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How to use this Dictionary
A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs allows the user to quickly ascertain what the early
Christians1 believed on over 700 different theological, moral, and historical topics, and it
functions as an index to the writings of the ante-Nicene writers, specifically as collected in
the ten-volume work, the Ante-Nicene Fathers.2
Why are the beliefs of these early Christian authors important? Because early Christian testimony holds that many, such as Clement of Rome and Polycarp, personally knew
the apostles of Jesus. They were approved by the apostles and appointed by the apostles to
positions of church leadership. Modern students of church history must largely depend on
these and other early Christian writers for information on topics of major import, such as
who wrote the New Testament documents and how the Christian canon of Scripture
came into being. Furthermore, these early Christians’ interpretation of the Scriptures is
among the most valuable commentary on Scripture anywhere. To be sure, none of these
writers claimed divine inspiration; nor did they equate their own writings with Scripture.
They did, however, claim that they were faithfully passing along the faith that the apostles
had delivered to the church.
Users of this dictionary should first grasp the ethos of early Christianity. That ethos
can be summarized in two basic principles: (1) the earliest Christians focused on living in
the light of the Christian message and explaining that message to nonbelievers rather than
on sharpening their theological prowess; and (2) early Christian doctrine is less elaborate
and less defined than later formulations.
To say that the early Christians focused on living the gospel rather than on theological hair-splitting does not mean that individuals taught whatever they wanted. There were
recognized boundaries that prevented such a laissez-faire attitude. Nonetheless, to the
early Christians, the heart of their faith consisted of an obedient love relationship with
Christ, not the ability to articulate dogma. None of the testimony of the writers in this volume arose from some professional theologians; rather, like the apostle Paul, many lived in
the trenches, on the cutting edge of Christian life, and in fact, a substantial number of
these early Christian writers died as martyrs.
The early church concentrated chiefly on the nature of Christian living because the
essential core of Christian belief (i.e., the “rule of faith”) can be expressed quite briefly.
The church believed that the Christian faith is a fairly simple one. Cyprian wrote,
When I use the term “early Christians” or “early church,” I am referring to the pre-Nicene
Christians and the pre-Nicene Church.
2 The Ante-Nicene Fathers
(ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; 1885–1887; repr. 10
vols. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994).
A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs
When the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, came unto all, he gathered alike the learned
and unlearned. He published the teachings of salvation to each sex and every age. He made a
concise summary of His teachings, so that the memory of the scholars might not be burdened
with the heavenly learning. Instead, we could quickly learn what was necessary to a simple
faith. (ANF 5.455).
Echoing those sentiments, Lactantius remarked,
The secrets of the Most High God, who created all things, cannot be attained by our own ability and perceptions. Otherwise, there would be no difference between God and man, if
human thought could reach to the counsels and arrangements of that eternal majesty.
(ANF 7.9)
Irenaeus criticized the heretics for going beyond the simple teachings of the faith,
saying, “They form opinions on what is beyond the limits of understanding. For this cause
also the apostle says, �Be not wise beyond what it is fitting to be wise, but be wise prudently’” (ANF 1.548).
Suppose a reader wants to know what the early Christians believed about the fall of
man. Under the entry “Fall of Man,” a number of early Christian texts are cited. Note,
though, that selected Scriptures precede the early Christian quotations. The intent is not
to include every biblical passage concerning the fall of man. Rather, these are some of the
key texts used by the early church.
Following the Scripture passages are quotations from early Christians, listed in
approximately chronological order:
The human race . . . from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile of the serpent. Each one had committed personal transgression. Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.243.
The citation identifies the source as Justin Martyr. His name is followed by (c. 160, E). The
parenthetical information indicates that Justin wrote around the year A.D. 160; the E verifies that he was an Eastern writer.3 This affords brief information about the writer, but
more information is required to place his statement in a proper perspective. A section entitled “Who's Who in the Early Church” following this introductory chapter furnishes the
added information.
Justin Martyr (JŒS-tŒn MÄRT-Œr) c. 100–165. Philosopher who converted to Christianity
and became a tireless evangelist and apologist. Justin wrote more concerning Christianity than
any other person prior to his time. He is classified herein as eastern, since he was a native of
Samaria and his thought patterns were eastern. However, he spent the last years of his life in
Rome, where he was executed as a martyr (c. 165). See JUSTIN MARTYR herein.
The closing statement, “See JUSTIN MARTYR herein,” indicates that the main section contains an entry under “Justin Martyr.” That entry contains quotations from other early
Christians concerning Justin Martyr.
The stated dates of writing are not intended to be precise. For persons whose writings span a
period of only a few years, I have usually attributed all of that person’s writing to one median date.
For example, all of Cyprian's works are dated herein as c. 250; however, the writings of authors who
wrote over an extended period of time (such as Origen) are assigned an approximate date for each
For a fuller understanding of Justin Martyr’s remarks concerning the topic “the fall
of man,” the quotation can be consulted in its full context in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. (In
fact, one of the primary purposes of this dictionary is to serve as an index to the AnteNicene Fathers.) The citation ends with the reference, 1.243, which refers to volume one,
page 243 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.4 In Ante-Nicene Fathers 1.243, the source of the quotation is identified as Justin's Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew. The preface to Dialogue with Trypho,
a Jew explains that it is an apologetic work written to the Jews. This procedure can be followed with each citation within a given entry.
A careful reader will discover that the Dictionary’s translation does not exactly match
that in the Ante-Nicene Fathers. That is because I rendered the citations into contemporary
English. I endeavored, however, not to alter the meaning. My basic procedures in making
these adaptations were as follows: (1) I have replaced archaic and academic words with
contemporary, common words. (2) I have broken down long sentences into two or more
smaller sentences. In doing so, I sometimes reused certain nouns and verbs to make complete sentences. (3) When appropriate, I have rearranged sentence structures to follow a
contemporary English pattern. (4) Where the antecedent of a pronoun lies outside the passage being quoted, I have supplied it. For example, in the course of discussing the heretical
teachings of Marcion, a writer may begin a sentence: “He also teaches. . . .” In such an
instance, I would render the quotation, “Marcion also teaches. . . .” (5) Some early Christian writers used the editorial “we” when speaking about themselves. When it is clear that
the writer is speaking only for himself, I have rendered his plural pronouns in the singular.
These steps should render these passages from the early Christians more accessible
for the modern reader. No attempt, however, was made to retranslate the pre-Nicene
writings from the available Latin and Greek texts.
Even though I collected several quotations, these are obviously only representative,
not comprehensive. At the end of the last quotation is a further directive: See also 2.102,
103. This indicates that additional relevant material appears in volume 2, pages 102 and
103. The full text has not been given since they are similar in nature and are from one of
the same authors as those already cited. For a more thorough study, look up those texts as
well. A final instruction occurs at the end of the article.
These additional subjects are related concepts that should be examined in any full
treatment of the topic, “fall of man.” Thus to better grasp the early church's view of the fall
of man, understanding early Christian teachings about death, the atonement, salvation,
and the nature of man becomes critical.
I offer one caveat: Please remember that what the early Christian writers do not say
can often be just as important as what they do say. In some cases, the early Christian writers
knew nothing at all about some of the doctrines that certain Christians today regard as
fundamental tenets of the faith. So do not be alarmed if a cross-reference does not lead to a
fuller discussion. That should not happen very often, but when it does, it is not a mistake;
Note that the Hendrickson Publishers’ edition reorders the sequence of the volumes to
make the index volume, volume 10 (not 9 as in past editions), the last volume. Volume 10 now includes an expanded index (Annotated Index of Authors and Works) and two appendixes (A. Patristic
Exegetical Works and B. The Liturgical Year).
A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs
rather, in this manner I attempted to index what the early Christians did not say. For
example, at the end of the list of quotations under Mary, you will find a cross-reference to
“Woman Clothed with the Sun and Moon.” However, when you check the various quotations under “Woman Clothed with the Sun and Moon,” you will find that all of the writers
understood this woman in Revelation to be the church, not Mary. In short, I have indexed
what the early Christian writers did not say.
To accurately grasp what the early Christians said about a given topic it becomes
important to have a basic understanding of three concepts: (1) Marcion and the Gnostics, (2) the early Christian concept of the Logos, and (3) the Scriptures of the early
Marcion and the Gnostics
Many early Christian writings were polemical works directed against the heretic
Marcion or against various Gnostics.5 Both Marcion and the Gnostics taught that the earth
and everything in it (including people) were created by a God they called the Demiurge.
They regarded the Demiurge not as the God of the New Testament; rather, the Demiurge
was thought to be more of a demigod, with certain imperfect traits. Gnostics sometimes
portrayed him as an unmerciful, unloving, and vengeful God. On occasion they referred
to him as the “just God” of the Old Testament in contrast with the “good God” of the
New Testament.
Marcion and the Gnostics also taught an exaggerated view of the fall of man. They
believed that all physical creation—including the physical body—was inherently flawed
and incapable of salvation. Accordingly, they denied the resurrection of the body, as well as
the efficacy of baptism and communion. Many taught that the Son of God did not really
become man and that he did not really die on the cross. In their teaching, the Son only
appeared to do so. These Gnostics (including a group called Docetists, from the Greek
word dokeÆ, “seem, appear”) are the persons whom John spoke of as the “antichrists,” for
they denied that Jesus had come in the flesh (2 John 7).
It would be quite difficult to understand most of the early Christian writings without some appreciation of the meanings and significance of the Greek word logos, particularly as a title of Christ. Since our English translations usually translate logos as “Word”
when this title is applied to the Son, English-speaking Christians usually fail to appreciate
the term logos and its significance. The Moffatt version of the New Testament, however,
often leaves logos untranslated when it is used as a title for the Son. For example, it renders
John 1:1: “The Logos existed in the very beginning, the Logos was with God, the Logos
was divine.” It translates Revelation 19:13 as follows: “He is clad in a robe dipped in blood
(his name is called THE LOGOS OF GOD.)”
Treatment of the “Gnostics” as a defined and understood group is problematic. Modern
scholars use the expression “Gnosticism” to describe a wide variety of groups and beliefs among
those groups. The “origins” and nature of “Gnosticism” remains a point of scholarly debate.
Moffatt left the term logos untranslated because in Greek that term means far more
than simply “word.” Its range of meaning could include “reason,” “rational principle,” and
even “mind.” Early Christians use the term logos extensively when speaking about the Son
of God. When John refers to the Son as being the Logos of God, the early Christians
understood him to mean that the Son is the eternal Rational Principle of the Father, the
Father's Counselor before all ages.6
The Early Christian Scriptures
To comprehend and appreciate what the early Christians have to say, a thorough
knowledge and grasp of Scripture are indispensable. That is because the early Christians
grounded all of their fundamental beliefs on Scripture. Nonetheless, a first reading of early
Christian quotations from Scripture can be perplexing. Not infrequently, their citations do
not read the same as do our modern Bibles. There are several reasons for this. First, when
quoting from the Old Testament, the early Christians nearly always quoted from the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek Old Testament, including the Apocrypha)—as did the apostles.
[See SEPTUAGINT herein.] In contrast, modern Old Testament translations are usually
based on the Masoretic Text. Secondly, we must remember that the early Christians had
no concordances, topical Bibles, study aids, computer Bibles, or even handy personal
Bibles. As a result, the early Christians often had to quote Scriptures from memory, which
meant they sometimes misquoted a verse or two. Furthermore, particularly in the case of
the Latin writers, citations seem to have come from a version or text that differed slightly
from later versions or editions.
Of course, the Ante-Nicene Fathers are not the only available translations of the preNicene writings. Still, I chose the present edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers as the basis for
this work for several reasons. First, the translations in the Ante-Nicene Fathers are usually
more literal than more recent translations. Secondly, other sets of translations contain only
a small portion of the pre-Nicene writings. Finally, as a practical matter, the Ante-Nicene
Fathers is the only set of the pre-Nicene writings affordable to the average person.
Theological Bias
I have made every effort to make this volume as theologically neutral as I can. I have
indexed and cross-referenced most topics under terms familiar to both Catholics and Protestants. Although the Dictionary does not purport to be exhaustive, I have attempted to
include every significant quotation under each of the indexed topics. No essential quotation has been purposefully omitted.
Scope of this Work
The Dictionary does not include all of the works contained in the Ante-Nicene Fathers
because a number of those works are either spurious, post-Nicene, or Gnostic in origin.
For examples of how the early Christians understood the word logos, see CHRIST, DIVINITY
LOGOS; and WORD OF GOD (CHRIST) in this digest.
A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs
This volume covers only recognized pre-Nicene works whose authors are considered
orthodox by the pre-Nicene church. Therefore, I have excluded the following works:
•The spurious letters of Ignatius (vol. 1).
•The Martyrdom of Ignatius, which is post-Nicene (vol. 1).
•The apocryphal and Gnostic Gospels (vol. 8).
•The pseudo-Clementine literature (vol. 8).
•The false papal decretals (vol. 8).
•The post-Nicene works incorrectly attributed to Hippolytus, such as Against Beron and
Helix (vol. 5).
•The post-Nicene works incorrectly attributed to Gregory Thaumaturgus (vol. 6).
•The quotations from the ninth-century bishop, Photius (vol. 6).
•The various liturgies, all of which are in a post-Nicene form (vol. 7).
•The various Syriac works, except for a few scattered references (vol. 8). Although
these works are worth reading, nearly all of them are from the fourth or fifth
After considerable deliberation, I have included the Apostolic Constitutions (vol. 7) in
this index, even though strong arguments exist to exclude this work. By way of objection,
these Constitutions were not compiled until nearly the end of the fourth century—a half
century or more after Nicea. Furthermore, the documents betray a spurious facade, pretending to have been written directly by the apostles themselves. The editor of the Apostolic
Constitutions even makes the ludicrous attempt to include the Constitutions in the New Testament canon (ANF 7.505). Despite these objectionable elements, the bulk of the Constitutions is pre-Nicene in origin, and is thus included. I did exclude material in the Constitutions
that is almost certainly post-Nicene in nature (or else I have included such passages in this
digest with the caveat “post-Nicene”7).
Three Mistakes to Avoid
Perhaps the most common mistake would be to employ this resource as a database
for proof-texts. It would be tempting to sift through it, noting quotations that bolster our
personal beliefs and discarding those that do not fit. Such an approach, however, inevitably
misuses the early Christian writings. By selectively choosing quotations, we make it appear
that the early Christians believed exactly as we do (which is sometimes not the case). In
short, instead of learning from those close to the apostles in time and spirit, we simply use
them for our own designs.
Another common mistake is to read the early Christian writers as though these writers were making dogmatic theological pronouncements every time they spoke. Generally,
the pre-Nicene Christian writers were not attempting to define precise points of dogma
for the rest of the church. Most of their theological discussions come up in the context of
Since chapters 1 through 32 of Book 7 of the Constitutions simply reiterate the Didache, I have
not indexed those chapters. All of that material is included under the citations for the Didache.
either (1) explaining to outsiders what Christians believed or (2) contrasting the tenets of
particular heretics with what the general body of Christians believed. They were not normally trying to convince other “orthodox” Christians what to believe.
We also must be careful not to read technical or post-Nicene meanings into theological terms used by the pre-Nicene Christians. Very rarely did “orthodoxy” (itself a fifthcentury term) in the early church turn on the issue of using this word instead of that word.
The early Christians understood orthodoxy in terms of general concepts, not meticulous
theological definitions. As Clement of Alexandria put it, “Those who are particular about
words, and devote their time to them, miss the point of the whole picture” (ANF 2.347).
Although theology was important to the early church, it took a back seat to living the
Christian life.
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