How Did Early Christians Know What to Believe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the early centuries of Christianity, believers were mostly without complete written copies of the New Testament as we know it today.  They may have possessed portions of it, but most Christians were taught doctrine orally.  In order to focus on and remember what was important, the early church composed several creeds.

Creeds are simple summaries of central doctrines that are easy to memorize.  According to Benjamin Galan in Creeds and Heresies Then and Now , the early Christian creeds served three purposes:

Explanation of the faith. Creeds are basic, memorable statements of belief.

Training of believers. Creeds help believers understand who they are, what they believe, and how they should act as Christians.  They are like posts that delimit the boundaries of what it means to be , to believe, and live as Christians.

Identification and correction of false teachings. Even in the first century A.D., false teachers abounded – teachers who claimed to follow Jesus but who promoted a message about Jesus that differed radically from the historical accounts proclaimed by apostolic eyewitnesses.  Early Christian creeds helped believers to distinguish the truth about Jesus from the alternative perspectives presented by false teachers.

Many Christian churches today still recite creeds composed by the early church, although churches in denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention do not.  Whether creeds are recited during church services or not, it is important for all Christians to understand what the early creeds said, because we are inheritors of the contents of those creeds.  If we fail to know what the creeds said, we fail to understand our history as a church.

What does your church do?  Do you recite any creeds during your services?

  • Armand Massie

    My church tradition has been varied over many years. Raised in a Southern Baptist church in my youth I also worshiped, in later years, in Charismatic/Pentecostal churches, both independent and organized, such as Assembly of God, etc. In all this varied experience none of these nonliturgical traditions recited any of the historical creeds nor was anything ever taught regarding early church history. Baptist churhes, however, will occassionally teach denominational history. There has been only one exception. A small independent Bible Church with no denominational affiliation practiced congregational recitation of the Apostle’s Creed during baptismal ceremonies as a baptismal confession of Faith for new converts. That was my first exposure to the historical creeds.

  • In the early centuries of Christianity, believers were mostly without complete written copies of the New Testament as we know it today.

    I’d say that’s putting it mildly. Throughout most of Christianity’s history, the overwhelming majority of believers were completely without access to the written scriptures. The printing press wasn’t invented until the 14th century and it wasn’t until the 16th century that translations in the vernacular became common. Even then, literacy rates were so low that few believers could have read the New Testament even if they had access a copy.

  • Marcus

    This has always been a question for me – speaking from a secular historical point of view, how can we be sure that the “true” version of Christianity (i.e. the version that tells what actually happened during the resurrection and the life of Jesus) is the one that has survived? Wasn’t there a schism between Ebionites and Pauline Christians in the early days of Christianity? Wasn’t there a dispute that an actual “physical” resurrection of Jesus’ body never took place? (I know Paul quotes 500 witness, but is that our only evidence?) How can we be sure that the Pauline version of the resurrection is true, and that it is not just the version that happened to survive?

  • Boz


    When we are trying to discover what actually happened in the past, we can only go on what available evidence we have.

    For example, there may have been an entire library recording everything jesus said verbatim, but since we unfortunately do not have this, we can only make conclusions on what evidence we do have available.

    History is written by the winners, and the primary evidence we have of the ebionites is some of the early church fathers who disparaged them as heretics.

    What we do have is a translation of a scribed copy of a scribed copy of a scribed copy of a scribed copy of a scribed copy of a scribed copy of the original author’s manuscript. And the original author’s information comes from a 3rd or 5th or 10th or 20th-hand hearsay account. And the author is anonymous, biased, pushing a particular point of view, and evangelising.

    So we have to frame our conclustions with the uncertainty that this evidence leaves us with.

  • Bill Pratt

    There are many blog posts on this site that deal with the historicity of various aspects of Christianity (here for example). Since we are dealing with events that occurred 2,000 years ago, there are a wide array of opinions about the historical probabilities of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (those are the central historical elements of Christianity). There are a multitude of books that deal with these topics that I can recommend if you’d like.

    Having said that, one thing is definitely true. We have more historical attestation of Jesus than any other figure of ancient history, if the criteria is the number and dating of manuscripts. There is no question about that. The debate always comes down to how trustworthy the manuscript accounts are. I, of course, think they are quite trustworthy, but you will have to do some reading of your own to come to your own conclusion.

  • Bill Pratt

    You are biased, fairly anonymous, pushing your own point of view, and evangelising, so should should we discount your writing as well?

  • Boz

    If we discount everything that comes from a biased source, then there will be no writing in the world left to read! Everyone is biased.

    everyone should fact-check what they read, and I encourage everyone to fact-check what I have written.

    If someone ckecks what I have written and finds an error, and tells me, they will have given me a very generous gift.

  • Bill Pratt

    If everyone is biased, then it’s not worth mentioning, yet you mention it when it comes to Christian writers. It seems like you should drop these kinds of comments because they are adding zero useful information to the discussion. Wouldn’t you agree?