ERA 2—Early Church (2): Stability
(AD 300–600)


From Persecution to State Religion


This period marks Christianity rising from a persecuted group to the prevailing religion of the Roman empire. The emergence of Constantine I as emperor of a unified Roman Empire [313] brought an unexpected calm and tolerance for Christians. Christianity gained political and religious sanction for the first time. Constantine established a second capital at Constantinople [324], and inadvertently laid the groundwork for the later schism between East and West. Later, Emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity the religion of the empire [381]. However, there were still occasional struggles such as during the reign of Emperor Julian [361–363] who attempted unsuccessfully to reestablish paganism.


This triumph of the church brought both advantages and disadvantages. Christianity was free of persecution and was sanctioned by the empire to expand from the Atlantic coast to western Asia and from central Europe to northern Africa. Pagan temples became places of Christian worship, and pagan festivals were refashioned into Christian celebrations. Yet, the trend of paganization also affected the institution and practices in the church.


One benefit, or perhaps setback, of the church’s triumph was that the state became intensely interested in the church’s struggles. When theological issues arose, emperors often called church leaders together to discuss them. The church, through large gatherings of bishops, could define its teachings and creeds as never before. For example, from the beginning, the church as a whole affirmed the deity of Christ and His co-equality with God.


Church Councils


Bishops from throughout the empire were summoned by Constantine to meet at Nicea in Asia Minor. They issued the Nicene Creed [325], affirming the church’s teaching that Christ was not created but eternally existing, and was sent to us by the Father in the incarnation. Arianism, the teaching that Christ was only like God, but was a created being, almost overwhelmed orthodoxy within a decade after Nicea, but it was condemned at the Council of Constantinople [381]. Arianism remained a formidable heresy for centuries, taking the form of Socinianism in the 1500s and Unitarianism in the 1700s.


The church leaders also sought to explain how divinity and humanity were related in the incarnate Christ. Several ecumenical councils took up Christological issues, culminating in the Council of Chalcedon [451]. The Chalcedonian Definition affirmed the unity of the divine and human natures of Christ, the God-man. This discussion caused the first permanent schism in the Catholic Church as Monophysites, who believed that Christ possessed only a single divine nature, rejected Chalcedon. The Coptic, Ethiopic, and Armenian churches hold this view of Christ even today.


As the Roman Empire entered an advanced stage of decline and ultimate collapse in the disposition of the last Roman emperor [476], one of the most remarkable and influential theologian emerged—Augustine of Hippo (354–430). His City of God was the first Christian attempt at a philosophy of history, and his Confessions the first Christian spiritual autobiography. His arguments for predestination and against the teachings of Pelagius (who taught human free will in salvation) became a matter of discussion for centuries, even today. Using Paul’s epistles, Augustine stressed the blight of sin and the inability of any fallen person to choose Christ without the enabling of the Holy Spirit. Salvation, therefore, was a work of God’s grace alone, not the result of human worth or effort. Christian good works were not a means to salvation but a loving response to it.


Growing Power of the Church


The long and hard struggles for power between the church (religious power structure) and the state (political power structure) in the Middle Ages was foreshadowed in a dramatic confrontation between Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius [390] because of the latter’s cruelty against rioters. The emperor eventually yielded in a public penance.


As the emperor’s power declined, the Bishop of Rome’s power increased. Pope Leo I [440–461] negotiated and saved Rome from Attila the Hun [452]. He asserted authority over other bishops, claiming the Bishop of Rome was the successor to Apostle Peter.


Rome had been the western capital of the once mighty empire. From the crumbling moral and cultural debris of Roman civilization, the church at Rome emerged as a stabilizing force in the time of Gregory I [590–604], the last of the Church Fathers. Though he avoided the title of pope, he was the first bishop in the church to claim the superiority of the Roman church over all other churches. This view was vigorously rejected by the Eastern bishops, causing the alienation of the Eastern and Western churches. In his teaching, Gregory I generally followed Augustine in his understanding of sin and grace, though he rejected some of the harsher features of his mentor. He also gave the Catholic mass much of the shape it has today. Throughout the Middle Ages, the authority of the Roman bishops gradually increased, eventually rising above kings and emperors.


Dionysius Exiquus (d. 550), a monk in Rome, established modern system of dating, using events after Christ as “Anno Domini”—in the year of our Lord. However, he missed the date of Christ’s birth by a few years (now generally dated between 7 BC and 4 BC).