Theology in the Patristic Era: Coleman M. Ford on Salvation

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Coleman M. Ford serves as assistant professor of Christian Formation and as Director of Professional Doctoral Studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


In the early centuries of the church, the unique message of Jesus’s person and work continued to spread through the known world around the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Asia. Whether in persecution or in triumph, the Christian declaration “Jesus is Lord” reached the ears of both the common and the elite. Throughout the period, early Christian writers dedicated much time and energy to explicating the good news through treatises, letters, sermons, and songs. Indeed, many early Christian thinkers were pastors who preached and taught with the purpose of encouraging the faithful and helping them understand and live in light of the salvation that Jesus Christ had accomplished.

The doctrine of salvation in the early church was forged in the fires of controversy and molded on the anvil of Scripture. Christians from the beginning declared the message of salvation found in Christ alone, yet errant views forced early theologians to clarify the unique nature and role of Jesus Christ in salvation. In fact, the driving force of Christian responses to heretical teaching was maintaining the biblical message of salvation found in Christ alone. To misunderstand the person and work of Christ was to miss the richness of salvation promised in him. Error had eternal consequences. This chapter will focus on developments related to the doctrine of salvation, specifically the understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ in the first centuries of the church.

Historical Overview

For early Christian thinkers, controversy arose out of conviction. The Christological battles of the early centuries demonstrated that the church was serious about maintaining the biblical account of Jesus’s person and work. Truly no salvation is possible if Jesus is not both God and man. Such false renderings also disrupted the triune nature of God and the harmonious activity of redemption within the Godhead. Church fathers recognized these errors and reasoned from Scripture, affirmed doctrine through conciliar gatherings, and faithfully preached orthodox theology to “contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” (Jude 3). Another important facet of soteriology in early Christianity was the place of the atonement and the remarkable work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

The atonement should not be minimized, yet it is a part of the larger fabric of salvation represented in patristic thinking. There was no singular way of understanding what took place on the cross. According to patristic thinkers, the atonement of Christ on the cross rendered a myriad of cosmological effects as part of the history of redemption.

The ways salvation was understood by early thinkers was deeply spiritual and experiential. The early church focused on baptism and the Eucharist(the Lord’s Supper) as the means of entrance to the faith and spiritual growth. Baptism identified one with the salvation of Christ, while the Eucharist was part of the ongoing participation and remembrance of the work of Christ for our salvation. Although debates remain as to how and to what degree early Christians perceived the presence of Christ within the Eucharist, nevertheless a sacramental spirituality can be discerned in much of early Christian thinking.

Case Studies

1. Irenaeus and Gnosticism

2. Athanasius and Arianism

3. Augustine and Pelagianism

4. Cyril and Nestorianism

For the Church

The centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation. The person and work of Jesus Christ is the key to unlocking the treasures of salvation. The early church defended the doctrine of Christ so vigorously because the gospel and salvation itself was at stake. Only a Savior who is truly God and truly man can secure man’s salvation. From the earliest post–New Testament writers, the centrality of Jesus as both God and man was nonnegotiable.

The necessity for clear doctrinal formulation. This chapter has included numerous thinkers and their doctrinal positions, as well as discussions on councils that met to solidify orthodox doctrine. The pursuit of clear doctrinal formulation is necessary not only to combat error but to bolster our faith. Ambiguity disrupts faith; clarity fortifies it.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

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