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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
William Cecil Duncan
From History of the Early Baptists, 1857
In a previous section, a sketch has been given of the "speculative doctrines of the Apostolic Church and of the Church Fathers". But little, however, has yet been said of the practical doctrines of the Early Church; those doctrines which intertwined themselves with the whole life of believers, and prompted them to every word and action. Jesus, as has been intimated, did not teach a Dogmatic Theology; but only imparted, in a fragmentary form, the eternal truths of the religion of Heaven.
The Apostles, particularly Paul and John, formed indeed a system of doctrines; but not a sharply-defined and logical system like that of the Schoolmen of the middle ages, and those of the Schools of Theology of our day. It was long, however, before believers at large began to build up the doctrines of Christianity in a connected and systematic manner.
At first, they were satisfied with the simple confession that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, that he is the Messiah promised by the prophets, and that he is the Son of God and the Saviour of the world. Whoever received these simple truths in honesty of heart, and, having openly confessed his belief in them, at his baptism, afterwards conformed to their requirements in his life, he was a Christian.
The baptismal confession of faith related rather to the facts than to the speculative doctrines of Christianity. He who uttered it professed his belief, in words few and simple, in God, the Father, Creator of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ, as the Son of God; in the Holy Ghost, as the vivifier of the Church; in the forgiveness of sins through Christ, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
At a later period, early in the second century, preparatory instruction, in some of the leading doctrines of Christianity, was given to candidates for baptism; and hence arose in Alexandria, in which city also Theology was first cultivated as a science, the catechumenate, or preparatory school, for young believers who were not yet, as was thought, sufficiently enlightened in the truths of the Christian religion to be admitted, by baptism, into the full fellowship of the faithful.
It was quite necessary in the early days of Christianity, that there should be a well understood outline of Christian doctrine, which should constitute a "rule of faith"; for at this period the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament did not exist in a collected form, and had by no means found their way into the whole of Christendom. Christianity was propagated in that age by the verbal preaching of the Word, not by the circulation of the Scriptures. The melting story of Jesus and the resurrection was told by the living voice, and not by pen, and ink, and paper.
The New Testament itself arose out of the necessities of the Church; and to understand it fully, we, in this day, must know what those necessities were. Early Christianity had and knew no religious text-book other than the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The Epistles of Paul, the first written of the books of the New Testament, grew out of the peculiar wants of churches which he had founded, or instructed; and the Gospels themselves, indispensable as they are in this age, were written years after the Lord's death, to keep alive his memory forever in the world.
The hand of God was in this all. He raised up the early Church; and He prepared men in it, who, moved and guided by the Spirit, should give to all men, in a fixed and permanent form, the narrative of Jesus and redeeming love.
Verbal tradition, kept pure by the providence of God, first instructed the Church, and then holy men, directed by the Spirit, recorded that tradition in the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament. The Church was founded. on the living Word of God; and this Word was afterwards recorded by competent and heaven-inspired penmen, in indelible characters, in the Scriptures of the New Covenant of mercy and love.—This, preserved, under God, by the early Church, has come down to us uncorrupted and truthful; telling to us from Apostolic or heaven-guided pens, if not from Apostolic lips, the wondrous story of redemption.
The primitive Christians believed in a God, uncreated, invisible, and eternal; a God, who is the Father of all things, who has made Himself visible to men in Jesus Christ, His Son, and who works in believers by the power of the Holy Ghost. This was the ground-doctrine of their faith. Christ was their Redeemer, their Sanctifier, and the source of all their blessings, temporal as well as spiritual. By his death, He freed them from the condemnation of the law; by His intercession, and the workings of the Holy Spirit, He purified and preserved them from sin; and by His mighty power over all things, He raised them from the grave, and conveyed the in to eternal glory.
Positive and fixed rules of Faith, they had few; but evidences and fruits of Faith, they had many. Faith and hope in Jesus as the Son of God, as the Saviour of the world, and as the Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven, was the root and kernel of their Christian life; the star which led them on to life eternal.
Their hearts were directed to Him; from Him, when persecuted, they looked for help and strength; and from Him they expected the perfection of the Church, and victory over every foe. Burning with love, they offered their hearts to Him: they gave all to Him, because in Him and by Him they firmly expected to attain everlasting joy and felicity. Their "lives were hid with Christ in God."