As we strive to fulfill the Great Commission in the first half of the 21st century, certain unprincipled leaders, propped up by Seminaries and Bible Colleges, are guiding the Christian church down the crooked paths of lawlessness, apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy. But what was the culture in the early church, perhaps during the time of the Apostolic Fathers who preserved the Apostles’ teachings and traditions between the time of Christ and the end of the second century? These include Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Heras, Papias and the anonymous authors of The Epistle to Diognetus, The Epistle of Barnabas and The Didachus. Perhaps the age of the Apostolic Fathers was a time of peace, tranquility, and fellowship in the Christian community. Perhaps that New Testament church was free of strife. Unfortunately, the Apostolic Fathers lived in a time of church turmoil and rebellion just like we face today.
One entity which was completely adversarial to the fundamentals of the Christian faith was the disparate community of Gnostics who thrived from the time of the crucifixion to at least the end of the age of the Apostolic Fathers. The term Gnostic is derived from gnosis, the ordinary Greek word for knowledge. The Gnostics claimed to possess a special knowledge which transcended the simple faith of the Church. This secret knowledge was about the nature and destiny of man, based on a grandiose revelation about the origin of evil and how the elect few might gain deliverance from it. In the elect, they believed, was a divine spark that had become imprisoned in matter and had lost its memory of its true, heavenly home – shades of John Calvin. Gnostic teaching was an attempt to rouse the soul from its sleep-walking condition and make it aware of the high destiny to which it is called. The natural order of things reflected nothing of the divine glory of heaven, so the Gnostic initiate was taught to acknowledge no responsibility for earthly things. The world was under the control of evil powers whose home was in seven planetary spheres. After death, the elect soul would be faced with a dangerous journey through the planetary spheres back to its heavenly home. Much time was spent, by Gnostic initiates, learning how to navigate this high-risk endeavor.
Gnostic teachings were so threatening to the Christian message that the Apostle John spoke against them (1 John 4:1-4). Gnostics offered many documents intended to supplement or replace the books of the Bible including The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of the Ebionites, The Gospel of Peter, The Acts of John and many others which have been thoroughly rejected by scholars and church councils alike because of their heretical message. Nevertheless, Gnostic teaching is promoted, even today, in ‘scholarly’ television documentaries; Gnostic teaching is supposed to reveal hidden truths about Jesus. However, all gnostic literature is classified as pseudepigrapha (false writings) by legitimate Christian scholars.
Marcion of Sinope (110 – 160 A.D.) was a particularly influential Gnostic who was, initially, a leader in the Christian church but who was excommunicated in 144 A.D. because of his heretical teaching. In the words of Henry Chadwick:
“He wrote a book entitled Antitheses (to which 1 Tim 6:20 could conceivably be an allusion) in which he listed contradictions between the Old and New Testaments to prove that the God of the Jews, the creator of this miserable world, was quite different from the God and Father of Jesus of whose existence the world had no inkling until the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar when Jesus suddenly appeared preaching the Gospel. It was inconceivable that the divine redeemer could ever have been born of a woman, and Marcion rejected the story of the birth and childhood of Christ as a falsification imposed on the authentic story.
Marcion’s attack on the status of the Old Testament depended on two axioms: the rejection of allegorical interpretation and the assertion that the first generation of Jewish Christians had misunderstood and misinterpreted the mind of Jesus. If allegory was disallowed, there was much in the Old Testament which appeared distressing. The God of the Jews, Marcion argued, was vacillating: after forbidding the making of images, he told Moses to set up a brazen serpent. He was ignorant: he had to ask Adam where he was and descended to Sodom and Gomorrah to discover what was going on. Moreover, as the creator of Adam he was responsible for the entrance of evil into the world. In one text of the Old Testament God himself confesses ‘I create evil.’ It was congruous, thought Marcion, that he should so favor that bloodthirsty and licentious bandit, King David. Moreover, it was this creator who devised the humiliating method of sexual reproduction, the discomforts of pregnancy, and the pains of childbirth, the mere contemplation of which filled Marcion with nausea…
The assertion that the first Christians had misinterpreted their Master was necessary to Marcion because it was clear that the New Testament writings presupposed continuity between the Old and the New covenants. Marcion concluded that the documents had been considerably corrupted by the Judaisers of whose insidious methods St. Paul complained in the epistle to the Galatians. He therefore set about the task of restoring the true text…Marcion thus became the first person to draw up an exclusive canonical list of Biblical books, which excluded all the Old Testament and large parts of the New, grounded on the basic assumption that the twelve apostles had not possessed the insight to comprehend the true meaning of Jesus.” (Chadwick, p 39-40)
On one occasion, Marcion accosted Polycarp with the challenge, ‘Recognize us!’ Polycarp replied, ‘I recognize you as the first born of Satan.’ In his later years the growth of false teaching so pained Polycarp that he is represented by Irenaeus as exclaiming, ‘O good God, what sort of era hast thou preserved me for, that I have to suffer things like this?’
What might Polycarp have said to Christians who:
- Advocate abortion on demand as a means of birth control because the fetus is just a soulless mass of tissue?
- Advocate sex change procedures for children?
- Advocate the grooming of children for homosexual behavior?