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Rise of Christianity and The Early Church

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The Rise of Christianity

Christianity emerged in the cities of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. The earliest Christians, because they refused to honor the Roman pagan gods, were subject to civil penalties, sporadic persecutions, the contempt of the Roman social establishment. The first Christians, Jesus’ followers, were Jews. An urban religion, Christianity initially spread to the Gentiles through the preachings of St. Paul, and it subsequently attracted converts from all social classes: senators, knights, merchants, the poor, servants. The series of decrees issued by Constantine I between 312 and 330 formally tolerated Christianity, gave Christians the right to build churches, to accommodate property, to establish courts with jurisdiction over clergy; these decrees were known as the Peace of Constantine and marked the beginning of the institutional Church. Emperor Theodosius (391–94) outlawed the pagan religions and made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Since a profession of faith advanced one’s public career, the number of followers increased, but piety was weakened.

An ecumenical council

In the 2nd century, the Church (Gr., ecclesia; the Christian community) consisted of widely scattered, loosely knit groups, united by their faith in New Testament teachings and sometimes divided by doctrinal disagreements. Baptism and participation in the Eucharist became the basic signs (sacraments) of the Christians. Ecumenical (general, theoretically universal) councils such as Nicaea (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) tried to resolve conflicts and to define doctrine. These councils were called by the emperor and presided over by him in person or by legate. Local problems were dealt with in synods.

Clergy and laity

Christian communities of the apostolic age made no distinction between clergy and laity, but by 100 C.E. episkopoi (supervisors) and presbyteroi (elders) sat apart at religious ceremonies from the laikoi (the people). Episkopoi, or bishops from the 4th century onward, often descended from the Roman senatorial aristocracy or provincial officials and were elected directly by Christians of local communities on the basis of spiritual charisma and reputation for piety. They served as overseers, responsible for distribution of goods to the poor, for preaching, for maintenance of gospel standards. Each town had its bishop, and his church (cathedral) possessed his throne or chair (Lat., cathedra), the symbol of his authority. Christians considered bishops to be successors of the apostles: just as Jesus had consecrated his apostles by laying hands on them and sending them out to teach what he had taught them, so the apostles consecrated their successors and they, further successors. This apostolic succession gave the bishops organizational authority and doctrinal security. Papa was a title applied to all bishops until c. 425; it did not take on its present meaning until the 7th century.

The emergence of Roman primacy

As Christian communities developed organizations, they adopted the diocesan (territorial unit) system of the Roman Empire. Just as the eastern part of the Mediterranean world contained the population and commercial centers of the Roman Empire and, after the establishment of Constantinople, the political capital, so the East held the patriarchal or metropolitan sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople, which had provincial, not just diocesan,
jurisdiction; Rome was the only western metropolitan see. In the first four centuries C.E., authority in the Church rested in: the emperor, who continued to take the title pontifex maximus and to exercise a prominent role in religious affairs. Thus, Constantine I considered himself the equal of the apostles and called and controlled the Council of Nicaea ;  the universal or ecumenical council, whose canons (decisions) held an authority second only to Scripture; the Roman papacy, whose influence grew very gradually. As the seat of the empire and the site of the martyrdoms of the apostles Peter and Paul, Rome held a primacy of respect and honor throughout the Church. Moreover, according to the gospel tradition (Matt. 16:16–18, Luke 22:31–32, John 21:16–17) Jesus had assigned Peter a position of leadership among the apostles. Peter led (as bishop) the Christian community in Rome, and, in turn, transmitted “the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven” to his successors. Popes Innocent I (401–17) and Celestine I (422–32) used this Petrine theory to extend the rights of Rome. The bishops of Rome slowly acquired the rights to resolve disputes in other dioceses, to define doctrine, and to exercise administration and discipline throughout the Church. Under Pope Leo I (440–61) the weakness of the imperial power forced the bishop of Rome to assume defensive, financial, civil, and political responsibilities for the city, because the imperial government was unable to do so. Leo I claimed to possess the plenitudo postestasis (fullness of power or jurisdiction) over the entire Church. This impetus to universal Roman authority, however, could not be sustained by Leo’s immediate successors.


Monasticism originated in Egypt and Syria as an ascetic (disciplined) reaction to 7 the moral corruption of the late antique city-state, and was introduced into the West by Athanasius (d. 373). Monastic individuals withdrew (Lat. anchoreo, to withdraw) from urban society to seek God alone, through prayer in the desert (Gr., eremos), hence Eastern monks were called “men of the desert.” Many women were also attracted to monasticism. Hermits led a solitary life. In his Life of St. Anthony, Athanasius described the first (Egyptian) monk (c. 251?–350), now considered the father of Christian monasticism. Although monks (and nuns) led isolated lives and the monastic movement represented the antithesis of the ancient ideal of an urbane social existence, monks were soon recognized as holy people and sought out as spiritual guides. In the first half of the 4th century Pachomius (c. 290–346) established cenobitic (communal, in contrast to eremitic) monasteries for men and for women in Upper Egypt. Basil of Caesarea (330–79), a leading Greek theologian, attacked the eremitic life, because of the impossibility of material self-sufficiency, the excessive concern with the self, and the lack of opportunity for the exercise of charity; he espoused cenobitism, which eventually became the common form of monasticism in the West. The Egyptian monastic experience came to the West through The Institutes (c. 417–18) and The Conferences (426–29) of the monk Cassian (c. 360–c. 435), based on his eyewitness accounts and conversations with the Desert Fathers. Martin of Tours founded (c. 362) a cenobitic community of monks near Poitiers.

Patres Ecclesiae

The Latin Fathers of the Church (Lat., Patres Ecclesiae), was a term first used in the late 4th century by the Greek writers and Sts. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzos to refer to Sts. Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine. Jerome (c. 342–420), a Dalmatian, was devoted to pagan learning despite his keen ascetic convictions. The first great Western exponent of monasticism. One of the greatest scholars of the Latin Church, his translation of the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) is still authoritative in the Roman Church today. This excellent version exerted stylistic and theological influence throughout the Middle Ages. Ambrose (c. 339–97) of Trier, a Roman provincial governor, was elected (374) bishop of Milan before he was baptized. His Duties of the Clergy (based largely on Cicero, de Officiis) was for centuries the standard work on ethics, and is probably the chief single source of the Stoic tradition in early Western thought. He made Milan almost the equal of Rome in prestige, and forced the Emperor Theodosius to do penance, maintaining that in ecclesiastical matters a bishop was superior to an emperor. Augustine (354–430) of Hippo was the greatest of the Western Fathers. Converted to Christianity after ventures into Neo-Platonism and Manichaeism, he was founder of Western theology, the link between the classical tradition and the medieval schoolmen. Through him a great stream of Platonic and Neo-Platonic thought came into the Church. For a thousand years all thought was influenced by Augustine, and theology betrays his influence to this day. He gave wide currency to the doctrines of original sin, predestination, and salvation through divine grace, and his influence was felt by Calvin and Luther. His City of God presents a dualism of the heavenly city (those who live according to the spirit; those who live according to the flesh) and the earthly city (Rome), and was written to prove that the misfortunes of Rome (e.g., the sack of 410) were not due to Christianity; all history is the account of God acting in time. The Confessions set the fashion in spiritual autobiography. The Latin Fathers debated matters of sexuality and marriage. In the ancient world, many thinkers, both Gentile and Jewish, held that sexual relations between man and woman hindered the soul’s rise to higher things, but Jesus’ apostles believed marriage was no sin and that celibacy was a grace not given to all. In the 2nd century, Christian writers advanced the revolutionary ethic that husbands should be as faithful to their wives as wives were expected to be to their husbands; that marriage was a free partnership of equals, with ideals of mutual respect and affection. Early Christians condemned infant exposure, abortion, and capital punishment—all widely practiced in the ancient world. With this benign attitude, however, there gradually emerged a strong current of negativism toward the body, of hostility toward sexuality. The Fathers took for granted the superiority of celibacy (total abstinence from all sexual activity) over marriage. Thus, Jerome denigrated marriage; Augustine held marriage to be “a cure for concupiscence,” with procreation the only truly moral use of, or justification for, sexuality. As in the ancient world, marriage remained a private arrangement, not the concern of civil authorities. Recent historians have disputed the early Christian attitude toward homosexuality. Some scholars argue that early Christian thinkers had a tolerant and positive position on male love and eroticism as being natural; other modern writers
claim the Fathers condemned same-sex love and activity. The debate continues.

Innocent I and  Leo the Great

Innocent I asserted that the pope was custodian of the apostolic tradition and claimed universal jurisdiction for the Roman Church. Leo the Great, the first great pope, a highly cultivated Roman, a vigorous foe of the Manichaean heresy. He procured an edict from Emperor Valentinian III (445) declaring that papal decisions have the force of law. Leo was probably the first pope to enunciate the theory of the mystical unity of Peter and his successors, and to attribute all their doings and sayings to Peter. The tradition of Leo’s miraculous arrest of Attila’s advance and his efforts to stop Gaiseric’s attack (455) won the papacy tremendous prestige in later days.

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