History of Christianity Pt. 2

Written on: September 28, 2020

Article by: Bob Sandiford

Christianity in the Fourth through Sixth Centuries


  • Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire
  • The Bishop of Rome claims supreme and universal authority over the church AND in Christian lands
  • Western Roman Empire disappears
  • The Roman bishop is left as de facto ruler of much of central Italy
  • Christian theology and practices continue to change and evolve.

Emperor Constantine (the Great) (306-337)

  • Constantine won a battle in 312, and interpreted the victory as God answering his prayer for help
    • Marks the beginning of the relationship between the Church and the Christian emperor.
    • He enacted new laws favouring Christians (and generally other previously unlawful religions), especially the Edict of Milan in 313.
      • Christianity not yet the official religion of the empire, but immunity was granted to clergy, gifts were given to the church, and his writings spoke as if the Christian God were his own
    • He retained the title of the pagan high priest Pontifex Maximus, and some other trappings of paganism
      • Probably necessary since most of his subjects were still pagan.
      • His previous religion was the worship of the Unconquered Sun.
      • He may have identified his previous God with the Christian God (as Christian writers used the sun as an image for Christ – source of light and salvation)
      • Constantine made the first day of the week a holiday in 321 – and called it ‘the venerable day of the sun’ – we today still have this named as ‘Sunday’.
    • Constantine delayed baptism until the end of his life
      • Was becoming more usual, as it was held that sins committed after baptism could not be forgiven
  • The ‘Holy Land’ started to be a place of pilgrimages
    • Jesus’ burial site and the ‘True Cross’ were ‘found’, and churches built on these and other ‘special’ sites.
  • The church took over many pagan ideas and images
    • Rome had always been a syncretistic empire – merging foreign gods into its own pantheon – so people were used to this idea
    • Dec 25 had been celebrated as ‘the birth of the Sun’ – now was taken to be Christ’s birthday. Sun worship hung on in Christianity for some time.
    • Candles, incense, garlands – though first avoided by the church since they symbolized paganism, became ‘Christianized’ and incorporated in Christian worship.
    • Perhaps the worship of Artemis / Diana was transferred to Mary – concept of the Universal Mother, common in many pagan religions. (e.g. Isis in Egypt)
    • Cult of saints and martyrs grew rapidly in the fourth century
      • Again – perhaps a blending of the old paganism with Christianity.
      • Some chapels and churches were built over the tombs of martyrs – which devolved into the practice of veneration of ‘relics’ of holy people. Church leaders encouraged the practice.
  • And – the identification of ‘saints’ with older pagan gods brought about the idea that different saints had different powers – ability to heal, protect travellers, etc.
    • Not that saints should be worshipped – but that they were in a special position to hear petitions and present them direct to God.

Church and State in the Fourth Century

As Christianity grew in importance in Rome, and the Emperors became Christian, a new issue rose for the church

“What has the Emperor to do with the church?”

From one point of view – the Emperor is the head of state, with Christianity being the official state religion. So, the Emperor should be the head of the church. (e.g. more recently, the monarch of England as the head of the Anglican church (“defender of the faith”) and formally superior to the archbishop of Canterbury)

  • So – the Emperor should rule both politically and religiously, including over the Bishop of Rome
  • That fit in with earlier views of the Emperor – from being the head of pagan religions responsible for maintaining good relations between the people and their gods, to actually being viewed as divine.
  • More, the only model of a ruler in the Bible is that of the OT kings of Israel – who had a great deal to do with maintaining peace and purity of religion in their kingdoms.

From another point of view – the Bishops, and locally to Rome the Bishop of Rome, had historically the authority over religious matters.

previous arrow
A Closer Look at Christ – June 15-16, 2024
Key Day
Job Postings
Register Now for Camp Omagh
Great Lakes Christian High School – Teacher Ad
True North Helping Hands
Great Lakes Bible College Course
Parish House Minister
The Book
The Climax of God’s Mission
Anjul Enterprises
Broker Force
Grove Park Home
next arrow
  • i.e. the head of the church should in fact have authority over all, including the political ruler.

This became a major struggle between the Western Emperor and the Church leaders in the 300’s.

  • In the Eastern Empire, the doctrine was early established that the Emperor was above the church.

Different factions of Christians went one way or the other depending on the situation.

  • In North Africa, Donatists asked Constantine to intervene in choosing the Bishop of Carthage (they felt he was unsuited, since he had been ordained by one had yielded under persecution)
  • But – not long after – the Donatists complained about the Emperor’s interference.
  • Constantine: “I am going to make plain to them what kind of worship is to be offered to God . . . What higher duty have I as emperor than to destroy error and repress rash indiscretions, and so cause all to offer to Almighty God true religion, honest concord, and due worship?”

A theology of the Christian empire and emperor was developed by Eusebius in the first half of the fourth century

  • Both empire and church were images of the kingdom of heaven. Through both, God was saving humanity
  • The empire replaced anarchy by monarchy, which represents on earth the God who alone rules in heaven.
  • The church replaced polytheism with the worship of the one God.
  • In the Christian Emperor, the two images come together.
  • Constantine (on the throne at the time) is seen as the earthly image of the Logos who had fully revealed the heavenly monarchy and kingdom, and had special inspiration to rule by the Logos.


In the east, one of the elders of Alexandria, Arius, attempted to solve the problem of the relation of the Son to God the Father

  • He suggested that the Son, though Creator, was himself created, and therefore could not be truly divine like the Father.
  • The Bishop of Alexandria (Alexander, by coincidence of naming) ruled this as heresy, and excommunicated Arius
    • Arius found support in other places in the East.

Two reasons to look at Arianism:

  • It was a division in the church that had major implications over the next couple of hundred years. We’ll touch on this later.
  • It shows one way the Emperor exercised his perceived role as head over, and responsible for, the church.

Constantine first tried a direct approach to the parties

  • A letter describing the dispute as ‘very trifling and indeed unworthy to be the cause of such a conflict’
  • That didn’t work, so he called a Council of the whole church – the first general (‘ecumenical’) council, at Nicaea, in 325
  • Constantine himself presided over the session dealing with Arianism
    • He proposed a reconciling word to do with Christ’s nature – ‘homoousios’, Greek for ‘of one essence’
    • Arius rejected this – but only two bishops stood with him
    • Looked like a victory for orthodoxy (i.e. that Jesus is not a created being, but co-eternal with God)
    • Unfortunately, unity didn’t result.
      • Alexander’s successor, Athanasius, refused to receive Arians back into the church.
      • Athanasius was exiled (seemed to become the main way to deal with church leaders if they were not obedient. Athanasius was exiled 5 separate times).
      • Athanasius was instrumental in defining the doctrine of the Trinity during the Arian struggles
      • He also held, against Arianism, that only God could restore the human race to relationship with Himself – if Christ were a created being, then he could not be our saviour.
  • The council resulted in a creed – which over time, with some modification, became one of the great creeds of the Western church
  • Though Constantine didn’t achieve the unity in the church he wanted, he did:
    • Begin to Christianize the Empire
    • Founded Constantinople in 330 (as the result of a dream he had!) which shifted the Empire eastwards. This helped weaken the Western portion of the Empire over time.
    • In the East, he permanently established his own answer to “What has the Emperor to do with the church?”

Nicene Creed (English translation of original from 325 council of Nicaea)

‘Creed’ comes from the first word of the Nicene Creed, which in Latin is ‘credo’, or ‘I believe’.

  • Similar to the way books of the Bible are known – e.g. Genesis, ‘In the beginning’…

You can see the specifics here against Arian beliefs:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence (ousia) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousios, consubstantial) with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ (hypostatis) or ‘essence,’ (ousia) or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

Emperor Constantius II (337-361, Eastern emperor)

After Constantine died, his son Constantius became emperor in the East, after some civil war with his brothers and others – a lot of Constantine’s family was put to death.

Constantius was inclined towards Arianism

  • He convened a series of councils, and eventually forced an anti-Nicene creed on reluctant bishops
    • Bishops tried to get him to hold to the teachings of the church: Constantius replied “Whatever I will, shall be regarded as a canon . . . Either obey or go into exile.”
    • Bishops didn’t question his authority to intervene, though they thought he was wrong in his conclusion.
  • Constantius is the one who repeatedly exiled Athanasius
    • Athanasius by 358 had changed his view on the Emperor’s authority over church matters: “When did a judgment of the church receive its validity from the Emperor?”

Constantius and his brothers were harsher on paganism than Constantine had been.

  • Constantine did close some temples, and banned private sacrifices and divination
  • Constantius was more active.
    • 341 – a law suppressed pagan cults
    • 356 – some pagan temples were closed, sacrifice prohibited on pain of death.
    • Removed the altar of Victory from the senate – had been in place for over 300 years.

Emperor Julian (the ‘Apostate’) (East and West) (361-363)

Nephew of Constantine

  • A secret pagan – tried to convert the Empire to a form of paganism called ‘Hellenism’ – an attempt to combine many pagan beliefs and practices into a single organized mono-theistic pagan ‘church’ – also brought elements from Greek philosophers – e.g. Plato’s ‘Supreme Being’, of which the life-giving Sun was his chief representative.
  • Part what he did was encourage this new church to not be outdone by the ‘Galileans’ (what he called the Christians) in holiness and charity. Kindness to strangers, care for graves, holiness of their lives.
    • Which shows the general characteristic of Christians at the time.
  • Special privileges of the Christian clergy were taken away – though there was no open persecution of Christians.
    • Christians were prohibited from teaching in schools – the idea being that the next generation of Roman leaders would have pagan based teaching and so reinforce Hellenism.
  • Overall, the attempt at Hellenism failed.

Emperors Jovian (363) (East and West), Valentinian 1 (364-375) (West), Valens (364-368 (East)

All were Christian.

  • Jovian and Valentinian were tolerant to both Catholic and heretical Christians such as the Arians.
  • Valens was pro-Arian, and exiled some Nicene bishops.

One episode during Valentinian’s reign – 137 people were killed in the Christian basilica (church) in Rome – fighting over who should be the next bishop of Rome.

  • The position was becoming more and more powerful, and brought great wealth with it

After these, the subsequent emperors were all pretty much orthodox.

By the end of the fourth century, Imperial policy outlawed both heresy and pagan religion.

  • Pagan temples were being destroyed, or converted into Christian churches.
  • Interestingly – in Alexandria, when destruction of pagan temples failed to bring any ‘divine retribution’ from the pagan gods, many pagans became Christians.
  • The laws weren’t strictly enforced – Paganism endured both openly and in private for some time, especially in the countryside.

Arianism had also lost most of its strength within the Empire by the end of the fourth century.

  • Further discussions in the latter half of the fourth century led to better understandings, especially of what was meant within the Nicene Creed.

Emperor Theodosius (379-395) (Last emperor of both East and West)

The power of the church had grown and in the West had swung back towards being in authority over the Emperor

  • The Emperor was forced by the Ambrose, Bishop of Milan to revoke a decision he had made after Christians robbed and burned a Jewish synagogue in 388. Theodosius had decreed that the Bishop who had ordered the destruction should pay to rebuild the synagogue, and return the stolen property.
    • Ambrose sent Theodosius a letter insisting that to make a Christian bishop rebuild a place of worship for the Jews, the enemies of Christ, amounted to apostasy. “The maintenance of civil law is secondary to religious interests.”
    • (Milan was where the Western Emperors resided since about 300, though Rome was still the capital)
  • In 390, the people of Thessalonica murdered the military commander of the city. Theodosius avenged his death by massacring around 7,000 of the citizens. Ambrose sent Theodosius a letter excommunicating the emperor until he did public penance – which he did.
  • Ambrose’s answer to the question “What has the Emperor to do with the church” was that the Emperor was within the church, not above it.
    • The Eastern Church / Emperor held the opposite view – and occasionally interfered in the West.
  • By the late 400’s, the bishop of Rome had developed the view that the Emperor was directly subject to the head of the church, the bishop of Rome (or pope), and should rule the Empire for the good of God’s people.

However – Theodosius in 380 issued the Edict of Thessalonica which made Christianity the official state religion of Rome.

The Church in North Africa

Carthage and Alexandria were major centres of Christian activity in North Africa, as the church there expanded during the third century (while Christianity was still not legal in the Roman Empire, of which this area was part)

  • Donatism appeared there – similar to Novationism, where the main point was how to treat Christians who yielded under persecution. Donatists held that these people could not be brought back into the church, even if repentant. And, they held that the Orthodox churches, which DID allow repentant Christians to come back, were polluted by this practice.
  • Named after Donatus, a bishop of Carthage from 313-355.
    • Donatus coined the question “What has the Emperor to do with Christianity”
  • During the fourth century, Donatists were dominant in Carthage and that area.

Augustine (354-430) was appointed Catholic bishop of Hippo, a city about 100 KM west of Carthage

  • Against the Donatists he insisted that the church was a mixed field of wheat and tares (from Matt 13:24ff), believers and unbelievers, growing together until the harvest.
  • He undercut the Donatist exclusivity by claiming that Christ is the chief minister of the sacraments (e.g. baptism, Eucharist) so that they remained true sacraments even if administered by unworthy people.

The tide turned against the Donatists during the fifth century, and Orthodox Catholicism became preeminent.

In 430, the Vandals invaded, having come from Spain – bringing Arianism into the mix.

  • This brought persecution of both Donatist and Orthodox Christians.
  • Many clergy were exiled – and continued to write and attack Arianism from a distance
  • They sent nearly 5,000 Catholics to the southern desert, and sent Catholic bishops to Corsica to cut lumber.
  • However – common persecution seems to have served to bring Donatist and Orthodox Christians closer together, with each ‘denomination’ recognizing the other.

About 100 years later, the Eastern Emperor Justinian re-conquered the area in 533.

  • This brought Catholic Christianity back to the forefront.
  • However – this lasted only until the mid seventh century, when Muslim Saracens began their invasion of North Africa, taking Carthage in 698, and completing the conquest to the Atlantic by 809.
  • The Christian church declined after that. A few Bishoprics remained until around 1100, and a small community in Tunis until around 1500. But today there isn’t anything left of historical Christianity in North Africa apart from written documents and archeological monuments.

The Christian Religious Year

When Christianity became a legal religion under Constantine in 313, Easter and Passover were the main festivals.

  • Easter was a single day festival, celebrating the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. Timing was based on the Jewish calendar
  • There was a seven week period of rejoicing in Christ’s resurrection to Pentecost.
  • Leading up to Easter, candidates for Baptism were prepared.
  • Worship was mostly in Greek, though in some places local languages were beginning to be used – Syriac, Coptic (Egypt), Latin (Western Roman Empire)
  • Worship assemblies were not codified – no fixed order of worship, or of what words to say at what point.

In 321, Constantine decreed Sunday a holiday

  • This resulted in larger congregations for worship (more people could attend), and Sunday services became bigger occasions.
  • Some practices from the Roman court ceremonies started being used – incense, candles, curtains around the altar where the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) was laid out.
  • Generally and gradually, worship became more formal, ceremonial, and brought in more superstitions.

More leisure (for some, at least) led to the multiplication of Christian festivals.

  • Pilgrimages to the Holy Land became more common, and interest in sites mentioned in the Bible grew.
  • Efforts were made to find these sites and build churches on them, and celebrate the events that had taken place there.
  • This developed into the idea of the Christian Year being a re-enactment of the life of Jesus.

Easter expanded into a week-long celebration

  • Maundy Thursday (celebrating the last supper, and washing of the disciples feet)
    • Maundy from Latin ‘command’ – Jesus’ command to love each other as He has loved us: John 13:34
  • Good Friday (Crucifixion)
  • Palm Sunday (Resurrection)
  • Candidates being prepared for Baptism often fasted leading up to Easter – this was extended generally, but not until the Middle Ages, becoming ‘Lent’.


  • Dec 25 as the day to celebrate Jesus’ birth was introduced around 336 in the West (previously had been celebrated as a pagan holiday, the birth of the Sun.)
  • In the East, Epiphany (Jan 6, commemoration of the visit of the wise men) was favoured as the day to also celebrate Jesus’ birth
  • Dec 25 was settled generally late in the fourth century, and Epiphany came to the West from the East.

Other festivals

  • Included days dedicated to specific saints, Holy Innocents Day (commemorating the babies Herod massacred at Bethlehem), the circumcision of Jesus, All Saints’ Day, and many more.
  • By around 600 the Christian year had been established and generally practised throughout Christianity.

Liturgical Practices

  • The increase in formality also gave rise to more generally prescribed approaches to services. Services were scripted, with specific wordings to be used, though in places there was room for some variation.
  • This came to be known as the ‘Liturgy’, and it would change through the seasons of the church year.
  • It generally evolved from a ‘corporate action of the whole church’ into ‘a service said by the clergy to which the laity listened.’
  • In the West, Latin replaced Greek by around the middle of the fourth century.

Other Christian Practices

Original Sin – the concept that Adam’s sin is directly transmitted to his descendants (i.e. all humanity) – we are born sinful. This was a teaching of Augustine, who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

Infant baptism became normal, and Believer’s baptism fell out of use.

  • High infant mortality rates, accompanied by the doctrine of Original Sin, were major contributing factors to this shift.

Increased separation between the clergy and non-clergy (lay people, or laity)

The ‘breaking of bread’ or ‘communion’ was the central service of worship in the early church.

  • The aim – to remember Jesus death, and to celebrate his resurrection.
  • Praise and thanksgiving were uppermost, in fact the name given it, ‘the Eucharist’, comes from the Greek word for ‘thanksgiving’.
    • From the 3rd century on, as Bishops more and more took on the role of presiding at the Eucharist, and concepts from the OT such as the priesthood gained a rebirth, some began to interpret the Eucharist in terms of sacrifice.
    • At first, a sacrifice of praise.
    • Gradually, though, it came to be held that an offering was being made to God to gain forgiveness.
  • By The Middle Ages, this had been developed to see the Eucharist as a re-offering of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
    • And, magical ideas arose about the bread and the wine – that when the words of the Last Supper were repeated (in the Western Church), or when the Holy Spirit was invoked on the bread and wine (in the Eastern Church), a change took place.
    • It was felt right to venerate the bread and the wine as representing Jesus visibly – and ultimately viewed as representing Jesus literally.

Single Bishop per city – and later for an area.

  • As the church grew, the idea of having multiple congregations in a city, each with its own bishop, seems never to have been considered.
  • Thus the power of the Bishops grew, along the number of clergy positions – deacons, sub-deacons, exorcists, liturgical staff, and acolytes became support for the Bishop and his duties.
  • In the fourth century this became a formal hierarchy – starting as a reader, proceeding to acolyte, sub-deacon, deacon, priest, then eligible to become Bishop.
  • The responsibilities of Bishop for a city included
    • All baptisms
    • Consecrating the Eucharist, which was then carried around to the various churches in the city
    • Responsibility for finances of all the churches and the clergy. This grew in some places to be immense wealth.

Church Buildings

With the Edict of Milan in 313 – the number of Christians grew quickly, and congregation size increased.

  • House churches were no longer suitable for the meeting of the church in a city or area.
  • And, church property was now protected by the state.
  • As a result, buildings started being built, specifically for Christians to meet in. (Sometimes pagan buildings were taken over and modified)
  • A common design was the ‘basilica’
    • A rectangular hall, with a semi-circular ‘apse’ opening off one of the shorter sides.
    • Internally 2 or 4 rows of pillars (so 3 or 5 long areas between the rows of pillars)
    • The central long section was higher than the outer sections, and had windows – the lower, outer walls were solid.
  • The apse was reserved for the clergy, with a throne set up for the bishop – the bishop had roles both as pastor of the flock and as imperial servant.
  • The table for the Lord’s Supper became a permanent altar at the front of the apse.
  • The long middle section was occupied by the choir who sang the service, and lower orders of clergy.
  • The outer sections were for the laity – men on one side, women on the other.

A second type of building was also used – in places where a sacred spot was being commemorated.

  • In these places, there might be a basilica, linked to a specific building (e.g. 8 sided was common) over the special spot. These special areas required a dome type roof.

Over time, the combination of these became more common – a central domed area, with the basilica leading off it, and with cross aisles (transepts) added as well.

Christian expansion into the Countryside

In the fourth century, Christianity penetrated into the area around the cities.

  • Church buildings were constructed in larger villages.
  • Initially, clergy from the city would come and conduct services and care for the members.
  • During the sixth century, in some areas such as Gaul, these churches had their own permanent clergy – still appointed by and reporting to the city Bishop.

A second type of church was common

  • A church building could be given by a landowner to benefit his tenants.
  • The landowner would provide for the upkeep, and had the right to appoint the clergy.
  • There was still some subjection to the local Bishop, but not as much.

Councils and creeds

A practice that started early in the fourth century was that of Ecumenical (universal) Councils.

  • Important church issues were discussed and resolved – matters of theology, practice, dates,
  • The hope and intent was to preserve a single standard, or orthodox, Christianity.
  • And this was needed – during these centuries there were many controversies, some of which we’ve seen.

We’ve already mentioned the Council of Nicaea, 325, under Constantine.

  • Nicaea was near Constantinople (Istanbul) in modern day Turkey.
  • Others took place in 381 (Constantinople), 431 (Ephesus), 451 (Chalcedon, near Constantinople), and 553 and 680-681 (Constantinople)
  • Bishops and small staffs were invited from all around Christendom, and transportation and lodging was paid by the organizers. The Nicaea council supposedly had about 1,800 bishops invited, and somewhere around 250-300 attended.
  • These councils produced creeds: statements of doctrine which were more or less broadly accepted, and became the measure of Orthodoxy.
    • For example, Nicaea produced not only the first Nicene creed, but 20 ‘canons’ regulating various aspects of church life – admission of members of splinter groups, restrictions on functions of deacons, giving the Eucharist to those about to die, and others.
    • Also, formalized the organization of the church into provinces (sees), and recognized the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Jerusalem had superior authority.
      • Constantinople was added in 381 when the council meeting there proclaimed it second only to Rome.
      • The bishop of Rome objected – it implied the position of the bishop depended on the status of their city in the Empire – rather than on established apostolic succession.
  • Further – the outcomes of these councils weren’t just religious matters, but were also enforced by the civil power of the Emperor.
  • Also, the deliberations were influenced by non-religious issues – local factions, rivalries, personal failings of Christian leaders, the Emperor’s intervention, and confusion arising from difference in language – as a word in one language may not have an equivalent word (or even concept) in another.
    • One major influence was the growing division between the Eastern and Western branches of the church.
    • For example, in 340 the Roman bishop, viewing himself as supreme, reversed the excommunication imposed by the Eastern Church on two eastern Bishops. The Eastern Church saw this as arrogant, and felt that Rome did not have the power to overrule councils of Eastern bishops.

While dealing with controversies, in theory the first appeal was to Scripture

  • But, people often appealed to Scripture to confirm their theology rather than to decide it. (Sound familiar?)
  • Arianism was like this. For example, appealing to:
    • John 17:3 (NASB) “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
    • I Tim 6:16 “[Jesus Christ] who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.”
    • Col 1:15 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
    • Prov 8:22 from Septuagint “the Lord created me at the beginning of his work”
  • The Creeds generally were NOT referring directly to Scripture, and started using words not found in the NT to attempt to make things technically accurate.
    • However, now words and their meaning became issues of controversy. (See I Tim 6:3-5)
    • For example, in the Nicene Creed, the Greek word ‘Homoousios’ (one substance) was meant to imply that the Son was no less divine than the Father, that the two were equally divine.
    • However – the word was ALSO used of two different coins made from the same metal, and some thought that it would imply the Godhead split into two as if it was material substance.

Modified Nicene Creed (Council of Constantinople, 381)

“We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Increasing Papal Power

Damasus (366-384)

  • First to refer to Rome as the ‘apostolic see’ and refer to other bishops as ‘son’ rather than ‘brother’.
    • ‘See’ comes from the Latin word for ‘seat’, referring to the bishop’s throne in the church buildings.

Siricius (384-399)

  • First to send letters of instruction based on the Emperor’s pattern of decrees.
  • Claiming for himself the same authority in church matters that the Emperor had in secular matters.

Innocent I (401-17), Zosimus (417-18), and Boniface I (419-422)

  • All claimed extra authority derived from the apostle Peter, though the claims weren’t generally accepted yet.
    • i.e. apostolic succession
  • Innocent said ‘nothing done in the provinces could be regarded as finished until it had come to his knowledge’, and that the pope’s decisions affected ‘all the churches of the world’

Pope Leo (The Great) (440-461)

  • First bishop of Rome to make extensive use of Matt 16:19 (“You are Peter”) as speaking of the pope himself
  • When Attila the Hun led the horde into Italy (452) Leo managed to persuade him to turn back from Rome.
  • When the Vandals capture Rome in 455, Leo managed to minimize the damage.
  • In part, the Roman Emperors were becoming less and less powerful and willing to act.
  • This shows the increasing power being taken on (to some extent thrust upon) the Bishop of Rome.
  • The term Pope comes from the Greek and Latin for Father
    • Originally it was used of all bishops and senior clergy, in both the Eastern and Western churches.
    • In the West, in the Roman Catholic Church, it eventually became restricted to the Bishop of Rome, becoming official in the eleventh century.
    • The term pope has been (and continues to be) used of the heads of other religious groups, including the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Galasius I (492-496)

  • Insisted that the Emperor must guard the church, but submit himself to the guidance of the pope.
  • Clergy could not be tried in civil court, and the pope could not be tried by anyone.

During the sixth century, as Italy was conquered by barbarians, this power was claimed by the popes, but the foreign kings, and then the Eastern Patriarch after the Ostrogoths took over, exercised authority over the Roman bishops.

Gregory (590-604)

  • Another Germanic tribe, the Lombards, were threatening, with no hope for help from any local sources.
  • Gregory took command, provisioned Rome, and provided for its defense.
  • He sent orders to generals in the field, negotiated with the Lombards, and concluded peace without the (Eastern) Emperor’s authorization. (There were no more Western Emperors after 476.)
  • In addition, he administered the church’s estates, cared for his flock, strengthened churches in Gaul and Spain, defended the rights of the church in Rome against claims of Constantinople, and sent missionaries to England.
  • This marks the main transition of the church from the ancient world of Imperial Rome to Medieval Christendom, united by the Roman Catholic Church


While the Greek of the NT was fairly well set, other translations were needed as local languages became more used in church services

  • There were various Latin translations of varying quality and acceptance, and no one complete single translation
  • One Pope – Damasus (366-384) – wanted to fix this.
  • He called on Jerome, who was a leading scholar of the late fourth and early fifth century, gifted in languages.
  • Jerome went back to the original Hebrew for the OT, and original Greek for the NT, and prepared a complete translation. It was finished after 23 years, in 405, and became known as the ‘Vulgate’

The Fall of the Roman Empire

We won’t spend a lot of time here – other than the impact on the church.

The last Western Emperor reigned until 476 – which generally marks the final end of the Roman Empire in the West.

  • The Eastern portion of the Empire lasted almost 1,000 years longer – until 1453.
  • Rome as an Empire had grown by conquest, pushing its borders further by military might.
    • This left – especially on the frontiers – both a lot of people who resented being ruled by Rome, and, across the borders, people who saw the wealth of Rome and wanted in.
    • Rome had always had to worry about borders because of this. In Britain, they couldn’t conquer the whole island, so they built a pair of walls (Hadrian’s is the most famous) as a running border fort.
  • The so-called Germanic tribes were bothersome to Rome for centuries – but in the third century new tribes came along – Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards and others.
    • The Visigoths (‘western Goths’) occupied the Roman province of Dacia (bordering on the Black Sea), and Rome abandoned it in 271.
    • They were introduced to Christianity by Roman prisoners taken on raids into the Empire.
    • However – the Christianity of that area was Arianism, so this tribe became Arian Christians – and spread that through the other Germanic tribes on the Empire’s northern borders.
  • In the late fourth century, Alaric king of the Visigoths exploited the difference between the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire.
    • Apparently encouraged by Constantinople, the Visigoths invaded Italy in 410, and took the city of Rome in a surprise attack. They only stayed for three days, pillaging and looting, and left.
    • However – this was a huge blow to Rome – for the first time in 800 years Rome had been taken by a foreign enemy.
  • Over the next years, other areas of the Western Empire were in trouble.
    • Rome withdrew from Britain in the early sixth century.
    • Gaul (modern day France) was invaded by more barbarian tribes
    • In 452, Attila the Hun invaded Italy – but as mentioned earlier, Leo, the Bishop of Rome, persuaded him to leave Rome untouched. Attila died the next year, and his army was absorbed into the surrounding population.
    • Another Germanic tribe, the Vandals, crossed from Spain into North Africa, and by the middle of the fifth century controlled most of North Africa, and launched an attack on Rome in 455
      • Leo again successfully pleaded with the Vandals to take it somewhat easy on Rome during their 14 day sack of the city.
    • The next 20 years were filled with wars against the Vandals, with sometimes puppet kings set up by the Vandals in Italy.
    • By this time, any army Rome had was mercenary in nature – there were no more native Roman armies.
    • In 476, one of the mercenary Roman guards deposed the last Roman emperor in the West…
      • The guard sent the emperor’s robes to Constantinople and the Eastern emperor, and pledged allegiance if the Eastern emperor would recognize him as ruler in the west.
    • The Western Roman Empire was no more.

The Church and the Fall of Rome

Two major issues faced the church during the last years of the Western Roman Empire.

The first was: Why would God bring suffering on a Christian people?

  • One presbyter (Salvian of Marseilles) wrote that the terrible experience in Christian Gaul does reflect God’s just rule: it is His righteous judgment on a wicked people, particularly on wealthy aristocrats and greedy public officials who oppress the poor. For example, with heavy taxes on those who can least afford to pay, while wealthy landowners were often able to arrange to pay no taxes at all.
    • No wonder the poor prefer life among the barbarians, or in the monasteries.
  • Sometimes the church was part of this system – but for the most part the church was generally on the side of the poor and oppressed.
    • Church leaders were able to get Rome to raise money to buy grain for distribution during a famine, or hospitals set up. Bishops were usually conscientious shepherds of their flock.

The second was: Why did Rome fall?

  • The remaining pagans argued that it was the Christians’ fault – while Rome had continued to worship and sacrifice to the pagan gods, it had been safe and prosperous – but with the Christians now calling the shots, that protection was gone.
    • There was some basis of truth in this – though not of a supernatural nature
    • The church recognized how hard it was to live a Christian life in the larger world. And, Christians were often advised, for the sake of their souls, to leave public office. A magistrate might have to order torture or execution – something a Christian should have problems with.
    • This likely contributed to the decline of public morality, as posts were then often filled by people with lower ideals.
  • This made it easier for the Barbarians to make military inroads.
  • There were other factors:
    • Bureaucracy had increased significantly, which contributed to the problem of more and more non-productive consumers, and fewer and fewer producers to support them. This included the growing ranks of the clergy – who not only became non-producers, but also took away from the talent that otherwise could have gone into governing the Empire.
    • Wealthy landowners – today’s 1 percenters – didn’t pay their share of taxes, or allow their agricultural workers to be conscripted into the army.
    • The division of the Empire into West and East under Constantine weakened the Western empire – it had fewer resources to draw on in times of need.

One major by product of the fall of Rome was the general ‘Christianizing’ of the ‘barbarians’ of Western Europe.

The Western Empire regions after the fall of Rome

  • Once the Visigoths took over, they set up their own king, who was in turn overthrown by Ostrogoths (‘Eastern Goths’) who had served in the Eastern Empire.
    • These were all Arian Christians, but tolerant.
  • In Gaul, the pagan king of the Franks married a Catholic Christian princess, and converted to Catholic Christianity
  • Often, however, the conversion was in name only – the character of the leader, or of many of the people who had converted because of the decree of their leaders, made little or no change to their lives.

The Rise of Monasteries

Partly as a reaction to the immoral practices of the non-Christians around them, some Christians reacted by a combination of holding to stricter practices, and withdrawing from society.

  • The first is generally called Asceticism (nothing new – other movements had them, including Judaism (for example, the Nazirite vow)), the second came to be known as Monks.
  • Asceticism has been supported from some passages of the Bible, but taken out of context.
    • For example, Jesus saying “there are some who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom”, or Paul’s preference for the single life, though being based on the expectation that Christ might come soon and marriage ties might impede evangelism. These aren’t specifically extra praiseworthy in the Bible, or held up as a higher standard.
    • However, some of what came to become Ascetic practices are actually condemned in the NT – for example, the stricter holding by the Pharisees of clean and unclean foods than Judaism called for, or Paul attacking the teaching that it was wrong to marry or eat certain foods.
  • Earlier, when congregations were smaller, they generally held higher moral standards.
    • As Christianity spread, and congregations grew, more ‘Christians’ could escape the close personal relationships in the church that would encourage the Christian moral observances.
  • Further, the earlier high esteem of martyrdom was waning, as Christianity became legal and martyrdom didn’t take place any more.
  • In its place, people who came to be known as Monks (from the Greek word for ‘single’ or ‘solitary’), aimed to live the Christian life fully, and felt that continued living in the ‘world’ hindered this.
    • (Note: Paul in I Cor 5:10 indicates that Christians are to live in the world, not to withdraw from associating with non-Christians.)
    • A ‘monk’ lived a ‘monastic’ life
  • The earliest appearances of Christian monasticism aren’t known.
    • Some early examples may have been people trying to escape from persecution
    • The first famous monk was about 250-350 (date not certain), an Egyptian
    • His example was followed by others and soon there were many hermits, living singly, or in loose associations – often at the edge of the desert.
  • Their main occupation was prayer and meditation, and reading Scripture.
    • Fasting was important, and other odd sounding feats were attempted – standing for hours while praying, living on top of a pillar, or walling themselves up in caves.
  • Shortage of food and sleep are known to contribute to hallucinations – which may explain reported conflicts with demons and other visions, trances, and strange experiences.

Development of Communities of Monastics

In about 320, a man named Pachomius set up the first known Ascetic community in Egypt.

  • He set certain patterns, such as a ‘rule’ for a community – the pattern of living within the community.
  • He insisted on regular meals and worship, and made his communities self-supporting through industries or agriculture.
  • Those entering the community handed over all their personal wealth to a common fund.
  • There were standards for acceptance – memorization of scripture, a period of probation.
    • If one couldn’t read or write, he was taught.

Originally monasticism developed in the Eastern Church.

  • Athanasius (remember him? Bishop of Alexandria, exiled 5 times…) during one of his exiles encountered this, and spent part of his later exiles among the hermits of the Egyptian desert.
  • He wrote of the ascetic movement, and his writings made it to the Western church.
  • Monasticism was started there, with the backing of the church from the beginning.

In the middle of the fourth century, Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor, worked to bring monastics into closer relationship with the church.

  • He held that the local bishop should have authority over a monastery.
  • Also, that monasteries should start looking more outwards – providing treatment for the sick, relief for the poor, and enlarging on their aspects of education.
  • Basil developed a ‘rule’ for monasteries that is still observed in Eastern monasteries today.

In the West, France was home to the first monasteries, in the late fourth century.

  • Monasteries were set up partly as bases for evangelizing rural France, which was still mostly pagan.

Sometimes, early on, monks were responsible for destroying pagan temples, harassing and even murdering pagans and heretics.

Some monasteries took on specialties, such as copying manuscripts and scripture, or study of ancient writings.

Monastic life spread:

Ireland in the late fifth century – emphasis on learning, but also on circulating in the countryside, including travelling to the continent, rather than staying in one place permanently.

  • Irish monks founded some of the most famous monasteries on the continent.

Benedict (480-547, from Italy) founded the ‘Benedictine’ monasteries in the West, establishing the rule generally used in Western monasteries and monastic life.

  • Based on prayer and work. Monks had to show high moral character. A monk should remain in the same monastery where he had taken his vows. The abbot (meaning ‘father’, the spiritual head of the monastery) exercised all the normal discipline.
  • Other aspects: silence at meals while Scripture or other readings took place, taking turns in the kitchen, care of the sick was important, no meat to eat (unless sick), times for study, seven times a day for prayer (Ps 119:164), being busy at times with manual work, etc. etc. etc.
    • Seven prayer times known as: Lauds, Prime, Terce (9:00 AM), Sect (12 noon), None (3 PM), Vespers, and Complime just before bed time.
    • These times would include prayers of intercession, reciting of psalms, reading the Bible, and some singing.
  • These monasteries also became centres of learning as time went on.
    • Not just Christian learning including Scripture, commentaries, church canon, manuscript production, but also liberal arts and other secular learning.
    • This included translation of Greek classics and early Church writers into Latin.
    • Benedictine monasteries in particular took on this view over time.
  • The rule is still observed today in many monasteries

Celibate Clergy

In the NT, it would be reasonable for most of the apostles to be married. We know for certain that Peter was, and it was accepted that an apostle would be accompanied by his wife while travelling for church work. (I Cor 9:5)

  • Paul did recognize the practical advantages of being unmarried – being able to devote more time to the Lord’s work, but certainly was not anti-marriage.
  • In the two hundred or so years after the close of the apostolic age, abstinence from marriage was left a matter of personal choice
  • However – by the third century, as Asceticism became more admired and respected, being unmarried started to be seen as a mark of holiness.
    • Married men were still serving in important roles through this time
  • In the fourth century, men could not marry after being ordained. As the century went on, pressure for Christians to be celibate grew greater.
    • Some Western theologians believed that original guilt entered into the soul of the infant through the act of conception, and thus cast doubt on sexual intercourse.
    • Ultimately churches were persuaded that celibacy and holiness were closely connected.
  • Two abuses arose from this at the time.
    • Unmarried men were living with women not their wives – despite repeated condemnation by church councils
    • Married men were tempted to desert their wives in order to follow the celibate life, or enter the clergy. A Roman law in 420 explicitly forbade this.
  • In the East, the practice evolved that presbyters and deacons could marry before ordination, but not after, and that bishops would always be chosen from the celibate clergy. This remains in force in Eastern Christianity today.
  • In the West, there was strong pressure for complete celibacy of the clergy.
    • This became enforced legally and effectively in the eleventh century.

Into the Middle Ages

The Roman Catholic Church was basically the only institution to survive the end of the Western Roman Empire.

  • It was well organized, well known and had authority throughout most of Europe
  • It was able to transmit Roman culture to the Middle Ages in Europe
  • The organization of the church had taken on the form of Roman imperial administration:
    • Each city was entitled to a Bishop, and each province to an arch-Bishop
    • Within each Bishop’s diocese (i.e. the territory of his responsibility) the hierarchy of officers was almost the same as that of the Roman civil administration.
    • Church canon law was modelled on Roman law
      • At first just decrees from church councils – but popes started issuing ‘decretals’ – commands modelled on the Emperor’s edicts.
    • Latin became the common language in the Christian world
    • Christian architecture was Roman in origin – for example, the Basilica church
  • And the monastic orders provided centres of learning and preservation of knowledge.

This will help explain a number of the events and movements that occurred during the Middle Ages.

Questions: Lesson 2

  1. What would a Scriptural response be against the idea of venerating saints or praying to them? What in the NT might be taken to support such a practice? (e.g. Rev 6:9-11)
    1. Saints – taken out of context – ALL Christians are saints.
    2. Jesus’ teachings – whatever you ask in MY name John 14:13-14
  1. In what ways are creeds useful? In what ways are creeds dangerous? Why do you think the churches of Christ have no creed? (We have slogans – which don’t carry anywhere near the same authority. e.g. “Speak where the Bible speaks, be silent where the Bible is silent.”)
  1. Should Christians take part in public office? What are some of the reasons for and against?
  1. “The strongest blow against Christianity was when it became the Roman state religion.”