Extent of Christian diversity in the Early Church

I have another thread that sparked my idea for this one. The other one concerns more about the distinction between Catholic and Roman Catholic and in what sense the “Roman” Catholic church is a continuation of the “Catholic Church” of the early church.


That aside, my question is simply, to what extent is there Christian diversity in the early church? Was Christianity mainly unified in belief with occasional heresies? Or is what we know now as heresies just as influential and common as the now “orthodox” Christian faith?

It seems those who are not Catholic would want to emphasize the diversity of Christian thought; while those who are Catholic would want to emphasize the unity. What aspects are true for both the diversity and the unity?

Answer in any way you’d like. If you know something on the topic, just note it. I’d love to learn.

I think it’s pretty clear that there was a fair amount of diverse thought in the early church. I mean one of the key heresies of the early church that spawned the Nicene Creed that most of self professed Christians follow or profess today was the Arian heresy. And at the time the Arians were not some small fringe group but a fairly large segment within Chrisendom. I mean as I recall several of the Roman emperors of the day were in fact Arians or semi-Arians. You can argue they were so influential that their presence spawned the need for the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople which together helped define what is today considered orthodox Christianity. But beyond that there was continuing diversity of thought that led to the Church of the East and the rest of Christianity separating a mere 50 years after Constantinople after the Council of Ephesus in 431 over differences of Christology and the status of Mary as Mother of God. And only 20 years after that the differences in thought over Christ’s nature again led the Oriental Churches and the rest of Christianity splitting. There have been diversity of views in Christianity since the apostles set about their work.

I have been enjoying reading about Hilda of Whitby and the history of the Celtic communities. The mixed monasteries and the date of Easter were part of the Synod issues, but the things that fascinate me the most are the independent practices in Britain. They were NOT concerned so much with Rome; they had their own Bishops and religious and ways of practicing the faith. (Whitby was 7th century). When the Reformation came along, there was a harkening back to the value of religion in Britain without the authority of Rome.

I’m sure there was diversity in belief. There certainly was at the very top. One reoccruing theme that came up with the early Church and Church fathers though was unity. They wisely knew that disobedience and disunity was the only thing that could harm the Gospel from spreading , not necessarily persecution by the empire, but disunity. I suppose what happened then must happen today for the restoration of our divided Christian world. Persecution.

If you take note of all the “early Church fathers” who were later called heretics for their beliefs, you can see how diverse Christianity was. I can’t remember specific names right now but there were many solid, respected priests and bishops and theologians who had diverse beliefs that many followed those first few hundred years until they were told they should not any more.
Some believed Jesus was totally divine, some believed he was totally mortal.
Some believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, others did not.
Some believed they should cut ties completely with the Jewish religion (Marcion?), others wanted to stay linked to the Jewish scriptures.
Many followed holy scriptures and writings for hundreds of years that were later destroyed. There were the Ebionites, the Marcionites, and the Gnostics.
And so on.
One book I really like on this topic is: *
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew*

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What do you mean by ‘diversity’, then? In today’s world, ‘diversity’ seems to imply accepting and celebrating a variety of positions that do not agree with each other, under a single umbrella. Is that what you’re asking was the state of affairs in the early Church?

Or, are you asking whether the Church started with a lack of formal definitions, and went through a process of sifting through a variety of proposed doctrinal stances in order to reach a single set of doctrines? That is, that the ‘diversity’ wasn’t something that was intended or desired or even tolerated, but rather, was something that Christian leaders saw as untenable and in need of correction, in order to reach a single definitive understanding?

I’m understanding diversity to mean clusters of communities around the world as they knew it, with belief in Jesus Christ but practicing very differently and believing very different things. Different dates for Easter, different understandings of who post-resurrection Jesus was, what authorities they honored, what the sacraments were about, how they worshipped.

It took a very long time for Christianity to sort through beliefs and authority structure, not to mention commonality. Lots of power struggles, lots of arguing, lots of saying, ‘We’re right and you’re wrong.’

The good thing is that all believed in Christ. That is what held Christianity together by definition. But we’ve always had diversity and division. It’s okay to recognize that history as ours.

It seems that, established Christological issues aside, there was much more similarities among the “diverse” Christian communities of the early Church then there is among Christian groups now.

It seems that the Real Presence was pretty much believed universally, as was the priesthood and episcopacy, the communion of saints, baptismal regeneration, etc.

I am still unsure when people say there was diversity of belief in the early Church.
Not everything was organized doctrinally, no, the Church had bigger issues than that – like staying alive, persecutions, etc. It seems that much of the diversity has to do with Christological issues, no? --Specifics that were not explicitly spelled out in the first century and so naturally produced debate.

Other than that, what diversity?

People who say that the early Church was diverse are usually saying this to assert that diversity of belief is natural and inherent to Christianity. And something like dogmatic Christianity or Catholicism was either not there from the beginning or not necessary.

Certainly by the second century there was a method to know what the universal truth ought to be** (at the very least, whether it was actualized or not). Irenaeus says:

[INDENT] “It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to ** know the truth**, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted ***bishops by the apostles and their successors ***down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” (*Against Heresies *3:3:1)

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (Against Heresies 3:3:2).
[/INDENT]
And early than him, we have Ignatius of Antioch speaking of bishops being established everywhere. His letters emphasize the necessity of being in union with the bishop.

As a note in relation to the concept of apostolic succession, the three primary sees – Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch – are all related to the Apostle Peter.

I am aware of a diversity of views in the sense that not EVERYONE thought the same thing. There were views deemed as heresies, at the very least. My question more relates to the accepted diversity within the church itself.

What is an example of a belief that could have different opinions but still be regarded as part of the early “diverse” Christian church? I cannot really think of any significant viewpoint that is so different from another. I can only think of viewpoints that soon became regarded as heresies.

Fair enough. But, that’s just an accidental property, if by it we only mean “that’s where they found themselves in the early days” and not “that’s a property they intended as characteristic to Christianity.”

To make a claim of diversity is to make the claim that there’s something significant and worthwhile about it – or else it’s something as unimportant as the weather in Antioch on Pentecost day.

:thumbsup: Precisely.

In other words, it’s not that it was something that they tried to suppress, but that it was part and parcel of the Christian experience. And yet, we see that this so-called ‘celebrated diversity’ was something that the various Christian groups tried to eliminate. And therefore, we can conclude that the ‘diversity’ argument has no teeth: it’s merely accidental to the way that the Church developed. It has no significance… :shrug:

As others have said, the debate is actually over significance and priority rather than over the facts of the situation.

The New Testament itself mentions teachers of other gospels and other Christs within the lifetimes of the authors, so that there was more than one strand of belief in Jesus is undisputed. The question is whether that was a departure from an identifiable true Christianity (as we believe) or whether what we call orthodoxy simply became dominant over time but has no greater claim to truth than the alternatives (as those who make the diversity argument imply).

Likewise, it is clear from the Old Testament that the early Israelites spent a lot of time worshipping local gods alongside or in place of the Lord – something often presented as a recent and shocking discovery. Again, the issue is not whether that occurred, but whether monotheism was the early ideal from which those practices deviated or whether monotheism is the later aberration.

I think you are spot on here. If we look at strands of beliefs in various parts of the Empire for, let’s say, the first six or seven centuries, orthodoxy and praxis could have gone in any number of directions. I don’t the Christianity was strong enough - or wise enough - to identify one particular strand and develop a theology around it. It was an emerging faith and it had to work out its belief system.

A lot had to do with the cultures of indigenous people where Christianity found its way. As I said earlier, Irish/Celtic Christianity was quite unique. They brought in a lot of the Druid ways, focused on monasticism over ecclesial hierarchy, and was very earth-based in its praxis. What if the Synod of Whitby had gone another way? Would the church in Britain and Ireland today be radically different? And would that have been acceptable?

Gregory of Nyssa and the Cappadocians are another example. Their understanding of the Trinity is somewhat different than Roman thought, but what I find interesting is that Gregory taught that salvation is universal. ‘No being created by God will fall outside the Kingdom of God.’ (Opera dogmatica minora) The Cappadocians DID survive and we are still reading Gregory and Basil. The Church has not fallen to pieces.

And I imagine that Iona is still practicing some rather unusual semi-Druidic rituals.

Very interesting…

Yes, and through all the heresy, diversity and strife the Church has been there to guide, to rule, and to define truth. This she has done for 2000 years and will continue to do it. Not because of Man but despite him. Without the Church, a visible, infallible entity. Headed by Christ and steered by the Holy Spirit. All of Christendom would have failed in those first few years.

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