Friday, 28 September 2012

Church History 1.2: From the Apostles to Constantine

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

Patrick Comerford

Year I MTh, Church History elective module (TH 7864)

10.30 a.m., Friday, 28 September 2012, Hartin Room

Church History 1.2: The Apostolic and post-Apostolic Church


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 (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 2010)

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, 2011)

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, 2011)

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.

Next: 1:3, 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).

World Anglicanism:

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on Friday 28 September 2012 with Year I students on the MTh course.

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