CH101 - The Fourth Century

The Church Established, 303 - 400 A.D.

Politics of the Roman Empire
The Church Continues to Grow
Persecution under Diocletian
Constantine comes to Power
Donatism and Arianism
The Conflict with the Donatists
Constantine and Faith
Council of Nicea - 325 AD
The Nicean Creed
Beginnings of Monasticism

The Church Divided
As with prior times of persecution, schisms developed in the church regarding how to deal with those who had "lapsed" in their faith (to "lapse" was to fail in your faith during the times of Roman persecution, see the discussion on Second Repentance). In the East, where the persecution had been most severe, there tended to be a more lenient treatment of those who had failed in some way. In the West, especially in North Africa, a more strident view held the day (remember Tertullian had been in this region and he was strict). While some bishops had been able to satisfy the authorities with copies of Gnostic works to be burned, in some parts of North Africa handing over any document to be burned (one bishop "surrendered" a medical book, the Romans thinking it was sacred writing) was considered apostasy - even the appearance of cooperating was seen as a denial of the faith.

Donatus and Donatism
In Carthage a dispute arose around the bishop Caecilian who had been consecrated by a traditor (a "betrayer"), someone who had either made sacrifice to the emperor or had delivered books over to the authorities to be burned. More was involved in this situation, but during this time a man named Donatus was moving around the region of Numidia in Northern Africa rebaptizing priests who had lapsed and giving them commission to preach and administer the Eucharist again. In previous times of persecution it had been determined that it was not necessary to rebaptize people, even if they had been baptized into a less than orthodox sect. But here Donatus was doing this within the region of a "catholic" bishop, and without authority. It caused a great stir.

The more strident movement of believers following Donatus would not accept the sacraments from someone who had lapsed during persecution. The Numidian bishops called a council in 312 AD and deposed Caecilian, but the controversy was not over. Shortly after this local council, Constantine ruled in favor of Caecilian and his appointees. The Donatists appealed to the Emperor for another council to decide on the controversy, asking that he get bishops from Gaul who had not been involved in persecutions. Constantine granted this request and had Miltiades, the bishop of Rome, as the head of the council.

This Roman council decided in favor of Caecilian, but the Donatists appealed on the grounds that Miltiades had been initially appointed by Marcellinus, who had also lapsed during persecution. Constantine was getting impatient with the dissidents, but relented, calling for a larger council to meet at Arles, hoping to put the issue to rest.

The Council of Arles, 314 AD
Thirty-three bishops attended (three from Britain) the Council of Arles. Constantine was present at this Council, marking the first Church Council with a Roman official. The Council again ruled in favor of Caecilian and passed various canons, or judgements - regarding the date to celebrate Easter, regulations regarding clergy moving from one region to another, and they decided that the churches would not rebaptize the lapsed or those who came from heretical sects.

In the spring of 317 Constantine issued a decree to confiscate Donatist churches and he had their bishops ousted. Some he sent into exile. Donatus refused to surrender his church buildings in Carthage, and radicals within the Donatist movement began protesting violently against this move in the streets of N.Africa. Roman troops were sent in to remove the Donatists by force and to stop the angry mobs. The documentary evidence for these events is lacking and the documents we do have is both contradictory and doubtful. What we do know is that some Donatists were killed.

In the end, Constantine's efforts to solve the Donatist crisis did not work. Eventually he ruled for the Donatists to be tolerated and left alone - Donatus and his churches continued, and kept growing. This movement continued into the fifth century.

Read more details about how Constantine handled the Donatist crisis and the misrepresentation that "Constantine led an army of Christians against the Donatist Christians."

Arius and the Arian Controversy
The story of Arius, like that of Donatus, begins in the fire of Roman persecution and how to treat the lapsed. During the Diocletian persecution bishops in Egypt were divided on how strictly lapsed believers were to be treated during recovery. In an Alexandrian prison Peter, the bishop of Alexandria and Meletius, a bishop from Upper Egypt, came into such sharp disagreement that they hung a curtain within the prison cell to disassociate themselves from one another. Bishop Meletius, who represented monks from the Egyptian desert, held to a fairly strict regime - Peter was seen by the Meletian group as lax.

When the intense persecution ended these men were released from prison, but their dispute continued and developed into a significant church problem. A well-educated and charismatic man named Arius rose up in the Meletian ranks, even being excommunicated by at least two councils for his support of Meletius. In a strange turn of events, Peter was again arrested and martyred. In the aftermath Arius began to argue in favor of the "catholic" side and was eventually ordained to be a presbyter by Peter's successor. The Meletians considered him like a traditor (a "betrayer") and wanted to defeat his influence - Arius had begun to build a reputation as a scholarly orator.

The Origenist Controversy - Part II
We have only touched on the controversy that revolved around some of the writings of the great Alexandrian father, Origen [see the introduction to Origen, and the introduction to the trinity which also flows from Origen's thought]. The conflict with Arius brings Origen back into the picture - this conflict is the first major theological struggle over the definition of the trinity and is the main reason Emperor Constantine called the first "catholic" council of church leaders, the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

After Origen's death, church leaders and thinkers continued to struggle with the concepts of how the Father and Son fit together. Following the transcendence of Clement and Origen, Arius held that the only "unbegotten" being was the Father, thus no other creature was like Him. Jesus, the Son, was begotten, so Arius maintained that the Son was created. If he was created, then "there was a time when he was not," there was a time when the Son did not exist. THIS was his undoing. The Meletians demanded that Arius be disciplined - a council was called in 318 AD - one hundred bishops attended and condemned Arius to be exiled. By the time we get to the Nicean Council a true struggle for power was taking place in Alexandria. The Arians had established their own churches and their own leaders - two separate churches (denominations) had already started to develop in Egypt. This was a situation that Emperor Constantine would not accept.

top of page  |  go to page 4  -  Constantine Comes to Power