Church History - Third Century

Expansion of the Church, 202 - 303 A.D.

Persecution in the Roman Empire Under Severian
The third century began with a time of persecution under the emperor Septimius Severus (146-211 AD). Severus, who secured his rule with the defeat of Clodius Albinus in 197, was a professional soldier and cared very little for the politics of the day. With a short and strong build, his leadership was consistent with an aggressive and ruthless general.

Severus upheld the earlier rulings with regards to Christianity, thus it became illegal to convert to the new and expanding faith community. Although this has been disputed, it is certain that persecution erupted in Egypt under his rule. The strategy of the previous century was used - attack the leadership. Clement, the leader of the catechetical school in Alexandria, fled to avoid capture. He had discussed this line of thinking in his writing to oppose the emotional mentality of earlier martyrs who had freely offered themselves to the Romans to be imprisoned and executed.

We learn from Eusebius that one of those martyred was the father of a young man named Origen. Eusebius records that Origen's mother hid his clothing to prevent him from joining his father in death - many historians feel this is an exaggeration, but it is clear that Origen was a highly committed young man. He had been well-educated and soon after the persecution settled down he began holding classes for beginners in the faith, as well as philosophy classes.

The Alexandrians

Clement of Alexandria
The School of Alexandria
Alexandria was an established learning center for several centuries in the ancient world, housing one of the greatest libraries of all time. Philo the Jew had taught a unique blend of Judaism and Platonism. His biblical text was the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. For Philo, Moses represented the voice of God speaking to the Jews. He held up a lens of Plato to understand and to explain the meaning of the ancient Mosaic laws to his modern world.

The Writings of Clement
From his writings we learn that Titus Flavius Clemens came to faith after a personal search for philosophical truth that had led him on a good many travels. Clement led the catechetical school and many believe his writings were used in the training. It is clear that Clement followed in the philosophical mindset of Philo. He quotes or alludes to Philo and Plato hundreds of times. For Clement, Plato was the Moses of the Greek world, revealing the truth of God through his philsophical insights.

Several works of Clement survived, but he is most known for what some have called a triology, three major works (Protrepticus, Paidagogus, Stromateis) that fit together in something of a wholistic presentation. While many disagree with this description, I believe Clement did exactly what he announced to be his plan,
Eagerly desiring, then, to perfect us by a gradation conducive to salvation, suited for efficacious discipline, a beautiful arrangement is observed by the all-benignant Word, who first exhorts, then trains, and finally teaches.  Paidagogus I.1.1-3

In summary, Clement uses his three works to point the way for the spiritual journey: he "exhorts" the hearer to embrace the gospel; he "tutors" the young believer in foundational principles - his second work deals with sacraments and spiritual ethics; finally, he lays out teaching for the mature believer in the final work, "Miscellanies."

Clement's first major work is titled (Protrepticus) "Exhortation to the Greeks" and is a presentation of the gospel to the educated sector of Greco-Roman society. Many scholars say this is Clement's most graceful piece of writing. This "Exhortation" is filled with citations from the most popular Greek writers, each citation being used to prove Clement's underlying arguments. The document reads like an anthology of Greek literature, and it is clear that Clement is not new to this literature. He is an educated man and he writes in high quality Greek.

The second work in this trilogy is (Paidagogus) "The Tutor." Spiritual disciplines are set forth in this work to "train" the soul and bring it to perfect knowledge. A paidagogue was typically a slave in the Greek world that would walk a child to school and help him with his studies. This document was probably used in Alexandria for catechetical training. Clement consistently uses an allusion to the Pauline/Hebrews "milk...meat" analogy to contrast spiritual babes from the mature. He urges the reader to gain the "meat" while the weak eat only vegetables.

The third work in this series is (Stromateis) "Miscellanies," a strange work that covers a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. Clement says that his intention is to "hide" powerful teaching within a somewhat chaotic document - he will do this on purpose in order to keep the "untrained" from getting their hands on this important knowledge. Many have pointed to various philosophical points made in Stromateis, but others have observed that Clement's descriptions of the truly "spiritual" man is the important teaching being presented.

There is also evidence that spiritual prayer, contemplative prayer, is the "meat" Clement wants the mature believer to get from this document,

And his whole life is a holy festival. His sacrifices are prayers, and praises, and readings in the Scriptures before meals, and psalms and hymns during meals and before bed, and prayers also again during night. By these he unites himself to the divine choir...engaged in contemplation which has everlasting remembrance.   Strom VII.7.46,4; 49,4-5

His whole life is prayer and converse with God. And if he be pure from sins, he will by all means obtain what he wishes. For God says to the righteous man, "Ask, and I will give thee; think, and I will do."   Strom. VII.12.73,1; 13.81,4
Clement's influence was eclipsed by his successor, Origen of Alexandria.

Origen of Alexandria
In the vacuum of leadership following the persecution under Severus, Origen became the head of the Alexandrian school. Origen was highly educated and became one of the greatest writers of the early church. Frustrated by the growth of Gnostic writings, especially commentaries on biblical text, Origen began producing commentaries and other writings. During the first half of the third century Christianity grew in numbers, but also gained a measure of intellectual and philosophical respect, bolstered largely by the writings of Origen which were numerous, dense in thought, and HUGE in size. He would sometimes dictate his biblical commentaries while stenographers jotted notes in shorthand to be later written out. It was said that several stenographers would work in shifts while Origen would go for hours every day.

He never mentions Clement, but follows in his tradition to some degree. Origen does not openly embrace Plato as Clement did, but his theological system is clearly marked by Platonism. It is Origen who truly develops the Alexandrian model of allegorical interpretation. Philo had done this with the Old Testament; now Origen applies the same methodology to Christian texts. For Origen each text had three meanings: a literal one, an ethical one, and finally a spiritual meaning. This system was developed to help explain what certain texts might mean when the immediately clear meaning cannot be correct (in the mind of Origen). The God of Israel could not have really decreed that His people kill every woman and child in some of the OT battle scenes. Origen would find a "spiritual" way to explain this. For Origen the spiritual meaning of the text was most important, thus sometimes he would minimize the literal meaning. Origen could be seen as a prototype and a primary influence on the men who would commit themselves to celibacy in the monastic tradition. He never married, but gave himself completely to the service of Christ and His church. Eusebius reported that Origen castrated himself as a young man (a practice that most certainly happened in the Egyptian church), but this tradition regarding Origen is not completely reliable. What is certain is that Origen embraced a very spartan lifestyle, including all the Christian disciplines that would later become codified in monasticism.

The importance of Origin on the future of Christianity is difficult to overestimate. His writings were used by his contemporaries, but held in higher regard by the next few generations. Later generations would take sides regarding some of his controversial positions and come to blows. Referred to by historians as the "Origenist controversy," future leaders would part ways over the teachings of the second century writer.

On First Principles
Origen's major work, De Principii ("day prinCHEE pay" - On First Principles), contains many of these controversial topics. In the prologue of this work Origen warns the reader that this work is NOT for just any believer, but is designed to be read only by those who are solidly grounded in their faith and in philosophical training. He continues by saying that he will be speculating about things that are beyond human knowledge, but beneficial to be discussed. Various topics are addressed that would suggest Clement's emphasis: creation and how all things first began, the origin of evil, angelology, among many other topics. One topic that seems to emerge from time to time in church history is universalism. Origen speculates on how "all things" might eventually come under submission to God and in this context he states that "maybe after eons and eons Satan himself will repent." This kind of statement obviously caused concern, but it must be remembered that this appears in the one document Origen warns is NOT to be taken as orthodox theology. He does, however, defend his speculations publicly which shows that he takes his view seriously. Also important is how Origen gets himself into this situation - by trying to reconcile every disparate verse and force some kind of literal interpretation. The reader should also keep in mind that Origen is writing before formal orthodoxy had been completely established. Whatever the case, Origen's writings were at times condemned, and sometimes embraced. Interestingly, the "Origenist controversy" also had some influence in the divide between the Eastern and Western churches. Historically the Eastern fathers and churches have embraced Origen and the West has been much less sympathetic.

Persecution in the Roman Empire Under Decian
In 247-248 Rome celebrated 1,000 years of existence with a three day, nonstop party. The church had grow immensely during this first half of the third century, had begun to reach into every strata of society, and had experienced a relative respite from persecutions for around 30 years. In 248 the troops of Decius proclaimed him as emperor and in 249 he took control of the government. In 250 he participated in the annual sacrifice to Jupiter and then ordered that his example be followed throughout the empire.

It appears that resentments or prejudice had built up against the Christians - the order of Decius was quickly carried all around the empire, which was somewhat unusual. It was a brutal time for around 18 months. The bishops of Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem were executed. When the wave of persecution had passed bishops came out from hiding and exile to find thousands of lapsed believers wishing to be readmitted to fellowship. Second repentance had once again become a current issue and the man who faced it was bishop Cyprian of Carthage.

Cyprian of Carthage, Bishops, and the Pope
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage
Cyprian had gone into exile during the persecution, encouraging the believers through private correspondence. He returned to find that the "confessors," believers who had been imprisoned, had been given authority by the lay people to pray for, and grant forgiveness to the lapsed. Cyprian issued On the Lapsed which spoke definitively on the subject of how to deal with lapsed believers - this document was roundly accepted. In addition to the lapsed believers, a rival group in the church of Carthage selected a bishop to represent them in opposition to Cyprian. In Rome, meanwhile, there was something of a competition for the bishopric and two rival bishops (Cornelius and Novatian) were elected. Bishops in the surrounding areas, led by Cyprian, confirmed Cornelius with a majority vote. Novatian received only a minority vote and soon thereafter he defected from the church in Rome taking many followers with him. Cyprian responded with another tract, On the Unity of the Church where he speaks of the Petrine authority resting in Rome. He also emphasizes the unity of having one bishop, stating that one "cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church as his mother." This statement was obviously directed at Novatian for his defection.

In 254 the leadership in Rome elected a new bishop, Stephen. Almost immediately Cyprian found himself at odds with Stephen over the issue of baptism for the Novatian believers who wanted to come back to the "true" church. Cyprian had made it clear that these defectors could not be recognized - their Novatian baptism could not be accepted as legitimate or reversed by an orthodox rebaptism. Stephen held a much more conciliatory position. We have copies of at least two letters written by Cyprian to Stephen, both fairly aggressive in his disagreement. Unfortunately we do not have copies of Stephen's responses which, according to Eusebius, were every bit as stubborn. Cyprian admitted that the Novatianists baptized with the trinitarian formula, but that they were not in "the" Church. Stephen insisted on the primacy of the Roman bishopric, even calling Cyprian the "AntiChrist" for resisting him.

The Council of Carthage
Cyprian's response was to call a major council of 86 bishops (including Cyprian), the first Council of Carthage in 256. Cyprian opened the council with a speech criticizing those who would attempt to hold "tyrannical" power over the college of bishops, a clear reference to Stephen's attack on him. The attending 86 bishops, all from the North African region, expressed their support of Cyprian one by one, some even referring to the Novatians as "heretics."

Stephen began to threaten bishops in the eastern provinces with excommunication if they sided with Cyprian. The situation was quickly escalating into a major problem when, in August of 257, Stephen's unexpected death brought instant relief. Stephen's successor, Sixtus II, was far less strident and far more cooperative.

Bishops and the Pope
What becomes clear from the letters and writings of Cyprian is that the regional college of bishops was normative. The bishop of Rome was an important position, holding the seat of Peter, but it appears that Cyprian only used this expression as a tactic against his theological opponents. When he disagreed with Rome, the bishop there did not have primacy. The Roman bishop had already been referred to as "popa," the "father" of the Italian bishops, but the 86 African bishops at Carthage made it clear that the concept of a "Pope" holding supreme leadership had not yet been settled.

We saw the clear emergence of monoepiscopacy (a single bishop residing over a large city or region) in The Letters of Ignatius around the year 112-120 A.D. Now, in the 250's, we see that bishops worked together in a "college" format, meeting in regional councils to discuss, debate, and give verdict on important issues. From these letters of Cyprian, and from other documents, it seems that these regional colleges of bishops tended to stick together - representing their region even if it meant taking a position against a different region of bishops.

Canon of the New Testament, Part 5

The NT Canon in the Third and Fourth Centuries
By the third century there is a noticeable increase in citations from the "inspired" writings that eventually become the New Testament, and far less citations from works that do not make it into the New Testament. The most prolific third century writers are Tertullian (already mentioned), Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage.

An explosion of Christian literature comes in the fourth century with Lactantius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, and the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Jerome, Rufinus, and the great Augustine of Hippo (his Confessions was written in 396-97 AD). All of these writers illustrate how the New Testament had become settled with thousands of citations from the 27 "inspired" writings and fewer citations outside that list.

The Official Canon
Many people think the New Testament writings were agreed upon at the Council of Nicea. There were 20 canons (church rules) voted on at Nicea - none dealt with sacred writings. The first historical reference listing the exact 27 writings in the orthodox New Testament is in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in 367 AD. His reference states that these are the only recognized writings to be read in a church service. The first time a church council ruled on the list of "inspired" writings allowed to be read in church was at the Synod of Hippo in 393 AD. No document survived from this council - we only know of this decision because it was referenced at the third Synod of Carthage in 397 AD. Even this historical reference from Carthage, Canon 24, does not "list" every single document. For example, it reads, "the gospels, four books…" The only reason for this list is to confirm which writings are "sacred" and should be read in a church service. There is no comment as to why and how this list was agreed upon.

The New Testament developed, or evolved, over the course of the first 250-300 years of Christian history. No one particular person made the decision. The decision was not made at a church council. The particular writings that became those of the New Testament gradually came into focus and became the most trusted and beneficial of all the early Christian writings.

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The Empire Reorganized - The Church Prospers
In 257/258 AD Emporer Valerian issued edicts against the Christians. This series of persecution was not a general attack as had come from Decius. This was targeted at the bishops and the upper class Christians.

In the 260's the borders of the empire were being breached by barbarian tribes. The peace and security of the Roman Empire was threatened on every side. Emperor Gallienus sought to keep things in order - he could not protect the outer regions, so regional legions did their best. Territory was lost around the edges, but the empire was held intact.

In 261 Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persians and Gallienus became the sole emperor. Weary of the violence against Christians, Gallienus issued an edict of toleration which basically stated that Christians should be free to assemble without fear and their properties should be returned to them and protected from confiscation.

In 284 Diocletian became the emperor, and to push back the encroachments of the barbarians, Diocletian brings Maximian into his confidence. The two men rule the empire as a team, Diocletian ruling in the east and Maximian in the west. In addition, both men took on a prince so that, in effect, there were now 4 emperors, each waging war against the barbarian hordes in a different region of the empire. The important fact to know here is that Maximian selected Constantius to be his prince. He ruled over Gaul and Britain and would have a famous son, known as Constantine the Great.

After the borders of the empire were basically restored, Diocletian went about rebuilding the financial status of the empire. Standard coinage and regulated pricing was established; taxes were increased which brought in record revenues, but the military also had grown, needing more of this new funding. To secure his legacy, Diocletian started several building programs.

The Church Prospers
By the year 300 AD, according to Eusebius, there were 40 churches in Rome. The third Christian century was coming to a good close - everything was good - the church was growing, church buildings were getting larger, and the Church was financially prosperous. The peace of Rome was good and the Christian Church was enjoying being a legitimate part of that peace.

For the 40 years after Gallienus issued his edict of toleration the church prospered. Christians were to be found at every level of society and serving in every level of government, even serving in the military with many becoming officers. With a wink and a nod Christians serving as governmental officials and military leaders were allowed to avoid making the normal loyalty sacrifices to Rome.

If the third century ended well, the fourth century would begin with equal trauma. Possibly one of the worst persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire was coming and it was completely unexpected.