Church History Part 1 (of 3)

  • Jon the freelance theologian was recently invited to distill 2000 years of Church History into 3 hours with the participants of the Form course in Bristol Vineyard. What follows is the first of three essays written for Form. The caveat for the reader is that such a venture is naturally selective and may prompt further questions!

    Introductory Remarks

    It is important for any modern-day historian to realise first and foremost that he or she is living in the ‘modern’ era. Our concept of what history is differs from classical historians, so recapturing the ‘story’ involves the recognition that the storytellers are from another, quite alien, yet disturbingly similar, culture. On another level, understanding what has happened in the two thousand years since the earthly ministry of Christ includes several strands of history.

    There is strand 1: straight history – what happened, who was involved and how it affected whatever happened next.
    Strand 2 runs deeper: the historical development of Christian doctrine. Christian history is intertwined with doctrinal development – the ‘what, who, how’ are as much about orthodox beliefs, creeds, doctrines and theology. Without wanting to go off onto a tangent, it is nearly impossible for us, with our developed theologies, to practice ‘New Testament Christianity’, mainly because we have a New Testament, whereas the ‘New Testament Christians’ did not.
    Strand 3 is the cultural element. Christianity has, since the fourth century been bound up with political, social and cultural mores. This has given Western Europe both the absolute monarchy ‘divine right of Kings’ and also democracy based on the equality of men before God. Christians of every age have been shaped by and, in turn, shaped the society they are in. Church history and, especially European development are inextricably linked.
    A fourth strand that could be identified is a reforming strand. This is paradoxically both a conservative and a progressive movement within Christianity, wanting to return to basics in order to forge a new future. The reforming strand of church history is often overlooked.

    This introduction is going to cover small amounts from each strand. In part one, we’ll look at the development of Christianity from a Jewish sub-sect through to the highly complicated creedal faith that was the official religion of the Roman Empire. In part two, we’ll look at the Reformation, which breached Christendom and changed Christian doctrine and Western culture forever. In part three we’ll look at some of the developments in the modern era and the pressures that have transformed the faith from outside. This is very much a brief introduction, designed to whet your appetite for church history. Hopefully it will leave you wanting to know more.

    The early development of Christianity

    Christianity spreads

    The account of Christian origins we are most familiar with is the Book of Acts. Combined with other semi-autobiographical information, for example in Paul’s letters or the opening verses of Revelation, we can build up a picture of how Christianity started to spread through the Roman Empire.

    The common theory is that Christianity piggy-backed the spread of Judaism. In the centuries immediately before Jesus, Jewish communities had started building synagogues in major cities throughout the Roman Empire, including Rome itself, Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in modern-day Turkey. Many of these Jews spoke Greek, which was the common language of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) had been translated into Greek in the third century BC. In popular tradition, seventy-two Jewish elders did the translating in seventy-two days. Hence, the finished translation was called the Septuagint. (Seventy-two was an important number in Jewish folklore as it is a multiple of twelve and there are twelve tribes).

    The earliest Christians were Jews, and would have been trilingual, speaking Aramaic (the language of Palestine), speaking and writing Greek and knowing at least enough Hebrew to understand the rituals in the Temple and the synagogues. As Christianity spread, with its outward-looking focus towards the gentiles, Greek became the common language of the early church. The New Testament is written in ‘koine’ Greek, the everyday commoners language used in the marketplace, the pubs and among the general populace.

    It would be worth pointing out here that, contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not a semi-illiterate carpenter from some rural backwater. The Greek word ‘tekton’ that we translate as ‘carpenter’ means ‘architect’ or ‘master craftsman’. Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up, was a few miles from a large city that was being rebuilt by the Roman authorities called Sepphoris – a place big enough to have its own theatre – and the rebuilding would have employed master craftsmen from all over the region. Nazareth was also close to the ‘Via Maris’, the ‘road to the sea’, along which huge trading caravans travelled. The spice routes led from the Palestinian coast to Arabia, India, the Caucasus and many other foreign and exotic lands. Jesus would have been educated in the synagogue school, able to read Hebrew and Greek and perfectly able to converse with high ranking priests, Romans or other Greek-speaking foreigners (the Romans would probably have been conscripted from Greek-speaking territories and would be bilingual in Latin and Greek anyway).

    Jesus’ followers were hardly the ignorant fishermen they are often portrayed as. In fact, as boat-owning, self-employed businessmen, who may even have had offices in Jerusalem, the first disciples were more middle class than is often recognised. These followers of Jesus were joined by clerks, doctors, lawyers, political activists, educated Pharisees, merchants and the like. The Roman Empire, with its ‘pax romana’, excellent road system, safe sea-lanes and network of synagogues were all conducive to the message of Jesus spreading, first within the scattered Jewish communities and then, as Christians grew more bolder (and the Jewish community leaders grew more hostile) directly to ordinary citizens of the Empire and even beyond.

    Persecution and martyrdom

    It wasn’t all easy going. The dominant religion in the Roman Empire was worship of the Emperor. The beginning of the Gospel of Mark, introduces Jesus as the son of God in the very first sentence. This was a loaded phrase – ‘uiou theou’ – more commonly used in the Imperial cult of the current living Emperor, whoever that might be. A common idea was that the Emperor ascended to divine status when he died, so his son taking over the throne must be the son of a god! Other titles of Christ were in similar use – ‘kyrios kai sote’ (lord and saviour), being the most common one.

    The danger then for Christians was twofold. On the one hand, the superstition of the surrounding community would hold Christians accountable if anything went wrong, because they were the ones disrespecting the Gods/Emperor by refusing to worship them. The second strand was political – withdrawing from public Emperor worship was tantamount to treason.

    The first major persecution of Christians where Christians were singled out by the authorities, instead of being the victims of mob violence was under the Emperor Nero in AD64. This followed a fire that devastated the city of Rome, which Nero blamed on the Christians. Even Roman commentators like Tacitus thought the fire was suspicious – Tacitus stopped short of accusing Nero of ordering arson, but noted a ‘sinister belief’ that pointed the finger at the Emperor. The Christians were blamed, according to Tacitus, to divert that accusation.

    Without going into too much detail, the martyrs in the Neronian persecution suffered horrible deaths, including being lit as human torches in the gardens of the Imperial palace and being torn apart by wild dogs in the circus. It is often thought that Peter and Paul may have been martyred in Rome at about this time, but church traditions aside, there is no clear evidence for this.

    Despite being instigated by the Emperor, Nero’s persecution was largely confined to Rome and it lasted a short time. Generally, for the first three hundred years of its existence, the church was left alone, but there were some notable exceptions. The Emperor Domitian persecuted Christians in Rome and Asia (modern day Turkey) at the end of the first century AD. Notable Christians Polycarp and Justin (who became known as Justin Martyr) were executed by the authorities in the 160s, there was major persecution in Gaul (France), motivated by mob violence, in 177, where a number of Christians were given the opportunity to ‘recant’ (i.e. deny the faith). This is the first known situation where the Emperor, at this time Marcus Aurelius (portrayed in the recent Hollywood epic Gladiator), instructed the authorities to free those who were willing to turn back to pagan worship.

    Yet, this kind of persecution had the same effect as a tabloid scandal would today. It got the issue of Christianity noticed. The curiosity of many people was piqued – who were these mysterious ‘Christians’? What was it that drove them so willingly to die? Who was this ‘Jesus the Christ’? Hadn’t he been executed too? The rumours led people to find out more and as they did, the church grew in number and influence.

    Martyrdom became a popular theme in the Christian community from the middle of the second century. Many of the leading lights in the movement had died for the faith – ten of the original twelve disciples, St Paul, and St James the Just (possibly Jesus’ brother) who led the church in Jerusalem, had all been killed according to church tradition. This idea of the ‘martyr-apostle’, who held to the gospel to the point of death, is of course modelled on Jesus himself. And it was to have a profound impact in North Africa, where one Christian called Tertullian explicitly stated that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’.

    In 250AD, the Emperor Decius initiated a wide-ranging persecution of Christians. In order to identify the Christians everybody was ordered to sacrifice an animal in a pagan ceremony. Those who did not were tried and executed for being Christians. Although the persecution did not last long – Decius died in 251 – a huge controversy erupted in North Africa over what to do about those who had recanted or engaged in pagan rites under pressure from their neighbours or the authorities.

    Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, had been in hiding during the persecution. When he returned to Carthage, he found the majority of Christians had either bribed an official to receive a certificate to say they had sacrificed or had actually sacrificed to the pagan gods. Cyprian argued that the recanters had denied Christ, were traitors and could not be readmitted to the church. If they had already been baptised – their baptism was null and void and because the church believed in one baptism for the remission of sins, they could not be baptised again and their sin could not be forgiven.

    This was in direct contrast with the Bishop of Rome who urged for tolerance and readmission. Cyprian effectively split with Rome on this; his was regarded as authoritative throughout North Africa and he was influential in Spain as well. A half-century later, one his successors, Donatus, would take the fanaticism and no-holds-barred attitude of Cyprian further so that the church in Africa was split between the Donatists and those who still looked to Rome and again the issues would surround the activities of Christians under persecution. In Donatus’ case over who had surrendered their copies of the Holy Scriptures to be burned by the authorities rather than sacrificing in pagan temples, but the principle was the same.

    In that sense persecution worked. When Constantine came to power in 313AD and issued his edict that made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, the church was divided. The continuing presence of the Donatists undermined Imperial authority in North Africa. A few centuries later, with the political will of the Empire weakened, Christianity all but died in out in the region, unwilling and unable to unite against a new religion: Islam. Cyprian, who started all this off was himself martyred in AD257.

    An authoritative canon of Scripture

    There are many myths, not all of them ancient, surrounding the New Testament. Whether it’s Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, or the popular misconception that the Bible was only written hundreds of years after the events they describe, it is important to recognise that the spread of Christianity goes hand-in-hand with the development of the New Testament.

    A recent book called The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus by Carsten Peter Theide argues that the public library system throughout the Roman Empire helped the spread of Christianity. Thiede’s premise is that the early Christian communities wrote the gospels very early on as a missionary endeavour – the idea being to get them placed in libraries for general readers. One key argument in his favour is that Paul makes oblique references to Jesus Christ, which appear to presuppose knowledge on the part of the reader. While there has undoubtedly been some small editorship for the gospels, if Thiede’s theory is right, then what we have in our Bible today are virtually eyewitness accounts (Matthew’s gospel may have been based on Matthew-Levi’s shorthand notes jotted down as the disciples tramped around the countryside).

    That’s not to say they are historically accurate in the way we would view history from a modern, scientific standpoint. The gospels tell a story from a particular point of view – it’s the early life of the messiah who came back from the dead. It is highly likely that the resurrection was the first thing, and perhaps was the only thing, that people knew about Jesus. It seems to form the central part of any teaching recorded in the New Testament about Jesus. Unlike modern evangelical theology which emphasises the atoning death of Christ, the first Christians stressed the resurrection as proof that there was a new ‘Way’ – a popular self-descriptive term used in the early church.

    Thousands of different manuscripts have been archeologically retrieved from the first few centuries. Sometimes these are mere fragments of the New Testament, sometimes complete collections of e.g. the four gospels or Paul’s letters. The development of the canon of the New Testament, i.e. the fixed order and number of ‘books’ we have today, took some time. There are plenty of reasons for this.

    Firstly, regardless of what fringe nutters might tell you, there weren’t a huge number of ‘other gospels’ knocking around in the first couple of centuries. Most of the non-canonical ‘gospels’, ‘acts’ and ‘apocalypses’ were written in the second or third century at the very earliest. Secondly, the early Church already had its Scriptures – what we now call the Old Testament. This was usually the Greek translation called the Septuagint and was regarded as being full of prophetic references to Jesus Christ, particularly in the Psalms and Messianic oracles as found in Isaiah. The idea that the writings of the earliest Christians were inspired by God and authoritative only came in after those said Christians left the scene. Thirdly, there was no real need to define any particular writings as orthodox while Christianity was vaguely homogenous and rooted in Judaism. However, as other influences crept into Christianity, from thinkers who had converted from pagan backgrounds, but had not left their pagan philosophical ideas behind, the heterogeneity of Christianity began to prove problematic. Fourthly, and this was the clincher, people began to ask which of the Christian writings they should read and how they related to the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament). Were they on a par? Or were they more important, because after all they were about Christ?

    One of the significant people who precipitated the formation of the canon was called Marcion. There is little information about him, but we know he was excommunicated from the church in Rome in about AD144 for teaching that the Old Testament had nothing to do with Christianity. Marcion held a developed Gnostic belief and regarded the Old Testament God ‘Yahweh’ as an evil deity. The true God was revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and had nothing to do with the Jewish scriptures. To that end he produced his own collection of ‘true’ Scripture, which consisted of an edited down version of Luke’s gospel (coincidentally, the least Jewish of the Synoptic gospels) and similarly-edited letters of Paul.

    The reaction to Marcion is very helpful to us in understanding the development of the New Testament. The response was unambiguous – there are four gospels, not one. This implies that all four were in common use by the middle of the second century and regarded as equally authoritative. Marcion and his followers were denounced and in return, leading theologians began circulating the lists of which books should be regarded as authoritative for orthodox Christians.

    Another major influence on canon-formation was the semi-charismatic and prophetic movement known as Montanism that started in the third century. In Monatanist communities, prophecies under the influence of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) were regarded as being authoritative. Some of these prophecies, relating to the end of the world, failed to come true and the question of what could be trusted became increasingly relevant. The idea that the canon should be effectively ‘closed’ against future additions was a natural development.

    The New Testament as we know it today was finally confirmed by a papal declaration in AD405. In AD382, a synod in Rome accepted the list as drawn up by the great fourth century thinker Athanasius fifteen years previously. [Incidentally, Dan Brown’s assertion in The Da Vinci Code that the canon was finalised at the Council of Nicea is another indication of the author’s lack of scholarship.]

    The criteria used by Athanasius and previous list-compilers occasionally differ, but the broad outlines are the same. These are – first-generation apostolic links (in Luke’s case a link to Paul; Mark is traditionally thought to be recording Peter’s memories), historical usage, i.e. how long the particular writings have been used in Christian circles, catholicity (their use across the churches, no local writings allowed) and their tone – if they contained obvious Gnostic teaching then they were out. The vast majority of rediscovered contemporaneous documents are either locally relevant, contain Christianised pagan philosophy, or of dubious historicity. It should be noted that the modern, literalist view of Scripture as the ‘Word of God’ was rarely held in the early church. The New Testament was authoritative because it was considered reliable testimony on which to base correct church practice and doctrine, not because it was ‘authored by God’.

    Constantine establishes Christianity as the official religion

    Christianity spread and as it came into contact with other ideas and beliefs it developed. Even before Constantine’s edict, there were many Christians producing semi-systematic theologies. Christians like Origen and Irenaeus were engaging pagan philosophers and writing ‘apologetic’ works which portrayed Christianity as a reasonable, plausible faith system.

    However, it was after Constantine ascended to the Imperial throne and issued his edict that Christianity really began to develop into the doctrinal form that survives to this day. Constantine was actually in York in AD312, when he learned that his father had died and he was now Emperor. [If you go to York in England you can see a statue of him outside York Minster]. Being so far away, his political opponents seized their opportunity for power and so, before he could get into Rome and be crowned, he had to fight the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Before the battle he had his famous dream when he saw a glowing cross in the sky and heard a voice say ‘by this sign you will win’. He instructed his legion to daub the sign of the cross on their shields and armour and subsequently won the battle. The rest, as they say, is history.

    At least, that’s the official version handed down for centuries. How much truth there is in it we don’t know. It may be that Constantine saw the influential church as a useful ally, or at least as too big a movement to suppress. With the church ‘on-side’, Christianity was no longer a subversive threat and what was the real difference in praying for the Emperor as opposed to praying to him? We know that Constantine was heavily into sun-worship and even after his ‘conversion’ minted coins with images of the sun on. However, cynicism aside, Constantine was the first Christian Emperor and under his patronage the church transformed into the most important cultural institution after the army. One interesting note: Constantine’s mother, Helen, toured the holy land founding churches on ancient Christian shrines and many of the sites she ‘discovered’ – including the Holy sepulchre, the Annunciation, the Church of the Nativity – are still churches today. Helen also found the ‘true cross’ (subsequently lost by the crusader armies) and many other relics long-venerated in Christian worship.

    And of course, Constantine convened the most important council of bishops in Christian history: at Nicea in AD325.

    The Council of Nicea

    Every Sunday millions of Christians around the world say the ‘Nicene Creed’ as a public expression of their faith. This statement of belief was first put together by an ecumenical council (a collection of high ranking churchmen), under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine in AD325. The council was called together in order to lay a major dispute that had erupted in the church to rest.

    The controversy, which is now known as the Arian heresy, centred on a presbyter from Alexandria called Arius who was accused of teaching a watered down faith, where Jesus was not fully divine. In fact, the Arian heresy was a conflict between pagan philosophy and received Christian tradition.

    After Christianity became the official religion, a huge swathe of people became Christians, bringing with them all kinds of different religious ideas. Some of these may seem quite laughable and superstitious to modern minds, but at the time, these complicated belief systems were regarded as the most scientifically advanced theories. The most prevalent one, found in literally hundreds of variations, was the Gnostic idea of gradated divinity. This held that physical matter was inherently evil, therefore God, who was spirit and good, could not interact with it. A huge hierarchy of divinity was created working down from the supreme, spiritual, ultimate good, to a lesser divinity (the ‘demiurge’ or ‘logos’) which created the world (in some Gnostic systems the demiurge was evil), spiritual beings like angels (subdivided into different categories), humans, animals, plankton and so on. Human beings were ‘sparks of the divine’; souls trapped in evil physical matter. Liberation from matter came through secret knowledge: ‘gnosis’ in Greek, hence the term Gnosticism/Gnostic.

    Thus in the Arian scheme of things, the Father was identified with the supreme good, and the Son was the created lesser divinity who in turn created the world. This was so similar to widely held beliefs that it proved immensely popular, because it combined the official religion with the most advanced religious philosophy available. And it should be pointed out that Arians never denied the divinity of Christ – but in their system he lacked full divinity, having been created. He was still the first-born of creation through whom all other things were made and he was divine, just not to the same level as the Father. So if you’re ever told that Jehovah’s Witnesses are Arians, they’re not, because they don’t subscribe any divinity to Jesus Christ in his ontological nature. Similarly if somebody tells you that the Council of Nicea voted on whether Jesus was divine or an ordinary human being, then they’ve been reading The Da Vinci Code – that’s another one of Dan Brown’s misleading (or ignorant) statements.

    The key phrase in the Nicene Creed revolves around the word ‘homo-ousios’, which literally means ‘of exactly the same stuff’. Jesus is homo-ousios with the Father. Another handy little phrase is the idea that the Son is ‘eternally begotten’ and quite clearly ‘not made’. There is a relationship there, founded in eternity, that means the two relate as ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, but the idea that the ‘Son’ is a lesser divine being who was created is categorically excluded in the creed, and the eternal generation of the Son, excludes the idea of the Father ever existing alone. These all sound very complicated and obscure to us, but they do have huge overtones.

    In Greek thought, salvation was often linked to being divinised, being made like God (a later thinker put it that ‘He became man, so that man could become like God’). In Greek the word ‘theosis’ is used. Now it was a principle of Greek thought that you could not be made greater by something lesser. So, if we were saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and if salvation meant taking on the attributes of God (i.e. eternal life), then Jesus had to be fully God. The people who argued for ‘homo-ousios’ saw this as an argument about salvation. The principle proponent of what has become the orthodox Christian view ever since was called Athanasius. He was from Alexandria and, in all honesty, was perhaps the first ecclesiastical politician and not averse to playing dirty. Kidnapping, blackmail and using mobs to break up the meetings of his opponents are some of the more probable crimes he was accused of. Yet, his legacy within Christianity is the defining creed that was issued in Nicea.

    An interesting aside to note here is that Nicea was the first place where a debate was had over whether words and terms could be used that weren’t found in the Bible. The real achievement at Nicea was the recognition that Biblical terminology was not enough to fully explain the Christian faith – that actually doctrine went beyond the pages of Scripture. Ironically, it was the orthodox party, those wanting to keep to the ‘true’ faith as they had received it, who made the step of using extra-Biblical terms and concepts. Many of those who decried the use of ‘homo-ousios’ as not being Biblical wanted a version of Christianity that had more in common with pagan Greek thought than with the witness of the New Testament.

    The Holy Spirit debate, leading up to the Council of Constantinople 381AD

    There is a tendency among church historians to view the Council of Nicea as the culmination of Christian doctrinal development. In fact, it was only the beginning. Nicea precipitated over fifty years of theological conflict between the Arians who denied the Son was of the same level of divinity as the Father and the ‘orthodox’. As mentioned before, ‘homo-ousios’ became the key word to define your standpoint. During this time period, various different Emperors supported either the Nicene or the Arian position (except for Julian who tried to reintroduce paganism) and Athanasius found himself exiled several times when his views fell out of favour.

    The Nicene Creed was finally ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381, so it should really be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It differs from the earlier version because it contains a paragraph about the Holy Spirit. In the run-up to Constantinople, the arguments had switched from the relationship of the Father and the Son to the person and purpose of the Holy Spirit. The ‘Macedonian’ party argued that the Holy Spirit was some sort of superior angel, not really divine at all. This was, of course, harking back to the hierarchical view of classes of angel, but it also had to do with a resurgence of strict monotheism; by and large the Macedonians sided with the Arians and denied the divinity of Christ.

    It was left to a quite brilliant, yet reclusive, theologian called Gregory of Nazianzus to argue the case for the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In a series of theological sermons delivered in Constantinople, Gregory laid out the framework for all subsequent Trinitarian theology. Gregory’s phrase, that the Spirit ‘proceeded’ from the Father, has become the way the Spirit is understood to relate to the other persons in the one Godhead. Obviously it had to be different from begetting, else the Spirit was a second Son, so Gregory hit on procession, a word linked to some obscure Biblical passages, but also getting around the etymological objections of the Macedonians.

    Gregory initially chaired the Council of Constantinople, where, under the Emperor Theodosius I, the Nicene Creed with it’s controversial use of ‘homo-ousios’ and some additional lines about the Spirit, was declared the expression of true belief; a standing it has never lost in Christian doctrine.

    The procession of the Holy Spirit was the grounds for one major doctrinal conflict, a few centuries later. In the Western Church, the phrase ‘and the son’ (‘filioque’) was added to the creed, so that the Spirit proceeded from both Father and Son. This was done in a high-handed manner by the then Pope, much to the chagrin of bishops in the East and was one of the prime causes of the Great Schism between the Roman Church and what became known as the Orthodox Church in Greece, Russia and Eastern Europe.

    Coming soon: Church History Part 2.

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