As part of the countdown to celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in October, Lion & Phoenix will run a weekly series called “Protestant Profiles” – featuring notable Protestant Christians from across the 5 centuries. This post is the first of two “prelude” posts, introducing significant figures who contended for the faith in significant ways in the centuries of Church History before the Reformation of 1517.
Protestantism as we know it did not exist until well into the reforming ministry of Martin Luther and his allies in the 16th century. But while the circumstances were often very different, the Protestant Reformers were hardly the first significant figures in Christian history to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints against dangerous foes.
Some did it from positions of power and influence within the church, to preserve God’s people from infection with deadly, soul-destroying error. Some were deprived of their positions in the face of ascendant heresy and had to fight with a rearguard action to recover the ground seized by heretics. And others still were isolated, but somewhat prophetic voices within a corrupted church that had lost its way: they faced harassment, disparagement and even death.
Three larger-than-life figures from the early centuries of church history demonstrate the same spirit of fighting for the faith that was evident many years later in the Protestant Reformation. Each of them were bishops in the Church, charged with guarding the deposit of the gospel entrusted to them. And each of them was forced to act as a champion of truth when it came under serious threat from false teaching. These are their stories…
Irenaeus (c. 130-202 AD)
Born: Smyrna (modern day Turkey)
Role: Bishop of Lugdunum, Gaul (Lyons, France)
Opponents: Gnostics (incl. Valentinus)
Irenaeus is one of the most significant early church figures, reportedly learning Christianity from Polycarp, who was connected to the Apostle John. The apostle himself seems to have already been addressing a nascent form of gnosticism during his lifetime, with the epistles 1 & 2 John condemning any teaching that denies Jesus had really come in the flesh as an authentic human being. Gnosticism held the dualistic view that spirit was pure and good and matter (including the human body) was inconsequential at best, but corrupt and evil at worst. This compromised their understanding of who Jesus was in the most severe way, since they could not accept the idea that he really became incarnate in a physical human body. Gnostics were also generally defined by their insistence that they had secret knowledge that set them apart from others, including Christians who had not joined their sect.
Irenaeus rejected the Gnostic claim to special knowledge and insisted that Christian orthodoxy was transmitted by the apostles and earliest disciples to their successors and plainly expressed in the Scriptures. He also vigorously defended the biblical presentation of Christ’s incarnation: as involving the union of Deity with a fully human nature. Church historian Philip Schaff writes:
The task of Irenæus was twofold: (1) to render it impossible for any one to [confuse] Gnosticism with Christianity, and (2) to make it impossible for such a monstrous system to survive, or ever to rise again. His task was a nauseous one; but never was the spirit enjoined by Scripture more patiently exhibited, nor with more entire success.
He wrote On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis or Against Heresies, which is a sustained dismantling of Gnosticism. In his introduction, he gives a striking description of theological error (specifically with Gnosticism in mind).
Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced . . . more true than the truth itself.
The forces of early Christian orthodoxy, represented by Irenaeus, triumphed over the nonsensical knavery of Gnosticism – which has since that time remained sidelined by mainstream Christian understanding of theology, Christology and the transmission of religious truth. But Irenaeus’ warning above is a timeless one: the need to remain vigilant against lies dressed up as truth is a constant one.
Little biographical information on Irenaeus is available, but you can read his “Against Heresies” here.
Athanasius (c. 296-373)
Born: Alexandria, Egypt
Role: Bishop of Alexandria
Opponents: Arians, Semi-Arians
Athanasius may have began from the vantage point of ecclesiastical power as a bishop, like Irenaeus. But he shares striking similarities with the later Reformers in that he was severely marginalised by religious and political powers and the error he faced was much more successful than Gnosticism at infiltrating and almost seizing control of the Church.
Athanasius’ native Alexandria saw a theological conflict arise between the bishop Alexander and a priest named Arius. Alexander had an orthodox view of the Trinity, teaching that the Son was co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. Arius mistook his views for Sabellianism, an earlier heresy which had been condemned by the Church, and begin to attack Alexander’s teaching. At the core of Arius’ heresy was the belief that Jesus, or the Son, was not eternal and was a lesser, created being in relation to the fully divine Father. Arius accepted the biblical teaching that the Son pre-existed the world and that the Father made all things through Him, but he insisted that there was a time when the Son did not yet exist.
Arius’ heresy became influential amongst a number of Christian leaders and threatened to infect the Church when it gained favour in the imperial court due to Eusebius of Nicomedia, a key ally of Arius. Arius’ views were rejected by the First Nicene Council in 325, where Athanasius put forward the description “consubstantial” (i.e. sharing one substance or essence) to describe the relationship between Father and Son in opposition to the Arian view.
Several lines in the Nicene Creed intentionally oppose his doctrine of Christ.
[I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
Arius was banished as a result of the Council condemning his heresy. But just a few short years after the Council’s definitive settling of the issue, Eusebius managed to instigate a resurgence of Arianism in the imperial family and eventually succeeded in having Emperor Constantine exile Athanasius (who had by now succeeded the late Alexander as bishop) from Alexandria and his bishopric.
Athanasius fought tenaciously for biblical orthodoxy and the Christology accepted by the Nicene Council, even though the political and religious opposition he faced often seemed insurmountable. He endured a total of five exiles under various emperors and became identified with the phrase Athanasius contra mundum – “Athanasius against the world.” It was a few years after his death before Arianism finally faded into insignificance, but had Athanasius not contended so vigorously for the truth about Christ for all the years that he did, the heresy could have persisted for much longer and harmed many more souls than it did.
For an excellent biography of Athanasius, visit here.
Born: Thagaste, Numidia (Algeria)
Role: Bishop of Hippo Regius
Opponents: Pelagius, Donatists
Augustine is one of the most significant influences on the entire Western Church (as well as having widespread influence in Eastern Christianity). A fuller treatment of his life and ministry can be found here, but we shall limit our focus to his contentions with the doctrines of a monk named Pelagius.
Pelagius was a moralist who took issue with the way teachings on grace could contribute to loose living. He propounded contrary views to Augustine and others, on matters such as predestination, free will, original sin. Pelagius’ teaching would have seen Christians adopt a fundamentally different view of human nature to what the Bible teaches and along with it a different view of how salvation and sanctification (or growth in holiness) worked in the Christian life.
Augustine argued, against Pelagian teaching, that human nature since the Fall of Adam was severely corrupted and that people had a sin problem, inherited from Adam, from the beginning of their lives. He rejected Pelagius’ view that men, women and children had the power in themselves to choose good over evil and live lives that were pleasing to God. Augustine saw the need for God to change our nature through the work of the Holy Spirit and the good news of the gospel, before our sinful hearts could respond to God in the way He called us to.
Pelagius’ view would have seen people get the glory for their own salvation, by making the right choices to obey God and live holy lives. Augustine insisted that God alone was humanity’s Saviour and only He could set us free from ourselves and the evil within. God chose to save some from out of the countless multitude of rebels in the world, setting His grace upon them and enabling them to be transformed into the likeness of Christ and to live out the obedience of faith.
Pelagian and “semi-Pelagian” ideas are still prevalent in certain sectors of the Christian Church today: even though Augustine won the day and saw Pelagianism condemned by the Church as false teaching.
Augustine was one of the most significant influences on the Protestant Reformation outside of the Scriptures. While Irenaeus and Athanasius serve as early models of contenders for the faith – Augustine contributed directly to Luther, Calvin & co.’s recovery of a biblical view of salvation and grace. His views were very influential in the Catholic Church and remain so to this day, but regrettably the Church ignored part of Augustine’s teaching that it sorely needed.
While the Church did progressively fall into error in later centuries, things would have been immeasurably worse had these three not fought and won their respective battles. Next time we’ll look at three proto-Reformers, who went against the tide in the Catholic Church in an attempt to address some of the serious problems which had arisen.
Information for this article largely gleaned from Wikipedia and Shelley’s standard text on Church History.