Reading: The Age of the Old Catholic Fathers A.D. 180-260 (The Early Church, Chapter 7)

The Early Church by James Orr



The death of Marcus Aurelius proved how superficial was the ethical revival associated with his reign. The accession of his son, Commodus (A.D. 180), reopened the floodgates to the worst evils and vices. The period that followed was one of frequent changes of emperors, of rampant military license, of much disorder and disorganization in the state. This was to the advantage of the Christians, in so far as it drew away attention from them, and left the emperors no time to develop concerted measures to their hurt. But it was also to their disadvantage, in placing them more at the mercy of popular tumult and of governors unfavorably disposed. The very calamities of the empire were made a ground of accusation against them. "If  the Tiber overflows the walls," says Tertullian, "if the Nile does not irrigate the fields, if the skies are shut, if the earth quakes, if there is a famine or a pestilence, immediately the cry is raised, 'The Christians to the lions'” (ApoL, 40). Nevertheless, the Church during this period made unprecedented progress, and, under the guidance of the great anti-Gnostic Fathers (Ireneus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, etc.), assumed definitely the character of a Church Catholic and Apostolic. 

From Commodus to Severus

The Severian Persecution  

During the evil reign of Commodus no systematic attempt was made to molest the Christians. Marcia, the emperor's mistress, was even friendly to the Church, and interested herself on its behalf. For example, in arranging the release of certain confessors from the Sardinian mines. Yet, to illustrate the general insecurity we have mentioned, Clement, writing shortly after the close of this reign, could say, "Many martyrs are daily burned, crucified or beheaded before our eyes."  Apollonius, a distinguished senator, suffered in this reign. The murder of Commodus was succeeded by a season of confusion, calamity, and bloodshed. Pertinax was killed after a reign of a few months. Then followed a scene of degradation such as the empire had not previously witnessed. The imperial office was put up to public auction on the ramparts of Rome, and unblushingly sold to the highest bidder. The purchaser, Julianus, did not keep his dearly-bought honors long. The legions rejected him, and out of the anarchy that ensued Septimius Severus emerged as the strongest man. 

The eighteen years' reign of this emperor (A.D. 193-211) proved him to be an able and vigorous, if also a stern ruler. He was at first favorably disposed to the Christians; his Syrian wife, Julia Domna, a lady of literary and eclectic disposition, was also friendly. It is not clear what led to his change of policy. He may have been influenced by his growing dislike of illegal associations, or by cases of insubordination like that related by Tertullian in Of the Soldier's Crown, where a soldier refused to wear the ordinary laurel garland in going up to receive his gift from the emperor. In any case, in A.D. 202, he issued an edict, forbidding under severe penalties conversion to either Judaism or Christianity. Thus was initiated what is reckoned as the fifth persecution, though we have interesting proof from a tract of Tertullian, To the Martyrs (before A.D. 202), that even prior to the publication of this edict martyrdom was regularly known. The severity of this persecution seems to have fallen chiefly on Egypt and North Africa, and some noble martyr incidents are recorded from these regions. 

A chief seat of the persecution was Alexandria. Leonidas, the father of Origen, was put to death at this time by beheading; Origen himself, then a youth of seventeen, would have perished also had not his mother forcibly prevented him from giving himself up. Another conspicuous instance was that of the maiden Potamiena, who, with her mother, Marcella, was, after many tortures, burned to death with boiling pitch. Her constancy was the occasion of the conversion of others, among them was Basilides, the officer in charge. 

The famous martyrdoms of Perpetua and her companions belong to North Africa -- Carthage or Tuburbium. An account of their martyrdom is preserved, some of which is written by Perpetua herself. Perpetua was a young married lady, of noble rank, recently a mother, who, for her faith, was thrown into a loathsome prison with four companions. One was a slave girl, Felicitas; the three others were youths.  All were catechumens, and were baptized in prison. Perpetua's father was a pagan, and sought by the most heartrending entreaties to induce her to recant. She and her companions stood firm, and were condemned to die at an approaching festival. In prison Felicitas was overtaken by the pangs of maternity. When asked how she would bear the keener pain of being torn by the wild beasts, she answered,

"It is I who bear my present sufferings, but then there will be One within me to suffer for me, because I too shall suffer for Him." The men were torn to pieces in the amphitheater by wild beasts; the women were exposed in a net to be tossed by a bull, and ultimately killed by the swords of the gladiators. The document which tells the pathetic story has in it a tinge of Montanistic enthusiasm, and contains the first traces of prayers for the dead. 

Succeeding Emperors 

The Persecution under Maximin

 The persecution went on through the whole reign of Severus; in the later stages of it some of Origen's disciples suffered. That it continued into the reign of his son, Caracalla (A.D. 211-17), is evident from Tertullian's address To Scapula, in which Severus is spoken of as already dead. But that "common enemy of mankind" was too much absorbed in his vices to trouble about the Christians, and persecution gradually stopped. Under the wicked Syrian emperor Elagabalus, nephew of Severus (A.D. 218-22), the Christians were also allowed peace. Elagabalus had been high-priest of the Sun at Emesa, in Syria, and now imported into Rome the lewdest excesses of the Syrian Sun and Astarte worship. He had a settled design of blending all worships with his own, and, as a step to this, every foreign religion, including Christianity, was tolerated.

Other influences may have been at work, for we find Hippolytus addressing a treatise to Julia Aquila, the second wife of the emperor. She may therefore be presumed not to have been unfriendly to Christianity. Elagabalus was cut off before the full effect of his plans could be seen, and the Church for the first time enjoyed a season of real favor and protection under his gentle and virtuous cousin, Alexander Severus (A.D. 222-35). 

Alexander profitably divided the hours of his day between private devotion, tireless attention to public business, the cultivation of his mind through literature and philosophy, manly exercises, and rational and refined discussions in the evenings. In religion he was an eclectic. The bust of Christ was placed in his private chapel alongside of those of other persons held in special reverence -- Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius, etc.; and he had inscribed on the walls of his palace and public monuments the maxim, "What you would not have others do to you, do not to them." This maxim, it is said, he was constantly repeating. Under the reign of such an emperor the position of Christianity was practically that of a legal religion. 

The mother of Alexander, Julia Mamaea, who exercised a considerable influence on the government, was also deeply interested in Christianity, and invited Origen to confer with her at Antioch. A reign like Alexander's, however, was naturally displeasing to the rude military, and an unfortunate Persian war led to his murder, and to the accession of the Thracian savage, Maximinus (A.D. 235-38). Under this tyrant occurred what is known as the sixth persecution. 

Maximinus seems to have been moved in his rage against the Church chiefly by hatred of his predecessor. His acts were directed at first only against the heads of the Churches. Origen, as a friend of Julia Mamaea, was marked as a victim, and had to flee from Caesarea. Anti-Christian fury, however, once let loose, did not readily confine itself within limits, and the Church suffered severely in different places, especially in Cappadocia and Pontus, where destructive earthquakes had awakened the passions of the populace. A beautiful work of Origen, On Martyrdom, relates to this persecution. 

The times of confusion that followed -- the reigns of the two Gordians, of Balbinus and Maximus, of Goridan III. (A.D. 238-44), yield nothing for our purpose. During this period the Christians enjoyed a respite, which was continued and even confirmed by the next emperor, Philip the Arabian (A.D. 244-49). Philip was the son of a Bedouin robber-chief -- called, therefore, "Philip the Robber " -but he has the distinction of figuring with some ecclesiastical writers as the first Christian emperor. Both he and his wife Severa had correspondence with Origen. It is certain that he looked with very favorable eyes on Christianity, without, however, showing any trace of its influence in his public conduct. At the great secular games, e.g. in celebration of the completion of the thousandth year of Rome's existence -- which was the great feature of his reign -- the ceremonies were entirely pagan. Philip was slain in conflict with Decius (A.D. 249). 

Progress of Christianity in this Period

The astonishingly rapid spread of Christianity in this age is one of the most remarkable facts about it. The apologetic writers, Tertullian and Origen, give the strongest expression to their consciousness of coming victory. "Men cry out," says Tertullian in his Apology, "that the state is besieged; the Christians are in the fields, in the ports, in the islands. They mourn, as for a loss, that every sex, age, condition and even rank is going over to this sect."  Origen, in the reign of Philip, writes, "Every form of religion will be destroyed except the religion of Christ, which will alone prevail. And indeed it will one day triumph, as its principles take possession of the minds of men more and more every day." (Against Celsus, 7. 68) With every allowance for rhetorical exaggeration, it remains evident that Christianity was taking root throughout the empire with a rapidity and vigor that astonished both friends and foes. The Church had spread, in greater or less measure, from Britain in the west to the Tigris in the east, from the Rhine in the north to the Libyan Desert in the south. It had extended itself in Gaul and Spain and North Africa, in Asia Minor, in Mesopotamia, in Arabia. It had penetrated across the Danube into the tribes of the barbarians. It included not only great numbers of the population, but persons of all ranks in society. There were Christians of high standing in the households of the emperors; the rebukes administered by Tertullian and Clement to the wealthy and luxurious in the Churches prove what other testimonies bear out, that many in these classes had received the Gospel. 

The very suddenness with which the existence of large and influential Churches like those of Carthage, Alexandria, and Lyons bursts upon us in this period is evidence of the marvelous energy of propagation Christianity was displaying. It is no wonder, then, that the writers of the period point exultantly to this astonishing progress and draw from it an argument for the divineness of their faith. The boast of Tertullian in his Apology is, it should be remembered, that of a contemporary: "We are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled every place belonging to you -- cities, islands, castles, towns, assemblies, your very camps, your tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum; we leave you your temples only. . . . All your ingenious cruelties can accomplish nothing. Our number increases the more you destroy us. The blood of the martyrs is their seed." (37, 50). However rhetorically colored, there must have been a strong basis of truth for such affirmations to get any acceptance. 

Development of the Idea of the Old Catholic Church

In its conflicts with Gnosticism and Montanism -- especially Gnosticism-- the Church was meanwhile undergoing an internal development which more than paralleled its marvelous outward extension. In combating Gnosticism, the Fathers were not waging war with an ordinary foe. They had, as we have already seen, to deal with a system which spurned the literal acceptance of the Gospel facts, and, under pretense of a higher wisdom, transformed them into a fantasy of its own creation; which attacked the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith -- the identity of the God of Creation and the God of Redemption, of the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, the true humanity of the Redeemer, the reality of sin and atonement, etc. In waging this conflict, moreover, they labored under the very peculiar difficulty that there was as yet no fixed canon of Scripture, no fixed creed, no fixed court of appeal in matters of faith such as the council afterwards became. 

What bulwark was to be reared against this innovating tide of speculation? A noted historian has pointed out that the idea formed in the Church which gave it firm footing in this sea of controversy was that of the "Apostolic."  If an idea or argument was Apostolic, it was considered true. But if an idea could not claim Apostolic lineage, it was not true. This thought was applied by the Fathers of the age especially in three ways. They applied it (1) to an apostolic collection of Scriptures -- the idea of a New Testament Canon. We have seen that the Gospels were already read in Justin's day in the ordinary service of the Church; collections of apostolic letters were also very early formed (2 Pet. 3. 16; cf. free use of epistles in Polycarp, etc.). Such collections, however, grew up naturally, informally, with a view to edification, and not with the idea of forming what we mean by a canon of Scripture for the whole Church. The conflict with Gnosticism gave a new turn to this conception. The first attempt at a formal canon of New Testament Scripture we know of was the mutilated canon of Marcion. 

 Other Gnostic and Ebionitic sects were flooding the Church with apocryphal writings. Under these circumstances, as well as to find a solid basis from which to repel the assaults of opponents, it was of the first importance for the Church, not only to gather the true Scriptures together, but to lay emphasis on that which gave them their claim to authority. This was their apostolic origin and character, i.e. their origin either directly from apostles or from men immediately belonging to the first apostolic circles, and having apostolic endorsement for their work. Thus sprang up in the latter part of the second century the conception of a definite canon of New Testament Scripture -- of a "New Testament," as it begins expressly to be called, which takes its place beside the "Old Testament" as of equal validity and authority with it. Lists are now drawn up of the sacred books, e,g, the Canon of Muratori; and the Fathers show the clearest consciousness of dealing with a code of writings of inspired character and authority. Tertullian is the first to use the name "New Testament," though the designation seems implied earlier in certain expressions of Melito of Sardis; Irenaeus usually speaks simply of the "Scriptures." 

The category of the apostolic was applied (2) to an apostolic "Rule of Faith" -- the idea of a traditional creed. It was soon manifest that in controversy with Gnostics the appeal to Scripture was not always so conclusive as it seemed. Even where Scripture was not rejected the Gnostics had their own way of interpreting it. Their use of allegorical methods (to which the Fathers themselves gave too much toleration) enabled them to get from the text as much support for their theories as they pleased. The question was no longer as to the canon of Scripture, but as to the sense to be drawn from Scripture when they had it. It was here that the Fathers stepped back from the written Word to the constant and steadfast tradition of the truth which had been maintained in the Church since apostolic days. From earliest times the Church had employed a simple baptismal confession. This had become enlarged till in the second century it assumed substantially the outline of our present Apostles' Creed. A form of this kind was certainly in use in the Church of Rome before the middle of the second century; and the forms in use in other Churches show, with variation and paraphrase, essential agreement. This form, gradually crystallizing into settled shape, was laid hold of by the Church and erected into a "rule of faith," which, standing behind Scripture, could be employed as a check on the wanton license of Gnostic interpretation. It was not intended to supersede Scripture, but to corroborate it; still it marks the introduction of that principle of "tradition," as regulative of faith, which, at a further remove from the primitive source, became the parent of so many abuses. 

Finally, this thought of the apostolic was applied (3) to an apostolic succession of office-bearers in the Church -- the idea of a continuous historic episcopate, viewed as depository and guardian of the tradition of the faith. It was not enough that there should be apostolic tradition; there must be some guarantee for the secure transmission and purity of the tradition. This was presumed to be found in the continuous succession of bishops from the days of the apostles. Lists of the succession of bishops in the greater Churches are carefully given by the Fathers in proof that this transmission of apostolic tradition is a possibility and reality. There is clearly here an unhistorical element; for it has already been shown that bishops, in the sense supposed, do not go back to apostolic days. It is in this form, i.e., as a guarantee for the purity of tradition, that the doctrine of an "Apostolic Succession" of bishops first enters. In the next period of the church it would develop ecclesiastic implications which were not yet present at this point. Already, however, there was, as the result of the above processes, the idea of a Catholic Church, i.e., a Church resting on the "Catholic and Apostolic Faith.”. This Church found its unity in the church hierarchy, which is regarded also as the depository and guardian of its sacred tradition. From this time, accordingly, the term "Catholic Church" -- already found in Ignatius, but simply in the sense of "universal” -- begins to be used (Tertullian, Clement, Muratorian fragments, etc.). It needs only the idea from Cyprian of the priestly character of its clergy to complete it.


Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2018, 1:10 PM