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Note: This essay is part of a series that I am doing for a class on church history. This part of the series is a summary of some of the great leaders of the early Christian church.
Throughout the time of the Early and Medieval Church there were many great leaders who had to deal with these heresies. These men left their mark by not only recognizing the false teachings as they arose, but also by using true Biblical doctrine to refute the heresies. Listed here are seven major Christian leaders who left a lasting impact on the church.
The impact of Ignatius is unquestionable. He was driven by a desire for both holy living and holy dying. Living during a time of great persecution by the Roman government, he was proud to die as a martyr for the faith. He was arrested for being a Christian, and some of his greatest work came while being transported to Rome for execution. Along the way he wrote letters to churches and people which give us a great picture of the types of things that the early church dealt with. His writings contributed to early church organization by identifying three levels of ministry: bishop, presbyter (elder), and deacon. Tradition states that Ignatius died by being eaten by lions in the Colosseum.
Polycarp was one of the recipients of a letter from Ignatius, and is also known for a letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi. But one of the most significant facts about Polycarp was that he was a disciple of the Apostle John. Well before any of the New Testament writings were canonized, Polycarp quoted New Testament writings about sixty times in his letter to the Philippians including more than thirty references to Paul’s writings. Polycarp urged early church leadership to take the position of a servant.
Trained as a professional philosopher, Justin Martyr eventually became the leading apologist of his day. As a pagan philosopher he was impressed by the lives and deaths of early Christians. After his own conversion he applied his skills by attempting to explain the superiority of Christianity. In doing so, he described some of the secret (due to persecution) practices of Christians. As a result, we have an idea of what the gatherings of the early church were like. Justin Martyr died during the persecution of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Tertullian was another great apologist. In his work he specifically argued against the combining of elements of Christianity with other beliefs, particularly Gnosticism and Docetism. His greatest accomplishment is in developing the doctrine of the trinity in response to the heresies that denied the divinity of Christ. He also spoke out strongly against the growing worldliness in the church, and called for a strict moral life and following the leading of the Holy Spirit. This eventually led him into the heresy of Montanism.
Eusebius is known as the “father of church history” because of the comprehensive historical works that he developed. He recorded a history of missions and persecutions, bishops, writings, martyrdoms, heresies, and much more. Most notably, some of the quotations that he captured are the only known surviving copies of important works that are long lost. His other major contribution came during the Council of Nicaea when he presented a creed that clarified the deity of Christ by stating that He was “begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father.”
Because one of the major issues that led to heresy in the church was allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, there was a need to define a proper method of explaining the meaning of the text. Theodore of Mopsuestia dealt with this issue by developing the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. This required the reader to consider the grammar and historical context of the Scriptures in order to determine their true meaning and application.
Much later during the Late Medieval Church, Gregory VII helped the office of pope achieve new levels of respect. First, before he became the pope himself, he helped create the method of selecting popes so that they were elected by the College of Cardinals rather than by secular rulers. Second, he further established theocratic rule of the church in his book Dictatus Papae, which clearly stated his position that the church is subject to God and not other human government leaders or establishments. Finally, he excommunicated Emperor Henry IV over a disagreement related to laymen appointing people to clergy positions. While his actions were not without backlash, he clearly established the authority of the church as not being subject to any other authority.
Many of the issues that the church is dealing with today are not new, and there is much that can be learned from how these early leaders dealt with the problems of their day. As Alister McGrath points out, “Anyone who thinks about the great questions of Christian theology soon discovers that many of them have already been addressed.” He continues, “There is always an element of looking over one’s shoulder to see how things were done in the past, and what answers were given.” McGrath also shares a great quote from Karl Barth about our position as it relates to learning from these early church leaders:
“With regard to theology, we cannot be in the in the church without taking responsibility as much for the theology of the past as for the theology of our own present day. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher and all the others are not dead but living. They still speak and demand a hearing as living voices, as surely as we know that they and we belong together in the church.”