seven major christian leaders [bible college papers]

Written by Dan King

Christ-follower. husband. father. author of the unlikely missionary: from pew-warmer to poverty-fighter. co-author of activist faith: from him and for him. director of family ministry at st. edward's episcopal church. president of fistbump media, llc.

December 30, 2009

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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.”


  1. Paul

    Great little writeup you have here. I want to contradict a couple things you said, but not without saying that this is a great little article you've done.

    One, Eusebius did present Caesarea's creed (or “rule of faith”) to the Council of Nicea, but he says that it was the emperor Constantine who suggested adding “homoousios” to the creed. It was not originally there. (I get that from Socrates Scholasticus' Church history, but I'm pretty sure he's quoting from Eusebius' Life of Constantine. It's mentioned in Eusebius' letter back to Caesarea explaining the creed to them.)

    I like the term homoousios. It's definitely orthodox and historical. Athenagoras (c. 177) discusses the Father and Son sharing the same “essence,” and Justin (c. 150) talks about the Father and Son being like two inseparable flames, but just for accuracy's sake, I mention that it was Constantine who suggested putting “homoousios” in the creed, according to Eusebius.

    The other issue would be more important to me. You said, “One of the major issues that led to heresy in the church was allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures.”

    No doubt heretics, and especially gnostics, used a very allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, but one can hardly read the writings of the early church fathers without seeing that they did, too! Justin's Dialogue with Trypho is an excellent coverage of the Old Testament scriptures that apply to Christ, but much of it is allegorical. The New Testament is taken less so, but I'd hate to see the allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament by the early churches disparaged.

    For example, numerous early writings mention OT food laws. All of them understand those food laws to apply to ruminating on the Word of God and separating from the world rather than applying to ruminant animals and parted hooves. Many, many such examples could be given, especially in the application of water to baptism and grapes and wine to the blood of Christ.

    Again, though, I think it's great that you wrote this article. It's good information.

  2. BibleDude

    I totally appreciate this discussion! Since this is part of a study project for a class that I am taking on church history, I really appreciate the points that you make… it helps me continue in my learning. I don't think that my learning stops with these essays, but really just begins!

    Regarding the the Eusebius issue with the term homoousios, my study guide from the class talks about this discussion happening at the Council of Nicea. Apparently, Arius reacted against the polytheistic idea that he felt the idea of the Trinity presented. And there Athanasius shared the 'homoousios' idea that The Father and Son are of the same essence. Then I understand that it was Eusibius suggested that Jesus Christ was “begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father.” Ultimately this condemned the Arian position. Let me know if you know of references that would contradict this at all…

    Regarding the allegorical interpretation of Scriptures, I think that I am really referring mostly to Theodore of Mopsuestia's motivation for developing the grammatical-historical method of interpretation as a way to refute some of the extreme heresies that resulted from allegorizing the New Testament writings. I defintely understand that (particularly with the OT writings) there is a great deal of foreshadowing (I don't know if I would go as far as saying allegorizing) that shows us much that we know in the NT.

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts! I've checked out your site, and plan to spend a little more time there. This class has really sparked more of an interest in church history inside of me!

  3. Paul

    The following is from _Ecclesiastical History_ by Socrates Scholasticus. It's found in Series 2, Vol. 2 of _The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers_. You can read it for free at It is quoting a letter from Eusebius (the historian) to his home church in Caesarea:

    First it give Caesarea's statement of faith, which includes “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of Light, Life of Life, the only-begotten Son, born before all creation.” It does not, however, include the part about being “one in substance with the Father.”

    Then Eusebius adds, “When these articles of faith were proposed our most pious emperor himself was the first to admit that they were perfectly correct … exhorting all present to give them their assent … with the insertion, however, of that single word homoousios.”

    Following that, Eusebius gives the final wording, the creed as we know it and as you quoted it.

    Athanasius could not have shared the homoousios idea because he was not yet a bishop. As an elder, not a bishop, he could not have spoken at Nicea. Book I, ch. 15 of the same history says that Athanasius replaced Alexander as bishop of Alexandria shortly after Nicea.

    Athanasius was the champion of the Nicene cause after Nicea, but he had no role whatsoever at Nicea.

    Apparently, he was at the council, however. Vol. 14 of Series 2 has a discussion about homoousios at Nicea, and it mentions that Athanasius “describes with much wit and penetration how he saw them nodding and winking to each other.”

    I hope those references suffice for you.


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seven major christian leaders [bible college papers]

by Dan King time to read: 5 min