top of page
  • Writer's pictureMark Sparks

The Early Church and Protestant Theology

One day when I was in the library at my seminary, I was approached by a brother in Christ who asked what I was studying. I told him that I was currently working through the Commonitory by Vincent of Lérins. Vincent of Lérins was a prominent Christian figure in the 5th century who in his work Commonitory sought to establish a meaningful framework through which we can navigate through doctrinal differences. The clearest and most succinct statement made by Vincent on this matter is listed below:

Moreover, in the catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

Vincent of Lérins, Comm 2.6

The Commonitory has had significant impact on how several think about navigating theology, including Thomas Oden, through whom I was turned on to this work. However, after sharing with this brother what I was working on, he asked me dismissively, "why would you spend time studying that?" Now, I don't fault my brother's thinking here. The world of theology is vast, and we must be considerate with where and how we dedicate our valuable time when we seek to explore its depths. For some it is unconscionable to give such a considerate amount of time studying the nuances and debates of verbal aspect or to pour over ancient near east literature when time can be dedicated elsewhere and to what might appear to be more pressing matters. For him, to dedicate time to studying the early church was not worth that time dedication.

I want to take some time providing an answer to his questions here because his comments are reflective of the attitude that many carry in the Protestant tradition. To some, the early church is Catholic, and they view their own Protestantism as strictly anti-Catholic, which leads them to believe the early church is unworthy of consideration or regard. I want to provide three reasons that I believe that the study of the early church is important, not just as a niche area of specialization for select Christians or as a fruitless abyss, but as a meaningful contributor for all Christians.

However, first, I believe it is worth dispelling some of the rhetoric that tends to cast a damning shadow over the early church. One of the first things I heard about the early church writers was that they all believed in justification by works and should be universally considered heretical. Some have likened them to rebels who nearly immediately abandoned the hope and the beauty of the gospel preached to them after the death of the last apostle. Others have tried to highlight an aspect of incompetency or theological illiteracy in them in order to discredit their testimony. This diminishment has been a reaction, even an overreaction, to the exaltation and prominence that early Christian thinkers are given in non-Protestant Christian sects. Protestants find themselves concerned, and rightly so, with the veneration of early church figures and the elevating of their writings to a status of authority equal to Scripture and in order to counter-balance this exaltation, they diminish their testimony. However, it is incorrect to dismiss the value of an entire generation of Christians simply based on how someone else uses their material for their own purposes. I do believe that there is a middle ground between these pillars of condemnation and exaltation that can be achieved when we approach the early church in a sober manner.

To approach them in a sober manner, we have to recognize that though many in the early church may have been in connection with the apostles, either in a subsequent generation or in the same generation, they are still Christian men and women seeking to understand the resurrection and the Christian faith in light of their cultural circumstances, just as we are. This opens the potential for error and syncretizing as well as misunderstanding and misemphasizing. This means that we do not need to view the early Christians as infallible. Furthermore, approaching them in a sober manner leads us to recognize that they have some historical importance with access to the living memory and the living teaching of the apostles. This access has the potential to provide a depth of understanding on theological issues. We are able to give regard to this historical testimony, without giving them a place of infallible understanding. As we saw in the church in Corinth, both in the time of Paul and the time of Clement, sin and syncretism can corrupt one's understanding and having the apostles or their successors as teachers, does not mean they were free from misinterpretation and misapplication.

With this sober view of the early church, I want to lay out three reasons why I believe we should give regard to the testimony of the early church within contemporary theology.

The Early Church is relevant.

The first reason that I believe the early church is important for contemporary theology is the fact that their testimony is relevant. The spiritual warfare that they encountered, though it may have been circumstantially different, the challenges of walking faithfully in the midst of the flesh, the world, and the enemy, is not far from them. Examining how the early Christians engaged with suffering and challenges, even persecutions, can help give us a parallel picture to our circumstances. This has the effect of uniting ourselves with them as brothers in Christ and also has the effect of encouraging us in our own faith in the same way that the faith of the Thessalonians through trials was of great encouragement to Paul in the trials that he was enduring. One would be hard-pressed to be dismissive of the pursuit for holiness that is seen in the early ascetics who prized giving their life over to Christ.

Though they lived far off, the challenges that the early church would have faced can be mirror images to what we face in a lot of way. This is why a book like Confessions by Augustine has had such a tremendous impact not only throughout history but also in the life of the church today. There is something transcendental that he touched on in which people in vastly different cultural, political, and economic circumstances can relate and we find much more of this in the testimony of the early church.

The Early Church is foundational.

You can't get far into the study of theology without recognizing the fact that, though theology does need to speak to the current cultural circumstance, it has a historical component that must be given regard. This is in large part due to the fact that the intention of the Christian faith was never to create something new or innovative but was instead seeking to understand and preserve the integrity of that which happened. For this reason, we see incredible thinkers throughout the early church seeking to do just that. It is from the fruits of their labor that the Christian trajectory remains strong, intact, and unshakeable in many ways. Not only do we owe a debt of gratitude to those who established such a firm theological foundation, but we can also stand to gain a lot from examining their understanding and reasoning for coming to the conclusion that they did. The thinkers such as Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, and Cyprian, though not perfect, did tremendous work to secure right understanding.

We are at great risk for failure when we pull this foundation from under ourselves, especially considering the fact that the Christian faith is a historical faith. With it being a historical faith, there is much value to be gained from understanding its earliest history. This is not to put the early church up as an idol or to exalt them as infallible, but instead to recognize that our faith did not come from nowhere but instead was born out of a historical event and a community of people surrounding that event seeking to protect and preserve its integrity.

The Early Church is theologically important.

My final, and most controversial point that I will make in order to demonstrate the importance of the early church to contemporary theology is that the early church is theologically important. What the early church understood about the Chirstian faith matters. This is in large part due to their historical circumstance. For many of the early Christians, they either had direct interaction with an apostle, they had direct interaction with a disciple of an apostle, or they lived within the living memory of the apostles. All of these would have produced a depth of theological understanding that we are unable to access. Whereas we have access to remnants of the historical situation captured in Scripture, which I want to make clear is sufficient, the early church had greater access to the fullness of the historical situation. For this reason, there exists a living theology that was formed from the preaching of the apostles that carried through in the early church and was accessible in a way that we cannot access. So, when there is a point in Scripture, that is contested, maybe even partially ambiguous, examining the testimony of the early church on the matter can provide an illumination on the discussion in the same way that historical background can provide an illuminating effect on Scripture.

Now I want to put up some guardrails before I'm run out of town. This is not to say that testimony of the early church is infallible, nor is it to say that their testimony carries authoritative weight, however, it is saying that the testimony of the early church does carry a measure of evidential weight to it that is worthy of being considered in our contemporary theological understanding. If the early church provides strong historical testimony towards a particular doctrinal understanding, I believe that testimony is worthy of consideration, and it cannot simply be ignored.


When situated appropriately, the early church does have relevancy to our contemporary theological understanding. Though we cannot approach their works with the certainty of truth that we can with God's inspired word, they do provide important historical testimony and imbedded within their testimony can be theological value. Thus, they are worthy of being studied, not only by the historical specialists, but all Christians. Studying the early church will help a Christian connect Scripture to their current circumstances, connect to their foundational roots, and expand the depth of the historical dimension of their theological understand.

bottom of page