Reading: Unit 10 Lecture Transcripts & Illustrations

Unit 10 Lecture 1

The material for this lecture can be found in the library of the Christian History Institute. I am using their article to think about the growth of Christianity even while the church was undergoing severe persecution. In an area of the world known as Armenia. This is a nation that today lies between Iran, Azerbijan, Turkey and Georgia. It has the distinction of being the first nation as a nation to adopt Christianity. It has a long history as a church. Here is a little bit of its early history.


ONLY A WEEK PRIOR TO HIS ATTACK on Poland in September, 1939, Adolf Hitler reportedly delivered a secret talk to members of his General Staff, urging them to wipe out the Polish race. “After all,” he argued, “who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?”

Hitler was referring to the genocide of nearly 1.5 million Armenian Christians at the hands of Ottoman Turks from 1915 to 1923 in what is now eastern Turkey. Turkish authorities deny the atrocities ever took place, but the story of bloodbath in Armenia is one of the well-documented tragedies of our time.

Still, it’s unfortunate that Armenia (today located directly east of Turkey and west of the Caspian Sea) is now known for this story above any other. It says nothing about the people of Armenia, or the part they have played in global Christianity. For contribute they did, in a manner that might surprise even a seasoned church historian.


No man has more stature in the Armenian church today than Gregory the Illuminator. While not the first to bring Christianity to Armenia, Gregory is, at least in the minds of Armenians, the nation’s spiritual father and the people’s patron saint.

Born into a wealthy family around 257, Gregory nevertheless had a rough beginning—his biographer, Agathangelos, tells us Gregory’s father murdered the Armenian king and paid for it with his life. But the boy was rescued from the chaos following the murder, and his new guardians raised him as a Christian in Cappadocia (east-central Turkey). There, according to Agathangelos, Gregory “became acquainted with the Scriptures of God, and drew near to the fear of the Lord.”

When Gregory’s tutors told him of his father’s wickedness, Gregory approached the murdered king’s son, Tiridates, to offer his service (all the while concealing his identity). Tiridates accepted Gregory’s offer, but when Gregory refused to worship Anahit, an idol the king had raised in gratitude for military successes, Tiridates became furious: “You have come and joined us as a stranger and foreigner. How then are you able to worship that God whom I do not worship?”

Tiridates tortured Gregory, hanging him upside-down and flogging him, then fastening blocks of wood to his legs and tightening them. When these tactics failed, he tried even more gruesome measures. Still the saint refused to bow the knee. Tiridates then learned that Gregory was the son of his father’s murderer, and he ordered that the missionary be thrown into a “bottommost pit” filled with dead bodies and other filth. There Gregory sat for 13 years, surviving only on bread a widow threw down each day after receiving instruction to do so in a dream.


At about this time a beautiful woman named Rhipsime arrived in Armenia, fleeing an enforced marriage to the Roman emperor Diocletian. Tiridates took a liking to her too, and took her forcibly when she refused to come to him. But “strengthened by the Holy Spirit,” she fought off his advances and escaped. Furious, Tiridates ordered her execution, and that night Rhipsime burned at the stake. Her abbess Gaiane soon followed her in death, along with 35 other companions.

The king, still lusting after Rhipsime, mourned her death for six days, then prepared to go hunting. But God visited on him a horrible punishment—Agathangelos calls it demon possession—reducing him to insanity and throwing his court into chaos. Tiridates’ sister had a vision to send for Gregory, imprisoned so long ago. People laughed at the idea Gregory might still be alive, but recurrent visions finally convinced a nobleman, Awtay, to visit his pit. Astonished to find the missionary living, Awtay brought him to meet the king, who was feeding with swine outside the city.

Tiridates, along with other possessed members of his court, rushed at Gregory. But Gregory “immediately knelt in prayer, and they returned to sobriety.” Tiridates then pleaded for Gregory’s forgiveness, and the king and his whole court repented of their sin and confessed faith in Christ.


Scholars disagree over how much Agathangelos’s history can be taken at face-value. After all, he wrote his book in 460 (Tiridates is believed by Armenians to have converted in 301), and much of his story has elements of hagiography that lead one to wonder whether the events ever happened. But even skeptics acknowledge that Gregory was a real person with considerable ecclesiastical influence in Armenia—the signature of his son and successor Aristakes can be found among those ratifying the Council of Nicaea in 325. And even if we can document little about the man, his pre-eminence among Armenia’s heroes of the faith is unassailable.

Why? First, Gregory persuaded the king to build a string of churches across Armenia, beginning with Holy Etchmiadzin— according to some scholars the oldest cathedral site in the world and an important pilgrimage site for all Armenians. The seat of the Armenian church would pass to other cities, but Gregory “established” Christianity in Armenia via this church.

Gregory also introduced Christian liturgy to Armenia. These rites consisted of psalmody, scriptural readings, and prayers recited in Greek or Syriac. After Mesrop Mashtots invented an Armenian alphabet at the beginning of the fifth century, both the Bible and the liturgy were translated into the Armenian language.

Most importantly, Gregory set in motion the mass conversion of Armenia to Christianity. According to Agathangelos, the king ordered all pagan shrines to be torn down, and Gregory proceeded to baptize more than 190,000 people into the new faith. Whether the nation converted as quickly as Agathangelos implies is difficult to discern. Certainly by the fifth century, Armenia was well on its way to becoming a “Christian” nation.

Armenia is an ancient—if not the oldest—model for what we now call Christendom. Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette notes that the Armenian church “was an instance of what was to be seen again and again, a group adoption of the Christian faith engineered by the accepted leaders and issuing in an ecclesiastical structure which became identified with a particular people, state, or nation.”

Certainly the Roman Empire is a prime example of this, but Armenia is at least as old, and perhaps a more impressive example given the invasions and persecution it endured at the hands of the Turks (and before them, Arabs and Persians). Indeed even Byzantium attempted to bring Armenia within its orbit, but the nation resisted, arguing that its apostolic origins were on par with Rome.

So lest you assume Rome is our first example of Christendom, think again. Long may Armenia’s church endure.




Unit 10 Lecture 2

In the mid-third century – around the year 250, two brothers set off with their sister for the region we today would call Palestine. The brothers were conducting their sister to Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast to join her husband and they were going to head for Lebanon to go to a philosophical school there. Here is the story of one of them as told by Christian history institute.


FOR MANY PEOPLE from the ancient world, the only date we know in their lives is the date of their death. With Gregory the Wonder Worker, we are not even sure of that. Despite his fame and the transformation of Neocaesarea while he worked as bishop there, we have only a traditional date for his death, which is supposed to have taken place on this day, 17 November 270. 

Gregory was born into a prosperous pagan home around 212 and his parents named him Theodore—Gift of God. (He changed his name after becoming a Christian.) They wanted him to become a lawyer. Gregory and his brother Athenodorus planned to attend a famous law school in Lebanon. On the way, they first had to escort their sister to rejoin her husband, who was a government official assigned to Caesarea in Palestine. 

While in Caesarea, they made a life-changing decision. The famous theologian Origen was newly arrived from Egypt. They decided to check him out and “were held spell-bound by his disquisitions on the true aims of life.” Impressed with Origen’s oratorical skill, his virtuous life, and brilliance, they became his pupils. Origen soon converted them to Christianity, and for at least five years they studied theology and philosophy with him. On departing, Gregory made a lengthy and pompous oration of thanks to Origen. 

When Gregory headed home, he still planned to practice oratory, but also wanted to write a book proving the truth of Christianity. As far as we know, he never followed through on the second project. Nor did he become a lawyer. Instead, he became bishop. According to tradition, there were just seventeen Christians in Neoceasarea when Gregory arrived. This little group persuaded him to lead them. At the time, Neocaesarea was a wicked, idolatrous province. His methods for reaching it with the gospel resembled modern ones.  He arranged games on martyrs’ days and tended the sick. God granted him such success as a healer that many people came to Christ. His cures were considered miracles and from the earliest times he was known as Gregory Thaumaturgus, “Wonder Worker.” 

Gregory expected Christianity to triumph through the sheer joy of its message. Instead of pagan cynicism and despair, it offered hope:

And if any one does not believe that death is abolished, that Hades is trodden under foot, that its chains are broken, that the tyrant is bound, let him look on the martyrs deporting themselves in the presence of death, and taking up the jubilant strain of the victory of Christ. O the marvel! Since the hour when Christ despoiled Hades, men have danced in triumph over death.

The transformation in Neocaesarea was astonishing. If there were only seventeen Christians when Gregory came, at his death it was said there remained only seventeen pagans.


Unit 10 Lecture 2

This next segment is taken from what is called the Book of the Apostolic Constitutions. This is a work which has been handed down through the centuries which gives us a look at the church order of the church in the year 250 or so. It seems to have originated in Syrian Antioch, but that is mostly conjecture. I will be reading a small segment of it as found in the Christian classics ethereal Library.  This section is about helping others in the church who are suffering due to persecutions.



  1. If any Christian, on account of the name of Christ, and love and faith towards God, be condemned by the ungodly to the games, to the beasts, or to the mines, do not ye overlook him; but send to him from your labour and your very sweat for his sustenance, and for a reward to the soldiers, that he may be eased and be taken care of; that, as far as lies in your power, your blessed brother may not be afflicted: for he that is condemned for the name of the Lord God is an holy martyr, a brother of the Lord, the son of the Highest, a receptacle of the Holy Spirit, by whom every one of the faithful has received the illumination of the glory of the holy Gospel, by being vouchsafed the incorruptible crown, and the testimony of Christ’s sufferings, and the fellowship of His blood, to be made conformable to the death of Christ for the adoption of children. For this cause do you, all ye of the faithful, by your bishop, minister to the saints of your substance and of your labour. But if any one has not, let him fast a day, and set apart that, and order it for the saints. But if any one has superfluities, let him minister more to them according to the proportion of his ability. But if he can possibly sell all his livelihood, and redeem them out of prison, he will be blessed, and a friend of Christ. For if he that gives his goods to the poor be perfect, supposing his knowledge of divine things, much more is he so that does it on account of the martyrs. For such a one is worthy of God, and will fulfil His will by supplying those who have confessed Him before nations and kings, and the children of Israel; concerning whom our Lord declared, saying: “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father.”2972 And if these be such as to be attested to by Christ before His Father, you ought not to be ashamed to go to them in the prisons. For if you do this, it will be esteemed to you for a testimony, because the real trial was to them a testimony; and your readiness will be so to you, as being partakers of their combat: for the Lord speaks somewhere to such as these, saying: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungry, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer, and say, Lord, when saw we Thee an hungered, and fed Thee? or thirsty, and gave Thee drink? When saw we Thee naked, and clothed Thee? or sick, and visited Thee? When saw we Thee a stranger, and took Thee in? or in prison, and came unto Thee? And He will answer and say unto them, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And these shall go away into life everlasting. Then shall He say unto them on His left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer and say, Lord when saw we Thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto Thee? Then shall He answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have not done it unto one of the least of these, neither have ye done it unto me. And these shall go away unto everlasting punishment.

 Now I want to share with you prayers from the apostolic constitutions. There are three of them – one is a model for morning prayers, one an evening prayer and one for a prayer at dinner. They follow:


XLVII. “Glory be to God in the highest, and upon earth peace, good-will among men.”3544 We praise Thee, we sing hymns to Thee, we bless Thee; we glorify Thee, we worship Thee by Thy great High Priest; Thee who art the true God, who art the One Unbegotten, the only inaccessible Being. For Thy great glory, O Lord and heavenly King, O God the Father Almighty, O Lord God,3545 the Father of Christ the immaculate Lamb, who taketh away the sin of the world, receive our prayer, Thou that sittest upon the cherubim. For Thou only art holy, Thou only art the Lord Jesus, the Christ of the God of all created nature, and our King, by whom glory, honour, and worship be to Thee.  


XLVIII. “Ye children, praise the Lord: praise the name of the Lord.”3546 We praise Thee, we sing hymns to Thee, we bless Thee for Thy great glory, O Lord our King, the Father of Christ the immaculate Lamb, who taketh away the sin of the world. Praise becomes Thee, hymns become Thee, glory becomes Thee, the God and Father,3547 through the Son, in the most holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen. “Now, O Lord, lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”3548  


XLIX. Thou art blessed, O Lord, who nourishest me from my youth, who givest food to all flesh. Fill our hearts with joy and gladness, that having always what is sufficient for us, we may abound to every good work, in Christ Jesus our Lord, through whom3549 glory, honour, and power be to Thee for ever. Amen.  


Unit 10 Lecture 3

Graffiti emblazoned on walls, a vicious war of pamphlets, riots in the streets, lawsuits, catchy songs of ridicule … It's hard for modern Christians to imagine how such public turmoil could be created by an argument between theologians—or how God could work through the messiness of human conflict to bring the church to an understanding of truth.

To us, in retrospect, the Council of Nicaea is a veritable mountain in the landscape of the early church. For the protagonists themselves, it was more in the nature of an emergency meeting forced on hostile parties by imperial power and designed to stop an internal row. After the council, many of the same bishops who had signed its creed appeared at other councils, often reversing their previous decisions according to the way the winds of preferment were blowing. They found themselves less in a domain of monumental clarity and more in a swamp of confusing arguments and controversies that at times seemed to threaten the very continuity of the Christian church. To understand the significance of the Council of Nicaea, we need to enter into the minds of the disputants and ask why so much bitterness and confusion had been caused by one apparently simple question: in what way is Jesus divine? Of course, like many "simple" questions, this was a highly complex and provocative issue. Theologians of that era were almost beside themselves when they found that Scripture often gave very different-sounding notes when they applied to it for guidance. The disagreements this "simple" question provoked made many of the greatest minds of the era wonder to what extent the Christian doctrines of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit were coherent, and even to what extent Christians could trust in the canon of sacred text (which had hitherto seemed to them sufficient as an exposition of the faith).

In many ways, therefore, Nicaea reminds us of the present era. Rather than being a symbol of clarity, peace, and order, it was a call to a difficult focusing of mind across a church that was often as muddled and confused as ours seems still to be.


How does "one God" fit with "Lord Jesus"?

The argument began innocently enough with a regular seminar that Alexander, the archbishop of Alexandria [see Saints and Heretics], was accustomed to hold with his senior clergy.

Alexander was a follower of Ongen [see Issue #80: The First Bible Teachers] who, a century beforehand, had laid the basis for a vast mystical understanding of the relationship of the divine Logos to the Eternal Father. Logos was the word the Greek Bible had used to translate "Divine Wisdom," and it was also widely used in Greek philosophical circles to signify the divine power immanent within the world. To many Christians, it seemed a marvelous way to talk about the Eternal Son of God and became almost a synonym for the Son.

Like Origen, Alexander saw the Logos as sharing the divine attributes of the Father, especially that of eternity. The Logos, he argued, had been "born of God before the ages." Since God the Father had decided to use the Logos as the medium and agent of all creation (e.g. John 1:1, Ephesians 1:4, Colossians 1:15-17), it followed that the Son-Logos pre-existed creation. Since time was a consequence of creation, the Son pre-existed all time and was thus eternal like the Father, and indeed his timelessness was one of the attributes that manifested him as the divine Son, worthy of the worship of the church. Since he was eternal there could be no "before" or "after" in him. It was inappropriate, therefore, to suggest that there was ever a time when the Son did not exist.

God was eternally a Father of a Son, Alexander argued, and just as the Father had always existed, so too the Son had always existed and was thus known to be "God from God." The Christological confessions about the Son (later to be inserted into the creed of Nicaea),"Born not created, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God," all made this clear. It was at once a high and refined scholarly confession of the faith and a popular prayer that summed up how Christians could be monotheists even as they worshipped the Son along with the Father.

Alexander knew that he was pushing the envelope of the traditional "high Christology" of his church by explaining how Christ's divinity could no longer be understood in the old simplistic ways of a "lesser divinity" alongside a "greater divinity." Alexander wanted to distinguish clearly between Christian and pagan theology by arguing that divinity is an absolute term (like pregnancy) that allows no degrees. One cannot say that the Son is "half God" or "part God" without making the very notion of deity into a mythical conception.

Given this development, many traditional Christian pieties would need to be re-forged in the fourth century. People sensed that they were on the cusp of a major new development—but they were not always quite sure what was happening, and more to the point, they lacked a precise or widely agreed-upon vocabulary to explain to themselves (and others) what exactly was going on.

Theological niceties—or the essence of Christianity?

One of Alexander's senior priests, the presbyter Arius was scandalized at the direction in which his bishop was taking theological language. Arius, who had charge of the large parish of Baucalis in the city's dock- land, had also been an intellectual disciple of Origen but had taken a different strand of that early theologian's variegated legacy.

As was typical among third-century thinkers, Origen had a deeply ingrained sense of the absolute primacy of God over all other beings. This meant that the Father was superior to the Son in all respects—in terms of essence, attributes, power, and quality. The Son might be called divine in so far as he represented the Father to the created world as the supreme agent of the creation (something like one of the greatest of all angelic powers), but he was decidedly inferior to the Father in all respects. This meant that the Son did not possess absolute timelessness, which was a sole attribute of God the Father.

Thinking that he was defending "traditional values," Arius pressed that insight of Origen's even further. The Son-Logos, Arius allowed, might well have pre-dated the rest of creation, but it was inappropriate to imagine that he shared the divine pre-existence. Thus, it was important to confess the principle that "there was a time when he (the Logos) was not." Arius quickly put this axiom into a rhyme, which he taught his parishioners and so made it into a party cause. Soon slogans were ringing round the docklands, and the diocese of Alexandria was in serious disarray. Arius' supporters chanted, "Een pote hote ouk een," and wrote the slogan on the walls. Overnight Alexander's camp added a Greek negative to the beginning: "Ouk een pete ouk een": "There was never a time when he was not!"

Everyone, skilled theologian or not, seemed to have been caught by surprise that a controversy over so basic a matter (was the Son of God divine? And how?) could have arisen in the church, and even more surprised that recourse to Scripture was proving so problematic. For every text that showed the divine status of the Son ("1 and the Father are One," John 10:30; "And the Word was God," John 1:1), another could be quoted back to suggest the subordinate, even the created, status of the Son ("In the beginning he created me (Wisdom)," Proverbs 8:22; "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone," Mark 10:18). If Jesus was not fully God, he was not really God at all, and thus to worship him was not piety but simply idolatry.

Alexander (applying good pastoral sense) would not allow a theologian's dispute to mushroom out publicly in this alarming way, so he censured Arius for appearing to deny the Son's eternity and true divinity and deposed him from his priestly office. Arius immediately appealed against that disciplinary decision to one of the most powerful bishops of the era, Eusebius of Nicomedia a kinsman by marriage to Constantine the emperor Arius and Eusebius had been students together and shared a common theological view. Eusebius, the court theologian at the imperial capital, knew that if Arius was being attacked then so was he. From that moment onwards he was determined to squash what he regarded as a "foolish Egyptian piety." By elevating the Son of God to the same status as God the Father, he argued, Christianity would compromise its claim to be a monotheist religion. He marshaled many supporters.

There is much more to tell in this story which leads us to the first of the great ecumenical councils. Please read the whole story in this week’s readings.

Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 8:44 AM