A.D. 303-500

In our last section we have watched the growth of the Christian community within the Roman Empire and the natural suspicion and jealousy with which the government regarded it. We have also seen how the growing worldliness of the church justly increased that distrust. Now, when the church has been over two hundred and fifty years in existence and her numbers, so far as can be estimated, are equal to about one-twentieth of the whole population of the Empire, the time is ripe for a clash. At this point in her history the church is more closely associated with the fortunes of the Roman Empire than at any previous time. The reverberations of the crisis that took place at the beginning of the fourth century were heard in the distant east outside the bounds of the Empire, and the Christian communities there found themselves, as we shall see, seriously affected by it. The momentous action of the Emperor Constantine in taking the side of the church has left a mark upon Christianity which it bears to the present day. There are problems of Christian life which now face us that arise directly from it. No one who wants to follow the guidance of God of His flock throughout the centuries can ignore it. It is the explanation of the long mystery and bitterness of the middle ages. It explains the silence of the church and her neglect of her commission for a space of about twelve hundred years. In the case particularly of the Church of England clergyman at this present time it lies at the bottom of many of the problems that face him, and may be considered to be the first cause of much of the business that it falls to his lot to perform.

The issues of the crisis that took place in the fourth century are so momentous that we need no excuse for devoting a section to the two hundred years which saw the greatest change that has ever taken place in the history of Europe until that which we are witnessing at the moment, and which affected the course of the testimony of God's people in the world to an extent that can be compared with the facts of the Lord's resurrection and the day of Pentecost themselves. Shortly after the time when this book was first published the coronation of the King took place. Parts of this ceremony have their roots in the action and policy of the Emperor Constantine. As we look at the true church today, we see it split outwardly into sections separately organised for the purposes of witness and worship, causing much overlapping and waste. The reason for this may be traced partially to the same cause. If we ask, for example, how it is that the Japanese have waited nineteen hundred years to hear the Gospel, we cannot give a conclusive answer with-out taking into consideration the action of the Emperor Constantine. In the two hundred years between the close of the third century and the close of the fifth the whole face of the civilized world was changed. A combination of factors was needed to bring this about. Looking back over a distance of sixteen hundred years, the mind is filled with admiration and the heart with praise at the unerring sovereignty and power of the Lord of the universe and Head of the church as, acting according to His will in the kingdoms of men, He brought about that combination of circumstances which carried His people into one of the strangest phases of their history.

In the last section we saw that for two hundred years persecution of the Christians by the Roman government was not systematic but sporadic. It broke out here and there, depending upon the caprice of a provincial governor or the rage of an ignorant mob. The Christian profession probably placed a man outside the law, but, as often as not, he was left undisturbed. Such an attitude was natural in a civilized government during the period of prosperity and toleration under the great Emperors of the second century. But, as the second century drew to its close, the satiability of the empire became threatened. With the growing political confusion the policy of the state towards the Christians underwent a change. The Emperor Severus (193-211), a man of cruel temperament, issued edicts against Christianity, but his laws expired with his death, and no persecution took place for nearly forty years. The great confusion into which the government fell, and which may be said to date from the accession of the Emperor Caracalla in the year 211, may partially or entirely account for this. Rival Emperors struggled with each other for power, and the proper channels of authority were overridden by the Praetorian Guard, a powerful military organisation in the capital. The increasingly unhappy condition of the Empire politically made little difference to the diffusion of the Gospel and the increase of the church. We may imagine that if, on the one hand, trade declined and the use of the roads became less safe, thus making the propagation of the Gospel more difficult, yet on the other, the growing sense of unrest and impending calamity would be likely to turn men's hearts to the rest and anchorage which it offered. In the systematic persecutions which broke out in the third century we can see the effects of political confusion and distress which added to the suspicions of the government and made them more reckless and violent. The heathen priesthood also, jealous and angry with the growing Christian church, may well have spread the notion that the increasing unrest was due to the displeasure of the gods. Thus the Emperor Decius, who succeeded in 249, made a systematic attack upon Christianity, and attempted to destroy the organisation of the church by the removal of the bishops by exile or death. Decius was killed in battle in 251 and again the church, generally speaking, had freedom and peace for a period of fifty years.

Church Buildings

It was during these periods of rest that the worldliness of the church authorities most increased. The decline in spirituality within the visible church during the third century may be matched with her increase in numbers and power. It was about the beginning of the century that a great outward change took place, which had far-reaching results, and would not have failed powerfully to affect the watching heathen of the time. In primitive days Christian worship had taken place wherever it was possible for Christians to meet. In private houses, in the open air, among the tombs of those who had passed away, the prayers and praises of God's people had ascended to Him, the worshippers being quite indifferent to the locality in which they met, because they realized that their own bodies were the living temples of the Holy Ghost, and that the privilege of access was theirs to exercise at any moment and in any place. About the year 200 it became the custom, with the permission, if not approval, of the government, for the Christians to erect buildings in which to meet for worship. No one can doubt that the Christians were right in taking whatever advantage they could of increased facilities for freedom. No one can deny that the sight of a building, advertised as the property of the Christian community and open for inspection and worship, might constitute a powerful external aid to witness. No one will suppose that the ownership of a building by any Christian community, in which to carry out worship and instruction and to transact business, need be otherwise than a blessing. But there is evidence that during the third century two mistakes were made. The first was that, in the important cities at least, the buildings were unduly large in size, though not necessarily providing more than the required accommodation, and were erected with an eye to ornamentation that always cost money and sometimes amounted to ostentation. Obviously the existence of such buildings became a further provocation to the heathen population. In the second place it seems that even in the third century an unspiritual clergy began to connect with their buildings the idea of sanctity that attached, in heathen society, to the temples of the gods. After the establishment of Christianity this idea was, of course, lifted bodily out of heathenism and transplanted into the Christian church so effectually that Protestantism failed to eliminate it, and there are few today amongst organised groups of Christians who show complete freedom from the idea. Only once has the author seen any indication of the scriptural position upon a building: over the door of a certain chapel were the words, "the meeting-place of the Baptist church." At this point it ought to be said that there is no evidence whatever that in the third century the interior of these buildings presented any other appearance than that which a Christian church ought to have. They were not yet mass-houses, nor were they like heathen temples, and copies of the Scriptures for public reading still occupied the central place.

The prominence of the Christian church-buildings played a considerable part in the fiery trial that overtook the church at the dawn of the fourth century, as we shall see. In the year 284 the Emperor Diocletian succeeded to the throne. An able and far-seeing ruler, he set about the reorganization of the empire, racked by civil war, barbarian invasions, economic distress and violent outbreaks of pestilence. For thirty years there had been a division of the empire, one ruler governing in the west and another in the east. Diocletian was the eastern Emperor, but those in the west did not oppose him. His capital was at Nicomedia in the province of Bithynia. Among other reforms intended for the better administration of the empire, Diocletian appointed two assistant governors with the title of Caesar intending that they should succeed himself and his colleague in the purple. The eastern Caesar was named Galerius. This man conceived an implacable hatred for Christianity. The fact that he seems to have had trouble with insubordinate Christian soldiers in the army cannot, perhaps, entirely account for this. The Emperor was naturally tolerant. He recognised the strength of the Christian church, and realized the confusion that might result from an attack upon it. It seems that this strength was particularly noticed at this time by the heathen priesthood and by the conservative-minded in Roman society, who identified the heathen religion with the greatness and glory of the empire in the past, and were filled with alarm at the growth of Christianity. Galerius proved to be their champion. He persuaded the Emperor that the existence of the Christian community, growing in prosperity and numbers, was a danger to the stability of the empire, perhaps even to its existence. He urged that so long as it was allowed to continue, there could be no freedom from the anarchy and disquiet that had tormented the empire for three generations.

The Great Persecution

Diocletian was sufficiently persuaded to attempt the experiment of suppressing Christianity, and on the 24th of February 303, the first edict against the church was issued, requiring the demolition of all churches and the handing over to the authorities of all copies of the Scriptures for public destruction. We have seen that a spirit of worldliness had invaded the clergy, and that church policy had already begun to go astray upon what were still comparatively minor points. But if this was so, the great persecution brought out the fact that the primitive spirit of reality had not deserted the rank and file of believers. Their faith in, and loyalty to their Lord, their zeal for witness, rose to heights of triumph that surmounted the trial and brought the efforts of the Emperors to nought. "They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives unto the death." Almost as soon as the edict was posted up in Nicomedia, a young Christian soldier tore it down. He was at once arrested and roasted alive over a slow fire.

For ten years the persecution raged with varying force and varying duration in the different provinces of the empire. When once the government had embarked upon such a course, it was impossible not to proceed to the logical conclusion. Persecution could not, in the circumstances of the time, stop at buildings and books, but must inevitably proceed against the persons of those who used and read them. The day previous to the issuing of the edict, the church at Nicomedia, which stood in a conspicuous position on a hill, was rased to the ground. Throughout the empire the Christians offered less resistance to the destruction of the churches than might have been supposed. There was little that they could do. They showed a faithful and obedient spirit in submitting to this loss and humiliation, and in trusting to the providence and protection of the Lord. The story that at a small town in Asia Minor the congregation locked themselves in and allowed the church to be burnt over their heads may possibly be founded on fact, but does not rest on reliable evidence. Worse was to follow. Within a few weeks of the issuing of the first edict fire broke out in the Emperor's palace at Nicomedia on two separate occasions, and his advisers were not slow to fan the suspicion that these were Christian acts of revenge. The origin of the fires is unknown. There is no evidence that Christians had a hand in them. In the same year 303 two further edicts were issued and the fourth and last in March, 304. The second edict ordered the imprisonment of all clergy of whatever rank; the third directed the magistrates to convert them forcibly to paganism by torture; and the fourth widened the scope of the two previous edicts, making them apply to all Christian believers and not clergy only.

These edicts ran throughout the whole of the empire, east and west, but their effects in the different provinces were very varying. In the west the Emperor Maximian carried them out with full force in Italy and Africa, but the Caesar Constantius, who ruled Britain, Gaul and Spain subordinate to Maximian, did what he could to lessen their effect. Within a year of the issue of the last of the edicts, Diocletian and Maximian by arrangement resigned, and their places were taken by Galerius in the east and Constantius in the west.

Constantius could not repeal the edicts, but practically refrained from putting them into force, and when shortly afterwards he died, he was succeeded by his son Constantine, who immediately proclaimed himself the champion of Christianity. Constantine, however, was not firmly settled on his throne in the west until a considerable amount of fighting had ended a period of confusion. Meanwhile, in the east, Galerius, the enemy of God's people, carried on the persecution with the utmost rigour. Victory, though not quite the conclusion of the struggle, came after eight years. In 311 Galerius, disillusioned and oppressed by a fatal disease, issued a repeal of the edicts of persecution, asserting that they had been conceived in an attempt to bring stability to the empire, admitting that they had failed, and calling upon the Christians to pray for him. In Asia and Syria the persecution after a brief pause was carried on by Galerius' successor Maximin, but was finally ended in 313 by Maximin's defeat by the Emperor Licinius, at the time the colleague of Constantine.

Our earliest account of the great persecution comes to us from Eusebius, the church historian, who as a young man had suffered in it. Eusebius is a serious historian: there is none of the wholesale invention and legend in his pages so common in the works of mediaeval ecclesiastics. Yet he lived in an age whose standards of criticism were far below our own, and he seems to admit that he had weighted his scales in favour of the church in the account which he gives. Consequently we may feel certain that he exaggerates. Allowing for all this, however, we can have no doubt that what took place was terrible enough. The separation of families, the break-up of home life, the brutalities, the terror, the physical suffering, or at least the fear of all these things, must have been overwhelming. Christians were swept by the thousand into prison. Many were condemned to labour in the mines of Egypt. Men, women and children were subjected to hideous torture in the presence of the magistrates. They were scalded and roasted, their limbs pulled out of joint, their flesh torn with sharp instruments. There were many who failed to stand these fearful tests and, by conforming to the order to sacrifice, relapsed into heathenism. There were many striking cases of defiance of the law on the part of the heathen in shielding their Christian friends. There may not have been quite the same note of praise for the privilege of suffering that there had been in the primitive days. The church had become sufficiently earthbound to regard her trial as a "strange" thing, and indeed as an outrage. She seems also, generally speaking, to have forgotten another of the Apostle Peter's exhortations, to follow her Lord's example of patience and gentleness. Christians, when reviled, often seem to have responded with revilings. They reproached the magistrates for their injustice and cruelty, and invoked the vengeance of God upon them. But nothing could shake the constancy of the faithful Christians as a whole. They "endured as seeing Him Who is invisible." Like Stephen of old they looked up and "saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God." Their sufferings and example inspired many to throw in their lot with them. The scenes of horror and the emotions stirred by them had the opposite effect from that which the authorities intended. Those watching realized that divine power sustained the sufferers, and that the hope and the experience which were considered worth the endurance of so much must be substantial indeed.

A story of the persecution typical of many is that of the martyrdom of Theodosia of Tyre, and is recounted in Eusebius' Martyrs of Palestine. Seeing two or three Christians being examined before the magistrate, Theodosia, a girl of seventeen, herself a faithful Christian, went up to them and asked them to pray for her. She was immediately arrested and herself brought before the magistrate, who seems to have been a savage tyrant and was naturally enraged at what she had done. He ordered her to sacrifice and was met with refusal. He then ordered the application of the ungulae, a sharp instrument by which the flesh was scraped from the sides. Half unconscious, Theodosia declared her joy at the privilege of being allowed to suffer and to share in the witness of those who were being persecuted, and asserted her certain hope in the reward that awaited her in heaven. Finding that further torture was useless, the magistrate ordered her to be thrown into the sea, and the sentence was immediately carried out.

On the publication of Galerius' edict of repeal the prisons and mines were emptied of Christians, who returned to their homes singing praises to God. We can imagine the praise meetings and the rejoicing that took place. It is probably at this time that the hymn we call the Te Deum was composed. But the persecution was not to end, as had those previous to it, in a temporary period of rest overshadowed by the fear of another outbreak. Its close introduced one of the greatest crises that has ever occurred in the history of mankind. In the year 313 two hundred and eighty years after the day of Pentecost, or possibly two hundred and eighty years after the first preaching of the Gospel to a Gentile, the church's travail came to an end. The Emperor Constantine, who, since his accession, had constituted himself the champion of the Christian church, promulgated, in conjunction with his colleague Licinius, the famous edict of Milan, which granted toleration to all religions in the empires removed all legal disabilities upon the Christian profession and restored the losses that Christians had suffered during the great persecution. This edict was shortly followed by others which gave Christians a position of ascendancy, and had the effect of establishing the Christian religion as the only one recognised by the state. The edicts were put in force throughout the whole empire without opposition. especially as (on the death of Licinius) Constantine shortly became sole Emperor of the reunited east and west.

The Visible Church

The story of the next two hundred years, so far as the Roman world and the church within its boundaries are concerned, is a story of confusion, spiritual and material. They are marked by the adaptation of the visible church as a world power to world conditions; a fierce struggle against heresy in which scriptural doctrine would have been overwhelmed if the state had not come to the aid of the church; and thirdly, the collapse and dissolution of the western Roman empire before the invasion of barbarians from the north with resultant international chaos. From this point the story of the visible church and the story of the true church part company. Not that the two bodies have ever become altogether distinct. The true church became an invisible body hidden away in, and wrapped round by, the great professing body which has ever since gone by the name of the church. The position became almost the same as it was in Old Testament days. At that time there was a nation called Israel, visible to the world, bearing God's Name, with a worship centred in the Temple in Jerusalem. But this outward Israel was not the real Israel. From the days of Moses "their blot was that they were not His children," "They do err in their hearts." The true Israel was a "remnant according to the election of grace." In the days of Moses, Joshua and Caleb alone of the spies belonged to the true Israel; in the time of Elijah there were seven thousand true to God. When our Lord was on earth, Nathaniel belonged to this remnant, for he was "an Israelite indeed." From the fourth century onwards, the situation in the church has been the same as this. There has been a large visible body known to itself and to the world as the church of Christ. But the true church has all along been the elect remnant of those who are truly born again, visible to the world not as an organisation but as individuals whose manner of life has undergone a transformation through the power of God in Christ, and who have become channels of that power to a perishing humanity.

We cannot deal with the story of this true invisible church without dealing also with the background against which her story is set, and which largely gives it meaning. Many important lessons and warnings for our own time would be lost if we did not follow the great changes that came over the visible church in the two centuries that followed Constantine. As we have already seen, many present-day questions find their answer in the events of the fourth and fifth centuries. And so, for the remainder of this section, we shall try to follow these events from the point of view of the true believer living in south-western Europe during these two centuries, a period that opened with his triumphant deliverance from bitter persecution and legal emancipation in an almost intoxicating spirit of thanksgiving and joy, and that ended with his facing the problem of where to worship and with whom to associate, while he was obliged to realise that the triumph that had seemed the fulfilment of so many hopes, if not the actual coming in of the kingdom itself, had turned to dust, and that he must part company with those who claimed with all plausibility to be the successors of the Apostles, and march out into the wilderness. " Let us therefore go forth unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach."

The circumstances in which the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity seem to have been typical of the epoch that was to follow. They seem, as we look back upon them, to have been ominous. We may discount as fabulous the story of his vision of a cross in the sky with the legend, "By this conquer." It is the sort of story that was current during the middle ages and seemed plausible to men whose minds were steeped in superstition. More credible is the possibility that Christian soldiers under his command resorted to prayer when faced with difficulty, and that he realized that an answer was given. His motives could not have been altogether those of policy, because, in spite of the influence of the church, there must still have appeared great risk in coming out freely on the Christian side, especially at a time when the invincibility of the church during the great persecution had not yet been made manifest by the result. His reasons appear to have been due more to his temperament than to anything else. He was generous and tolerant, and he may have seen in the high standard of Christian ethics a potential force of value for the future stability of the empire. This much is clear. He was far from being a converted man. He postponed his baptism until his death-bed. He could see and admire the outward organization of the church, but he was blind to spiritual realities. He was typical of the kind of Christianity that his action brought into being, unspiritual, worldly, associated with superstition and legend.

Fall of Paganism

The immediate effect of the change of religion and of the recognition by the Emperor of Christianity can be imagined. The heathen priesthood, which had been organised by Diocletian in what amounted to bishoprics in imitation of the Christian model was alarmed and angry, but impotent to resist the change. It feared that the tables would be turned, and that it might itself become the object of vengeance and persecution. These fears were without foundation. The Roman aristocracy and the conservative-minded citizens objected to the change, but there was no power in their dead systems of philosophy to enable them effectually to resist it. In spite of the attempt to revive it during the reign of the Emperor Julian, who reversed the policy of the Christian Emperors, heathenism fell into decay, and before the fourth century was over, its practice had been forbidden by law. This does not mean that the heathen were converted. What happened was that the Christian church enlarged and adapted itself in order to accommodate the mass of unconverted people, and thus lost its message, its distinctive witness, its power, and its vision of its mission to a perishing world.

The message of Christ is to the individual. What took place in the fourth century constituted the greatest mass-movement in all Christian history, and ought to stand for ever as a warning of the danger inherent in all so-called mass-movements. The movement was determined by the policy of the government. The court became Christian. Posts of responsibility were filled by those professing the Christian faith. A social or cultural distinction began to arise, preserved in the word "pagan," which means "village-folk,'' evidence that heathenism came to be regarded as the backward cult of the ignorant and uneducated. The reaction of human nature to such a state of affairs is self-evident. It became respectable to be a Christian. Therefore masses of people thronged to enter the visible Christian church. We read of occasions when the roads were crowded with candidates for baptism, waiting in white robes till their turn should come. We can understand at once what this meant. The true church is entered by a spiritual experience, an operation of the Holy Spirit in the individual heart which gives him regenerate life in response to faith in God's Word. Those who composed the mass-movement of the fourth century (and many mass-movements since) neither desired nor possessed this experience. They never entered the true church. They entered the visible church by the outward rite of baptism, meaningless in their case (as since in so many others) because they did not possess the inward spiritual grace of which the outward rite is essentially an evidence and seal. The absence of the spiritual experience made it necessary that something should be substituted for it, which should be considered as conferring those spiritual blessings of which the church still realized she existed to be the channel. And so a subtle change took place. The rite of baptism was substituted for the spiritual experience. The inward was exchanged for the outward. Baptism itself came to be regarded as bestowing spiritual grace by a kind of magic (although no such degrading word was ever mentioned in connection with a ceremony that now came to be thought of in the light of a "sacred mystery").

This change in outlook probably took place nearly universally within a single generation, although we must remember that the spiritual outlook always persisted among a minority beside it. It was easy, indeed it was, inevitable in the circumstances, because it coincided exactly with the outlook among the heathen upon the sacred heathen rites. For generations the heathen had been accustomed to the sacred mysteries of initiation by which "regeneration" in the heathen sense was conferred, and the soul became purified from guilt and fit for the select company of the initiated with the privileges and knowledge that membership of this company conferred. These rites were not always unconnected with manifestations of so-called psychic power. Christian baptism now simply took the place of the heathen rite. This is the origin of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, to which modern Romanism and Anglo-Romanism are committed, and to which many of the clergy and laity of the Church of England, not extreme Anglo-Romanists, but unconverted and ignorant of the history of the foundation of their church subscribe in a vague way today.

This change of view upon baptism, effected so easily, so naturally, under the circumstances of the day, lies at the root of the whole mysterious mediaeval medley of religion, which is heathenism poured into a Christian mould and covered with a Christian veneer. Two other changes followed as logical corollaries. The first was the natural transference of the new view from the one ordinance of baptism to the other ordinance of the Lord's Supper. This, from being a sample remembrance of the Lord's death, came also to be a rite charged with "spiritual," that is to say with "magic," significance. In the ordinance as scripturally ordained and carried out, the blessing lies in the obedience to God's Word involved in partaking, and also in the illustration given to the mind of what it means to feed day by day spiritually upon the heavenly paschal Lamb. In the new conception, grace was conveys by the actual eating and drinking of the elements themselves, a notion which by a series of logical steps led on to the full doctrine of the mass, with which we shall deal in our next section. The second result that followed from the change in view as to the meaning of baptism was equally naturally a still further substantial increase in the authority of the clergy. We have seen that even in the third century the higher clergy had attained positions which do not seem to have been provided for in the scriptural pattern. They had become rulers in the worldly sense and enjoyed worldly power and sometimes worldly wealth. This, however, was nothing to the position which the change in outlook began to confer on them, although that position did not reach its logical development for some centuries more. When the ordinances came to be put in the place of the spiritual realities of which they were rightly only the evidence and seal, the position of the church, and notably in the circumstances of the clergy, naturally changed from that of the humble channel of the grace of God conveyed through the preaching and teaching of the Word to that of the bestowers of grace themselves. A scriptural ministry declares that God's Word promises so-and-so, and affirms that belief in that Word will meet with and find God's supply of every spiritual need. A heathen or mediaeval priesthood itself supplied grace by the performance of a visible act, and could withhold God's grace at will by the simple refusal to perform the necessary act.

And so, while the heathen priesthood ostensibly fell into decay and died out, it actually lived on. Its essentials were transferred to the clergy of the Christian church, who in reality though not in name, carried on its traditions and its practices. The root of all this lay in the change of view on baptism made as a natural accompaniment of the accommodation of the unconverted within the church. The process, of course, did not stop at the point we have described. Plank after plank of the heathen structure found itself once more in its place as that structure, after being pulled down, was rebuilt as it had been on different ground. But these things will be more conveniently treated in our next section, when we shall have reached a period at which the whole transaction had become a patent historical reality.


There is another extraordinary feature of religious life which intruded itself at this period upon the Christian church and grew during the middle ages to immense proportions. This was monasticism. Its appearance does not seem to be logically connected with the tendencies which we have just described, but may be considered as part of the general drift away from scriptural spirituality and towards paganism which characterized the Christian church in the Roman empire during the fourth and fifth centuries. We have seen that certain extreme sects, professing more or less connection with Christianity, in the earlier centuries showed leanings towards asceticism. This was the case with the Montanists, and a certain kind of asceticism easily grew from the Gnostic teaching of the evil of matter. It is difficult to understand how anyone professing obedience to the Christian Scriptures can imagine that asceticism has any place in Christian life. The New Testament asserts that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, that abstinence has no spiritual value, that celibacy and abstinence were to be characteristic of a movement away from the Truth. It reveals the Lord "going about doing good," and describes His attendance at a wedding feast, at which He performed a miracle to increase the supply of wine. If the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians is appealed to, the most that that chapter does is to teach that, in view of the pressing urgency of the world's need for the Gospel, a man or woman would do well to abstain from marriage, if it were likely to prove a tie or hinder them from giving their best and fullest service to the work of God. The New Testament declares the excellence of the married condition and the desirability of the church's having a married clergy. Yet so great was the drift in the fourth and fifth centuries that the eyes of the church were blinded to the significance of these directions. The spread of asceticism was probably aided by the influence of the curious Manichee religion, which was founded by a Persian named Mani in the third century, and exercised great influence in the west during the fourth. It was dualistic, dividing the spiritual world into two spheres of light and darkness, and had certain features in common with Gnosticism. It possessed in addition to its ordinary adherents a small company of "elect" from whom a strict morality of abstinence was expected, to which other members of the cult were not required to conform. Here at any rate is an idea parallel to that in Romanism, which imposes upon the "religious" a special standard of holiness not supposed to be intended for lay people. Egypt was the country in which monasticism began. Its sandy deserts provided suitable solitary retreats for those who purposed to retire from the world and its temptations to a life of contemplation, which had at least the advantage of calling forth the respect and veneration of large circles of people who visited the hermit for advice or to request his prayers and who often kept him in food. It has been remarked that the standard of life of these recluses was little below that of the poorest Egyptian peasants of the period who maintained a meagre subsistence on the edge of the desert. Egypt was in touch by way of Syria with the east, where asceticism had been an essential part of the teaching of Buddha since the seventh century B.C., and where communities of Buddhist monks and nuns existed. The absurd lengths to which hermits went were exemplified later in the notorious Simon Stylites, who spent many years on the top of a pillar. As time went on the example of the solitary anchorites and hermits was followed also by whole communities of either sex, and the system of monasticism, that has proved a blight and curse to so many lives, overspread the mediaeval church and is still with us today.

An incentive to monasticism was provided in the fifth century by the distress that accompanied the barbarian invasions and the political and social chaos that followed them. The fifth century was a time that appeared to the individual Christian of the day to be nothing less than apocalyptic. The judgments of God were everywhere in evidence. In the year 410 the city of Rome itself, unviolated by a foreign foe for eight hundred years, fell before the Goths. The civilization of centuries disappeared in ruins. The church searched the prophetic Scriptures as Christians do in the great world cataclysms of today. The effect of the downfall of Rome upon those who lived through it was greater than the effect of the last great war upon ourselves. The only parallel we can imagine would be the invasion of Europe by vast armies of Japanese, the destruction of governments and the permanent occupation of much of the land by the enemy. No wonder that many men and women, some of them Christian in name but not in heart, and therefore deprived of all the spiritual consolation that the true faith provides on such occasions, decided to leave the troubled world and retire to the seclusion of the desert. The introduction of the principle of monasticism into Christianity shows to what extent the church had forgotten the great commission with which she was entrusted at the beginning of her career. Instead of going to the world with her message, she secluded herself from it. Instead of exhibiting to the world scriptural holiness through the risen life of Christ she sought a false holiness through observance and abstinence. No wonder that her voice was silenced, her candlestick taken away, and that corruption descended upon her in a sleep of centuries.

Barbarian Invasion

The chaos and distress of the fifth century produced a second effect upon the fortunes of the church, which was almost the opposite to the one we have described. We have seen the Christian church, even in the third century, beginning to shape itself as a great world community. With the increase of the power of the clergy this process rapidly developed during the fourth century. Thus, when the empire. and with it the central government of the western world, collapsed before the barbarian invasions early in the fifth century, the church found herself by force of circumstances driven as far as possible into the place from which the empire had disappeared. The clergy begin to appear as the champions of civilization against chaos: and the church came to be looked upon as the one remaining link with the world that was past, and as gathering into itself all that it was possible to preserve of a culture that was gone. The church was stable in a world of change and anarchy. Thus, not only did the church represent Roman civilization and come to be identified with it as opposed to barbarian ignorance and crudity, but she seized the opportunity in a practical sense to step forward and take up the reins of authority that had fallen from the Caesar's hands. In the middle of the fifth century when Attila the Hun had been ravaging Europe, and it was feared that he intended to make a descent upon Rome, it was Leo, the able and energetic Bishop of Rome, who was sent to northern Italy to interview Attila and to attempt, by bribery or persuasion, to dissuade him from his plans. Whether or not it was due to the effect that the bishop had upon him, Attila did not come, and the bishop scored a distinct success. We can well imagine how all this confusion, spiritual, political and social, must have bewildered the mind of the humble Christian of the fifth century. He would find the worldly preoccupations of the clergy, the crowd of unconverted professors, the increasing ritual and ostentation of worship, becoming less and less satisfying to his spirit. Spiritual fellowship would become rarer and rarer. He would scarcely know where to turn. Gradually, as we have seen, the true church set her face towards the wilderness, there, as it were, marvellously to be preserved by her Lord, until in the latter days the time should again be ripe for her work and witness.

Formulation of Doctrine

There is another sphere in which confusion nearly obtained the upper hand during the fourth and fifth centuries, the sphere of theology. Indeed, it must have reigned supreme if the arm of the state had not been there to avert such an occurrence. When the church became an institution of the state, the forces of the state were used on the side of orthodoxy. It was to the interest of the state that the church should be a unity. During the fourth and fifth centuries the church set herself to be orthodox in the intellectual sense. It is only to be expected that in a world where confusion reigned the sphere of the intellectual could not escape. Consequently the church was assailed during these two centuries by a series of speculative heresies, which drove her to formulate her doctrine and leave it for future generations in summary shape. This was the age when the great creeds and formulae were composed. In other words, the church wisely considered it necessary that her members should subscribe to a basis. In this she was in the same position as Evangelical societies today, and she adopted the same course as they have done and for the same reason. We live today in an age of confusion of thought, and we are assailed by all sorts of speculative theories. Just as we have adopted bases to clarify our position, so did the church of the fourth century.

The heresies that the church faced in the fourth and fifth centuries were rather different that from those had arisen in the second. The later ones with which we are at present concerned were by contrast heresies of interpretation. They mostly professed to base themselves upon Scripture and declared that the orthodox interpretation was incorrect. They resembled, roughly speaking, errors like Russellism, Seventh-Day Adventism, or Christadelphianism, in the sense that these profess to be interpreting the Scripture rightly as opposed to orthodox Evangelicalism. While they lasted, however, they were far larger in numbers and influence than these sects are today. It is fortunately beyond our scope to enter into an account of these heresies in detail. Our aim is to notice the effects that their appearance had upon the main stream of Christian doctrine. Generally speaking, in the east the questions at issue had to do with the nature and Person of Christ, in the west with the subjects of sin and salvation. The most important was the heresy of Arius, who denied the doctrine of the Trinity, and taught that the Son, though pre-existent to the incarnation, was originally a created being. The question was fiercely debated at the Council of Nicaea, called by the Emperor for the purpose in the year 325. The champion of the scriptural doctrine was Athanasius, then a young man, who maintained the struggle throughout a long life during which he experienced many vicissitudes. In spite of the great strength and influence of Arianism, the orthodox doctrine prevailed after two or three generations, and Arianism died out of the empire after the exclusion of its adherents. It remained, however, flourishing among the barbarians until the eighth century, being the established religion of the Gothic and Lombard kingdoms, which were among those that arose from the ruins of the empire. The Arian kingdoms were finally destroyed by the pope and the King of the Franks.

Then there were the disputes in the Greek East (for the empire after the death of Constantine was again divided into two, the eastern centre being at Constantinople) over the nature and Person of Christ. Were there two Persons in one Christ? If there were two natures, what was their mutual relationship? These disputes passed on into the fifth century. Others arising from them continued much longer and must be mentioned in our next section. As we have seen, these intellectual controversies forced the church to put down her beliefs in creeds and formulae, and this is the substantial advantage to future generations which their appearance brought. Another great effect that they produced was the separation of the churches of the east and of the west, a fact of importance for the history of the future.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

In the west these centuries produced the Donatist movement, which was a kind of Montanism, fanatical and given to ascetic practices, and represented a sort of protest against the secularization of the church and its connection with the state. The Donatists grew to large numbers and set up a rival hierarchy of bishops, but were finally suppressed by the aid of the state. For about fifty years covering the second half of the fourth Century a movement somewhat similar, arising from the teaching of a layman named Priscillan, agitated the churches in Spain. The leaders of this movement were beheaded at the request of the orthodox bishops in spite of protests from Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and others. Their teaching has been disputed by their enemies: but it seems that they were no more than a scriptural company protesting against the teachings of the day. More important was the conflict with Pelagius, a British monk, who denied original sin and taught that it was possible for individuals to live without sin and thus to merit salvation and that there were cases in which this had taken place. The great champion of the orthodox faith in the western church in the last decades of the fourth century and the opening ones of the fifth was Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. He was a man of deep spiritual experience, some of which he reveals in his Confessions, and of great intellectual power. He combated both Donatists and Pelagians. Against the former he set forth a view of the church which cannot be said to be scriptural, to which the mediaeval hierarchy looked as a basis for their claims to world power and, what is more important still, their monstrous practices of persecution. Against the Pelagians, Augustine stood for the scriptural and Pauline view of salvation. He expounded original sin, moral guilt, predestination and salvation by the grace of God exercised by His sovereign power effectually towards those who are saved. This side of Augustine's teaching, being thoroughly scriptural, was misunderstood or neglected by the middle ages, and was not taken full advantage of until the Reformation. The downfall of Rome and the general political chaos formed the background for Augustine's great work, The City of God.

The establishment of Christianity in the Roman empire had effects beyond that empire's frontiers. We saw that Christian communities sprang up all over the Parthian kingdom, to the east of the Euphrates, and that evangelisation was carried on by them in the far east. The Christians in these regions had enjoyed comparative quiet, but this was now changed. In the year 277 a Persian dynasty, the famous Sassanids occupied the throne of Parthia. They maintained the hostility with Rome, inflicting one or two serious defeats upon the Roman armies. As soon as Christianity became established in the empire, it came to be regarded with hostility by the Persian kings, who looked upon it as the religion of their traditional foe. The result was that in the fourth century a fierce persecution broke out against the Christian churches in Persia, lasting forty years. The believers' sufferings were appalling, but the churches survived the ordeal. Bishops from the west intervened with the Persian kings to help the Christians and thus forged links between themselves and the eastern churches. The result was that the Persian communities altered their primitive modes of organization and fell into line with the church of the west in adopting the hierarchical system and raising the higher clergy to positions of eminence. Thus at the close of the fifth century after Christ we see the visible church throughout the world departing a long way from the model which Scripture had laid down, her heart lured away from her Master by the attractions of power and wealth, her mind occupied with intellectual speculation, her commission forgotten and her guide-book disregarded. Is our own generation ignorant of all these things? Can it discern the signs and hear the warnings that they provide?


Gibbon (E.) : as before, chaps. xx, xxi, xxviii and xxxvii.
Gwatkin (H. M.), and FOAKES-JACKSON (F. J.) : as before.