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The Church from Christ

to Constantine

In this lesson we will examine the major developments and characteristics in church life during what is called The Age of Apologetics (a.d. 95-325), with emphasis on how these events contributed to the rise of the Roman church in particular.

The Age of Apologetics (a.d. 95-325)

A.        The Early Relationship between Church and State

The Roman Empire into which the Church was born initially provided ideal conditions for the existence and growth of the new faith. This great and powerful commonwealth stretched from England to Persia and from the Sahara to Northwestern Germany. The church was aided by two phenomena:

1)         The Pax Romana, or Peace of Rome, which provided a relatively equitable system of law, adequate means of transportation and communication, sufficient military stability, a common linguistic bridge (most cultured Romans spoke both Greek and Latin), and a relatively adequate standard of living and culture.

2)         The initial identification by the State of the Jewish and Christian communities secured for the latter a much needed arm of protection. The Jewish faith was tolerated in the Empire and held the cherished designation of religio licita or lawful religion. Those sects that proved to be a threat to the state were labeled religio illicita or unlawful religion. The church thrived under the protective umbrella of its association with Judaism for almost 30 years.

B.        Factors contributing to the Persecution of the Church

Eventually it became evident to Rome that the church was distinct from Judaism and posed what they perceived to be a threat to the social fabric of the empire. The causes for Rome's reversal of policy toward the church are many.

1.         Political Factors

a.         Because of the ever widening rift between the Christian and Jewish communities, Christianity was soon labeled as religio illicita and thus perceived as a potential threat to the well-being of the state.

b.         Christians were not persecuted because they worshipped Jesus. They were persecuted because they did not worship the emperor (which was regarded as a test of political loyalty). As long as one burned a pinch of incense to Caesar, he/she could go home and worship any deity they pleased.

Kurios Kaisar versus Kurios Iesous

2.         Religious Factors

a.         The contrasting nature of Roman religion (mechanical, external, ritualistic, with its multitude of altars, idols, and processionals) and the Christian faith (invisible deity, internal, spiritual) led the state to regard the latter as atheistic!

b.         Because the meetings of the Christian community were secretive and at night, rumors of political conspiracy and treason were rampant. The increasing organizational structure of the church served to fan the flames of civil suspicion.

c.         The designation of the church gatherings as agape or love feasts led to charges of orgiastic practices and extreme immorality.

d.         The Christian custom of calling one another brother and sister, along with the custom of greeting one another with a holy kiss, led to charges of incest!

e.         The eucharistic words, This is my body, this is my blood, led to the accusation that the church practiced cannibalism.

3.         Social Factors

a.         Christian appeal to the lower classes of society, especially slaves, infuriated the more influential and aristocratic leaders in the pagan community. The Christian belief in the moral equality of all men violated the hierarchical caste system of Roman life.

b          Christian withdrawal from pagan gatherings and cultural activities (feasts, festivals, the theatre, etc.) elicited the distrust which non-conformity to accepted social patterns normally does.

c.         The purity of Christian lives was a silent, though constant, rebuke to the immorality of the upper classes of Rome.

d.         The Christian faith was an economic threat to those whose livelihood was dependent on the production and sale of idols (cf. Acts 19:23-41).

In sum: “If the Tiber floods the city, or if the Nile refuses to rise, or if the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, a famine, or a pestilence, at once the cry is raised: ‘Christians to the lions!’”

C.        The Two Phases of Persecution

·      64 a.d. / Nero / in Rome / Paul and Peter

·      90-96 a.d. / Domitian / sporadic / Clement of Rome, John the apostle (exiled to Patmos)

·      98-117 a.d. / Trajan / sporadic / Ignatius

·      117-138 a.d. / Hadrian / sporadic / Polycarp

·      161-180 a.d. / Marcus Aurelius / Justin Martyr

·      202-211 a.d. / Septimus Severus / conversion to Christ was forbidden / Irenaeus, Perpetua

·      235-236 a.d. / Maximinus the Thracian / clergy were executed / Hippolytus

·      249-251 a.d. / Decius / empire wide / Fabianus, Alexander of Jerusalem

·      257-260 a.d. / Valerian / confiscation of property, no assembly / Origen

·      303-311 a.d. / Diocletian & Galerius / empire wide, most intense yet.

The persecution of the church was initially infrequent and sporadic. The event that sparked official opposition to Christianity was the great fire of Rome (which began on July 19th, 64 a.d.). It lasted for nine days and destroyed 10 of the 14 city districts (Rome had a population of @ 1,000,000 at this time). Although probably innocent, Nero was accused by his enemies of setting the fire. To divert attention from himself, he blamed the church. Both Peter and Paul were martyred as a result of these events. See the appended document from Tacitus (55-117). During the years a.d. 64 through a.d. 250 there was no set civil policy regarding the church. Christians either suffered or thrived according to the whim of the emperor.

Most officials followed the advice of the emperor Trajan (given in 112 a.d.), whose policy came in the form of a response to Pliny the Younger (governor of Bithynia). Christians, said Trajan, are not to be sought out, but if reported and convicted, they should be punished (unless they recanted their faith and worshipped the Roman deities); anonymous information was not to be received or used against them. One ruler who set a different policy was Marcus Aurelius (161-180). An intolerant pagan, committed to the philosophy of Stoicism, Aurelius happily used rumor and information gathered surreptitiously to condemn Christians who refused to recant. He generally blamed all natural and political disasters on the church. “Supposedly these calamities befell the populace because they forsook the old gods and tolerated Christianity. Persecution under Marcus Aurelius was cruel and barbarous. Thousands were beheaded or thrown to wild beasts, including the famous Justin Martyr” (Vos, Exploring Church History, 28).

Persecution and oppression of the church did not become universal or empire-wide until the emperor Decius in a.d. 250.

Additional note. It was in the middle of the third century that Rome turned to celebrate its one-thousandth anniversary. Looking back on days of prosperity, stability, and military prowess, the leaders became convinced that the current malaise of social and economic disintegration, not to mention the presence at her borders of pagan hordes, was linked with the rise of Christianity. Decius (250) and both Diocletian and Galerius after him (303-313) believed that the key to Rome’s survival and success was social stability and religious unity. During the persecution under Diocletian and Galerius (303-313), 4 edicts were issued in the attempt at first, to undermine, and eventually to eradicate Christianity from the empire:

1)         All Christians of the upper classes would be deprived of their official positions and privileges; Christians in the imperial court who refused to renounce their faith would be sold into slavery; all were deprived of rights of citizenship; all churches were to be destroyed; all sacred books were to be burned.

2)         All clergy and other church officials were to be imprisoned. Eusebius writes:

"In every town great numbers were locked up, and everywhere the prisons which had been built long before for murderers and grave-robbers were crowded with bishops, presbyters and deacons, readers and exorcists, so that now there was no room in them for those convicted of crimes" (Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 8, par. 6).

3)         All imprisoned leaders were to sacrifice to the gods or else "be mutilated by endless tortures." Eusebius describes the torture and death of one man named Peter:

“In the city named above [Nicomedia] the rulers in question brought a certain man into a public place and commanded him to sacrifice. When he refused, he was ordered to be stripped, hoisted up naked, and his whole body torn with loaded whips till he gave in and carried out the command, however unwillingly. When in spite of these torments he remained as obstinate as ever, they next mixed vinegar with salt and poured it over the lacerated parts of his body, where the bones were already exposed. When he treated these agonies too with scorn, a lighted brazier was then brought forward, and as if it were edible meat for the table, what was left of his body was consumed by the fire, not all at once, for fear his release should come too soon, but a little at a time; and those who placed him on the pyre were not permitted to stop till after such treatment he should signify his readiness to obey. But he stuck immovably to his determination, and victorious in the midst of his tortures, he breathed his last” (Ecclesiastical History, 261-62).

4)         All Christians were to sacrifice to the gods on pain of imprisonment or more severe punishment.

The persecution of the church ended with The Edict of Milan in a.d. 312 (313?). More on this when we study the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the elevation of the church from a persecuted sect to the official state religion.

D.        The Development of the Monarchical Bishop

A review of NT Ecclesiology

In the NT, the bishop (Greek, episkopos) and the elder (Greek, presbuteros) are identical.

Acts 20:17 (elder) and 28 (bishop)

Titus 1:5 (elder) and 7 (bishop)

1 Timothy 5:17 (elder) and 3:1 (bishop)

Cf. also Phil. 1:1; 1 Pt. 5:1-4; 1 Thess. 5:12; James 5:14; Heb. 13:7,17,24. See especially the study by J. B. Lightfoot, "The synonyms 'bishop' and 'presbyter'" in his commentary, St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (Zondervan, 1975), pp. 95-99.

The emergence and solidification of the office of monarchical bishop is due primarily to the influence of four men.

1.         The contribution of Ignatius (d. a.d. 115)

It is in the writings of Ignatius that we find the earliest defense of a distinction between the elder and the bishop, with superior dignity and authority ascribed to the latter. For example:

"So then it becometh you to run in harmony with the mind of the bishop; which thing also ye do. For your honourable presbytery, which is worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop, even as its strings to a lyre" (Epistle to the Ephesians, 4).

Ignatius speaks of regarding the bishop "as the Lord Himself" (6). Again:

"I advise you, be ye zealous to do all things in godly concord, the bishop presiding after the likeness of God and the presbyters after the likeness of the council of the Apostles, with the deacons also who are most dear to me, having been entrusted with the diaconate of Jesus Christ" (Epistle to the Magnesians, 6).

"It is good to recognize God and the bishop. He that honoureth the bishop is honoured of God; he that doeth aught without the knowledge of the bishop rendereth service to the devil" (Epistle to the Smyrneans, 9).

Schaff (II:148) summarizes:

"The peculiarity in this Ignatian view is that the bishop appears in it as the head and centre of a single congregation, and not as equally the representative of the whole church; also, that . . . he is the vicar of Christ, and not, as in the later view, merely the successor of the apostles, --- the presbyters and deacons around him being represented as those successors; and finally, that there are no distinctions of order among the bishops, no trace of primacy; all are fully coordinate vicars of Christ, who provides for himself in them, as it were, a sensible, perceptible omnipresence in the church. The Ignatian episcopacy, in short, is congregational, not diocesan; a new and growing institution, not a settled policy of apostolic origin."

There is significance, therefore, both in what Ignatius does and does not say. First, he does affirm the distinction between elder and bishop, emphasizing the centrality and authority of the latter over the former. There may be many elders (presbyters) in a congregation, but only one bishop, to whom all are subject insofar as he is the vicar of Christ. Second, Ignatius does not affirm that this bishop is in direct succession from the apostles. This latter notion served as the ground for the Roman Catholic doctrine of the papacy.

2.         The contribution of Clement of Rome (a.d. 95-100)

Clement, oddly enough, does not distinguish between elders and bishops, but does affirm the doctrine of apostolic succession. That is to say, while identifying elders and bishops as one office in the church, along with the office of deacon, Clement speaks of their authority (both elder/bishop and deacon) as being derived from the apostles. They governed with the authority that Christ had given the apostles, having themselves been appointed or ordained by the apostles or by men who had.

3.         The contribution of Irenaeus (a.d. 115-195)

Irenaeus was responsible for merging these two concepts. He first articulated the doctrine of both the centrality of the one bishop in distinction from elders and deacons, on the one hand, and the doctrine of apostolic succession, on the other.

With Irenaeus we see the single monarchical bishop not only increase in prestige but also in power, for now he is understood to speak and act with apostolic sanction and authority. This development was largely due to the church's reaction to the threat of Gnosticism. The latter evoked belief in the need and value of a single, authoritative voice in the church to identify and oppose heresy. Irenaeus wrote:

"It is within the power of all, therefore, in every church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, (and to demonstrate) the succession of these men to our own time. . . . For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries . . . they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men" (Adversus Haereses, III,3:1).

A corresponding development was the rise of the Metropolitan bishop. In time, the bishop of a church in the capital city of a Roman province came to be regarded as the head of the entire Christian community in that province. As a result, he was called the Metropolitan (lit., "mother-city") bishop. In five of these cities the metropolitan bishop became known as the Patriarch (lit., "first father"). These cities were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem). Of these, Rome rose to pre-eminence due to the traditional association of Peter and Paul with that city. Thus, Irenaeus refers to

"that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also (by pointing out) that the faith preached to men comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishop. For it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, on account of its pre-eminent authority" (AH, III,3:3).

He then refers to Eleutherius, bishop of Rome in his own day, who, "in the twelfth place of the apostles, [holds] the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us" (AH, III,3:3).]

4.         The contribution of Cyprian (a.d. 200-258)

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in North Africa, was the final link in the early development of the monarchical bishop. Schaff (II:150) notes that

"Cyprian considers the bishops as the bearers of the Holy Spirit, who passed from Christ to the apostles, from them by ordination to the bishops, propagates himself in an unbroken line of succession, and gives efficacy to all religious exercises. Hence they are also the pillars of the unity of the church; nay, in a certain sense they are the church itself."

It was Cyprian who said,

"The bishop is in the church, and the church in the bishop, and if anyone is not with the bishop he is not in the church" (Epist. lxvi, 3).

In Cyprian’s thought there was a virtual equation of the church itself with the community of bishops. “For him, anyone who attempted to live, worship or teach as a Christian apart from the sanction of a duly ordained bishop in apostolic succession was inventing his or her own new schism and had left the church of Jesus Christ behind” (Olson, 114). It was he who originated the sayings: “Without the church as mother one cannot have God as father” and “Outside of the church there is no salvation.”

It should be noted, however, that Cyprian refused to acknowledge any one bishop as head or bishop over all others. He reluctantly agreed that the bishop of Rome was “first among equals,” but he regarded this as merely an honorary title. In summary, Cyprian “helped create the orthodox-catholic episcopal ecclesiology that centers around bishops. It is an ecclesiology accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches and some Protestants as well. It is an ecclesiology that helped unify the church in a time of great trouble and schism, but at the same time it helped undermine the immediacy of the ordinary believer’s relationship with God and his or her ability to dissent and speak prophetically to the hierarchy of the church” (Olson, 122-23).

With the emergence of the monarchical bishop and his prominence as vicar of Christ, we see the gradual diminishing (if not the practical elimination in some areas) of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the freedom of an every-member ministry in the body of Christ. Spiritually gifted "laymen" were no longer needed. A singular, authoritative voice for the church now provided instruction and guidance for the entire church. The causes for this development in church life were many:

·      First, the church felt threatened by the prophetic utterances and often extreme behavior of the Montanists. Some one needed to speak with authority in the face of what was perceived to be a danger.

·      Second, there was the natural tendency for one person in an administrative body to emerge as the leader.

·      Third, there was the religious need, "namely, the need of a tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church" (Schaff, II:133).

·      Fourth, the general feeling of uneasiness and insecurity that emerged after the death of the apostles and the consequent demand for a continuation of or substitution for apostolic leadership.

·      Fifth, and related to the above, was the need to centralize the church's authority in view of the rapidity of growth and the increasing need for decisive discipline and instruction.

·      Sixth, the increase in persecution of the church "made it necessary for the church to have leaders who could speak and act for the church and her members at all times. Leadership by wise counsel and the example of patience and fearlessness was essential to the church's survival" (Boer, 29).

·      Seventh, the rise and spread of heresy called for a single voice from within the church, authoritatively empowered to define and uphold the truth. This monarchical bishop provided leadership in maintaining and expressing the faith of the church.

E.         The Recognition of the NT Canon

The Marcionite canon, the Montanist doctrine of continuous revelation, the impact of persecution, and the general need for an authoritative body of literature to which appeal may be made, all exercised considerable influence on the church with regard to the canon of inspired writings.

N.B. The church did not create the canon ("canon" comes from a word that means standard or rule or measuring rod; hence the collection of inspired writings which serve as the theological standard/rule by which truth is ascertained). The church merely recognized and publicly declared as authoritative that which was widely accepted by the collective consciousness of the church.

The first semi-official attempt to recognize a canon of Scripture occurred around 170 when the Roman church produced what is known as The Muratorian Canon. It consisted of all four Gospels, Acts, and all other NT books (as we know them today) with the exception of Hebrews, James, and 1st and 2nd Peter. It also contained The Wisdom of Solomon but excluded the popular Shepherd of Hermas. The books most disputed were Hebrews (thought by some in the west to be a non-Pauline forgery), James (its authorship questioned in the west), 2 Peter (its authorship questioned), 2-3 John (rarely cited by early church fathers), Jude (its authorship questioned), and Revelation (many opposed its perceived chiliastic emphasis).

The final form of the canon as we know it was first listed in a letter written by Athanasius in 367 a.d. A synod of Rome officially accepted this list in 382 and the entire church recognized the canon at the Synod of Carthage in 397 (Augustine’s presence at the latter carried much weight in the canon’s final approval).

The criteria for canonicity, generally speaking, were three:

First: marks of apostolicity, i.e., either authorship by an apostle, an associate or friend of an apostle, or a theological perspective that is consistent with apostolic doctrine.

Second: internal consistency, i.e., does the document harmonize with what has previously been recognized as from God?

Third: the intrinsic power of the authoritative Word exerted itself on the collective consciousness of the people of God, being confirmed by the internal witness of the Spirit, i.e., what is the universal opinion of the orthodox community of believers? In other words,

F.         The Development of an Authoritative Creed

The need for a test of orthodoxy, especially in the face of increased heretical doctrines, the need for a source for catechetical instruction, and the need for a public confession of candidates for baptism, all greatly influenced the creation of a rule of faith, a creed, a statement of belief ("creed" comes from the Latin credo = I believe).

The earliest extra-biblical credo or creed of which we have knowledge is the Apostles' Creed which, after numerous revisions, received its final form some time in the 5th century. Conclusion:

"By the middle of the third century, then, a great change had taken place in the outward form of the church. In the time of the Apostles there was no test of faith other than belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The church had been unorganized beyond the local congregation; but the apostles through their knowledge and authority had provided the unity of the church. By 250 there was a firm organization of the church in each main area of the empire, with a bishop at the head of city and district churches. A canon of the NT listed the authoritative Scripture. A universally recognized creed taught how Scripture was to be understood. And all this stood fast in apostolic authority: the bishops ruled in apostolic succession; the canon was apostolic writing; and the creed presented the apostolic teaching. It was in this form that the church came out of the struggle with Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism. And it was in this form that it faced the difficult future that lay ahead of it" (Boer, 77).