Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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The Early Church and its Foundational Dogmas

Rev. Angus Stewart

(Slightly modified from articles first published in the British Reformed Journal)


In the previous article, I wrote of the importance of the doctrine of the covenant and the idea of the development of doctrine. I also presented three lines of support for the position that the covenant is a bond of friendship between the Triune God and His elect people in Jesus Christ. First, the covenant formula, "They will be my people and I will be their God," speaks of the covenant in terms of a personal relationship. Second, Genesis 3:15—the first covenant promise—presents salvation as enmity with Satan and, hence, friendship with the Triune God. Third, the earthly symbols and figures of the covenant include marriage, the father-son relationship and the tabernacle/temple. Together the first two (marriage and the father-son relationship) picture the covenant as a strong, intimate bond of love. The third figure (the tabernacle/temple) speaks of God dwelling with His people. This was realized in the Incarnation when God "dwelt" (literally "tabernacled") with man (John 1:14).

Presbyterian and Reformed churches rightly confess the covenant as central to biblical revelation and hence to theology. God is the covenant God in Himself enjoying the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (theology). (Elect) man is the covenant creature with whom God graciously enters into communion (anthropology). Jesus is the covenant Christ who mediates God’s presence as Immanuel ("God with us;" Christology). The Holy Spirit applies to us the covenant blessings purchased for us by Christ thus enabling us to fellowship with the Triune God (soteriology). The church is the covenant community consisting of those who are God’s friends (ecclesiology). Finally, the future is the future of the people of God, for the development and culmination of world history serves the consummation of God’s covenant when the tabernacle of God will be with man (eschatology).

The early church, however, unlike Reformed theology, did not make the covenant central.1 In fact, the early church did very little with the doctrine of the covenant. First, none of the fathers wrought a book on the covenant—that would await Heinrich Bullinger’s Of the One and Eternal Covenant of God (1534). Second, the covenant was not treated as an element in the more systematic expositions of the faith, such as Origen’s (c.185-c.254) famous work On First Principles. Third, the covenant is rarely developed in other works of the fathers. Thus we find that standard works on the theology of the early church do not have an entry in the index entitled "covenant."2

This benign neglect of the doctrine of the covenant in the writings of the fathers is partly to be accounted for in its not being mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. Thus Rufinus (c.350-c.410) could write his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed and Cyril of Jerusalem (c.310-386) could expound the Apostles’ Creed in his Catechetical Lectures for baptismal candidates without dealing with the covenant. Similarly, the covenant is not mentioned in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (325, 381) or in the Chalcedonian Creed (451). The reason for this is obvious: these creeds were statements on controverted subjects (the Trinity and the Person and natures of Christ) upon which protracted and deep study was made. At that time the covenant was not an issue in the church and so it did not warrant treatment in the creeds.

But why in the purpose of God should the Trinity and the Person and natures of Christ be the first subjects over which intense controversy should rage in the churches necessitating a creedal statement? The answer lies in the foundational nature of these doctrines. Satan recognized these doctrines as basic to the truth of all of God’s revelation and attacked them first. Should these doctrines be lost in the church, he realized, there could be no salvation.3 Christianity then would only be a Unitarian religion of moralism.

However, God’s purpose in bringing these doctrines to the fore first is paramount. God desired that He be the first subject dealt with thoroughly in the history of doctrine. Moreover, logically God is first in the field of theology since He is all in all, the One who is before all things and of whom, through whom and unto whom are all things. Having established that salvation comes from the Triune God, the church next had to set forth the doctrine of the Person of Christ. In this way, salvation was seen to be not only from the true God alone but also through the true Christ alone.

Salvation is indeed the key here. This was the issue for Athanasius (c.296-373) when he opposed the Arians, who denied the Deity of Christ, and this was the issue for the orthodox in their battles with the Docetists, the Apollinarians, the Nestorians and the Eutychians, who held heretical views of the Person and natures of Christ.4 Thus the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed speaks of the Trinity and the Person and work of Christ as being "for us men and for our salvation" and the Chalcedonian Creed speaks of Christ as one divine Person in two natures "for us and for our salvation."

Unless the Father and the Son and the Spirit are God, our salvation depends on God and two creatures, and thus we cannot be saved. Athanasius also argued in his On the Incarnation of the Word that only One who was truly God could reveal the Father to us. Furthermore, unless Christ has a true human nature (against the Docetists) that is complete (against the Apollinarians) and distinct from His divine nature (against the Eutychians), He could not save the whole of man by His substitutionary atonement. Also Christ’s human nature has to be inseparably connected to His divine nature in order to render His salvation effective.

But how is this related to the covenant? The doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Person of Christ are foundational to all of Christian theology and hence also to the doctrine of the covenant. This may easily be proved. All of the glorious attributes of God—about which the fathers wrote a great deal—are necessary for us to have a deep, rich relationship with Him.5 But so also is the fact that He is the Triune God, the personal God who has life in Himself and is life. Only if God is a living, communicating, personal God in Himself as Father, Word and Spirit can He fellowship with us and bring us into His own covenant life.6 Indeed it is only a personal God who can create other persons! Similarly, only a mediator who is truly God can give us the knowledge of God (cf. Matt. 11:27), something necessary for covenant friendship. Moreover only one who is truly and fully man can know our struggles and sympathize with us, something essential for real friendship. Thus the early church’s doctrines of the Trinity and the Person of Christ are basic to the doctrine of the covenant.

Perhaps an analogy would be helpful. I Peter 1:23 speaks of regeneration as the planting of a divine "seed." In our regeneration we are given a new nature that is completely righteous and holy. We already possess all of our sanctification in this seed form. The continued operation of God will lead to the development of this new life over time. Similarly, all the doctrines of the Christian faith are organically related. Thus they are all implied in each other, though in various ways, with some being more directly implied than others. The mature plant of true doctrine, which grows out of the seed, is thus seen to be contained in the seed all along. This serves not only as an indication of the vitality of the church’s traditional doctrines but also as a sort of verification of the truth both of the older and of the newer doctrinal development.

Clearly then the most important contribution of the early church to the doctrine of the covenant is its formulating the doctrines of the Trinity and the Person and natures of Christ. Upon this foundation, later theologians would build their covenant views.

However, not only may all of the topics of theology be considered covenantally but several specific teachings of Presbyterian and Reformed churches are developed in the light of the doctrine of the covenant. We may identify the following: (1) the fellowship between the Three Persons in the Holy Trinity; (2) Adam’s relationship with God in the state of innocence; (3) Adam’s covenant headship of the human race and original sin; (4) Christ’s covenant headship over the elect human race; (5) the doctrine of the Christian life as one of fellowship and thankfulness; (6) the place of children in the church including paedobaptism, catechetics and Christian education; (7) the unity of the church from the beginning to the end of the world; and (8) the unity of the two testaments and progressive revelation.7

The early church did not explicitly develop the first six topics of the above list in the light of the covenant. However, she clearly understood the covenant as a means for establishing the unity of the church and the unity of the Old and New Testaments, the seventh and eighth doctrines listed above.

First, let us consider the early church’s use of the covenant as a basis for the unity of the Bible. Irenaeus (flourished c.175-195) writes,

But one and the same householder produced both covenants, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who spake with both Abraham and Moses, and who has restored us anew to liberty, and has multiplied to us that grace which is from Himself.8

Irenaeus explains how the new covenant is greater then the old (IV:ix:2), before discussing God’s progressive revelation whereby Christ’s people "make progress through believing in Him, and by means of the [successive] covenants ... gradually attain to perfect salvation" (IV:ix:3).

John Chrysostom (c.349-407) expresses the truth that the author of the old and new covenants is the same in more explicitly Trinitarian terms:

As the old covenant was given not by the Father only, but also by the Son, so the covenant of grace proceeds from the Father as well as the Son, and their every act is common: "All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine" (John 15:16).9

Second, the early church also used the covenant to establish the unity of the church of all ages. Justin Martyr (c.100-165), after quoting Jeremiah 31:31-32, the classic text on the new covenant, writes,

Jesus Christ ... is the new law, and the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God. For the true spiritual Israel, and the descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.10

The unknown author of the Epistle of Barnabus (c.100) writes pointedly, "But let us see if this people [the church] is the heir, or the former [the Jews], and if the covenant belongs to us or to them."11 His answer is clear: the Jews were once the people of God, but since they have rejected the Son of God now the covenant belongs to the church. Justin Martyr puts it succinctly. He tells Trypho, a Jew, that the "Scriptures" are "not yours, but ours."12

So far we have seen, first, that the early church’s work on the Trinity and the Person of Christ is foundational to the development of the doctrine of the covenant and, second, that the early church clearly used the covenant as a basis for establishing both the unity of the Old and New Testaments and the unity of the church of all ages. Now we shall see, third, that the early church’s conception of salvation is not inconsistent with covenant fellowship.

The church fathers did not define the covenant as a bond of friendship between God and His people in Jesus Christ. Did they, however, approach the conception of salvation as fellowship with God? On this point we have to acknowledge that the fathers are not always very detailed, nor are they always correct, in their treatment of the content of salvation.13 For example, they did not fully grasp many of the implications of salvation by grace alone, for most of them taught that man still has free will in some sense and often they lapsed into moralistic strains. This is evident from an earlier quotation from Justin Martyr that "Jesus Christ ... is the new law, and the new covenant."14 To their credit, they would say that salvation is necessary, that it is the work of God through Christ and by the Spirit, and that it includes the forgiveness of sins, a godly life, membership in the holy, catholic church, a part in the resurrection of the just and the joy of heaven, but it was not fleshed out by them as fully and as accurately as it would later be in Reformed theology.

However, in the church fathers’ various presentations of salvation or man’s chief blessedness or the Christian life they do speak of fellowship and a living relationship with God and we do see suggestions of friendship with the Triune God as the chief good. The fathers as a whole, especially in their apologetic writings, often speak of Christ as providing the knowledge of the true God. Immortality, sharing in the deathless life of God, is often spoken of as a major benefit of salvation.15 Moreover, divine felicity and love are frequently presented as man’s chief good in life.

Clement of Rome (flourished c.90-100) refers to the covenant in more than one place in his letter I Clement but only in quotations from the Bible and without any development (xv, xxxv). He speaks of love as a bond but makes no reference to the covenant in this connection (xlix).16 However, when he first mentions Abraham he immediately describes him as the "friend of God" (x). Later, he again gives him this same honorific title (xvii). Clement clearly liked this idea of friendship with God. He did not call it covenant friendship, nor did he go on to develop the idea of being a friend of God but he found this conception attractive.

In the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus (c.130), we read that

God ... formed [man] after His own image, to whom He sent His only begotten Son, to whom He has promised a kingdom in heaven, and will give it to those who have loved Him. And when you have attained this knowledge, with what joy do you think you will be filled? Or how will you love Him who has first loved you? And if you love Him, you will be an imitator of His kindness.17

A life of loving God and rejoicing in Him and imitating His kindness is clearly one of communion with our blessed Creator and Redeemer.

Robert Schnucker points out that Origen (c.185-c.254) argues in his book On Prayer that "prayer is not a petition, but a participation in God’s life."18 Surely, "participation in God’s life" involves fellowship with the living God.

In a passage in which he compares the two covenants, Chrysostom states that, "There [in the old covenant], it was slave with master, here [in the new covenant], it is friend with friend." He goes on to speak of the covenant blessings as "life everlasting," "the Holy Spirit," "heaven" and being "born" as "sons of God" so that "we are all one from the side of Christ."19 This is a highly significant quotation, for here Chrysostom says that life in the new covenant is friendship with God in the enjoyment of all the blessings of salvation. To say the least, however, this insight into the covenant is rare.

To summarize, the fathers did not see covenant friendship as the apex of our salvation and hence did not subordinate the various covenantal blessings to the idea of fellowship. With a little thought, however, all or most of their perspectives on salvation could be related to covenant friendship with God.


1 In this article, the early church is used to refer to the post-apostolic church up to and including the Council of Chalcedon (451), with the exclusion of Augustine (354-430) whom we shall consider next.
2 Cf. Robert R. Williams, A Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church Fathers (Eerdmans, 1960); Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1971); J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (HarperSanFrancisco, rev. 1978).
3 Cf. the Athanasian Creed: "Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith: Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity ... Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation: that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ ... This is the Catholic Faith: which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved" (1-3, 29, 44).
4 The Arians, named after Arius, a presbyter of Alexander, taught that Christ is not God but is created by the will of the Father.
The Docetists taught that Christ only seems to be a man.
The Apollinarians, named after Apollinarius, Bishop of Laodicea in Syria, taught that while Christ has a body and a soul, the eternal Son took the place of His spirit.
The Nestorians, named after Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, taught that Christ is two persons. 
The Eutychians, named after Eutyches, a presbyter and the head of a monastery in Constantinople, taught that Christ possesses only one nature.
5 Cf. Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. William Hendriksen (Banner, repr. 1991).
6 Cf. Thomas C. Oden: "The very idea of person comes from early Christian theology" (The Living God [Prince Press, 1998], p. 218).
7 Cf. Peter Y. De Jong, The Covenant Idea in New England Theology 1620-1847 (Eerdmans, 1945), p. 50.
8 Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV:ix:1, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 (Eerdmans, repr. 1987), p. 472.
9 Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of St. Paul the Apostle to the Galatians and Ephesians, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 13 (Eerdmans, repr. 1983), p. 6.
10 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho xi, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 (Eerdmans, repr. 1987), p. 200.
11 Epistle of Barnabusxiii, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 (Eerdmans, repr. 1987), p. 145.
12 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho xxix, p. 209.
13 Cf. J. N. D. Kelly: " The student who seeks to understand the soteriology of the fourth and early fifth centuries [and, of course, the previous few centuries] will be sharply disappointed if he expects to find anything corresponding to the elaborately worked out syntheses which the contemporary theology of the Trinity and the Incarnation presents" (Early Christian Doctrines [HarperSanFrancisco, rev. 1978], p. 375).
14 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho xi, p. 200; italics mine. See also Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV:xii:1-5, pp. 475-476.
15 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 153-154.
16 David Engelsma points out that the fathers had a conception of an unbreakable bond in their view of marriage (Marriage: The Mystery of Christ and the Church [Reformed Free Publishing Association, rev. 1998], pp. 181ff.). But they did not consider whether the covenant was an unbreakable bond.
17 Epistle to Diognetus x, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1 (Eerdmans, repr. 1987), p. 29.
18 Robert Schnucker, "Origen," in The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, gen. ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1974), p. 733.
19 Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of St. Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 13 (Eerdmans, repr. 1983), p. 287.