Author: Eberhard Arnold
Publisher: The Brunderhof Foundation
Reviewer: Ikenna Alexander Nwachukwu
Without knowledge of Church History, it would be difficult to understand how much the Church- and indeed the way in which the Christian life is lived out – has changed over the nearly 2,000 years in which it has existed. A detailed survey of the lives of the early followers of Christ as recorded in the New Testament books (especially in the Acts of the Apostles) could shed some light on how much perceptions of the faith from within and outside the circle of believers has evolved. But the picture of Christians as painted in those books could be better appreciated by taking a look at extra-biblical accounts which tell us how the Christians in the earliest times and shortly after regarded themselves and their devotion.
The Early Christians In Their Own Words is an attempt by one Christian scholar to sketch a comprehensible image of the Christian life as it was within the first hundred years after the end of the Apostolic age, i.e. the post New Testament era. Eberhard Arnold wanted to let his readers into the faith of those who received the Gospel message directly from the apostles and their contemporaries. His approach was to put together a host of excerpts from the letters and creedal statements of these ancient Christians, as well as references and descriptions by their pagan persecutors. Apart from the first chapter in which he draws upon the aforementioned sources to give a rather lengthy summary of the life and beliefs of these Christians, the rest of the book consists of a collection of quotes from their writings.
The book’s seven chapters cover important themes relating to the community of Christ’s followers in the earliest times. It deals with the state’s treatment of Christians, the Church’s relationship with society, the early Christians’ beliefs about Scripture and doctrines, the nature of Christian meetings, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the prophetic ministry of the ancient Church. The sources quoted range from moving accounts of martyrdoms at the hands of Roman authorities for the sake of the faith, to admonitions to the faithful to beware of false teachers.
There is a lot that we can recognize in these texts: pleas from Church leaders for unity in the face of internal strife, misrepresentations of the Christian life by non-Christians, and the heartfelt praise of God in words and action. But there are also references to things that we rarely find in our day: Christians voluntarily becoming slaves in order to help pay off debts of their brothers and sisters in Christ, or not having the notion that there was such a thing as private property. Helping the poor is something for which the Christians are known, and even mocked. For the pagans, the fact that Christianity appealed to the poorer members of society was evidence that it was a despicable religion; for the Christians, it pointed to God’s care for the lowly and simple. The devotion of the early Christians was so powerful that they were willing to die horrible deaths for the sake of their Lord, at the hands of the idolatrous Romans and fanatical Jews. Their Godly fervor and love for one another was displayed in acts that could surprise and inspire many modern people.
For all the good things that can be said about the followers of Christ in the years after the apostolic era, there are some notable shortcomings that could be deciphered. Chief among these is the slow but certain appearance of legalism, i.e. emphasis on “good works” as a condition for holiness. It is perhaps not surprising that the earlier writings contain little or no traces of legalism, whereas the latter ones are heavily laced with assertions about “righteous deeds” as being a condition for right standing with God. There are also hints of other negative influences from the pagan world (such as Gnosticism), which later evolved into prominent errors that the Church has struggled with to this day.
The Early Christians is a great resource to have if you are keen on finding out what Christian living looked like in the early days of the faith. The accounts it refers to speak to us almost two millennia later, reminding us that the faith we have transcends time and space, and is as sacred as ever.