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I recently came upon an article that made this statement:

According to historical records, Universal Reconciliation was the majority belief of the church during the first five centuries of the Church and the majority of the early Church Fathers. Through infighting, jealousy, and outright heresy among unscrupulous churchmen who conducted Church Councils after the year 400 AD, the doctrine was soon disregarded then completely eliminated.

Is this true? What writings do we have from early church fathers prior to 400 ad that supports or doesn't support this statement?

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    The source of this quote should be edited into the question. I found it at: freedomfromdelusion.blogspot.com/2018/07/… . This question is likely to be too broad and too opinion based. If you read the more detailed information the site links to, you can test the claim and maybe ask more detailed questions that are historically verifiable. – disciple Oct 22 '18 at 13:46
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    @user14172 are you interested in only non-biblical sources or both biblical and non-biblical sources? I’ve done some research on this subject for awhile now and can write up an overview tonight or tomorrow. – Joseph Hinkle Oct 23 '18 at 19:34
  • @JosephHinkle biblical sources would be great also. – user14172 Oct 24 '18 at 21:15
  • @user14172 okay. I'll include those sources too. I'll probably write it tonight if I get the time. – Joseph Hinkle Oct 24 '18 at 21:33
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Background

Obviously, this topic suffers from dogmatists on both sides. Universalists are desperate to overstate their case, and traditionalists are desperate to prove the early church didn't have any (except a negligible few) universalists. Spoiler alert--they are both misguided.

The truth is that this subject is extremely confusing, which makes speculation easy. And even if it were true that the majority of the early church believed one view over the other, we probably couldn't know for sure. Perhaps modern scholarship will one day shed more light. Until then, we must be very careful.

I will demonstrate how difficult it can be to state that one view is the "majority" over the other by listing important Christians in the early church and their stance on the issue. Hopefully I have done a good job to avoid cherry picking, but I encourage you to do your own research and double check my work. I will gladly update this answer as this is a massively difficult question to answer.

Views an Early Christian is Likely to Hold

  1. The present-day "traditional" view: The vast majority of human beings go to an eternal hell and the minority go to an eternal heaven. Early Christians who believed this almost always believed the fire was literal.
  2. Annihilationism: Those who are damned are blotted out of existence and no longer conscious.
  3. Denial of the general resurrection: The damned are never raised.
  4. Apokatastasis: The majority of human beings go to hell, but hell is purgatorial. Eventually, after enough time, all the damned will "convert" in hell and join the saints in heaven. Most advocates of this doctrine argue that all evil will cease to exist one day--thus implying (or teaching) that even the devil will convert.

Important Early Christians on Eternality/Temporality of Hell1

Christians in the First and Second Century

  • Author of the Gospel of Mark: He may be telling Peter's account of the Gospel. He writes for a gentile audience. He uses the term aiōnios once in reference to judgement.
  • Author of the Gospel of Matthew: He may favor annihilation based on how he quotes/paraphrases Jesus in Matthew 10:28. He wrote to a Jewish audience and uses the term aiōnios many times when talking about punishment in the afterlife.
  • Author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles: He uses the term aiōnios only in reference to salvation. This is true of his Gospel and Acts. He writes to a gentile audience.
  • Author of the Gospel of John: He uses aiōnios only in reference to salvation. He demonstrates influence from Greek philosophy (i.e. John 1's Hymn to the Word). He writes to a gentile audience. His rendering of Christ's words seem to imply a cosmic scope of God's salvific will.
  • Odd Christians Paul references in 1st Corinthians 15: Paul mentions that some Christians performed baptisms on behalf of dead people in order that those dead people might be raised. It seems these primitive Christians believed postmortem salvation was possible, and so it is possible that they might have thought all who are dead could one day be saved.
  • Paul: He leaves us without anything definitive. Romans 9 can be evidenced as belief in double predestination while Romans 11 can be evidenced as belief in universal predestination to salvation. 2 Corinthians 5 says Christ is reconciling the world to himself. It is possible he may have never used the term aiōnios in reference to fate of the damned, but this depends on the authenticity of 2nd Thessalonians. 1 Corinthians 15 is indicative of apokatastasis, but it is possible we misunderstand him. Philippians 2 says all will confess Christ as Lord. Passages about those perishing (i.e. 2 Cor 2:15-16) indicate he believed in an eternal hell, but it is hard to say. Our interpretations of Paul's theology typically determines our interpretations of "perish."
  • Author of the 2nd Epistle of the Thessalonians: He uses aiōnios once in reference to the damned's fate, but he pairs it with olethros suggesting the damned are annihilated.
  • Author of the Epistle to the Colossians: He mentions that Christ will "reconcile to himself all things" by virtue of his atoning sacrifice.
  • Author of the 1st Epistle to Timothy: He says God desires all men to be saved and says Christ is the savior "of all men, especially those who believe." But the epistle is pastoral, so the author is possibly guarding his audience from the full story. Some argue that the author didn't really mean "all men," but instead meant "some (or a minority) of all classes of men"--this interpretation first appears in the 5th century in Augustine's letter to a friend.
  • Author of Epistle of James: He mentions how reconciled apostates were saved from "death." This may imply annihilation, though we have little of substance to draw from.
  • Author of Epistle of Hebrews: He says the damned will be devoured and suffer fiery indignation, and refers to judgement as aiōnios once.
  • Author of Epistle of 1st Peter: This writer believes Jesus descended into hades to preach the Gospel to imprisoned spirits. He might have meant Christ redeemed some of the damned.2
  • Author of Epistle of 2nd Peter: He says God desires for all to come to repentance and does not desire for any to perish.
  • Author of Epistle of 1st John: Most readers understand this author to mean Christ is the propitiation for even the damned. However, a minority think that this author doesn't actually mean that, but instead meant Christ is the propitiation for Christians everywhere. The author also talks about a "sin leading to death" which no one should pray for. Perhaps he believed in a sort of "mortal sin" which damns people forever, or perhaps he meant something else.
  • Jude: He compares the eternal fire the damned will suffer with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This suggests he thinks of damnation as annihilation.
  • Author of Revelation: Nearly impossible to tell given the symbolic nature of the text. Secular scholar Bart Ehrman believe he is depicting annihilation. He says the devil will burn aiōnas tōn aiōnōn, seeming to indicate eternal suffering. Though some early Christians interpreted the "lake of fire" as being a "refiner's crucible" indicating universalism.
  • Author of the Didache: He doesn't seem to believe in the general resurrection.3 It is possible he thinks that only the saved are raised to life and the damned are left dead. It is hard to tell, however, because the document abruptly ends right when he is explaining this.
  • Author of the Eighth (Christian) Sibyllines: This author defends the idea that prayers for the damned are efficacious.
  • Author of the Apocalypse of Peter: This author defends the idea that prayers for the damned are efficacious, and in some versions, he says Jesus said that hell will not last forever. There are very graphic depictions of hell in the text.
  • Author of the Odes of Solomon: This author says Jesus saves all of the dead in hell.
  • Author of the Shepherd of Hermas: This author says something related to this topic. Something to do with penance in the early church. Someone in the comments help me figure out a short description for this one.

Christians Producing Apocryphal Texts in Third and Fourth Century

  • Apocalypse of Paul: He writes of postmortem repentance and intersession for the damned.

  • Author of the Gospel of Nicodemus: He says the tree of Jesus' cross destroys all that Satan gained with the tree of knowledge.

  • Author of the Acts of Paul and Thecla: The writer tells of story of a damned woman being saved through her friend's prayers.

  • Author of the Acts of Thomas: The writer writes about Jesus rescuing spirits in hell. There are many other things which can be said about the universalistic tendencies of this document. It is also extremely heretical and endorses all sorts of odd gnostic ideas.

  • Author of the Acts of Philip: The writer is argued by some to be anti-gnostic. Many of its passages demonstrate the writer believes firmly in the salvation of all.

  • If anyone knows of any other early Christian texts which hint towards one view or another, please add to this list. Also let me know of any errors and if you know of any scholars who argue that any Christian above actually believed other than what I put.

Notable Post-Apostolic Christians' Positions4,5

If I bold someone's position it is because there is a very high probability that they actually held that position. If I do not bold, it just means we do not know with high probability.

  • St. Ignatius of Antioch (35 -107): annihilationism/eternal hell
  • St. Polycarp of Smyrna (69 - 115): annihilationism/eternal hell
  • Valentinus (heretical gnostic, 100 - 160): annihilationism/eternal hell6
  • St. Justin Martyr (100 - 165): annihilationism/eternal hell/apokatastasis
  • Tatian (120 - 180): eternal hell
  • St. Irenaeus of Lyons (140 - 202): annihilationism/eternal hell/apokatastasis
  • Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215): apokatastasis
  • Bardaisan (heretical gnostic, 154 - 222): apokatastasis7
  • Tertullian (155 - 240): eternal hell
  • St. Hippolytus of Rome (170 - 235): apokatastasis?8
  • Origen (184 - 253): apokatastasis9
  • St. Cyprian of Carthage (200 - 258): eternal hell
  • Pope St. Dionysius of Alexandria (Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, ? - 264): apokatastasis
  • Arius (heretic, 250 - 336): eternal hell
  • Arnobius of Sicca (255 - 330): annihilationism
  • Eusebius of Caesarea (260 - 340): apokatastasis
  • St. Aphrahat (280 - 345): unknown
  • St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296 - 373): apokatastasis
  • St. Hilary of Poitiers (300 - 368): eternal hell
  • St. Ephrem the Syrian (306 - 373): eternal hell/apokatastasis
  • St. Gregory of Nyssa (335 - 395): apokatastasis10
  • St. Ambrose (340 - 397): eternal hell/apokatastasis
  • Evagrius Ponticus (345 - 399): apokatastasis
  • St. Jerome (347 - 420): apokatastasis and then later eternal hell
  • St. John Chrysostom (349 - 407): eternal hell (though he has some faint suggestions of apokatastasis)
  • St. Augustine (354 - 430): apokatastasis and then later eternal hell
  • Pelagius (heretic, 360 - 418): eternal hell
  • St. Cyril of Alexandria (376 - 444): unknown
  • St. Isaac of Antioch (400s) : unknown
  • St. Pope Gregory the Great (540 - 604): I'd assume eternal hell, but someone ought to double check for me
  • St. Maximus the Confessor (580 - 662): apokatastasis (though with "warnings" of eternal hell)
  • St. Isaac of Nineveh (613 - 700): apokatastasis
  • St. John of Damascus (675 - 749): eternal hell
  • John Scotus Eriugena (815 - 877): apokatastasis

Other Early Christian Universalists Just for Fun

  • St. Theophilus of Antioch (120 - 183)
  • St. Didymus the Blind (313 - 398)
  • St. Basil of Caesarea (329 - 379)
  • St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329 - 390)
  • Diodore of Tarsus (? - 390)
  • St. Macrina the Younger (330 - 379)
  • St. Maximus of Turin (? - 408/423)
  • Theodore of Mopsuestia (350 - 428)
  • St. John Cassian (360 - 435)
  • St. Peter Chrysologus (380 - 450)
  • Theodoret of Cyrus (393 - 466)
  • Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite (4th - 5th century)

Conclusion

Universalism is certainly present in the early church, but it is too difficult to say if it was the majority view. Notice too how easy it is to deceive people by listing only universalists as I did in the "Other Early Christian Universalists Just for Fun" section. There are lots of early Christians, so it is easy to cherry pick.

Footnotes

1As I move further in time, I will be less comprehensive and only mention the most significant figures.

2Again, authors might believe in universalism if they believe in postmortem salvation.

3General resurrection or universal resurrection is the orthodox Christian doctrine that all men, saved and damned, will have their physical bodies physically resurrected on the last day. This idea is expressed clearly in John's Gospel.

4I roughly deem an early Christian "notable" if they either are 1) very clear as to their position on the eternality of hell or 2) vital to the development of Christian orthodoxy. I also include all notable church fathers even if we don't know their position.

5If a particular Christian's position cannot be pinned down but is still relevant to this the subject, I include them too. Comment if you have any to add.

6I include Valentinus because he nearly became the bishop of Rome, and his heretical beliefs framed some of the discussion for how the orthodox Christians would respond and then formulate their beliefs. Some will claim Valentinus taught apokatastasis, but this is a half-truth. Valentinus' apokatastasis was neither universal nor holistic, viz. only a certain class of men and only the souls of these men (not their material bodies) would be benefactors of this "apokatastasis." See Ilaria Ramelli's book for more information on this.

7Bardaisan was very against the Valentinian gnostics despite being a gnostic himself. He denied the resurrection of the body as well.

8 St. Hippolytus of Rome taught Origen mostly about the theology of the Logos during Origen's stay in Rome. He was a good friend of Origen, and was anti-Valentinian like Origen. Hippolytus wrote in Greek, but we have his writings in Latin translations. He teaches a form of Purgatory, and when writing against heresies he never condemns apokatastasis. I struggled to find any definitive proof that he believed apokatastasis from scholarship other than that Ramelli seems to hint at him being predisposed to it, but maybe I'm misreading her. In my estimation, he seems to lean more towards apokatastasis than otherwise.

9Some orthodox Christians drew a parallel between the belief that the devil could never be saved with Valentinus' predestination. Origen responded by biting the bullet saying even the devil could be saved, thus defending his doctrine of free will. Though, he later "denied" he believed in the eventual salvation of the devil in a letter to his friends in Alexandria. See Joseph F Badir's document "Predestination and Election" in the academia.edu link in the resources below.

10St. Gregory of Nyssa is one of the three great Cappadocian Fathers. He is certainly a universalist, and he even believed the devil would be saved. The other two, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea are very likely to be universalists.

Resources

  • This is a great and very thorough answer. Thank you so much. You gave me so much to more to research than i expected to get. Thanks again. – user14172 Oct 28 '18 at 22:37
  • I also appreciate the apocryphal reference you included – user14172 Oct 28 '18 at 22:38
  • @user14172 no problem. It’s been a personal research project of mine for the past few months so I figured I might as well share what I learned. – Joseph Hinkle Oct 29 '18 at 1:04
  • I had made a mistake with Hippolytus. I thought that he wrote in Latin as he lived in Rome and we have his writings in Latin today--but he actually wrote in Greek. Latin translations of his works have only survived to us today. Because Latin doesn't have the ambiguities of hell's duration as Greek does, I had assumed he taught hell was eternal, not "aionios". Someone pointed this out to me, and then led me down a trail to realize he seems more likely to be a universalist--especially in light of his liking of Origen and his anti-Valentinianism. – Joseph Hinkle Nov 13 '18 at 5:32
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According to Augustine:

  1. It is quite in vain, then, that some--indeed very many--yield to merely human feelings and deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. They do not believe that such things will be. Not that they would go counter to divine Scripture--but, yielding to their own human feelings, they soften what seems harsh and give a milder emphasis to statements they believe are meant more to terrify than to express the literal truth. "God will not forget," they say, "to show mercy, nor in his anger will he shut up his mercy." This is, in fact, the text of a holy psalm.1

Some claim that Augustine wrote “most” instead of “very many” in Latin, but I can’t read Latin to verify that.

According to this interesting answer to Was there a non-Augustinian response to universalism in the early Church? there really weren’t many people besides Augustine who propagated an eternal hell. The main argument against universal reconciliation at the time seems to be “If they don’t get punished forever then I won’t get to live forever” and had nothing to do with the Greek word αἰώνιος.2


1. Augustine of Hippo; Enchiridion On Faith, Hope, and Love XXIX SEC. 12

2 Aionios; adjective of aion, which is properly translated as age.

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    Thanks for pointing out my answer, but it's worth noting that it doesn't say that there were only two (or three) early church writers who believed this. Also, the focus of the question was on those who had some level of theological underpinnings for their view, so it doesn't rule out the possibility that the eternality of hell was widely presumed but not a point of focus. – Nathaniel Oct 22 '18 at 15:04
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    Nathaniel is right. There are plenty of eternal hell believers before Augustine. And it's also important to note that Augustine himself was a universalist when he was younger, so maybe his perception of how many universalists there were was skewed by his personal history. Ambrose, who converted Augustine, was most likely a universalist influenced by Origen. See Augustine against the Manicheans to see where he defends apokatastasis. Btw, still a solid answer @anonymouswho :) – Joseph Hinkle Oct 22 '18 at 15:16
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    @Nathaniel I was careful to say that only a few early Christians “propagated” the idea of eternal hell. As to what they actually believed, that’s hard to answer because I don’t think there was a consensus. If you can read Augustine’s paper in Latin, I’d be interested to know if it actually says “most” instead of “very many” because that may be the deciding factor to the OP’s question. I’m sure you’ve read this quote before, so I’m looking foreword to reading an answer from you. – anonymouswho Oct 22 '18 at 15:29
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    Unfortunately I'm not a Latin expert either, but I've asked about the word here: Does “plurimi” imply “vast majority” in Augustine's Enchiridion? – Nathaniel Oct 22 '18 at 16:22
  • @Nathaniel Great thanks! It already looks like there will be some controversy over it. Hopefully you will get a good answer and I can link that as well. – anonymouswho Oct 22 '18 at 19:08
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It depends from when the article is counting. We shouldn't forget that the epistles of the Bible itself account for the main teaching of the early church in the first century. Whether the various churches decided to follow the teaching, and for how long, is another matter.

But given the above, we can look at scriptures within the epistles to see what was being taught at the time.

He who has the Son has life; He who does not have the Son of God does not have life. – 1 John 5:12

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. – Romans 10:9

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:22,23 (emphasis added)

The above verses seem to point to the idea that Universal Salvation was not being taught to the early church, at least by the apostles Paul and John. Paul taught that salvation required faith on the part of the believer, and John taught that the presence or absence of God's love and life were evidence of salvation or the lack thereof.

If the churches after the first century AD did indeed teach Universalism, it would imply a deviation from the above apostles' teachings.

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    I didn’t downvote, but how is Paul not teaching universal reconciliation in 1 Corinth. 15:22? He says “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive”. I don’t understand most of what Paul says anyway, but this clearly says all. – anonymouswho Oct 22 '18 at 13:59
  • @anonymouswho Adam was the 1st Son of Man, Jesus is the last Son of Man. Those who were born of Adam were born of the flesh of Adam, fallen flesh. The distinction in 1 Cor 15:22 is that those that are "IN Christ" are made alive. Universalism suggests that all are in Christ, without being born from above through faith and Baptism. That is the distinction. – Marc Oct 23 '18 at 13:58
  • That's correct, while at first it sounds like Universal Reconciliation, the verse that follows ("those who are Christ's") clarifies the meaning of "all" here, which is why I italicised it. I could have left the verse out to make the argument strong with the two I already gave, but that wouldn't have been responsible. – Seth Jeffery Oct 23 '18 at 19:27
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    @SethJeffery Like I said, I’m not a huge fan of Paul because I believe him to be a false apostle, but I have to give him credit for this simply because no one had ever heard of the good news that God would send 99% of the world’s population to have their flesh burned forever. *”Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” Ephesians 1:9-10 – anonymouswho Oct 24 '18 at 12:02
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    @Marc There is no distinction, because to Paul, all would eventually be “born into Christ”. Paul believed “Christ” was a spiritual entity that provided Paul with revelations that nobody had ever heard before- even Yeshua’s actual apostles. Although Paul never actually heard anything from Yeshua, he certainly heard Peter say “Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” Acts 3:21. Then he made it into some sort of Greek metaphysical philosophy that the Romans loved. – anonymouswho Oct 24 '18 at 12:19
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Universal salvation as a phrase begs one refinement before clearly answering. Yes, there is only one way to be saved, which is believe in what God has done through Christ Jesus. No, this salvation will not be automatically applied to all people.

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. John 14:6

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name [Christ Jesus] under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12

So yes, the belief solely in "universal salvation" from grace through faith in Christ Jesus has existed in the one true church over 2,000 years, but let's now turn to whether the ancients believed it was automatically applied.

I entreat thee, by the grace with which thou art clothed, to press forward in thy course, and to exhort all that they may be saved. -Ignateous- Letter to Polycarp-

May be saved, so Ignateous didn't believe so. Presumably since he was writing to Polycarp who was taught by John who was taught by Christ, they didn't believe so either.

For he [Polycarp] waited to be delivered up, even as the Lord had done, that we also might become his followers, while we look not merely at what concerns ourselves but have regard also to our neighbours. For it is the part of a true and well-founded love, not only to wish one’s self to be saved, but also all the brethren. -Martyrdom of Polycarp-

No automatice universal salvation is shown there.

But I believe that even those, who have been persuaded by them to observe the legal dispensation along with their confession of God in Christ, shall probably be saved. And I hold, further, that such as have confessed and known this man to be Christ, yet who have gone back from some cause to the legal dispensation, and have denied that this man is Christ, and have repented not before death, shall by no means be saved. -Justin Martyr-

Justin Martyr did not teach automatic universal salvation.

So to sum, the earliest church fathers believed "universal salvation" is available to all in Christ Jesus, but no they did not believe it to be applied automatically.

PS Whether death ends your chance to hear and decide is a different question.

Animals in harness cannot but be carried over a precipice by the inexperience and badness of their driver, even as by his skilfulness and excellence they will be saved. -fragments Justin Martyr-

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    Universalists of the "universal reconciliation" stripe often believe in hell but hold that it is not eternal, and that eventually all will be reconciled. This was the view of Origen and many Greek fathers, so at the very least your answer is incomplete. But even the quotes you do provide don't address the point – universalists might interpret "saved," for example, as "saved from punishment in the afterlife" but not an indication of the person's ultimate destination. – Nathaniel Oct 24 '18 at 20:03
  • @Nathaniel if you have the quotes from "many fathers", then provide them. As to universal salvation's meaning, I addressed that, along with my PS. But go ahead and complete the answer if you actually can. Aside from that, I show the quotes of ECFs, much earlier than Augustine's stance. Indeed, Origen is another 100 years later. Like Vat II, some prefer the older Vat I. – SLM Oct 25 '18 at 4:08
  • Cf. this answer, this article, and chapters 24–26 of this book (which does deal with the writings of apostolic fathers and apologists). This isn't to say that I agree with the position, and I don't know if a majority held it (hence no answer from me, at least for now), but it's worth representing more fairly. – Nathaniel Oct 25 '18 at 4:23
  • So far, you've got the later heretic Origen who might believe in universal salvation. Sorry, though I glanced through your references, I'm not going to do your research work for you. My answer shows the earliest extant actual quotes of their denying automatic universal salvation. Not paraphrases or unquoted interpretations. The quotes also show a direct connection to Christ (via John to Polycarp). It is obvious what the earliest Christians taught, regardless of what heretics and later people believed. Besides the OP asks for "early church". – SLM Oct 25 '18 at 6:00
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    Hey folks; if you're gonna down vote an answer, then please provide a valid reason. The OP asked for the majority belief of the early church. Augustine is one simple opinion and came a couple hundred years after the concensus of 3 letters written some 100 years of less after the last apostle to die. So, let's see. Early church---yep Justin Martyr, Polycarp, and Ignatious are all earlier than Augustine. Majority---yep 3 versus 1. Regardless of whether you like an answer or not or if it suits your current beliefs, that has no bearing on the correct answer! – SLM Oct 26 '18 at 2:12

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