“Bring the Books"
WAYS OF OUTLINING EARLY CHURCH HISTORY
Various outlines may be given in order to present an overall view of the church’s history in its first three centuries. We offer here some sketches of important developments in order to provide a framework for the more detailed studies in the second century which will follow. This preliminary survey is necessary to give perspective, but naturally the main interest attaches to the more original studies in the succeeding chapters.
First-Century Centers. The church began at Jerusalem, spread to Syria, Asia Minor, and then to Greece and Italy. The New Testament itself, and principally the book of Acts, tells us most of what we know of this expansion. The main centers were the principal cities–Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome. At the end of the first century Ephesus and the Roman province of Asia were the center of the numerical strength of the church.
The Second Century. By the end of the second century Rome had replaced Ephesus as the strongest and most influential church, although Asia and adjoining provinces continued to be the area where the largest concentration of Christians was. The growth of the church in Alexandria heralded the future importance of this city and of Egyptian Christianity in the church’s history. Latin and Syriac versions of the Bible marked the spread of Christianity in North Africa and the interior regions of Syria. Gaul, Spain, the frontier provinces, and lands to the East outside the Roman Empire were outposts of the Christian mission.
The Third Century. There are no accurate figures, only estimates, but it seems that by the end of the third century Christianity composed a sizable minority of the Empire’s population. Moreover, interior Asia Minor and Mesopotamia were effectively penetrated, and the kingdom of Armenia officially accepted the Christian faith. The church spread among the native population of Egypt. North Africa became one of the strong numerical centers. The church began to expand in Spain, became settled on the frontiers of the Empire, and reached Britain.
The expansion into all segments of society matched the geographical expansion and prepared for the official recognition of Christianity by the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
Relations with the Empire
A Part of Judaism. Roman officials treated the church during the first generation of its existence as part of the Jewish religion, which had official recognition as the ancient national religion of a people which made up part of the Empire; hence Roman officials took no notice of the arguments between Jews and Christians, as such, and intervened only to keep the peace.
Early Conflicts: Nero and Domitian. Several factors perhaps contributed to making Rome aware that the church was something more than a branch of Judaism: the number of Gentile converts, the insistence by the Jews that Christians were different, the Jewish revolt of 66-73 in Palestine. At any rate, the first indication of a separate treatment for Christians came when Nero needed a scapegoat for the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64. He settled on the Christians in Rome. This local outburst of persecution began the era of conflict between the church and the Empire. Under Domitian at the end of the first century the Christian community in Rome and Christians in Asia and Palestine experienced distress.
Sporadic Persecutions. Christianity lacked legal recognition and protection, but there was no general proscription of Christianity. Christians, by virtue of being such, were assumed to be guilty of certain crimes which went with profession of the Name. Christian abstention from elements of community life tinged with idolatry and from the forms of the imperial religion caused suspicion and distrust. As a result, there were many outbreaks of sporadic persecution. Generally mob action was responsible for bringing Christians to trial before provincial governors. The Christian refusal to sacrifice to the Emperor was taken as a sign of disloyalty. Although the emperors Trajan and Hadrian took steps to regularize the legal proceedings, Christians were always in danger from jealous Jews, suspicious pagans, and unscrupulous officials. Still it must be remembered that the early persecutions were local and sporadic.
Empire-wide Persecution. The first general, concerted attack against the church came under Decius in 249-251. There were anticipations of his policy in the attitudes of earlier emperors. The threat from barbarians on the frontier, economic chaos in the Empire, and the revival of Roman nationalism in the celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome contributed to Decius’ vigorous action. To rally the Empire to an expression of unity, he ordered everyone in the Empire to offer sacrifices to the traditional gods. Punishment awaited those who refused.
Decius’ death brought a reprieve to the church; the revival of the policy of persecution under Valerian (253-260) was equally shortlived. The church had another long period of peace, but the worst was yet to come. During the rule of Diocletian (285-305) there was launched the most vigorous assault on the church that it had sustained. But the Empire had waited too long. The church was now too strong and the policy of persecution could not succeed.
Alliance with the State. Constantine declared his support for the church and granted toleration with the “Edict of Milan” in 313. Imperial patronage of the church was climaxed when Theodosius (379-395) made Christianity the official religion of the state.
Plurality of Elder-Bishops. The later books of the New Testament and the earliest post-apostolic writings indicate that at the end of the first century the general pattern of church organization was for local churches to be presided over by a plurality of elders, also called bishops, who were assisted by deacons.
A Singular Bishop. The writings of Ignatius of Antioch to the churches of Asia Minor early in the second century describe a three-fold ministry of one bishop, a plurality of elders, and deacons in the churches. The emergence of one bishop at the head of the local church seems to be a fact for Asia and Antioch at the beginning of the second century. This development appears not to have occurred at this early a date in Greece and the West. By the second half of the second century the Ignatian type of church organization was generally accepted.
Councils and Dioceses. We first hear of the bishops from local congregations in the same province meeting for consultation in the second half of the second century in connection with the problem posed by Montanism (for which see below). These meetings were first held in connection with common problems but became regular gatherings.
As churches in the large cities grew, presbyters (elders) were assigned to particular assemblies within the city. Earlier all congregational functions had been under the supervision of the bishop. Increasingly these had to be assigned to the presbyters. Christians living in outlying areas would not have their own bishop but would look to the city church for leadership. Thus the basis was laid for the bishop to preside over several assemblies, although in theory all remained one church. The territory presided over by a bishop is today called a diocese.
Metropolitans and Patriarchs. The bishop of the capital city of a province (the metropolis) or of another principal city began in the third century to assume a leading position among the bishops of the province. He presided at the provincial councils, gave his approval for the ordination of bishops, and often was the principal ordainer himself when a new bishop was installed. The metropolitan bishops of the ancient church were forerunners of the medieval archbishops in the western church.
The idea of councils of bishops led to the calling of ecumenical councils (world wide) to represent the whole church, the first of which was summoned by the emperor Constantine for Nicaea in 325. The council at Nicaea recognized the churches at Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch as having jurisdictional authority extending beyond the usual provincial limits. This was the germ of the patriarchal system. Eventually five patriarchs were recognized-the bishops of the above three churches and Constantinople and Jerusalem. When the division between the Greek (or Eastern) churches and the Latin (or Western) churches occurred, the Greek Church continued to hold to the patriarchal theory of church organization, whereas the Latin Church had recognized the bishop of Rome as the single pope thus giving it a monarchial organization.
The Gospel and the Law of Moses. The relation of Gentile converts to the law of Moses was the first great doctrinal controversy in the young church. The apostle Paul successfully waged the battle for the freedom of Gentile Christians from the regulations of the Old Testament law. The outcome resulted in separating the church from Judaism, but there remained a continuing problem in the second century of the place of the Old Testament in the church.
God and the World. The first serious doctrinal threat to the church, once it was separated from Judaism, came from heretical teaching about the nature of God and the world. Roots of this heresy were already being combated in the New Testament writings. The heresy is now commonly known by the name Gnosticism. It was the major issue before the second-century church. Developed Gnosticism generally looked upon the material world as evil. Various errors went with this pessimistic viewpoint. The Father of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer God, is not the Creator God, because the Father could not be responsible for the evil of creation. Jesus Christ was not fully human but only had the appearance of a human body (the view known as Docetism, meaning “appearance”), because he could not be corrupted by association with a fleshly body. There is no resurrection of the body, because the spirit alone is good and capable of salvation. Moral conduct may be either ascetic (the more common conclusion) or licentious, depending on whether one sought to deny or discipline his bodily existence or indulge it as religiously irrelevant.
Basilides was an early second-century Gnostic teacher in Alexandria. The best religious thinker among the Gnostics was Valentinus, who flourished in the mid-second century. Related to the Gnostics in many aspects of his thought was Marcion, who after his disfellowshipping by the church at Rome in 144 became the most powerful antagonist of orthodox Christianity in the second century.
Part of the reaction against Gnosticism is represented by the schismatic movement led by Montanus in the second half of the second century. Montanus claimed to inaugurate a new age of the Holy Spirit in which there was a rebirth of the gift of prophecy. A significant part of Montanism’s appeal was its rigorous Christian ethic.
The Nature of Christ. If the God of Creation and the God of Redemption are one, where does Christ fit in? Christians affirmed “one God,” in keeping with their Jewish heritage, and the deity of Christ, in keeping with their own experience of salvation. The Christological controversies of the late second and early third century were thus a part of the internal dialectic of Christian faith.
The principal alternatives proposed were Adoptionism, Modalism, and the Logos Christology. According to Adoptionism, Jesus was a good man whom God adopted as his Son. According to Modalism, Jesus was the same being or person as God, who manifested himself in a different mode at different periods. The majority of Christians were satisfied with neither of these options which rationalized away the paradoxes of Christian faith. The orthodox solution was to affirm at the same time the oneness of God, the deity of Christ, and the distinction of the Son from the Father. Many prominent thinkers offered the explanation that as a person’s reason (logos) was part of his nature but could become distinct in the spoken word, so Christ was divine but distinct from God. Such efforts to explain and harmonize the basic Christian affirmations led to the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century.
The Church and Repentance. The third century saw controversy and schism develop over the nature of the church and its life. Under the impact of persecution from the state, the church had to define what was going to be its relation to society and what was going to be its attitude to its members who did not live up to its ideals. Rigorists such as Hippolytus and Novatian said that the church is to be a community of the elite pure and cannot grant forgiveness to its members who fall into serious sins. Such sinful Christians may be forgiven by God at the Judgment if they are truly penitent, but the church is not to readmit them to its communion. Hippolytus and Novatian led successive schisms in the Roman church against bishops Callistus and Cornelius, who saw the church in more comprehensive terms as having a place for weak members who could be forgiven and aided by the church in their search for salvation. It was this comprehensive tendency which prevailed in the Catholic Church, but the sectarian spirit continued to arise, both within the Catholic Church (as in monasticism) and without (as in the fourth-century Donatists).
Perhaps the most helpful approach to the reader will be a literary history of early Christianity. There follows a classification of the major works of early church literature outside the New Testament. The authors quoted in the following studies are provided with chronological and geographical identifications in the alphabetical listing at the end of the book. A few other writers and documents are included here for the sake of completeness.
A. Apostolic Fathers–the writings nearest in time to the New Testament.
Clement of Rome, letter to the church at Corinth.
Barnabas, or Pseudo-Barnabas (if the ascription is made to the New Testament Barnabas).
Hermas, Shepherd (or Pastor).
Papias, known only from later quotations.
Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians. The Martyrdom of Polycarp was written shortly after his death by the church at Smyrna.
Ignatius, Seven genuine Epistles.
B. Apologists–defenders of the Christian faith, especially to the Roman government. The second-century apologists are:
Epistle to Diognetus.
Justin Martyr, Apology I and II; Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew.
Tatian, Oration Against the Greeks and Diatessaron (a harmony of the Gospels).
Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians and On the Resurrection (authorship questioned).
Theophilus, To Autolycus.
Melito, On the Passover (a sermon); his Apology is known only from later brief quotations.
Minucius Felix, Octavius, a Latin apology in dialogue form of uncertain date.
C. Apocryphal New Testament–Later works imitating the canonical New Testament writings. Second-century representatives include:
Gospel of Peter, a passion Gospel.
Gospel of Thomas-two works go under this name, a later infancy Gospel and a second-century collection of sayings ascribed to Jesus (found in a library of mostly “Gnostic” writings at Nag Hammadi, Egypt), sometimes referred to as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (although most of the sayings are also extant in Greek).
Protevangelium of James, devoted to the life of Mary.
Acts of John.
Acts of Paul.
Acts of Peter.
Epistle of the Apostles, really a post-resurrection revelation.
Apocalypse of Peter, visions of the beauty of heaven and the torments of hell.
D. Theologians–Major writers on Christian doctrine.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching.
Hippolytus (perhaps more than one author’s works are attributed to him), Apostolic Tradition; Refutation of All Heresies; Commentary on Daniel; Against Noetus; numerous other works.
Tertullian, Apology; Against Marcion; Prescription of Heretics; Against Praxeas; On Baptism; many others.
Cyprian, Epistles and several treatises, doctrinally the most important of which is On the Unity of the Church.
Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks; Instructor; Miscellanies; Who Is the Rich Man that is Saved?
Origen, On First Principles; Against Celsus; On Prayer; many homilies and commentaries.
There also survive from the second century Acts of the Martyrs, some poems and hymns, a few heretical writings, and some miscellaneous works.
Eusebius of Caesarea, church historian and theologian from the early fourth century, deserves special mention because he quotes so much earlier material now lost except for what he tells us.
Church History Surveys
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. “Pelican History of the Church.” Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1993. Paperback.
Comby, J. How to Read Church History, Vol. 1. New York: Crossroad, 1985.
Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Ancient and Medieval. “The Way of Life.” Abilene, Texas: Biblical Research Press, 1966. Paperback. Reprint, ACU Press.
Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.
Hall, Stuart G. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Paperback.
Guides to Christian Literature
Hamman, Adalbert. How to Read the Church Fathers. New York: Crossroad, 1993. Paperback.
Quasten, Johannes. Patrology. 4 vols. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1953-1986.
Ramsey, Boniface. How to Read the Fathers. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. Paperback. (Topical.)
Collections of Translations
Ancient Christian Writers. New York: Paulist Press, 1946–.
Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1885-1896; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.
Fathers of the Church. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1947–.
Library of Christian Classics. Vols. 1-9, 12. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953-58.
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. New York: Christian Literature, 1887-1894; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.
Oxford Early Christian Texts. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970–.
Lightfoot, J. B. The Apostolic Fathers. Ed. J. R. Harmer, Second edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Stevenson, J. and W. H. C. Frend. A New Eusebius, Revised edition. London: S.P.C.K., 1987. Paperback.
Bercot, David W., ed. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998.
Cross, F. L and E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Ferguson, Everett, with Michael P. McHugh and Frederick W. Norris. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, second edition. 2 vols. New York: Garland, 1997. Paperback, 1 vol., 1998.
Kelly, Joseph F. The Concise Dictionary of Early Christianity. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992.