THE STORY OF THE CHURCH - PART 1, TOPIC 7
- The late persecutions 250-260 and 302-313
- The emperor Decius, in the year 250, commanded all Romans to sacrifice to the gods before a magistrate and
to obtain certificates certifying that they had done so
- Many professing Christians rushed to obtain their certificates, some by sacrificing and others by bribing officials
or obtaining forged certificates. The bishops of Rome (Fabian), Antioch (Babylas) and Alexandria (Alexander) all
lost their lives in this persecution. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, went into hiding but kept close tabs on what
was going on.
- The large number of "lapsed" (those who had denied the faith by sacrificing) caused great upheaval
and turmoil in the church. Confessors in Carthage began readmitting the lapsed in 251 when the persecution subsided,
which grieved Cyprian, who rallied fellow bishops to his side and called a council which established stricter measures.
- This persecution basically ended with Decius' death in 251.
- Under Valerian the persecution intensified in 257-260. He banished ministers and prominent laymen, confiscated
their property, and prohibited assemblies. The death penalty was used (Schaff vol 2, p. 62).
- Cyprian of Carthage and Sixtus II of Rome both were martyred in this persecution.
- Ended in 260 when Valerian became a Persian prisoner of war and his son Gallenius revoked the persecution.
Under Gallenius, Christianity became a legal religion for the first time.
- During the time between the persecutions, Christianity grew large and prosperous. Churches were built publicly;
one large basilica at Nicomedia was visible from Diocletian's palace.
- The last great persecution (303-311)
- Diocletian inaugurated the persecution at the urging of Galerius, who later became the Augustus in the east.
His wife and daughter were known to be Christians. "Suddenly, the old emperor ordered his army purged of Christians.
Imperial edicts followed, commanding officials to destroy church buildings, prohibit Christian worship, and burn
the Scriptures. Bishops were rounded up wholesale, imprisoned, tortured, and many put to death, while the power
of the imperial throne was turned loose to wipe out the rest of the Christian community in blood." (Shelley,
- Diocletian abdicated in 305. The persecution in the West basically ends at this point. But the new Eastern
emperor, Galerius, kept up the heat.
- Upon his deathbed in 311, Galerius reluctantly issued an edict of toleration. His effort to wipe out Christianity
- In 313, the new Western emperor Constantine persuaded the Eastern emperor Licinius to agree to full religious
liberty for Christians. This agreement was the so-called Edict of Milan. Persecution of Christianity by Rome was
ended for good. (We will tell the story of Constantine in Part 2 of this course.)
- Summary of Part 1: Church Development to 313.
- When we discuss the changes, or in many cases corruptions, of the church from A.D. 30 to 313, we must not forget
how much truth had been introduced suddenly into the world by the advent of God's living Word and his Gospel,
and the text of the New Testament. The amount of this truth that was correctly developed by the early church
should hearten us.
- Heresies. Most of the heresies that we have mentioned before were still active in 313. Often, a Catholic church
in a city would have one or more opposing heretical churches active nearby. This was not a situation that was conducive
to re-evaluation of Catholic thinking. The argument of apostolic authority and succession continued to blind Catholic
thinkers to the development in their own thinking over 300 years.
- The core doctrines of the faith are maintained and extended. The Catholics never gave up or compromised monotheism
as taught in the Old Testament. They worked through the doctrine of the Trinity and tried to explain how monotheism
could be true while a man could also be worshiped as truly God.
- Forgiveness of Sins. The principle that sins were forgiven by Christ's work was never abandoned (and still
is affirmed to this day in the R. Catholic church), but the doctrine that this forgiveness was obtained by acts
of obedience was established alongside it. Baptism was necessary to wash away former sins, and acts of righteousness
(and penance for sins committed) were necessary to stay on the right road after Baptism.
- This is probably the right place to deal with a question that is probably in many Protestants' minds at this
point: how can one be saved, if he does not believe in salvation by faith alone? In other words, if salvation involves
(as we believe), renouncing our own righteousness and clinging to Christ's righteousness instead (Philippians
3:2-9), then how can people be saved who explicitly tie salvation to several human works?
- The answer (I believe) lies in two complementary principles, one negative and one positive. Really they are
two sides of the same basic truth. The negative principle is this: it is always dangerous to tie salvation to the
accurate belief and understanding of key doctrines. Salvation is never presented this way in the Bible examples
of evangelism, except in the most basic way (cf. Acts 8:37, And Philip said, "If you believe with all your
heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.").
The positive principle is this: Salvation is by trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, not by trust in doctrines
about the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, many Christians who believe what they are told by their leaders,
and perform many unnecessary "religious" acts, nevertheless trust in the Lord with all their heart and
thereby are saved.
- I believe that when Christianity ceases to be a matter of the heart, and begins to be an organized religion,
then there is always the danger that we will put the formal profession in the place of the heart reality. This
is why we will find a much greater percentage of unsaved "Christians" in the R. Catholic Church than
in a well-taught, heartfelt Protestant church. But we must remember that every Christian, even one in the most
radically Protestant organization, still belongs to an organized religious body, so the danger is always there.
The danger is greater, however, when the form of Christianity being observed is full of external symbols which
themselves have the appearance of power and authority, and which can draw worshipers (temporarily or permanently)
away from Christ and away from salvation.
- The Sacraments. Baptism and the Eucharist were seen as grace-giving actions, which operated effectively because
of the God who stood behind them, not so much due to the faith of the believer, and still less the faith of the
minister. (The Donatists, following Cyprian's teaching, taught that the minister must also be pure and within the
right church, but this was not mainstream church teaching.) The bread and the wine were seen to "be"
Christ's body and blood, but no doctrine of transubstantiation was yet developed. It was beginning by the end of
this period, to diverge from what most Protestants would be comfortable with. Still, it was a doctrine of the Real
Presence and not really a Roman Catholic doctrine of the eucharist.
- The Ministry
- Miracles and Evangelists are known to have ceased, see Euseb. v. 10.
- Bishops take over from elders in the 2nd century. They begin to exercise functions not forseen in
the New Testament text, chiefly related to priestly powers.
- Written prayers during the service, which first tend to be written down as examples, eventually become liturgies
that are followed.
- Church tradition extends into many directions that are probably valid deductions from Scriptural principle,
such as church councils. Minor councils are held several times in the 3rd century. Major councils will
have to wait until the Emperor is converted.
- Roman Supremacy begins to be mentioned in the later part of this period. But even the authors who teach the
Roman primacy tend to have controversies with Rome sometime in their lives.
- The Martyrs. The excessive honoring of martyrs, both when alive and after death, begins to lead to the idea
- Monasticism. Closely related to the idea of martyrs was the idea of monasticism. In the days of non-persecution,
especially 260-303, super-spiritual Christians, following the lead of current ideas of Christian morality rather
than New Testament teaching, begin to head to the desert and lead lives of prayer and contemplation. Most Christians
are extremely respectful of them, and monasticism becomes a sort of martyrdom without persecution. In some writers,
such as Origen, it is unclear whether there are two types of Christians or one. Some teachings tend to downgrade
the virtue and the faith of the simple Christian, in favor of the monastic ideal.
- Video of late Ante-Nicene Christianity
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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted
to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works
quoted may be found in Bibliography page.