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A Brief History of Christian Doctrine

I am working my way through a very interesting iTunes U course: “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought,” by Dr. John M. Frame. I would heartily recommend this course especially to more advanced theology students: it really shines a light on the thought processes behind various theological systems, and ties church history together well. A word of caution, however: this course will be tough for those who do not have a fairly comprehensive grasp on theology and church history.

Frame provides a helpful system which makes it easy to summarize the first 1600 years of Church history into two repeating cycles: 1) synchronization, 2) heresy, 3) reformation, 4) a new synthesis. I think that these patters are also repeating themselves in smaller ways in recent history and in our own day.


Phase 1: Synchronization

We begin our journey in Alexandria, deep in the second century of church history. Here, a passionate young man is enrolling in seminary. Seminary? Really? So early in church history? Yes, indeed. The school at Alexandria began as a “catechetical” school (a.k.a. a school to prepare new Christians for baptism) but quickly grew into a heady institution of learning, which trained up the brightest and best in the ancient Christian world. Alexandria was the logical place for such a school, since it was the home of the famous “Library of Alexandria” – the biggest library in the ancient world – and a major centre of learning. At the time that Origen was enrolling, the school was run by Clement of Alexandria. Significantly, Clement was an expert not only in Christianity, but also in the wisdom and philosophy of his day. He taught his pupil well, and soon Origen outshone his mentor, becoming the brilliant mind of his time – respected in the Christian and secular world.

Origen’s strength was his ability to express the timeless truths of Christianity in the language of the philosophers of his day. His weakness? Increasingly, it became difficult to determine whether Origen was teaching Christian theology with Greek vocabulary, or pasting Christian philosophy over a Greek theology. Origen’s version of Christianity was far more appealing to his contemporaries – especially those in elite circles – but at what cost?

Phase 2: Heresy

Origen is remembered by the epithet: “The father of all orthodoxy, and the father of all heresy.” Many of his thoughts have been extremely valuable. Many have been devestating. According to Frame, Origen’s synchronization of Greek and Christian thought paved the way for the heresy of Arianism. Arius was a popular author who simply put the prevailing thoughts of Christianity into a popular-level book. Greek thought tended to focus on the extreme distance of God from us. How could such a “holy” (a.k.a. “set apart”) God interact with filthy, sinful humans? Greeks had a notion of a chain of lesser beings (think angels, demigods, etc.), emanating from the real God. Building on the foundation laid by Origen, Arius proposed that Jesus was a creation of “God the Father” – a lesser being, a demi-god designed to interact with humanity, so that the “high-God” could keep His hands clean. The result was a heretical form of Christianity which left no real place for the gospel and lead towards a works-righteousness. This is the same heresy which modern-day Jehovan’s Witnesses follow.

His thoughts caught on like wild-fire. Within a few decades – and in spite of major councils and church actions against it – the heresy of Arianism was quickly on its way towards swallowing Christianity whole.

Phase 3: Reformation

In passing, we must mention Turtullian. Turtullian is famous for the phrase, “What has Jerusalem to do with Jerusalem?” He was a contemporary of Clement, and had the opposite mindset than he did. In a time when others (E.g. Clement and Origen) were working hard to synthesize Christianity and Greek thought, Turtullian sought to blast them apart. He laid the foundation for a very important thinker, Athanasius.

Frame says that we do not appreciate Athanasius so much for his theological precision as for his extreme tenacity. He is famous for his saying, “Athanasius against the world!” In a time when the majority of Christendom – including the newly-appointed “Holy Roman Emperor” – were Arian, Athanasius stood firm. Although he was persecuted, derided, and exiled time without number, he stood fast. In the end, his firm resolve steered the church back onto a firm, Trinitarian heading.

Phase 4: A New Synthesis

This is the point at which Augustine stepped in. With his sharp mind and exceedingly broad grasp of all that had come before, Augustine was able to summarize and synthesize the theological developments of the first few centuries into a compact, Christian theology for the future. As much as most people disagree with him on some points, there are virtually no Christians – especially none in the Western church – who have not benefited immensely from his thought.

When the Roman Empire fell, and the long “Dark Ages” began, it was Augustine who defined orthodoxy for Christianity, and more or less kept it on course. Kept it on course, that is, until the Renaissance.


During the middle ages, the Western Christian world came in contact once again with Greek thought, mediated through the Islamic world. This occurred in part through the crusades: Frame also points out that the best seminaries/universities at the time were Islamic. As odd as it sounds, the leading Christian thinkers of the day were sent off to study under Muslim thinkers, before entering positions of power and authority in the Christian world. The re-emergence of Greek thought was presenting a problem for Christianity. As people took Aristotle and neo-Platonism as “authorities,” they began to question the truth of the Bible, which had such “out-dated” claims as a created world (Aristotle thought it was eternal), and a God could condescend to incarnate Himself as a human.

For a few decades, the hot topic within Christianity was Aristotle. Should they ban him as a dangerous false-teacher, and burn his books? One man had a different idea.

Phase 1: Synchronization

Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican monk, a traveling professor who gives hope to all the slower seminary students. In seminary he was dubbed “the dumb ox” – yet he grew up to become the major thinker of his day, and continues to be the dominant voice in Catholic theology. According to Frame, Thomas Aquinas’ solution to Aristotle was to “baptize him.” Like Origen before him, Aquinas was able to bring together the best of Aristotle, neo-Platonism and Christianity, to produce an entirely new system, which has come to be known as “the Medieval Synthesis.” Naturally, this synthesis made Christianity far more attractive to the Greek-leaning culture of his day, and was able to answer the pressing apologetic concerns of his time, boosting the popularity of Christianity. Again, however, we must ask, “at what cost?”

Phase 2: (Error and) Heresy

According to Frame, one of the major flaws in Aquinas was his downplaying of sin. Humans are not “totally depraved” (as Augustine had taught before him), but were sort of wounded. They still needed grace, but there was also room for works. Once again, the church began a drift away from the gospel of salvation from sin, and towards a works-righteousness salvation. In addition to this, Aquinas’ mixing of Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine enaugurated one of the most embarassing theological schools in history – the Scholastics. This was a time when “Christian” academia was preocuppied with high philosophical speculations on trivial matters.

The heretic which Frame mentions directly is John Tetzel, who was the Medieval equivalent of a snake-oil salesman. His flagrant abuse of the sale of “indulgences” (a purchased piece of paper, sold by the church, which would grant a pardon for sins) scandalized many, and sparked the reformation.

Phase 3: Reformation.

Enter Luther. Now we are on more familiar ground. Like Athanasius before him, Luther has done more service to the church with his bull-headed, dogmatic, unflinching and unapologetic devotion to the truth than for his theological precision. Luther’s montra was: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo Gloria. That is, Scriptures alone,” (which teaches) “faith alone,” (resulting in salvation by) “grace alone,” (through) “Christ alone,” “to the glory of God alone.” Step aside works righteousness, step aside philosophical speculation, and for goodness sake get out of the marketplace, John Tetzel! It was time to return the church to her Christian moorings, in the gospel!

Phase 4: A New Synthesis

In the wake of the monumental, chaotic career of Luther came Calvin, who was able to draw from the wisdom of Augustine and the ancients – as well as the insights of Luther and the reformers – to create a new foundation, which we Evangelicals are standing on today.

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