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An Essential Guide
By Justo L. González
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1996 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Ancient Church
From the Beginnings of Christianity until Constantine
Put an End to Persecution (Edict of Milan, Year 313)
This was a formative period that set the tone for the entire history of the church, for even today we live under the influence of some of the decisions made at that time.
Christianity was born in a world that already had its own religions, cultures, and social and political structures.
In order to understand the history of Christianity one must also have some understanding of the context in which it appeared, since that context was very influential in shaping Christian life and doctrine. The most immediate context of the earliest church was Judaism—first Palestinian Judaism, and then that form of Judaism which existed outside the Holy Land.
Palestinian Judaism had evolved since the writing of the last books of what we now call the Old Testament. More than three hundred years before Christ, Alexander the Great built a great empire encompassing all the territories from Greece to Egypt, and eastward as far as the very borders of India. Palestine was therefore part of that empire. One of the consequences of Alexander's conquests was "Hellenism," that is, the combination of Greek culture brought by Alexander and his followers with the ancient cultures that had long existed in each of the lands that he conquered.
Upon the death of Alexander, some of his successors retained control of Syria and Palestine. Led by the Maccabees, the Jews rebelled and managed to gain a brief period of independence, until the Romans conquered the land in 63 B.C.E. Therefore, when Jesus was born Palestine was part of the Roman Empire.
Judaism in Palestine was not all of one piece. There were within it various parties and religious groups. Chief among them were the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. These groups differed among themselves on the manner in which God was to be served, as well as on how Jews ought to relate to the Roman Empire. All agreed that there is only one God, that God's people must follow certain patterns of behavior, and that some day God's promises to that people would be fulfilled.
Beyond Palestine there were large numbers of Jews in Egypt, Asia Minor, Rome, Roman North Africa, and even the lands to the east that had earlier been ruled by Babylon. This vast Jewish contingent that spread far beyond the borders of Palestine is known as the Jewish "Diaspora," or Dispersion. In the Diaspora Judaism bore the mark of its various surrounding cultures. Within the borders of the Empire this could be seen in the use of Greek—the most common language in the Hellenistic world—in preference to Hebrew or Aramaic—the common language of that part of the Diaspora spread eastward in the direction of Babylon. Therefore it was in the Diaspora, in Egypt, that the Old Testament was translated into Greek. This translation, known as the Septuagint, was the Bible that most Greek-speaking Christians used for a long time. Egypt also saw life of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who sought to combine Greek philosophy with Judaism and was therefore a forerunner of the many Christian theologians who followed a similar path regarding their Christian faith.
However, from a very early date the Christian church began to make headway beyond the limits of Judaism, to the point that it soon became mostly Gentile. In order to understand that process, it is necessary to know something regarding the political and cultural atmosphere of the times.
Politically, the entire Mediterranean basin was part of the Roman Empire, which had unified the region under its rule. In a way, that political unity contributed to the expansion of Christianity. But that unity was based on a syncretistic approach to religion, in which the mixture of various religious traditions soon became one of the most serious threats to nascent Christianity. Furthermore, part of the support for that political unity was the worship of the emperor, which soon became one of the reasons for the persecution of Christians.
Within that framework, the new faith made its way, while at the same defining itself.
In philosophy, the ideas of Plato and his teacher Socrates were dominant. They spoke of the immortality of the soul and of an invisible and purely rational world which was far more perfect and permanent than this transient world of "appearances." Also Stoicism, a philosophical doctrine that promoted high moral values, had gained many adherents. Eventually, many Christians would come to understand the Christian doctrine of life after death in terms of the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and the proclamation the Reign of God as an affirmation of the Platonic world of ideas. Likewise, Stoic moral doctrine was profoundly influential in the development of Christian ethics.
The first and most important task of early Christianity was to define its own nature vis-à-vis the Jewish tradition in which it was born. As may be seen in the New Testament, a significant context for that process of definition was the mission to the Gentiles.
This story is known to us mostly through the New Testament. We can see, particularly in the letters of Paul and in the book Acts, the stamp of the difficult decisions the church had to make during its first decades. Would Christianity be a new sect within Judaism? Would it be open to Gentiles? How much of Judaism would Gentile converts to Christianity have to accept and follow? These were the most important and urgent questions with which the church had to struggle in its first decades of existence.
Apart from the books of the New Testament, the most ancient Christian books that have survived are usually grouped under the title of "Apostolic Fathers." It is through this collection of letters, sermons, and theological treatises that we gain most of the information available to us regarding the life and teachings of Christians after the close of the New Testament. Here we see the same process of self-definition in matters as diverse as doctrine, worship, church government, and ethics.
Soon Christianity had its first conflicts with the state, and it was within that context that the new faith had to determine its relationship with the surrounding culture, as well as with the political and social institutions that both expressed and supported that culture.
Those conflicts with the state produced both martyrs and "apologists." The first sealed their witness with their blood.
In the book of Acts, it is usually the religious leaders within Judaism that take the lead in persecuting Christians and the church. Furthermore, there are several occasions in which the imperial authorities intervene in order to quench a riot, and thus indirectly prevent the persecution of Christians.
Soon, however, things began to change, and it was the Empire that took the lead in persecuting Christians. During the first century, the worst persecutions took place under Nero (who ruled from 54 to 68) and perhaps Domitian (81–96). Although significant for the life of the church, these persecutions seem to have been relatively local, the first limited to Rome, and the second mostly to Asia Minor.
During the second century, persecution became increasingly widespread, although in general terms the policy set by Trajan (98–117) was followed. This policy consisted in punishing Christians if they were brought before the authorities and refused to recant, but at the same time not employing the resources of the state in order to seek Christians out. The result was sporadic persecution which depended mostly on local circumstances. Among the most famous martyrs of the second century are Ignatius of Antioch (from whom seven letters have survived), Polycarp of Smyrna (whose martyrdom is recorded in a fairly ancient document), Justin, and the martyrs of Lyon and Vienne, in Gaul.
During the third century, although there were long periods of relative calm, persecution became increasingly severe. Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211) followed a syncretistic policy, and decreed the death penalty for any who would convert to exclusivist religions such as Judaism or Christianity. It was during his reign that the famous martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas took place. Decius (249–251) ordered that all should sacrifice before the gods, and should have certificates stating that they had done so. Christians and any others who refused to sacrifice were to be treated as criminals. Valerian (253–260) followed a similar policy.
However, the worst persecution took place under Diocletian (284-305) and his immediate successors. First, Christians were expelled from the legions. Then it was ordered that their buildings and sacred books be destroyed. Finally, persecution became general, and Christians were subject, not only to death, but also to tortures of various sorts.
After the death of Diocletian, several of his successors continued his policy until two of them, Constantine (306–337) and Licinius (307–323) ended the persecution by the so-called "Edict of Milan" (313).
The apologists sought to defend the Christian faith in the face of the various accusations made against it. (And some, such as Justin, were first apologists and eventually martyrs.) This attempt to defend the faith produced some of the earliest theological works of Christianity.
To a large measure, persecutions were based on a number of rumors and opinions circulating among the populace regarding Christians. It was said, for instance, that they performed various acts of immorality. It was also claimed that their doctrine made no sense and was typical of people who were incapable of logical thought.
In response to that situation, the apologists wrote a series of works with the double purpose of denying the false rumors regarding Christian practice and of showing that Christianity was more than mere nonsense. Therefore, the main intellectual task of the apologists was to clarify the relationship between Christian faith and the ancient Greco-Roman culture.
Some of the apologists were openly hostile to that culture. Their defense of Christianity consisted mostly in showing that the supposedly higher culture of the Greco-Roman world was in fact not worthy of such respect. The main apologist who followed this direction was Tatian.
Others took the opposite direction. Rather than attacking pagan culture, they held that there were indeed certain values in it, but at the same time argued that these had been drawn from Christianity, or at least from Judaism. Thus, it was commonly argued that, since Moses lived long before Plato, most of the good things that Plato had to say he had learned from Moses. Yet the strongest argument, and the one was that eventually had the most impact on Christian theology, that of Justin regarding the "Logos" or Word of God. Justin was the greatest of the Christian apologists of the second century, and at the end gave witness to his faith with his death—for which reason he is known as "Justin Martyr." According to him, as the Gospel of John says, the Word or Logos of God illumines all who come to this world—including those who came before the incarnation of the Word in Jesus. Therefore, any light that anybody now has, or had in the past, is due to the same Word whom Christians know in Jesus Christ. On the basis of this argument, Justin felt free to accept whatever of value he could find in pagan culture and philosophy, and add it to his understanding of the faith. Through the course of centuries, this doctrine of the Logos as source of all truth, no matter where it may be found, has made significant impact on Christian theology, and on the manner in which many Christians have related to the surrounding culture.
But there were other challenges to faith, which most Christians eventually called "heresies"—that is, doctrines which seemed to threaten the very core of the Christian message.
The rapid growth of the church brought to it people of various religious backgrounds, and this in turn gave rise to diverse interpretations of Christianity. Although there had always been within the church a degree of theological diversity, it soon became clear that some of these various interpretations threatened what to many was the core itself of the Christian message. Such doctrines were eventually classified as "heresies."
The most important of these heresies was Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a whole conglomerate of ideas and schools that differed among themselves on many points, but which however had certain elements in common. Among those common elements were the following: First, a negative attitude toward the material world, so that "salvation" consisted in escaping from matter. Second, a notion that such salvation was attained through a special knowledge or "gnosis," through which the believer could escape from this material world and ascend to the spiritual. It is for reason of this "gnosis" that such doctrines are grouped together under the name of "Gnosticism."
Not all Gnostics were Christians. But when Christianity and Gnosticism were brought together the traditional Christian faith was threatened at several points: Gnosticism denied creation, which claims that the present physical world is God's good creation; it denied the doctrine of incarnation, which says that God took human flesh (the commonly held Gnostic doctrine, that Jesus did not have a true body such as ours, is known as "docetism"); and it denied the final resurrection, which looks forward to an eternal life in the body (although most Gnostics held that at least some souls are by nature immortal).
The other "heresy" that posed a serious challenge to Christianity during this period was the doctrine of Marcion. Like the Gnostics, Marcion denied that the good God could have created this material world. He therefore claimed that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the Father of Jesus, but is rather an inferior being. He claimed also that while Yahweh is vengeful and cruel, the true and supreme God is loving and forgiving. In contrast to the Gnostics, who did not found churches, Marcion did found a Marcionite church. Also, since he rejected the Old Testament as the book of a lesser god, he made a list of Christian books which he said were inspired by the true God. Although Marcion's collection was much shorter than our present New Testament, it was the first such list of books of the New Testament.
It was in response to such heresies that the early church produced the canon (or list of books) of the New Testament, the creed that is usually called "the Apostles' Creed," and the doctrine of apostolic succession.
Although from a very early date the church had used the Gospels and the Letters of Paul in its worship services and catechetical instruction, what finally led to the insistence that certain Christian books were to be considered Scripture and others not was the challenge of heresies. Over against heretics who proposed their own books, or their own lists of books, the church began to determine which books were part of Christian scripture, and which not.
At the same time and for similar reasons, there appeared in Rome the "Roman symbol." This was a confession of faith that eventually evolved into what today we call "The Apostles' Creed." The purpose of that creed was clearly to reject and counteract the teachings of Gnosticism and of Marcion.
Finally, the church responded to heresy by pointing to the uninterrupted line of leaders in the main churches—lines which could be drawn back to the apostles themselves. This is the origin of the concept of apostolic succession.
All of these elements produced a church with more organization, and more clearly defined doctrines and practices. In order to distinguish the church in this period from the earlier community, historians often speak of "the ancient catholic church," and mark its beginning from the last decades of the second century.
After the apologists came the first great teachers of the faith—people such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyprian. They wrote works whose impact is felt to this day.
Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement lived late in the second century. Irenaeus was originally from Smyrna, in Asia Minor, and he spent most of his life in Lyon in what today is France. He was above all a pastor who believed that his task as a theologian consisted in strengthening his flock, especially against the threat of heresy. His theology does not claim to be original, but rather seeks to affirm what he himself learned from his teachers. This explains the recent growing interest in Irenaeus, since his writings help us to understand the earliest Christian theology.
Excerpted from Church History by Justo L. González. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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