History of the Christian Church: Part One

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

Jose Ottega y Gasset once said, “Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors” (1). This applies even to promulgation of church doctrine, establishment of proper church administration, and systematic theological studies. Today’s Christian church must rest firmly on the theology of its patristic fathers. From its onset, Christianity has impacted culture and society; however, culture and society have impacted Christianity as well. Culture is known to push back with force, often in an oppressive and violent manner. Today’s militant atheists are intent on eradicating Christianity from public discourse, and often file lawsuits to that end.

The early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Gonzalez writes, “All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were” (2). Their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued to await His advent. Jewish leaders considered Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. Christians were “…going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics” (3). Nationalistic and patriotic sentiment was aroused by the fear that these new heretics could once more bring the wrath of God upon them. As we will discover in this series, Jews routinely looked for someone else to blame for their woes. This resulted in protracted generations of exile from God.

From its very beginning, the Christian message was grafted onto human history. Through generation after generation, Christians have taught that Jesus Christ is the complete embodiment of God, and He is salvation for all who believe in His sacrificial death on the cross. Much history, lineage, and geography is presented throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Identity and lifestyle were especially important to the largely Jewish audience for whom the Gospel of Matthew was initially written. It attests to considerable hostility toward synagogues (6:2-18; 10:17-18), and utter rejection of Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees (12:14; 15:12-14; 21:45-46; 23). Matthew describes doctrinal infighting, the sacking of Jerusalem (AD 70), and destruction of the Temple. He notes how the early church would question God’s faithfulness (as they waited on Him), and he references apologetic debates.

John’s gospel is instrumental in establishing significant events discussed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John rightly commences with in the beginning, which refers to the first chapter of Genesis. Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4. NRSV). John describes his experience when he baptized Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s writing style is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching moved beyond parables that are featured in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; instead, Jesus taught in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings we see in the Gospel of John are not found in the other three Gospels. Further, John spends much time on the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

The Jewish Diaspora (the scattering of Jews far and wide), had a critical impact on the history of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “…for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire” (4). In addition, the Diaspora played a large role in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Diaspora has also been used to characterize the flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria shortly before the rise of Christianity. Trade flourished during the early centuries of the Christian church. This factor brought the story of redemption to new regions; but through traveling traders, slaves, and others, more than through missionaries or preachers. With this wide dispersal, syncretism crept into the Christian church, beginning with Constantine (AD 280-337) and others like him who practiced pagan rites while also attending Christian services.

Constantine’s dubious claim of conversion to Christianity notwithstanding, he provided the church with his “legal blessing,” while continuing to embrace paganism. Jews and Christians stood firm in their faith, which garnered the reputation of unbending fanatics. When the early Christians refused to light incense to the Roman gods, or to the emperor, they did so as a testament to their faith in Christ alone. Because Christians throughout the Roman Empire stayed home rather than participate in “societal” activities and street fairs which typically involved in festivals honoring the gods, Roman authorities condemned Christians as disloyal and seditious. This is one of the many reasons that Christians were persecuted, tortured, and executed by Roman authorities.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. For example, as soon as the Christian message started reaching the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter or nullify it. Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Christian church: a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin, which believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis). It would take the church nearly 100 years to rid itself of Gnosticism. These developments led to emergence of early Christian apologists, such as Justin the Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. Apologetics has survived into the twenty-first century. The church responded specifically to heresy and accusations by establishing canon, creed, and apostolic succession. At times, it was necessary to convene a synod to decide issues of doctrine and administration.

Christianity was established as an official religion at the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This was an important step in securing the civil rights of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For nearly 300 years, Christianity was functionally illegal in the Roman Empire, often subjecting Christians to persecution. This proclamation protected full rights for Christian citizens of the Empire, restoring their property, releasing them from prisons, and effectively banning government persecution of their faith. It also declared a general state of religious tolerance, allowing for the expression of virtually any spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the bad came with the good in the form of heresies, such as Donatism: the belief that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. This led to schism in the Church of Carthage from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. Arianism – the ideology that Jesus was merely human and not divine – arose practically overnight. The Roman Empire banned Arianism in 379. Shortly thereafter, the church instituted the death penalty for heresy.

In AD 425, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). This was an apologetic answer to the claim of Pelagius that salvation could be earned by good works. Augustine wrestled, however, with the origin of evil. He ultimately settled on evil being “…a looking away from God and turning one’s gaze to the inferior realm.” It was believed that a single being, of infinite goodness, was the source of all things. He said evil is real, but it is not a real or created “thing.” Rather, Augustine taught the concept that evil is a direction away from the goodness of the One. I am familiar with the suggestion that we are either walking toward or walking away from Christ. Walk is discussed throughout the New Testament. The 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451) reestablished the two natures of Jesus (human and divine). The birth of monasticism furthered the teachings of the Church and led to the promulgation of the Gospel.

Christianity’s next great challenge was Islam. Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall to the Muslims. Persecution of Christians by Muslims began AD 717 under Caliph Umar II. Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches. (This is a sad but accurate foreshadowing of Nazis forcing Jews to wear Star of David arm bands during the reign of Adolf Hitler.) When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the Muslim invasion of France in AD 732. It was the caliph’s intention to conquer Europe in the name of Muhammad.

Trouble with Islam continued. In AD 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in AD 1091. In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which culminated in the bloody defeat of the Knights Templar and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Please join me next time when I discuss the historical importance of monasticism in the early Christian church. As always, please consider replying to these posts to help foster dialog.

Footnotes
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), xiii.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 27.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 18.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Constantine and the Church

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Engage the perennial question: Was Constantine good or bad for the church of Jesus Christ? In making your case, note (and cite from Gonzalez, and other sources, if you would like) the ways in which Constantine affected the church’s doctrine and practice. Answer these questions as parts of your overarching answer:

  • Which effects were good, and which were bad?
  • What have been the long-term results—good and bad— of those effective changes?

Just when I thought I was already having enough fun studying theology, we were given another fascinating assignment. Beginning with the conversion of Constantine, Christianity began to move from persecution to dominance. In AD 392, the emperor Theodosius I outlawed pagan worship—Christianity effectively became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine said, “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation… This I have seen in others as well as myself” (in Gonzalez, 2010, 131). At first blush, this statement rings like a true profession of faith in the One True God, but is it? We’re asked to consider whether Constantine was good or bad for Christianity. In part, this must include consideration of whether the above statement equates to public profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. It is interesting to note that Constantine did not refer to Christ as the only god. Accordingly, the veritas of Constantine’s confession has been the subject of many discussions. Some believed it was merely a shrewd political maneuver. Constantine referred to the Christian God as “the greatest god,” the summa deus (Stephenson, 2009,169), yet he adorned the city with pagan statues from around the empire. Ravi Zacharias (2007, 10) said some scholars believe Constantine wanted to assert control over his “chosen religion” to the benefit of his empire and so insisted on the convening of a group of men to determine the content of the Bible (Council of Nicaea, AD 325). However, this was not the purpose of the Council.

Gonzalez believes it is important to determine the impact Constantine’s conversion and rule had on the Church. He states, “The truth is probably that Constantine was a sincere believer in the power of Christ” (139). He failed to place himself under the instruction of church leaders, yet he felt authorized to intervene in ecclesiastical matters. Gonzalez said Constantine considered himself “bishop of bishops” (138). Christian leaders thought that although inclined to become a believer, Constantine was not “one of the faithful” (139). Constantine was a sincere man, but he held a meager grasp of the Christian faith. For example, he thought the Christian God and the god “Unconquered Sun” were compatible. In his mind, there was room for serving other gods. He frequently took part in numerous pagan ceremonies without a thought that he was betraying the Christian God. Regardless of whether his conversion was genuine, Constantine’s beliefs and practices had a definite impact on Christianity.

Bad Effects

Paganism was still considered the “official” religion of the empire. As head of the empire, Constantine took the title of Supreme Pontiff or High Priest of that belief system. Gonzalez notes, “[A]lmost to his dying day, Constantine continued functioning as the High Priest of paganism” (141). His influence caused a drop in catechism prior to baptism. Because the ancient gods were still a part of everyday life, Constantine’s desire to “serve two masters” perpetuated pagan worship in the empire. Gonzalez states despite having done much to the detriment of paganism, Constantine “became one of the pagan gods… the Eastern church considers him a saint, thus resulting in a saint who is also a pagan god” (141). Spiritual ambiguity caused persistent violence against pagans by Christians, resulting in their rejection of Christianity. Power and prestige among church leaders caused increased arrogance and corruption in the church. Gonzalez notes that Lucius “bought” his position as bishop of Alexandria—a practice eventually known as simony. Moreover, as bishops were permitted increasing judicial powers, bribery became an issue. Perhaps this was a secular foreshadowing of priests selling “indulgences” for sins in the Catholic Church.

The laity began to see conversion as less critical or dramatic. Syncretism and superstition were on the increase as a result of merging Christianity and paganism. Many believers were buried with both Christian and pagan artifacts and symbols. Constantine’s conversion led to imperial impact on Christian worship. Incense, which was initially used to venerate emperors, began to be used in Christian services. We can see the influence of this today in Catholic, Episcopal, United Methodist, Orthodox Christian, and some Lutheran services. Ministers started wearing fancy or luxurious garments when officiating, and the church started calling ministers “priests” as in paganism. Kneeling seems to have originated with bowing before the emperor.

Ancient artifacts and bodies of martyrs were dug up, relocated, or venerated—perhaps a form of idolatry? As church membership grew exponentially, limitation on time and space led to many “new converts” not being baptized. Additionally, pre-baptismal instruction was shortened or eliminated. This is something the early church would have deemed unacceptable. Churches, worship services, and other aspects grew complex in contrast to a simpler and humbler time. An “official theology” developed, likely as a means for paying homage to Constantine for outlawing persecution of the faithful. Many believed Constantine was “chosen” by God to facilitate the merging of church and empire. This was something Christ vehemently discouraged (No doubt the congregations became inundated with “so-called” Christians. Gonzalez notes an exodus from “the imperial church” which many believed had become sinful and apostate.

Good Effects

The conversion of Constantine had several positive effects on the Christian church. Prior to this, Christians lived under the unpredictable threat of persecution. Stephenson notes that Constantine may not have been a Christian at this point (AD 312), but he began showing sympathy and concern for its followers (169). Accordingly, he forbade persecution of the Christian faith. Constantine also wanted to end factionalism within the community of Christian believers (Stephenson, 169). Under Constantine, Lactantius wrote an early apologetic titled On the Deaths of the Persecutors wherein he stated that monotheism was Rome’s “original religion, and the idea of many gods was introduced in error.” Monotheism was said to be superior to polytheism, and Christianity was expressed as the only means through which wisdom was attainable (Stephenson, 170). It is interesting to note the likely origin for celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. Sol Invictus (the personification of the Sun) was worshiped as the “greatest god” that was acceptable to all (177). Initially, December 25 was the “Day of the Sun.” According to Stephenson, on December 25, 323 Constantine declared the date as the dies natalis of Christ and exempted all Christians from having to participate in the veneration of Sol (178).

Constantine used imperial edicts to establish privileges for churches and their leadership. For example, churches were allowed tax exempt status for properties and their ministers. Further, members and others were permitted the legal right to pass property on to the church. We see this practice in operation today, allowing some denominations to amass a vast amount of assets. According to Church and State, the Roman Catholic Church is likely the wealthiest non-business entity in the world, with assets ranging from $10 billion to $15 billion and an operation budget of approximately $170 billion in the United States alone (Network for Church Monitoring, 2020). Of course, whenever accumulation of wealth become more important than seeking God’s kingdom and storing up treasures in heaven, such developments can be detrimental for Christianity

IN CONCLUSION, clearly Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is in question. First, although he made a public profession of faith, he did not undergo water baptism until on his deathbed in 337. Moreover, many of his attitudes and actions seemed to belie true dedication to Christ. He continued to participate in pagan ceremonies at times and functioned as its high priest. Constantine’s serving two masters caused the prolonging of pagan worship. Negative effects included ongoing violence against pagans by Christians, ecclesiastical and judicial corruption, early practices that mimic the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, syncretism, a lack of catechism teachings before water baptism, and at least a temporary diluting of Christianity. Constantine did, however, outlaw persecution of Christians, helped to cause a slow increase in observing monotheism over polytheism, and establishment of December 25 as Christmas Day.

I am impressed by the impact of Christian ecclesiastical history on grasping the many nuances of the Christian faith.

References

Church and State (London, England: Network for Church Monitoring), 2020.

Gonzalez, J.L., The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2010.

Stephenson, P. Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor (New York, NY: The Overlook Press), 2010.

Zacharias, R., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith we Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 2007.