Reading: The Age of the Great Persecutions: Victory of Christianity A.D. 250-324 [continued] (The Early Church, Chapter 10)

This is the final chapter of our textbook from Dr. James Orr.  In this chapter we find a short survey of theologians, theological development, and organizational development in the Church.      

The Early Church



VICTORY OF CHRISTIANITY (Continued) (A.D. 260-324)

Establishment of Christianity 

Constantine's later Years

The Christians naturally were as men that dreamed at the great revolution which had taken place in the state of their affairs. By one turn of the wheel they saw themselves raised from the lowest depths of denigration and suffering, and their religion placed on the throne of the empire. 

When, however, we speak of the establishment of Christianity by Constantine, we must beware of importing into that phrase the associations of modern alliances of Church and State. On the one hand, the position of the Church in its relation to the empire was very different from that held by the pagan religion. The old Roman religion was part of the state; it had no independent existence, no rights, and no jurisdiction of its own. Its officers were state officials, and the emperor himself was Pontifex Maximus. In fact, the Roman state establishment was not abolished till the reign of the emperor Gratian, near the end of the century (A.D. 382). 

The Christian Church was in quite a different position. It had grown up independently of the state, and possessed a vast organization of its own. It had its own office-bearers, its own laws, its own canons of discipline, its own councils, etc.

It was a super-power inside the empire which the state did not create, but could only recognize. On the other hand, no formal alliance was entered into between Church and State such as we are familiar with in modem times. The establishment of Christianity was not an act done at once, but grew up from a series of proclamations, letters, edicts, enactments, gifts, appeals in disputes, meetings of councils, etc. It only gradually took shape as time went on. 

The following are some of the more important events: 

There were proclamations of the emperor, publicly announcing himself a Christian, restoring their liberty to the Christians, ordering restitution of property, and recommending the Christian religion to his subjects.

The emperor encouraged everywhere the building and repairing of churches, contributing liberally from his own funds to the expenses

He extended his Christian legislation and increased the privileges of the clergy. One important measure was the legalizing of the decisions of the Church in civil disputes where parties preferred to take their case before the bishops. Another was the conferring on the Church the right to receive bequests.

The public acts of the state were purified from pagan associations, and conformed to Christian principles. A law had already been passed in A.D. 321 enforcing the civil observance of Sunday (dies solis) to the extent of suspending all legal business and military exercises on that day.

The emperor exercised the authority which the Church conceded to him of summoning councils for the settlement of doctrinal disputes, and otherwise took part in ecclesiastical affairs. The chief example of this was the summoning of the great Council of Nicea, in A.D. 325, to decide the Arian controversy.

 While Christianity was thus protected and privileged, paganism was tolerated, or allowed to dwindle away under the shadow of royal disfavor, except in special instances, where rites of a licentious character were forcibly suppressed. 

These actions were substantial advantages to the Church; yet through them the Church was drawn into the sphere of earthly politics, and the ill-defined boundaries between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction led to the gravest evils.  At the same time, the victory of the Church in the state marks the beginning of an era of secularization and moral decline, to which Monasticism was a type of reaction. 

It does not fall within the limits of this sketch to recount the later events of Constantine's reign. Even in this later period it is just to acknowledge that Constantine is distinguished by many great and striking qualities. His life remains unstained by private vices; he maintained, with slight exception, the policy of toleration with which he set out; he took a sincere interest in the progress of the Christian cause, and labored to the best of his knowledge and ability for the peace and unity of the Church. Even the dark domestic tragedies of his life in A.D. 326 are too much wrapped in mystery to enable us to assign fairly the measure of blame which attaches to him. 

On the other hand, it is not difficult to see in him a growing personal estimation and pride in himself as an instrument chosen by God to fulfil His purposes -- a consciousness not sufficiently tempered by the feeling of personal unworthiness. With this tendency to personal pride went a strong dash of personal vanity and growing love of splendor, seen not only in the adornment of his person in robes of Oriental sumptuousness, but in the gratification of expensive tastes in building.

The most conspicuous example of this was the rearing of his new and splendid capital -- Constantinople, dedicated A.D. 330. The lavish expenditure on this city and on the gorgeous establishment of his court involved him in the necessity of imposing heavy taxation on his subjects, so that his reign came to be regarded as despotic and oppressive. Even on the subject of his blameworthy self -exaltation account should be taken of the temptations to which he was exposed, and of the extravagant adulation he received from the Christians around him. One of the most remarkable facts in his career is that while the patron of Christianity, the friend of bishops, judge of their controversies, president in their councils, a preacher and exhorter to Christian living, he himself did not receive baptism till the last days of his life in A.D. 337. We may, despite it all, find much in Constantine worthy of the great repute he has always had in the Church.  

The Church Outside the Empire 


The Gospel by the time now reached had penetrated into many countries outside the bounds of the Roman Empire. There had long been Christians in Arabia. A Gothic bishop was present at the Council of Nicaea. Armenia, under Tiridates, at first a violent persecutor, had been persuaded to receive the Gospel from Gregory the Illuminator about A.D. 302. Georgia received Christianity about A.D. 326. Persia, too, had large numbers of Christians, who were soon to undergo a fierce persecution. The Gospel found its way into Ethiopia (Abyssinia) through two captive youths, Edesius and Frumentius, one of whom afterwards, under Athanasius, became the bishop of the Church. 

In connection with Persia, notice must be taken of the rise in the latter part of the third century of the form of heresy known as Manichaeism. In general, Manichaeism is a mixture of Persian dualism with ideas borrowed from Christianity and Gnosticism. Its fanciful ideas might seem to put it beyond serious consideration; but it is to be remembered that it had fascination enough to enslave for nine years even such an intellect as Augustine's, and that, despite persecution, it went on propagating itself for centuries, giving rise to sects in the Middle Ages, which were significant trouble to the ruling powers. The rise of Manichaeism took place in the same era as the accession of a new Persian dynasty, and of a great revival of Zoroastrianism. 

The founder of the sect, Mani, was a young and talented Persian, who, under Sapor I, conceived the idea of bringing about a fusion of the Zoroastrian and Christian religions. He had to flee, and in the course of extensive travels to such places as India evolved his religious scheme into definite form. Returning to Persia on the death of Sapor, he met at first with a flattering reception, but finally was denounced as a heretic and flayed alive (A.D. 277?). The system is a piece of extravagant mythology from first to last. It starts with the dualistic conception of a Kingdom of Good (Light) and a Kingdom of Evil (Darkness).

The Kingdom of Evil invades the Kingdom of Good, and bears off from it a portion of its light substance. It is these particles of light imprisoned in the chaotic elements of this lower world which give to the latter its mingled character. The particles of light suffer acutely, it is taught, in being held in material bonds. The Manicheans spoke of this as the crucifixion of the Eternal Christ throughout creation. Creation (organization) is a method for the liberation of the light. Man is created by the evil powers that the higher elements of light might be more securely bound; but the concentration aids, instead of retarding, the process of evolution. Redemption is through a higher power (the "Primeval Man"), identified with the Spirit of the Sun, or Mithras. The end of the development is the total separation of the light from the darkness. Mani formed a Church, with two grades of members (1) the auditors, or outer circle; and (2) the elect or priestly caste, the "perfect" of the Manichean sect. These did no work, but were maintained by the auditors. Augustine wrote an elaborate refutation of the system. 


The Monarchian Heresies

 As the second century was the period of the Gnostic heresies, so the third century is pre-eminently the period of what are known as the Monarchian heresies. A brief connected account of these heresies is presented at this point. 

These heresies arose partly as a reaction against the doctrine of the Trinity, developed by the Apologists and Old Catholic Fathers, which seemed to put in jeopardy the unity --monarchia-- of God, and partly as a protest against the subordinationist doctrines of certain of the Fathers, which seemed to endanger the Christian teaching of the full divinity of the Son. 

The simplest form of reaction against Trinitarian views is an Ebionitic, humanitarian, or purely Unitarian view of Christ, and this we find developing itself in the end of the second century and beginning of the third. Jewish Ebionitism was described in the second chapter. In the Gentile Church we have an early form of Monarchianism in the Alogi who were deniers of the Logos. 

The Alogi were an obscure sect of Asia Minor, about A.D. 170, who rejected the Gospel of St. John.  At Rome pure Unitarianism was represented in the Theodotians under Victor and Zephyrinus (A.D. 190-218), and the Artemonites a few years later. Christ, in this view, was "mere man." The Artemonites were replied to in a book called The Little Labyrinth, by Caius, a Roman presbyter, who adduces against them the testimony of ancient hymns. 

More remarkable was the type of Monarchianism produced by the Christological interest. Here the aim was to make sure that in Christ humanity had no secondary or derived being, but the absolute God.  This was thought to be secured only by the assertion that in Christ the Father Himself had become incarnate and suffered. Hence the name Patripassians given to this party. The oldest representative of it we know of was Praxeas at Rome (about A.D. 177-90), against whom Tertullian wrote a treatise. Praxeas tried to explain that Christ, according to the flesh, was "Son," but the divine element in Him was the "Father." He based his thought upon the words, "I and My Father are one” (John 10. 30). A more subtle form of the same doctrine was taught under succeeding episcopates by Noetus (about A.D. 200) and his disciple Cleomenes. Noetus affirmed the capacity in God of existing in different modes. As ingenerate, God was Father; as generate, He was Son. Hippolytus wrote against Noetus. Both Tertullian and Hippolytus accuse the Roman bishops of the period of sympathy with this error. 

The defect of these theories was their failure to do justice to the Trinitarian distinction plainly involved in the New Testament doctrine of God. This fault was met in the Modalistic Trinitarianism of Sabellius -- the most completely evolved and longest enduring of these Monarchian heresies. Sabellius, a scholar from Libya according to St. Basil, is first met with in Rome under the episcopate of Zephyrinus (A.D. 202-18) as an adherent of Cleomenes. He was excommunicated by Callistus, whose own theology called for Patripassian. His heresy had a powerful revival in North Africa about A.D. 260, and reappeared in the fourth century as a reaction against Arianism. In principle its solution is the substitution of a Trinity of revelation for a Trinity of essence. Put another way, it is a Trinity of modes or aspects of the one Divine Being for a Trinity of Persons. The one God (Monas) expands and contracts in successive revelations, as the arm may be outstretched and drawn back again. God as revealed in the Law is the Father, Jesus Christ is God as the Son, in the indwelling in believers God is the Spirit. The incarnation is thus a passing mode of God's manifestation. Pushed to its issue, it means nothing more than a dynamic presence of God in the soul of Christ. 

This yields the transition to the last phase of Monarchian doctrine, viz., the dynamic Unitarianism of Paul of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch, A.D. 260-70. Paul was a vain, ostentatious, theatrical man. There are a number of stories about him which discredit his stature as bishop. He held, like the earlier Unitarians, that Christ was mere man, but affirmed a union of the Divine Logos (or reason) with Christ in a degree which cannot be said of any other. Through this interpenetration by the Divine power Christ advances by "progressive development" till He becomes God, or is raised to Divine rank. Deity here only means that Christ was deemed worthy for His peculiar excellence of Divine honors -- not that He became God in nature. It was deification by God's good pleasure. Two influential synods were held at Antioch on the subject of Paul's heresy (A.D. 264 and 269), at the second of which he was condemned. He continued to live in his bishop's palace and insisted on being given a bishop's dignities till he was forcibly expelled three years later (A.D. 272). 

Church Teachers and Literature of the Period 

The Church teachers of this period are not men of the mental stature of the great Fathers of the previous age. But they are interesting characters, and took an active part in the Church life of their day. Among the Greek writers, the chief interest centers in the school of Origen -- the Alexandrian school -- graced by such names as Dionysius of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Firmilian of Cappadocia, and Pamphilus of Caesarea. 

Dionysius of Alexandria has already been mentioned as a witness to the facts of the Decian persecution. He was a man of the utmost mildness and conciliatory disposition.  On this account his advice and mediation were much sought after in the various disputes of the Church. He was born about A.D. 190 of wealthy parents, and in early life was brought to faith in Christ. He attached himself to Origen. He was made presbyter in A.D. 233. He became head of the catechetical school in Alexandria and in A.D. 247 or 248 was elected bishop. He suffered loss and exile in the Decian and Valerian persecutions, but returned at the peace under Gallienus. He died A.D. 265. A good many fragments of his works and some of his letters remain to us. 

Similar to Dionysius in some respects was a second great pupil of Origen -- Gregory Thaumaturgus, which means "the wonder-worker.” Gregory's original name was Theodorus, and his surname was given him on account of the repute he came to have as a miracle-worker. The accounts of these miracles, however, are late. In a published speech (in rhetoric called a panegyric) on Origen delivered when leaving the school at Caesarea, he gives a full account of his life up to that time. He was born at Neo-Caesarea, in Pontus, about A.D. 210, of noble and wealthy parents. When stopping off in Caesarea on his way to law school in Beirut, he was seized by the genius of Origen. Gregory became Origen's most devoted disciple. His soul became knit to Origen, as he says, like the soul of Jonathan to David. He remained with Origen five years (c. A.D. 233-38). About A.D. 240 he became bishop of his native city, and had such success that, at his death about A.D. 270, it is said there were only seventeen pagans remaining. His evangelizing activity was incessant, but he erred in too great concession to pagan customs. Like all Origen's pupils, Gregory was a man of a liberal, candid, and cultured mind. He was motivated by a strong love of truth, and of earnest and glowing piety. Several of his genuine writings remain to us. 

Firmilian, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, was one of the most influential bishops of his time, but does not seem to have written much. Origen took refuge with him during the persecution of Maximin in A.D. 235. A letter to Cyprian denouncing Stephen of Rome is all we have from his pen. 

Mention must be made finally of a member of the school of Alexandria who did splendid service to the cause of sacred learning in the end of the third century -- Pamphilus of Caesarea, founder of the famous library in that city, and friend of Eusebius. Pamphilus was a native of Phoenicia, and, like the others named, came from a wealthy family. He studied at Alexandria under Pierius, and there developed an unbounded admiration for Origen. When he moved to Csesarea, he devoted himself to the great task of his life -- the collection and copying of MSS. of the Scriptures, of commentaries, and other works of value. The literary treasures thus amassed were of priceless worth, and furnished Eusebius with ample material for his literary undertakings. In the fifth year of the Diocletian persecution Pamphilus was thrown into prison, and was finally martyred, with eleven others, in A.D. 309. He co-wrote with Eusebius an elaborate work entitled, The Defense of Origen. So intense was Eusebius's admiration of this good man -- "the holy and blessed Pamphilus," as he calls him -- that after his martyrdom, Eusebius adopted his name as part of his own. 

Origen, however, had also his opponents, of whom the principal was Methodius, Bishop of Olympius, in Lycia (later of Tyre), who perished under Maximin about A.D. 311. We have a manuscript from his hand which is a mystical dialogue in praise of virginity entitled, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins. Only fragments remain of his attacks on Origen's views of creation, pre-existence, the resurrection, etc. 

We mentioned earlier that the Alexandrian theologians were speculative, idealizing, Platonizing, and allegorizing in their tendency. They were liberal in their whole attitude to culture. Before the century closed, however, we note the beginnings of another school -- the Antiochian -- which was to have a long and influential history as the rival of the Alexandrian School. 

This second school is marked from the beginning by a sober, matter-of-fact tendency, a preference of Aristotelian philosophy to Platonism, and an adherence to a strictly grammatical and historical method of exegesis. Its founder was Lucian, who, like the heretical bishop Paul, was a native of Samosata. Lucian himself fell under suspicion of unsound views, and was separated from the Church during three episcopates. He was restored to the Church, carried on his school with distinguished success, and finally crowned his career by a heroic martyrdom in A.D. 311 or 312. His preferred method was exegetical, and his style of exegesis was grammatical and literal. His school is the supposed source of the Arian heresy. Later it had such distinguished representatives as Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret. A creed attributed to Lucian was presented to a Council of Antioch in A.D. 341. 

The Latin writers of the period may be more summarily alluded to.  One was Commodian (about A.D. 250) who wrote Instructions for Christian Living, and an apologetic poem against Jews and Gentiles, both done in poorly executed Latin hexameters. A little earlier Julius Africanus (died about A.D. 240), the first Christian chronographer, had drawn up a work, in five books, setting forth the course of sacred and profane history till the reign of Elagabalus. 

The two Latin writers who belong properly to our period are Arnobius and Lactantius, both apologists in the time of the Diocletian persecution. The apology of Arnobius, a teacher of rhetoric, Against the Nations, is in seven books. As might be expected in a recent convert, his work is not very mature in Christian doctrine. It is, however, an able, learned, and convincing defense of the Christians from many of the objections brought against them, and an effective enough exposure of the folly of idolatry. Arnobius lays stress on the unique and well-attested character of Christ's miracles and the excellence of the Christian morality. Lactantius is reputed the most classical and elegant of all the Christian writers. His apologetic work, The Divine Institutes, in seven books, was, in its finished form, dedicated to Constantine. He wrote also a work, On the Death of the Persecutors, narrating the judgments of God on the persecutors of the Christians from Nero onwards. He died in old age, about A.D. 330. 

A last name to be noticed is that of the Greek writer and great Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who, though he belongs properly to the next age, begins his activity in this one. He is indeed the link between the old and the new order. He was born about A.D. 260. His early associations are with Caesarea, of which city he became bishop about A.D. 315. He held this position till his death in A.D. 339 or 340. Eusebius was a man of extraordinary learning and industry, and his works form a little library of themselves. They are of all classes -- historical, apologetic, exegetical, critical, doctrine, orations, etc. Reference need only be made here to his Ecclesiastical History which covered the history of the Church extending from the birth of Christ to the defeat of Licinius in A.D. 323. He also wrote two apologetic works, the Evangelical Preparation in fifteen volumes, and the Evangelical Demonstration in twenty books. His Life of Constantine is a panegyric rather than a biography, yet important for facts. The works of Eusebius are often unfocussed and poorly arranged. He has little independent merit as a theologian, and inclines to laxity of opinion. He plays the courtier with too much success to "our pious emperor.” Yet his writings are invaluable as sources of information, and for the extracts they preserve. In his use of citations of authorities, he shows himself most accurate, painstaking and faithful -- an academic virtue of the first rank. 

Points in Church Constitution and Worship 

The chief matters to be mentioned here may be gathered up under a few heads. 

Church Buildings

These became common in the course of the third century, and were greatly multiplied after the victory of Constantine. The model usually followed was that of the Roman basilica. The basilica was a building of oblong shape, which served the double purpose of a hall of justice and public space. The body of the building consisted of a central portion or nave and side aisles, one or more, separated off by pillars. At the upper end, in a semi-circular recess, were the praetor's chair (the praetor being the chief magistrate of Rome's authority), the seats of the judges, and in front the altar, where incense was burned and oaths were taken. This form of building readily adapted itself to Christian purposes. The larger churches stood in a court or atrium surrounded by colonnades. The doors opened into a vestibule or narthex which was as far as penitents were permitted to approach. The congregation assembled in the nave or broad middle part of the church. At the upper end a railed-off portion called the chancel was reserved for the choir and lower orders of clergy. Here also on one side stood the pulpit. Finally, the semi-circular part formed the special sanctuary. The praetor's seat became the bishop's throne; around him sat the presbyters and deacons; the altar in front became the communion table (now also called altar), etc. In the more splendid churches all the parts, doors, pillars, apse and galleries, were finely adorned. In contradiction to later practice the church was sometimes so placed that the rising sun might strike upon its front. 

Development of Church Offices

In the third century Church offices became greatly multiplied. The clergy were now divided into two groups -- the Greater Orders, consisting of bishops, presbyters and deacon; and the Lesser Orders  consisting of sub-deacons, readers, acolytes (attendants on the bishop), exorcists, precentors, door-keepers, catechists, etc. The distinction between clergy and laity was now firmly established. 

Development of Church Service

 If we may trust the oldest liturgies (those in, for example, the so-called Apostolic Constitutions from fourth century), the Church service had by the end of the third century become highly liturgical and elaborate. The service was now divided into two parts -- catechumens, penitents, etc., being dismissed before the Eucharistic celebration began. The Eucharistic service itself was highly complex and ornate, including long prayers, responses, and prescribed actions of the priest. The clergy had distinctive vestments. Festival days were now observed -- especially Easter and Pentecost. The whole period between these feasts was apparently observed as a time of gladness. Music in the Church was more highly developed. We have met with references to hymns, and there were now regular choristers and conductors. Baptism was generally connected with Easter and Pentecost. Certain rites had gradually become connected with the original baptismal ceremony. Liturgical actions such as immersing the head three times, making the sign of the cross on the forehead and breast, giving the baptized person milk and honey, placing anointing oil  on the head,  the wearing of a white robe, etc. The practice of exorcism had also become part of the ritual. Shortly before baptism the creed was imparted to the catechumen as a sort of password. Baptism in grave cases of sickness was administered by sprinkling. 

The discipline of the Church was also made more elaborate. This followed from the prominence given to the idea of penance for the removal of post-baptismal sin. Penitents were now regularly classified into weepers (who prostrated themselves at church doors imploring restoration), hearers (who were allowed to hear the Scripture lessons and sermon), kneelers (who were admitted to the prayers, but in a kneeling posture), and standers (who were allowed to take part in the whole worship standing). The course of probation was often three or four years. 

Development of Church Councils  

Meetings of this kind sprang up informally in the latter half of the second century. They were at first quite local, one bishop inviting other bishops and clergy to confer with him on matters of common concern, and their decisions had no binding force on other churches. In these early councils presbyters and laymen took part as well as bishops; but it seems only the bishops voted. As councils assumed a more regular character they came to be distinguished into different kinds. 1) There was the parochial council of the bishop and the clergy of his city. 2) There were provincial councils, attended by the clergy of a whole province. These were generally held in the metropolitan city, and the bishop of that city presided. 3) Tertullian speaks of councils of a whole region or national councils. 4) Finally, when the empire became Christian, and the emperor himself undertook the summoning of councils, there became possible councils of the whole Church which were called ecumenical councils. The first of these was the Nicene (A.D. 325). In reality, these were almost exclusively Greek councils. The decrees of the councils were now imposed by the emperors. As examples of councils may be mentioned those in Asia Minor about the Montanists and Easter, those in North Africa on heretical baptism, those in Antioch about Paul of Samosata, and the Council of Aries against the Donatists, the Council of Elvira in Spain (A.D. 306). 

Gradations of Rank in the Episcopate Itself

These sprung from the meetings of councils and other causes in the state of the Church. The bishops of the metropolitan cities soon attained by reason of their geographic position a higher rank than other bishops, and were known as metropolitans. The approval of the metropolitan came ultimately to be necessary to validate the election of another bishop. This was followed in the fourth century by the elevation of the bishops of certain Churches deemed worthy of special honor to the wider jurisdiction of patriarchs. Such Churches were Antioch, Alexandria and Rome, to which Constantinople as the new Rome, and Jerusalem were subsequently added -- five in all. 

Our sketch has brought us to the triumph of Constantine, and formal adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire. Before, however, this consummation was reached, the Arian controversy had broken out (A.D. 318), and the Church was in flames from within, to the delight of the pagan on-lookers, and the intense chagrin of the emperor, who had hoped to find in this monotheistic faith a bond of peace in his dominions. The Nicene Council in A.D. 325 did little more than open new controversies. These occupied the attention of the world and Church for half a century.  Narrow-minded imperial interference made matters worse. Over all the storms stands the noble figure of Athanasius, who appears already upon the scene before our period closes. To him the Church owes nearly all its real guidance in the distractions of the age that follows. On the verge of this new era we cease our tale. 

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