The Second and Third Century Church

Look at a map of the Christian churches of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries

Note the key churches-Rome, Ephesus, Antioch, Alexandria and Carthage. The more the Church was persecuted, the more was its evangelical zeal and the greater its growth in numbers. The Church began with around 500 followers of Christ in Jerusalem, and from the Day of Pentecost (where 3000 were added) until 300 CE it is estimated that between five and twelve per cent of the population of the empire, which was about 75 million, were Christians. A reasonable estimate might be that there were five million professing Christians by 300.

Main Persecutions of the Early Church by the Romans

The Persecution of Nero (64-67 CE), Domitian (c.90-96), Trajan (98-117), Hadrian (117-138), Marcus Aurelius (161-181), Septimus Severus (202-211), Maximus the Thracian (235-251), Decius (249-251), Valerian (257-260) and Diocletian (303-311)

Who were the leaders of the early church?

Apostles: James son of Zebedee was beheaded in 44CE (Acts 12:1-2) Peter martyed in Rome in 64CE(?) Paul in 67(?) John died about 100(?)

Apostolic Fathers - probably taught by the apostles

The most infuential were Clement(ordained by Peter) and Hermes of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna (ordained by John), Barnabus of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch. These leaders had a relatively simple conception of Christianity. They thought of Christ as the revealer of the knowledge of the one true God and the proclaimer of a law of high and strict morality. These writers were especially concerned with practical matters like faith, righteous living and church organization. The writings of this period consist primarily of letters between churches and exhortations to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.


Around the turn of the first century, Christian writers began to turn their attention outward in defense of Christianity against false claims made by Roman persecutors and demonstrating Christianity's reasonableness to minds trained on Greek philosophy. These writings were usually addressed to Roman emperors or other pagan critics, and their authors are known as the "Apologists." One of the most important apologists was Justin, who wrote his Apology in 153, was martyred in 165 (Justin Martyr).

Church Fathers

The fathers of the second and third centuries directed their efforts towards combatting what they saw as heresies, or false interpretations of the Christian faith;

Irenaeus(140-200) in Smyrna, infuenced by Polycarp, martyred in 200. wrote Against Heresies, appointed bishop of Lyon

Tertullian(155-220) in Carthage, wrote Prescription of Heretics

Clement(150-215) of Alexandria

Origen(185-253), a pupil of Clement, developed idea of Christ as Logos or Incarnate Word.

Hippolytus(170-236) a presbyter at Rome

What were the influences at the time?


Hellenist (Greek)

Roman Influence was more political but Hellenized Romans were searching for a highly moralistic philosophy of living and recognized that in Judaism. (Philo of Alexandria (30BCE-45CE) attempted to reconcile Judaism with Hellenism.)

Why were there heresies?

1. Christianity was not a uniform movement, but a collection of heterodoxies. Since Christianity began as a Jewish sect, there were strong Jewish influences. Since the church began in a Greco-Roman culture, these had effect on the development of Christianity. There were many teachers with different backgrounds who came forward with different interpretations of Christian thinking. From the beginning, there were numerous varieties of Christianity which had little in common, except that they centered around belief in the resurrection. Most of the teachings of the early church were based on the writing and teachings of John, Paul, Thomas(?) and many others.

2. The canon of Scripture was not adopted until 397 CE by a Synod at Carthage. See There were many other Gospels (as many as 80?) written at the time. Fifty manuscripts of the Nag Hammadi Library were found in 1945 in upper Egypt Some examples are the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Philip, the Secret Book of James and the Gospel of Truth.

One statement from the gnostic Gospel of Philip, states that whoever achieves gnosis (knowledge) becomes no longer a Christian, but a Christ:

"You saw the spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father."

From The Apocalypse of Peter:

The Savior said to me, "He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me."

Examples from The Gospel of Thomas -

Jesus said:If those who lead you say to you, See, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of heaven will go before you. If they say to you, It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. [Thomas 3]

Recognize what is in front of you, and what is hidden from you will be revealed to you, for there is nothing hidden that will not be made manifest. [Thomas 5]
Jesus said: I am the light that is above them all. I am the all; the all came forth from me, and the all returned to me. Cleave a piece of wood: I am there. Raise up a stone, and you will find me there. [Thomas 77]

3. Even the books which were accepted into the canon in 397 were capable of different interpretations. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke stress somewhat the humanity of Christ while John strongly stresses His divinity. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Only in John does Jesus say that He and the Father are one. (John 10:30 "I and the Father are one" and John 17:11 "..that they may be one as we are." ) Paul stresses grace while James speaks of good works.

Even today, with all of our scholarship and knowledge, we have different denominations with many different ideas. Should baptism be for infants or only those who are older? Immersion or sprinkling? Is there purgatory or not? Is the Bible inerrant? Does communion involve the actual body and blood of Christ?

What were the heresies in the early church?

Gnosticism (Salvation by knowledge)

The term "gnostic" derives from "gnosis," which means "knowledge" in Greek. The Gnostics believed that they were privy to a secret knowledge about the divine, hence the name. Gnosticism was a religious movement that predated Christianity and attempted to assimilate it.

Gnosticism taught that the unknowable God was far too pure and perfect to have anything to do with the material universe which was considered evil.  Therefore, God generated lesser divinities, or emanations This complex hierarchy of spiritual beings had to be worshiped and appeased in the order of their rank to get access to higher and higher beings. Gnostics saw Christ as one of these emanations. They also thought of the Holy Spirit as a female emanation, whom they called Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom.

Gnosticism was also dualistic. It taught that matter was evil and that spiritual things were good. Therefore, when it was adapted to Christianity, it denied the incarnation on the grounds that a high spiritual being could never be polluted by association with matter. It taught that Jesus was a mortal man who had contact with a high-ranking spirit being called Christ.

Docetism-- Jesus wholly divine -- his humanity and suffering only seemed to be real--
This heresy emerged in about 110 C. E. The term "docetism" is derived from the Greek word dokesis, "to seem."

Marcionism-- Marcion was an influential member of the early church who read the Old Testament as referring to a tyrannical God who had created a flawed world. Marcion believed that Jesus revealed, in contrast, a good God of love and mercy. He suggested that there were two gods, one good and the other bad. The bad one created the world and was the god of the Old Testament and the Jews. The good one created Jesus who mysteriously appeared in the temple at the age of 12. Of course this disagreed with the stories of the Gospels and denied the full humanity of Jesus. For Marcion, then, Jesus was not the Messiah proclaimed by the prophets, and the Old Testament was not Scripture. Marcion proposed limiting Christian "Scripture" to Luke's gospel (less the birth narrative and other parts that he felt expressed Jewish thinking) and to those letters of Paul that Marcion regarded as anti-Jewish. Marcion was excommunicated in 144 CE, but his views developed into a movement that lasted several centuries.

How did the early church respond to these heresies?

By the beginning of the second century the Church Fathers were speaking of a Rule of Faith, a summary of those things that Christians must certainly believe.The words of the Rule were not yet fixed, but the content was fairly consistent from writer to writer.

The "Rule of Faith" as recorded by Irenaeus (185?) :

. . . this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race . .

Around A.D. 180, Roman Christians developed an early form of the Apostles' Creed, called the Old Roman Symbol, to refute Marcion. It says:

"I believe in God the Father Almighty. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary; Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried; The third day He rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost; The forgiveness of sins; The resurrection of the body (flesh)."

Hippolytus' account of the baptismal service about 215: (Sometimes called the Interrogatory Creed)

When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say: "Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?" And the person being baptized shall say: "I believe." Then holding his hand on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say: "Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?" And when he says: "I believe," he is baptized again. And again he shall say: "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and the resurrection of the body?" The person being baptized shall say: "I believe," and then he is baptized a third time.

The Apostles' Creed underwent further development.

Look at how the Apostle's Creed faced these heresies and responded to them.