Snippets of Church History by Mike Atnip – #12, #13, #14, #15

| February 17, 2019 | 0 Comments

How Did We Get to Here? And When?

A.D. 270.

Yep, that was the year that the early church bit the dust. At least according to the church group in which I grew up. They had it nailed down to a specific year. They came to that conclusion, not by information from the early church writings, but by back-dating from 1530, the year that Martin Luther [supposedly] brought the church out of the Dark Ages. Since 1530 minus 1260 (remember that number in Revelation?) equals 270, then the early church went corrupt in 270.

To be fair to those who did their mathematics, they did not say that the apostasy all happened in exactly A.D. 270, but that was the year when God must have calculated the church to have gone under.

You can probably figure out that I am not impressed any more with saying that A.D. 270 was the year when the Dark Ages began. After all, why did they choose Martin Luther for the great bearer of truth to lift the Christian church out of darkness? If you remember some Plain News articles from over a year ago, we looked at how Luther taught some very crooked theology concerning lying. And, most historians date his reform to have started when he asked for a debate to be held about indulgences, and his 95 theses on the subject were then printed by others (without his permission). This was 1517. Why 1530?

Again, this had to do with the church believing that 1880 figured into the prophetic timeline, when a man by the name of Daniel S. Warner began preaching a new set of doctrines. They backdated 350 years (from the three and one half days in Revelation, with one day equaling one century) from 1880 and got 1530. Then from there it went back to 270, as already mentioned.

Really simple, right? Can’t you run a calculator if you cannot do math on paper? There’s the proof that the early church went sour in A.D. 270!

Believe it or not, there are thousands—maybe more accurately said as tens of thousands—of people in the Church of God movement who believe those calculations to be undeniable truth.

That elusive date

We all know that the Bible speaks of a vibrant church in the Book of Acts. We have looked at the evangelism and mission of the first generation of believers, seeing them spread over much of the “civilized” world. We also know that eventually the church, like milk, turned sour.

When did that happen? A.D. 270?

By now you realize that I totally reject A.D. 270 as the “magical” date for the early church apostasy. What about the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325? This is a “marker date” for many people, with the politicizing of Constantine the Great. Obviously, he pulled the church in a bad direction.

So is A.D. 325 that elusive date, the year that God in heaven recognized the church to have fallen into apostasy?


No, with a period.

Poor Constantine!

I sort of feel sorry for poor ol’ Constantine. He gets battered pretty heavy for leading the church into apostasy. But let’s park here just a little and think about the situation.

Just how far do you think his ideas would have gone with Peter, Paul, and John of the New Testament? Do you suppose that Constantine could have managed to get those three men, and their co-laborers, together for a general council of the church, with Constantine presiding?

What a joke!

Do you get my point? Constantine did not lead the church into apostasy. He only led an apostate church a bit deeper. Peter, Paul, and John would have rolled their eyes at the offer of an unbaptized king calling a church assembly to discuss theology. Or, perhaps, they would have given him a sharp rebuke.

So when did it happen?

So the early church went sour before A.D. 325, for sure, or it would have not paid the least attention to the proffered hand of Constantine, an unbaptized secular authority. Yet, at the Council of Nicaea the gathered delegates decided that anyone who joined the military after conversion should be excommunicated from the church for 10 years.

This seems strange to our ears, as those who leave the true faith and jump into politics in our day often chuck non-resistance out the door ASAP. This goes to show that when movements go sour, they do not all go the same way. Here we see the early churches snuggling up to Constantine, but deciding to excommunicate anyone who joins the military, for a decade.

What about Revelation?

The sad reality is that the early churches were already going sour, at least a good part of them, already in the first century. Jesus had to rebuke five out of seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. This was, it is commonly thought, written in the A.D. 90s.

Sixty years. Two or three generations. And more than half the churches had some serious deviations among them.

A common misconception

From that point, A.D. 90-100, what happened? One common misconception is that things went sailing along pretty well, until Constantine. I used to believe that way.

Not so, anymore.

I know a good number of people who, like myself at one point, have become intrigued with the Ante-Nicene writings. Among many of these—and they are among the Plain people—the writings of the early church are to be taken very seriously, although practically all of them would never equate them with the Bible. I still hold the Ante-Nicene writings as valuable, but to be honest I do not value them as strong as I would have in times past. Here’s why …

When we look at the issue of infant baptism, we find that by the middle of the third century, three of the early church writers were supporting the idea, or at least acknowledging it. In A.D. 180, Irenaeus speaks of children who were “born again to God.” Origen supports infant baptism in his commentaries on Leviticus, Luke, and Romans. Tertullian, writing around A.D. 200 says that it was customary to baptize infants, although he advised against it.

We have no choice but to acknowledge that by the year 200 that at least some of the churches were baptizing infants, and had been doing so for some time already—at least long enough that it was considered traditional.

So, by 150 years after the resurrection of Jesus, the churches had lost enough of their spiritual insight to baptize babies. I will not go into the arguments as to why this is wrong, except to say that rebirth into the kingdom of God is built upon personal faith, repentance, and obedience: babies cannot do any of the three.

How long have we been doing this?

Let’s go down a bit of a bunny trail here. As we have noticed, by A.D. 200 some of the churches were baptizing infants. It appears that some of the people believed at that time that this was a practice from the beginning of the church. We Anabaptists, of course, don’t believe that.

Yet, some sincere people appear to have believed that, in those days. This goes to show that the practice had been around for some time, at least for a generation or two previous. Unfortunately, some people seem to think that if grandpa and great-grandpa did something, it has always been that way.

I remember meeting some of the “Two-by-two” church people in my youth, also known as the Cooneyites. These people are a conservative Evangelical-type group that has a ministry that travels around two-by-two … hence the name. Anyways, these people—at least some of them—are convinced that their church dates all the way back to Acts, and that it has never changed.

My brother met them in the west, where they are a bit more numerous than in Indiana. When he gave some of them my parent's name and address, two of their ministers showed up at our door (they have women in the ministry … a good, solid hint that they do not originate in Acts!). As I got to know them—with some sincere and god-fearing people among them—I also came to realize that evidence was right in their midst that the idea that “we have never changed” was faulty. One day I asked one of them: “You say that you have never changed. Then why do some of your people in the west have TV, when it used to be that none of you did?”

I got no answer, of course.

All churches change, even if ever so slowly. How many Amish, for example, would believe it if I told them that their broadfall pants came into the Amish in the late 1700s (before that they wore knee-length pants with long socks)? And that it was the British Army where they got the long pants style from? (An old Amish letter states that!)

Or, how many of them would believe that their shaved mustache is, from all evidence, actually just a style of beard that was very popular fad in the early 1800s in central Europe and North America? (Abe Lincoln and oodles of other men wore it! The idea that is was a protest against French militarism hasn’t one lick of original historical evidence to it.)

That goes to show just because grandpa and great-grandpa did something, that does not mean it has always been that way. Going back to the church in A.D. 200, it may have seemed to some of them in those days that infant baptism was an old practice that had always been around: but that isn’t the slightest proof that it had been.

Now, let’s get off that bunny trail …

So is that elusive date A.D. 180?

So, can we peg A.D. 180 as the magical date when the early church went awry?


Even though many of the churches had slipped, by that point, into what some call sacralism—I call it ritualism—they were still teaching some good points. They would have still been preaching non-resistance, modest dress, and other valid points of Christian teaching.

Yet, they were blowing out in a major area, that of making the ordinances into a ritual that had gave the partaker “grace,” even if the partaker did not have personal faith, repentance, and obedience. One of the real problems with the idea of infant baptism is that it opens wide the door for adults to also be baptized—adults that likewise have no faith, repentance, and obedience. A church that does not make those requirements for baptism of children will likely not make them requirements for adults.

Wholesale apostasy

The other aspect that makes it hard to set a specific date for the apostasy of the early church is that apostasy rarely strikes a congregation wholesale in one certain year. It creeps in; a little here, a lot there. Some slide, while others stand firm. In Revelation, Jesus told the churches that some among them had kept their garments clean, in the very same churches where others had soiled their garments. And, we must remind ourselves that two of the seven churches did not get a reproof, thus showing that two congregations living in adjacent communities can go two different directions.

In short, apostasy in the early church is impossible to pin to a certain year. We know that by A.D. 180 many of the churches appear to have lost their clarity as to the requisites for baptism. Yet, we would be foolish to say that clarity had gone from all the churches. And more foolish yet to say that the clarity had gone from all the individuals in the churches. [As an interesting side note, it is rather strange that no discussions/arguments appear in the Ante-Nicene writings against infant baptism. One would think that at someone would have spoken out against its adoption as a practice. As it appears to be, it came into the churches without anyone seriously opposing it. This lack of opposition can be used to support the idea, held by some, that baptism of infants had been in practice since the beginning.]

By A.D. 325, the waters had gotten so muddy that an unbaptized politician is leading a church council. Yet, we would be foolish to think that all the congregations, and all the individuals in the congregations, were all that cloudy. After all, Constantine invited 1,800 elders/bishops to Nicea, but only about 300 are thought to have shown up. We do not know why only about 1/6 of them responded to his invitation, but I would guess that at least a few of them had enough spiritual life and clarity to say, “Nonsense! I am not about to go to a church meeting with an unconverted politician at the forefront!”

To sum it up

We need to be honest with history and realize that the idea—propagated by sincere people—that the early church was pure until Constantine is simply not true. Constantine didn’t corrupt the church; he simply linked the already-corrupted church into his program. Apostasy began in the first century already, and by A.D. 200 had some deep roots in at least some of the churches. By A.D. 325, the apostasy had spread wholesale in many parts of the church. Then Constantine could lead this apostate church around by the nose … or better said, by the purse!

To ponder

How deep are we into apostasy—a slipping away from the true faith—that we do not recognize?

How many practices and theological ideas do we have that only go back a few generations, or even a few centuries, that we think “have always been so”?

~Mike Atnip


Where the Tree Falleth – Part 1

Ecclesiastes 11:3 contains the following enigmatic saying:

And if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.

I’ll be honest here; I have read that verse many times and have never figured out just why it is in the Bible. Perhaps the following story gives us an insight into the verse. We must consider the saying backwards, though. The reason a tree is lying where it lies is because it fell that way.

Sort of a no-brainer, not? The reason the tree is lying to the south is because it fell to the south. Now let’s apply that to the era of the Council of Nicaea (early A.D. 300s): the reason the church ended up in the arms of Constantine is because it fell that way.

In this snippet, we are going to look at where the church ended up lying. In future snippets, we plan to look at why it fell into the lap of Constantine.

Before beginning, let me warn you that this story is ugly. Ugly enough to turn your stomach upside down! In fact, one main character in the story ends up with his guts literally spilling out of him while he is relieving himself abroad!

The tree’s pushers

So who pushed our tree over? Let me make it clear that the winds and forces that caused the tree to fall were varied. This only looks at one force: theological finesse. By that, I mean little theological ideas that should have never even been discussed, except perhaps on a Sunday afternoon after church meeting is concluded, and all the world has been evangelized, all the sick visited, and all the prisoners have been sent a note of cheer.

But dear old Origen of Alexandria is probably one of the key players here. Let me state right here clearly that I like Origen. I like him about as much as any of the Ante-Nicene writers. Origen is dedicated, sincere, and profoundly deep in his thoughts. Some consider him to be perhaps the most learned and intelligent Christian writer ever. And, at the same time he has a humility about him.

I am learning, though, to not like him as much as I used to. I do not like it that he has slid further down my hero list in the last couple of years; but what can I say?

Origen formulated a number of theological ideas that are questionable. Yet, he often comes across not as saying, “This is the way it is: swallow it hook, line, and sinker!” He is probing, pondering, contemplating ideas. He has a theological school of sorts, and his students take his ideas … and sometimes run with them.

One area of theological finesse that Origen investigated was how the Father and the Son were related. One of the followers of Origen’s ideas was named Lucian of Antioch. [It should be noted, for historical accuracy, that some doubt that connection.] And a follower of Lucian of Antioch’s teaching—who also had a school, at Antioch—was named Arius.


You have probably heard of Arianism. It was the big “heresy” of the Nicene Council era. The Arians put a lot of emphasis on Jesus saying, “My father is greater than I.” The other side put a lot of emphasis on “My father and I are one.”

So who was right? Was the Son equal to the Father, or was He lesser and subordinate? How and when did the Son come to exist? If the Father is greater, than that means the Son could not have come from the Father’s substance, or He would have been equal.

I’ll stop there. But unfortunately, it did not stop there down in Egypt, at Alexandria, where Mark the apostle had introduced Christianity about two centuries earlier.

The main bishop of the city, Alexander of Alexandria, made a statement in a sermon that Arius—a deacon—thought was too far out. Arius thought the matter needed correction, so he begins a campaign to straighten out the theology of Alexander. Alexander sees Arius as going off the deep end on the other side of the matter. Alexander excommunicates Arius. Arius begins to ordain elders that support his point of view.

I told you it gets ugly!

Enter the Emperor

Constantine has just won a civil war for control of the Roman Empire with his brother-in-law, Licinius, and had him hung, even though his sister (Licinius’ wife) had earlier plead for and obtained the sparing of Licinius. Now Constantine has the whole empire to himself. The problem is that the church, which now has multitudes of members in his kingdom, is bickering and about to split over the matter of whether the Father is greater than the Son or whether the Son is one with the Father.

Constantine has even been appealed to by Arius, and Constantine sent a Spanish bishop, Hosius of Cordoba, to Alexandria to try to bring peace to the churches there. The dispute was spilling over into other areas, and Constantine needed a united church to fulfill his program. He told the disputants, using modern English idiom: “Quit bickering over stupid little theological questions!”

The children of the world, in this case, were wiser than the professed children of light!

The Council

Hosius was not able to bring the two parties to unity. Supposedly the contention was sharp enough that fists even went flying on one occasion.

Constantine decided that the way to bring unity would be to call together all the bishops/presbyters [the two terms were practically synonyms in those days] and settle the matter once for all. So, he invited about 1800 church leaders from within his realm to a grand, world-wide council where the Christology would be discussed and unity on the matter achieved. Some 300 elders—most of them from the East—took up his offer, including Arius, Alexander of Alexandria, and Hosius. Constantine was there as well, “to protect” the assembly. But he did more than protect; he addressed the assembly about the theological question at hand, and is thought by some historians to have controlled it, although perhaps a bit “remotely.”

Enter Eusebius of Nicomedia

First, we need to make it clear that Eusebius of Nicomedia, bishop of what is now Beirut, is different than Eusebius of Caesarea (the famed historian), although the two knew each other. Eusebius of Nicomedia was the prime church politician of his day, bar none. At first he was buddy-buddy to Licinius, until Licinius was hung. While he was on good terms with the fated co-emperor, Eusebius somehow got himself made bishop of Nicomedia—even though church by-law said such a transfer was illegal. Nicomedia was the seat of Licinius!

Eusebius knew how to play politics. Not too long after Licinius died he was back on good terms with Constantine. However, Eusebius was also an Arian. When Arius was excommunicated and kicked out of Alexandria (this was before heretics were killed by the church; they were only exiled!), he ended in the area where Eusebius was bishop, who then convened a local council of bishops to receive him into fellowship again.

So when the Council of Nicaea was called, Eusebius became the main voice of Arianism. As we know, Arianism lost the day and the Council decided that the Son was equal in substance to the Father. All except two of the attendees at the Council of Nicaea ended up signing the creed, but only after the Arians got verbal acknowledgement about what the wording did not mean.

Eusebius was now on the outs with Constantine, especially after giving some unconvinced Arians private counsel after signing the creed. Constantine sent him into exile, saying that Eusebius had been a buddy of Licinius, his ex-rival.

Two years later, Eusebius is back on good terms with Constantine (he was a distant relative), at least partly through the wife of Licinius, who spoke to the Emperor on his behalf.

Back to work

Eusebius went to work immediately to undo the Council’s decision. To make a long story short, the Arians were given more freedom and an opportunity to be reunited with the “orthodox” churches. A campaign was set up to denigrate the new, young bishop in Alexandria, Athanasius. Somehow Athanasius went from being a deacon to chief bishop of Alexandria, a move that was technically against church by-law.

Charges were trumped up against him, by the friends of Eusebius: Athanasius had broken a chalice of another priest; he had given a bag of gold to someone plotting against the Emperor; he had killed a man (whom the accusers were actually hiding) and they had a severed hand to prove it!

Did I tell you the story would turn your stomach?

The Arians return to power

Constantine died, and his son was a full-blown Arian supporter. So, the Arians were restored and Athanasius was exiled. This continued a while, until another Emperor arose who was anti-Arian, and he eventually squashed the movement in the East, although by that time an Arian missionary had taken the theology to what is now Germany, where it survived for a few more centuries.

I am skipping a lot of details. But we must look at the end of poor Arius. He had been exiled, but the Emperor demanded that he be reinstated into the church, at Constantinople. The bishop there objected, but he had no choice: the Emperor had demanded it. The bishop took the course of earnestly praying that Arius would just die before he would have to receive the “heretic” back into the church.

The time came for Arius to be reinstated into the church. On the Saturday before, he left the imperial palace surrounded by supporters, marching through the city like a hero, getting attention from everyone. Suddenly, he felt a case of serious diarrhea hit him. He asked for a place to relieve the pressure and was directed to a private spot behind Constantine’s Forum in Constantinople. There in the privacy of a back corner, he not only execrated the contents of his intestines; the intestines came out as well, along with his spleen and liver. And there he died.

Thus goes the story as given by one of his bitter enemies. The moral of that story? Arianism is rotten to the core! Not?

Some modern historians feel that perhaps he had been poisoned. Only God knows. You have a choice as to whether you want to believe it or not.

I told you it was a story that will turn your stomach!

Where did the tree fall?

Analyzing the situation, we see that the tree fell, not to the north or to the south, but smack into the lap of Constantine. Constantine did not have to push or pull very hard. The church had apostatized before he came into the scene, and all he had to do was open his arms and let the church come cuddling into his lap. In fact, it can almost be said that Constantine may have had more sense than the churches.

Oh, I failed to mention one important detail. Remember that Constantine was an unbaptized person during all of this? Well, as he was about to die he finally allowed himself to be baptized. It is said that he waited until the last moment because he wanted to make sure all of his sins would be forgiven in the baptismal waters. If he got baptized too early, then he might sin afterwards and that sin would not be forgiven.

Can you guess who baptized him? Yep, none other than Eusebius of Nicomedia!

Didn’t I tell you the story would turn your stomach?


In the next snippet we will look at how the church went from the Acts of the Apostles to the Acts of the Apostates, as detailed above.

~Mike Atnip

Where the Tree Falleth – Part 2

From the Acts of the Apostles in the first century to the Acts of the Apostates in the fourth century. How did that happen?

As mention in a previous snippet, it is virtually impossible to put a date on the apostasy of the early church. Not everyone in a congregation walks away from truth at the same speed, and same is true of sister congregations. For generalization purposes, we are going to look at A.D. 100, A.D. 200, and A.D. 300. And, we are going to “pick on” one area: infant baptism.

By A.D. 100, what we know as "The New Testament" was written, although it would be another century or so before any general consensus was reached as to what writings were “canonical.” From the New Testament, we have no clear teaching for baptizing infants, even though some people say that when “his household” was baptized, that includes everyone, even babies. If we are honest, we have to admit that could be a possibility; but there is no explicit indication either way. Most of the other New Testament teachings on baptism indicate that personal faith, repentance, and surrender are a prerequisite for baptism; this precludes babies and small children.

The non-canonical writings (meaning that they are valid writings, but not included as part of The Bible) of the A.D. 100 era have the same indications and ambiguities as the Bible: while infant baptism is not mentioned specifically, the prerequisites of personal faith, surrender, and repentance are strongly taught.

The turning point

As we jump to A.D. 200, we suddenly see a different position in the churches: five out of six writers support infant baptism. The sixth one is not explicitly against it, but makes no clear statement either way. Let’s look at a timeline to help us get the broad picture.

Adapted from

At the vertical pink line that represents A.D. 200, we see six early church writers; three who wrote in Greek and three who wrote in Latin. Let’s take note of a few points here:

  1. This is a pitifully low amount of people to make any broad statements about the beliefs of the whole of the Christian church. Can you imagine a Gallup poll that pulled six people out of tens of thousands of people and then said, “This is what the whole group believes ….” On the other hand, it is what we have to work with, and it does give us a window in which to peek, even if it is very, very tiny. That may be like taking Mike Atnip’s writings and saying, “Look what all the Plain News subscribers believe!” 🙂 (Or should that be a 🙁 ?)
  2. These six men were the more educated of the church. Sometimes the beliefs of the highly-educated are not on par with the uneducated. One of the reasons why we do not have a greater sampling of writings from the early church is that the majority were probably barely literate, if not totally illiterate. Even today, with a literacy rate of close to 100% among the Plain people, very few (I guess less than 10%, but I do not have any actual figures) of them ever write for publications. In other words, the six men we are referencing do not necessarily reflect the church as a whole.
  3. Of these six men, two are from Carthage in what is now Tunisia, two are from Alexandria, Egypt, one from Rome and one from southern France. Where is the rest of the church? In other words, the sampling is severely limited in geographical terms.
  4. In the following analysis below of their views of infant baptism, we must remember that none of them insisted on it, as later writers did. And, none of them wrote very much on the topic. In other words, they accepted it, but did not promote it as such.

What they said

Irenaeus of Lyons in southern France is the earliest of the six men. He barely reaches to A.D. 200, thought to have died around 202. He wrote, “He [Jesus] came to save all through himself; all, I say, who through him are reborn in God: infants, and children, and youths, and old men.” (Against Heresies 2:22:4 [A.D. 189]) To be sure, this is a little bit unclear, but it appears to indicate that he considered infants capable of being “reborn in God.”

Clement of Alexandria is the one of the six who apparently gave no indication of support for infant baptism, but to be fair there is nothing explicitly against it either, in his writings.

Origen of Alexandria wrote, “In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants. If there were nothing in infants which required the remission of sins and nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of baptism would seem superfluous.” (Homilies on Leviticus 8:3 [A.D. 248]). In two other occasions, Origen also clearly supports infant baptism.

Tertullian of Carthage is accepting of infant baptism, but urges his readers to go into baptism slowly and thoughtfully. He wrote, “According to everyone’s condition and disposition, and also his age, the delaying of baptism is more profitable, especially in the case of little children. For why is it necessary—if [baptism itself] is not necessary—that the sponsors should be thrust into danger? For they may either fail of their promise by death, or they may be mistaken by a child’s proving of wicked disposition…. They that understand the weight of baptism will rather dread the receiving of it, than the delaying of it.” (de baptismo, ch. xviii) In other words, while he urges those receiving baptism to be slow about it—because it is to be entered with deep reverence—he does not speak against sponsoring infants for baptism. He merely urges the sponsors to not make rash decisions.

Hippolytus of Rome is very clear: “And first baptize the little ones; and if they can speak for themselves, they shall do so; if not, their parents or other relatives shall speak for them.”

Cyprian of Carthage called for a local church council of more than 60 bishops to discuss a disagreement among them: Should infants be baptized the eighth day, or on the second or third day. He wrote, “As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born.” In another occasion, he clearly says that infants should not be held back from baptism.


We, at least I, can conclude nothing more than that by the beginnings of the 3rd century, all evidence points to the broad acceptance—possibly almost universal acceptance—of infant baptism in the “mainline” churches. Does that mean they were all a bunch of apostates?

I would be hesitant to say that, even though I have no inkling at all to accept infant baptism. In fact, I would likely walk out of any church meeting where an infant was being baptized. I don’t even like the practice of infant dedication services, as it seems to hearken back to the idea of infant baptisms. I grew up in the conservative Holiness movement, so have had—and still do have to a degree—great respect for John and Charles Wesley. The Wesleys never rejected infant baptism, although they never really promoted it either. I will let God decide the eternal destiny of John and Charles … and many other upright early Methodists. Some of those men would put any one of us to challenge when it comes to exemplifying Galatians 5:22-24!

The real problem

So just what is the real problem with infant baptism? Is it the fact that it can deceive the recipient into thinking everything is okay in his/her life, when they grow old enough to understand what happened to him/her?

While that is a problem, I believe a bigger issue looms: churches that accept infant baptism as salvific (the Moravian Brethren, for example, acknowledged that there was no salvation in infant baptism, but continued to practice it) obviously do not understand the new birth. That means they do not understand spiritual regeneration in adults. Can someone miss the meaning of regeneration in infants, but get it right in adults? Possibly, but very unlikely.

So what we have, by A.D. 200, are churches that do not understand spiritual regeneration.

“But what about all the good things they wrote about being born again?” I can hear someone ask.

My reply is that they missed the core of what it means to be spiritually reborn, even if they had some very good things to say about regeneration. If you miss the core of something, you are missing the point.

The problem

The problem is called “baptismal regeneration.” If you want to see heated discussions, just start talking about that topic to churches that claim they are following the early church! While I don’t want to stir up feelings, we have to face the issue: Does baptism regenerate the human spirit or not?

The problem is, that question is not an either/or question. Those that say that baptism always regenerates  will fall smack into the trap that the early church fell into.  Those that say it never does have to deal with the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit was given in direct connection with water baptism.

So the answer is that a person may be regenerated in/during/with water baptism. The reasons why it sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t have to do with things like faith, repentance, and surrender (Gelassenheit). If any of those three are missing, then don’t expect a spiritual regeneration to happen in/during/with water baptism.

But if you have the three prerequisites (and that is not to say the three are an exhaustive list), and you have someone responding to God by asking for baptism, then it could happen that the Holy Ghost will indeed fall upon a person in/with/during their water baptism. In such a case, one could say that he experienced a true baptismal regeneration.

Where the early church erred

In the book of Acts, the baptism of the Spirit and water baptism were closely tied, although not always did they happen on the same day. We have instances in which water baptism happened first (Acts 8 and 19), and at least one instance in which the Spirit baptism happened first (Acts 10).

What can we conclude other than God isn’t overly concerned about which way it happens? What God is primarily concerned about is faith, repentance, and surrender, not the ritual of water baptism and whether it happens before, during, or after the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The early church started well, but within a couple of generations they lost their way on baptism. Slowly, but surely, the emphasis on faith, repentance, and surrender lost ground, while the ritual of baptism gained emphasis with a supposed power to regenerate. I seriously doubt that it was a one-generation switch, but I have no proof of how long it took to switch views.

Here is a scenario that I can imagine. Generation 1 understood it well: baptism without faith, repentance, and surrender was useless. Generation 2 began to lose the edge, but held on firmly to the easy part … the ritual. Generation 3 began to get fuzzy about faith, repentance, and surrender, but didn’t throw them out. They just began to assume that somehow the ritual had some secret power in it that could regenerate the spirit of man. Generation 4 put more and more emphasis on the unseen “grace” that baptism poured into the soul; you can’t see it, but it must happen because baptism is a means to grace. By generation 5, many are becoming convinced that the ritual is the core, although they haven’t entirely pitched faith, repentance, and surrender. But somewhere along the line, one of the generations assumes that since an infant cannot choose to believe, repent, and surrender, if some sponsor does it for the child, the ritual will still have force and regenerate the infant.

No, I cannot provide you with proof that my scenario is what happened. But I can tell you that from A.D. 100 to A.D. 200—about four to five generations—the church somehow began to believe that the ritual of baptism had a power in it that transformed the spirit of man, even in infants.

That’s a serious, serious error!

Is that saying that water baptism is useless? No. Is it saying that the baptism of the Holy Spirit will never happen during a water baptism? No. It is simply saying that the core of water baptism is faith, repentance, and surrender … not the ritual itself.

What that means in practical terms

While that may seem like so much theological talk with little application, it has serious outworkings. Let’s consider a possible scenario.

Suppose that a sinner is in prison somewhere. He is in solitary confinement. He believes, repents, and surrenders. Will God accept him, without water baptism?


Suppose now that the same sinner does have an opportunity to get baptized with water. He accepts water baptism, but does not truly repent. Will God accept him?


Obviously, the best option is that he believes, repents, and surrenders, and then gets baptized with water. The point is, the ritual of water baptism is not the core of regeneration. Paul was not sent to baptize … even though he did baptize. Water baptism wasn’t at the very core of his message.

The early church began to go astray when they “switched cores” about baptism. Again, this probably did not happen suddenly, in one generation. That slow transition from the emphasis on the inner to the emphasis on the outer led the church to the point where the Roman Emperor was baptized into the church, without repenting (as far as we know) from his politics, murdering his own relatives, and other grievous sins. It is said that Constantine promised to live a better life if he survived his sickness, but no indication is given that he planned to abandon his office as emperor or that he made confessions about how he had treated some people very wrong.

The problem was not the Emperor. The problem was the apostate church, which began to imagine that the ritual of baptism was powerful enough to regenerate unrepentant babies … and regenerate unrepentant kings. The problem with baptismal regeneration did not start with Constantine; it started in the second century church.

To sum up the truth about baptism and regeneration: A person may be spiritually regenerated while in the act of water baptism (Acts 2:38), but water baptism in itself is not the cause or means of spiritual regeneration; it is possible to receive spiritual regeneration without water baptism (remember the jailed sinner scenario, as well as Cornelius in Acts).

All of that does not mean that we, like the Quakers, do away with water baptism. We only put it in its proper place.

To ponder

Let’s face the music and acknowledge that churches can go wrong in just one century, even the early church. We have a liberal Mennonite church today, for example, that has ordained a lesbian. A century ago that would have been absolutely appalling to probably every last Mennonite on planet Earth; they didn’t even ordain women (possibly a few churches in Holland?), let alone a lesbian. Yet it happened, one century later.

In the early church (including the Nicene Council era), ordaining a lesbian would have never been given even a second’s notice. Even suggesting the idea may have gotten one excommunicated.

That shows that a tree can fall to the north as well as to the south. In the early centuries, the tree fell smack into the lap of Constantine. And it fell—among other reasons—because of erroneous ideas about baptismal regeneration: the ritual replaced the reality.

Rough timeline on water baptism

A.D. 100: no infants or unrepentant emperors baptized

A.D. 200: baptizing infants, but not unrepentant emperors.

A.D. 337: baptizing infants and unrepentant emperors

Later, it became unrepentant, but baptized, emperors enforcing infant baptism on everyone in their domains.

~Mike Atnip

The Main Thing

You may have heard the saying, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

In the previous snippet we looked at how the early church went down the path of putting too much emphasis on to the outer ritual of baptism, at the expense of what was supposed to be the core of water baptism: faith, repentance, and surrender.

In this snippet, we want to look at the whole idea of keeping the main thing the main thing.

What is the main thing?

The big question looms before us, concerning Christianity’s “main thing.” Just what is the main thing about Christianity?




Worse guess yet.

Theology about the trinity?

(Roll eyes.)

I am going to propose that the “main thing” about Christianity is “Christ in you,” the “mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations,” but has now been “revealed to his saints.” Yes, the divine nature being restored in you and me, restoring the lost image of God that had been given to Adam … that is the main thing! And this “Christ in you” has to be more than a mere theological statement; it has to be a reality: Jesus living in you. And if Jesus is living in you, then your life will begin to look like His life did in your daily walk.

Let’s look at a graphic to illustrate this and other points of Christianity, and their “value” or “place.”

A few points about this graphic

First, this is a sample of a principle, not a complete picture of Christianity. I did not spend a lot of time with this.

Second, the green dot at the center of the red rifle scope sight is “Christ in you.”

Third, each ring represents the importance of each topic, but these topics do not always fit neatly into one ring. For example, some theology is more important than other.

Fourthly, as we watch the scope move out from center, we will recognize that the topics can be on different locations around the ring. In other words, one person/group may have ordinances next to missions and emphasize those two points, while the next may have missions and theology as their focus.

The early church

With that in mind, let’s graph this out for the early church. Let’s assume that in A.D. 100, the church was basically on target. The focal point was “Christ in you,” with the various other topics in their place. The scope was starting to wobble a bit, though, according to Revelation 2 and 3.

Now let’s look at A.D. 200. I reiterate that this is not a strictly accurate portrayal of all points, but a general direction concerning water baptism (as the sample topic).

We see that now the focus is moving off center. While the center is still in the scope, other topics begin to lose out. Minor things losing out may not be as big of a problem as dropping the main thing as the main thing. This is what happened when the early church put too much emphasis on water baptism as a saving ordinance that could save even infants and regenerate them. When that began to happen, the main point, Christ in you, was damaged. We will say this represents A.D. 200, but I stress again that this is only a suggested sample of a movement, not the exact replica of what was happening in A.D. 200.

By A.D. 337, the early church was entirely missing the point of Christ in you. Yes, they would quote that Scripture and say they believed it, but they tried to give/obtain it by water baptism apart from repentance, faith, and submission. Theological finesse became more important than Christ in you.

Other misses

You probably know someone who, for example, is all wrapped up in eschatological speculations and surmisings, and that is all they can seem to talk about. While studying eschatology is not wrong, we miss the main point when that becomes our focal point. The things mentioned in the outer ring are not necessarily wrong, but they should never become a focus or emphasis, nor a cause of division (unless someone gets to being obnoxious about it, then he may need discipline).

It could be missions. Missions and evangelism are, indeed, important in Christianity. But they are not the focal point. When people/churches get all caught up in missions, they lose their balance and begin to fellowship with other strongly-minded missions people/churches, even if the other people/churches are way off track. For example, a conservative Anabaptist minister once gave me a missions book by a prominent Evangelical writer and wanted me to rewrite it to make it smaller (it was 400 pages long!). I had a problem with the book: Francis Xavier was held up as a great missionary. But Xavier requested the Pope to start the Goa Inquisition, in which some very brutal things took place. So we have an Anabaptist recommending a book written by an Evangelical, which holds up a Catholic Jesuit who participated in brutal persecution (or at least let atrocities happen without rebuking them) as a great hero. The main thing was no longer the main thing: missions were the main thing!

To ponder

I can guess that my chart may make some readers squiggle and squirm: How come (for example) mode of baptism is put off to the edge of the target? Or, why are the ordinances put as secondary topics?

This is where some deep soul searching needs to happen, on both your part and mine. Just what is the very core of Christianity? If it is not “Christ in you,” what is it?

Why do we value what we value as important? Why did the Christians in 3rd-century Alexandria begin to banish one another over theological definitions of the relationship of the Son with the Father? Surely they no longer had the main thing as the main thing!

I want to make it clear: my graphic here is not meant to be the final word on the value of the various topics mentioned, and it is incomplete. I made this really quick. I need to ponder this more. And I hope you think more about it as well.

Our little congregation has just finished a months-long Bible study of the Gospel of Matthew. We read it, trying to keep in mind the following: Who did Jesus say He was, and what was His message? I suggest that you read the gospels (at least one of them) asking yourself, “What was the message of Jesus, His main point?”

Remember: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

~Mike Atnip


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