Becoming Orthodox – Enter the Search: Doctrinal Essentials

4 December 2014

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in late antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.

Doctrinal Essentials

One of the statements widely used in Evangelical circles is, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things charity.” This is an idea also expressed in the writings of Eusebius and his forebears. But what they considered essential and non-essential was very different from what we Evangelicals did.[8]

For instance, Eusebius discusses the canon of Scripture rather freely, treating it as an open question. Origen, he states, held the book of Revelation as Scripture, written by the Apostle John. Eusebius begs to differ, on the basis of the style of Greek, and argues that Revelation was of questionable authority. Yet he maintains the greatest admiration for Origen.

It wasn’t to be until well after the writing of the History that, for the first time we know of, Athanasius in his Easter festal letter of 367 listed the twenty-seven New Testament books we now use. Every pre-367 canonical list of the New Testament we have differs with what we currently use. While Evangelicals, without recourse to the authority of the Church, are willing to castigate anyone who questions the canon, the earliest Christians held a faith that did not depend on an ironclad list of books. It was not an essential. From the time of the Apostles onward the Church was content with an unfixed canon that frequently included apocryphal works.[9]

On the other hand, on a subject as non-essential to Evangelicals such as baptism, the early Church was united. There were controversies on the subject, such as whether such-and-such a repentant heretic should be rebaptized, but not over the nature of the sacrament. The Church was so united on what baptism meant, they even agreed that a candidate should be dipped three times, in obedience to the Trinity. For the early Church, baptism was not a symbolic gesture tacked onto a profession of faith or altar call, as is so practiced in Protestant circles; rather, it was the conduit of salvation, by which a person was born again, illuminated, and regenerated to new life.[10]

In “essentials,” unity? Who decides what are the essentials? The Church of the first centuries held to a fundamentally different understanding of Christian essentials than what we teach. By our present standards we would call the early Church “unbalanced” or “extreme.” Undoubtedly they would return the favor.

Is there a Heretic in the House?

In our apologetic literature on Mormonism and other cults, we often use the tactic of creating guilt by association. By pointing out the similarity between second century Gnostics and modern-day Christian Scientists, for instance, we show that there is nothing new under the sun, that heresies are constantly resurrected, dredged up from the past.

I was in for a surprise, then, when I discovered that the apologetic techniques of the early Church were considerably different than mine. My concern was to show how contemporary heresies had a deep, long history and that they keep on resurrecting through time. Early apologists, however, believed that every heresy was an innovation and therefore had no genuine history. Only the True Faith extends back through all time. To the early Fathers, sects were something new under the sun, and for that reason, they were to be rejected.[11]

Through the writings of Irenaeus (2d c.) and Hippolytus (3d c.) I realized that Gnostic theology was nothing comparable to Christian Science. True, the two share a denial of the goodness of creation, but Gnostic thought was far more intricate and developed than Mary Baker Eddy’s system.[12]

Many of them held to a godhead composed of thirty members. Many of them held to a deep admiration for Seth. It dawned on me that Gnosticism, in all its ugly theological twists and turns, was dead. There are no more Gnostics today, not if we use the word “Gnostic” properly. Even those in this century who would seek to draw from their writings are simply creating a modern hybrid. They are not restoring a heretical community from centuries ago. Think, for instance, of modern “Druids,” who have to invent their own rituals and beliefs. If the ancient Druids came back, they would not recognize at all the modern attempts to recreate their dead religion.

It is true, however, that in certain doctrinal differences between the Gnostics and the early Church, Christian Scientists side with the former. Therefore, they resemble Gnosticism by virtue of some common beliefs. Ultimately, this is the point of our apologetic argument: the Christian Scientists are “Gnostic,” in that they advocate their error, against the orthodox teaching.[13]

But Protestants and Evangelicals fall to this criticism. We currently maintain doctrines that fly in the face of the teaching of the early Church. If they were with us today they would declare most Evangelical denominations to be heretical and schismatic.

Irenaeus, in his treatise Against Heresies, catalogues and deals with Gnostic heresies, primarily combatting their views on the godhead and creation, while also addressing their inclination towards sectarianism, anti-sacramentalism, and departure from the Apostolic succession (sound familiar?).[14] Tertullian, the first Western Christian to use the term “Trinity,” also looks at the nature of heresies in his day and observes how they have departed from the historic Apostolic faith in both teaching and practice, giving no regard to the sanctity of the Eucharist or the Apostolic succession (again, sound familiar?).[15] The criticisms Irenaeus and Tertullian make of their opponents apply to many forms of Evangelicalism.

Allow me to qualify these bold strokes. Some of the early authors may have looked upon certain groups such as Anglicans or Lutherans with a sympathy that may have extended to mutual recognition and communion. Mainstream Evangelicalism, however, as represented by the Evangelical Alliance or most interdenominational agencies, would not be have been recognized by the earliest Fathers as true Christianity.


8. Protestant accounts of the early Church that have no obvious errors, such as The Spreading Flame, duck aspects of the early Church that would trouble their Evangelical readership.

9. Dave Tomlinson, author of The Post Evangelicals, has appropriately said, “If most Evangelicals knew how the canon came together they would probably have kittens.” The issues of canonisation are considerably more complex than Josh McDowell or Geisler & Nix would have us believe. An “impartial” look at the historical record might show that our understanding of canon is simply wrong.

10. This most difficult subject of baptism is addressed well by a number of Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran books on the subject. It is telling that Evangelical theology on baptism often circumvents the teaching of the Reformers on the subject, many of whom held to a position of baptismal regeneration. Protestant scholarship today, such as found in J. Jeremias’s The Central Message of the New Testament, demonstrates that St. Paul’s understanding of salvation always included baptism as an implicit element. For an introduction to the early Church’s view on baptism, see Tertullian On Baptism, Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and the anonymous Epistle of Barnabas.

11. Evangelicals may consider this a violation of a principle found in Ecc 1:10. But we should reconsider our use of this passage and the book of Ecclesiastes, which deals with the cycles of nature and the human experience, not with the history of heresy or technology.

12. An excellent introduction to early heresies is served by Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies. “Gnosticism” is a loose term for a number of very different syncretistic theosophic sects.

13. See Philip J. Lee’s oustanding critical expose on Gnostic tendencies in American Evangelicalism entitled Against the Protestant Gnostics.

14. See Adv Haer 3.1-5.

15. See Tertullian’s On Prescription Against Heretics.