Second century Christianity faced monumental trials. It was besieged by Roman authorities at every turn. The pagan culture fought violently against this new and growing religion that claimed one way to one God. Further, within the church there was no doctrinal consensus between churches that were increasingly run city by city through bishops that held differing views. Divergent teachings among the bishops left gaping breaches of fertile ground for the enemy of Christ to sow heresy and division, and sow he did, leading foremost with the persistent Gnostics.
Persecution continued to spread the Gospel with the blood of martyrs. The infant Christian Church was flourishing in numbers and spirit, lacking nothing in fervency if somewhat in consensus doctrine. Converts streamed to the foot of the cross at great personal peril and, despite the persecutions, it was becoming a dominant religion in the Roman Empire with shocking speed.
But heresies within the church were a constant menace to the spiritual health and ultimate destiny of the Church of Jesus Christ. People were easily swayed by eloquent, fiery leaders because they had no canonized Scripture yet and the copies of Gospels and epistles could hardly circulate fast enough to follow the church. Different bishops and teachers created different doctrines, even theologies. And then more heretical movements would spring up. These heresies and internal disputes forced the church to nail down proper understandings of the faith based on Scriptures.
But it did not happen overnight. In fact, it took centuries.
Into this chasm of soft and shifting doctrines stepped several men that God used to build upon the first, infant steps taken by Ignatius, Polycarp and Irenaeus. Men such as Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen and Cyprian started solidifying doctrine, although not without some missteps. Indeed, this era would not only produce some giants of the faith that continue to influence Christians today in subtle but fundamental ways, but also present us with some of the most controversial figures in the history of Christianity – oftentimes in the same men. The foundation of the church was not without rocky moments, including those brought by believers who were pivotal in moving the cross forward.
But this is not an era that calls for quick judgment against the men who erred. Monday morning quarterbacking 17 centuries later is ungenerous. It is essential to understand that they were sifting through unsettled and variable doctrines with almost no backdrop of available Scripture or orthodox tradition, while at the same time suffering under the whip of persecution and the heavy weight of Greek and Roman philosophies.
But even then, it seems they got a lot of it right.
The early church fathers are part of the thread of Christians influencing future Christians from the time of Christ until now. Read more here.