Christianity's first three centuries - the truth behind the myth

Christianity's first three centuries - the truth behind the myth

Andrew Quinlan

Did the toleration extended to Christianity under the Roman Emperor Constantine (d. AD 337) really lead to a sudden loss of Christian "authenticity" with alien hierarchical and doctrinal concepts imposed in the interests of political stability and the foundations laid for the "institutional Church" of today?

Dr Andrew Quinlan, with a Master of Theology from the St Nicholas' Ecumenical Institute and a doctorate in liturgy from the Oriental Institute in Rome, argues that the Church's structures, beliefs and practices were already in place well before the advent of Constantine and that toleration of Christianity in the early 4th century did not produce any radical or unauthentic changes in the Church.

Within the Catholic Church there is a certain tension between traditionalists and modernists over what we have inherited from the past and the way we live now. One of the places where the battle rages is in history, since the way one reads the Church's history can be determined by a certain bias of belief related to the present day situation.

The principal interest of the Christian community and the Catholic Church was, is, and always will be, Christ himself. The technical name for the Church's intellectual interest in Christ is Christology.

History has a chronology - a passage of time - but it is very difficult for us to appreciate this passage of time. We start with Jesus Christ - his birth, death, Resurrection, the early days of the Church - and then we arrive at a momentous event in the history of the Christian situation which took place in AD 312 on Milvian Bridge in Rome. In the endless succession of political squabbles that went on in Rome, one man, Constantine, won a battle and established himself as the ruler of the Roman Empire. This man adopted Christianity as the Empire's religion and gave it full toleration and support.

That whole period, from the beginning of Christianity up to AD 312, has now tended to be closed over, obscuring the fact that there was a life, a Church and a tradition during those years. Some tend to read the history of the Church as if we pass directly from St Paul to Constantine - from a pristine, pure, simple, 'happy' New Testament community to a sudden swamping of Christianity by political and philosophical concerns which are somehow alien to Christianity. This is not a true historical picture.

We need firstly to recall the geographic, political and ethnic world into which Christianity emerged in the first century. That world was extensive: as a single unit it extended from Scotland to Iraq, bordered in the north by the River Danube and in the south by the African desert. A wide variety of people were bound together by this single political system which used two major languages: Latin for the bureaucracy and legal system and Greek for philosophy and the market place. It was a world at peace - the "pax Romana" - and as far as the ordinary person was concerned it represented the high point of human history, a world in which there were no borders and the roads were safe and passable.

The whole system was held together, more or less, by one man - the Emperor - who was the embodiment of the state, and popularly seen as divine, as a god. But we would judge it with today's eyes as a totalitarian state which saw certain forms of diversity - particularly any alternative source of peace or differing universal principle - as threats to the stability of the system.

Any concept, say of Christ the King, would be quite impossible to tolerate; any refusal to take part in the state religion was not merely a religious, but a political, threat since the state religion was seen as fundamental to the Empire's unity. The exception to this were the Jews who, as a distinct race, however 'odd' their customs might seem - and the Romans thought they were very odd - were permitted to practise their own religion. The problem with the Christians was that they were not a recognisable race, and they were everywhere. You couldn't put your finger on who they were or to what class they belonged. Hence they represented a threat.

The Great Persecution

There were several persecutions of the Christians as a result. Some were just local riots in the towns when an earthquake or a plague might be blamed on them as the 'odd people out'. There might then be a pogrom involving killings of Christians and burnings of churches. There were several state-organised persecutions, but these did not usually last for long.

But about AD 303, there came "The Great Persecution", within a bare decade before Constantine, when the state under Emperor Diocletian (245-313) began to declare war on the Church. As part of a more general political reform, he had decided to divide up the empire to make it administratively more manageable and in the process saw a need to impose even stronger religious unity. In 303, he issued four edicts against Christianity, edicts which tell us a good deal about what the Church was like in the 4th century, on the eve of the conversion of Constantine.

The first edict stated that Christians must surrender their sacred books and their gold-plate. The local magistrate would accordingly visit a local Christian church and order the bishop or priest to hand over these items, and if they refused they were arrested. The next step was usually to burn the church itself. But if the state saw destroying the Church as involving destroying its property, there must clearly have been a considerable amount of such property to destroy. Hence the Church on the eve of the Constantinian conversion was not in the catacombs. It had its own established structure with extensive buildings and material possessions. In some of the various Acts of the Martyrs, for example, we find lists of the things that were actually taken away; they include gold plate and because the goods to be distributed to the poor were also stored in the churches, lots of shoes and clothes.

The second stage of Diocletian's plan for destroying the Church involved arresting and imprisoning the bishops, presbyters, lectors - anyone who had a leading role within the Christian community. So having attacked the Church's property, the state now decided to destroy its hierarchical structure; in other words, there was such a structure alive and well before Constantine.

Stage three of the persecution meant obliging clergy who had been arrested to sacrifice publicly to the gods - to show their conformity to the state religion in a public way. Sometimes this meant burning incense in front of an image of a god, or of the Emperor himself. If the bishops and clergy conformed, it was presumed that the rest of the people would follow.

Finally, with stage four, anyone recognised as a Christian was arrested and forced to sacrifice. The state had failed, by then, to destroy the Church simply by destroying its property, taking the clergy out of circulation and by trying to discredit them. The last resort was therefore a mass persecution at the 'grass roots', which lasted on and off in various places until about 311.

Yet the Church was able to survive all this persecution so easily that by 312 it was actually in a position to become the Roman Empire's official religion and by 325 to hold its first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, the first gathering of bishops from all over the Empire. Indeed, the bishops would actually be given rides to Nicea on the post vans that took the mail around the Empire - in effect, free tickets to use the public transport system!

In a very short time, we go from a well-programmed persecution to, at an official level, an acceptance of Christianity. By the beginning of the 4th century, however, even without the assistance of the Roman Empire as a political structure, and without the public acceptance of Christianity as a worldview, the Church had clearly grown to a point where it could resist any political or intellectual pressures. So it was not by any means a small, frightened catacomb-bound group of people who were suddenly taken over and smothered by a political power.

Less than twenty years after intense and systematic persecution, the first Christological Council, the Council of Nicea, is held, and, with it, the beginning of the formulations of the Creed. The Church is about to make major theological decisions; but the roots of these decisions must logically lie before the toleration actually happens. The decisions that are going to be made by the Church have been determined and worked out, before Christianity became the official religion. It is a totally false view to suggest that Christology and the statements of the early Councils were in some way the products of Church capitulation to a non-Biblical, non-Scriptural philosophical point of view forced on it by the state.

Daily life of Christianity

When we look back on that somewhat obscure pre-Constantinian period, it is very difficult to gain a lot of specific information about the daily life of the Church when so many of its books and buildings had been regularly destroyed. We know more about the intellectual life - the theological arguments - than about the day-to-day faith and liturgical life of early Christianity.

This early Church was asking itself the fundamental question: "Who is Jesus Christ?" It was interested, not only in His words but also His actions, for He was not someone who simply taught a new philosophical message. The question of "who" was, however, more easily answered, at the outset, in the liturgical and prayer life of the Church where precision of language, in a philosophical or theological sense, was not of the utmost importance.

And when we look into some of the more 'relaxed' sayings of the primitive Church, we get some idea of who they thought Jesus was. We can see in Isaiah 63, verse 9, a verse often applied to Jesus: "Not an intercessor, nor an angel, but the Lord himself has done this." That is, the actions of Christ were for them the saving actions of God. This was easy to grasp, because even St Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:19 says that God was "in Christ reconciling the world to himself" - a nice saying, which flows and is easy to understand, to think about and to meditate upon. The early Church therefore picks up quite easily and quite naturally the idea that in Jesus we have direct access to God.

A paschal sermon has been found in our own century, given by a bishop named Melitos of Sardis (d. c.190) early in the 2nd century, which says that "He [meaning Jesus Christ], "who appeared as a Lamb, remained at the same time the Shepherd". And in one of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (c.35-c.107) from the early second century we are told of "the Invisible One who for our sake became visible", and of the One "who could not suffer becoming subject to suffering on our account, and for our sake enduring everything". I think that even the simplest believer can understand the Christology of that - that a God, who is transcendent, far away, enters with Jesus Christ into history and enters our lives so that we can touch the untouchable and see the unseeable.

The difficulties arise mainly when we try to explain these things in more precise theological language.

As I have said, the pre-Constantinian Church, from the first apostolic community up to the time of toleration, was already a thinking, preaching and instructing organism. The Church already had to explain its message, particularly in view of the long period of preparation for baptism called the catechumenate in which people were instructed in the faith. Those instructing had to work out how to explain what was meant by the "Lamb being the Shepherd" or "the One who cannot suffer, suffering". As a result the Church was moved into an ever deeper examination of what God becoming man - the Incarnation - actually meant. This arose, not out of idle curiosity, but out of a practical need to preach the message and to explain it to catechumens; otherwise the Church would have been satisfied with the simpler prayerful definitions.

And in trying to explain the Truth, the Church was influenced by the Old Testament experience, which said and repeated that God is one and one alone, and by the philosophies of the world around it. Unlike today, the Church grew up in a philosophical society in which people liked ideas, thought seriously and discussed certain problems ad nauseam. The leaders in those days were not scientists, but philosophers, who knew how to argue and how to think. But in any philosophical discussion of a god at that time, the prevailing conception was of remoteness. The Christian idea of a God, who was born, who died, was not surprisingly greeted with considerable disdain.

The more obvious 'solution' to this was to suggest that the Christian God played two separate parts in the drama of Salvation, one of Creator and the other of the Son. But this is impossible for it takes away the duality and paradox of Lamb and Shepherd, of the un-suffering One and the One who suffers.

One 'solution'- perhaps the most devastating theological experiment in the whole of Christian history - was to be put forward by Arius (250-336), already an old man at the time of Constantine's revolution and of the Council of Nicea. Arius' theological solution to the problem of how Jesus can be considered God was that he was somewhat like God, but not really God. He was a second 'God'. This took away from the Church the idea that it was actually the Lord Himself who acted; that it was God Himself who was reconciling the world to Himself in Jesus Christ.

Inner strength

So just as Constantine was seeking religious uniformity for the Empire through toleration of Christianity, Christianity itself was dividing over the ideas of Arius. Constantine's response was to bring all the bishops together to look at these ideas and to decide which represented the true faith. Once determined, that true faith was to be imposed on the whole Church. This is what occurred at Nicea in 325 when the ideas of Arius were rejected and the Nicene Creed formulated.

But it did not end there as the whole process of the early battles over Christology would continue up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It was a sign of the inner strength of the Church, however, that it never capitulated to the solution offered it by the Empire, that of uniformity. There was always someone prepared to say No, that is not the Faith; someone prepared to put truth above the peace and harmony of the political world.

So despite appearances - the enormous changes in the external circumstances of the Church of the early 4th century - what we really have is continuity. The acceptance of Christianity by the Greco-Roman world came quite late in the Church's history. By that time the Church was in a position structurally to defy the Roman Empire and in a position intellectually to defy both Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy.

We need to keep in mind that 'easy' solutions, such as the "big moment" theory of history, the over-emphasis on great changes, can distort our perception of the truth. We need to go back and to sift through all the sources at our disposal - even to be prepared to admit that some things have to remain a mystery. History consists of continuity and change - we should be frightened of neither.

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