Early Christian Doctrines Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

J. N. D. Kelly was principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, from 1951 to 1979. One of the foremost patristic scholars after World War II, he wrote and edited a number of works now considered classics: Early Christian Creeds (1950), Jerome (1975), Oxford Dictionary of the Popes (1986), and Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom (1995). Kelly was known for his capacity to synthesize huge qualities of primary material. He was remarkably objective in his writing, and his ways of categorizing early Christian thought have become standard.

In Early Christian Doctrines, Kelly arranges the first five centuries of Christian doctrines in loose chronological patterns. The chapters (in sequence) cover the following topics: four chapters on background (Judaism, Roman religion, philosophy, Gnosticism), followed by chapters on tradition, scripture (methods of exegesis), Trinity, Christology, human redemption, ideas of the Church, the Council of Nicaea, Homoousion (the word used by the Council of Nicaea to describe Christ’s divinity), the Fall and divine grace, soteriology, ecclesiology, Sacraments, and an epilogue (in which he addresses the virtue of hope, Mary, and the saints). Each chapter is footnoted, with a bibliography of primary and modern works at the end of every chapter. A bibliography was added to the 1975 edition.

Kelly describes the main lines of development of Christian doctrine, stressing that Christian theology contained an inherent logic that followed from its starting point: Jesus as both God and man. Once it is asserted—in scripture and by the earliest Christians—that Christ is God and that God is one, believers cried out for an explanation. Thus the first thinkers were not idle philosophers who enjoyed spinning out theories for their own sake; they were logic-bound to clarify exactly what was meant by Christ the God-man and the unity of God (from the Jewish tradition). These writers, often bishops, were thus not free to speculate on all manner of questions; they were restricted by the twin source of revelation: scripture and tradition.

Structurally the book turns on an East-West axis. Within every chapter the discussion shifts back and forth between the Greek East and the Latin West; this oscillation illustrates both their similarities and, above all, their differences. The methodology works well, because it clarifies the major trends in the Roman Empire. Kelly emphasizes the diverse directions in East and West at any given time. Before the Council of Nicaea, for example, the Latin fathers stressed God’s unity, while their Eastern counterparts preferred a more Origenist and pluralist approach to the hypostases of the...

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Early Christian Doctrines Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bettenson, Henry, ed. Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A wide assortment of primary documents from both East and West, including replies to heresies.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1993. Excellent survey of the organization and doctrine of the church. Emphasizes the historical context of the church within the Roman Empire.

Grillmeier, Aloys. Christ in the Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451). 2d rev. ed. Vol. 1. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975. A masterful survey by topic of Christology, with detailed discussions of the early writers, from the first century to the Council of Chalcedon.

Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Creeds. 3d ed. New York: Continuum, 2006. The development of the theology prior to the major creeds, with emphasis on the Nicene Creed and its aftermath.

Maier, Paul L. Eusebius: The Church History. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1999. A translation accompanied by commentary and an explanation of the historical setting. Eusebius is the main source for the early heresies.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 100-600. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. The best single-volume treatment, arranged by subject with extensive citations from the sources. Sometimes difficult but always readable. The first of a five-volume study of church doctrine.