The following is a college essay written by William Deatherage, which merited the grade of an A at the Catholic University of America.
There are thousands of Christian denominations throughout the world, yet most of them yearn for a unity that they often assume was shared by Christ’s earliest disciples. The West’s focus on post-Reformation conflicts has led many Christians to believe that the key to ecumenism is a return to the Church of the Patristic period, when Christians were seemingly united against heretics and persecutors. Furthermore, Catholicism’s claim to authority over faith and morals, combined with its robust systematics that developed over millennia, has led many Catholics to assume that the Church Fathers must have shared consensuses on core doctrines that we believe in today. This nostalgia for early Christian unity and confidence in patristic consensus neglects centuries of rivalries and disagreements in the early Church. A brief overview of institutional and theological conflicts in the patristic era demonstrates how early Christian unity is more mythological than historical, which has vast implications for how Catholics should approach theology and ecumenism today.
The earliest threats to Christian unity are found in the New Testament, itself. Simon Magus’s large following, recorded in Acts of the Apostles and mentioned by several Church Fathers, represents one of the earliest heretical movements in Christianity. Additionally, several of Paul’s letters advocate for unity, implying that the earliest Church communities often departed from his theology. In his letter to the Galatians, he wrote, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? […] does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” His letter to the Corinthians is even more pronounced with themes of division, which was caused by confusion over teaching from two respected teachers: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” Regardless of the intentions of the earliest disciples, there was clearly diversity in how Christians understood their authorities’ theology. This was excellently exemplified by the argument between Peter and Paul at Antioch over the requirement for Gentiles to obey Mosaic customs. With little systematic theology in place, worsened by the lack of communications mechanisms that we take for granted today, early Christians primarily relied on their local leaders to ensure consistency in belief. Even then, revolts against priests and bishops were common, as indicated by the writings of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.   It appears that Christianity was plagued by inner-conflict from its infancy, showing how even the earliest churches cannot be held as ideals of unity.
One of the largest catalysts of ecclesiastical conflict was the debate over the doctrine of unforgiveable sins. For decades, idolatry, murder, and adultery were considered unforgivable according to most early churches, which is evidenced by the intense backlash Pope St. Callixtus received when he declared those who completed penances for adultery and fornication as eligible for reception into the Church. The Church Father Tertullian professed seven unforgivable sins (murder, idolatry, fraud, apostacy, blasphemy, adultery, fornication), and Callixtus’s loosening of Church law led him to leave the Roman Church for the budding Montanist movement, which focused on obsessive adherence to Christian ethics. The Church Father Hippolytus was especially harsh against the Holy Father, baselessly accusing the now canonized pope (as well as his canonized predecessor) of fraud, distributing the Eucharist to non-Christians, and performing second baptisms. Labeling the two popes as heretics, Hippolytus became one of the first anti-popes, though it is possible he recanted before his death. The debate over unforgivable sins was ignited again during the Decian persecution of 250, when several Christians committed apostacy (the recanting of Christianity) after being threatened by the Romans but sought readmittance into the Church once the persecutions ended. The traditionalist stance of apostacy as unpardonable was challenged when Cyprian of Carthage advocated for the readmittance of lapsi (Christians who apostatized), which led to a schism in his diocese. When Pope St. Cornelius affirmed Cyprian’s position, Novatian, a priest who defended permanent excommunication, was elected anti-Pope, thus sparking the movement of Novatianism. Unfortunately for Rome, these departures were just the beginning of exoduses and infighting caused by debates over practices that the Apostolic dioceses had once considered universally accepted.
Origen of Alexandria was one of the most brilliant and beloved theologians of the early Church. His monumental and extensive theological commentaries make him one of the founders of theology as an academic discipline. Eusebius, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Jerome (initially) lauded his scholarship, which influenced that of many future theologians. However, because he was one of the first Christians to propose a rigorous systematic theology, meaning there was no formal magisterium to guide him, several of his theories were deemed inconsistent and invalid by later theologians. Christians who insisted on adherence to Origen’s more controversial ideas (which will be focused on later in this essay) after his death led to the Origenist heresy, which is almost certainly a misnomer, since Origen would have likely recanted his beliefs had he been challenged by superior theologians when he was alive. Nevertheless, the preference his successors showed his teachings over those which became orthodox in the Church led to the condemnation of Origenism. The fight over Origen’s legacy pitted Church Fathers against each other. Jerome, a former admirer of Origen’s and translator of Church texts into Latin, swiftly condemned several of his teachings, while Tyrannius Rufinus, a fellow Latin translator, defended his legacy. A bitter war of polemics between the two translators was sparked by another Church Father, the anti-Origenist Epiphanius of Salamis.  Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria and an ally of Epiphanius, also joined the battle against Origenism but perhaps had more political motivations than his friend did. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople and rival of Theophilus, had granted Origenists asylum in his diocese. Theophilus seized on this gesture and accused his Constantinopolitan of being an Origenist himself. Clearly, this was an attempt to oust Chrysostom so the Alexandrian could consolidate his authority. This plot worked, and Chrysostom was exiled. Meanwhile, Epiphanius was furious when he heard that his movement was hijacked to serve such purposes, though he died shortly after the events, offering him no opportunity to protest or retaliate against Theophilus. It is noteworthy that throughout this entire time, Origenism was never formally condemned until some of its ideas were denounced during the Second Council of Constantinople, centuries later.
Years after the Origenist controversies, Cyril of Alexandria, Theophilus’s nephew, orchestrated a similar plot against Nestorius, who was also a patriarch of Constantinople. While Nestorius did indeed controversially contest Mary’s title of God-bearer, the predominant charges brought against him by Cyril were Christological. Nestorius was accused of adoptionism, the heresy that Christ was a mere man imbued with God’s essence. Historians today generally agree that this accusation was a mere exaggeration of Nestorius’s inferior Christology, which was exploited by his rivals, such as Cyril, to oust him. As Carl Braaten writes, “Somewhat epigrammatically historians have been asking whether Nestorius himself was a Nestorian.” While heresy was certainly afoot in the early Church, it appears that several conflicts were driven by political interests rather than doctrinal ones, ending in the exile, anesthetization, and humiliation of many innocent theologians and bishops, aptly demonstrating the lack of unity in the early institutional Church.
Christology, the study of Christ’s nature, perhaps best exemplifies the lack of theological consensus in the early Church. The Ascension of Isaiah describes how the God the Son and God the Holy Spirit worship the God the Father (implying subordinationism, or that the Son is inferior to the Father) and the Shepherd of Hermas depicts Christ in an adoptionist light. Origen and Clement of Alexandria were also subordinationists; the latter may have even believed in two Words of God, an inferior one known to man and a superior one known to God.  Similarly, Tertullian suggested that there was a time when the Son did not exist.  Hippolytus’s Ditheistic (the belief in two distinct gods) Christology worsened his relations with Rome. None of these men can be considered formal heretics since robust Christologies did not appear until the first ecumenical councils. Their diverse opinions were products of an early academic movement that struggled to make sense of Jesus Christ’s identity and relationship to God the Father. In fact, the variation in theological opinion about Christ’s nature rather aptly demonstrates a lack of consistent teaching in the early Church.
Several points of divergence between Church Fathers involved marriage and sexuality. With a few exceptions, such as Clement of Alexandria, most Church Fathers agreed that celibacy was an ideal lifestyle. Tertullian justified this by claiming that certain pleasures can offend God, rather harshly stating that he delights in the hellfire that awaits those who engaged in such activities. According to Tertullian, marriage is often a distraction from living a good Christian life. His arguments for modesty in female apparel reveal how some Church Fathers blamed women for mankind’s fall. He writes:
You [women] are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?
Clement, on the other hand, encouraged marriage, especially among the clergy, emphasizing the Apostolic advice that bishops can learn from governing their households. Regarding who Christians could marry, Hippolytus (perhaps predictably) was appalled at Pope Callixtus’s affirmation that noble women can marry slave men. Such a decision, according to Hippolytus, would yield infanticide. Callixtus also affirmed that bishops could remarry if their first marriage occurred before Baptism, which also offended Hippolytus and Tertullian, since though such a practice was standard in the East, it was foreign to the West. The attitudes and laws surrounding marriage largely depended on region, which perhaps explains the different clerical celibacy requirements that non-Latin Catholic churches adhere to today.
Scriptural canon was another hotly debated topic in the early Church, especially regarding works whose authors were unknown. According to the Church historian Eusebius, the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews was disputed by Rome (though Alexandria, for example, insisted on Pauline authorship),  leading to its exclusion from the canon in many churches.  Eusebius categorizes Hebrews with the Shepherd of Hermas, which several Eastern Churches accepted as canon. On the other hand, the Book of Revelation is infamously absent from many Eastern liturgies today, implying its exclusion from early rituals. Eusebius listed it under disputed canonical works. Corroborating the historian’s report on Revelation, the Synod of Laodicea’s list of canons omitted Revelation. Regarding the Old Testament, Athanasius listed Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Esther, Judith, and Tobit as apocryphal, or non-canonical yet important, and he gave the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas a similar level of authority in the New Testament. The disputes regarding scriptural canon are further evidence of a lack of consensus among early Church Fathers regarding matters most modern Catholics would consider rudimentary.
Another topic of disagreement among early Church Fathers was the process of ensoulment and the origins of sin. Origen theorized an eternal soul that existed before conception, which Didymus the Blind agreed with. This position was eventually declared anathema, or condemned. Tertullian and Apollinaris believed in Traducianism, that the soul is transmitted from parent to child through a material process, which was also later condemned. Gregory of Nyssa, Macarius, Rufinus, and Nemesius believed in Generationism, or that the soul is generated through conception via a spiritual process. This idea formed the basis of Augustine’s understanding of original sin, which he believed was transferred through a similar manner. Jerome professed Creationism, or that every soul is made by God alone at the time of conception, which eventually became standard teaching in the Western Church. Of course, these categories hardly captivate the nuances surrounding every Church Father’s position on such a speculative issue. For example, Clement of Alexandria allegedly believed in the transmigration of souls from parent to child and that women could conceive through intercourse with angels, as described in in Photius’s Bibliotecha. The subject of original sin was as divisive as ensoulment. Cyril of Jerusalem, along with most Eastern Fathers, believed that sin is a product of free will, not something inherited from our ancestors. John Chrysostom and Eusebius agreed that the body is an instrument for, not a cause, of sin. The concept of original sin as a hereditary feature was not popularized until Augustine’s writings, and even then, its acceptance was largely contained to the West. Thus, doctrines involving ensoulment and original sin were certainly not consistently taught throughout the history of the Church.
One of the most contested theological issues in the early Church that has seen a resurgence in popularity today is universalism (or that all people will be saved from eternal damnation). Many major Eastern Fathers professed some form of universalism. Origen famously theorized the possibility that even Satan and his fallen angels could be saved from Hell, though his commitment to the issue is debated. Clement of Alexandria agreed with the possibility of salvation from Hell. Gregory of Nyssa shared this perspective, describing Hell as a temporary place for the cleansing of souls. In this respect, Nyssa’s Hell could be comparable to Western Christianity’s idea of purgatory. That said, Ancient Christianity’s concept of universalism was quite different from its modern incarnation. Most Christians today understand salvation from Hell and the resurrection as inherently pleasant experiences for all who are involved. This was not the case among Church Fathers. For example, Hippolytus agreed that Hell is temporary, though he emphasized that those who did evil will be resurrected with inferior bodies and statuses compared to those who did good. John Chrysostom envisioned that the resurrection would usher in a time of perfect harmony with God at the expense of evil-doers, who would be resurrected “under [God’s] foot,” which have been a presumably unpleasant experience. The notion of Hell as a place of eternal punishment was largely popularized by Augustine in the West. These theories of universalism demonstrate how Christian understandings of death and eschatology were far from monolithic. Therefore, our modern teachings cannot be derived from a universal doctrine that all Church Fathers shared.
Before commenting on the implications of these early conflicts, I will briefly draw attention to a few more notable topics. Military conscription was a hotly debated issue, given the Roman government’s hostile attitude towards Christians. While most Church Fathers were against military service, their reasons varied. Hippolytus discouraged service unless it was compulsory on the basis that Christians should not take oaths or swear allegiance to earthly authorities. He and Origen agreed that if Christians served in the military, they could not kill.  Such ideas have been invoked in the United States to justify Christian abstinence from military service and taking the Pledge of Allegiance. Origen believed that Christians served the emperor via prayers. Hippolytus and Tertullian extended their condemnation of military conscription to public service as well, since certain offices required oaths to earthly authorities or participation in pagan rituals.  Regarding the sacraments, Cyprian of Carthage insisted that heretics were not allowed to Baptize, while Rome argued otherwise. The eschatological positions of several Church Fathers were also diverse. Irenaeus believed in a strict interpretation of a rapture when Christians would be “caught up” into Heaven, which is invoked as a basis for fundamentalist Christian eschatology today. Irenaeus and Papias believed in a literal millennium on earth that would precede the end of the world, an interpretation others took figuratively. Tertullian believed that Christ would return before the millennium, and Origen theorized that we would receive new bodies following the resurrection. Several of these opinions were later condemned by the Catholic Church. Finally, regarding Mariology, a few Church Fathers, including Hegessipus, taught that the brothers of Christ mentioned in the Gospels were his actual siblings, and Tertullian denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Eventually, Jerome claimed that the siblings of Christ were actually his cousins, which the West accepted, while Eastern Fathers insisted that they were from Joseph’s former marriage. These are, of course, just a handful of the various theological issues that the early Church Fathers grappled with.
A nuanced understanding of early patristic conflicts can aid in how Catholics approach ecumenism and understand the development of doctrine. Regarding the former, while it is tempting to despair at Christian disunity today, it is reassuring to realize that quarreling and infighting are embedded into the Christian tradition from the moment Jesus commissioned His disciples. If anything, Christian unity is far more attainable today, given Western liberalism’s emphasis on religious pluralism. Ecumenical debates no longer result in dramatic exiles, violent wars, or religious persecution. Doctrinally, I have noticed a disturbing trend of Catholics citing the Church Fathers as a monolithic force to justify theological positions Catholics assent to today, as if the early Church Fathers were bound to a universal ordinary magisterium (doctrine that is universally taught by the bishops). This is an irresponsible assumption, given that the concept of a universal ordinary magisterium is a fairly modern one. Furthermore, saying a doctrine is true because “all the Church Fathers believed it” is not only an illogical appeal to authority, but it is inaccurate because it mischaracterizes the early Church as a united entity bound by a well-organized systematic theology, when this was clearly not the case. Even when commonalities between Fathers are found, they should be carefully analyzed for nuance. For example, one should not claim that the Church Fathers believed in universalism if each one of them had different definitions of what universalism was. As much as one would like to think that Church teaching has remained clear and consistent since its earliest days, such an ideal collapses when studying the Fathers. Early Christianity had no catechism, nor did it have the structures we have today to ensure consistent teaching. Barring some very basic teachings (e.g. Jesus Christ is the Son of God), there was remarkably little ground the earliest bishops agreed on. As Francis Sullivan emphasizes in his seminal Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, the Church’s infallibility lies in its authority to appropriately interpret the Word of God, which can and has been reinterpreted, not the accuracy of its interpretations. What makes Catholicism special is its confidence in the successor of Peter as a guide entrusted with the authority to bind and loosen what his flock believes in, not as some Gnostic seer of sacred wisdom. A nuanced understanding of early patristic conflict helps us Catholics stay honest and humble about the doctrines of our faith.
As venerable as the Church Fathers are, they were still flawed human beings. Their theological curiosity and political pursuits caused great distress in the early Church, both doctrinally and institutionally, but such conflicts were necessary for orthodoxy to gradually arise from the rather turbulent storm of first century Christianity. The Church did not start off very unified, which can give us reassurance that the problems we face today are not unique to a post-Reformation world. Furthermore, it is illogical to justify modern doctrines by stating that the earliest Church Fathers universally taught them. Other avenues of argumentation must be pursued when defending the Church’s universal ordinary magisterium. Whenever we Catholics become overconfident in our Church, as a governing or theological institution, we can find inspiration in the earliest Church Fathers who show us that disagreement is natural and even the most intelligent theologians cannot grasp the incomprehensible Word of God.
Ascension of Isaiah.
Athanasius. Letter 39.
Braaten, Carl E. “Modern Interpretations of Nestorius.” Church History 32, no. 3 (1963): 251-67. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3162772.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ad0b360bd01219007b6f 21cbc0bbfc081
Clement of Alexandria. Stromata.
Clement of Rome. Epistle of Clement.
Council of Laodicea.
Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lecture.
“Didymus the Blind.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04784a.htm
“Epiphanius of Salamis.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 29, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13393b.htm
Eusebius. Church History.
Gregory of Nyssa. Address on Religious Instruction.
Gregory of Nyssa. In Illud.
Ireneus. Against Heresies.
“Hippolytus.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07360c.htm
Hippolytus. Refutations of All Heresies.
Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Ephesians.
Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Philadelphians.
Ignatius of Antioch. Epistle to the Trallians.
John Chrysostom. Homily 39 on First Corinthians.
“Lapsi.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09001b.htm
Meier, John. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
National Council Churches of Christ. The Bible NRSV. Grand Rapids: 1989.
“Origen and Origenism.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 29, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11306b.htm
Origen. Contra Celcus.
Papageorgiou, Panayiotis. “Chrysostom and Augustine on the Sin of Adam and its Consequences.” Oxford: Eleventh International Conference on Patristic Studies, August 23, 1991. http://www.holytransfiguration.info/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/Chrysostom- Augustine-Original-Sin.pdf
“Pope Callistus I.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03183d.htm
“Saint John Chrysostom.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-Chrysostom
Schatz, Klaus. Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present. Collegeville: The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1996, originally published in 1990.
“St. Hippolytus of Rome.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 29, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07360c.htm
Sullivan, Francis. Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002, originally published in 1983 with identical pagination.
Tertullian. Against Hermogenes.
Tertullian. Against Marcion.
“Tertuallian.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14520c.htm
Tertullian. On the Apparel of Women.
Tertullian. On Modesty.
Tertullian. On Monogamy.
The Shepherd of Hermas.
“Traducianism.” New Advent: The Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15014a.htm
“Tyrannius Rufinus.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tyrannius-Rufinus
 See Acts 8.
 Galatians 3:1-5.
 1 Cor 3:3-4.
 Galatians 2.
 Clement of Rome, Clement 1.
 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians 6.
 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Trallians 6-8.
 Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians 3.
 Tertullian, On Modesty, 19.
 Hippolytus, Refutations of All Heresies, VII.
 “Tyrannius Rufinus,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed April 28, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tyrannius-Rufinus
 “Saint John Chrysostom,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed April 28, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-Chrysostom
 “Epiphanius of Salamis.”
 Carl E. Braaten, “Modern Interpretations of Nestorius,” (Church History 32, no. 3 1963) Accessed April 28, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3162772.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ad0b360bd01219007b6f21cbc0bbfc081
 Ascension of Isaiah 9.
 The Shepherd of Hermas Parable 5.
 “Origen and Origenism.”
 Photius, Bibliotheca, 109.
 Tertullian, Against Hermogenes, 3.
 “St. Hippolytus.”
 Clement, Stromata, III.XII
 Tertullian, On Monogamy, xvii.i.3.
 Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women, I.I.
 Ibid., II.1.
 Clement, Stromata, III.XII
 Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present, (Collegeville: The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1996), originally published in 1990, 15.
 Eusebius, Church History, 3.3.5.
 Ibid., 3.3.6.
 Ibid., 3.3.2.
 Council of Laodicea, 60.
 Athanasius, Letter 39.
 “Origen and Origenism.”
 Photius, Bibliotheca, 109.
 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture, 2.
 See Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, “Chrysostom and Augustine on the Sin of Adam and its Consequences,” (Oxford: Eleventh International Conference on Patristic Studies, August 23, 1991). http://www.holytransfiguration.info/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/Chrysostom-Augustine-Original-Sin.pdf
 “Origen and Origenism.”
 Clement, Stromata, VI.VI.
 Gregory of Nyssa, Address on Religious Instruction 35 and In Illud 14 and 17.
 Hippolytus, Discourse To The Greeks Concerning Hades.
 John Chrysostom, Homily 39 on First Corinthians, 11.
 Hippolytus, Canons, 16.
 Origen, Contra Celcus,VIII.73.
 Hippolytus, Canons, 16.
 Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present, (Collegeville: The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1996), originally published in 1990, 13.
 Ireneus, Against Heresies, 5.39.1.
 Eusebius, History of the Church, 3.39.11-13.
 Tertullian, Against Marcion, 3.25.
 “Origen and Origenism.”
 See John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 318 for an in-depth treatment of this issue.
 Francis J. Sullivan, SJ, Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002), originally published in 1983 with identical pagination, 24.