I’ve read more than once the claim that most early Christians were universalists. And this is occasionally supported by the further opinion that several early (first six centuries) theological schools were universalist in their teaching. This seems implausible to me. However, I’m certainly not someone who is a student of the history of the early church. So what am I to do? I’m to look for evidence.

What is clear is that there is a steep, sharp decline from the theological writing of the New Testament and what one finds among early Christian writings. ‘Rabbi’ Duncan once amusingly said ‘It is a mistake to look to the Fathers as our seniors. They were our juniors. The Church has advanced wonderfully since its foundation was laid. Polycarp would have stood a bad chance in an examination by John Owen. I think I could have posed him myself.’

Still, this belief in a decline in theological quality in the immediate post-Apostolic church is rather different from the claim about universalism, which seems much more dubious.

To start with, it would seem that the opinion that most early Christians were universalists is impossible to test. Who are these Christians? Where have most of them left any traces of holding such beliefs? Is this evidence written? Do these Christians themselves make the claim? In making the claim, do they explicitly controvert the non-universalist sentiments of the NT? Is there evidence in the liturgies of the early church that they embodied or gave expression or tacit assent to universalism?

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