RufinusNumerous prominent theologians have impacted present-day teachings within Christendom, but some of the greatest influences – frequently in departing from Scripture – have come from influential men living in the three or four centuries following the completion of the Scripture record.

Despite the Reformers’ maxims of sola fide and sola Scriptura, the early Patristics profoundly impacted a number of doctrines examined during and after the Reformation, including ecclesiology. Careful examination of the history of Christian dogma reveals both the reasons for Patristic impact on ecclesiology and also the extent of that impact. Despite many clearly unscriptural teachings and numerous evidences of the lack of regeneration in most of the church fathers,1 the writings of these men have left a distinct mark on the doctrine of the church as taught in Protestant denominations and in many Baptist churches.

One obvious reason for the Patristics to have influenced the ecclesiology of Baptist and Protestant groups comes as a result of the Patristics’ chronological proximity to the Apostles. The writings of Irenæus furnish an early example of the credibility given to this type of proximity. During his life, Irenæus met individuals who professed to have personally known the apostle John. These same individuals informed Irenæus that Jesus Christ had lived to old age. As is often the error made today, Irenæus, despite clear evidence in the Scriptures to the contrary, believed the testimony of the disciples of John, and argued that Christ lived to old age, even until the times of Tatian.2 Vincentius, a contemporary of Augustine, pointed to antiquity of doctrine as one of three tests of its genuineness when he spoke of the three marks that establish the authority of apostolic traditions: universitas, antiquitas, consensio.3 Vincentius aptly summarized what has become a foundational philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church and more subtly of the Protestant denominations.

At the time of the Reformation, the use of the Patristic writings to support tradition and doctrine for which little or no Scriptural basis could be given was one way the Roman Catholic Church attempted to combat the radically different beliefs of the Reformers. Yet the Reformers, whose goal was to reform the Catholic Church system, rather than to separate from it, soon found the use of the church fathers an equally effective tool against many Roman Catholic traditions. Of the Protestant sects, the Church of England made early use of the Patristics to bolster their doctrine of the episcopacy.4

Theologians of many denominations have frequently appealed to the church fathers when confronted with traditions or doctrines held by their denominations that have little or no basis in Scripture. The antiquity of patristic writings provides a sense of false security by assuming that because those theological writings appeared so soon after the completion of the New Testament, and in some cases may have been penned by the hands of disciples of the apostles, their teachings contain a certain amount of credibility. However, as Burgon pointed out about the New Testament text, antiquity alone only carries weight when it can be established as being ab origine.5 Despite this axiom, history reveals repeated appeals to the church fathers to support everything from the definitions and descriptions of the ordinances to the makeup and constitution of the Christian church.

The failure of the Patristics to rightly understand the doctrine of the church comes as no surprise when examining their understanding of Theology Proper, Christology, and primarily Soteriology. A lack of regeneration and the accompanying spiritual understanding meant that they frequently failed to understand the nature, Person, and work of Christ. Given that Christ is the Head of the church, and that the church is His body, it follows that a failure to understand the Head inevitably results in a failure to discern the Body. Additionally, the influences of Platonic philosophy were never completely shaken off by the Patristics, thus colouring their interpretation of the Scriptures. Platonism emphasized Idea over Substance, providing the perfect breeding ground for catholic doctrine, or the belief that the physical was only a shadow of the Idea, which was the true reality.6 Indeed, many of these fathers not only did not shake off Platonism, but incorporated it into their evolving theological systems.

Although the New Testament teaches nothing of efficacious sacraments, or of a catholic church, or of an episcopal hierarchy, the seeds of each of those doctrines were sown in their due time by the church fathers, blossoming into one faulty doctrine after another. The New Testament always refers to the ἐκκλησία in its historical, grammatical sense: to wit, a properly constituted assembly called for a specific purpose.7 New Testament era believers knew nothing of a catholic church, visible or invisible.8 Yet already during the completion of the New Testament Scriptures, heretics worked their way into the assemblies, drawing men after them, as even the Scriptures had prophesied they would.9

The failure of the church fathers to understand the New Testament assembly began with the early corruption of the ordinances given to the New Testament assemblies, especially baptism. Baptism’s initial purpose of admittance into the New Testament assembly by identifying with the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection as a result of repentance and faith became obfuscated early in the writings of the early church fathers. The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas, after an apparent allusion to Ezekiel 47:12, expounds on the passage’s supposed meaning as follows: “This meaneth, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit.”10 This perversion of baptism further manifests itself in the writings of his contemporaries.

At the same time, and connected to the view of the efficacious nature of baptism, another novel doctrine related to the church became evident. This doctrine quite likely arose in conjunction with or as a necessary fruit of the heresy of baptismal regeneration. Because the act of grace-imparting baptism (and later the Eucharist) required administration by men, it was necessary that the administrators of such grace be properly authorized. The Scriptures certainly establish the authority of the administrator of baptism (one who is authorized by a New Testament assembly to do so), but the focus of the church fathers had little to do with Scriptural reasoning. The grace imparted in the sacraments logically required the development of a priesthood, and an unscriptural elevation of the office of the bishop, based on succession from the apostles. Where the New Testament taught the spiritual priesthood of every believer and the offering of spiritual sacrifices, the assumed regenerative powers of baptism and the supper eventually directed the church fathers to a perverted style of the Mosaic priesthood. The priests and Levites in the Old Testament held lofty positions in mediating between God and the sinner, so it followed that the bishops – the New Testament priests – should hold the same position. Thus, Ignatius, a second-century writer, warns the Smyrnæans, “It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize, or to offer, or to present sacrifice, or to celebrate a love-feast. But that which seems good to him, is also well-pleasing to God, that everything ye do may be secure and valid.”11 In fact, Ignatius so highly esteemed the office of the bishop that his writings are peppered with statements denying the existence of a church without the bishop and dismissing the validity of sacraments performed without a bishop or one duly authorized by the bishop.12, 13

The exultation of the office of the bishop above that which was permitted by Scripture, coupled with its comparison to and patterning after the Levitical priesthood, obviously met with some practical difficulties during the second century. Persecution in the Roman empire prevented the establishment of any theocratic society patterned after Old Testament Israel. Doubtless, though, the concept of the national, civic Jewish theocracy fell in line with the priesthood clergy and certainly meshed well with Platonic universalism held to by many of the fathers, Ignatius included. In an early expression of catholicity, Ignatius declared that “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the universal Church.”14

As the second century progressed, and the visible catholic church heresy became firmly rooted in the writings of the Patristics, a new doctrine relating to the church appeared. The seeds of apostolic succession were sown by Irenæus, whose concept of apostolic succession initially emphasized the succession of a body of doctrine from the apostles down to his day.15 Irenæus saw the visible Catholic church “which is spread abroad over the whole earth” as the entity responsible for preserving and conserving apostolic truth. Like his forebears, he viewed the universal church as a visible entity, rather than an invisible, and appealed to apostolic succession in an effort to combat perceived heretics and to deny them the right to interpret the Scriptures. Irenæus’ view of apostolic succession may have seemed innocent enough in its early stages. He suggested that the fundamental doctrines needed no appeal to apostolic tradition, but in secondary areas, he recommended somewhat inconsistently that the presidents of the oldest congregations (established by the apostles themselves) be consulted as the final authority.16 Irenæus the Fundamentalist may have had admirable motives, but his reliance on the supposed authority of “the original churches” for perceived secondary doctrines eventually resulted in Tradition overruling even the so-called “major” doctrines.

Tertullian further developed Irenæus’ doctrine of appealing to Tradition, in many ways illustrating why the Patristics continue to hold such an influence over ecclesiology even today. Having accepted the doctrine of apostolic succession, Tertullian sought to silence heretics by arguing that they had no claim to the “true church” because they could not trace their bishops back to the Apostles.17 Baptismal regeneration remained entrenched in his theology, and like the patristics both before and after him, he simply built his doctrines on the foundations of the fathers before him.

Prior to his conversion to Montanism, Tertullian went a step further than Irenæus in his view of the church. While Irenæus declared it impossible to have communion with Christ while remaining willfully outside the visible holy catholic church (i.e., by participating in a heretical sect), Tertullian saw the catholic church as the Mother which brought the sinner to the Fatherhood of God. In his mind, there was no Fatherhood of God without the Motherhood of the church.18 Following his conversion to Montanism, Tertullian’s views regarding the church changed somewhat to hold to a visible but spiritual society, rather than the prevailing view that the presence of bishops determined whether a church existed or not.

Cyprian, a disciple of Tertullian, picked up where Irenæus and Tertullian left off. With each father building successively on the foundation of efficacious sacraments, an Old Testament-style priesthood, and Platonic philosophy, the departure from the simple New Testament pattern increased. Irenæus had stopped short of declaring the necessity of the catholic church for salvation, at the same time leaving the door open to such a logical conclusion by teaching that there could be no communion with Christ outside of the church. Tertullian took this doctrine a step further, making the begetting of the sons of God contingent on the union of the Mother Church and Father God. Thus, when Cyprian finally and famously stated, “Outside the visible church there is no salvation,” he only followed the earlier church fathers’ teachings to their logical conclusions.

In the east, the doctrine of the church developed in the mire of gnosticism and platonic philosophy. The Alexandrian Jews welcomed Platonism, embracing the Septuagint translation of the Scriptures as more agreeable to their speculative Platonic theology.19 Alexandria also provided a welcoming environment for Gnosticism, and both Platonism and Gnosticism found a suitable wedding in the philosophies of men such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

Clement of Alexandria, an Alexandrian church father and self-confessed Gnostic,20 spoke of the church in the following manner:

O mystic marvel! The universal father is one, and one the universal Word; and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere, and one is the only virgin mother. I love to call her the Church. This mother, when alone, had not milk, because alone she was not a woman. But she is once virgin and mother – pure as a virgin, loving as a mother.21

Clement’s allegorical misuse of the Scriptures, a direct result of his Gnostic beliefs, opened the door to seeing a mystical element to the church. To this point, the universal church was always spoken of as a visible entity. Yet, Clement’s lofty claim of possessing knowledge that transcended the immediate meaning of Scripture meant that he saw within the visible universal church a mystical body made up of those with deeper (Gnostic) knowledge.22 Nevertheless, in contrast to the modern Protestant view of visible churches within the universal invisible church, Clement, like his doctrinal forefathers and future followers, held to an invisible church within the universal visible church. In so doing, he laid the ecclesiological groundwork that was more fully developed by Origen, a man who is frequently credited by modern scholars for his contribution to the practice of textual criticism.

Origen was not seen as orthodox even in his time. In addition to his ransom-to-Satan theory, his belief in the pre-existence of the soul, universalism, and liberal allegorization of the Scriptures, Origen perpetuated the universal visible church teaching. His initial exposure to neo-platonic influence came from sitting at the feet of the Platonic philosopher Ammonius Saccas. Having been thus exposed, Origen found it easy to embrace and further develop the teachings propagated by Clement of Alexandria.23 However, despite his embrace of Catholicism, Origen eventually found himself the object of persecution by segments of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, Origen found himself on the outside of a Catholic Church “outside of which there is no salvation,” looking in. As Martin Luther would eventually do years later in similar circumstances, Origen had to find a way to keep himself in the “saving church” while outside of it, and his works on penitence suggest his belief in a church entity that is greater than the visible catholic church.24

The germ of the invisible universal church theory underwent further refining by Augustine, arguably the most influential church father in history, and often referred to as “The Platonic Theologian.”25 Although Augustine’s teachings on soteriology and eschatology frequently receive more attention than his doctrines regarding the church, his ecclesiology influenced and shaped the doctrines of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Protestant Baptist theologians down to the present time. Just as with Origen, an allegorical interpretation of Scripture factored into the writings of Augustine.26 Confronted with the Donatist teaching of pure churches and faced with Scripture passages such as 1 Corinthians 5, Augustine ultimately settled on a belief about the church that fit his allegorical use of Scriptures and aligned with his Platonic emphasis on the Idea as being the true Reality. Like Origen and the other Plato-influenced theologians of the past, the true Church consisted of the invisible, mystical, never seen body of believers, while the physical visible Catholic Church existed simply as a shadow of the invisible ideal. In the words of one historian, “To Augustine, as an idealist, it is only the timeless, the immaterial, the good, that has reality; . . .”27Augustine saw the invisible church as existing within the visible Catholic Church, outside of which there was no salvation.28 He equated the Catholic Church with the Kingdom of Heaven, proof-texting his doctrine with the parable of the wheat and the tares. This concept of “invisibility” permitted Augustine, with difficulty, to harmonize his belief both in an impure visible catholic church and also in a pure invisible catholic church.29 Despite this, Augustine’s view of the invisible church could not be completely reconciled with his views of predestination and election.30 Nevertheless, his articulation of the invisible church within the visible became the basis of Luther’s visible church within the invisible. In adapting Augustine's teaching of the universal invisible church, Protestant theologians have continued to wrestle with balancing the importance of their universal invisible church and the visible local churches.31

The early Patristics individually and collectively influenced the development of ecclesiological belief during the centuries immediately following the completion of the Scriptural canon. Beginning with a failure to properly understand the redemptive work of Christ, they began ascribing efficacy to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Their failure to understand the Head of the Body necessitated a distorted understanding of the Body, the church. Rather than examining and rejecting the subtle departures from Biblical doctrine made by their forebears, each generation of church fathers simply built on the erroneous ecclesiology of the previous generation. The acceptance and refinement of the faulty ecclesiology of the patristics due to their antiquity and widespread acceptance in Catholic theology was continued by Reformation-era Protestants and their theological descendants.

While most present-day Protestant denominations profess faith in Christ alone on the basis of the Scriptures alone as the means of salvation, the universal church theory, episcopal hierarchy, classes of clergy, and confessional assent to efficacious sacraments stand as vestigial organs in the evolution of an ecclesiology purported to have been forsaken during the Protestant Reformation.In this way, the early patristics heavily and lastingly influenced ecclesiology throughout the centuries.



1 This paper refers to the early Patristics by the commonly-ascribed title “church fathers” while recognizing they were neither members of Biblicist churches, nor the forefathers of any such churches.
2 Edward Henry Hall, Papias and His Contemporaries (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1899) 8.
3 Henry Clay Sheldon, History of Christian Doctrine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), 1:184-185.
4 James Donaldson, A Critical History of Christian Literature and Doctrine from the Death of the Apostles to the Nicene Council (London: Macmillan and Co., 1864) 65-66.
5 John William Burgon The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels, ed. Edward Miller (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896), 29.
6 Thomas Strouse, I Will Build My Church, Revised ed. (Cromwell, Ct.: Bible Baptist Theological Press, 2013), 147.
7 See J. R. Graves on the usage of ἐκκλησία in Acts 19 as not ever referring to the unruly crowd, but to the legislative assembly in Ephesus. Intercommunion Inconsistent, Unscriptural, and Productive of Evil 2nd ed. (1882; reprint, Paris, Ark.: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2006) 122-124.
8 Lyman Coleman, A Church without a Bishop (Boston: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1844) 47.
9 Acts 20:29-30. Other examples include 1 Cor. 11:19; 2 Thes. 2:2-3; Rev. 2:14-15, 20-22
10 Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A. D. 325 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1867) 1:121.
11 Roberts and Donaldson, 1:249.
12 John Franklin Bethune-Baker, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd, 1920) 358.
13 Ignatius’s emphasis on the importance of the Bishop’s authority as a proper administrator of the “sacraments” is not accidental. Baptismal regeneration and the move to the Mosaic system of priesthood meant that higher classes of priests were needed to perform valid sacraments, in following the Old Testament pattern of Priests, Levites, and the Congregation. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and all Protestant denominations still maintain the error of classes of priesthood within their clergy.
14 Bethune-Baker, 358.
15 Donaldson, 1:92.
16 Augustus Neander, Lectures on the History of Christian Dogmas, tr. J. L. Jacobi (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1858) 1:78-79.
17 Donaldson, 1:93.
18 Bethune-Baker, 361.
19 Neander, 1:38.
20 Hall, 189.
21 Roberts and Donaldson, 4:142.
22 Neander, 1:66.
23 Neander, 1:70.
24 Edmond De Pressensé, Heresy and Christian Doctrine, tr. Annie Harwood (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1873), 346-347.
25 John Krinke, What Happened to the Doctrine of Bible Faith? (London, Ont.: Bethel Baptist Print Ministry, 2003) 161-162.
26 Sheldon, 1:181.
27 Bethune-Baker, 369 (footnote).
28 Sheldon, 1:269.
29  Interestingly, the tactic of “spiritualizing” doctrines that conflict with Scripture continues in the present with modern teachings of invisible “spirit baptism,” unintelligible “spiritual tongues (languages),” and a recent instance in which this writer heard a man explain that the references to a woman’s covering of the head in 1 Corinthians 11 spoke of an invisible “spiritual covering.”
30 Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Solid Christian Books, 1937) Kindle edition, 236.
31 Berkhof, 245.


Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines. Solid Christian Books, 1937. Kindle edition.
Bethune-Baker, John Franklin. An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine. 2nd ed. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1920.
Burgon, John William. The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels. Edited by Edward Miller. London: George Bell and Sons, 1896.
Coleman, Lyman. A Church without a Bishop. Boston: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1844.
De Pressensé, Edmond. Heresy and Christian Doctrine. Translated by Annie Harwood. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1873.
Donaldson, James. A Critical History of Christian Literature and Doctrine from the Death of the Apostles to the Nicene Council. London: Macmillan and Company, 1864.
Graves, James Robinson. Intercommunion Inconsistent, Unscriptural, and Productive of Evil. 2nd ed. 1882. Reprint, Paris, Ark.: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 2006.
Hall, Edward Henry. Papias and His Contemporaries. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1899.
Krinke, John. What Happened to the Doctrine of Bible Faith? London, Ont.: Bethel Baptist Print Ministry, 2003.
Neander, Augustus. Lectures on the History of Christian Dogmas. 2nd ed. Translated by J. L. Jacobi. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1858.
Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson. Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A. D. 325. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1867.
Sheldon, Henry Clay. History of Christian Doctrine. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886.
Strouse, Thomas. I Will Build My Church. Revised ed. Cromwell, Conn.: Bible Baptist Theological Press, 2013.