Is the Church the really best it could have been … ?
How were we saved according to the Church Fathers?
The generation who knew Jesus were quite clear in their beliefs; there was only one way of pleasing God. It was not about good deeds, sacrifices, prayers, rituals, liturgy, hymns or fasting. These were all ways to a holy life, but the only way to God was through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life.
Peter declared this to the Jews, in a way they would understand:
Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2:38-39)
And Paul did the same for the Greeks, in a way they would understand:
Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone - an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:29-31)
But what of the early Church Fathers? It seems that for them, people fell into three different groups: those who believed in Jesus (who were saved), those with heretical beliefs (who were doomed) and the rest (who may be saved). Writing of this latter group, Justin Martyr said that those who live by reason were actually "Christians" and those who didn't were wicked men and enemies of Christ. (First Apology 46)
So what had happened to the exclusive certainties of the first Christians? According to Justin, just being able to think and reason seems to have suddenly become the entry requirement for the Kingdom. Now how Greek was that?!
Clement of Alexandria seemed to agree with this:
Before the coming of the Lord, philosophy was necessary for justification to the Greeks; now it is useful for piety ... for it brought the Greeks to Christ as the law did the Hebrews. (Miscellanies 1:5).
Origen went even further to broaden the entry requirements. He proposed something called universal salvation or universalism, which is sure to get the discernment radar tingling. The idea behind this is that, since God is love, everyone (including Satan) will find salvation, even if this is after death, and the whole creation would return to a state of pure spirit.
This is pure Platonism, the idea of the soul being trapped in our body and longing to complete the cycle by returning to God, from where it came in the first place. This idea diminishes our life on Earth, viewing it just as a passing stage in a great journey, rather than the Biblical view which states that what happens to us on Earth is vitally important.
Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)
What of Augustine, the key man for the medieval Church? For a start he rejected universalism, placing an emphasis on original sin, the separation of man and God and the need for reconciliation. As we have already seen, Augustine was followed by a period of increasing domination of the individual believer by the structures, liturgies and instructions of the State Church.
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. A Latin phrase that summed up the beliefs of the early Catholic Church. It translates as "outside the Church there is no salvation". This didn't actually mean that everyone who attended Church were saved, in fact Augustine himself said, "how many sheep there are without, how many wolves within"!
But how were people saved within the Catholic Church? Was it just through a simple belief in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ? Yes ... and no. It was considered the first step, but there was another step to make as well. These were the sacraments - baptism, penance, eucharist, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders and anointing of the sick - supposedly the vehicles of his grace. These seven sacraments were said to be necessary for salvation and as most of them had to be administered by an authorised person from within the Church, then you can see how the Latin phrase was enforced. This was why many Churches of that period were built with the baptismal font near the entrance. It was a nudge to the subconscious mind that the entrance to Heaven was to be paralleled through baptism, the first sacrament of the Church.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book How the Church Lost the Truth: And How it Can Find it Again)