A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs

A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs

by David W. Bercot


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Interest in the ways of the early church has never been more intense. What did early Christians believe about the divinity of Christ? What were the beliefs of those who sat at the feet of Jesus’ disciples? Now, for the first time, a unique dictionary has been developed to allow easy access to the ancient material and furnish ready answers to these questions and others like them. David W. Bercot has painstakingly combed the writings of these early church leaders and categorized the heart of their thinking into more than 700 theological, moral, and historical topics to create A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Wonderfully suited for devotional or thematic study as well as sermon illustration, this resource offers a window into the world of the early church and affords a special opportunity to examine topically the thoughts of students of the original apostles, as well as other great lights in the life of the early church.

• Collects relevant comments on key Christian concepts from prominent figures such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, and Hippolytus.
• Includes key biblical verses associated with a given topic.
• Offers brief definitions of unfamiliar terms or concepts, allowing easy access to the ancient material.
• Provides a "Who's Who" of ante-Nicene Christianity to put in context the ancient Christian writers.
• Discusses more than 700 key theological, moral, and historical topics.
• Gives strategic cross-reverences to related topics.
• Functions as a topical index to the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565638709
Publisher: Hendrickson Publishers, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/1998
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 851,468
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David W. Bercot, an Anglican priest and an attorney, graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University and Baylor University School of Law. He is the author of Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up and is a member of the North American Patristics Society.

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A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs

By David W. Bercot

Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC

Copyright © 2013 David Bercot
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61970-168-7




See Abortion, Infanticide.


And the Lord respected Abel and his offering. Gen. 4:4.

By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain. Heb. 11:4.

On you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah. Matt. 23:35.

We show that both earthly oblations and spiritual sacrifices were foreshadowed.... Cain foreshadowed those of the elder son, that is, of Israel. And the opposite sacrifices are demonstrated to be those of the younger son, Abel. He represents our [Christian] people. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.156.

Beloved brethren, let us imitate righteous Abel, who initiated martyrdoms. For he was the first to be slain for righteousness' sake. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.348.

In the sacrifices that Abel and Cain first offered, God looked not at their gifts, but at their hearts. Abel was acceptable in his gift because he was acceptable in his heart. Abel was peaceable and righteous; he sacrificed in innocence to God. He thereby taught others that when they, too, bring their gift to the altar, they should come with the fear of God and with a simple heart. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.454; see also 2.105.


Abgar was the customary name given to various kings of Edessa. The passages below apparently refer to two different Abgars. The first one refers to Abgar the Black, c. A.D. 13–50.

King Abgar was renowned for his valor among the nations that were east of the Euphrates. However, his body was wasting away with a grievous disease, one for which there was no cure among men. But when Abgar heard and was informed of the name of Jesus and about the mighty works that He did, ... he sent a letter of request [to Jesus] through one of his slaves. Abgar begged Him to come and heal him of his disease. However, our Savior did not comply with his request at the time that he asked. Still, He sent Abgar a letter in reply. Eusebius (c. 315, E), 8.651.

This Abgar was called Avak-air (great man) because of his gentleness, wisdom, and size. Not being able to pronounce well, the Greeks and the Syrians called him Abgar. In the second year of his reign, all the districts of Armenia became vassals to the Romans. Moses of Chorene (date uncertain, E), 8.702; extended discussion: 8.651–8.653.

See Also Armenia; Edessa; Seventy, The (Disciples).


Ablution refers to ceremonial washing before prayer or other religious observance.

It is said that we should go to the sacrifices and prayers washed, clean, and bright. It is said that this external adornment and purification are practiced as a symbol. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.435.

[Describing a love feast:] After washing the hands and the bringing in of lights, each person is asked to stand forth and sing a hymn to God, as best he can. This can be either a hymn from the Holy Scriptures or one of his own composing. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.47.

What reason is there to go to prayer with hands indeed washed, but the spirit foul? It is spiritual purities that are necessary for our hands, so that they can be "lifted up pure" from falsehood, and from murder.... These are the true purities. The true ones are not those which most persons are superstitiously careful about—such as using water at every prayer, even when they are coming from a bath of the whole body. When I was carefully making a thorough investigation of this practice, ... I ascertained that it was a commemorative act, relating to the surrender of the Lord [when Pilate washed his hands]. However, we pray to the Lord; we do not surrender him. Tertullian (c. 198, W), 3.685.

In this manner, the Essenes perform ablutions in cold water. And after being cleansed in this manner, they retire together into one room. Hippolytus (c. 225, W), 5.134.

See also Prayer (II. Prayer Postures and Customs).


See Daniel, Book of.


The term "exposing infants" refers to the practice of abandoning infant children along roadsides, leaving them either to die of exposure or to be taken by someone, usually to be raised as a slave or a prostitute.

If men fight and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely ... [and] if any lasting harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. Exod. 21:22, 23.

You shall not kill the child by obtaining an abortion. Nor, again, shall you destroy him after he is born. Barnabas (c. 70–130, E), 1.148.

You shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill one who has been born. Didache (c. 80–140, E), 1.377.

They bear children, but they do not destroy their offspring. Letter to Diognetus (c. 125–200), 1.27.

We say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder. And we also say they will have to give an account to God for the abortion. So on what basis could we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fetus in the womb as a created being (and therefore an object of God's care)—yet, when he has passed into life, to kill him. We also teach that it is wrong to expose an infant. For those who expose them are guilty of child murder. Athenagoras (c. 175, E), 2.147.

Fathers, forgetting about their children who have been exposed, often unknowingly have intercourse with a son that has debauched himself and with daughters who are prostitutes. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.276.

Although keeping parrots and curlews, the [pagans] do not adopt the orphan child. Rather, they expose children who are born at home. Yet, they take up the young of birds. So they prefer irrational creatures to rational ones! Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.279.

What cause is there for the exposure of a child? The man who did not desire to beget children had no right to marry at all. He certainly does not have the right to become the murderer of his children, because of licentious indulgence. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.368.

In our case, murder is once for all forbidden. Therefore, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier way to kill a human. It does not matter whether you take away a life that has been born, or destroy one that is not yet born. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.25.

First of all, you [pagans] expose your children, so that they may be taken up by any compassionate passer-by, to whom they are quite unknown! Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.26.

Although you are forbidden by the laws to kill newborn infants, it so happens that no laws are evaded with more impunity or greater safety. And this is done with the deliberate knowledge of the public. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.123.

Among surgeons' tools there is a certain instrument that is formed with a nicelyadjusted flexible frame for first of all opening the uterus and then keeping it open. It also has a circular blade, by means of which the limbs within the womb are dissected with careful, but unflinching care. Its last appendage is a blunted or covered hook, by which the entire fetus is extracted by a violent delivery. There is also a copper needle or spike, by which the actual death is brought about in this treacherous robbery of life. From its infanticide function, they give it the name, "killer of the infant"—which infant, of course, had once been alive. Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.206.

Indeed, the Law of Moses punishes with appropriate penalties the person who causes abortion. For there already exists the beginning stages of a human being. And even at this stage, [the fetus] is already acknowledged with having the condition of life and death, since he is already susceptible to both. Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.218.

Are you to dissolve the conception by aid of drugs? I believe it is no more lawful to hurt a child in process of birth, than to hurt one who is already born. Tertullian (c. 212, W), 4.57.

I behold a certain ceremony and circumstance of adultery. On the one hand, idolatry precedes it and leads the way. On the other hand, murder follows in company.... Witness the midwives, too! How many adulterous conceptions are slaughtered! Tertullian (c. 212, W), 4.78.

There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels. So they commit murder before they bring forth. And these things assuredly come down from the teaching of your gods. Mark Minucius Felix (c. 200, W), 4.192.

Women who were reputed believers began to resort to drugs for producing sterility. They also girded themselves around, so as to expel what was being conceived. For they did not wish to have a child by either a slave or by any common fellow—out of concern for their family and their excessive wealth. See what a great impiety the lawless one has advanced! He teaches adultery and murder at the same time! Hippolytus (c. 225, W), 5.131.

The womb of his wife was hit by a blow of his heel. And, in the miscarriage that soon followed, the offspring was brought forth, the fruit of a father's murder. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.326.

I cannot find language to even speak of the infants who were burned to the same Saturn! Lactantius (c. 304–313, W), 7.35.

[Speaking of pagans:] They either strangle the sons born from themselves, or if they are too "pious," they expose them. Lactantius (c. 304–313, W), 7.144, 145.

Let no one imagine that to strangle newborn children is allowable. For this is the greatest impiety! God breathes into their souls for life, not for death. Men ... deprive souls that are still innocent and simple, of the light that they themselves have not given.... Or can those persons be considered innocent who expose their own offspring as prey for dogs? As far as their participation is concerned, they have killed them in a more cruel manner than if they had strangled them! ... Therefore, if anyone is unable to bring up children because of poverty, it is better to abstain from marriage than to mar the work of God with wicked hands. Lactantius (c. 304–313, W), 7.187.

You shall not slay your child by causing abortion, nor kill the baby that is born. For "everything that is shaped and has received a soul from God, if it is slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed" [Ezek. 21:23, LXX]. Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.466.

See also Conception; Procreation.


Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him ..., "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering." Gen. 22:1, 2.

I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Matt. 3:9.

If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. Gal. 3:29.

Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. Gal. 4:28.

This man was not only the prophet of faith, but also the father of those who from among the Gentiles believe in Jesus Christ. That is because his faith and ours are one and the same. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.492.

The promise of God that He gave to Abraham remains steadfast.... For his seed is the church, which receives the adoption of God through the Lord, as John the Baptist said: "For God is able from the stones to raise up children to Abraham." Thus also the apostle says in the Epistle to the Galatians: "But you, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of the promise." Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.561.

God had commanded even Abraham to make a sacrifice of his son. He did not do this totempt [Abraham], but to prove his faith. Tertullian (c. 198, W), 3.684.

See also Israel of God.


See Dead, Intermediate State of; Paradise.


In the early church, absolution was the formal act of a bishop or presbyter in pronouncing forgiveness of sin to a repentant Christian.

Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Matt. 18:15.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. John 20:23.

Some, not able to find this peace [i.e., ecclesiastical forgiveness] in the church, have been seeking it from the imprisoned martyrs. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.693.

Is it better to be damned in secret than absolved in public? Tertullian (c. 203, W), 3.664.

The next four quotations from Tertullian reflect the Montanist view that the church cannot extend forgiveness for serious postbaptismal sins, such as adultery.

I am not speaking of the type of repentance after believing that receives pardon from the bishop for lighter sins. For greater and irremissible ones, [pardon comes] from God alone. Tertullian (c. 212, W), 4.95.

Apostolic sir, therefore, demonstrate to me even now prophetic evidence, so that I may recognize your divine virtue and so that you can vindicate to yourself the power of remitting such sins! If, however, you have only had the function of discipline allotted you, ... who are you, how great are you, to grant indulgence? Tertullian (c. 212, W), 4.99.

You say, "But the church has the power of forgiving sins." This I acknowledge and adjudge.... But now I ask you, "From what source do you usurp this right of the church"? Is it because the Lord has said to Peter, "Upon this rock I will build My church" and "to you I have given the keys of the heavenly kingdom"? Or "Whatever you shall have bound or loosed in earth shall be bound or loosed in the heavens"? From these [Scriptures], do you presume that the power of binding and loosing has derived to you—that is, to every church of Peter? If so, what sort of man are you, subverting and wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring this [authority] on Peter personally? Tertullian (c. 212, W), 4.99.

You go so far as to lavish this power [of forgiveness of sins] on martyrs as well! No sooner has anyone ... put on the chains, ... than adulterers beset him and fornicators gain access to him. Prayers immediately echo around him. Instantly, there are pools of tears. Tertullian (c. 212, W), 4.100.

The impostor [i.e., Callistus, bishop of Rome], having ventured on such opinions, established a school in antagonism to the church. And he adopted the foregoing system of instruction: He first invented the device of conniving with men in regard to their indulgence in pleasures, saying that everyone has their sins forgiven by him. For if anyone who commits any transgression, if he is called a Christian (even though he normally attended the congregation of someone else), they say the sin is not counted against him—provided he hurries off to the school of Callistus. And many persons are gratified with his regulation.... Now, some of those persons had been by us forcibly ejected from the church in accord with our judicial sentence. However, they simply went over to him and helped to crowd his school. Hippolytus (c. 225, W), 5.131.

In smaller sins, sinners may do penance for a set time and come to public confession according to the rules of discipline. They then receive the right of communion through the imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.290.

Let no one say, "He who accepts martyrdom is baptized in his own blood. Therefore, he does not need peace [i.e., absolution for serious sins] from the bishop. For he is about to have the peace of his own glory. He is about to receive a greater reward from the mercy of the Lord." First of all, no one can be fitted for martyrdom if he is not armed for the contest by the church. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.337.

They do violence to His body and blood [i.e., the Eucharist]—before their sin is expiated, before confession of their crime has been made! They do this before their consciences have been purged by sacrifice and by the hand of the priest! Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.441.

I entreat you, beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sins while he is still in this world—while his confession can still be received and while the satisfaction and remission made by the priests are still pleasing to the Lord. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.445.


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