In the first of his five-volume series on the history and doctrinal developments of the Christian church, Jaroslav Pelikan evaluates, explains, and summarizes the Christian beliefs of the catholic (universal) church from 100-600 AD. Since many people today are writing – and duped by – historical revisions of the early church and its beliefs, it is good for us to find accurate and reliable books and studies on ancient church history. Though not perfect in every way, Pelikan’s series is both reliable and accurate.
The following quote from volume one is a quote that shows Pelikan’s level-headed approach to studying the beliefs of the early church fathers. Anyone who has read various writings, tracts, and treatises of teachers like Cyril, Cyprian, and Augustine (etc.) knows that it can be difficult to get a detailed and orderly snapshot of early Christian theology. Pelikan’s notes here are helpful in this area.
“Against various heresies and schisms, the orthodox and catholic church defined as apostolic doctrine that which it believed, taught, and confessed. This doctrine, so it was presumed, had been believed and taught by the church before heresy demanded that it be confessed. Yet the task of reconstructing it from the existing documents is a complex one. A large part of the Christian literature which has been preserved was preoccupied either with the defense of Christianity against the cultured among its despisers or with polemics against heresy.”
“Hence the interpretation of what was Christian doctrine during the second and third centuries is likely to concentrate on these same issues, at the expense of other doctrinal themes in the belief and the piety of the church. The methodological problems in the attempt to uncover those themes in the documents are formidable, but the documents themselves make the attempt both necessary and justifiable.”
“To cite one of the most explicit instances from the second century, Athenagoras opened his apologetic for the resurrection with a distinction between a ‘plea for the truth,’ addressed to skeptics and doubters, and an ‘exposition of the truth,’ addressed to those who were prepared to accept the truth; he noted that the exposition was more valuable and important, but that pagan hostility to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead made it necessary for him to give precedence to the plea over the exposition. Athenagoras’s distinction justifies the effort to supply as much as possible of the missing ‘exposition’ in defense of which the ‘plea’ was made” (p. 121).
Though the discussion is detailed, Pelikan made a great point here. Much of the early Christian literature was more of a defense of the Chrsitian faith and not a point by point exposition of it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the exposition in the defense. Though it is sometimes difficult to find the “exposition” woven in the “defense,” it is certainly right and proper for us to do so. There is such a thing as historical Christian orthodoxy that our forefathers believed, taught, confessed, and defended!
Again, the quote was taken from Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 121.