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History of Christianity

From 301 to 600 CE

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The history of the primitive Christian movements
(30 to 300 CE) is described in a separate essay.

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Background:

During the Ante-Nicene Era (about 170 to 325 CE) many religious movements were active in the Roman Empire: Christianity, Greek Pagan religion, Judaism, Mithraism, Roman Pagan religion, various secret mystery religions, etc. Religious tolerance was widespread throughout the empire, but it was only granted to those adults who had fulfilled their civic duties. Many points of conflict developed between the Roman authorities and the growing Christian movement, including:

bulletAs part of one's civic duty, each adult was expected to sponsor a sacrifice in the Roman temple once per year. Many Christians refused to do this because it would force them to acknowledge the legitimacy of Pagan Gods.
bulletAdults were expected to acknowledge Caesar as the Son of God and Savior. Many Christians would not submit to this either.
bulletChristians ignored some Roman laws. For example, the state refused to recognize marriages between a free person and a slave; Christians allowed such marriages.
bulletA small minority of Christians were so keen on hastening the end of the world and the arrival of the Kingdom of God that they set fires to encourage the second coming of Jesus. Some Roman authorities labeled the entire Christian movement as a bunch of arsonists.
bulletLies spread that Christians engaged in orgies during their communal means and made human sacrifices of infants.

As a result of these conflicts, Christians were intermittently persecuted in various parts of the Empire.

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The fourth century CE:

bullet301 CE: Armenian tradition states that Gregory the Illuminator (c. 257 - c. 337) persuaded the King Tírdat III, the king of Armenia, to convert to Christianity. The king then made Armenia the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion. Some sources say that this happened in 311 CE. The Roman Empire itself did not officially adopt Christianity until 380 CE, under the Emperor Theodosis. 7
bullet313 CE: The years of Christian persecution came to an end. Emperor Constantine (289-337 CE) issued the Edict of Milan which formally established freedom and toleration for all religions, including Christianity. Contrary to many people's beliefs, Christianity was not made the official religion of the Roman Empire at this time. That happened later in that century. 5
bullet325 CE: The period of time from 325 to about 590 CE is often referred to as the "post-Nicene" era. This interval takes its name from the church Council of Nicea which was held in 325 CE.

There was no single individual who spoke for the entire church; no one person had the authority to decide matters of belief and practice. Such matters could only be determined by councils at which all available bishops would debate and attempt to resolve their differences. The first such meeting was the Council of Nicea in Asia Minor (now Turkey). 318 bishops out of the approximately 1,800 Christian bishops then in existence attended. Most came from the eastern half of the Empire. 5 Bishops attempted to resolve a major uncertainty facing the early church: the relationship between Jesus and God. The church recognized the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) which described God in strictly monotheistic terms. But there were references in the Gospels (particularly John) which implied that Jesus was divine. Two conflicting theories about the deity of Jesus were argued at the time:
bulletArius (250 - 336 CE) proposed that Jesus and God were very separate and different entities: Jesus was closer to God than any other human being, but he was born a man, had no prior existence, and was not a god. On the other hand, God has been in existence forever. Arius felt that any attempt to recognize the deity of Christ would blur the lines between Christianity and the Pagan religions. If Christianity recognized two separate gods, the Father and Jesus, it would become a polytheistic religion.
bulletAthanasius (296 - 373 CE) argued that Jesus must be divine, because otherwise, he could not be the Savior. The atonement would not have been possible.

Both Arius and Athanasius had large, evenly matched followings among the bishops. Emotions ran high. The council, under intense pressure from Emperor Constantine, resolved its deadlock by a close vote in favor of Athanasius. The dissenting bishops were offered two options: to sign the settlement at Nicea or be exiled. The bishops produced the Nicene Creed, which declared that Jesus Christ was "of one substance with the Father." This did not immediately settle the question of the divinity of Christ; many bishops and churches refused to believe in the council's decision for decades.

"The bishops granted to the bishop of Alexandria [in Egypt] papal authority over the eastern half of the empire, and to the bishop of Rome they granted papal authority over the western portion of the empire." 5

bullet330 CE: Emperor Constantine decided to build a "New Rome" on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium (now at Istanbul, Turkey). It was called Constantinople. It became the center of the largely Christian empire. 5 By this time, the church had evolved from a small, scattering of congregations to a geographically widespread church under the authority of many bishops. 
bullet341 CE: Many now believe that Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire through the evangelical efforts of the early church during the fourth century CE. The evidence seems to show that this is not true; "The Greek-Roman world was not...converted to a new religion, but compelled to embrace it." The Emperor Theodosian issued a series of decrees or rescripts in the years 341, 345, 356, 381, 383, 386 and 391 CE. They effect of these orders was to "suppress all rival religions, order the closing of the temples, and impose fines, confiscation, imprisonment or death upon any who cling to the older [Pagan] religions." 2 The period of relative religious tolerance in the Roman Empire ended as Pagan temples were seized and converted to Christian use or destroyed. Priests and Priestesses were exiled or killed. Christianity and Judaism became the only permitted religions. In Spain, bishop Priscillian, who taught some Gnostic beliefs was the first person to be condemned as a heretic and executed by his fellow Christians on religious grounds. The church used the power of the state to begin programs to oppress, exile or exterminate both Pagans and Gnostic Christians. By the end of the century, Pagan temples had been either destroyed or recycled for Christian use. Pagan worship became punishable by death. But government toleration was not without its cost. The Emperor Constantine and later political rulers demanded a major say in the running of the church and in decisions on its beliefs. 

According to most religious historians, church authority had became concentrated in five bishops or patriarchs located in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. Although they were officially given equal status, the Bishop of Rome was considered by many to be the first among equals, mainly because the governing of the Roman Empire was centered in Rome. 4 In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter was the first pope during the first century CE and was widely acknowledged to be the head of the Christian Church.

bullet381 CE: At the Council of Constantinople, the earlier council's decision on the deity of Jesus was confirmed and Arianism was formally declared a heresy. They also voted that Holy Spirit was the third Person of the Trinity. Almost all of the churches abandoned Arianism after this council.

Near the end of the century, the Roman Emperor "Theodosius decreed that the doctrine of the Trinity was to be the official state religion and that all his subjects should adhere to it." 5

Siricius, who reigned from 384 to 399 CE, became the first bishop of Rome to be called Pope (father).

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The fifth century CE:

bullet431 CE: The Council of Ephasus was called to debate the precise nature of Jesus. Again, there were two main competing belief systems:
bulletFrom the city of Alexandria, scholars developed the Alexandrian school of thought which:
bulletPromoted the allegorical interpretation of the Bible -- that it contained hidden meanings.
bulletEmphasized the divinity of Christ.
bulletRecognized that Jesus had both a human and divine nature, tightly united.
bulletWithin the city of Antioch, Nestorius and other scholars developed the Aniochene school which:
bulletRejected an allegorical interpretation of the Bible.
bulletEmphasized the humanity of Jesus.
bulletSaw the two natures of Jesus as being loosely connected

The council excommunicated Nestorian and declared his beliefs (Nestorianism) to be heresy.

The Virgin Mary's status was elevated from the mother of Jesus to "theotokos", the mother of God.

bullet440 CE: Pope Leo I became the Bishop of Rome -- a post that he held for 21 years. He maintained that the pope was highest ranking of the Christian bishops.
bullet451 CE: Emperor Marcian called the Council of Chalcedon to resolve still another debate about Jesus. The traditional belief that Jesus had both a divine and human nature was being challenged by Monophysitism, an outgrowth of the Alexandrian school. Their followers believed that Christ had only a single divine nature. The council rejected that belief. In their Chalcedonian Definition, they affirmed that Christ had two natures, human and divine. These were without confusion, without change, without division, without separation." This formulation has survived as the traditional belief to the present day among almost all branches of Christendom. The East Syrian (Nestorian) church and the Oriental Orthodox Christian church disagreed with the council's decision, and split off from the rest of Christianity in the first major schism from Pauline Christianity.

A minor, little known, statement of the Council was Canon #15: "No woman under 40 years of age is to be ordained a deacon, and then only after close scrutiny." 1 This is believed to be the last time in church history that the ordination of women was mentioned as a routine practice, until modern times.

During the 5th century CE, various Germanic tribes invaded Rome and destroyed much of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the church centered in Rome successfully converted the invaders to Christianity. Authority within the church was coalescing around the Bishop of Rome in the west and the Patriarch of Constantinople in the east. Divisions between the two power centers in the Christian church gradually intensified.

Gnostic Christianity's membership went into a steep decline. 

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The sixth century:

bullet553 CE: Emperor Justinian called The Second Council of Constantinople. He invited equal numbers of bishops from each of the five patriarchal sees. The Bishop of Rome, Pope Vigilius saw that many more bishops from the east than from the west would be present. He refused to attend. The council concentrated on the writings of three Christian leaders: Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret and Ibas. All three were condemned by the council as heretics: "We observed that the pupils of Nestorius were trying to bring their heresy into the church of God by means of the heretical Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia and his books as also by the writings of the heretical Theodoret and the disgraceful letter which is alleged to have been sent by Ibas to Mari the Persian. Our observations prompted us to correct what was happening. We assembled in this imperial city, summoned here by the will of God and the command of the most religious emperor." 6
bulletGnostic Christianity ceased being a significant force by the 6th century. The only group to have continuously survived into modern times is the Mandaean sect of Iraq and Iran. This group currently numbers fewer than 15,000. Gnostic Christianity has been revitalized in the West and is now growing rapidly.
bulletThe eastern and western branches of Christianity continued their process of separation. This was caused by a variety of factors: 
bulletThe Slav invasions in the Balkans.
bulletThe religious language in the west was Latin, while the eastern church used Greek. Bilingual theologians became increasingly rare.
bullet"While the intellectual thought of Eastern Christianity was driven by Greek teachers, Western Christianity came to be dominated by the teachings of Augustine of Hippo." (354 - 386 CE) 4

"Although the two regions belonged to the same church, they became increasingly remote from each other." 4 A formal split did not  occur until 1054 CE when the Roman Catholic church and Eastern Orthodox churches formally separated. Although discussions are currently underway to bring the two churches into some form of unity, little progress is being made

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References

  1. Article, "National Catholic Reporter", 1996-NOV-15
  2. Joseph McCabe, "A Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference on religion, philosophy, ethics and science," Gryphon Books (1971). Excerpts appear at: http://www.christianism.com/
  3. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan, (1993), Pages 59 to 72.
  4. David Levinson, "Religion: A cross cultural dictionary," Oxford University Press, (1996). Topics: Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman Catholicism.
  5. "Constantine, the first Christian emperor," Antiquity Online, at: http://www.fsmitha.com/
  6. "Second council of Constantinople - 533 A.D.," at: http://www.piar.hu/
  7. "The Conversion of the State: Gregory the Illuminator, T'rdat III and the Pagan Wars," http://www.tacentral.com/

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Copyright 1996 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-JUL-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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