HISTORICAL THEOLOGY

Samuel Waldron

PRE-CONSTANTINIAN EXPANSION

Return to Table of Contents

 

SECTION 2: PRE-CONSTANTINIAN EXPANSION

 

Introduction:

In A.D. 30, 120 people, ordinary people of a second rate province in the Roman Empire, sat in an upper room praying. Less than three centuries later 10% of the population of the Roman Empire would confess to be their spiritual descendants and a catechumen of their beliefs would sit on its throne. (This would happen despite the fact that for much of that period Christianity would be illegal and carry the death sentence for conviction of it.) Thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands would experience the ferocity of the Roman beast.

Estimating the population of the Empire in 300 at about 50 million, at 10% of the total population there were five million Christians, Christians probably of far better quality than those of today's "evangelical Christianity" and certainly superior to the numbers which poured into the church after Constantine's conversion. Starting with the 120 of the day of Pentecost, the church had to double in size every 20 years or less to have five million adherents by 300 A.D.

It is no wonder that the Apologists turned to this remarkable growth in their defense of Christianity.

Justin Martyr says, about the middle of the second century: "There is no people, Greek or barbarian, or of any other race, by whatsoever appellation or manners they may be distinguished, however ignorant of arts or agriculture, whether they dwell in tents or wander about in covered wagons - among who prayers and thanksgivings are not offered in the name of the crucified Jesus to the Father and Creator of all things." Half a century later, Tertullian addresses the heathen defiantly: "We are but of yesterday, and yet we already fill your cities, islands, camps, your palace, senate and forum; we have left to you only your temples." These, and similar passages of Ireneus and Arnobius, are evidently rhetorical exaggerations. Origen is more cautious and moderate in his statement. But it may be fairly asserted, that about the end of the third century the name of Christ was known, revered, and persecuted in every province and every city of the empire. Maximian, in one of his edicts, says that "almost all" had abandoned the worship of their ancestors for the new sect.

We naturally ask, "What happened?" The ultimate answer is, "it is the finger of a sovereign God, the hand of a risen Lord which was with the early disciples and wrought this." This it must be emphasized is the ultimate, the unavoidable answer. Here we must "stand still and see the salvation of God." We must pause here content to glorify and worship God.

A true Christian will, however, wish to inspect this wonder of God more closely, desiring to trace the movement of God's Spirit and the means of His working. This legitimate desire will, however, in great measure be frustrated by the lack of historical materials. Only the tip of the iceberg can be seen and that only sporadically.

I. Expansion in the 1st century.

II. Expansion in the 2nd and 3rd century.

III. Concluding remarks.

 

I. Expansion in the 1st Century.

 

Our best source for this period is, of course, the New Testament. We may assume that it records for us the events of most major importance. This is not to say, however, that it is concerned to give us even a summary of the major paths of expansion after the first few years. We know of Paul and Pentecost, but we know practically nothing of the evangelism carried out by the twelve apostles. There is a late rumor that the twelve divided the world among them which is probably false. There is a rumor that Thomas went east preaching in Persia and finally India. This may be true. There is good evidence for Peter laboring and dying (with Paul) in Rome around A.D. 64. There is good evidence for John laboring in Ephesus till the late 90's. This is all we have of the twelve's missionary endeavors. Acts 2 gives us some important information.

 

Acts 8:4 and 11:19 allude to the evangelistic endeavor of Christians after being scattered from Jerusalem. Antioch (in Syria) would become the forward base for Western gospel operations. Paul from there would travel and evangelize throughout Asia Minor, Greece and come to Rome.

 

There is some interesting evidence for the early planting of Christianity at Rome. Acts 2:10 mentions visitors from Rome at Pentecost. There was a large Jewish colony there. Romans 1:8 assumes a well-established church known throughout the world. That epistle's date is frequently put at around A.D. 57. In A.D. 49, Claudius "because the Jews of Rome were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus (impulsore Chresto) expelled them from the city." Since Chrestus was pronounced like Christus, it may well be that these riots were like many others the reaction of Jews to Christian evangelism. Aquila and Priscilla were among the Jews expelled and were apparently already Christians, Acts 18:2.

 

In A.D. 95 there is an interesting record of one Flavius Clemens who was purged under Domitian for "atheism and Jewish ways". Later evidence points to his wife as the original owner of a Christian cemetery. This is interesting for two reasons: (1) It shows that Christianity had penetrated the upper classes. Flavius Clemens was Domitian's cousin. (2) The two sons of Clemens (who now disappear) were at the time the heirs of Domitian!

 

Another interesting evidence of Christianity (The ALPHA Paternoster OMEGA square) shows up in Pompeii (79 A.D.).

 

The church of the 1st century was dominantly urban. It moved first into Jewish colonies which would be urban, and used the Synagogue to establish itself. The rural areas were the last evangelized.

 

Something of the success of Christianity and its expansion can be gleaned from Pliny's letter to Trajan in A.D. 112. He was governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, near the heart of the area evangelized by Paul. Thus, though what he says probably is not true of every part of the Roman Empire, yet it is revealing.

 

PLINY TO TRAJAN.

My Lord: It is my custom to refer to you everything that I am in doubt about; for who is better able either to correct my hesitation or instruct my ignorance?

I have never been present at trials of Christians; consequently I do not know the precedents regarding the question of punishment or the nature of the inquiry. I have been in no little doubt whether some discrimination is made with regard to age, or whether the young are treated no differently from the older; whether renunciation wins indulgence, or it is of no avail to have abandoned Christianity if one has once been a Christian; whether the very profession of the name is to be punished, or only the criminal practices which go along with the name.

So far this has been my procedure when people were charged before me with being Christians. I have asked the accused themselves if they were Christians; if they said "Yes," I asked them a second and third time, warning them of the penalty; if they persisted I ordered them to be led off to execution. For I had no doubt that, whatever kind of thing it was that they pleaded guilty to, their stubbornness and unyielding obstinacy at any rate deserved to be punished. There were other afflicted with the like madness whom I marked down to be referred to Rome, because they were Roman citizens.

Later, as usually happens, the trouble spread by the very fact that it was being dealt with, and further varieties came to my notice. An anonymous letter was laid before me containing many people's names. Some of these denied that they were Christians or had ever been so; at my dictation they invoked the gods and did reverence with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose along with the statues of the gods; they also cursed Christ; and as I am informed that people who are really Christians cannot possibly be made to do any of those things, I considered that the people who did them should be discharged. Others against whom I received information said they were Christians and then denied it; they meant (they said) that they had once been Christians but had given it up: some three years previously, some a longer time, one or two as many as twenty years before. All these likewise both did reverence to your image and the statues of the gods and cursed Christ. But they maintained that their fault or error amounted to nothing more than this: they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before sunrise and reciting an antiphonal hymn to Christ as God, and binding themselves with an oath-not to commit any crime, but to abstain from all acts of theft, robbery and adultery, from breaches of faith, from denying a trust when called upon to honour it. After this, they went on, it was their custom to separate, and then meet again to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. And even this, they said, they had given up doing since the publication of my edict in which according to your instructions, I had placed a ban on private associations. So I thought it the more necessary to inquire into the real truth of the matter by subjecting to torture two female slaves, who were called "deacons"; but I found nothing more than a perverse superstition which went beyond all bounds.

Therefore I deferred further inquiry in order to apply to you for a ruling. The case seemed to me to be a proper one for consultation, particularly because of the number of those who were accused. For many of every age, every class, and of both sexes are being accused and will continue to be accused. Nor has this contagious superstition spread through the cities only, but also through the villages and the countryside. But I think it can be checked and put right. At any rate the temples, which had been well-nigh abandoned, are beginning to be frequented again; and the customary services, which had been neglected for a long time are beginning to be resumed; fodder for the sacrificial animals, too, is beginning to find a sale again, for hitherto it was difficult to find anyone to buy it. From all this it is easy to judge what a multitude of people can be reclaimed, if an opportunity is granted them to renounce Christianity.

TRAJAN TO PLINY.

My dear Secundus: You have followed the correct procedure in deciding the cases of those who have been charged before you with being Christians. Indeed, no general decision can be made by which a set form of dealing with them could be established. They must not be ferreted out; if they are charged and convicted, they must be punished, provided that anyone who denies that he is a Christian and gives practical proof of that by invoking our gods is to win indulgence by this repudiation, no matter what grounds for suspicion may have existed against him in the past. Anonymous documents which are laid before you should receive no attention in any case; they are a very bad precedent and quite unworthy of the age in which we live.

 

II. Expansion in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries.

 

A. Palestine

 

1. The Christian Mission to the Jews

 

a. Its Progress

 

Christianity made great strides among the Jews till around A.D. 50. The Book of Acts refers to this. From 50-70 little progress seems to have been made. The opposition of Judaism to Christianity was hardening as the nature of Christianity took shape.

b. Its Failure

In A.D. 70 Jerusalem was destroyed and hundred of thousands of Jews were massacred. Obviously, the Christians did not become Jewish partisans in this uprising. Rather, they fled from Jerusalem being forewarned by Jesus' ancient prophecy and a prophetic oracle of their own time. The Christians did not ingratiate themselves to the Jews by claiming that this destruction was due to the martyrdom of James the Just in A.D. 62.

The essentially different character of Christianity from Judaism became more and more clear. No doubt could have remained after the quelling of the Jewish rebellion under Bar Kokhba in 135, "Son of the Star" (This name refers to Num. 24:17.)

Bar-kokhba was put to death with the other instigators of the revolt, including the intrepid Akiba himself. Later tradition loved to tell how he died at the time of the evening oblation, reciting the Jewish creed, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is on," and prolonging the last word "one" (Hebrew echad) as long as his breath remained in him. And he laughed amid his torments, they said, for as he fortified himself with the words, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might," he understood as never before how it was possible to love God with all his soul, in the very moment of breathing it out.

And now Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman colony and the temple duly consecrated to Jupiter Capitolinus-an order which was to endure until the time of Constantine, nearly two hundred years later. The city was renamed Aelia Capitolina after the Emperor's family name (his full style was Publius Aelius Hadrianus), and Capitolina after the Roman Jupiter to whom the new temple was dedicated. It was a completely Gentile city; no Jew was permitted to come near it.

So fierce were the reprisals taken against the Judaeans that the rabbinic succession was kept up with difficulty, and the rabbis granted their followers a dispensation from all breaches of the law except idolatry and fornication. But the reprisals came to an end with the death of Hadrian in 138. The ban on circumcision was relaxed by his successor Antonine. The history of the Jews did not come to an end in Hadrian's time; but, interesting as their subsequent history is, we cannot trace it further here.

After these two, hopeless uprisings were savagely put down, Jewish hardness to the gospel was almost impenetrable. Sometime between 70 and 135 the benediction against the Minim was added to the Jewish liturgy. The Jewish mission of the Church was effectually resisted.

2. The Demise of Jewish Christianity

Meanwhile, Jewish Christianity's influence and power was effectually broken by the mass uprooting of the church of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 because of the Jewish rebellion. After A.D. 70 this segment of Christianity dwindled into insignificance. Much of the Jewish church no doubt was assimilated into the Gentile churches to which they had fled. Jewish Christianity drifted off into heresy. This group has been called the Ebionites. In reality this name means "the poor" a reference both to the poor who are blessed of the New Testament and to the poverty-stricken condition of Palestinian Christianity. Some Ebionites were basically orthodox Christians. Others were really the descendants of the Judaizers which Paul fought. They seem to have been docetists, monarchians, and legalists.

3. Later History of Palestine

Palestine with such a background of radical Judaism and then imposed Paganism would be one of the last pockets of serious resistance to Christianity in the Empire.

B. Syria

This, of course, was the province in which the Antioch (which was evangelized in Acts 7 and 8 and which sent out Paul in Acts) was located. Antioch with its many ethnic groupings became one of the great centers of Christianity and remained so for centuries. Its early ethnic mix was a model of the reconciliation of men effected by the gospel. Green says "It was a church where an aristocrat like Manaen, an ex-Pharisee of the most rigid type like Saul, Barnabas, an erstwhile Levitical landowner in Cyprus, Lucius, a Hellenistic Jew from Cyrene, and "Simeon the Swarthy" almost certainly an African, could all work together in harmonious leadership...."

The Bishop of Antioch emerged as one of the leading figures of the Church. Its school would have great influence on the Church's theology and advocate a literal exegesis opposed to allegorizing.

By 380 A.D., 60 years after the Constantinian succession - 50% of its population of 500,000 would be Christians.

C. Italy

Something of the strength of Christianity in Italy can be discerned from the fact that about 250 it contained approximately 100 bishoprics. (Note the significance of bishopric. It is not a diocese, but a single church of good size.) This number must have greatly increased in the surge of growth in the 2nd half of the 3rd century.

Rome particularly was the center of a strong and widely respected church. This admiration was based on several factors. First, it could claim Peter and Paul as its early martyrs, if not its early leaders. Second, it gained wide reputation for its stand under persecution by Nero in the 60's. Third, it was a rich and openhanded church widely thanked for its charitable giving. Fourth, it was located at the natural center of the Empire to which others would naturally look. Fifth, with the population drift to Rome, its size was outstanding. (The first adumbration of later claims to primacy and supremacy was innocent enough. In 95 or 96 A.D. Clement of Rome.... (he was later called the bishop of Rome, but he was probably only a leading elder in charge of correspondence) wrote to Corinth urging unity in that church.

By 166 there were more Christians than Jews in Rome. (The Jews were a large percentage of the population, perhaps 10%.)

By the year 251, the church at Rome was large indeed. Chadwick records:

By the year 251 the resources of the church in Rome had grown so much that it was supporting from its common purse not only the bishop, 46 presbyters, 7 deacons, 7 subdeacons, 42 acolytes, and 52 exorcists, reader and doorkeepers, but also more than 1500 widows and needy persons, all of whom were "fed by the grace and kindness of the Lord."

One source suggests that this would have necessitated a church membership of 30,000. Schaff quotes sources who estimate 50-60,000.

D. Gaul

Note a possible reference to origin of Christianity in Gaul in New Testament. In 2 Tim. 4:10 a textal variant has the reading Gaul.

The persecution of 177 under Marcus Aurelius shows the church already well established in Gaul, especially in the city of Lyons where Irenaeus was bishop. The development of the church in Gaul exemplified several aspects of the spread of Christianity. (1) The place of evangelism in the bishop's ministry. Irenaeus preached in Latin and Celtic in the market places of the cities. (2) The urban character of the early church. The church was strong in Lyons and other cities, but penetrated only a little beyond the valley of the Rhone. (3) The tendency of Christianity to spread along trade routes. The church in Gaul had close ties with Asia Minor, Irenaeus himself from Smyrna.

E. Spain

The question arises, did Paul found the church in Spain? A later tradition says that, "he reached the gates of the West." The meaning of this is unclear. Bruce remarks:

 

There is no solid evidence that he was able to carry out his plan of evangelizing Spain. The muratorian list of New Testament books, compiled at Rome towards the end of the second century, refers to his setting out from Rome for Spain as something that is not recorded in Acts-but this reference is probably based on the apocryphal Acts of Peter, a romance written some ten years before, and quite devoid of historical worth. A century earlier Clement of Rome reminds the Corinthian church how Paul, having preached in the east and the west attained the noble renown won for him by his faith, teaching righteousness to the whole world, and reaching the farthest limit of the west [or, reaching his goal in the west]. This last expression, it might be argued, coming from a man who was a resident and writing in Rome, would (however translated) most naturally point to a place farther west than Rome. Clement, however, does not expressly mention Spain, and his rhetorical and allusive style makes it difficult to draw from his language straightforward historical inferences such as might otherwise have been made from an author writing only some thirty years after Paul's death.

There is an off the wall tradition that James the Elder founded it, but this is unlikely, since he was martyred around 44 A.D. Christianity probably was not well established in Spain till the 2nd century. It advanced slowly there. The church seems to have possessed little vitality. The council of Elvira in Spain in 306 was attended by only 19 bishops.

F. Britain

Bruce summarizes the history of early British Christianity.

The earliest certain date in the history of British Christianity is August 1, A.D. 314. On that day the Synod of Arles met, a council of western bishops summoned by the Emperor Constantine to consider the Donatist claim to represent the true Catholic Church in North Africa. Among the bishops who came to Arles for the synod three came from Britain. They were Eborius of York, Restitutus of London, and Adelphius, probably of Lincoln.

That such an episcopal delegation could be sent by the British church to the synod suggests that by this time Christianity had spread over a good part of the province. But of the beginnings and early growth of the British church we know almost nothing. Later legend is very willing to fill up the gaps in our knowledge with stories about Joseph of Arimathaea and other eminent representatives of the first generation of Christians; but real evidence is extremely slight.

It has been frequently suggested that Christianity was introduced to Britain by the Roman army of occupation. But all the evidence at our disposal is against this. The army of occupation seems to have been wholly uninfluenced by Christianity during the first three centuries A.D. True, there is the probability that Christianity made its way into the family of Aulus Plautius, who conquered Britain for the empire in A.D. 43, when Claudius was emperor, and governed it as an imperial province for four years; but this has nothing at all to do with Christianity in Britain.

In fact, if there was one eastern religion more than another cultivated by the Roman army in Britain (as elsewhere), it was Mithraism and not Christianity. Mithra was the god of light and truth in Iranian mythology; his cult was introduced to the Romans towards the middle of the first century B.C. and by the middle of the third century A.D. it had spread so widely that an impartial observer might have concluded that Mithraism and not Christianity would become the dominant religion throughout the empire. It envisaged the world as battleground between light and darkness; worshippers of Mithra must take part in this warfare in order to attain union with him. Those who did attain it were purified by mystic rites in which he was believed to escort them through the seven planetary spheres to the highest heaven, where they might expect to live in eternal light. Mithraism made a special appeal to serious minded men, and particularly to soldiers, as is perhaps natural when we consider the military language in which its principles were expressed. Three temples on Hadrian's Wall, and Mithraic inscriptions and symbols there and at York and other places in the north of England indicate that it had its votaries in the Roman army in Britain.

No such evidence exists for the knowledge of Christianity there, even in the fourth century.

It is much more likely that Christianity was carried to Britain by ordinary people-traders from Gaul and other parts, it may be. Or Britons who had occasion to visit other parts of the empire may have come in contact with the new faith and carried it home. We must remember how unrestricted travel was throughout the Roman world; a man might go from Carlisle to Babylon without crossing an international frontier. The free interchange of populations has been illustrated on the one hand by an Aramaic inscription on Hadrian's Wall (now in the museum at South Shields), set up by a Syrian trader in memory of his British wife, and on the other hand by an inscription attesting the presence of a British auxiliary cavalry regiment (normally stationed on the Danube frontier) at Amasia in Cappadocia on its way to or from the Emperor Trajan's Mesopotamian expedition in A.D. 115.

There were thus many opportunities for the new faith to be brought to Britain. At a later time the evangelization of various parts of the British Isles is associated with a few outstanding names, as those of Ninian, Patrick, Columba and Augustine, of whom we shall have more to say anon. But no great name has been handed down in connexion with the earliest evangelization of Britain. We must remember that much more missionary work was done by ordinary Christians in the course of their daily business and intercourse than is often realized.

If, however, we take account of the probabilities of the situation, we may suppose that it was from Gaul that Christianity first spread into Britain.

Tertullian and Origen around 200 speak of Christianity's spread to Britain. The earliest certain date of British Christianity is A.D. 314. Three British bishops (from York, London, Lincoln) attended the synod of Arles. This makes it probable that Christianity was widespread in that province. There is the idea that the army brought Christianity. Bruce insist this is without support and conjectures that traders brought it! The Army brought Mithraism.

At this time Christianity existed only in the Roman society and was not known among the barbarians of Ireland or No. Scotland who were dominated by the Druids.

G. Egypt

Christianity was early planted in Alexandria. Legend says by Mark. By the 2nd century the mission had moved well down the Nile. A persistent problem in Egypt was orthodoxy. A mission from Rome in the middle of the 2nd century established orthodoxy there in the face of Gnosticism. Later in the 3rd century Clement of Alexandria and Origen would present Christianity and pervert it (to a degree) by combining it with Greek philosophy. The Arian heresy would first spring up there in the 4th century. Christianity was strong in Alexandria and with Antioch and Rome was one of three chief Bishoprics.

H. Roman North Africa (known then as Numidia, today as Tunisia-Algeria)

This was one of the strongly Christian areas. Carthage was its center. Among the bishops of Carthage were Tertullian and Cyprian. Something of the strength of Christianity can be seen in the fact that in 308 the schismatic Donatists held a synod to which 270 Bishops came from N. Africa. The church here spoke Latin and used the oldest Latin translation of the Bible (the Itala). This translation was completed in the 2nd century, but our earliest copy dates from the 4th century. The church was strongest in the Latins of No. Africa. The openness may be due, in part, to the fact that the Roman population had been uprooted from Italy and would be ready to change and form new traditions.

III. Concluding Remarks

A. A Summary of the Church's growth.

By 300 the gospel had penetrated the entire Roman Empire. This conclusion the New Testament would lead us to expect, Col. 1:6. Its development, however, was uneven. The East was more heavily Christian than the West (Schaff cites one authority which says 1 in 10 in the East, 1 in 15 in the West.) Schaff also remarks:

 

Gibbon and Friedlander (III. 531) estimate the number of Christians at the accession of Constantine (306) probably too low at one-twentieth; Matter and Robertson too high at one-fifth of his subjects. Some older writer, misled by the hyperbolical statements of the early Apologists, even represent the Christians as having at least equalled if not exceeded the number of the heathen worshippers in the empire. In this case common prudence would have dictated a policy of toleration long before Constantine. Mosheim, in his Hist. Commentaries, etc. (Murdock's translation I. p. 274 sqq.) discusses at length the number of Christians in the second century without arriving at definite conclusions. Chastel estimates the number at the time of Constantine at 1/15 in the West, 1/10 in the East, 1/12 on an average (Hist. de la destruct. du paganisme, p. 36). According to Chrysostom, the Christian population of Antioch in his day (380) was about 100,000 or one-half of the whole.

The cities were more heavily Christian than the rural areas. The most heavily Christian areas were Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Roman North Africa and the large cities of Rome and Lyons.

B. The Subordinate Reasons for the Spread of Christianity

As we have seen in our lectures on the historical setting of Christianity, there was a religious vacuum waiting to be filled by any religion able to take advantage of all the conditions provided by the universal pax Romana and Hellenistic culture. Why was it Christianity that conquered and not Judaism, Mithraism, Manicheeism? Much might be said, but let me cite, six subordinate factors or reasons for Christianity's victorious spread.

1. Its flexible unity

Both as to its structure and its message, Christianity showed itself possessed of a flexible unity. It could adapt its message to many different people without changing it. John can present Christ as the Son of God, the Logos, Paul as the Last Adam or the Lord, the Hebrew writer as the great high priest.

Unlike Judaism Christianity's appeal was not hampered by narrow ethnic baggage. Unlike the eastern religions it was not capable of the syncretism which would have disrupted its homogeneous unity.

2. Its spiritual power

Its messengers spoke with power and their message was witnessed by acts of power. The power with which the evangelists spoke would have contrasted sharply with the empty chatter of philosophers. Green says, "That was in itself impressive enough in a society bored with the endless chatter of philosophers who had little conviction about the value or truth of their various positions."

Christianity had power over the demon world and magic of which most men lived in constant fear. Note Tertullian's defiant claim to Christ's supremacy over demons. Green says:

Tertullian is another writer who has a great deal to say on this subject. He claims that the Christian power of exorcism is undeniable and well known. In the course of an argument to show that demonic forces lie behind the pagan gods, he challenges his readers: "Hitherto it has been merely a question of word. Now for a test case, now for a proof that 'gods' and 'demons' are simply different names for the same thing. Let someone be brought before your judgment seats who is plainly demon-possessed. Bidden to speak by any Christian whatsoever, that spirit will confess he is a demon, just as frankly as elsewhere he has falsely asserted he is a god." This is all a propo of Tertullian's impassioned plea that they should believe in the one true God and "worship him after the manner of our Christian faith and teaching". If his pagan audience is disposed to mock at Christ, "Who is this Christ with his fables? Is he an ordinary man? a sorcerer? was his body stolen from the tomb by the disciples?", then "mock as you will, but get the demons to mock with you! Let them deny that Christ is coming to judge every human soul...Let them deny that, condemned for their wickedness, they are kept for that judgment day. Why, all the power and authority we have over them is from our naming the name of Christ, and recalling to their memory the woes with which God threatens them at the hands of Christ as Judge...Fearing Christ in God and God in Christ, they become subject to the servants of God and Christ. At our command they leave, distressed and unwillingly, the bodies they have entered. Before your very eyes they are put to an open shame." In his To Scapula Tertullian makes just the same appeal to empirical verification of this power of the Christians. "We do more than repudiate the demons. We overcome them. We expose them daily to contempt, and exorcise them from their victims. This is well known to many people."

The freedom from the evil one, safety from black magic, was no small part of Christianity's appeal. This accounts for the emphasis on this aspect of Christ's victory in the New Testament.

3. Its loving fellowship

The example of benevolence set by the church of Rome has already been noted. For the uprooted, lonely, disoriented masses of the Empire, the kindness, love, and constant deeds of charity within the Christian Fellowship providing for both the needs of its members in life and in death must have drawn many to Christianity. The realization of this produced the strong emphasis on unity, fellowship, and catholicity in the early church. There was the universal conviction that the extent and power of the Christian outreach depended on the unity and fellowship of the brotherhood."

4. Its moral purity

Green says:

The Apologists are full of such contrasts. We have noticed the famous passage in Justin where he claims "we who formerly delighted in fornication now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magic arts dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring all we have into a common stock and share it out to all according to their need; we who hated and destroyed one another and on account of their different manner of life would not live with men of another tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live happily with them, and pray for our enemies and endeavour to persuade those who have treated us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, so that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all." The link between holy living and effective evangelism could hardly be made more effectively. In particular, Christians stood out for their chastity, their hatred of cruelty, their civil obedience, good citizenship and payment of taxes (despite the severe suspicion they incurred on this count because they refused to pay the customary civil formality of praying to the emperor and the state gods). They did not expose infants: they did not swear. They refused to have anything to do with idolatry and its by-products. Such lives made a great impact. Even the heathen opponents of Christianity often admitted as much. Both Pliny and Lucian recognized the pure life, devoted love, and amazing courage of the Christians; so did Marcus Aurelius and Galen.

Not all the emphasis on moral purity in the early church reflects a growing legalism, some of it reflects a genuine Christian emphasis on the essential importance of moral purity to Christianity.

 

Both in relation to its loving fellowship and its moral purity there would have been the starkest, most complete contrast between Christianity and pagan society. The very chasm between Christians and their neighbors would have worked for sharpening the point of gospel proclamation. Note application to our churches.

 

5. Its courageous hope

 

There was a prevalent yearning for immortality. In its gospel of an historically risen Christ, Christianity had the solid foundation for this hope. The joy and courage with which Christians died in martyrdom could only have underscored the solidity of their hope. Green comments:

 

There is a moving story told by Clement of Alexandria which tells that the man whose denunciation of the Apostle James had led to his arrest by Herod Agrippa, was so impressed by his testimony to Christ in court that he himself became a Christian, and was led away to execution along with James. On the way he asked James for forgiveness, and James looked at him for a moment and said "peace be to you" and kissed him. So both were beheaded at the same time."

The Christians' joy in death contrasted with the stoic resignation of Seneca and other leading Pagans. To a Roman public used to sadistic entertainment, the way the martyrs died must have made a lasting impression.

 

6. Its joyful enthusiasm

 

Blessed with the hope, purity, and fellowship of their new faith, Christians could not repress their enthusiasm. Every such Christian was an evangelist. The spread of Christianity was due to the united effort of the whole church. Both the preaching and teaching of its ordained leadership and the enthusiastic confession of its whole membership.

 

SECTION 3: THE PRE-CONSTANTINIAN PERSECUTION

Introduction:

The New Testament indicates that Christianity was born to persecution as the sparks fly upward. Its founder was crucified. Its demand was "take up your cross." Its warning was "all they that will live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Its promise was "if we suffer we shall reign with him."

The first persecutors of the church were the Jews. Their animosity was responsible for the deaths of Jesus, Stephen, and James the Apostle. They wanted to kill Paul and tried often. Secular history records other instances of Jewish persecution. In the year 49 the Jews were expelled from Rome because of rioting over "Chrestus." In the year 62 the Jews killed James the Just. In the years 132-135 the rebellion led by Bar-kokhba occurred. Christians who would not join his revolt were cruelly murdered. In 156 Polycarp, the 86 year old bishop of Smyrna was martyred by the Roman authorities at the instigation of Jews.

It was not in the Jews, however, that the most formidable persecutors of the church would be found. The Roman Empire soon discovered that Christianity was no part of Judaism and therefore a "religio illicita."

I. An Overview of the Roman Persecutions

II. The Results of the Roman Persecutions

III. Some Perspectives on the Roman Persecutions

 

 

I. An Overview of the Roman Persecutions

 

By means of a graph and commentary on it I want to give you an overview of the major persecutions of this period. I do not desire to de-personalize the heroism of the martyrs. Neither do I want to give the impression that the amount of suffering can be historically verified. But I want to enable you to conceptualize the general course of Roman persecution of the church.

 

A. Commentary

 

1. Nero in 64-65 was the first to specifically persecute Christians. His cruelties were horrible and fiendish. He lighted his garden with Christians as torches or wrapped them in skins of beasts till dogs tore them apart. The problem is, were Christians persecuted for being Christians or simply as incendiaries (arsonists)? Nero committed suicide in 68 and was followed by five emperors who, as far as we know, did not seriously persecute Christians.

 

2. Domitian who reigned from 81-96 was a suspicious tyrant. While we know he martyred some close relatives for "atheism and Jewish opinions" and tradition tells us of many persecutions under him, there is little reliable evidence as to the extent of the Domitian persecutions. He was followed by Nerva (96-98) who did not continue his persecution.

 

3. Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius enjoyed long reigns. Their combined reigns lasted from the year 98 through the year 161. Bruce (SF p. 169-172) gives letters written by Trajan and Hadrian in relation to the Christian problem. Having already noticed Trajan's letter, Hadrian's letter written in 124 to the proconsul of Asia, Minucius Fundanus follows.

 

I have received a letter addressed to me by your illustrious predecessor, Serenus Granianus, and his report, I think, ought not to be passed over in silence, lest innocent people be molested and an opportunity for hostile action be given to malicious accusers. If the provincials, then, plainly wish to support this petition of theirs against the Christians by bringing some definite charge against them before the court, let them confine themselves to this action and refrain from mere appeals and outcries. For it is much more just that, if anyone wishes to bring an accusation, you should examine the allegations. If then anyone accuses them and proves that they are doing anything unlawful, you must impose a penalty in accordance with the gravity of the crime; but if anyone brings such accusations simply by way of blackmail, you must sentence him to a more severe penalty in proportion to his wickedness.

Bruce summarizes the situation well:

 

There was one fundamental matter in which Christians were constantly liable to come into conflict with the law. The state religion of Rome had long since become a matter of political formality, but occasional participation in the formality was a recognized way of proving one's loyalty ... All emperors might not take their divinity so seriously as Domitian did, but the acknowledgement of the Emperor's divinity was a recognized form in which subjects of the Empire must give evidence of their loyalty ... refusal to make this acknowledgement was criminal contumacy. . . . The Christians were regarded as incurably perverse for their insane refusal to conform to Roman requirements in this simple manner. Outward conformity was so simple, and (in other people's eyes) meant so little. The majority of pagans who took part in such ceremonies did so quite unthinkingly.

Two conclusions may be drawn about this period: (1) Proven Christianity was a crime punishable by death if one would not recant and sacrifice. (2) They were not to be ferreted out, but dealt with only if accused.

 

4. Marcus Aurelius reigned from 161-180. This last, great emperor of the period of the Pax Romana was a Stoic philosopher and had an inveterate dislike for Christianity. This was a change from the more moderate attitude of the preceding emperors and encouraged the enemies of the church to increase their local persecutions of it. There was persecution in Lyons at this time and Pothinus the bishop was martyred. After Marcus Aurelius Commodus his son allowed the persecutions to tail off because of the influence of Marcia his concubine who if not a Christian was at least one of their sympathizers.

 

5. Septimius Severus reigned from 193-211 and in 202 banned conversion to either Judaism or Christianity. The heightened persecution of those days persisted through the reign of Caracalla (211-217). With the accession of Heliogabalus a 30 year period of a measure of toleration began marred only by the pagan revival under Maximinus Thrax (235-238). Two emperors were sympathetic to Christianity during this time. Alexander Severus' (222-235) mother was taught by Origen. Origen also wrote letters to Phillip the Arab (244-249) who attended Christian services occasionally.

 

6. From 249-260 under Decius, Gallus, and Valerian the first great and universal persecution of Christianity took place. Decius adopted the policy that the Empire must have one religion. An Edict was published in 250 requiring everyone in the Empire to sacrifice to the emperor and obtain a certificate stating he had done so. The leaders of the church were especially attacked in order to crush Christianity itself. Cyprian was martyred. Many apostatized either by sacrificing or bribing officials for certificates. The Bishops of Rome, Jerusalem, and Antioch also were martyred. In 259 Valerian was captured by the Persians and with the accession of Gallienus peace was restored. He even acknowledged Christianity as a religio licita. This season of peace caused a great numerical increase in the church. Church buildings began to be built at about this time.

 

7. Diocletian (284-305) was in many ways a great Emperor. He re-organized and stabilized the Empire. He divided it in half and associated Maximillian with himself as an Augustus. Under each Augustus was placed a Caesar who in turn ruled a quarter of the Empire.

 

West: Augustus - Maximillian, Caesar - Constantius

 

East: Augustus - Diocletian, Caesar - Galerius

 

In 303 at the instigation of Galerius Diocletian decided to press the one empire - one religion issue and determined to extirpate Christianity. It was now or never for paganism. Bruce remarks, "The rapid growth of Christianity in the last few decades meant that the opportunity for crushing it would soon be gone. It was now or never. And many influential people, who had the welfare of the state at heart, believed that the time was now." Schaff describes the persecution that now began.

 

All former persecutions of the faith were forgotten in the horror with which men looked back upon the last and greatest: the tenth wave (as men delighted to count it) of that great storm obliterated all traces that had been left by others. The fiendish cruelty of Nero, the jealous fears of Domitian, the unimpassioned dislike of Marcus, the sweeping purpose of Decius, the clever devices of Valerian, fell into obscurity when compared with the concentrated terrors of that final grapple, which resulted in the destruction of the old Roman Empire and the establishment of the cross as the symbol of the world's hope. . . . In 303 Diocletian issued in rapid succession three edicts, each more severe than its predecessor. Maximian issued the fourth, the worst of all, April 30, 304. Christian churches were to be destroyed; all copies of the Bible were to be burned; all Christians were to be deprived of public office and civil rights; and at last all, without exception were to sacrifice to the gods upon pain of death.

Still though the persecution was general and severe, its intensity varied from place to place. Bruce remarks, "But, severe as the persecution was, it was locally limited and was not prolonged beyond all endurance."

 

In 305 Diocletian retired from public life. Galerius took over. In the East the persecution continued till 311. In the West, Constantius was in full authority. In 311 Galerius was dying of a terrible disease and issued an edict of toleration. His successor Maximin continued to persecute till forced to sign a second edict of toleration by Constantine and Licinius in 313. Shortly, he committed suicide.

 

B. Closing Remarks: Generalizations

 

1. In the 1st and 2nd century while persecution was always potential (because Christianity was a religio illicita), the actual persecutions broke out through local enemies and populations taking advantage of its illegal status to vent their malice. The Emperors for the most part strove to prevent anti-Christian riots, if they intervened at all. In the 3rd century the persecution was directly the act of the Emperors and there were many instances in which local officials and populations helped Christians escape.

 

2. A distinction must be made between the continued ordinary persecutions to which Christianity was always exposed as a religio illicita and the occasional extraordinary persecution in which Christianity and Christians were ferreted out by the government itself.

 

3. In the 3rd century a noticeable extreme fluctuation begins to be evident in the Empire's attitudes toward Christianity. Its persecutions were more severe and universal, while its tolerations were more complete and legal.

II. The Results of the Roman Persecutions

A. Wide Apostacy

Rarely, whole congregations apostatized with their bishops at their heads, but multitudes of individuals also apostatized. There were three classes of apostates: (a) sacrificati - those who sacrificed; (b) libellaticii - those who bribed officials for certificates; (c) traditores - those who handed over the Scriptures. This was confined to the Diocletian persecution and included even those who handed over heretical literature or medical treatises. (The East did not view this as apostasy.)

B. Schism over the restoration of apostates. Three different schisms of a serious nature took place related to this issue.

After the Decian persecution, c. 260:

- The Melitian in Egypt

- The Novatian in Rome

 

After the Diocletian persecution, c 310:

 

- The Donatist in North Africa.

 

Hippolytus led an earlier schism in Rome in 235, but this was healed.

 

Hardliners would not restore apostates. They thought that the most the church could do was entreat mercy for them at the last judgment. The moderates favored the idea that apostates could be pardoned if proper repentance was present. Ultimately the moderates carried the day.

 

III. Some Perspectives on the Roman Persecutions

Many varied estimations have been given of the extent and seriousness of the early persecutions of the church. I am not capable of speaking a final word on this, but it does seem clear that a balance must be maintained between two extremes. So by way of setting the Roman persecutions in a proper biblical and realistic perspective let me make two points.

A. We must not so underrate the ferocity and severity of the Roman persecutions as to deny the fact that (in the words of Schaff, p. 39) "the martyrdom of the first three centuries still remains one of the grandest phenomena of history, and an evidence of the indestructible, divine nature of Christianity." Jesus, Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Ignatius, Cyprian, Origen, Pothinus, (Irenaeus' predecessor)--all were martyred.

It was the witness these noble martyrs gave and the courage they exhibited that was the reason the church survived and even prospered under persecution. Then, if ever, Satan had his opportunity to stamp out Christianity. It is to the martyrs in great measure that we owe its continuing existence. The words of Tertullian are certainly true in one sense. "Go on, rack, torture, grind us to powder: our numbers increase in proportion as you mow us down. The blood of Christians is their harvest seed."

B. We must not so overrate the Roman persecutions (as has often been done) that we do not perceive the restraining hand of God upon the Roman beast. The only two persecutions which approach anything like a universal inquisition lasted a total of 15 years (Decian - 6 years, Diocletian - 9 years). For most of the pre-Constantinian period the persecution of Christians was sporadic, local, and thus ineffective in stopping its spread.

How are we to explain this? There is Satan, the god of this world, the one in which the world lieth, with the greatest empire history has known, with the most effective form of government. There is the defenseless church with the protection of no worldly force able to stand against the legions of Rome. Why doesn't he stamp it out? Rev. 20:1-3 is the answer.

There is no magical sense in which the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church. If Satan could once gather his forces in a unified effort, he might destroy the church, but God has bound him. One day God will unleash him and when he is on the verge of accomplishing that very purpose, God will intervene; Rev. 20:7-9.

SECTION 4: THE POST-CONSTANTINIAN EXPANSION

 

Introduction:

 

Any discussion of the post-Constantinian expansion of the church must give prominence to one figure, Constantine. Thus, our outline for Section 4 will be:

 

I. An Overview of Constantine's Life

II. An Evaluation of the Constantinian Change

III. The Consequent Expansion of the Church

IV. The Expansion of the Church Outside the Empire

 

Any discussion of Constantine is made difficult by the difference of opinion which has existed over both him and the historical transition he epitomizes. Note the contrasting opinions of Constantine provided by Verduin. He remarks, "Those who held that the coming of "Christian sacralism" was a boon were likely to paint it in glowing colors. Eusebius wrote hundreds of pages in praise of the man and the movement. Abraham Kuyper, a leading Reformed theologian of our time, seems to have been almost as enthusiastic as was Eusebius. . . . On the other hand, many Protestants of our time, especially those who live in the New World, would have a decidedly less lofty appraisal of Constantine and his innovation. Although they might not speak of him as "the murderous egoist who possessed the great merit of having conceived of Christianity as a world power and of acting accordingly," they will find it increasingly hard to disagree with the late Karl Barth's assessment."

 

I. An Overview of Constantine's Life

Born in 272, he reigned from 306 to 337. His appearance and character are described by Schaff.

He had an imposing and winning person, and was compared by flatterers with Apollo. He was tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, and of a remarkably vigorous and healthy constitution, but given to excessive vanity in his dress and outward demeanor, always wearing an oriental diadem, a helmet studded with jewels, and a purple mantle of silk richly embroidered with pearls and flowers worked in gold. His mind was not highly cultivated, but naturally clear, strong, and shrewd, and seldom thrown off its guard. He is said to have combined a cynical contempt of mankind with an inordinate love of praise. He possessed a good knowledge of human nature and administrative energy and tact.

His moral character was not without noble traits, among which a chastity rare for the time, and a liberality and beneficence bordering on wastefulness were prominent. Many of his laws and regulations breathed the spirit of Christian justice and humanity, promoted the elevation of the female sex, improved the condition of slaves and of unfortunates, and gave free play to the efficiency of the church throughout the whole empire. Altogether he was one of the best, the most fortunate, and the most influential of the Roman emperors, Christian and pagan. Yet he had great faults.

A. His Conquests

The setting of Constantine's conquests was the Diocletian division of the Empire:

POSITION

Augustus

Caesar

 

 

WEST

Maximillian

Constantius Chlorus

EAST

Diocletian

Galerius

 

 

The chronology of Constantine's conquest may be listed as follows:

 

305 - The two Augusti resigned and the two Caesars succeeded them as the Augusti.

306 - Constantine is acclaimed Emperor by Army when his father dies in York.

312 - Constantine defeats Maxentius outside Rome.

323 - Constantine defeats Licinius.--He is now sole emperor.

 

B. His "Conversion"

 

1. An Account of it

 

Constantine was predisposed to Christianity by several factors: His father's respect for them. His mother's being one of them. His religion's similarity (externally) to Christianity. (He held to Mithraism--a kind of solar monotheism. There were many superficial similarities between Christianity and Mithraism.) Chadwick brings this out.

 

The transition from solar monotheism . . . to Christianity was not difficult. In Old Testament prophecy Christ was entitled `the sun of righteousness.' Clement of Alexandria (c. A. D. 200) speaks of Christ driving his chariot across the sky like the Sun-god. A tomb mosaic recently found at Rome, probably made early in the fourth century, depicts Christ as the Sun-god mounting the heavens with his chariot. Tertullian says that many pagans imagined the Christians worshipped the sun because they met on Sundays and prayed towards the East. Moreover early in the fourth century there begins in the West (where first and by whom is not known) the celebration of 25 December, the birthday of the Sun-god at the winter solstice, as the date for the nativity of Christ. How easy it was for Christianity and solar religion to become entangled at the popular level is strikingly illustrated by a mid-fifth century sermon of Pope Leo the Great, rebuking his over-cautious flock for paying reverence to the Sun on the steps of St. Peter's before turning their back on it to worship inside the westward-facing basilica.

Thus, on Constantine's coins, Sol Invictus was engraven on one side and the cross on the other.

 

Constantine's so-called conversion occurred in 311 and 312. In 311 he saw a vision of the cross against the sun while fighting barbarians. In 312 before his battle against Maxentius he sought the God of the Christians' help. That night he had a dream directing him to mark his shields and labarum with the monogram of Christ. As they say, the rest is history.

 

DIAGRAMS

 

Vision in the Sky Monogram Labarum

 

 

2. An Evaluation of It

 

Bruce remarks, "There is no reason to doubt the genuineness of Constantine's acceptance of Christianity." There is a certain modicum of truth in this rather unqualified statement. Constantine seemed to sincerely desire to be known as a Christian and to promote Christianity. This desire and commitment becomes more marked as his life progresses. Furthermore, he sincerely believed in the power of the Christians' God and his ability to aid him in battle. On the other hand, if Bruce means for us to believe that Constantine was true Christian, that is exceedingly doubtful. No doubt--as Bruce says--he compares well with Henry VIII, but that's not saying much! His faith may have been sincere, but it was hardly saving. It had everything to do with military defeat and victory and little or nothing to do with sin and grace. Schaff has this comment on his religion.

 

He reasoned, as Eusebius reports from his own mouth, in the following manner: `My father revered the Christian God and uniformly prospered, while the emperors who worshipped the heathen gods, died a miserable death; therefore, that I may enjoy a happy life and reign, I will imitate the example of my father and join myself to the cause of the Christians, who are growing daily, while the heathen are diminishing.'"

Schaff further reports on his manner of life.

 

He was far from being so pure and venerable as Eusebius, blinded by his favor to the church, depicts him, in his bombastic and almost dishonestly eulogistic biography, with the evident intention of setting him up as a model for all future Christian princes. It must, with all regret, be conceded, that his progress in the knowledge of Christianity was not a progress in the practice of its virtues. His love of display and his prodigality, his suspiciousness and his despotism, increased with his power.

The very brightest period of his reign is stained with gross crimes, which even the spirit of the age and the policy of an absolute monarch cannot excuse. After having reached, upon the bloody path of war, the goal of his ambition, the sole possession of the empire, moreover, in the very year in which he summoned the great council of Nicea, he ordered the execution of his conquered rival and brother-in-law, Licinius, in breach of a solemn promise of mercy (324). Not satisfied with this, he caused soon afterwards, from political suspicion, the death of the young Licinius, his nephew, a boy of hardly eleven years. But the worst of all is the murder of his eldest son, Crispus, in 326, who had in-curred suspicion of political conspiracy and of adulterous and incestuous purposes towards his step-mother Fausta, but is generally regarded as innocent . . . . At all events Christianity did not produce in Constantine a thorough moral transformation. He was concerned more to advance the outward social position of the Christian religion, than to further its inward mission."

Whatever spiritual change may have accompanied Constantine's baptism late in life (and this was at the hands of an Arian), the events of 311 and 312 bear little resemblance to true conversion. Chadwick properly remarks, "If his conversion should not be interpreted as an inward experience of grace, neither was it a cynical act of Machiavellian cunning. It was a military matter . . . he was sure that victory in battle lay in the gift of the God of the Christians."

 

II. An Evaluation of the Constantinian Change

 

A. The Nature of the Change

 

1. Constantine's religious policy toward other religions has been evaluated in vastly different ways. Note the contrast between the evaluation of Verduin and that of Latourette.

 

Constantine was just as intolerant after his "conversion" as he had been before: now gatherings in the signature of the old religion were forbidden, often in the very words of the earlier proscriptions against Christian gatherings. The mere placing of a votive offering at an ancient shrine was forbidden by law. Unbaptized persons were now required by imperial law to attend indoctrination classes, with a view to baptism. Those who refused to go to the font after such indoctrination were subject to severe penalty. Any person who after such forced baptism relapsed into the old ways was subject to exterminatio.

 

The policy of Constantine was one of toleration. He did not make Christianity the sole religion of the state. That was to follow under later Emperors. He continued to support both paganism and Christianity. In 314, when the cross first appeared on his coins, it was accompanied by the figures of Sol Invictus and Mars Conservator. To the end of his days he bore the title of pontifex maximus as chief priest of the pagan state cult. The subservient Roman Senate followed the long-established custom and classed him among the gods. He did not persecute the old faiths.

Schaff's verdict is the best. He says, "he continued in his later years true upon the whole to the toleration principles of the edict of 313." Two inconsistencies can be pointed out.

 

1) Christian heretics or schismatics faired worse than pagans, i.e. Donatists etc. did suffer persecution. Arians and later Athanasians were exiled for resisting Constantine's drive for a unified church.

 

2) In his later years he issued a general prohibition of idolatrous sacrifice. This was not widely enforced. Constantine did come out more and more firmly for Christianity in his later years. It was Constantine's sons and successors, however, that became more and more intolerant of paganism.

 

2. While Constantine officially pursued a policy of toleration, yet from the beginning of his embrace of Christianity there was an unavoidable tendency toward a practical union of Church and State. Given the sacral view of the state which dominated both his thinking and that of his citizens, given the immense authority he wielded by his example; and given the innate exclusive-ness of Christianity, an intolerant church-state was the unavoidable and eventual issue of his "conversion," though its issue was not intolerance during the reign of Constantine himself. This tendency toward a practical union of church and state is reflected in the attitude entertained by Constantine that as a Christian Emperor he was a divinely appointed bishop, a bishop, so to speak, over the external affairs of the church. He certainly acted as a universal bishop when he summoned the first ecumenical council in 324 or 325. This mentality was, of course, all the more easy for him to adopt since he was and remained Pontifex Maximus of the former pagan state religion.

 

B. The Positive Aspects of the Change

Too often the positive results of Constantine's conversion are missed because the long-range debasing of Christianity by its union with the state fills our view. It should fill our view, but not to the neglect of seeing the victory and progress for the gospel that the Constantinian change embodied. These positive results may be enumerated as follows.

 

1. The Cessation of Persecution.

 

2. The Legalization of Christianity.

 

The decree of 260 lapsed, this decree would not. In a sense Christianity was over-legalized. The laws went too far in favoring Christianity. Yet on the whole this change was certainly positive for Christians. Sunday was made a legal holiday. Tax exemptions were granted to clergy of churches. The civil powers already exercised by the bishops were legalized. The Church's right to receive legacies was established.

 

3. The Restoration of Church Property

 

4. The Humanization of Civil Government

 

The civil powers given bishops had a beneficial effect. Further, other laws were gradually improved. Schaff remarks,

 

Here again the reign of Constantine is a turning point. Though an oriental despot, and but imperfectly possessed with the earnestness of Christian morality, he nevertheless enacted many laws, which distinctly breathe the spirit of Christian justice and humanity: the abolition of the punishment of crucifixion, the prohibition of gladiatorial games and cruel rites, the discouragement of infanticide, and the encouragement of the emancipation of slaves. Eusebius says he improved most of the old laws or replaced them by new ones. From here forward we feel beneath the toga of the Roman lawgiver the warmth of a Christian heart.

 

The status of women and the family were gradually improved under Constantine's successors.

 

The poor and unfortunate in general, above all the widows and orphans, prisoners and sick, who were so terribly neglected in heathen times, now drew the attention of the imperial legislators. Constantine in 315 prohibited the branding of criminals on the forehead "that the human countenance," as he said, "formed after the image of heavenly beauty, should not be defaced." He provided against the inhuman maltreatment of prisoners before their trial. To deprive poor parents of all pretext for selling or exposing their children, he had them furnished with food and clothing, partly at his own expense and partly at that of the state. He likewise endeavored, particularly by a law of the year 331, to protect the poor against the venality and extortion of judges, advocates, and tax collectors, who drained the people by their exactions. In the year 334 he ordered that widows, orphans, the sick, and the poor should not be compelled to appear before a tribunal outside their own province. Valentinian, in 365, exempted widows and orphans from the ignoble poll tax.

Around 404 the gladiatorial combats were abolished.

 

C. The Negative Aspects

 

The negative results of the union of church and state have been epitomized in different ways. Verduin speaking of Constantine's war standard the labarum, which was a cross made out of a spear says that this standard was the symbol of the change. "The cross," he says, "had a blade welded to it." Another has said that the church was now free to go into the world and the world to go into the church. Schaff speaks of the secularization of the church. The negative aspects of the Constantinian change may be enumerated as follows.

 

1. The Undesirable Popularity of Christianity because of Imperial Patronage

 

2. The Undesirable Support of Christianity by Imperial Taxes

 

Constantine built churches, diverted tax funds to clergy (thus sparking the Donatist controversy.) Both because of this support and the habit of superstitious professing Christians leaving immense tracts of land to the church, the church became wealthy and corrupt. The distinguished heathen prefect, Praetextatus, said to Pope Damasus, that for the price of the bishopric of Rome he himself might become a Christian at once. Church soon owned the tenth part of all the landed property. Says Schaff,

 

Wealthy subjects, some from pure piety, others from motives of interest, conveyed their property to the church, often to the prejudice of the just claims of their kindred. Bishops and monks not rarely used unworthy influences with widows and dying persons; though Augustine positively rejected every legacy, which deprived a son of his rights. Valentinian I. found it necessary to oppose the legacy-hunting of the clergy, particularly in Rome, with a law of the year 370, and Jerome acknowledges there was good reason for it. The wealth of the church was converted mostly into real estate, or at least secured by it. And the church soon came to own the tenth part of all the landed property. This land, to be sure, had long been worthless or neglected, but under favorable conditions rose in value with uncommon rapidity. At the time of Chrysostom, towards the close of the fourth century, the church of Antioch was strong enough to maintain entirely or in part three thousand widows and consecrated virgins besides many poor, sick, and strangers. The metropolitan churches of Rome and Alexandria were the most wealthy. The various churches of Rome in the sixth century, besides enormous treasures in money and gold and silver vases, owned many houses and lands not only in Italy and Sicily, but even in Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt. And when John, who bears the honorable distinction of the Almsgiver for his unlimited liberality to the poor, became patriarch of Alexandria (606), he found in the church treasury eight thousand pounds of gold, and himself received ten thousand, though he retained hardly an ordinary blanket for himself, and is said on one occasion to have fed seven thousand five hundred poor at once.

By many bishops this wealth was put to good use, but many also became corrupt.

 

3. The Secular Intervention in Christian Doctrinal Formulation.

 

While in the first centuries that followed when the church retained a fair degree of integrity, this contributed to the formulation of orthodox Christian Doctrine for the following generations. On the other hand, it made the character of "orthodoxy" subject to political caprice. Even in the immediately following years this is illustrated by Constantius, Constantine's son who turned Arian.

4. The Secular Punishment of Christian Heretics.

Not only Arians and Donatists were persecuted, but Athanasius himself was deposed and exiled in 337 (when he wouldn't accept back Arius). This is well put by Verduin.

One of the most far-reaching enactments intended to support the new sacralism was the legal identification of heresy with sedition, or crime against the state. Deviation on the plane of the sacerdotium became deviation on the plane of the regnum. We have seen how this was operative at Jesus' trial, and we have argued that failure to distinguish between these two is the inevitable outcome of a flat theology. Even though the confusion of heresy with sedition follows naturally from sacral presuppositions, the fashioners of "Christian sacralism" saw to it that the identification of the two kinds of infraction was hardened into imperial law. This identification stood firm for the whole span of time known as the Middle Ages, and became a leading issue in the Reformation. We read in the Codes of Justinian that "heresy is to be construed to be an offence against the State...; everything that is of evil and practiced on the level of religion is to be counted as crime."

With the coming of "Christian sacralism" the old dream of going forward by going backward was realized; in Constantine's change the spirits of the Maccabees and the ghosts of the Zealots rode again. The kingdom of Christ, which the Savior in his hour of trial had declared to be "not of this world," was now as much a kingdom of the world as any that had every existed. The sword that Jesus had told Peter to put away was again drawn from its sheath - by men who wanted to be known as vicars of this Peter. And these self-styled vicars began at once to instruct the regnum to hack and to hew with it in the very domain from which Jesus had banished it.

Constantine himself while not abandoning his sacralistic principles was not the tyrannical persecutor that Verduin paints him to be. Walker speaking of this persecution of the Donatists in North Africa he says: "Constantine was .... dissatisfied with the results, and in 321 abandoned the use of force...."

 

III. The Consequent Expansion of the Church

 

A. Its Immensity.

 

The church's membership quadrupled in size in l00 years according to one authority. Latourette says (p. 97) that by 500 the church constituted the overwhelming majority of Empire.

B. Its Superficiality

Bruce says, "Christianity thus became fashionable which was not really a good thing...." Warnes comments,

The descriptions by Jerome (middle of Century 4) of what he himself experienced in Rome fill us with horror. Dr. Ebrard summarizes these accounts as follows:

Very many applied for the presbyterate and diaconate with the intention of having readier access to the women i.e. female members of the churches, whom as church officers they could visit at home. The whole concern of these clerics was directed to adornments and perfumes; they curled their locks with the hot iron, wore flashing rings, changed the horses of their chariots every hour; to carry tales and to slander the absent was their chief activity in their pastoral visitations. The prominent (Christian) women wore gold-brocaded clothing, kept a retinue of eunuchs, surrounded themselves with flatterers and parasites, among whom the clerics were chief; the daughters maintained the pretence of virginity by the abortion of fruit conceived out of wedlock. Virginity in unmarried women was a rarity, and therefore an occasion of spiritual pride (cp. Aug. de civ, Dei I, 28). Young girls were accustomed to get tipsy with wine. Ascetics abstained from marriage, and, so as to make abstention more difficult and more brilliant, they kept sorores ("sisters") in their houses, so as to live together with them in pure spiritual love. What thus began in the spirit (haughty fanaticism) ended almost without exception in the flesh and in filth. Christendom was not everywhere so wholly depraved as in Rome, but neither was the pagan population; yet the relationship between both was everywhere so pretty nearly alike that Christendom absorbed more heathenism from the heathen than did the heathen Christianity from the Christians.

The application is plain. Growth is not always the sign of God's blessing. It may simply be the sign of human compromise.

C. Its Resistance

New religions entered the lists about this time, especially Neoplatonism and Manichaeism. These were eventually inundated in the Christian rise. Pockets of resistance to Christianity, however, remained: Palestine (surprisingly!) and many of the more remote rural areas. The term, paganismus, arose during these years. It meant peasant-religion.

IV. The Expansion of the Church outside the Roman Empire

Other points could be added here but the most important nations which lay outside the Empire are three.

I. Armenia

The mass conversion of Armenia occurred in the late Third Century. The instrument of this was Gregory the Illuminator. At first he encountered persecution, but then he won the king to the faith and the rest was easy. Too easy, because in making the transition more palatable for the populace he compromised Christian standards. Gregory was consecrated the first bishop of Armenia. This universal bishopric remained hereditary.

Even before the Constantinian change, here is an instance of a zealous Christian missionary willingly accepting the welding together of Church and State for the supposed furtherance of Christianity, but compromising true Christianity in so doing.

Note how corrupt even the 3rd Century had become. Note also that the issues were not so clear to early Christians who were without the knowledge of subsequent history as to us.

II. The Goths

The Barbarian Goths (and many of the Barbarians who invaded the Empire) were "Christians." They had been evangelized by one Ulfilas who had been taken captive by the Goths in a raid on Asia Minor in 267. His great work was translation of the Bible into Gothic. Ulfilas did not include the books of Samuel and Kings in his translation. He thought the Goths were warlike enough already! Though possibly a disciple of an orthodox bishop, Ulfilas came to hold Arian views. When the Goths sacked Rome, the carnage was reduced in some degree by their "Christianity." Generally, they treated the Catholic bishops and churches with respect. They eventually were absorbed in the Empire's Catholicism.

III. Ireland

Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. It was also evangelized by one taken captive and sold as a slave among the Irish, Patrick. He was born in 389. After escaping and pursuing the Christian ministry in Gaul, he returned as missionary. At his death (March l7, 46l) Ireland was basically Christian. When the Barbarian invasions cut Britain off from the Roman Empire, Ireland became a separate center from which Christianity radiated out over Britain and Northern Europe. The unique aspect of Irish Christianity was that its centers were the monastery and the abbot, not the church and the bishop.

Christianity also touched many other lands by 500; Persia (many Christians of national origin), China (some evidence for Nestorian Churches there), India (very likely Christianity was early planted there - perhaps by Thomas, but probably during the Third Century.)

Part 3: The Apostolic Fathers


Original HTML by Tom Sullivan. Edited by TFE Web-servant, Bill Newcomer, July A.D. 2000. This page and its contents are copyright © 2000 by Truth for Eternity Ministries.