May 19, 2022

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Early Christianity grew slowly but steadily

One of the factors making for the coherence of the early Christian churches was the remarkably early development of their ministerial and pastoral structure. That the people of God need shepherds to care for them, to lead the congregation in worship and mission, and to exercise discipline, is a principle plentifully attested in the New Testament writings (for example Ephesians 4). Christ’s apostles, 12 in number and therefore symbolic of the renewed Israel and embodiment of the Church, received from him a solemn charge to preach, and at the Last Supper were commanded to continue the memorial of his redemptive sacrifice.

As the apostles passed from the scene, the locus of authority became a matter of regional dispute. At Corinth the congregation assumed that, since it had had a part in the election of its clergy, it possessed a democratic power to get rid of them when it preferred more gifted and eloquent preachers. The Church of Rome wrote by the hand of Clement, its presiding presbyter, a letter of protest, insisting that, unless there has been some grave moral fault, the clergy, appointed by their standing in succession from the apostles, and sanctified by the holiness of their liturgical function are not disposable at the will of the laity. In the Epistles to Timothy and Titus it is laid down that the ministers who preside, teach and preach have a right to financial support from the faithful.

They also have special responsibility for safeguarding the authentic tradition in teaching. Soon after, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, asserted that the bishop, apparently now distinct from the presbyters flanking him at the celebration of the Eucharist, is to be the unique focus of order in the local church; there is no validity in a Eucharist celebrated in opposition to him. At the end of the century Tertullian regarded it as a mark of the Catholic Church over against heresy that “we receive the Eucharist from none but the president.’  

Pastoral structure of the Church

Tertullian describes in his Apology (39.1-6) how he and his fellow Christians worship together. We meet, he says, in a gathering and congregation, so as to approach God in prayer together. We pray for emperors, for their ministers and those in authority, for the security of the world, for peace on earth, for a postponement of the end of the world (to allow time for repentance).   There is reading of the Bible, intended to bring out of the text of Scripture any prophecy relating to the present time, anything which will make Christians see the circumstances of the day more clearly. The Bible reading also feeds faith, lifts the spirits to hope, strengthens confidence. And it inculcates God’s commandments and precepts.   There is preaching, too, and rebuke of the members of the congregation.

Judgment is passed on those who have sinned, “and it carries great weight, as it must among men certain that God sees them.” Finally, once a month, each member of the congregation “brings some modest coin . . . if he can; for nobody is compelled; it is a voluntary offering.”   Many communities of Christians felt the need to set out the essential points of Christian belief in a summary. The new Christian stated his beliefs in front of the whole community and each member was reminded at the same time of the beliefs he himself had professed when he became a Christian. The service of baptism helped in this way to hold the community together and to keep its faith pure and intact. The exact form of words varied from place to place, but the main points were very similar.

The convert who came for baptism in Rome about the year 200 was told to renounce Satan and all his servants and all his works as Tertullian describes, and when the presbyter had anointed him with oil in token of the driving out of evil spirits, he asked him: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was dead and buried, and rose again on the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat on the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?”  

The spread of Christianity

The rapidity of Christian expansion amazed the Church itself. Christian communities were urban, moving only slowly into the countryside. While some saw the empire as diabolical and secular, most allowed it a providential role. The mission passed beyond the frontier. Armenia became   Christian well before 300. In the Greek east (more slowly in the west), the Church quickly gained a substantial proportion of the people. Causes of success were the universalist assertions of monotheism with its powerful ethical concern; a bias to the poor and readiness to share goods; the acceptance within one community of both married people and dedicated frugal ascetics; the assurance of forgiveness now and eternal life with Christ hereafter; a coherent social framework led by clergy in assured succession; the capacity of Christian intellectuals to combine biblical faith with openness to philosophy and to a positive evaluation of the empire.  

Relations with pagan society

The Church’s gradual permeation of high Roman society, especially among women, received a jolt in 251. Barbarian attack, civil war, trade recession and drastic inflation brought instability for which Christians were blamed. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage from 249 to 258, had difficulty upholding episcopal authority in time of severe persecution. Who had power to reconcile those who had offered idolatrous incense to the gods of Rome? And should the terms of reconciliation be rigorous or mild? At Rome itself the issue created division: two rivals were elected bishop, Cornelius (lax) and Novatian (rigorist).

Cyprian rejected Novatian and all his sacraments as outside the one communion of which Peter’s teaching chair is symbol. “He cannot have God for his father who has not the Church for his mother.” But in 256 a new pope, Stephen, sharply disagreed, asserting that sacraments, if duly given even by schismatic clergy, are valid, and that those baptized outside the Catholic Church are by tradition admitted by imposition of hands and not baptized again. Stephen implied a distinction between heretic and orthodox schismatics already adumbrated by Origen when discussing in which category Montanists fell.   Heresy derives from a Greek word signifying a private choice over against the consensus of the community.

Justin Martyr and Hippolytus opposed not only Gnostics but heretics (“modalists”) who denied any real distinction in God between Father and Son, a view soon associated with the Roman presbyter Sabellius. To another group it seemed that the Father sent his power, the Spirit, to inspire Jesus the Son. In the 260s the advocacy of this view by Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, led a synod to condemn him, especially for worldly conduct unfitting in a bishop.   About 180 Celsus, pagan critic of Christianity, pleaded for more participation by Christians in public and intellectual life. Third-century Christians increasingly participated, and the more they did so, the more tense relations with pagan society became.

In North Africa militant Christian bands attacked pagan shrines and festivals. The Neoplatonic school of Plotinus tended to split into two, one side welcoming rapprochement with Christianity, the other side (especially represented by Porphyry) embittered and hostile. Christians had penetrated into the senior ranks of the army and the court. Diocletian, who died in retirement at Split where the Catholic cathedral is his mausoleum, reorganized the empire militarily, politically, administratively and economically.

Court soothsayers consulting the entrails to discuss the future felt their efforts neutralized by Christian army officers making the sign of the Cross (a mark of Christian devotion going back at least to the 2nd century, especially associated with the baptismal renunciation of evil). The decisive battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome in 312, which put Constantine on the way to supreme power, was won after invocation of “the God of the Christians” and a dream directing him to put on his shield a monogram of Christ and the words, “By this sign conquer.”  

The Church and the Roman state

From apostolic times the churches prayed for the emperor and governors, on whose prudence and power depended justice and peace, roads, seas free of pirates, law and the good order which missionaries needed. Just as the early communities were based on towns, so the imperial provinces became units of church administration; the presiding bishop of a province was either (as in Africa) the senior by date of ordination, or, more commonly, the bishop of the civil metropolis. Bishops of great sees (Rome, Constantinople from   330, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem from 451) provided a court of appeal for groups of provinces called patriarchates, analogous to the jurisdictions of praetorian prefects. Greek east and Latin west: the gap widens   Constantine, with his sense of divine mission, felt threatened by Christian dissension in North Africa and Alexandria.

The aftermath of the persecution left the community divided in Carthage between believers who saw it as an uncompromising battle against Satan and those who wished to lie low until the storm passed. The tensions led to schism, one side standing for unity with the Catholic Church overseas, recognized and supported by the emperor, and the other, soon led by Donatus, intransigently standing for ritual holiness and total separation of Church and state.  

In Alexandria a dockland presbyter Arius distressed his bishop (but delighted others) by preaching that if the Son of God was crucified, he suffered as the supreme Deity cannot do, and is therefore distinct in order of being from the transcendent Father, first cause of all things, from whose will he is derived. The resulting conflagration led Constantine to call a large synod of 220 bishops to Nicaea in Asia Minor, which included representatives not only of many Greek provinces, but two presbyters representing Silvester of Rome.

The Council of Nicaea thereby became the first worldwide or “ecumenical” council. Its creed rejected Arius’ theses and affirmed Son and Father to be “identical in being,” “of one substance.”   Ambiguities in the term “identity” contributed to half a century of controversy. Greek bishops feared it failed to allow for the distinction of the Son from the Father. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373, ensured the west’s support for the defense of the Creed, but with the consequence that the gap between Greek east and Latin west was widened. The wrangles between different factions, each with its own slogans, became barbershop gossip and a music-hall joke.

The principal pagan historian of the 4th-century empire, Ammianus Marcellinus, acidly commented on the ferocity of inter-Christian struggles, which contributed to the apostasy of Julian (emperor 361-63). Julian’s death in battle against Persia was a sharp blow to his revival of polytheism, to which the majority of citizens still adhered at heart. Theodosius I (emperor 378-95) decided the Arian controversy in favor of the orthodoxy of the Creed of Nicaea, revised at the Council of Constantinople (381). He forbade pagan sacrifice and closed temples (391), many of which were later, like the Parthenon, transformed into churches. The fall of Rome to Alaric’s Goths (410) had a more emotional than political significance at the time.

Nostalgia for the old gods as protectors of Rome provoked Augustine, bishop of Hippo (= Annaba in Algeria) from 396 to 430, to embark on The City of God, a long vindication of Christianity against imperialist ideology and Platonic philosophy.   Augustine’s conversion at Milan (386) owed much to the combined influence of his mother Monica and the able philosophical mind of Ambrose (bishop of Milan 374-97). Ambrose had been (unbaptized) provincial governor before becoming bishop of Milan where the emperor lived. He upheld the Church’s independence and a Christian emperor’s duty to protect it – for example, by refusing to reinstate the Altar of Victory in the Senate house at Rome. In close cooperation with the contemporary pope, Damasus (366-84), Ambrose made strong claims both for the Church’s independence of the imperial power and for the western churches over against the eastern.

Aristocrats vied with each other in adorning noble shrines of martyrs. Public processions celebrated high festivals. In the mind of Ambrose the destinies of the Church and empire were bound together by providence. When Theodosius, irritated by the citizens of Thessalonica, ordered a massacre, Ambrose required him to do penance. Fourth-century emperors understood themselves to be autocrats above the law. For Ambrose the emperor as son of the Church had duties not only to natural morality but to the defense of true religion against demonic polytheism. In the invading Goths (375) he saw Gog and Magog assaulting God’s city of Rome.  

Schism in the east  

The Church’s independence of the imperial power in matters of faith and morals was not so easily asserted in the Greek east, where Christian political theory, formulated by the historian and scholar Eusebius of Caesarea (died 339), stressed the status of the Christian emperor as both priest and king. This was qualified by the requirement that orthodoxy be upheld. A Byzantine emperor countenancing heresy was sure to meet vehement conflict.   Nevertheless, when Archbishop John (Chrysostom) of Constantinople (398-408) began to demand of the emperors behavior comformable to Christian morality, he found himself losing the support of the court. The bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus  (385-412), led by Egyptian monks into condemning admirers of Origen, was nettled when John protected them; he came to Constantinople and, with the help of many alienated by John’s reforming zeal, obtained his synodical condemnation. 

John’s fall was politically an unhappy manifestation of rivalry between Alexandria, by old tradition the second city to Rome, and Constantine’s city at Byzantium on the Bosphorus, founded in 330 to be the New Rome. This civic rivalry affected the churches and from 429 it became entangled with thorny debates about the way in which Jesus Christ is both God and man. In the 360s Apollinaris of Laodicea (Syria) solved this problem by saying that in Christ there is no duality since the divine Word replaced the human mind. He thereby incurred censure for denying the solidarity of the Redeemer’s humanity with ours.   He was opposed by the “school of Antioch,” whose principal theologian was Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia (died 427).

Theodore understood redemption as achieved by the perfect obedience of Christ as pioneer of salvation (a theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews). The Alexandrian school disowned Apollinaris but insisted that no mere man can save the world of which he is part. The debate became a major conflict between Cyril, bishop of Alexandria (414-44), and Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople (428-31, died c. 449) and pupil of Theodore.   Nestorius was condemned at the stormy third ecumenical council at Ephesus (431), as failing to affirm the fundamental unity (“hypostatic union”) of the person of Christ. Cyril spoke of “one nature after the union.” Nestorius spoke of “two natures united in one person.” This “two-nature” formula was offensive to Cyril’s more extreme followers. At a second council at Ephesus (449) it was condemned, but the decisions of 449 were overthrown, under a new emperor, at the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon (451).

The Council of Chalcedon agreed on a definition that retains classical status, largely a mosaic of phrases from Cyril of Alexandria, except that Christ is said to be one person made known “in two natures.” Cyril would have said “of” not “in.” This preposition offended many in Syria and Egypt, mainly because, though the council censured Nestorianism, its formula was one a moderate Nestorian with a strong stomach might stretch his conscience to sign.   Two main factors helped to spare the west the worst agonies of the Christological controversy, which racked the Greek east with schism. The acknowledged leadership of the see of Rome was exercised by Pope Leo I (440-61), not only as a court of appeal from local synods, but as a positive teaching authority in St Peter’s name. Secondly, the Latin west had had a series of first-class minds – Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-67); Ambrose of Milan; the scholarly monk Jerome (347-419, resident at Bethlehem from 386) whose biblical commentaries and revised Latin Bible (the “Vulgate”) were works of high scholarship; above all, Augustine.  

Augustine, one of the greatest of Plato’s disciples and critics, especially in The City of God and On the Trinity, towered intellectually above his contemporaries. Against the Manichees he vindicated the proper place of authority in harmony with reason (“I would not have believed the Gospel unless the authority of the universal Church had constrained me”). Against the Donatists he argued that the authentic Church cannot be in just one province. In controversy with the British monk Pelagius (from 412) he defended the inability of man to please God without the inward grace of Christ sola gratia.  


 

 

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