Early Christian Doctrine

I’m trying to learn more about Church history from James Hitchcock’s one volume work.  The historian gathered some quick points about early Christian doctrine that night be interesting to you.

Angels and Devils

Jews and Christians believed in angels.  Three angels are known by name: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.  There are angels assigned to nations and individuals.  

Satan appeared in the Old Testament to accuse men of sin and test their fidelity.  He was even permitted by God to test Jesus.  Christians thought it was the serpent in the Garden who tempted Adam and Eve.  The name Lucifer also referred to Satan.  The Book of Revelation says that Satan originally was responsible for earth, but rebelled out of resentment because he foresaw the Incarnation of Christ.  Satan didn’t like a human overthrowing his angelic authority.

Both angels and devils fight over the souls of men.  We still have free will and can’t be coerced by spiritual powers, but struggle to follow the light given our broken nature (concupiscence).

The Kingdom

Christians expanded the Jewish idea that God is the Lord of history.  God acts through human events and history is really an unfolding of God’s Kingdom.

The ways of the Kingdom are… the reverse of those of human society—triumph emerges only from defeat, suffering is the necessary prerequisite to glory, he who would save his life must lose it, the humble will be exalted, to give is better than to receive.  (Page 24)

Continuity with Judaism

The Christians saw fundamental continuity between their own faith and that of the Jews, because Jesus revealed the one true God—the God of the Jews—to the entire world. Beginning on Pentecost, the followers of Jesus proclaimed that He alone fulfilled the promises of the Jewish prophets. Thus the sacred books of the two religions fit together harmoniously. Christians insisted that the Old Testament could be ultimately understood only in the light of the New, although most Jews did not recognize that unity. (Page 24)

Paul and the Law

[Paul] made a subtle and profound analysis of human nature as enslaved to the inherited sin of Adam, a slavery which the Law exposes but which in itself it is powerless to overcome.  Christ conferred freedom, but it is a paradoxical freedom—not self-will but the conquest of self-will, which is the very instrument of bondage. (Page 25)

The New Adam

Jesus was the New Adam who destroyed the sinful inheritance of the Old. When they accepted baptism, therefore, Christians did not merely join a community but through that mystical action were “baptized into Christ’s death” and thereby enabled to participate in His Resurrection, overcoming the slavery of sin. Men had to crucify their own natures and die to sin in order to become the adopted children of God. (Page 25)

The Mystical Body

The reality of Christ’s one body is difficult to see not because it is supernatural, but because, I think, of the divisions we see in the Church.  I’m not just referring to our Protestant brothers and sisters, but also to the divisions within the Catholic Church.  The Church is nothing less than Christ’s own body!  “All believers are members, organically linked to one another and to Christ as their Head.”

History of the Catholic Church

Pentecost Sunday is a great time to start a new series for this blog on Church History.  I’ve been meaning to read James Hitchcock’s book for quite some time.  It’s an accessible one volume book on the history of the Catholic Church using the most recent scholarship.  If you’re interested, pick up your own copy, read along with me and offer your own feedback in the comments.  If you don’t have the time and do not mind my reflections, I welcome you to follow along on this blog series.

Isn’t it amazing, brothers and sisters, how the Catholic Church as an institution has always been threatened by heresy from within and hostility from without?  Any other institution suffering from such scandals or persecutions would have been wiped out long ago.  In fact, the only other group to have suffered just as much (if not more) are the Jewish people.  The fact that the Jewish people and the Catholic Church still exist makes me think that something supernatural — some divine power is at work in preserving us.

Studying Church history is important to the development of my faith because it allows me to see God’s continuous action through time up to the present day.  “The Catholic Church is the longest-enduring institution in the world, and her historical character is integral to her identity” (pg. 11).  Like Judaism, Christianity is a historical religion.  At a precise moment in history, God came to earth.  He lived, died and came back to life to eyewitnesses.  The Gospels have a historical feel because they provide concrete details to these circumstances around Christ’s time on earth.  With the exception of Judaism, from which Christianity takes its root, no other religion makes such truth claims in history.  The history of the Church is not myth-making: an attempt to add the divine to a man-made construct.  No, it’s the reverse.  Church history is the placement of humanity in the divine work of God.

Studying Church history also helps me see the development of church doctrine.  The life of a Catholic Christian is defined by his participation in the Sacraments.  Our Protestant brethren centers Christian life around studying the Bible.  This is because the Sacraments are not central to their worship (if they have them at all).  Doctrine is also not rooted in history for our separated brethren; it must be renewed with each generation of believers by studying the Bible.  So, it’s unsurprising to find certain Protestant denominations subscribing to heresies that were resolved as early as the fourth century.  “Heresy perhaps serves the divine purpose of forcing the Church to reflect more deeply on her beliefs, to understand them in ever more comprehensive and precise ways” (pg. 14).

Lastly, Christianity gives history a goal. Suffering is not meaningless.  Evil people do not triumph.  Evilness will have consequences.  The “cyclical view of that endless repetition that expressed a kind of despair, the sense that men were trapped in a process they cannot control” (pg. 16) was destroyed by Christianity.  “The Christian recognition of man’s freedom is the only resolution of the mystery of evil….  The action of God in history… [is] like a composer masterfully revising his music to overcome the inadequacies of the orchestra that plays it ” (pg. 17).

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