06 February 2015

Church History (2015, part-time) 1.1: Introduction, Why
do Church History? From the Apostles to Constantine

An icon of the Church as a boat, including Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute:

Church History elective module (TH 7864)

Years I to IV, MTh part-time,

7 p.m. to 9.15 p.m., Brown Room,

Friday 6 February 2015:

7 p.m.: Church History 1.1: Introduction:

Part 1: Why do Church History?

Part 2: From the Apostles to Constantine

8.15 p.m.: Church History 1.2: An introduction to Patristics and the Early Fathers.

Church History 1.1: Introduction,

Part 1: Why do Church History?

The geographical area that provides the setting for the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles


The story of the early Apostolic Church is found in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, and I can presume that you are all familiar with that story.

Many of you are also familiar, at this stage with more recent Church history. For example, we are all familiar with the decade of commemorations for the events between 1912 and 1922, including the Ulster Covenant (1912), the Lockout (1913), World War I (1914 on), Gallipoli and Suvla Bay (1915), the Easter Rising and the Somme (1916), the Russian Revolution (1917), the War of Independence, Partition and the Civil War.

Many of you may not have done history beyond O Levels or Junior Certificate level at school. You may wonder about the hows and whys of Church History, and where it fits into any programme of theological, spiritual, pastoral and liturgical training.

But let me first begin by challenging some of our understandings of history:

Is the present economic, political and constitutional crisis in Ireland an historic moment for us, socially, politically or economically?

Was the papacy of Pope John Paul II historic?

Did Bertie Ahern make an historic contribution to Irish politics?

It may be too soon to judge any of these, it may be too early. I know a Byzantine historian who says that everything that happened before 1453 is history, everything after that is politics and current affairs.

What a later generation may describe as historic may not be what we see as momentous now, for it may not be seen as historic by a later generation.

Group work:

In your groups discuss and name:

● 2 important people in history
● 2 important dates in history.



T-shirts on sale in the Plaka in Athens … We think the way we think because of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are fashions in history. Today the fashionable studies include the history of sport, clothing, and local and family history studies. But a generation ago, the fashion in history was for biographies and battles, generals and Prime Ministers. A century ago, peerages and genealogies of the landed gentry were big sellers. How many of you have dusted down your copy of Burke’s or Debrett’s lately?

Who knows what events today are shaping the future and will be regarded by future generations, therefore, as historic? History is not fixed, something we can objectively set out, and that will always remain so.

Dr Who meets Charles Dickens in Victorian Cardiff

Are any of you Dr Who fans?

In one episode some years ago, back in 2005, Dr Who was visiting Victorian Cardiff and teamed up with Charles Dickens. But what we see as important in Victorian days was not see as such by Victorians, and future generations may have their own priorities.

We cannot all travel in the same Tardis. We construct our histories out of what we think was important in the past. Our priorities today are reflected in the facts we collect, how we prioritise and emphasise them, and even by what we accept on the one hand as fact, and what, on the other hand, we question, and more so by what we decide to collect and what we decide not to use at all in telling about the past.

Compare a biography of Winston Churchill and a biography of David Beckham. What would a biography of Churchill be like if it concentrated only on his clothes, his hairstyle or lack of hairstyle, and his sporting interests, and drew on interviews with his cigar suppliers and former neighbours?

Our judgment of Churchill has been different since the popular outburst of public sentiment following his death than the judgment passed on him by the electorate in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Those voters had a different idea of how history might judge Churchill.

It may be that historians in 200 years’ time decide that the great liberator of Eastern Europe or the unifier of modern Europe was not Pope John Paul II or Mikhail Gorbachev. They may have different priorities. Could it have been sport – the UEFA championships, the European Championships or the Moscow Olympics of 1980 – that did more to make Eastern Europeans more aware of the West, to open their demands, to give them a spirited approach to demanding liberation and European Union?

Who knows?

In the past, we men have underplayed the importance women have played in history. Historians who have been educated in middle class schools continue to underplay the importance of sport and popular culture in transforming the everyday lives of individuals, families, communities and societies. If I sound a little absurd, remember your own background and conditioning, and remember that in 1969 war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras at a football match and 5,000 people were killed in the four-day “football war.”

Because of the conditioning of our family backgrounds and schooling, many of us think history is all about dates and battles, kings and generals. Is there anyone in this room who does not know the significance of these dates:

432 (Saint Patrick arrives in Ireland)

451 (Council of Chalcedon)

802 (Burning of Iona)

1014 (Battle of Clontarf)

1066 (Battle of Hastings)

1170 (Anglo-Normans arrive at Baginbun)

1366 (Statutes of Kilkenny)

1549 (The first Book of Common Prayer)

1641 (Ulster Rebellion)

1649 (execution of Charles I, triumph of Cromwell)

1662 (revision of The Book of Common Prayer)

1690 (Battle of the Boyne)

1776 (American Revolution)

1789 (French Revolution)

1798 (Irish revolutions)

1800 (Act of Union passed)

1829 (Catholic Emancipation)

1845 (Great Famine, until 1849)

1869 (Disestablishment)

1886 (First Home Rule Bill)

1891 (Death of Parnell)

1904 (Sinn Fein formed)

1912 (Ulster Covenant)

1913 (Great Lockout)

1914 (Beginning of World War I, Home Rule legislation)

1915 (Gallipoli Landings)

1916 (Easter or Somme)

1917 (Russian Revolution)

1918 (End of World War I)

1932 (de Valera wins election)

1945 (end of World War II)

1949 (Declaration of Republic of Ireland)


Is there anybody who does not know the historical significance of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, Napoleon, Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Padraic Pearse, Wallace Simpson, Churchill, Stalin?

We find it more difficult when it comes to counting in memorable moments in history – events such as the death of Socrates, or when it comes to counting among the great figures in history people who gave us ideas (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Luther, Marx), or people who wrote great works (Aristophanes, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare), or were great artists, architects and composers (Rembrandt, Mozart, Wren, Pugin and Picasso).

How many of the two people in history you named were drawn from the English-speaking world? Think again of what you said in your small groups.

History shapes our memories; and memories shape our sense of history. This is important for how we see ourselves today, as products of our past. And it is important for how our neighbours see us as perpetuating that legacy from the past.

Why do Church History?

Archbishop Rowan Williams ... says Church History deepens our present thinking and helps us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about our present problems

Why should we study Church History on a course such as this?

The simple answer that is usually is that we learn lessons from the past.

Woody Allen has asked: Why does history keep on repeating itself?

He says it’s because people refuse to listen the first time round.

Quite a lot of us refuse to listen not so much to history, but to the presentation of history the first time round, particularly if it is presented in a dull, boring, pedantic and condescending way. And it is dull and boring if it is only about dates and battles, kings and generals, a chronology listing merely dates and names, without relevance to the present.

No! History is about how we have been shaped and how we are moving into the future. History is about a legacy. And if we fail to learn from the lessons, we cannot own the good and say goodbye to the past.

In his book on Church history – Why study the past? The quest for the historical church (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005) – Archbishop Rowan Williams argues cogently that Church History deepens our present thinking and helps us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about who we are and the world we are in, with our present problems. He says reading Church History should be theologically sensitive, and he continues:

This does not mean allowing theological interests to settle historical questions or pretending that you should not pay attention to human motives and social or political conditioning when you look at the Christian past: good theology does not come from bad history. We have to admit that some of the Church histories of the past are indeed bad history because they move too quickly from theology and spirituality to the shape of past events... [T]he Christian believes that Christians past and present (and future for that matter) are all bound up together in the Body of Christ, the community in which each contributes something unique to the life of all. And this means that the Christian will be looking and listening in his or her study of Christian history for what feeds and nourishes belief now; they will not simply write off the past as a record of sad or cruel or stupid error… There will be an element of expectation: we shall emerge from the study of the past with some greater fullness of Christian maturity.

The Church depends in many areas on an understanding of its history. And so Church history is used by theologians not just to prove arguments but to clarify what we are as human beings.

Is that how you have perceived Church History in the past?

Is your understanding of Church History relevant to your understanding of theology?

Is your understanding of Church History relevant to today’s Church?

Church History needs to be relevant to your faith, to your spirituality, to your worship, to your ecumenical endeavours, to your ministry and to your mission.

Church History and theology:

Walking on the beach in Portrane ... a lesson in understanding how we approach church history (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I love looking back on those times I have lived close to the sea. Perhaps, it’s because my grandmother was brought up beside the sea in Portrane. I once lived near the beach at Rosslare, and in recent years have managed to spend some valuable time in Achill, in Kilmuckridge, and by the sea in Greece and Turkey.

If you live by a coast or a beach, you know that lots of flotsam and jetsam are washed up every day. Sometimes this includes living creatures, such as seal pups, baby dolphins, or even the occasional beached whale.

I have joked in the past that the approach of the dogmatic theologian to the beached whale or baby dolphin might be to see how it breathes, how its heart beats, whether the main part of the tail is three-in-one or one-in-three, to carve it up to find and examine its component parts, and finally express surprise that it is dead.

The approach of the church historian, on the other hand, might follow this course: ask where it came from; ask which tide brought it in; ask whether this tide was influenced by the phases of the moon; ask is it like previous whales or dolphins seen on this, or neighbouring, beaches; and while going to the county library to find the cuttings for the last sighting of one these in 1927, the creature heaves a last sigh and dies.

If they had both co-operated, they might have first pushed the creature back into the sea, and it might have lived, and we might have more of an idea of why it lives.

Church History needs to be relevant to your faith, to your spirituality, to your worship, to your ecumenical endeavours, to your ministry and to your mission.

Let me share some examples:

Church history helps us understand the way doctrine developed and liturgy was constructed in the 39 Articles and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and doctrine: Here, church history helps us understand the way doctrine has developed. For example, you may have to deal with the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the construction of liturgy in the past that has led to our present liturgical experiences.

The Duomo of Florence and the Palazzo Vecchio seen from the terraces of the Uffizi ... Church History can help us to understand great works of art and architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and art: How can you understand the great works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Rembrandt, the collections in the Uffizi in Florence, the icons in Orthodox history, or the architecture of great cathedrals and churches that have survived the centuries without understanding what the artist or architect was trying to say, and, from the other perspective, how can we appreciate these works without developing an awareness of how they have shaped our images of God and of Biblical figures, or formed culturally our expectations of sacred space?

Inside the Benedictine Abbey Church in Ealing ... Church history opens us to other traditions of spirituality (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and spirituality: Here, Church history opens for us and makes accessible the writings of the Desert fathers; the development of monasticism and its links with Egypt; how early Irish monasticism, in a very short time, drew on the tradition of the East – from Pachomius, Basil and Anthony, and then spread to Europe. But how many of us know how to own much of this as Anglicans? History and spirituality have often come together for me in my pilgrimage or retreats in a monastery, such as Glenstal, Ealing, Mount Athos, Mount Sinai or Patmos. But think of the opportunities of being enriched spiritually and in the tradition of the early Church by going on a retreat in Orlagh with the Augustinians, or in Rostrevor or Glenstal with the Benedictines.

Church history opens us to other understandings of salvation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and our essential understanding of salvation: Much of what passes as a Protestant understanding of salvation is Augustinian. It is not so much based on Scripture as on an Augustinian reading of Scripture. And therefore it is Western as opposed to Eastern.

In the East, there is not the same emphasis on original sin, and therefore there is not the same emphasis on the need for personal salvation, nor are the same questions asked about justification. In the East, salvation is to be found in the church, and therefore people associate salvation with going to Church and taking part in the liturgy. In that sense, Western Protestant and Catholic questions about sin and salvation have more in common with each other than we ever admit or accept. Church history helps us to understand that.

Church history teaches us that the Reformation was not a unique event. There were other Reforming movements. It begs questions such as why Francis of Assisi was kept in the church, but Luther was expelled?

Dante’s statue in Florence ... the first person to write in modern Italian (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and the other arts: The monastery played a crucial role in the development of western understandings of music, through chant and organ. In literature, Chaucer was the first person to write in modern English, and Dante was the first person to write in modern Italian. But who can separate these developments in western understanding from the spiritual and theological directions of their work?

The importance of Florence and the flowering of the Renaissance are essentially grasped through understanding the patronage of the Church. Much popular understanding today of about Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is derived not from the Gospel narratives but from Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code. But art is important in understanding theology. Think of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

When it comes to music, church history and theology, think of Mozart and Bach. Bach died in 1750, but nobody realised then what historical significance he would have – his Saint Matthew Passion was not performed until 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted it in Berlin. Yet Bach is an example of how we can theology through music: he inscribed the scores of his religious music with the letters JJ (Jesu, Juva, Jesus help) at the beginning, and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone the glory) at the end.

Saint Thomas’s Church, Achill ... Church History opens us to our neighbours’ inherited understanding of us (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and our Christian neighbours: History is read differently by different Christian communities. The Presbyterian memory of the Church of Ireland is that we marginalised them at the Caroline Restoration in 1660, that we turfed them out of their churches in the north-east, and that we kept all the church endowments for ourselves. Yet the Presbyterian memory of being the true Ulster-Scots is untrue.

When it comes to Roman Catholic memory, we are often seen as a branch of the Church of England, or remembered for the Penal Laws and the landlords and tithes, and we are linked with their sense of disinheritance.

Catholics and Presbyterians together believe that they were the only ones to take part in the 1798 Rising. Methodists too believe in their memories that we turfed them out of the Church. Think of Catholic memory of ‘souperism’ and the Achill and Ventry missions. How can Nangle and mission in Achill be seen in a positive light today?

The crescent and the minaret at the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and interfaith dialogue: Church history reminds us that Byzantium was the longest-lasting Christian kingdom, that what we call Turkey was a Christian country – the Christian country – for longer than it has been a Muslim country. On the other hand, Spain was a Muslim country for longer than it has been regarded as a Christian country.

And so, it is surprising the Carmelite spirituality of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila has echoes of Sufi spirituality?

We can deal properly with our neighbours if we first accept them as our neighbours. And Church history teaches that Muslims and Turks have always been part of Europe, ever since we constructed the concept of Europe.

The Mission … what does Church History teach us about mission and politics?

Church history and our understanding of the political world: Christianity played a key, formative role in shaping European cultural identity. For too long, there was a coincidence of Europe and Christendom. Church history explains the development of principles such as the just war theory. In terms of political science, church history like no other branch of history allows us to compare Savonarola (1498) with Machiavelli. Was Savonarola essentially a political opportunist or a religious fanatic?

In terms of imperialist expansion, Church history helps to explain a great deal of what was happening in Europe for the last 500 years or so, and its legacy. Just think of a movie such as The Mission, and how the Pope carved up Latin America between Portugal and Spain.

The churches played a key role in shaping North America. Think of how they shaped Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Maryland, Anglican Virginia, or Quaker Pennsylvania.

The French Revolution was as much a revolt against the Church at its worst as against a monarchy that was propped up by the churches teaching and preaching the Divine Right of Kings.

We cannot understand evangelicalism without taking account of its political impulses, including demands to end the slave trade, slavery, and child labour.

We understand Karl Marx in a new light when we understand that his Jewish parents converted to Christianity during his childhood, and that one of his earliest academic works was on Saint John’s Gospel.

When it comes to assessing the last twelve years of American history, will it be possible for historians to understand the Bush and Obama presidencies without understanding the religious beliefs of Bush’s closest advisers and their apocalyptic theology, and the legacy that left for Obama? But I’ll leave that for later historians.


Bad church history is merely a summary of dates and domineering figures. Good church history relates to the rest of theology, and to the rest of society. If we do not do it properly, people will think we’re irrelevant, or covering up.

And because we have done it so badly in the past, I think, explains in part the reason why many people are attracted to The Da Vinci Code. They know it is a novel, but at the same time many really do believe Dan Brown that the book is based on facts and on real history.

Over the course of this module, I want us to throw aside our old ideas about history, and let us ask searching questions about the Church in general and the Church of Ireland in particular, how we were shaped, and how we got to where we are today.

Part 2: From the Apostles to Constantine

The Apostles represented in statues on Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Apostolic and post-Apostolic Church

Now that we have set out what this course is about and why we are the doing Church History, we begin by looking at the period that covers the formation of the Church and the development of our understandings of sacramental life, liturgical life and doctrine, in which we began to formulate in the Creeds, to set out the organisation of the Church, with distinctive roles for bishops, priests and deacons, organised within dioceses.

We are in the period of the first exciting missionary expansion of the Church.

This is the period that sees the emergence of a radical belief-system for both Jews and Greeks turn into a major religious force. This is a belief system that: challenges the worldview of Jews in the Middle East (the largest Jewish city at the time was Alexandria) and the worldview of the Mediterranean world (largely the Roman Empire, but also largely Greek speaking).

So we are looking at the history of Christianity after the life of Christ and the first Apostles.

We can debate whether Christianity was founded by Christ, by the twelve, or by Saint Paul. But many of the key founding figures of Christianity never met Christ – they include not only the Apostle Paul but the Gospel writers Saint Luke and Saint Mark.

Christianity spread initially from Jerusalem throughout the Middle East places such as Syria, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Jordan and Egypt. By the 4th century it was successively adopted as the state religion in:

● Armenia (301)
● Georgia (319)
● Ethiopia (or Abyssinia, the Aksumite Empire) (325)
● The Roman Empire (380).

By the Middle Ages, Christianity was the principal religion throughout Europe, and later we shall see how the story of the missionary expansion of Christianity in the early modern era in Asia, Africa and the Americas is intricately tied in the story of European mercantile and colonial expansion, during the Renaissance and in the wake of the great explorations.

Throughout its history, Christianity has been shaped by persecutions, schisms and theological disputes that have resulted in many distinct churches.

But there is nothing new under the sun, and this was true too of the Early Church immediately after the apostolic period.

Early Christianity grew from a first century Jewish development to a religion that spread throughout the Greek-speaking and Imperial Roman world in the Mediterranean basin and beyond.

We can divide Early Christianity into two distinct phases:

1, The Apostolic Period, when the first apostles were alive and led the Church
2, The Post-Apostolic or Patristic period, when an early episcopal structure developed, and when persecution was often intense.

This early period of Church history came to an end, as did the Roman persecution of the Church, in AD 313 in the reign of the Emperor Constantine the Great. In 325, he was instrumental in calling the First Council of Nicaea, which was the first of the seven Ecumenical Councils, and Church History then moves into a new phase.

1, The Apostolic Church:

Saint John the Divine in the cave on Patmos … The Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the Book of Revelation contain the earliest accounts of the beliefs of the first Christians and the Apostolic Church

The Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the Book of Revelation contain the earliest accounts of the beliefs of the first Christians and the Apostolic Church, which we find in early creeds, hymns, sermons and declamations, and the early sufferings of the first Christians, including the martyrdom of Stephen (see Acts 6: 12 to 7: 59) and James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12: 2), and the arrests of Saint Peter (12: 3) and Saint Paul in Philippi (Acts 16), Ephesus (Acts 19) and Jerusalem (Acts 21), and his being sent to Rome.

The Apostolic Church was the community led by the apostles, and perhaps by some of Jesus’ own family members, including James the Brother of the Lord.

In the Great Commission, the Risen Christ commands that the Gospel should be brought to “all nations” (Matthew 28: 19), to Jerusalem, “all Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth” (Acts 1: 8).

Our primary source for the post-Resurrection period is the Acts of the Apostles, which gives us an account of the life of the Apostolic Church, through the great missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, until his house arrest in Rome.

The first Christians were either Jews or proselytes – converts to Judaism. Yet, the Great Commission involves “all nations.” In the early chapters of Acts, the apostles continue to worship in the Temple, and Paul and Barnabas go first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (see Acts 13; 46, 18: 6).

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki ... a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas, Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first early division in the early Church was between the Judean Jews and the Greek-speaking Jews, with the Greek-speakers claiming their widows were discriminated against. This dispute was solved with the appointment of the first seven deacons (see Acts 6: 1-6).

The next difficulty facing the Church was the debate about whether non-Jewish or Gentile converts to Christianity needed to become Jewish, accepting circumcision and the dietary laws so they could become Christians.

Peter’s vision in Joppa seems to settle the debate about food laws (see Acts 10: 9-16). When Peter baptises the Centurion Cornelius and his household in Caesarea the debate about circumcision seems to have been be settled (see Acts 10: 44-48). While the conflicts continued (see Acts 11: 1-18; 15: 1-5), the arguments seem to have been settled at the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (see Acts 15: 6-21).

The entrance to the Basilica of Saint John in Ephesus: local tradition says Saint John the Divine lived on this site after his exile on Patmos ended, and wrote his Gospel and Epistles here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But there were still those who continued to argue for the necessity of circumcision. They were labelled Judaisers, and the conflict that continued explains much of the dialectic in the Johannine writings which are so often misinterpreted or misrepresented as being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic.

The Early Church also came into conflict with some Jewish religious authorities, leading eventually to their expulsion from the synagogues as Christianity developed a distinct identity, separate from Rabbinic Judaism.

The name Christian (Χριστιανός) is first given to the disciples in Antioch: χρηματίσαι τε πρώτως ἐν Ἀντιοχείᾳ τοὺς μαθητὰς Χριστιανούς … “and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (Acts 11: 26). The word Christian may have been first used as a term of reproach, a derogatory term, or to mock those who followed the teachings of Christ.

2, The Post-Apostolic Church

The Church Fathers … in a Greek Orthodox icon

The transition from the Apostolic Church to the Post-Apostolic Church is not something we are told about in the New Testament. Despite all the myths and popular stories, we are not told in the Acts of the Apostles about the deaths of either Saint Paul or Saint Peter.

Last Friday [21 September 2012] in the chapel here, we remembered Saint Matthew. But I had to say we do not know from the New Testament what happened to Saint Matthew – or any of the other three Gospel writers – what happened to them after the Gospels, Acts, Epistles and the Book of Revelation were written.

Some of the important leaders of the Post-Apostolic Church include Polycarp of Smyrna, Clement of Rome and Irenaeus of Lyons. These leaders were said to have known and studied under the apostles personally, and so they are known as the Apostolic Fathers.

The post-apostolic period concerns the time after the death of the Apostles (say, around the year 100 AD). This period continues until the persecutions come to an end with the legalisation of Christian worship under Constantine the Great.

The Coliseum in Rome seen from the Irish Dominican church at San Clemente … large-scale persecution of the Church begins under the Emperor Nero in the year 64 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Larger-scale persecutions of the Early Church begin in the year 64, when the Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome that year.

Although not recorded in the New Testament, Church tradition says that it was under Nero that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. For 250 years Christians suffered from sporadic and at times intense persecutions for their refusal to worship the Emperor, and were executed for a refusal seen as stubborn treason.

A Mediterranean sunset in Thessaloniki … how did Christianity spread so rapidly in the Mediterranean basin? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yet, despite these persecutions, Christianity continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean region. So, we might ask, from a disengaged point of view, why did Christianity succeed? Indeed, why did Christianity even survive?

There is no agreement among historians when it comes to these questions.

For some Christians, this success is simply a natural consequence of the truth of the Christianity and fulfilled through the providence of God. Yet, as Christians, we would not accept such claims for the initial successful spread of either Buddhism or Islam.

So these are questions that we have to address in Church History.

A map showing the spread of Early Christianity

Some of the explanations we might consider include:

● Christianity offered an improve lifestyle or way of life.
● Christianity offered an attractive combination of the promise of a general resurrection of the dead with the then popular Geek belief that true immortality depends on the survival of the body, with Christianity providing a practical explanations of how this could happen.
● The promise of future life, which held out hope no matter how bad or good present circumstances were.
● The use of koine Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean basin for trade and administration made the New Testament and other early Christian writings accessible to a wide pubic.
● The reports of miraculous powers exercised or experienced within the primitive church.
● The apparently pure morals of these early Christians.
● The sense of belonging akin to family kinship within an increasingly self-sustaining and self-governing society.
● Easy transport and communications systems across great distances along the shorelines of the Mediterranean.

Early Church structures

Saint Ignatius of Antioch ... referred to the Church as a “Eucharistic community” which realises its true nature when it celebrates the Eucharist, and defined the Church as the local community gathered around its bishop, celebrating the Eucharist

In the post-Apostolic church, bishops emerged as overseers of urban Christian populations, and clerical structure emerged with:

1, The επίσκοπος (epískopos), plural ἐπίσκοποι (epískopoi), literally the overseer, by which we now mean the bishop.
2, The πρεσβύτερος (presbyteros), plural πρεσβύτεροι (presbyteroi), the elder(s) or priest(s).
3, The διάκονος (diakonos), plural διάκονοι (diákonoi), the deacon or deacons.

This structure emerged slowly and at different times in different places.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we see a collegiate system of government in Jerusalem though headed by James, traditionally regarded the first bishop of the city (see Acts 11: 30, Acts 15: 22).

The harbour of Réthymnon in Crete … Paul leaves Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul leaves various disciples in charge of local churches (see Acts 20: 17-38), and we see in the pastoral epistles (I and II Timothy, Titus) that he leaves Timothy in Ephesus and Titus, who is not mentioned in Acts, in Crete, each with what might be called episcopal oversight of the Church.

In Acts also, Saint Paul ordains presbyters in the churches he founds (see Acts 14: 23). In his letters to Timothy and Titus, we can see a more clearly defined episcopate, and we are told Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete to oversee the local church (see I Timothy 1: 3; Titus 1: 5). Saint Paul commands them to ordain presbyters or bishops and to exercise general oversight, telling Titus to “rebuke with all authority” (see Titus 2: 15).

The term presbyter is often not yet clearly distinguished from the term overseer or bishop (see Acts 20: 17; Titus 1: 5, 7; I Peter 5: 1).

The earliest writings of the Apostolic Fathers, including the Didache and the First Epistle of Clement, indicate the Church may have used two terms for local church offices: presbyters, which was an interchangeable term with episkopos or overseer; and deacon.

Clement, a first century bishop of Rome, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, refers to the leaders of the Church in Corinth as bishops and presbyters, but he uses the term interchangeably.

A colonnade of 14 Corinthian columns on the west side of the Stoa of Smyrna … Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote four of his letters while he was a prisoner in Smyrna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By the end of the first century, Church structures become clearer. In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, and in particular the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who was said to have been a student of Saint John the Evangelist, the role of the episkopos is important and clearly defined:

● “It is clear that we must regard a bishop as the Lord Himself” – Epistle to the Ephesians 6: 1.
● “Let the bishop preside in the place of God and his clergy in the place of the Apostolic conclave, and let my special friends the deacons be entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ” – Epistle to the Magnesians 6: 1.
● “You must never act independently of your bishop and clergy.” – Epistle to the Magnesians 7:1.
● “Be as submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to His Father, and as the Apostles were to Christ and the Father; so that there may be complete unity, in the flesh as well as in the spirit.” – Epistle to the Magnesians 13: 2.
● “Equally, it is for the rest of you to hold the deacons in as great respect as Jesus Christ; just as you should also look on the bishop as a type of the Father, and the clergy as the Apostolic circle forming his council; for without these three orders no church has any right to the name.” – Epistle to the Trallians 3: 1.
● “Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father … The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is the one that is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorised by him. Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be.” – Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1.
● “A man who honours the bishop is himself honoured by God, but to go behind the bishop’s back is to be a servant of the devil” – Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 9:1.

[Quotations from William Stanford and Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings, The Apostolic Fathers (London: Penguin, 1987 ed)].

It is clear that by the time of Saint Ignatius a single bishop was expected to lead the Church in each centre of Christian mission, supported by a council of presbyters and a group of deacons.

As the Church continued to expand, new churches in important cities were provided with their own bishop. Presbyters and deacons were sent out by the bishop of a city church. In time, the bishop changed from being the leader of a single church in one urban area to being the leader of the churches in a given geographical area.

At the end of the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria writes about the ordination of a bishop, using the words bishop and ordination in their technical meaning.

By the 2nd century, bishops are defined also as the only clergy entrusted with ordination to the priesthood or presbyterate and the diaconate.

At the beginning of the 3rd century, Hippolytus of Rome describes the ministry of the bishop as that of the Spiritum primatus sacerdotii habere potestatem dimittere peccata, the spiritual primacy of sacrificial priesthood and the power to forgive sins.

The ministry of the deacons included tending to the poor and sick.

In the second century, the episcopal structure is also given the support of claims to apostolic succession, first articulated by Ignatius of Antioch, in which a bishop becomes the spiritual successor of the previous bishop in a line that is traced back, step-by-step, to the apostles themselves.

Early Christian writings and art

The study of Early Christian writings or the writings of the early Fathers of the Church is known as Patristics. Some of the notable Patristic writers or Early Fathers of the Church include:

● Saint Ignatius of Antioch
● Saint Polycarp
● Saint Justin Martyr
● Saint Irenaeus of Lyons
● Tertullian
● Saint Clement of Alexandria
● Origen of Alexandria

These Early Christian writings in the period immediately after the New Testament period can be divided into two types of works:

● theological
● apologetic

Apologetic writings seek to defend the faith by using reason to refute arguments against Christian beliefs and teachings.

Christian art emerges relatively late, with the first known Christian images emerging ca 200 AD.

The oldest Christian works of art are not icons but paintings from the Roman Catacombs, dated ca 200 AD, and the oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, from the early 3rd century. We may look at this later in the residential weekend and when we look at the debates about icons.

Early heresies

The correct interpretation of the faith has been a major concern for Christianity from the beginning. One of the main responsibilities of bishops in the early Church was to guard correct beliefs and to refute heresies, so that defining orthodoxy becomes a major issue in the history of the Church in the first four or five centuries, and even after that.

The earliest doctrinal controversies are often Christological. In other words, they were about Christ, his divinity and his humanity.

● Docetism, which emerges at the turn of the second and third centuries, held that Christ’s humanity was merely an illusion, thus denying the incarnation, or that God became fully human.
● In the middle of the second century, Marcion held that Christ was the Saviour sent by God, and Saint Paul was his chief apostle. But he rejected the Hebrew Bible and the God of Israel. His followers, the Marcionists, believed that the wrathful Hebrew God was a separate and lower entity than the all-forgiving God of the New Testament.
● These beliefs had some similarities with Gnostic heresies, in that both were dualistic.
● Dualistic groups maintained that reality was composed of two radically opposing parts: matter, seen as evil, and spirit, seen as good.
● Arius (250/256-336) of Alexandria and Arianism held that Christ, while not merely mortal, was not eternally divine and was, therefore, of lesser status than God the Father.

What would emerge was a clear Trinitarian understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one being with three hypostases or persons. This would be defined in the Nicene Creed, and we shall look at this development at a later stage.

The canon of the Bible

A copy of the King James Version of the Bible, dating from 1611, in Lambeth Palace … how did the Early Church decide on the contents of the New Testament?

The period that we are looking at this afternoon also sees the emergence of an agreement among Christians about what is and what is not part of the Bible.

The Early Church saw the Bible as used the Old Testament found in the Greek translation of the Bible we know as the Septuagint (LXX), and the New Testament developed over a period of time.

The writings attributed to the apostles circulated amongst the earliest Christian communities. The Letters of Saint Paul were circulating in collected forms by the end of the 1st century. In the early 2nd century, Justin Martyr mentions the “memoirs of the apostles” or the Gospels. By around the year 160, Saint Irenaeus is referring to four gospels.

By the early third century, Origen of Alexandria may have been using the same 27 books as we now accept in the canon of the New Testament, although there disputes still arose and debates still continued over the canonicity of some books, including Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and the Book of Revelation.

Most of what is now the New Testament was universally acknowledged from the middle of the 2nd century or earlier. The Muratorian fragment shows that a set of writings similar to the New Testament was recognised by the year 200.

In his Easter letter in 367, Athanasius of Alexandria gives the earliest known and exact list of the books in the New Testament. The Synod of Hippo in North Africa in 393, approved the New Testament as we have it today, along with the Old Testament book in the Septuagint.

These decisions were repeated in 397 and 419 at the Councils of Carthage, which were under the authority of Saint Augustine, who regarded the canon as closed. The commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible ca 383 was instrumental in fixing the Biblical canon in the West, and in the year 405 Pope Innocent I set a list of the sacred books.

But these bishops and councils never claimed to be defining something new. Instead, they said they “were ratifying what had already become the mind of the Church.” And so, we find unanimity on the canon of the New Testament in the West by the fourth century and in the East by the fifth century.

The end of persecution

The Rotunda in Thessaloniki, built by the Emperor Galerius ... his reign marked the end of the persecution of the Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Galerius who had once been one of the leading figures in persecution of Christianity, issued an edict in 311 that brought to an end the Diocletian persecution of the Church. Galerius reigned for another two years, and was then succeeded by Constantine the Great, an emperor with distinctively pro-Christian sympathies.

Constantine the Great … his victory brings freedom for Christians and marks the beginning of Christendom

Constantine had first come into contact with Christianity through his mother, the Empress Helena. Ahead of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, he commanded his troops to adorn their shields with the Cross following a vision he had the night before. The battle was decisive, and after his victory Constantine become the Emperor of the West.

The accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Church, marking the end of persecution and the beginning of Christendom. After his victory, Constantine supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to the clergy, such as exemption from certain taxes, promoted some Christians to high office, and returned property confiscated during the reign of Diocletian.

Between 324 and 330, Constantine built a new imperial capital at Constantinople, which had churches within the city walls but no pagan temples.

Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In 316, he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. Then, in 325 he called the first Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea, to deal primarily with the Arian heresy.

The council agreed on the Nicene Creed, which professed there is “One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church.”

In calling the council, Constantine established a precedent for regarding the emperors as responsible to God for the spiritual health of their subjects, and having a duty to maintain orthodoxy. The emperor was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold the unity of the Church.

Finally, Constantine was baptised on his deathbed.

Constantine’s eventual successor, Julian the Apostate, was on becoming emperor renounced Christianity and embraced Neo-Platonism. He began reopening pagan temples, and modified old pagan beliefs so that they resembled Christianity traditions, with an episcopal structure and public charity. But his death brought to an end the last imperial threat to Christianity.

Christianity as the Imperial state religion

The 4th century palace complex in Thessaloniki … the Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of the empire under the Edict of Thessaloniki in 380 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Constantius II (337-361) and Valens (364-378) had personally favoured Arian or Semi-Arian forms of Christianity, but Valens’s successor, the Emperor Theodosius I, supported the Trinitarian doctrine set out in the Nicene Creed.

On 27 February 380, the Edict of Thessaloniki, issued in the name of Theodosius I, officially adopted Christianity as the state religion of the Empire.

The Church quickly adopted the same organisational boundaries as the Empire, so that geographical provinces, called dioceses, corresponded to imperial territorial divisions. The bishops, who were located in major urban centres, oversaw each diocese.

Five dioceses came to hold special eminence, and their bishops were recognised as patriarchs:

● Rome
● Constantinople
● Jerusalem
● Antioch
● Alexandria

The prestige of these sees was strengthened by claims to apostolic foundation. The Bishop of Rome claimed to be the Primus inter Pares or “the first among equals.” The Patriarch of Constantinople claimed precedence as the bishop of the new capital of the empire, the New Rome.


8.15 p.m.: Church History 1.2: An introduction to Patristics and the Early Fathers.

Required or recommended reading:

General Church History:

David L Edwards, Christianity, the first Two Thousand Years (London: Cassell, 1997).
Diarmuid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London: Penguin, 2010).
John McManners (ed), The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Irish Church History:

Alan Acheson, A History of the Church of Ireland (Dublin: Columba, 2nd ed, 2003).
JR Bartlett, SD Kinsella (eds), Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Ireland (Dublin: Columba, 2006).
Brendan Bradshaw, Dáire Keogh (eds), Christianity in Ireland, Revisiting the Story (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
Irish Church History:

World Anglicanism:

MD Chapman, Anglican Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2012).

Kevin Ward, A History of Global Anglicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on Friday 6 February 2015 with Year I-IV students in the Church History elective on the MTh course.

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