Proto-orthodox Church as a Victorious party

Athanasius (4th century AD) was a powerful bishop and a great advocate of orthodoxy.

In the last post, I talked about the various Gnostic groups which illustrates how much diversity the early Christian world experienced. Amid different Christians stood the so-called proto-orthodox Church. This is a scholarly (modern) term. These people never called themselves proto-orthodoxy. They thought they were the only true Christians – as did any other early Christian group. We have created the term proto-orthodoxy because this group eventually triumphed over other early Christian communities and became the standard (orthodox) form of Christianity. By the end of the 4th century, they successfully marginalized other Christians and rewrote the history of Christianity to suit their own ideological views. So, who were they, and how did they manage to win?

To begin with, Proto-Orthodox Christians agreed with the Ebionites who believed that Jesus was completely human but disagreed with them regarding his divinity. While some Ebionites denied Jesus’ divinity, proto-orthodox Christians believed that Jesus was God. As the Gospel of John claims:

In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

Meanwhile, they agreed with Marcion who claimed that Jesus was completely divine but disagreed when his followers allegedly profess the belief that Jesus was never really human. They agreed with the Gnostics who said that Jesus Christ brings salvation, but they strongly disagreed with them when they postulated numerous different gods or when they asserted that Jesus brings salvation via knowledge or gnosis. For the proto-orthodox Christians, it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that opened the door of salvation for all humankind! These debates, polemics, and struggles eventually shaped Christianity up to the present day. If proto-orthodoxy had not won, the whole history of Western Civilisation would have been different. In a nutshell, the proto-orthodoxy is a group that Church authors and intellectuals such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Athanasius belong to. But, why did they win? What caused the triumph proto-orthodox Church – among all those different groups that claimed to be the true followers of Jesus?

This challenging question remains still a ground for debate among contemporary scholars. Up until the 20th century, the traditional paradigm dominated. According to this view, the proto-orthodox Church was the only original Christian community. They were the ones that had a direct historical connection to Jesus and his apostles. Every other group (Marcionites, Gnostics, etc…) appeared afterward as they diverged from the original teachings of the Church. However, in the 20th century, scholars started to doubt this paradigm realizing that the diversity within Christianity was a reality from the beginning of the new religion. Already during Jesus’ lifetime, different people understood him and his message in various ways. So, there must be other reasons for the victory of proto-orthodoxy. What were those reasons? It is actually a question that I spend 6-7 years analyzing. To be more precise, this was a topic of my dissertation. Needless to say, it is impossible to get into the details here. Instead, I’ll briefly sketch the most important sociological and ideological features of the proto-orthodox Church that contributed to its triumph.

  1. The system of organization

I believe this is the most important reason! From the 1st century on, the proto-orthodox Church asserted the importance of the structure and the system of organization. Unlike most contemporary scholars, I hold that the structure of the Church with bishops and presbyters was there from the beginning of the new religion. Already in the first proto-orthodox communities in urban areas such as Rome or Antioch, there were episkopoi (bishops) who were in charge of houses where local communities would gather. In the course of several decades, the structure of monepiscopacy (one bishop in a city) appeared as the role and influence of bishops were on the rise. In parallel with that, proto-orthodox Christians insisted that their system of organization has a clear basis in the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. To be more precise, they argued that Jesus appointed apostles to continue his mission, and these apostles later appointed bishops to carry their legacy. This is often called the Apostolic succession. It served as a powerful legitimation tool for the strengthening of the proto-orthodox position.

2. Proto-orthodoxy as a universal Church

Related to the system of organization, the proto-orthodox Church confessed the belief in one universal Church connected through the network of bishops and presbyters. Whether you were living in Ephesus or Rome, you were part of a large entity that was beyond the local or regional boundaries. Similarly, you could be rich or poor, Greek or Roman – if you confessed the doctrines of proto-orthodoxy and respected its structure you were equally a part of the Church. The universalism of the proto-orthodox Church was unprecedented in the history of religion. It was a helpful tool in polemical battles against other Christian communities that were often limited to the local boundaries.

3. The development of the NT Canon and the Rule of Faith

While it is true that Marcion was the first Christian to organize canon (a list of acceptable books), the proto-orthodox Church proved to be much better at it. And the reason is simple: unlike Marcion who had a radical view of canon (he rejected the Old Testament and all of the Gospels except Luke), proto-orthodox authors insisted on a more flexible canon that included the four most popular and widely read gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). With its flexibility in canon formation, the proto-orthodox Church attracted more people than other Christian communities such as Marcionites. Related to that, proto-orthodox Christians developed the Rule of Faith – a basic theology of the Church. It was a set of beliefs that converts would learn at baptism. One early (proto-orthodox) Church author writes the following:

This then is the order of the rule of our faith…: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. (Irenaeus, c. 180 AD)

This phenomenon helped in defining the boundaries between the proto-orthodoxy and other Christian communities. Moreover, it was also unprecedented in the world of early Christianity. No other community developed anything like that.

4. The strategy of exclusion

Beginning with Justin Maryrt (c. 150 AD), proto-orthodox Christians asserted that other Christian communities weren’t at all “Christian”. Rather, they diverged from the apostolic Church and became heretics (those who hold false beliefs). There were numerous early Church writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc) who dedicated their life exposing the false beliefs of people such as Marcion or Valentinus and their followers. In modern textbooks, they are often called Heresiologists or the “heresy hunters”. For them, heretics such as Marcion were inspired by the daemons and the devil himself. Their beliefs represent a distortion of the true teachings of Jesus and his apostle. Writing numerous books, these early Church writers sought to marginalize different heretics and expose their weaknesses. This was a strong polemical tool in the battle for the Christian world.


At the end of the 4th century, Roman emperor Theodosius the Great issued the Edict of Thessalonica which made the proto-orthodox version of Christianity the only acceptable religion in the empire. The battle was over. Other Christian communities such as Valentinian Gnostic School or Marcionites remained on the margins of society until they completely disappeared a few centuries later.

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