Chapter 4: The Initial Five Centuries of Christianity
From one whose public career was no more than three years, who wrote no book, who seemingly gave little thought to a continuing organization, and who died in apparent frustration emerged a religion that captured one of the major centers of civilization, developed an organization whose main features have been perpetuated into the twentieth century, gave definitions to its basic convictions which have continued to be normative, and modified substantially the culture which was its environment.
In the five centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus the religion which had Him as its center took form, won the professed allegiance of the large majority of the peoples of the Roman Empire, and spilled over beyond the boundaries of that realm. Here is one of the most surprising developments in history. As we have suggested, from one whose public career was no more than three years, who wrote no book, who seemingly gave little thought to a continuing organization, and who died in apparent frustration emerged a religion that captured one of the major centers of civilization, developed an organization whose main features have been perpetuated into the twentieth century, gave definitions to its basic convictions which have continued to be normative, and modified substantially the culture which was its environment.
Professed Allegiance of The Roman Empire to Christianity; Spread of Christianity Beyond Roman Borders
How was it that Christianity became the professed faith of the Roman Empire and began to spread beyond its borders? By what steps did it win against its admittedly formidable rivals? Those rivals were the state cults, Judaism, the many philosophies which developed in the Hellenistic world, the numerous mystery cults, and the closely associated Hermeticism and Gnosticism. Against these competitors Christianity seemed to have little chance. The state cults had the support of the government and the latter sought to stamp out any serious dissent. To its mind dissent was seditious and threatened the existing way of life. Judaism was well rooted in a widespread continuing community. Although the Romans crushed efforts at political independence, they tolerated Judaism so long as it did not incite to revolt. The numerous philosophies did not contend with the imperial power. Adherents of the mysteries saw no inconsistency between their membership in these brotherhoods and loyalty to the Emperors and participation in the rites of the state cults. Hermeticism and Gnosticism in their various forms seemed not to threaten the state. Yet, while protesting their loyalty to the Emperor and insisting that they prayed for him, the Christians would not participate in the worship in the temples of the gods and were accused of being atheists. Their intransigence invited persecution, both by imperial officials and by the populace.
We know something of the history of the spread of Christianity, but much passed from recorded memory and much was transmitted by tradition whose accuracy has been repeatedly questioned.
The company of the followers of Jesus who, inspired by the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, continued in Jerusalem were, on the whole, loyal Jews. They worshipped in the temple and observed the Jewish customs, including the dietary restrictions. To the casual observer they seemed to constitute one of the many sects characteristic of the Judaism of the day.
Some early realized that their faith had a universality which could not be bound by these integuments. This appears to have been the conviction and teaching of Stephen which brought about his martyrdom at the hands of orthodox Jews. Saul, better known by his non-Jewish name of Paul, was impressed both by the message of Stephen and by the radiant joy of the victim at the time of his death and his prayer, reminiscent of that of the crucified Jesus, for the forgiveness of the men who were stoning him. On his way to Damascus to continue the persecution of the Christians Saul was torn by the inner conflict between his strict Jewish rearing and what he had seen in the face of Stephen -- a triumphant peace to which he was a stranger and which his moral rectitude had failed to give him. Just before Saul’s arrival at Damascus, where he would have to carry out his errand, the conflict was unexpectedly resolved by a vision of Christ. The conviction came that the Gospel was for all men, and that the struggle for conformity to the Jewish law, which had failed to give him what he longed for and what he saw in the followers of Jesus, was not only unnecessary but a handicap to entering the life made possible by Christ. Paul became the great missionary to the Gentiles. He was by no means the only such missionary, but we hear more of him than of any of the others. We know that through him the faith was planted in several cities in present-day Turkey and in Greece. We are given glimpses of communities of Christians which had arisen quite independently of Paul, notably in Antioch, on the Bay of Naples, and in Rome. The early churches were chiefly in the cities and among Greek-speaking elements. The one in Alexandria has traditionally been ascribed to Mark, once a traveling companion of Paul and declared by early report to have been with Peter in Rome and to have written down the memoirs constituting the body of the teaching of that Apostle, which we have as the Gospel of Mark. Another of the original Twelve is said to have planted the faith in India. That has not been proved, but it is entirely possible in view of the fact that trade flourished between India and the Mediterranean world and that merchants from Roman domains established themselves in several places on the south coast of India and in Ceylon. We know, too, that the faith had an early spread among Syriac-speaking peoples in Syria and Mesopotamia. In the second century Christians were numerous, especially in Asia Minor. By the middle of the second century churches existed in the Greek-speaking populations in Lyons and Vienne in Gaul.
In the third century after Christ the faith continued to spread. It had a following among the Latin-speaking elements on the northern shores of Africa. There, indeed, the earliest Latin Christian literature was written. In North Africa it penetrated, but more slowly, the non-Latin-speaking population. By the second half of the third century Italy appears to have had about a hundred bishoprics -- but this does not mean that Christians were more than a minority. A little earlier in the century more than twenty bishoprics were found in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. The third century witnessed the mass conversion of the Armenians, a people who inhabited a buffer state between the Roman and Persian empires. The major agent was Gregory "the Illuminator," of the Armenian aristocracy, who had become a Christian while in exile in Caesarea in Cappadocia and, returning to his native land, won the king to his faith. The bulk of the population followed the king, and numbers of the pagan priests and their sons became clergymen in the newly created church. By the middle of the third century Christianity had reached most of the provinces of the Roman Empire and had been planted outside the borders of that realm.
The spread of the faith met with persistent and chronic persecution which in mid-third century and at the beginning of the fourth century on three occasions was vigorously pressed on an empire-wide scale. The persecution in the first century by Nero is famous, but apparently it was confined chiefly to Rome. Presumably adherence to Christianity was chronically proscribed. But until the second half of the third century persecutions were mainly local. Some of the educated scorned Christianity as a superstition and as untenable by intelligent men. More widespread was popular antagonism. Christians were regarded as separated from society and therefore destructive of the Greco-Roman way of life. Because, to avoid publicity, much of Christian worship was in secret and the non-baptized were not permitted to be present at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the report was current that in their conventicles Christians engaged in sexual promiscuity.
By the second half of the third century the Roman Empire was palpably in decline. Many held that the decay was due to the neglect of the gods who had made Rome strong. In 249, to counteract this neglect the Emperor Decius commanded all his subjects to sacrifice to the state gods. The edict bore especially hard on the Christians. Although in 251 Decius fell in battle with the Goths, his successor continued his program. That program soon lapsed, but in 257 the Emperor Valerian renewed the persecution. Valerian adopted even more vigorous measures, directing them in particular against the clergy and adherents of the faith who were in government positions. He also threatened with death all who attended meetings or services of the Church. In 260 Valerian was captured by the Persians and the persecution ceased. During the following four decades the Church flourished and became the strongest congeries of institutions in the Empire with the exception of the state. How large a proportion of the population professed the faith by the end of the third century we do not know. Estimates vary from five in a hundred to fifty in a hundred. In 303 the Emperor Diocletian instituted the most drastic persecution with which Christians had thus far been visited. It was most severe in the East. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Christians perished. Not until 303 did the persecution die down.
The turn of the tide came in 312, when Constantine, an aspirant to the imperial purple, adhered to the faith. He did so just before a successful battle with one of his rivals, being impelled to the step, so he later said, by the vision of a cross of light in the sky with the inscription "Conquer by this." In 313 Constantine and his chief remaining rival, Licinius, entered into an agreement at Milan which contributed to the toleration of Christianity.
The acceptance of Christianity by Constantine was followed by its augmented spread. Constantine did not forbid the continuation of the non-Christian religions but he removed the disabilities under which Christians had suffered and encouraged the erection of churches. In Byzantium, which he made his capital and renamed Constantinople, he built many churches and forbade the repair of pagan temples. His three sons, who followed him on the imperial throne, patronized Christianity, placing restrictions on non-Christian cults. Under imperial favor the Church experienced a rapid growth. Many who thronged into it did so from expediency rather than deep religious conviction, and the moral and spiritual quality of the Christian community suffered.
In spite of the friendly imperial policies, non-Christian cults only slowly dwindled. During his brief reign (361-363) Julian, a member of the Constantinian family, called "the apostate" because he repudiated the faith in which he had been unwillingly reared, sought to revive and purify the worship of the old gods. But he instituted no persecution of Christianity, and his early death in war against the Persians was followed by the elevation of a Christian to the imperial throne. The pagan cults long had the adherence of the aristocracy of Rome. They persisted in remote valleys and were late in being supplanted in the western part of the Empire -- especially Italy, Gaul, and Spain. To the adherents of the traditional paganism the fall of Rome to the Goths (410) seemed positive proof that the growing weakness of the Empire was due to neglect of the gods who had made Rome great.
New religions entered and were a threat to Christianity. Prominent among them were Neoplatonism and Manichaeism. As its name suggests, Neoplatonism was an outgrowth of Platonism. It had its main creative figures, Ammonias Saccas and Plotinus, in the third century. Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, lived in the third century too, was reared in Mesopotamia, and, convinced that he was divinely commissioned to be a prophet and the creator of the true religion, developed a strongly dualistic faith which had elements from Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and the ancient Babylonian beliefs. Manichaeism spread widely -- across the Mediterranean world and Central Asia and into China. In the West it stressed features derived from Christianity. An indication of the popularity of Manichaeism and Neoplatonism was the fact that Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who was reared by a Christian mother, was attracted first by one and then by the other until the conversion which made him one of the outstanding Christians of all time.
The mounting invasions of "barbarians" from the North brought in additional pagan groups. The non-Christian philosophies persisted in their traditional stronghold in Athens; not until 529 did an imperial order close the schools where they were taught.
But the progress of the faith continued, both within and outside the Empire. In the fourth century the converted soldier Martin of Tours, a pioneer of monasticism in the West, as bishop led his monks in destroying temples and in baptizing their former adherents. Ambrose (c. 340-397), the great bishop of Milan, by his eloquence and force of character won not only Augustine but also many other pagans in his diocese and encouraged missionaries in the Tyrol. John Chrysostom (c. 345-407), a contemporary of Ambrose, was baptized in his mid-twenties, became a noted preacher in his native Antioch, and as Bishop of Constantinople sent missionaries to the Goths. In the fourth century many Goths were converted to the faith, with one of their own number, Ulfilas (c. 311-c. 380), as the leading missionary.
In the fifth century Christianity was planted in Ireland. The most famous of the missionaries to the Irish was Patrick. Reared as a Christian in Britain, Patrick was captured in his youth by raiders from Ireland and for some time was a slave in that island. Escaping, he eventually felt constrained to carry the Gospel to his former masters. With other missionaries he helped to make Ireland a Christian outpost when non-Christian Germanic peoples were overrunning Great Britain and much of the neighboring continent. In the fifth century also the Burgundians, moving south from the Rhine region, adopted the faith which they found dominant among the Gallo-Roman population in what was the later France. In 496 Clovis, the leader of another Germanic people, the Franks, was baptized, thus furthering the conversion of those who were soon to dominate most of what had been Roman territory between the Rhine and the Pyrenees. In the East Christianity was firmly planted in the Persian realms, in Central Asia, in Arabia, and on the African coast of the Red Sea, but only among minorities.
Inevitably the question arises: Why, from being the faith of a small, persecuted minority in competition with other religions which appeared to have better prospects of success, did Christianity eventually enroll the large majority of the population of the Roman Empire? To that outcome several factors contributed. In the disintegration of the existing order which by the end of the second century was becoming obvious many individuals were seeking spiritual and material security and believed that they could find it in the Christian faith. By the end of the third century, while enlisting only a minority, the Church was Empire-wide, was more comprehensive than any institution except the state, and gave to its members a sense of brotherhood and solidarity. Christianity assured its adherents what many in the ancient world were craving -- high ethical standards, a spiritual dynamic in which was power to approximate to those standards, and immortality. The Church was inclusive: its brotherhood included both sexes, rich and poor, intelligentsia and men and women of no intellectual attainments. Many intellectuals, including Augustine, found in the faith not only moral power but also, in the incarnation, the Word become flesh, what was absent in the highest philosophies of the time. The constancy of the martyrs awakened the admiration of thousands. So did the fact that Christianity was uncompromising in its demands. One modern scholar, T. R. Glover of Cambridge University declared that the Christians out-thought, out-lived, and out-died the adherents of the non-Christian religions.
The primary source of the appeal of Christianity was Jesus -- His incarnation, His life, His crucifixion, and His resurrection. Here was the sense of security and of meaning in a perplexing universe and in a society whose foundations were crumbling. Here were the command for and, although imperfect, the realization of a comprehensive fellowship. Here were high and exacting ethical commands and the proved power to approximate to them. Here was victory through apparent defeat. Here was the certainty of immortality in ever-growing and never-ending fellowship with the eternal God Who so loved that He had given Himself in His Son.
Although by the end of the fifth century after Christ to be a Roman and a Christian were seemingly identical, we must not forget that the other great cultural centers were almost untouched by the faith. The Persian Empire and India had a few Christians, but as small and culturally alien minorities. So far as we know China had none. Except for a few of the "barbarians" on the fringes of the Roman Empire and a few peoples in Central Asia, the vast majority of "uncivilized" mankind was untouched.
Birth of The Catholic Church, with Features which have Continued To Characterize Much of Ecclesiastical Christianity
In the first five centuries of its history Christianity gave rise to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church bore the imprint of the Roman environment. The several ecclesiastical bodies which emerged from it and, although divided, were its continuation have ever since enrolled the majority of those bearing the Christian name. They have perpetuated the main features of their parent body.
The Catholic Church sprang from the profound conviction that all Christians should be in one body. The first disciples remembered that Jesus had commanded them to love one another as He had loved them; all men would know that they were His disciples if they loved one another. He had prayed, they recalled, that all who believed in Him might be one, as He and the Father are one, that the world might believe that the Father had sent Him. The fulfillment of that command and the realization of that dream were not easy and have never become total actuality. But they have continued to inspire and rebuke Christians.
An early form of organization developed by Christians, suggested by what they had seen in the Jewish synagogues, had as one of its features elders, or, to give them their Greek name, presbyters, from which the word "priest" is derived. Paul appointed them for the churches he organized. During the first century much variety was seen in the many congregations. Early in the second century a structure was in evidence which, at first not universal, eventually became normal for ecclesiastical Christianity. The church in Antioch had at least one bishop, Ignatius, who acted as though he had the acknowledged right to address himself with authority to other churches. On his way under guard to Rome for martyrdom, Ignatius wrote letters to several churches. He commanded that nothing be done without the bishop and declared that the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, was to be administered either by the bishop or by some one delegated by him. Ignatius also spoke of presbyters and deacons as officers of the Church. Eventually, and perhaps at that time, a city customarily had only one bishop. Ignatius spoke of the "Catholic Church," saying that "wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." By the end of the second century the term "Catholic" was increasingly applied to the Church, with the sense that the Catholic Church was both universal and orthodox. In the course of time the district over which the bishop presided became known as a diocese. The term was borrowed from the civil administration of the Roman Empire, especially as it was organized in the fourth century. To this day the majority of Christians are in churches in which the three major ranks of the clergy are bishops, priests, and deacons, and organized by dioceses presided over by a bishop.
Well before the end of the second century the Church of Rome was being accorded an outstanding place in the Catholic Church, partly because Rome was the capital of the Empire. As such, until Constantine placed his capital at the former Byzantium, it was regarded as the chief (although it was not necessarily the largest) city in the Empire. Even after the main center of administration was transferred to Constantinople, Rome continued to be esteemed as the symbol of the Empire and the focus of what the people of the Empire regarded as the civilized world. Paul treated the Church of Rome with great respect. Both Peter, whom the Catholic Church reveres as the Prince of the Apostles, and Paul were in Rome and persistent tradition has it that both were martyred there. In the third quarter of the second century, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, in Gaul, and of Asian not Roman origin, declared that "it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church [i.e., of Rome] on account of its preeminent authority."
The Struggle to Arrive at a Consensus on The Beliefs, Expressions, and Structure of Christianity
Christians were early confronted with the problem of determining precisely what is essential in the faith they professed. They were also troubled by what should properly be their relations to contemporary religious movements, practices, and beliefs, what structure they should devise for their fellowship, what forms of worship they should develop or adopt, and what methods they should use to be true to what had come to them from Christ. The task was rendered the more difficult by the fact that Jesus had written no book, had not put His teachings in an orderly intellectual structure, and at best had given only a few hints about the form which the fellowship of His followers should take.
Christians agreed from the very first that Jesus is central. They soon began to formulate what they believed to be His relation to God. This entailed an enlargement of their conception of God. As good Jews, the first Christians had as a major feature of their confession of faith the affirmation that God is one. As the first disciples lived with Jesus and meditated upon what they had seen of Him and His resurrection, they became convinced that here, too, is God. Seeing the power of the Holy Spirit manifested in fresh and potent ways after the resurrection, they came to believe that here also is God. They were still convinced that God is one, but they now viewed God as Father (the designation given Him by Jesus and not unfamiliar in the Jewish Scriptures), Son, and Holy Spirit.
The relation of Jesus to God and the place of Jesus in God’s plan for men’s salvation were not easily determined. Christians struggled with them for many centuries and continue to do so. Within the first five centuries conclusions were reached to which the Catholic Church and the majority of Christians assented and still assent.
The Jewish Challenge
Groups who thought of themselves as followers of Jesus but who sought to confine Him to Judaism continued for several generations. Some, called Ebionites, held that Jesus was a prophet, a spokesman for God, but a man. They differed among themselves but united in condemning Paul and his insistence on breaking the integuments of Judaism. The large majority of Christians rejected Ebionism.
The Gnostic Challenge
A more serious challenge came from Gnosticism. As we have suggested, Gnosticism was of pre-Christian pagan origin. It took many forms and when Christianity appeared was widely popular in the Mediterranean world. In general it accepted the sharp disjunction between matter, identified with evil, and spirit, regarded as good, which was axiomatic in much of popular thought and Hellenistic philosophy. The Gnostics taught what they held to be a Gnosis, a knowledge which had been revealed and was transmitted to initiates. In accord with the current dualism, they said that pure spirit is good but has been imprisoned in corrupt matter. Salvation, they believed, is the freeing of spirit from matter. This they promised to bring to the believer. Gnostics who professed to be Christians held that they had sayings of Jesus which had not been committed to writing but had been handed down secretly. Although they varied greatly among themselves, in general they taught that a first Principle exists, the All-Father, unknowable, Who is love. Since love abhors dwelling alone, the first Principle created other beings, aeons. This present world was created by one of the aeons, who, moved by pride; sought to do what the All-Father had done. That aeon was associated with a subordinate being, the Demiurge, who, the Gnostics declared, was the God of the Old Testament. The present world, of which men are a part, they went on, is compounded of spirit and matter, and salvation, the freeing of spirit from matter, was accomplished by Christ. Various accounts were given of Christ. Some Gnostics held that He was an aeon which had never ceased to be spirit but merely seemed to be man. Many men, the Gnostics said, have little or nothing of spirit and in due time will be destroyed. The others, with a portion of spirit in them, can be saved through being taught the hidden knowledge, the Gnosts.
For a time in the second century the Gnostics who thought of themselves as Christians may have been more numerous than the members of the Catholic Church. They had special rites, some of which resembled those of the mystery religions, but no central organization. In general they tended to minimize the historical elements in Christianity. They sought to acclimatize Christianity to a popular religious trend.
Within the last few decades some scholars have declared that Christianity conformed to the religious environment of the early centuries by becoming a mystery religion. They have called attention to the resemblance to the mystery cults in the Christian teaching of salvation in union with one who had been killed by his enemies and had been raised to life, of Christian practices of baptism in which the old nature was washed away, and of a meal in which believers participated in the body and blood of the crucified and so shared in his resurrection. The superficial resemblance is striking, but no clear evidence exists of a connexion between the mystery religions and the faith as taught by the Catholic Church. An essential contrast is the fact that no savior god of a mystery religion had historical existence, whereas Jesus Christ was clearly an historical person whose life, teachings, deeds, crucifixion, and resurrection are supported by well-authenticated documents.
Resembling Gnosticism, but not a phase of it, was a movement begun by Marcion. Said to have been the son of a Christian bishop and to have been reared a Christian, Marcion came to Rome in the first half of the second century. Like the Gnostics, he held to a sharp distinction between spirit and matter and maintained that the former is good and the latter bad. Unlike them, he laid no claim to a distinct and secret Gnosis. He taught that the world, with its wickedness and suffering, was the creation of an evil god, whom he called the Demiurge. That god, he said, is the one described in the Old Testament as rejoicing in battles and bloodshed and as vindictive. In striking contrast with this god, Marcion insisted, is a second God Who remained hidden until out of pure love He revealed Himself in Christ. Christ, so Marcion believed,-was not man but only appeared to be a man. He proclaimed a new kingdom and deliverance from the Demiurge. Those loyal to the Demiurge crucified Christ, but in doing so they contributed to the defeat of the Demiurge, for the death of Christ was the price paid by the good God to the Demiurge for the release of men from the latter’s dominion and so enabled them to escape into the kingdom of the good God. Marcion said that Christ also rescued from the underworld those who had previously died but in their lifetime had not submitted to the Demiurge. All that the good God asks of men, Marcion taught, is faith in response to His love. Marcion believed that Paul understood the Gospel but that the Catholic Church had obscured it. To support his views he made a collection of the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke but expurgated all that seemed to him contrary to the Gospel. In the churches organized by Marcion chastity and celibacy were enjoined on all the members, for sexual union perpetuated the flesh, which Marcion said was evil. Churches embodying his teachings persisted into the fifth century, especially in the eastern part of the Empire.
Another movement, quite distinct from Gnosticism, the mysteries, and Marcionism, was Montanism. It arose in Asia Minor and flourished in the latter half of the second century. Montanus, its founder, "spoke with tongues" at his baptism, declared that the Holy Spirit had utterance through him, and taught that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that the end of the world was at hand and that the New Jerusalem would "come down out of heaven from God." Montanism spread widely and persisted into the fifth century. While prizing the records of the teachings of Christ and His Apostles, it held that the Holy Spirit continued to speak through prophets and that some of the latter were women. In the second century others than Montanists, including two bishops, taught that the end of the world was imminent. To prepare for it Christians were urged to be celibate, to fast, and to hold martyrs in high honor.
Attempts to Conserve The Faith: The Apostolic Succession
To meet divergences from the faith taught by Christ and His Apostles the leaders of the Catholic Church stressed what to them were its distinguishing marks. They did not create them, but they emphasized them. The three marks, or guarantees, were the apostolic succession of the episcopate, the New Testament, and the Apostles’ Creed.
By the apostolic succession was meant that bishops who had followed in unbroken line from the Apostles had transmitted what Christ had entrusted to the Apostles and the Apostles had handed it on to the bishops they had appointed. One of the earliest to apply this test was Irenaeus, bishop in Lyons, who gave the succession of the bishops of the Church of Rome as he understood it. These bishops continued, he said, what Peter and Paul, the organizers of that church, had conveyed to Linus. Linus, he insisted, had headship which had begun with Peter. Irenaeus hints that he could, if he wished, give similar lists for other churches. Early in the fourth century Eusebius, the most famous of the early historians of the Church, gave lists for several other churches. As time passed, the bishops who were held to preserve the apostolic succession met locally and regionally to consult on issues which concerned the Catholic Church.
Attempts to Conserve The Faith: The New Testament
Christians early began inquiring as to what documents preserved the faith as taught by Christ and His Apostles. Several of the letters of Paul were regarded as doing so and were read extensively in the churches. Irenaeus declared that there must be four Gospels, no more and no less. Gradually consensus was developed as to which additional documents should have a place in what came to be called the New Testament. Some were at first included and then rejected. Assent to several others came slowly. By the end of the second century common accord had been given to most of the twenty-seven now in the New Testament. The first complete list of the twenty-seven which we have dates from 367.
Attempts to Conserve The Faith: The Apostles Creed
The present form of the Apostles’ Creed dates from the sixth century. It was a development of the formula for baptism -- "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" --which had as its authority the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel and was an amplification of that formula intended to explicate it. An early form was in use in the Church of Rome at least as far back as the fourth century. With the exception of two or three phrases it was known to Irenaeus. That form, as well as its later amplification, could be used against the Marcionites and may have owed some of its phraseology to a desire to make clear the repudiation by the Catholic Church of some of the tenets of those dissidents. The opening phrases, "I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth," rule out the Marcionite contention that the world is the creation of the Demiurge and not of the loving Father. The following "and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. On the third day He rose again from the dead" clearly insists that Christ was born of flesh and was the son not of a previously unknown God but of God the Father Who is also Creator and was fully human and not a phantom.
The Treatment of Repentant Sinners
Sharp differences developed over the treatment of Christians who were guilty of sins which the Church had said, if committed after baptism, were unforgivable. The issue became especially acute in connexion with those who had lapsed under persecution and then, the persecution over, had sought restoration. The majority opinion in the Catholic Church permitted restoration after assured repentance and strict penance. However, after the Decian persecution, when many who had defected were seeking, with tears, for readmittance to the Eucharist, and Cornelius, the Bishop of Rome, was disposed to concur if the sinner was genuinely contrite, Novatian, a presbyter in the Church of Rome, an able theologian and of unchallengeable orthodoxy, emphatically dissented. He was chosen bishop by his sympathizers and appointed other bishops. Novatianism spread widely in both East and West and partly coalesced with Montanism. Those who came from the Catholic Church were rebaptized. Novatian churches persisted into the fifth century. After the Diocletian persecution a similar movement arose in North Africa when a bishop was elected to the see of Carthage who was said to have weakened under the persecution. It was led by Donatus, a bishop, and at one time was reported to have 270 bishops. Donatism continued into the fifth and possibly into the seventh century. Countering the position of the Donatists, councils of the Catholic Church declared that the validity of baptism and ordination was not dependent on the moral character of the persons through whose hands they were administered. It may be that these controversies led to the addition to the Apostles’ Creed of the phrase "[I believe in] the forgiveness of sins."
The Relation of The Son to The Father: Monarchianism
Within the Catholic Church men continued to wrestle with the problem of the relation of Christ to God. They endeavored to preserve a belief in the unity of God and yet to find a place for the unique role of Jesus of Nazareth.
Some called Monarchians put forward a variety of views. Dynamistic Monarchians held that Jesus was a man born of the Virgin Mary and that in Him an impersonal power resided which issued from God. A view widely held among them was that this power came upon Jesus at his baptism or, some said, at his resurrection. This was called Adoptionism. Others, Modalistic Monarchians, maintained that the Father was born as Jesus Christ and that He died and raised Himself from the dead. This view was also called Patripassianism, for it taught that the Father suffered. Monarchianism was condemned by the Catholic Church and its proponents were excommunicated.
The Relation of The Son to The Father: Tertullian
Tertullian (c. 155-c. 222), a North African of Latin stock and a lawyer by profession, in his maturity was converted while in Rome. A pioneer Latin theologian, he brought to his writing a legal mind. His view of the Trinity proved highly influential in Catholic thought. He believed that God is one in His substantia, or substance, but that in God are three personae (a Latin legal term), Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He held that in Jesus Christ, one of the personae, the Word (Greek Logos) was incarnate, that Jesus Christ was both divine and human, but that the two natures did not fuse.
The Relation of The Son to The Father: Clement and Origen
Contemporary with Tertullian, who did his writing in Carthage, were Clement (his precise dates are uncertain) and Origen (c.185-c.254), younger than Clement but like him reared in Hellenistic thought and succeeding him as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria. Clement was a convert; Origen was born of Christian parents. In his teens Origen wished to follow his father in martyrdom but was deterred by his mother. Clement taught that God is one and that the Word, or Logos, always existed -- as the "face" of God -- and in Jesus was made flesh and shed His blood to save humanity. Origen, devout, a first-class mind, an indefatigable student, and an inspiring teacher, spent much of his life in exile in Caesarea in Palestine. Origen held that God is one, and is the Father, that Jesus Christ is the Logos become flesh, is co-eternal with the Father but subordinate to Him, and that the Holy Spirit is uncreated and is associated in honor and dignity with the Son.
The Relation of The Son to The Father: The Struggle over Arianism
A view which led to a sharp division in the Catholic Church was associated with Arius, a presbyter in the Church of Alexandria. Arianism, which took its name from him, taught that God is without beginning but that the Son had a beginning and is not a part of God. Arian views were influential in the eastern part of the Empire.
The controversy became so severe that the newly converted Emperor Constantine, fearing that it might divide the realm which he had so painfully united, called a council of the Catholic Church to deal with the issue. It was the first of what are known as Ecumenical Councils. It met in Nicaea, not far from Constantinople, in 325, and Constantine presided. Feelings ran high. As in many ecclesiastical assemblies, the love which Christ had enjoined on His disciples seemed conspicuous by its absence. In the end a creed was adopted and in its main features has been perpetuated as the Nicene Creed. It rejected the Arian position. As framed at Nicaea it read:
"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance (ousias) of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance (homoousion) with the Father, through Whom all things were made, those things which are in the heaven and those things which are on earth, Who for us men and our salvation came down and was made flesh, suffered, rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead."
Essential in countering Arianism were the affirmations that Christ was "true God from true God, begotten, not made" and that He "was made flesh" (the phrase was later altered to read "was made man"). The Arian contention was emphatically denied that Christ was a lesser being than the Father and had been created. Homoousion ("of one substance") with the Father further stressed that He was "true God from true God" and was equal with the Father. "Was made man" sought to make clear the belief that Christ was "true man" as well as "true God."
The Council of Nicaea did not heal the doctrinal rift in the Catholic Church. Although the council anathematized -- cursed -- those who held to the Arian position, and Constantine banished Arius, ordered the death penalty for those who did not conform, and commanded the burning of the books composed by Arius, Arianism persisted and for a time appeared about to prevail. Within a few years Arius was permitted to return from exile and before his death was restored to communion. The animus of the Arians was directed chiefly against Athanasius. Like Arius, Athanasius was prominent in the Church of Alexandria. In time he became its bishop. He had been carefully trained in Greek philosophy as well as Christian theology. Still young and a deacon, he was present at Nicaea but, not being a bishop, could not engage in the public debates. As bishop in the see of Alexandria, the most important in Egypt and in a city prominent as a commercial and intellectual center, Athanasius attracted attention because of his firmness against the Arians and another group which made common cause with the Arians. In general, the Arians were influential in the eastern part of the Empire and the Nicene views prevailed in the West, with the Bishop of Rome as their chief protagonist. In an attempt to settle the issue, several councils were held, not recognized as speaking for the entire Catholic Church. Constantius, a son of Constantine, who for a time was sole ruler of the Empire, gave his support to the Arians. An effort to bring the two wings together took place through the adoption of the term homoiousion (of "similar substance") not homoousion (the "same substance") in describing the relation of the Son to the Father. Athanasius would not agree. In the ebb and flow of the controversy he was five times exiled from his see and each time, after longer or shorter periods, was permitted to return. He died in office (373). His firmness was due in part to his insistence on what he regarded as at the heart of the Gospel and in part to his conviction that the state should not be allowed to dictate to the Church.
Arianism eventually died out. It persisted for several centuries, but chiefly among Germanic peoples who had been won to that form of the faith when it was prominent in the Empire and who in the fourth and fifth centuries were invading the Empire and establishing themselves within its borders. Its Adherents regarded themselves as the true Catholic Church, but the overwhelming majority of the Roman citizens eventually rejected it. In the course of time the Germanic peoples conformed.
The triumph of the Nicene views was aided by the contributions of three men known as the great Cappadocians: Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory of Nazianzus, the son of a bishop, was familiar with Greek philosophy and the thought of Origen. He was a pioneer in the monastic movement and for a brief time was Bishop of Constantinople. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa were brothers. Basil, a jurist and an eager student of philosophy, had joined with Gregory Nazianzus in compiling a selection of the writings of Origen. In middle life he was ordained a priest and in time became Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Gregory of Nyssa, somewhat younger, was Bishop of Nyssa, a small town near Caesarea. He, too, was greatly influenced by Origen. The three Cappadocians helped to call attention to the distinction between ousia (equivalent to the Latin substantia, put into English as "substance") and hypostasis (translated into Latin as persona, put into English as "person"). They held that in God is only one ousia, in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share, but there are three hypostases -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Emperor Theodosius, born in Spain and reared by parents who were attached to the Nicene convictions prevailing in the West, was vigorously anti-Arian. He called a gathering which met in Constantinople in 381 and is commonly regarded as the Second Ecumenical Council. Although not adopted by it, what is generally called the Nicene Creed has usually been associated with it. That creed was based on a fourth-century creed in use in Jerusalem and influenced by the one adopted at Nicaea. The major change from the latter were additions at the end in words made familiar by the translation in the Book of Common Prayer: "I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father [‘and the Son,’ a later Western addition] Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified: Who spake by the prophets. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." In this creed the majority of Christians have concurred.
The Relation of The Divine and Human in Jesus
The Nicene Creed left an important problem unsolved. What was the relation of the divine and human in Jesus? Prolonged controversies arose on this issue; indeed, they have continued to the present day. They were often punctuated, as were those over the relation of the Father and the Son, by recriminations and lack of brotherliness which were in sharp contrast with the love enjoined by Jesus. In them, too, political factors entered. On the one hand were human pride and sin. On the other hand were an earnest search into the mystery entailed by the incarnation and a desire to preserve both the unity of love and the integrity of the Gospel.
In the debates over the relation of the divine and human in Jesus most of the participants held to the Nicene formula. They agreed that "the only begotten Son of God . . . very God of very God . . . being of one substance with the Father . . . came down from heaven . . . and was made flesh." But in what fashion were the Son of God and the human found in Jesus of Nazareth? Apollinaris, a younger friend of Athanasius, held that in Jesus the Logos was the rational element. That position left the divine nature complete but made Christ less than human, for a human being, it was held, had body, soul, and reason. The Cappadocians declared that Apollinaris was in error and that in Jesus both the divine and the human natures were complete. The general trend in Antioch, a major city and important in the life of the Catholic Church agreed with them. Several synods, including the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (381) condemned the views of Apollinaris.
The debate continued. In it were involved Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, and Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, and rivalries over the relative dignity of the sees of Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Cyril rejected the views of Apollinaris. He maintained that in Christ the divine and human elements were both complete and that in the human element reason was present. But he held that, while the Logos became incarnate in Christ, the humanity of Christ was that of mankind in general and so belittled the historical character and individuality of Christ. This view was in contrast with that in Antioch, where the full historical character of Jesus Christ was upheld. Nestorius tended to agree with Antioch and preferred for Mary the title of Christotokos ("Christ-bearing" or "Mother of Christ") to the term Theotokos ("Mother of God"), employed by Cyril. Both men appealed to Rome. The Bishop of Rome opposed Nestorius.
The controversy developed unseemly features. In 431 a council, usually called the third in the succession of Ecumenical Councils, assembled in Ephesus. Chaired by Cyril, it condemned and deposed Nestorius before the latter’s friends appeared. After a few days the supporters of Nestorius arrived. Headed by the Bishop of Antioch, they declared themselves to be the true council and condemned and deposed Cyril. However, they were outnumbered by the other faction. When the representatives of the Bishop of Rome arrived, the majority reconvened and excommunicated the Bishop of Antioch and his adherents. Both parties appealed to the Emperor, who confirmed the deposition of both Cyril and Nestorius and commanded the latter to live in a monastery. The Bishop of Antioch sent a creed to Cyril declaring Christ to be "true God and true man, consisting of a reasonable soul and body" and spoke of Mary as Theotokos. To this Cyril assented and was restored to office. Nestorius remained in the monastery to which he had been confined.
Some clergy, including bishops, who sided with Nestorius were exiled and took refuge in Nisibis, a trading center near the border between the Roman and the Persian empires but within the latter’s domains. There some of them taught in the school in which clergy were trained for the Church in the Persian Empire. How far they adhered to the views ascribed to Nestorius is not clear. Rightly or wrongly, eventually the Church in the Persian realms was known as Nestorian.
Within the Roman Empire the discussion continued. A monk, Eutyches, declared that the two natures in Christ were so blended that there was only one, and that was fully divine. The bishop who succeeded Cyril in the see of Alexandria sided with Eutyches, but a council convened in Constantinople in 448 by the bishop of that city condemned Eutyches. The following year a council called by the Emperor met in Ephesus. The Bishop of Alexandria presided. By a large majority it restored Eutyches to communion and deposed the Bishop of Constantinople.
In 451 a council summoned by the Emperor met in Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from Constantinople. It adopted a creed which was based upon the tome of Leo, a document prepared by the then Bishop of Rome. Leo, usually referred to as Leo the Great, was one of the strongest pontiffs ever to hold that post. The creed of Chalcedon declared Christ to be "perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, of rational soul and body, homoousion with the Father according to the Godhead, and homoousion with us according to the manhood, like us in all respects, without sin, begotten of the Father before all time according to the Godhead, in these latter days, for us men and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, Theotokos according to the manhood, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, in two natures, inconfusedly, immutably, indivisibly, inseparately, the distinction of natures by no means taken away by the union, but rather the peculiarity of each nature being preserved and concurring in one persona and one hypostasis, not parted or separated into two persons." Thus the distinctive views associated with Apollonaris, Eutyches, and those ascribed to Nestorius were condemned.
By another act of the Council of Chalcedon the Bishop of Rome was recognized as having priority in the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Constantinople was placed second to him. Thus the latter had precedence over the Bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.
The creed of Chalcedon remained the Catholic Church’s official statement of the relation of the divine and human in Christ. It has been followed by the Roman Catholic Church, by most of the bodies emerging from that Church from the Protestant Reformation onward, and by the Orthodox Churches. The position accorded the Bishop of Constantinople, later called the Ecumenical Patriarch, has remained that in the family of Orthodox Churches.
The struggles over the relation of the human and divine in Christ, and those concerning the relation of Christ with the Father were associated with striking disharmony. Some have seen in them the victory of Greek philosophy over the Gospel. However, while Greek and Latin terms were employed, they did not necessarily distort or negate the Gospel. Christians were groping towards an understanding of something quite new in human experience. They were under the necessity of employing terms which were available and which approximated as nearly as possible to what they were striving to put into words. They gave to these terms meanings derived from what they had seen in Christ but alien to the contexts from which they were drawn. Christians were dealing with profound and unique mysteries presented by God’s act in Christ. The large majority of thoughtful Christians who have since wrestled with the issues have been convinced that the creed of Chalcedon comes as near to an elucidation of the mysteries as the possible for creatures limited by the use of words.
The Separation of Various National Bodies from The Catholic Church
The decisions formulated in the creed of Chalcedon hastened and crystallized divisions in the Catholic Church which were already under way. On the one hand most of the members of the Catholic Church, East and West, adhered to it. They included the large majority in the West, mainly Latin-speaking Roman citizens, who looked to the Bishop of Rome as the head of the Catholic Church. The Germanic invaders, not yet fully assimilated to Roman culture, and some non-Latin elements in North Africa, largely Berber, remained outside the Catholic Church -- the Germanic peoples as Arians. In succeeding centuries the completion of the assimilation was marked by submission to the Catholic Church. In the East the Greek-speaking majority submitted to the continuation of the Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople and looked to the bishop of that city as representing that rule. In contrast were elements, chiefly in the East, who either rejected Roman rule or were restive under it as symbolized by Constantinople. Most of them professed acceptance of the decisions reached at Nicaea in 325 but rejected the definition in the creed of Chalcedon of the relation of the divine and human in Christ. Since they tended to stress the divine in Christ, those who held to Chalcedon labeled them Monophysites, with the implication that they regarded Christ as wholly divine and not human. The dissenters from Chalcedon repudiated the term Monophysite, insisting that they recognized both the divine and the human in Christ but maintaining that the relationship was not as described by Chalcedon.
The Church in Armenia did not conform to Chalcedon. From the beginning it had been identified with the Armenian state and people. Occupying highlands between the Roman and Persian empires, the Armenians sought to maintain their independence of both realms, but not always with success. At times each powerful neighbor sought to establish a sphere of influence in the portion which bordered its realms. It was natural, therefore, that the Armenian Church endeavored to maintain its autonomy as against the Catholic Church, for the latter was closely related to the Roman Empire.
Similarly the Egyptians were ill content with the rule of Constantinople, more and more associated with the Greeks. The majority rejected Chalcedon, regarding it as Greek. Their ecclesiastical language was the Egyptian vernacular of the day, now known as Coptic.
The Syriac-speaking peoples in Syria were also restive under Greek rule issuing from Constantinople. Many of them broke from the Catholic Church, giving Chalcedon as a reason. In the sixth century they were drawn into a degree of unity by an ascetic bishop, Jacob Baradaeus. Well-educated, completely devoted, Jacob Baradaeus traveled widely among his fellow Syrians, usually on foot and garbed in a ragged horsecloth, consecrating bishops and ordaining priests. Syrian Christians were eventually known as Jacobites, whether from him or because they claimed to be the custodians of the true faith transmitted by James, or Jacob, the brother of Jesus. Attempts to bring them into unity with the Copts failed.
The Christians in the Persian Empire were chronically subject to persecution by the state, partly because they dissented from the official religion, Zoroastrianism, and partly because they were suspected of being potential and perhaps actual supporters of Persia’s inveterate foe, the Roman Empire, by the fifth century officially Christian. Most of the Christians in Persia, a small minority of the population, through clergy trained in Nisibis in a view of the relation of the divine and human in Christ associated, probably mistakenly, with the teaching of Nestorius, claimed that theirs was the true Catholic faith and regarded the Church of the Roman Empire as heretical. They could therefore insist that they were not in any way under the protection of the Roman Empire and so were not a menace to Persian rule.
All these dissenters from Chalcedon persisted into the twentieth century. They were subject to repeated persecutions by powerful neighbors and conquerors. They dwindled in numbers. In the twentieth century their losses continued, but when these lines were written they were still very much a part of the Christian scene.
Across the years attempts were made to heal the breach between those who conformed to Chalcedon and those who rejected the findings of that council. For example, later in the fifth century one Emperor condemned the findings of Chalcedon and another issued a statement which he hoped would be palatable to both sides. The latter won some of the more moderate anti-Chalcedonians, but it was rejected by the Bishop of Rome.
Potency of Augustine in The Theology of The Latin West and His Struggles with Pelagianism
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was potent in shaping the theology of the Latin-speaking portion of the Catholic Church. His influence was felt not in defining the relation of the Father and the Son or the relation of the divine and human in Christ, for on these issues the Catholic Church in the Latin-speaking part of the Roman Empire was agreed and he was a loyal son of that church. His special contribution arose out of his own experience, part of it personal and part gained from the decline of the Roman Empire, made especially vivid by the capture and sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths in 410.
Augustine was converted in 385 under the preaching of Ambrose, the great Bishop of Milan. After his conversion he returned to his native North Africa, lived in community with close friends, and eventually, after long hesitation on his part, was made Bishop of Hippo Regius, a port about two hundred miles west of Carthage. There he lived until his death. Both before and during his episcopate he wrote prodigiously and maintained an extensive correspondence. Many of his convictions he put succinctly in his Confessions, a moving and intimate autobiography which across the centuries has had an extensive reading.
From his experience of prolonged inability to control his sexual passions and then the coming of victory through what he regarded as an act of God which he had done nothing to deserve, Augustine arrived at convictions about man’s moral impotence and salvation through the grace of God. In this he found support in the writings of Paul and the teachings of Ambrose and some other Latin theologians.
A diligent student of the Scriptures, Augustine maintained that they taught that God had created Adam and had given him freedom of moral choice. But, he insisted, in sinning Adam lost his freedom and was free only to sin. All men, as Adam’s descendants, have inherited "original sin" from their forefather and in themselves cannot turn to God in faith. All efforts to do so, Augustine declared, arise from self-interest and mire those who make them ever more deeply in the morass of sin. But God, so Augustine taught, of His great love became incarnate in Christ, fully God and yet fully man, but not stained by original sin. Through faith in Him salvation comes, but that faith cannot be achieved by man’s unaided act. Augustine said that of His great mercy God had chosen ("elected" or "predestined") some men to repent and reach out in faith to accept God’s gift in Christ. If an individual is among the elect, God’s love will pursue him until he repents and turns in faith to God. After having accepted God’s grace, an individual may sin, but God will win him back. To put the doctrine in the terms which have been widely used by Protestants in the Augustinian tradition, here are "irresistible grace" and the "perseverance of the saints." Augustine held that this side of the grave a man cannot be certain that he is among the elect. If he could, he would be tempted to pride, the basic sin.
Augustine’s views of original sin, predestination, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints did not win universal acceptance. They were much more influential in the West than in the East. In his own day they were challenged by Pelagius and the latter’s supporters. Pelagius was a British monk, learned, austere, and ascetic. Arriving in Rome, he was scandalized by the loose living of many who bore the Christian name. He sought to persuade them to reform their manner of life, palpably contradictory to their profession, and said that they could do so if they really wished. One of his close friends who sought ordination in North Africa was refused on the charge of heresy. He had maintained that Adam’s sin injured himself only and not his descendants and that every child is as free to obey God as Adam had been before his fall. Pelagianism, as it was called, met with a mixed reception in both East and West. While Nestorius was Bishop of Constantinople he supported it. In 431 the Council of Ephesus which condemned Nestorius anathematized Pelagianism. In 416 synods in North Africa and Rome acted against Pelagianism and the Bishop of Rome supported them. The latter’s successor first approved Pelagianism and later rejected it. In 529 a synod in Orange, in Gaul, affirmed original sin, declared that man had lost all power to turn to God, said that turning to God is wholly through God’s grace, and condemned those who said that by our will we can anticipate God’s action. Yet it said nothing about irresistible grace, affirmed that the beginning of faith and the desire to believe can come apart from the free gift of grace, and condemned the position that some are predestined to evil.
The fall and sack of Rome in 410 stimulated Augustine to write The City of God (De Civitate Dei), which set forth his understanding of history. For centuries it was very influential, especially in Western Europe. Intending it as an answer to the pagans who maintained that the disaster was attributable to the Christian defection from the gods under whom Rome had become great, Augustine did more than make a rebuttal. He set forth what he believed that the Scriptures teach about the entire course of history. In contrast with the prevailing Greek view that history is a succession of cycles, endlessly repeated, Augustine held that history has a beginning and a culmination. He maintained that from the time of man’s first rebellion against God two cities have existed, one earthly and the other heavenly. The earthly is the creation of pride and love of self. It is not entirely bad, for from self-interest Babylon and Rome as well as other governments had brought peace and order. The heavenly city is dominated by "the love of God and even to the contempt of self." Men enter it here and now and it is represented by the Church, although not all within the Church are its citizens. As Augustine viewed it, from its beginning all history has been directed and governed by God and moves to a climax in which God’s will is perfectly to be accomplished.
In his emphasis upon man in history, as in The City of God, Augustine was typical of a major trend in the western portion of the Catholic Church. Here was a characteristic of Rome in the days of its glory and prominent in the Roman Catholic Church and in many of the forms of Christianity which have sprung from that Church. Western Christianity has by no means been oblivious to life beyond the grave, but it has sought to bring all human society to conform to the will of God. In contrast, Eastern Christianity, while not ignoring human society, has been keenly aware of life beyond the grave, but it has sought to bring men into life with God and growth in that life.
Augustine did not confine his writings to the problems of free will and predestination. As a corollary, he addressed himself to the problem of evil. He also wrote on the Trinity and gave form to convictions which were in accord with those of the majority in the Catholic Church and which have continued to contribute to the thought of Christians on that subject, chiefly among Western Europeans and the nations created by them in the Americas and Australasia.
Admission to The Church
In the centuries while the attempts at the clarification of Christian belief were being made -- a process which has never ceased --the customs of the ecclesiastical bodies to which the faith was giving rise were developing.
Admission to these bodies was by baptism. The customs in the Catholic Church which accompanied baptism displayed many variations. Initially all that was required was an expression of belief in the "Lord Jesus Christ." An early baptismal formula which became standard was "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." This, as we have seen, was eventually enlarged into the Apostles’ Creed. Baptism was by water. The chronic debate as to whether at the outset this was always by immersion has never been decisively resolved. Paul’s image of being buried with Christ in baptism and being raised with Him in newness of life seems to support this form. In practice, by the end of the first five centuries there were several methods of baptism. It was often by immersion, frequently in running water. Sometimes it was by thrice-repeated immersion, the first preceded by a confession of faith in the Father, the second by a confession of faith in the Son, and the third by a confession of faith in the Holy Spirit. In some baptisms water was poured on the head three times. Often baptism was preceded and followed by anointing with oil. For at least a time, in baptism by immersion the candidate was naked; as a symbol that the new birth was a complete break with the past, no one was to take anything into the water but his body. Immediately after baptism the bishop laid his hands on the head of the candidate. Thus, it was believed, the Holy Spirit was received. By the end of the second century the baptism of infants appears to have been common. Since baptism was believed to wash away the original sin inherited from Adam, some advocated its administration as soon after birth as possible, so that if the infant died before being guilty of conscious sin it would be immediately ushered into heaven. However, since baptism could not be repeated and was regarded as cleansing from all sins committed before its administration, some postponed the rite until their death bed. For converts, baptism was often given at Easter or fifty days after Easter. Candidates were customarily to prepare for baptism by fasting, prayer, vigils through entire nights, and the confession of sins. Baptism was preceded by a catechumenate in which instruction was given the neophytes. In some places its length was three years. Catechumens were counted as Christians and were admitted to the services of the Church, but were required to leave at a certain point in the liturgy, before the celebration of the Eucharist.
The Developing Christian Worship
During the first five centuries Christian worship was evolving. In one of Paul’s letters we read of the practice in the church in Corinth. Both men and women spoke. Some spoke with tongues, presumably as had been done at the Day of Pentecost. Paul said that he himself spoke with tongues. Some interpreted in the vernacular what was being said in the tongues. Some prophesied. All shared in a common meal, and in conjunction with it the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. Paul viewed the Lord’s Supper as the participation in the body and blood of Christ and held that it must be observed with dignity and reverence.
From the beginning, Christian worship took over some of the features of the worship in Jewish synagogues. The fact that many of the early converts were Jews made the procedure natural.
By the second century Christian worship centered in the Lord’s Supper, which came to be known as the Eucharist, from a Greek word meaning the giving of thanks. Normally it was observed on the first day of the week, "the Lord’s Day," because it was then that Christ had been raised from the dead (although for centuries many, even among the Gentile Christians, also observed the seventh day, or Sabbath, held sacred by the Jews). The Eucharist was not confined to the Lord’s Day. No one order prevailed. Normally the ritual included readings from the Old Testament and from the letters or other writings of the Apostles, a sermon or discourse by whoever was presiding, offerings to be used for the sick, widows, orphans, prisoners, and others in need, the giving of thanks, and the sharing by all in the bread and the wine. Eventually the bishop or one of the clergy delegated by him presided. The Communion table became an altar on which the bloodless sacrifice was celebrated. Elaborate liturgies were developed, especially after imperial toleration made public celebrations possible. Liturgies of the chief churches, as at Rome and Alexandria, spread widely in the districts surrounding these centers. The liturgies in use in churches which in the twentieth century contain the large majority of those who bear the Christian name preserve many of the features of the ones developed in the first five centuries. They are thus a link which helps to give a sense of fellowship with the Christians of all ages.
In addition to the Eucharist were other forms of worship. Wednesdays and Fridays were observed by fasting, prayer, and readings from the Scriptures as well as the Eucharist. Special days in what became the "Christian Year" were honored. Easter had the chief place and with it were associated Maundy Thursday, on which the Lord’s Supper was instituted, and Friday, the day of the crucifixion. Epiphany, when the mornings begin to lengthen, and the twenty-fifth of December, associated with the winter solstice, were given Christian significance. Epiphany was used to commemorate the birth of Jesus, the coming of the wise men, and the baptism of Jesus. Christmas, celebrated on the twenty-fifth of December, seems to have had its origin in Rome.
In the second century custom enjoined prayers of all the faithful at daybreak, mid-forenoon, noon, mid-afternoon, and nightfall. In some places Sunday worship began before dawn, followed by the Eucharist in the early morning hours. In public prayer one either stood with arms outstretched or lay prone, face downwards.
For hymns, the Psalms were used. but very early, certainly in the first century, distinctly Christian hymns were composed. As the years passed they multiplied. The Te Deum, one of the most widely sung across the years, dates from the fourth century. Its author and place of origin are not certainly known. The great Archbishop of Milan, Ambrose, composed many hymns and taught them to his flock.
As persecution ended, buildings were erected for public worship. Some were very large. An early form was that of the basilica, an oblong hall with a double colonnade and apse, which had been used for law courts and assemblies.
Private devotion was common. For it many books existed. The Scriptures were widely employed and translations were made into several vernaculars. Writings traditionally but wrongly ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, a convert of Paul, seem to have been composed in the fifth or sixth century. Their content was largely Neoplatonic, with some Christian terminology.
Various cults arose within the Catholic Church. The martyrs were revered, their relics were cherished, their tombs became the goals of pilgrimages, they were believed to work miracles, they were esteemed as guardians of cities and patrons of trades, and they were asked to intercede with God on behalf of their votaries. To the martyrs were added Christians of exemplary lives and angels, especially Michael. The reverence for the Virgin Mary rapidly mounted.
The Developement of a Hierarchical Clergy
A professional clergy early developed. Its main grades, as we have seen, were bishops, priests, and deacons. To these others were added. Ordination was by the bishop. The bishop was supposed to be the choice of his flock including the clergy, and in his consecration both laity and clergy were recognized. Consecration was generally by three bishops, but in emergencies, such as times of persecution, one was sufficient. Bishops of prominent cities were accorded special honor. Outstanding were those of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The first four cities, with Carthage, were traditionally the major centers of population, government, and commerce in the Empire. Jerusalem was included because of its role in the origin of the faith. In time these sees were thought of as patriarchates. Into the twentieth century the ecclesiastical bodies sprung from the Catholic Church continued to pay them honor, and some of the several bodies which claimed to represent that church -- as Rome (through the Uniates, the Eastern bodies in its communion), the (Greek) Orthodox, and the Syrian (Jacobite) -- continued to name incumbents, even when, as in the case of Antioch, no city survived, and, as in Constantinople and Alexandria, because of the numerical dominance of Islam Christians were dwindling minorities and Moslems were in the overwhelming majority. The Copts have claimed only one patriarchate, that of Alexandria. Armenians and Nestorians never counted any of the five cities of the Catholic Church as major centers but called their administrative heads patriarchs. Divided into rival jurisdictions, the Armenians have had more than one patriarch. The Nestorian patriarch had his title from Baghdad, long a major city in the area where his flock were numerous.
Episcopal sees were grouped by provinces, usually according to the civil administrative units of the Roman Empire. Ecclesiastical provinces first developed in the eastern part of the Empire, for in the early centuries Christians were more numerous here than in the West. In time the bishop in the chief city of a province was called metropolitan, had a degree of authority over the bishops in his province, including a voice in their selection, and called synods to act on common interests. The Bishop of Rome was the only patriarch in the West. Because Rome was long the political capital of the Empire which was called by its name, and since Peter and Paul were believed to have died there and the former was said to have been given by Christ authority over His Church, the Bishop of Rome, considered to be the successor of Peter and to be entrusted by Christ with the powers of the Prince of the Apostles, claimed jurisdiction over the entire Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in the West acquiesced, but the majority of the Catholic Church in the East, while usually conceding that the Bishop of Rome was primus inter pares, did not give him the unique position that was conceded to him in the West. In the fourth century, Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, although his see was in the West, refused to accord to the Bishop of Rome more than the deference due to "the first among equals."
From early days the bishops corresponded with one another on matters of common concern or on issues within their respective jurisdictions of which they wished to apprise their colleagues or on which they desired their counsel. They aided one another in times of persecution and sought unity on debated questions of discipline and doctrine. Although they did not always agree and in fact frequently vigorously differed, through them the Catholic Church had most of such cohesion as it possessed.
Efforts to Achieve the Ethical Standards Enjoined by Christ
From the beginning the leaders in the Christian communities endeavored to bring the body of believers to the high ethical standards enjoined by Christ. The remembered commission to the Apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that He had commanded them, might well seem impossible of fulfillment, especially since it entailed bringing all mankind to conformity to the ideal set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet the fact that the commission was embodied in one of the Four Gospels recognized as canonical served to set it as the goal which Christians could not disavow without disloyalty to their Lord. In letters of the Apostles preserved in the New Testament the objective was reaffirmed, even though in not precisely the same words. From the first, Christians were aware of their failure fully to reach the ideal, but their leaders, undiscouraged, pressed on, as Paul said, "toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
Since the conviction was early held that baptism washed away all sins committed before its administration and that baptism could not be repeated, the question arose as to what was to be the attitude of the Church towards sins committed after baptism. Some sins were believed to be especially serious, notably denial of the faith, murder, and gross sexual offenses. Up to the fourth century an official view maintained that one post-baptismal repentance was permissible, but ruled out more than one. The strict application of this rule entailed the danger of legalism (an attitude quite contrary to the Gospel) -- that God’s favor could be earned by good works rather than dependence solely on God’s grace. Grace, as the New Testament writers were aware, was beyond human capacity to merit but was the "free gift of God" and arose from His limitless love. Moreover, since what from Christ’s teachings were the most serious sins, pride and the failure to respond to God’s love, were less easily detected than the more overt offenses, how could any officer of the Church or any Christian community be always aware of their presence? As we have seen, some movements, especially Montanism, Novatianism, and Donatism, were adamant in refusing renewal of fellowship to extreme sinners, particularly those who had apostatized under the pressure of persecution.
In contrast, the majority maintained that if repentance was genuine the offender could be restored to fellowship and the Communion, but only after severe discipline to ensure contrition and to guard against a repetition of sin. For public offenses confession was required before the entire congregation. Restoration and discipline were entrusted to the bishop. In the West, especially in Rome, the penitent was required to throw himself on the ground and weep, and the bishop would weep with him. The congregation would also weep and groan. In the East it became the custom for the bishop to entrust the discipline to a priest. This practice gave rise to so much scandal that it was allowed to lapse and the judgment of whether the offender could partake of the Communion was left to the conscience of the sinner. As might have been expected, laxity ensued and the level of morality in the Christian community was seriously lowered.
The Rise of Monasticism
By the end of the fifth century monasticism had begun the development which was to make it a continuing feature of Christian churches. Christian monasticism seems to have begun in Egypt, where climate and geography favored it. A narrow strip of fertile land watered by the Nile is bordered by a desert on which rain is infrequent. Hermits could find in the desert the solitude for which they longed and yet be near enough to human habitation to obtain the spare nourishment permitted by their austere discipline. Before the end of the third century they had begun to appear.
Several factors contributed to the rise of monasticism. One was an ascetic tradition which had emerged very early. Jesus Himself was not an ascetic. He lived as a self-confessed homeless, wandering teacher, but He went to dinners and said that He came "eating and drinking" -- in contrast with John the Baptist, who was rudely clothed and whose food was said to have been the desert fare of locusts and wild honey. Jesus did not marry, but He did not forbid His disciples to do so. Paul was a celibate, but he knew of no command of Jesus which enjoined that state for believers and he advised young widows to marry. Within the first century some widows did not remarry but pledged themselves to remain unmarried, gave themselves to prayer and to the service of others, and were formally recognized as having adopted that way of life. Before the end of the fourth century at least one synod and one regional council had commanded celibacy for bishops, priests, and deacons, one Pope had made chastity obligatory on priests, and another, Leo the Great, had extended the injunction to sub-deacons. In the East the practice became established that sub-deacons, deacons, and priests might marry before ordination, but that a bishop must be unmarried and if raised to the episcopate in the married state must separate from his wife and place her in a monastery. Contributory impulses towards monasticism may have come from Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and Indian influences. A major source was a reaction against the decline in the ethical practices of many who bore the Christian name, especially as membership in the Catholic Church mounted.
In Egypt the monastic life took three forms. The first two were represented by Anthony (c. 250-356), the most famous of the early monks. The son of well-to-do Christian parents, he heard in a church service the reading from the Gospel in which Jesus said to the rich young ruler: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor." He took the injunction to heart and obeyed it. He sought instruction from men who had already adopted the hermit existence, and learned from them graciousness, love, kindness, meekness, endurance, and freedom from anger. For about twenty years he dwelt in solitude. In time his fame attracted others and with them he formed a kind of community, each member dwelling alone but sufficiently near the others to have fellowship with them. In the third form of monasticism the monks lived in community in a monastery. Rules were developed. Their chief early formulator was Pachomius (c. 285 or c. 292-346), a younger contemporary of Anthony. Over each monastery was a head. Labor and prayer were required, strict obedience to the superiors was commanded, but extreme asceticism was discouraged. Monasticism remained a feature of the life of the Church in Egypt and in the twentieth century it still is a dominant characteristic of the Coptic Church. For example, the Patriarch elected in 1959, after some years in business had spent five years as an anchorite and had then returned to Cairo, rented an abandoned mill, and begun preaching.
Monasticism rapidly spread in both the eastern and western portions of the Roman Empire. Two of the Cappadocian champions of Nicene orthodoxy, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzus, joined for a time in the ascetic life. Basil’s mother, a sister, Macrina, and a younger brother joined in founding a monastic community. Macrina was later esteemed as the foundress of the monastic life for women in the Greek portion of the Catholic Church. Basil had visited Egypt and had been profoundly impressed by what he had seen of the Pachomian monasteries. He worked out a set of rules which helped to shape monasticism in the Catholic Church. Like those of Pachomius, they discouraged extreme asceticism and emphasized work, especially the study of the Scriptures, frequent confession of sins, and complete obedience to the superior officer. The pioneer of monasticism in the West, and especially in Gaul, was Martin of Tours. An older contemporary of Basil, as a catechumen Martin had entered the army in fulfillment of the law which made such service obligatory upon him as the son of a military officer. A story associated with his military service tells us that on a cold winter day he divided his coat with a beggar and that night, in a dream, saw Christ clothed in the half which he had given away and saying that it was He with Whom Martin had shared his coat. Baptized and resigning from the army, Martin became a hermit. By his example he attracted others, who joined with him in founding a monastery. As we have seen, he was eventually Bishop of Tours. A younger contemporary said of Martin that "he judged none and condemned none and never returned evil for evil. No one ever saw him angry, or annoyed, or mournful. . . . He presented to every one a joy of countenance and manner which seemed to those who saw it beyond the nature of man. Nothing was in his mouth but Christ and nothing in his heart but piety, peace, and joy."
Another quite different pioneer of monasticism was Eusebius Hieronimus Sophronius, better known as Jerome (c. 342-420). Enormously erudite, Jerome early was attracted to the ascetic life, lived for a while as a hermit near Antioch, was more than once in Rome, for a time was secretary to a Pope, advocated self-denial, and excoriated the luxury of many of the clergy. Ultimately he made his home in a monastery which he built in Bethlehem. There he engaged in literary work and theological controversy and made a fresh translation of the Bible into Latin from the original tongues. That translation became the basis for the Vulgate, the standard translation of the Scriptures into the Latin vernacular. In Bethlehem his friend Paula, who had followed him from Rome, erected convents and a hospice for pilgrims.
That was a remarkable generation. It included, among others, such outstanding Christians as Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Martin of Tours, the great Gappadocians, Jerome -- all of them in that small segment of the globe which was embraced by the Roman Empire.
A bizarre form of asceticism appeared among the "pillar saints," each of whom spent a solitary life for years on the top of a pillar. The most famous was Simeon Stylites, who lived thirty-six years on a pillar east of Antioch and died in 459. The extreme ascetics were revered as "athletes of God" and were said to work miracles of healing.
A majority of the monks were laymen. At first they were looked at somewhat askance by many of the officials of the Catholic Church, but before long monasticism became a recognized feature of the Catholic Church. In an age when the majority in that church were conforming less and less to Christian standards, monks represented a surge of life which endeavored in a nominally Christian but essentially non-Christian society to realize fully Christian, community living. The extreme ascetics in their solitary existence sought to separate themselves completely from a world which they regarded as basically hostile to Christ.
The Effects of Christianity in its First Five Centuries
What can be said of the effects of Christianity during its first five centuries? What can be learned from them of the fashion in which the Gospel operates in the life of mankind and of the way God works through it? Here was remarkable achievement. But, from the standpoint of the commission which the first Christians remembered as having been entrusted to the Apostles by the risen Lord, to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that He had commanded them, the achievement fell far short of full obedience.
The nominal allegiance of the majority of the peoples of the Roman Empire had been won. The state itself, which once had persecuted the faith, was now supporting it. In a civilization in which the creative impulse was waning and little new in art, philosophy, literature, government, and economic life was appearing, the Gospel had given rise to a new religion, Christianity. From it had sprung an ecclesiastical institution, the Catholic Church, which was almost as inclusive as the Empire and was bringing into its ample fold an increasing proportion of the pagan barbarians who were pressing into the Empire. Partly within and partly outside the Empire other ecclesiastical structures claiming to be Christian had emerged. Within the Empire the human intellect, jaded by the philosophical discussions which had seemed to issue in blind alleys or in a syncretism that left some of the best minds unsatisfied, had been stimulated to wrestle with the cosmic issues presented by the Gospel, and theologies had emerged which for centuries were to grip much of the human race. Thousands of lives, most of them obscure and leaving behind them no written records, had been given moral victory and had become radiant and self-giving embodiments of the faith, hope, and love which Paul declared were lasting. They had borne what Paul described as the fruits of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Constantine had forbidden gladiatorial contests in his "new Rome" and these bloody spectacles were dwindling. Efforts, in part successful, had been made to cleanse the theater of pornographic features. Church discipline had addressed itself to lifting sex relations and marriage to the high level set by Christ.
Notable as were these results, if an accurate appraisal is to be made, contrasting aspects of the record must be faced. Only a minority of civilized mankind had been reached. The Roman Empire was now ostensibly Christian, but the Persian Empire and India had barely been touched and so far as we know none in the Chinese Empire had so much as heard the name of Christ. The Catholic Church had been torn by dissensions. Although the sense of brotherhood had been in part realized in aid to the poor, the sick, and the captives, the love enjoined by Christ was far from being attained. Most of the early Christians had regarded participation in war as contrary to the faith. Now that the Empire had made its peace with the Church, Christians were confronted with the apparent necessity of defending civilization by armed force, and Augustine had formulated the characteristics of what he deemed just wars as against unjust wars. Although Augustine declared that God did not create man to lord it over his rational fellows and helped to prepare the way for later attacks on slavery, that institution had not disappeared. The presence of monasticism was a tacit confession that the large majority who bore the Christian name had not achieved Christian standards. In the Roman Empire society as a whole was so far from conforming to the teachings of Christ that the best hope of obeying them seemed to be withdrawal from society in order, either by solitary effort or in minority communities, to seek to attain to Christ’s commands.
Many in the Roman Empire were realizing that theirs was a sick society. Potent though it was, Christianity was not preventing the decay eroding the foundations of the Mediterranean world. In spite of such great souls as Ambrose, Augustine, Basil of Caesarea, Athanasius, Martin of Tours, and Pope Leo "the Great," twilight was settling over that world. In the next few centuries twilight was to become darkness. For about five centuries not only Greco-Roman civilization but Christianity as well seemed to be disappearing. Occasional gleams lightened the darkness, but the world as Augustine and his contemporaries knew it was disintegrating. From the standpoint of the onlooker the City of God appeared to be a mirage or something to be postponed until after this mortal life. Yet in these dark centuries the light did not go out. Here and there it was manifest. Later it was to shine more brightly and more widely, with mounting contrasts between it and the darkness but never overcome by the darkness.