In studying the history of the early Church, I have discovered many views that prior generations of Christians held in common which contrast sharply with the range of views held by the modern followers of Christ. In this article, I provide cursory outlines for five surprising and substantial divergences that modern Christians have made from their predecessors.

For me, these unexpected, concerning, and sometimes even humorous examples of different thinking prompt questions about Church authority. What should a Christian do when she finds herself outside of the majority opinion among believers across time?

  1. Hell is a place with fire and brimstone.

While modern Christians are more likely to cite C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce than Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the later is a far more faithful representation of traditional Christian views on Hell. Characterized by fire, torture, and separate realms for various sinners, Dante’s Hell contrasts sharply with the passive separation from God that Lewis depicts. Furthermore, some modern Christians hold an annihilationist view—that those whom God does not acknowledge as faithful servants on Judgment Day will be permanently destroyed.[1]

  1. It is better for two people to get married and be chaste than to have sex.

While most generations have considered marriage an institution for the begetting of children, earlier Christians seem much more comfortable with the idea that a dedicated Christian couple would choose not to have sex.  As asceticism became increasingly popular in wealthy Christian circles during the early fifth century in Rome, Melania the Younger and Pinianus became famous for their lavish generosity towards the Church as well as their choice to abstain from sex.[2]

In the Middle Ages, most Christian thinkers including St. Jerome, Andreas Capellanus, and St. Augustine spoke out against the sinful passion that corrupted all sexual encounters, including those between husbands and wives.[3]

Even after ideals of Christian asceticism waned in popularity, many Christians insisted on limiting the number of sexual encounters that a couple had to endure. Ruth Smythers, writing some advice for young brides concerning sex writes, “GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY.”[4] She goes on to give a timeline for weaning one’s husband off of sex: twice a week in the first month of marriage, once a week by the end of Year 1, once a month by the end of Year 5, and finally none by Year 10.[5]

  1. It is wrong to use any birth control other than total abstinence or the rhythm method.

A firm teaching against contraception emerged early in the history of the Church. During the mid-sixth century, Caesarius of Arles condemned the practice under no uncertain terms: “Is anyone unable to warn that no woman should accept a potion to prevent conception or to condemn within herself the nature which God wanted to be fruitful? Indeed, she will be held guilty of as many murders as the number of those she might have conceived or borne, and unless suitable penance saves her she will be condemned to eternal death in hell. If a woman does not want to bear children she should enter upon a pious agreement with her husband, for only the abstinence of a Christian woman is chastity.”[6]

Even into the mid-nineteen century, Leo Tolstoy opposes the use of birth control in his novel, Anna Karenina, through his description of the admired character, Dolly’s reaction to Anna’s secret that she has been preventing herself from carrying any more children to term.

Tolstoy writes, “’Impossible!’ said Dolly, with wide-open eyes. To her this was one of those discoveries which leads to consequences and deductions so enormous that at the first moment one only feels that it is impossible to take it all in, but that one will have to think over it again and again. […] It was the very thing she had dreamt of, but now on learning that it was possible, she was horrified.”[7]

No Christian denomination permitted the use of contraceptives until the Anglican Church changed its policy at the 1930 Lambeth Conference. Since then, almost every Protestant denomination has reversed its opinion or neglected to reinforce any view one way or the other.

  1. The Eucharist is the literal blood and body of Jesus Christ.

The earliest written non-Biblical accounts assumed that the Eucharist was the literal blood and body of Christ. No opposing view appeared until as late as the 1100s. Even then it was only considered a brief murmur of heresy quickly recounted rather than the core tenet of an emerging faction.

To offer a couple representative quotations, St. Justin Martyr, who was active in the mid-second century, writes, “For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”[8]

St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing around 383 A.D., states, “The bread is at first common bread; but when the mystery sanctifies it, it is called and actually becomes the Body of Christ.”[9]

In the mid-11th century, Berengar of Tours became the first person to deny that the communion bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.[10] After an ideological skirmish with Pope Leo and Pope Gregory VII, Berengar recanted and reaffirmed his beliefs a number of times before dying in the good graces of the Catholic Church. It would not be until the days of Martin Luther’s Reformation in the fifteenth century that the issue would resurface.

  1. Monks, nuns, and priests have higher callings than the single and married laity.

St. Augustine, writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, helped to usher in a spike in ascetic practice and in the emergence of monastic communities. While he was always quick to support marriage as a good thing created by God, he insisted that a life of prayerful devotion was ultimately preferable to married life in God’s eyes.[11]

This view, supported by many contemporary figures in the Church, contributed to the explosive growth of monasteries in North Africa, Greece, and Western Europe. The Rule of St. Benedict, written in 530, helped to codify Christian monasticism—giving these communities internal structure that would help them survive for centuries to come.[12]

In the mid-16th century, the Catholic Church reaffirmed the view that a monastic or clerical calling is higher than one to be a married or single member of the laity in the Council of Trent, saying, “If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”[13] It has not revised its view since.

*   *   *

To close, I will repeat something my father often says to me: “The fact that many people believe an idea does not make it true.” I do not view the historical Church as an unshakable authority on matters of Biblical interpretation or the implementation of Christian morality. However, many of these people were exceptionally bright and followed God with their whole hearts. As a Protestant, I would like to see our many denominations take the views of past generations more seriously in determining modern stances on doctrine.

 

[1] Alan W. Gomes, “Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part One,” Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, 14.

[2] Palladius, The Lausiac History, trans. W. K. Lowther Clarke (London: The Macmillan Company, 1918), 61:3-5.

[3] C.f. C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1936), 17-21.

[4] Ruth Smythers, “Instruction and Advice for the Young Bride,” The Madison Institute Newsletter, Fall 1894, n.p. A curious reader should search for the full article online. It is readily available, and the text is so detailed and bizarre as to sound satirical.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Caesarius of Arles, “Sermon 1,” in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 31, trans. Sister Mary Magdeleine Mueller (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 13.

[7] Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. George Gibian. 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 577.

[8] St. Justin Martyr, “First Apology”, in The Early Church Fathers and Other Works , trans. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.: 1867), Ch. 66.

[9] St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 2, trans. W. A. Jurgens (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 58-59.

[10] G. Sauvage, “Berengarius of Tours,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 16, ed. Charles George Herbermann (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1907), 487.

[11] Augustine, “Of the Good of Widowhood,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, ser. 1, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. and ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co.), 6.

[12] C.f.  Mark A. Noll, Turning Points, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 77-98.

[13] The Council of Trent, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), 195.

Veronica Wickline ’16 is an Ancient History concentrator in Kirkland House.

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