are being built up as a holy temple and a dwelling place for God through the Spirit, founded on the work and witness of apostles and prophets, and held fast by the chief cornerstone, the living Lord of the church Himself (Eph. 2:20-22).

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Editor's Note: A version of this article originally appeared as "Retrieving the Early Church" in Beeson Magazine.

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1 See Daniel H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). This work subsequently spurred several more monographs in a series entitled Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future, edited by Williams and published by Baker Academic.

2 Gerontius, Life of Melania 1, in Vie de sainte Mélanie, (ed. and trans. D. Gorce; Paris: Cerf, 1962); English translation in Joan M. Petersen, Handmaids of the Lord: Holy Women in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1996), 313.

3 Athanasius, Life of Saint Antony, in Saint Antony of the Desert, (trans. J.B. McLaughlin; Rockford, IL: TAN, 1995), 19.

4 Theodoret of Cyrus, A History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus. (trans. R. M. Price; Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985), 193.

5 Ibid., A History of the Monks of Syria 21.

6 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.25.7.

7 Acts of Phileas 6.4 in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, vol. 2, (ed. and trans. H. Musurillo; Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 350-51.

8 Gerontius, Life of Melania 20-22.

9 Justin Martyr, First Apology, (ANF 1:57). Justin offers the same explanation during his trial.

10 Stefana Dan Laing, Retrieving History: Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 101-104.

11 For example, in October 2016, Max Lucado posted a piece entitled, "My prediction for November 9" at https://maxlucado.com/prediction-november-9/, stating that the day after the election "will bring another day of God's perfect sovereignty."

12 Augustine, City of God 19.13.