Sunday 27 April 2008

Christianity: the first 325 Years. - An Essay

Christianity: the first 325 Years.

To begin a study of the history of Christian thought, we must look at the key events to the debates, and issues of their day. Below is a chart of what I consider some of the key events.

  • 30-32 Paul Persecutes Church in Jerusalem
  • 48-49 Apostolic Council in Jerusalem
  • 64-69 Paul's Death in Rome
  • 70 Destruction of Jerusalem
  • 95 John Exiled to Patmos; Clement Bishop of Rome
  • 170 Beginning of Montanism
  • 242 Beginning of the Preaching of Mani
  • 260 Edict of Tolerance for Christians
  • 297 Edict of persecution of the Manichaeans
  • 303 Edict of persecution of the Christians
  • 314 Council of Arles (Donatist Affair)
  • 325 Council of Nicaea Issue of Christology
  • 367 Easter Letter by St. Athanasius outlining what we use as
  • New Testament Cannon to be used by the Church (This cannon confirmed at future councils in 392, 397, 405, 419)
  • 380 Christianity Becomes the State Religion of Rome
  • 381 Council of Constantinople
  • 391 Prohibitions on Pagan Religions
  • (Christianity is now the persecuting Majority)
Even with these dates there are many theological developments and ecclesiastical changes missing in between them that we will not address. Christianity was a sub-sect of Judaism; messianic Judaism is now a separate religion. Christianity began as a persecuted religion, both by the new emerging Rabbinic Judaism, by the Roman Empire and the Pagan religions that it endorsed. Then in 260 there was an Edict by Emperor Gallienus of tolerance for the Christian traditions. Then in 325AD with the conversion of Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the state religion of Rome.

From these issues Christianity began as a religion on the run with the leaders moving from city to city, preaching, teaching and establishing churches. Then it grew from a predominantly Jewish tradition, to a gentile religion, as well as from being a persecuted religious minority, to being the persecuting majority in less than five hundred years. Somewhere in the middle of this time debates grew up in this tradition. The first major debate was, on Christ, a Christological debate: was Jesus God, was he man, or was he both God and man. After this debate seemed to be settled then the debate of the Holy Spirit arose. So the major challenges facing Christians in the first three hundred years that we will be addressing are the questions about martyrdom and the issues of Christology, specifically the issues of the Docetism, Manicheans and Arianism. So let us now turn our attention to the issues of dying for one's faith.

The question of dying for one's faith is almost as old as the Christian tradition itself, for in Acts 6:8-8:1 is the story of the trial and execution of Stephen for his faith. This section ends with "And I Saul approved of their killing him." Yet after his conversion Saul/Paul was to experience a death for Christ Jesus. Tradition has it that Saint Peter and Paul both were martyred in Rome, Eusebius of Caesarea states: "They say that in the reign of Nero Paul was beheaded at Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified, and this story is confirmed by the association of the names of Peter and Paul with cemeteries there, which has lasted to this day." Thus we see that persecution and suffering for the faith began early. Many embraced death rather than deny the faith or the denial of Jesus as Christ. Later under Roman persecution of the faith we have examples of both men and women who paid the ultimate cost for their faith.

Vibia Perpetus (c.181-203) is one of the earliest female writers in Christian theology. Her writings focus on the spiritual experiences, and the important role they played in Christian piety. Her surviving writings comprise her visions while in prison awaiting death. After seeing a friend climb a brass ladder to heaven, she was warned about the dragon that would try and ensnare her. In her vision she responds "I told Him that in the name of Jesus Christ the dragon could not harm me. At this time the dragon slowly lowered its head as though afraid of me. Using its head as the first step, I began my ascent." We see from this excerpt that her visions gave her confidence in facing her coming death; as well as those who were in prison with her.

Now hat we have looked at persecution and death for this 'Christian' faith, we will now look at the issues of Christology, specifically Docetism (a form of Gnosticism), Manicheans and Arianism, and the responses that tried to deal with these issues.

Docetism was one of the earliest controversies in the Christian tradition. The main premise is that Christ did not really suffer but only appeared to suffer; therefore Christ was not human. Ignatius of Antioch in countering Docetism states: "So do you pay attention when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, the Child of Mary, who was truly born, who ate and drank, who was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and truly died, in full view of heaven, earth, and hell, and who was truly raised from the dead. It was his Father who raised him again, and it is him [i.e., the Father] who will likewise raise us in Jesus Christ, we who believe in him, apart from whom we have no true life. But is, as some godless people (athoi), that is, unbelievers, say, he suffered in mere appearance - being themselves mere appearances - why am I in bonds?" The core issue to this debate was if Jesus was not human, and only appeared to suffer, but did not actually suffer, then are we saved or do we only appear to be saved. Can we be saved by a deception? As Placher states in our text: "Most Christians, however, came to feel that Docetism would turn Jesus' life into a sort of trick, an illusion. Moreover, Christians who believed that Christ's suffering and death on the cross saved them from their sins feared that if Christ had only seemed to suffer and die, then they could only seem to be saved." So with the decision by the majority of Christians that Jesus did actually suffer and die. The next major debate was of Mani (216-277) and the Manicheans. Mani professed a dualism in creation, there was a God of Light, goodness, who was the Father of Jesus, and there was a God of evil and darkness. Jesus showed us how to free the light that was trapped in the evil matter of our body, and this would be accomplished through successive reincarnations. Then Marcion took this premise one step further, to state that the God of the Old Testament (Jewish Scriptures) was the God of Evil, an Evil Creator God, who was very different from the God of Love Revealed through Jesus Christ. Irenaeus wrote extensively against these ideals, focusing on clarifying what was the official Church's understanding of Jesus Christ and God. He states: "Thus they verbally confess one Christ Jesus, but their meaning is different from ours." Irenaeus wanted all Christians to be clear on what they believed and why they believed and that their faith had been passed down through apostolic tradition.

This brings us to the final debate in this era, the main figures in this battle were Arius and Athanasius, and though this debate was to be settled at the Council of Nicaea the issues continued to be raised for many years to come. The main Christological issue was who was Christ? There were many different schools of thought: Jesus was God to some, Jesus was a man to some, and Jesus was God and man mixed to become some new being or Jesus was both God and man with two separate natures united in one being without mixing. Both sides of this debate believed that their belief was right and just. But the core issue at stake was salvation. How could we be saved by a sacrifice that was not human, and how could God be satisfied with a sacrifice that was not God. This council was of dual purpose; Constantine had become a Christian and was trying to use Christianity as a tool to re-unite a fragile empire. Athanasius wanted a council to set orthodox theology. This was the first ecumenical council in 325. The final decision was that God was one, yet three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all three regarded as equal in divinity. This council came to the conclusion that Christ was 'Begotten not created' and yet of the same substance as the father. Cory and Landry sum up this council as follows: "At the Council of Nicaea the bishops indicated their opposition to Arianism by approving a creed, or statement of beliefs. This statement of beliefs came to be called the Nicene Creed. In it the Bishops adapted an already existing creed by inserting a few phrases designed to link the Father and Son as closely as possible and hence express their opposition to Arius." So we end this period with a clear view of Jesus as both God and Man, and the Church is now becoming a power within the Roman Empire. The period up to this point could be considered the Christianizing of the Roman Empire, and from this point on we might call it the Romanizing of the Christian Faith?


  1. How to Read Church History, Volume 1; Comby, Jean: Crossroads, New York, 1996, p.193-194
  2. New Revised Standard Version, New York, NY, Harper Collins,1993, p.2071
  3. Eusebius of Caesarea from Church History Volume II as quoted in How to Read Church History, Volume 1; Comby, Jean: Crossroads, New York, 1996, p.94
  4. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. Tyson, John R. New York: Oxford UP, 1999, p.61
  5. The Christian Theology Reader, Alister E. McGrath, Oxford, Blackwell, 1997, p.136
  6. A History of Christian Theology; Placher, William C., The Westminster Press, Philodelphia, 1893, p.68
  7. Readings in Christian Thought Second Edition, Kerr, Hugh T. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990, p.36
  8. The Christian Theological Tradition: Second Edition; Cory & Landry, Prenice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2003, p. 127 (Advanced Reading Copy)


Tyson, John R. Invitation to Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Anthology. New York: Oxford UP, 1999

McGrath, Alister E. Ed. Christian Theology an Introduction: Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997

The Christian Theology Reader
Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997

Comby, Jean. How to Read Church History: Volume I
New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996

Cory, Catherine A. and Landry, David T. The Christian Theological Tradition: Second Edition Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003 (Advanced Reading Copy)

Placher, William C. A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983

Walker, Williston. et al., eds. A history of the Christian Church: Fourth Edition New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985

Kerr, Hugh T. Readings in Christian Thought: Second Edition
Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990

Holy Bible New Revised Standard Version: The Harper Collins Study Bible New York, Harper Collins, 1993

(First written for RS231 History of Christian Thought Fall 2003.)

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