Truth Wars and Theological Developments in Early Christian History

Church history and historical theology are like a set of tracks for a train. Both are essential to understanding the growth of Christianity over the last 2000 years. Robert Calhoun states, “It is impossible to study either satisfactorily apart from the other.”[1] This point is seen in the way theological developments influenced the trajectory of Christianity for centuries to come. For example, the emergence of Marcionism in the second century led Irenaeus to defend the biblical view of Christ and salvation. He not only exposed Marcionism as a heresy through his fourfold Gospel argument and appeal for a total reading of scripture but also influenced Athanasius’ theology which became instrumental to the development of The Nicene Creed in the fourth century.

The Heresy of Marcionism

To understand the reason why Irenaeus responded the way he did, there is a need to know why Marcion’s heretical teaching posed a threat to the doctrinal fidelity of the church in the second century.  While several false teachings were derived from pluralistic and pagan cultures, it is interesting to note that the church fathers mostly dealt with doctrinal conundrums that were influenced by philosophical ideas. For example, Everett Ferguson notes, “Gnosticism was a Christian heresy resulting from Christians explaining their faith to themselves and their neighbors in philosophical terms. . . .”[2] Ferguson adds, “Marcion shared with many Gnostics the premise of an unknown God distinct from the creator; a dualism of matter and spirit, a docetic interpretation of Jesus Christ, a negative attitude toward the Old Testament and a concern with the problem of evil in the world.”[3] Furthermore, Marcion rejected the virgin birth and taught that Jesus was not born at all but just appeared as a man. He calls Jesus the good God of the New Testament and the Father as the bad God of the Old Testament. He took the Old Testament literally but then abandoned it because he could not reconcile it with the New Testament and with Christ.[4] Interestingly, Marcion got these ideas from misreading Paul’s contrast of the law and the gospel. His theological framework and bias eventually led him to develop his own canon of scripture. He includes the ten epistles of Paul and Luke’s gospel while rejecting the rest of the gospels.[5] Dr. Manor noted that the emergence of the canon was probably a response to Marcionism.[6] However, Ferguson believes that “The church would have had its own canon in spite of Marcion, but he may have hastened the process of bringing the authoritative books together, for there was no need to pronounce judgment on what was not in dispute.”[7]

Irenaeus (Second Century)

It was during this critical time that Irenaeus rose to protect the church from Marcionism. He is considered to be the most important theologian of the second century who unmasked pseudo-Christian character of gnosis, stressed the essential unity in the Old Testament and New Testament, and introduced The Canon of Truth.[8] It is interesting to note that Irenaeus is the first to say that there are only four gospels and preserved the earliest ordering of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.[9] Ferguson states, “Over against Marcion’s narrowing of the Gospels to one (Luke) and the Gnostic enlargement through the production of new gospels, Irenaeus knew only four as authoritative.”[10] By narrowing it to only four gospels, Irenaeus was able to protect the church from the other “so-called gospels” that portrayed a different and strange Jesus (e.g., Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Peter) while addressing the problem of Marcion’s singular gospel (Gospel of Luke). Irenaeus successfully exposed Marcion’s heresy through his fourfold Gospel argument in two ways:

  1. The four canonical Gospels and a total reading of scripture reveal the true Jesus

Richard Bauckham states, “The mainstream church’s four Gospel canon emerge from that plethora of candidates for authoritative Gospel status, which meant, of course, something extremely important: the authority to define what the true Christian message was, on the basis of who the real Jesus was. . . . In that case, the fourfold Gospel collection was a response by the mainstream church to Marcion and the Gnostics, who made mainstream Christians think for the first time of the need for a defined collection of reliable Gospels.”[11] In his masterful apology, Against Heretics, Irenaeus showed how Marcion manipulated the Gospel of Luke to advance his teachings: “Besides this, he (Marcion) mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removes all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and sets aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord’s discourses, in which the Lord is recorded as most clearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is his Father. He likewise persuaded his disciples that he himself was more worthy of credit than those apostles who have handed down the gospel to us, delivering to them not the gospel, but merely a fragment of it.”[12] Irenaeus’ apology was one of the reasons why Marcion’s heresy was unsuccessful. Irenaeus was not only able to expose Marcion’s heretical teachings through his fourfold Gospel argument but was also able to prove that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah who fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, accomplishing redemption for mankind. He was aware that all of scripture points to Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of God who came to earth to fulfill the Father’s will to unite all things to Himself. Ferguson states, “One of Irenaeus’ key theological ideas is that of recapitulation. . . . He applies the idea to Jesus Christ as not only a summing up but also the bringing to a head or climax of God’s saving plan.He stressed the fundamental Christian doctrines: one God, goodness of creation, redemption through the one Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the body, the historical roots of the Christian faith. And the authority of Scripture rightly interpreted.”[13]Irenaeus’ theological framework served as a much-needed corrective to Marcion’s subjective approach in interpreting the scriptures. From Marcion’s heretical teachings we see how a misguided approach to biblical interpretation can be disastrous to oneself and to those who have been lured by it.

  1. The four canonical Gospels give us the right view of salvation

Irenaeus notes, “That John knew the one and the same Word of God, and that He was the only begotten, and that He became incarnate for our salvation, Jesus Christ our Lord, I have sufficiently proved from the word of John himself. And Matthew, too, recognizing one and the same Jesus Christ, exhibiting his generation as a man from the Virgin, even as God did promise David that He would raise up from the fruit of his body an eternal King, having made the same promise to Abraham. . . .”[14]   Irenaeus’ masterful apology, Against Heresies, was invaluable to the church in the second century as it sought to distinguish true Christianity from the counterfeits. Through it, he exposed heretics like Marcion who had a wrong understanding of salvation. Irenaeus, commenting on Marcion’s view of salvation wrote,  “Salvation will be the attainment only of those souls which had learned his doctrine; while the body, as having been taken from the earth, is incapable of sharing in salvation.”[15] Irenaeus fought Marcion and other heretics with much zeal because he understood that this was not only a hermeneutical issue but a soteriological one as well. He knew that what was at stake was a biblical understanding of the gospel. Irenaeus believed that the right interpretation was to be done from the right source and that any interpretation from the other “so-called gospels” did not contribute anything good but were sources of damning heresies. Hence, Irenaeus saw a need to affirm the books that would be classified as inspired and authoritative while rejecting those that contradict the teachings of the Apostles. Ferguson states, “Against Gnostic and Marcionite dualism, he stresses the one God, who is Creator and Redeemer; the one Lord Jesus Christ, the same pre-existent being who became incarnate; and the one history of salvation that is the plan of the one God centering in the one Christ. He is the first major author known to us to argue from Scripture as a whole, witnessing to the emerging New Testament canon and insisting on the harmony of the Old and New Testaments as successive covenants in God’s plan of salvation.”[16] Marcion’s failure to employ a total reading of Scripture is one of the major reasons why he developed a bad god (Old Testament) and good god (New Testament) theology which eventually led him to reject the Old Testament. He failed to see the coherence of scripture and how it all points to Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. Irenaeus also excelled in showing how God orchestrated events in the Old Testament to bring about His redemptive plan through the person and work of Christ in the New Testament. Ferguson states, “Irenaeus’ writings in the last two decades of the second century build from Scripture as a whole, Old and New Testaments, He goes through the words of Jesus, the Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul and other apostolic writings  (citing nearly every New Testament book) in order to refute the heretics.”[17]

            Another important figure in early church history was a man named Tertullian. He believed that truth is what separates the Christian from the pagan. Like Irenaeus, He taught that Scripture has ultimate authority and must be read as a whole.[18] According to Bruce Metzger, “The four Gospels are the Intrumentum evangelicum, and their authors, he (Tertullian) insists, are either apostles or companions and disciples of the apostles. In this course of the denunciation of Marcion, Tertullian chides him for not accepting the Acts of the Apostles and so depriving himself of information concerning the career of the Apostle Paul.”[19]  Origen also shared the same conviction that there are only four authoritative gospels: “Matthew to be sure and Mark and John, as well as Luke, did not take in hand to write, but filled with the Holy Ghost have written the gospels.”[20] Ferguson notes, “By the end of the second century, there was a core canon recognized virtually everywhere in the great church: four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen letters of Paul, and varying other apostolic writings. In general, Revelation was accepted in the West but not in the East; Hebrews was accepted in the East as a writing by Paul, but not in the West.”[21]



Athanasius (Fourth Century)

If Irenaeus dealt with a heretic like Marcion in the second century, Athanasius faced a presbyter by the name of Arius in the fourth century who taught that Jesus was not eternal and less than God. Ferguson notes, “Arius taught that Jesus Christ was not derived from the substance of the Father, but, as the first and highest of God’s creations, became the instrument of all the rest of creation.”[22] To which Athanasius responded: “The whole Being of the Son is proper to the Father’s essence, as radiance from light, and stream from fountain; so that whoever sees the Son, sees what is proper to the Father, and knows that the Son’s Being, because from the Father, is therefore in the Father.”[23]  At this point, it is important to know how Irenaeus’ fourfold gospel argument and appeal for a total reading of scripture led Athanasius to stand up for Christ as homoousios with the Father. Kenneth Baker notes, “This key idea was proclaimed by the first Council of Nicaea and is now found in the Nicene Creed which has been prayed by the Church since that time. Some of the bishops at the Council of Nicaea had difficulty with the expression “consubstantial” (homoousios) because it does not occur in the New Testament. The problem was resolved when they finally agreed that, even though the word itself is Greek in origin, the idea expressed by it is implied in the words of Jesus in the Gospels (Jn 14:9-10).”[24] 

Another key aspect to Athanasius’ theological contribution to the development of the church’s understanding of the inspiration and authority of scripture and its relationship to the Gospel was his ability to harmonize seemingly contradictory passages such as Hebrews 3:2 and John 1:1. John O’Keefe and Russell Reno note, “Athanasius develops his reading of the contrast between John 1:1 and Hebrews 3:2 by drawing attention to the fact that the focus of Hebrews, priestly intercession is a feature of the divine economy that unfolds in space and time with discrete beginnings. . . . This textual observation allows Athanasius to return to the apparent contradiction between John 1:1 and Hebrews 3:2. The former teaches something essential. The Word always is the eternally begotten Son of the Father. The latter teaches something economic. . . . For Athanasius, what commends use of Irenaeus’ notion of economy is its exegetical fruitfulness. One can resolve the apparent contradiction in the text by recourse to the distinction between essence and economy.”[25] O’Keefe and Reno add, “Despite the extremely heated controversy with the Arians, Athanasius’ exegesis of seemingly contradictory passages is marked by an interest in the coherence of scripture for its own sake and not simply for the sake of gaining a polemical upper hand.”[26] By establishing the fact that the four canonical gospels and the other books in the New Testament were inspired and authoritative, Athanasius was able to prove that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father through a total reading of scripture. Hence, the gospels and the other books in the New Testament are seen to complement each other as they provide a clearer understanding of the divinity and humanity of Christ.

Hence, by appealing for a total reading of Scripture and by affirming that the Gospel of John and the synoptics are inspired and authoritative, Athanasius was able to provide a strong argument against Arianism. This proves that a total reading of scripture combined with accurate interpretation can lead one to conclude that Jesus is the eternal Son of God. This practice also helped him draw the line between canonical and apocryphal writings that eventually led to Athanasius’ Festal Letter where he claims all 66 books of the Bible. In this letter, Athanasius listed what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament. Though other such lists had been and would still be proposed, it is Athanasius’s list that the church eventually adopted, and it is the one we use to this day.[27] Athanasius wrote, “In these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.”[28] Ferguson noted that the approach of the church was not “We determine” but We recognize” these books as apostolic.[29] Ferguson states, “The act of canonization was an act of declaring that the church was not her own authority, but that she was submitting to another authority. . . .  Forms of church polity vary, different creedal statements are accepted, and differences in the content of Scripture remain; but the steps begun in the second century have marked the path on which the churches have walked ever since.”[30]

Knowing the development of the church’s understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture and its relationship to the Gospel has made me see how God’s sovereign hand orchestrated events, both good and bad to accomplish His will.  The theological developments that occurred during the time of Irenaeus (second century) and Athanasius (fourth century) gave future theologians a theological system that helped the church better understand the nature of Christ and God’s redemptive plan.  O’Keefe and Reno state, “For Irenaeus, the interpretative value of faith in Jesus Christ is huge. To believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who is Creator of heaven and earth allows for an account of any number of interpretive difficulties, not only problems internal to the divine economy but also theological problems of the most  basic sort.”[31] The theological contributions of Irenaeus and Athanasius not only protected the church from the destructive effects of heresy but has also inspired future pastors and theologians to faithfully teach an important principle in life and ministry: Submission to the authority of Scripture must not be seen as a matter of preference but of great necessity if one is to think rightly about God and the Christian faith. Michael Allen states, “The Word of God is decisive precisely because humans left to their own devices are prone to idolatry, fashioning God according to their own conventions.”[32]   I have also come to realize that it is not through a person’s superior intellect that he can embrace complex truths about God (e.g., Incarnation, Trinity) but through childlike faith. Augustine states, “For a certain faith is in some way the starting-point of knowledge; but a certain knowledge will not be made perfect, except after this life, when we shall see face to face.”[33] As we study the scriptures, may God develop in us childlike faith to better understand His word and when we encounter doctrinal conundrums that are too complex for us to understand, may we rest in Him, knowing one day He will turn our faith into sight.


Allen, Michael, Reformed Theology: New York: T&T Clark International, 2010.

Baker, Kenneth, One in Being with the Father: San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995.

Calhoun, Robert, The Role of Historical Theology: Journal of Religion, 1941.

Ferguson, Everett, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. Digital.

Metzger, Bruce, The Canon of the New Testament: It’s Origin, Development, and Significance: Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

O’Keefe, John and Reno, Russell, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible: Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

[2] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), Kindle edition.

[5] Ibid., Lesson 19.

[6] Ibid., Lesson 23.

[9] Ibid., Lesson 26.

[10] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), Kindle edition.

[11] Richard Bauckham, The Canonicity of the Four Gospels, 3-4.

[12] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.24.2.

[13] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), Kindle edition.

[14] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.16.2.

[15] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.25.2.

[16] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), Kindle edition.

[18] Scott Manor, Video Lecture. Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale FL. Lesson 34.

[20] Origen, Homilies on Luke, trans. Jerome, 1.

[22] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), Kindle edition.

[23] Athanasius, Against the Arians, III.23.3.

[27] Christianity Today. n.d. Athanasius: Five-time exile for fighting orthodoxy.” Accessed June 12, 2020.

[28] Athanasius, “Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter”

[29] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), Kindle edition.

[30] Ibid., Kindle edition.

[31] John O’Keefe and Russell Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 40.

[33] Augustine, De Trinitate, IX.6.