return to religion-online

The Unquenchable Light by Kenneth Scott Latourette


Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). This book was originally written as the William Belden Noble lectures at Harvard University in 1940.


Chapter One: The Initial Advance (to A.D. 500)


The wonder of the winning of the Roman Empire to the Christian faith has never ceased to engage the interest of the historian and to lure him to search for its causes.

Christianity began with one whose public career was so short, whose teachings were seemingly so casual and so conditioned by a particular view of history, and whose death was apparently due to such impractical idealism, that some scholars have held his connection with it to have been only a minor, even though possibly an essential, cause of its existence. They have sought elsewhere, albeit without convincing results, the secret of its vitality and its appeal.

At the outset Christianity was, to all surface appearances, simply one of several sects of Judaism. In the Roman Empire it had to make its way against the competition of many other religions and cults, numbers of which were long established and were an integral part of the dominant culture. It met the opposition of the state, an opposition which from time to time flared up in severe, general persecutions. Large numbers of the populace regarded Christianity with abhorrence and believed its adherents to be atheists, immoral, and enemies of the public welfare. Some of the educated despised Christianity for what they deemed its intellectual absurdities.

In spite of obstacles Christianity won. By A.D. 500 it was the professed faith of the vast majority within the Roman Empire. At that time that Empire, although it had suffered serious reverses, was still the most powerful state on the globe and embraced the strongest and most populous center of civilization. Christianity, therefore, and with it the influence of Jesus, had made an impress upon a strategic area from which it might most readily spread to the rest of mankind. Changes, some of them revolutionary, had been wrought in -Roman culture, although that culture was not so profoundly molded by Christianity as some others were later to be. Most of the religions which had contested with Christianity the possession of the Mediterranean world had either been swept aside or had been reduced to such weakness that they were no longer seriously to be reckoned with. A rich and voluminous literature had been produced. The Christian Church had been brought into existence and had become, next to the state, the strongest institution in the Empire. Christian theology had made its appearance. Under the influence of Christianity new forms of art and architecture were in process of development. Christianity had contributed to the weakening of slavery and to the decline of some of the public amusements, notably the sports of the arena, which were at variance with the spirit of Jesus. Laws had been slightly modified. Moreover, Christianity had begun to make its way beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. In the West it had been carried into Ireland and possibly beyond the Roman wall into the north of Britain. In the East it had gained a footing in the Persian Empire, in India, and in Southern Arabia, and in the South of Ethiopia.

The processes by which this amazing spread was accomplished and the reasons for this triumph were complex.

Obviously the Roman Empire was a major factor. To be sure, during much of the first three centuries the Roman state was either passively or actively hostile. Yet it is one of the commonplaces of history that the Roman Empire afforded Christianity the opportunity which permitted the Christian faith to acquire the outstanding position which has been partly responsible for its expansion from that time to this. It proved highly fortunate for the spread of his influence that Jesus was born in the reign of the first Roman Emperor. Had he been born a hundred years earlier, when the wars which preceded the creation of the principate by Augustus were still to be fought, or had he appeared two centuries later when the imperial structure was beginning to crumble, the course of the Christian faith would have been much more difficult.

The fashion in which the Roman Empire was of assistance in the spread of Christianity is so well known that it needs here only the briefest mention. The Pax Romana, which was established under Augustus and which for about two centuries, with the exception of some severe, localized rebellions, banished war to the borders of the realm, was of great advantage to the expansion of a faith whose spirit flourishes best in time of peace. It was along the trade routes of the commerce encouraged by the Pax Romana that Christianity moved with a rapidity which never ceases to amaze us. Christianity placed its stamp upon -Roman culture. That culture was the property of more millions than up to that time had ever been brought under one pattern of civilization. By becoming the religion of that culture, Christianity acquired an enormous advantage over its rivals for the allegiance of mankind. Beginning with Constantine, with the exception of the brief interlude of Julian, the Roman state espoused Christianity. Eventually it gave to that faith a preferred position over all its rivals.

We must note that after Christianity became the state cult, very little persecution was employed against its rivals. The Emperors gave it their support. Some of them encouraged and even commanded efforts to propagate it. Yet actual personal violence was seldom invoked against the adherents of pagan cults to induce the acceptance of Christianity. The use of force on a large scale to spread the faith was to wait until a later period.

The adoption of the Christian religion by the state did not insure the persistence of the influence of Jesus. Indeed, in some respects it was a greater menace than the earlier policy of persecution. A state cult is so bound to the government and under such constraint to support the secular authorities and their programs that it finds difficulty in criticizing or judging the state. An official cult is supposed to give the powerful undergirding of religion to the existing regime. That had been a function of the pre-Christian official cults. In supplanting them, Christianity was expected to fill their role, only more effectively. This proved a serious handicap, as we are to see in later chapters. It partly accounts for the fate of Christianity in Russia in our day. In the area in which this subservience of the Church to the Roman state continued, Jesus had much less effect than in some regions where, because of the weakening or disappearance of that state, the Church obtained greater liberty.

The formation of the Roman Empire was both preceded and accompanied by another factor which facilitated the spread of Christianity—the disintegration of existing cultures. This disintegration had begun as early as Alexander. It was furthered by the cosmopolitan outlook and the impact of culture upon culture which followed the campaigns of Alexander and the more enduring conquests of Rome. The basin of the Mediterranean was being welded into a unit. As part of this process older cultures interpenetrated one another and were weakened. Countless individuals were cast adrift from their hereditary moorings and groups and were hungry for a faith which would give meaning to life. In many, a dissatisfaction arose with the current disintegration of morals and with the ethical standards of some of the older cults. The puerilities of the mythologies of Greek and Roman polytheism could only be partly met by the allegorizing employed by their defenders. Neither mind nor conscience was quite satisfied with them. Christian apologists must have found many responsive hearts when they rang the changes on the moral weaknesses of the gods. In the first centuries of the Roman Empire society was comparatively fluid and a new faith which could meet the demands of men could gain a hearing. Religiously the old foundations were being broken up and men were more open-minded and receptive than they had been for many generations—perhaps ever.

The close association which Christianity early established with Hellenism also proved of advantage in the spread of the faith. From a very early date—how early is a matter of debate—Greek was the major language of Christianity and continued to be such through most of the period. Christian thinkers were influenced by Greek philosophy. Some of them, indeed, were expert in it. Greek language and thought had wide circulation in the Roman Empire and the fact that Christianity came in Greek dress was of incalculable assistance to it.

On the other hand, the affiliation with Hellenism was not an unmixed benefit. There was danger that accommodation would go so far that the distinctive features of Jesus would be lost. In the wide portions of the Christian stream known as Gnosticism this tendency was very marked. What became the church of the majority of Christians djsavowed Gnosticism. There are those, however, who declare that even this majority church succumbed, although less spectacularly, to the trend, and that the dominant form of Christianity became a mystery cult in which Jesus was so distorted or forgotten that he had little effect. That extreme view, although brilliantly argued by able scholars, has not found acceptance with the majority of experts. The Jesus whom men knew in Galilee and Judea was cherished in the churches through which flowed the continuing Christian stream. He was interpreted in ways which partly obscured him—as all interpretations must—but the most authentic records of his teachings, life, death, and resurrection were preserved and honored, and he was given chief place in the Church which was declared to be his body.

The alliance of Christianity with the Roman Empire and with Hellenism, while of advantage in the Mediterranean world of the first five centuries, was a decided handicap to the eastward expansion of the faith.

Immediately to the east was the Persian Empire. When Christianity first became dominant in the Mediterranean Basin the Roman and Persian Empires were deadly rivals. Since Christianity was becoming identified with the Roman Empire, the rulers of Persia suspected such Christians as were in their realms of loyalty to Rome and of either actual or potential treason. This antipathy was accentuated by the inclination of at least some of the Christian Roman Emperors to take their fellow believers in Persia under their protection. That was notably the policy of Constantine. In the fifth century a national church was formed in Persia independent of the churches of the Roman Empire. It adopted the theology of Nestorius, which was anathema to the Roman state and its church. This must have helped to allay Persian suspicion. Yet Nestorianism was never able to overcome the initial prejudice against Christianity, and the fact that it was regarded as heretical by the majority of the Roman Empire cut it off from the fellowship of the strongest of the churches. Nestorianism made progress and planted extensive outposts in Central and Eastern Asia. However, only a little over two centuries after it had achieved a national organization in Persia it was forced to face Islam.

Christianity’s close association with Hellenism, while of undoubted advantage in the Greco-Roman world, was probably a handicap in the East. Here by the third century the Hellenism which came in the wake of Alexander, while, as Buddhist art testifies, still potent, was a waning force. It was by no means as prominent as in the Roman Empire. It was probably in connection with commerce from the Mediterranean that Christianity was planted in Southern Arabia and Ethiopia. Yet most of such extension as Christianity enjoyed in India and in Central and Eastern Asia down into the fourteenth century was through Nestorianism and not through the churches of the Mediterranean world. Except for Nestorianism, and, to a less extent, Monophysitism, which was also at outs with the Roman state, east of Mesopotamia and to a certain extent in Mesopotamia Christianity remained semi-alien. Even Nestorianism and Monophysitism arose, so far as they were doctrinal, out of the controversies which had a Greek tinge and which were intensified by racial and political conditions in the Eastern Mediterranean. They were, accordingly, exotic to environments which did not have that background. The ecclesiastical language of Nestorians was Syriac, a tongue of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Christianity is basically so revolutionary that it is never fully at home anywhere. However, largely because of its association with Rome and with Hellenism, it did not become as firmly rooted east of Mesopotamia as in the -Roman world.

In some areas within the Roman Empire the association with Hellenism and with Rome seems to have been a handicap. Christianity early established powerful strongholds in the Hellenistic cities of Syria, notably in that outstanding center of Hellenism, Antioch. Yet much of Syria was but slightly touched by Hellenism. In the nonHellenistic portions of Syria, Christianity was slow in making headway and was late in being accorded even nominal allegiance. In North Africa the Berber elements of the population were never thoroughly won to a faith which was primarily the religion of the Roman overlords and of the Latinized and, later, Hellenized ruling classes. This was eventually to prove fatal.

- When we have said that three of the factors contributing to the expansion of Christianity and with it to the spread of the influence of Jesus were the Roman Empire, the disintegration of old religious beliefs accompanied by a hunger for a morally and intellectually satisfying faith, and association with Hellenism, we have by no means accounted fully for the phenomenal growth of Christianity in its first five centuries. In the Roman Empire and in Hellenism the new faith encountered numerous rivals. Several of these had marked advantages over Christianity. Some were supported by the state and some were integral parts of Hellenism. Others did not set themselves as uncompromisingly against certain features of current life as did Christianity. We must seek further for the reasons for the victory of Christianity over its rivals in the Greco-Roman world.

The most active agent in the propagation of Christianity was the Church. Whether Jesus had planned the Church is a matter of debate. So far as our records of his sayings afford us evidence, he gave little if any thought to it. We certainly have no proof that he envisioned any such organization as had come into being by the close of the fifth century. At the outset the Christian fellowship took more than one form. It was not until about a century after Jesus that Christians began to regard as normal an ecclesiastical structure which had bishops as its chief administrative officers. Yet the Church, as continuing organized companies of Christians, was the chief means by which the influence of Jesus spread. This was true of the first five centuries. It has been true ever since.

The Church is a unique creation of Christianity. Whether or not Jesus planned it, it was his influence which brought it into being and it has always had him as the center of its professed loyalty. Into it entered many elements. It regarded itself as a continuation of the Jewish community, as the true heir of Israel. To its early ritual and organization the Jewish synagogue made important contributions. Yet it was far more than a continuation of the Jewish community. It was more inclusive racially. In the first century Judaism had attracted many who were not Jews by race, but it had insisted that to partake of the full blessings of the promises made to Israel these must become Jews. At first some Christians were of the same mind. Long before the close of the fifth century, however, the majority of Christians had rejected this view. They insisted that, although the Christian community was built on the foundation laid by Jewish seers, in Jesus a new beginning had been made and that loyalty to him and the new life through him were the chief tie. The characteristic rites of the Church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, although having Jewish antecedents, because of Jesus possessed distinctive forms. Nothing exactly parallel to the Church has been brought into being by any other religion. Buddhism speaks of what is sometimes rather loosely translated as the Church, but this approximates more nearly to the monastic groups of Christians than to the entire body of believers, lay, clerical, monastic, and non-monastic, as is the case in Christianity. In theory and to a certain extent in practice solidarity exists among the followers of Mohammed, but it does not show itself in ecclesiastical bodies such as are the Christian churches. Ideally the Church has been a community embracing all Christians, both living and dead.

Not even in the first five centuries did the Church fully live up to its ideal. Never were all who called themselves Christians in one visible organization. There were churches, never one all-inclusive visible Church. Many of the leaders of these churches were far from embodying the ideals of Jesus. Repeatedly the churches quarreled with one another.

Yet, with all their weaknesses, it was through the churches that Christianity and with it the influence of Jesus spread. In spite of their divisions the churches were fairly closely knit. Each presented a strong front against the world. By a discipline whose strictness varied from group to group they sought to enforce their distinctness from the society about them. Their intransigence brought persecution but it also promoted inner solidarity. They displayed a strength which was one of the causes of the expansion of the faith. By A.D. 500, moreover, the majority of the Christians in the Roman Empire were in what called itself the Catholic Church.

During the first three centuries the influence of Jesus was restricted chiefly to the churches. Since they were separate from the world about them and were in antagonism to it, their attempts to mold civilization were confined mainly to their own fellowships. Within these fellowships they constructed societies which in their ethics and many of their customs bore clearly the imprint of Jesus. The distinctiveness in life and worship which set thc churches apart from the community about them was one of the assets of Christianity and helped to account for the spread of the faith.

After the adoption of Christianity by the state, in the fourth century, the chief effect was in the area of religion as a cult. Rival cults, with the exception of Judaism, were all but eliminated. Art and architecture were modified and literature continued to be created, but in fields ancillary to the Christian cultus. Ethical practice showed some changes, but the majority of professed Christians had entered the Church through a mass movement and their lives were not greatly altered. Partly in protest against this lack of conformity of the rank and file of Christians to the teachings of Jesus came what proved to be one of the most persistent channels for the transmission of the influence of Jesus, monasticism. Monasticism was the attempt to follow fully the commands of Jesus. Many became monks from other motives. Some were self-indulgent. Others were bizarre exhibitionists. Even the most sincere monks distorted, although unintentionally, the message of Jesus. Yet in general monasticism attracted those souls who were unhappy over the easygoing Christianity of the masses and who sought fully to follow Jesus. It was late in the third century before monasticism arose. In the fourth century monks were becoming active in the spread of the Christian faith. It was the leading representative of nascent monasticism in Gaul, Martin of Tours, who became also an important agent in the spread of Christianity in that region. From then until the emergence of Protestantism, with its revolt against monasticism, it was usually monks who bore the chief brunt of introducing the faith to new areas and of instructing the neophytes. Often monks were supported by civil rulers whose motives were of mixed origin and quality. Repeatedly methods were employed which were quite contrary to Jesus. Yet always this central current of monasticism showed, more than the rank and file of Christians, the influence of Jesus and so helped to perpetuate it. To this very day it is largely through monastic congregations or groups of secular clergy conforming in part to monastic standards that Roman Catholic Christianity is spread.

Not all attempts to achieve full loyalty to Jesus as against the compromises of the church of the majority resulted, as did monasticism, in continuing agencies for the spread of the faith. Marcionism, Novatianism, Donatism, and Montanism did not do so. Into the reasons for the failures of these movements we need not go. Monasticism, however, had an enduring life.

Another means of the perpetuation of the influence of Jesus was the New Testament. The collection which we call by that name was only gradually assembled and standardized. In the first five centuries it had a secondary even though in its discrete portions an important part in the expansion of the Christian faith. However, now and later it did much to transmit the memory and teachings of Jesus. It contained the most authentic records of his birth, life, sayings, death, and resurrection, and the documents written by those closest to him in time and sympathy. Regarded, as it was, with reverence, and being read and studied in the churches as authoritative, the New Testament became an instrument whereby Jesus continued to meet generation after generation and era after era.

The New Testament was reinforced by the Old Testament. In spite of the antipathy of the minority headed by Marcion, the majority of Christians adopted the Jewish Scriptures as their own and interpreted them in the light of what they believed they saw in Jesus. Contending that the entire historical development portrayed in the Old Testament from the creation of the world through the course of the Jewish race found its clue in Jesus, they claimed for their faith an antiquity which proved an asset in meeting the charge that Christianity was an ephemeral child of yesterday and without that dignity of ancient lineage possessed by the philosophies of Greece. In an age which in its distrust of its own reason sought the sanction of the past, the possession of the Old Testament was a means to the spread of Christianity.

Obviously one of the processes by which Christianity )read in this period was the labor of missionaries. We have already suggested that after monasticism appeared monks were among the active missionaries. They had the advantages of the zeal of full commitment to the Chris-an faith, of freedom from responsibility for wife and children, and of organized fellowship under directing heads. Long before monasticism put in its appearance, however, missionaries, namely those specializing on the propagation of the faith, had been at work. About the vast majority of them we know very little. Even the names of most of them have been lost. Paul is remembered, largely through his writings. We know of a few theirs. However, no elaborate machinery was developed in their support. There was nothing which resembled the closely integrated monastic orders which were so prominent in the later propagation of the faith, or the countless missionary societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Another means of the expansion of Christianity was mass movements. At the outset conversions were by individuals, one by one, or at times by families and small roups. However, religion has traditionally been as much a group as an individual affair. Cities, tribes, and nations have had their cults which have been supposed to contribute to their collective welfare. The genius of Christianity seemed opposed to tribal or national religion. The appeal of Jesus was, in practice, largely to individuals. In its ideal the Church was a supranational, supraracial, and supraclass fellowship embracing Greeks and Jews, barbarians, Scythians, bond and free. As time passed, however, entire communities began to enter the churches en masse and Christianity tended to become a group affair. It was thus that the conversion of the Roman Empire was completed. The process had begun before Constantine. In about thirty years as a bishop in Pontus, Gregory Thaumaturgos is said to have witnessed the accession to the Church of the vast majority in the territory covered by his see. Beginning with Constantine, because of the favor of the Emperors, the movement was accelerated. The success of Martin of Tours in the fourth century was probably paralleled in many another diocese. One of the most notable of the group conversions was that accomplished in the Kingdom of Armenia, on the eastern borders of the Roman Empire. That event is so shrouded in legend that we cannot obtain a clear knowledge of the details or ascertain the motives. It seems well established, however, that, led by the king and the nobility, within the span of a few years the entire nation adopted Christianity. The shrines and the endowments of the pre-Christian cult seem to have been transferred to the new faith. Under such circumstances the life and teachings of Jesus could have been only a minor factor in the adoption of Christianity, for the multitude could have known little about them. Even many of the priests could have only the most superficial acquaintance with them. It was not until several generations after the formal conversion that through the translation and preparation of literature and through contact with the older Christianity in the Roman Empire an appreciation of the meaning of Jesus grew and deepened.

None of the processes and factors which we have thus far mentioned fully account for the spread of Christianity. We have still to find the reason not only for the triumph of Christianity over its many rivals for the allegiance of the Roman Empire and of the Hellenistic world, but also for the birth and growth of the Church, for monasticism and its continuing vigor, for the existence and quality of the New Testament, and for the power that could bring about the mass conversions. We must ascertain why, of all the many sects of Judaism, ‘Christianity was almost the only one which achieved a permanent separate existence, and why it was the only one which in numerical strength surpassed its parent. Here was a vitality which was not limited to any one race or culture. Although in part identified with Greco-Roman civilization, this was because, being born into the Greco-Roman world, it won that world first and not because by its original genius it was best adapted to it. The fact that, in spite of its early association with that world and of the antagonism felt because of this seeming alliance, Christianity won some adherents from other cultures is evidence of the striking universality and vigor of the impulse which created it. The source of this abounding life could have been no other, as Christians have all along said, than Jesus himself. It is he who accounts for the Church and the New Testament. It was the loyalty to him which was the chief source of monasticism and of the contagious conviction which made monks for centuries the chief active agents in the spread of the faith. The mass movements came because of a momentum which had already been given by this original impulse.

Moreover, here was not an impulse which had been once given and was then allowed to fade into oblivion. Through the Lord’s Supper and through its teachings and its symbolism the Church strove to bring successive generations into living relationship with its Lord. Through the New Testament it sought to renew in each age the same vivid touch with Jesus that those had had who heard from the lips of the intimates of Jesus the account of their experience with him. As a result, a quality of life has been reproduced age after age, among different races and in different cultures which, while not always the same, always bears a striking family likeness. It is this life, traceable back to Jesus, a life welling up in personal experience but overflowing to work changes in society, which is the main source of the spread of Christianity, not only during the first five centuries but also in all later ages.

Even the most striking failure of Christianity in the first five centuries bears witness to the power and the universality of the appeal of Jesus. The great body of Judaism did not accept Jesus. The faith from which Christianity had sprung was the one religion in the Greco—Roman world which did not succumb to Christianity. Judaism continued, not, indeed, reaching out as aggressively as when Jesus was born, but more closely integrated in the fifth century than it had been in the first. This was partly because of a strength inherent in Judaism and which the Christians inherited. It was to no small degree because of the high ethical monotheism which the two faiths had in common. It was also because of the striking antagonism of Jesus to Judaism. The Ebionites, those who attempted to be both Jews and Christians, had only a feeble existence and dwindled and died. Thousands of Jews became Christians, but the vast majority of them in doing so ceased to be Jews. The reason was not that Christianity had become Hellenized. Hellenistic Judaism disappeared. Presumably Christianity would have vanished had it been simply a Hellenized Judaism. The contrast between Judaism and Christianity was partly between the universality of Christianity, its appeal to all men regardless of race or culture, and the persistent and narrow tribalism of Judaism. This, as Stephen and Paul saw, went back to Jesus himself. The contrast was chiefly because in Jesus, to some extent in his teachings but chiefly in what he himself was, his death, and his resurrection, and the resulting experience with what Christians termed the Spirit, a novel and revolutionary force had been released. While rooted in Judaism, Christianity was a fresh beginning. This could have been brought about because of nothing else and nothing less than Jesus himself. It is in Jesus that the source of the vitality and continuing vigor of Christianity must be sought.

Viewed 65238 times.