THE PERSECUTED CHURCH, 100-313 A.D.
FORMATION OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON. GROWTH OF ECCLESIASTICAL ORGANIZATION. DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE.
While the great outstanding fact in the history of the church throughout the second and third centuries was the imperial persecutions, at the same time great developments were taking place in the condition, organization, and life of the Christian community. Some of these we will now consider.
We have already seen that the New Testament writings were finished by the beginning of the second century. But the establishment of these books, and these only, as the canon or rule of faith, possessing a divine authority, was not immediate. Not all these books were accepted everywhere as inspired Scripture. Some of them, notably Hebrews, James, II Peter and Revelation, were accepted in the East, but rejected for many years in the West.
On the other hand some books not now considered as belonging to the Bible were also accepted and read in the East, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the Apocalypse of Peter. By slow degrees the New Testament books as we now have them gradually took the rank of Scripture, and the other books as gradually dropped out of use in the churches. The councils that were held from time to time did not choose the books to form the canon; they ratified the choice already made among the churches. No precise date can be given for the full recognition of the New Testament as it is at present, but it cannot be placed earlier than 300 A.D. Any one who will read the volume of “The New Testament Apocrypha,” and compare its contents with our New Testament, will see at once why these books were finally rejected from the canon.
While the original apostles were living, the universal reverence for them as the chosen companions of Christ, the founders of the church, and men endowed with special divine inspiration, made them the unquestioned leaders of the church, and its rulers, as far as rule was needed. When St.Luke wrote the Book of Acts and St. Paul wrote to the Philippians and to Timothy, the titles “bishops” and “elders” (presbyters) were applied freely to the same officials. But sixty years later, about 125 A.D., we find that bishops were everywhere ruling over the church, each commanding his own diocess, with presbyters and deacons under his authority. About 50 A.D. the Council at Jerusalem was composed of “the apostles and elders,” and expressed the voice of the whole church, both ministers if there were such, which is doubtful and laymen. But during the period of the persecutions, certainly after 150 A.D., the councils were held and rules were made by bishops only. The episcopal form of government became dominant and universal. There is no history or the time to tell us the steps leading to this change in organization, but it is not difficult to find its causes.
The loss of apostolic authority made a choice of new leaders necessary. The great founders of the church, Peter and Paul, James, the Lord’s brother, and John, the last of the apostles passed away leaving no men of their own ability to succeed them. For fifty of sixty years after the death of St. Peter and St. Paul, the history of the church is a blank. What may have been accomplished under such men as Timothy, Titus, and Apollos, we know not; but a generation afterward new names appear as bishop with authority over their several dioceses.
The growth and extent of the church made organization and discipline necessary. While the churches were limited to lands where they could receive occasions visits from apostles, few officers were needed. But when the church became as wide as the empire, and even wider, reaching to Parthia and the borders of India, embracing many lands and races, the need of headship for its various sections was realized.
The persecutions-a common danger – drew the churches together, and exercised an influence toward union and government. When at any time the powers of the state might be arrayed against the church, the need of efficient leadership was realized; the leaders arose for the occasion; and the need lasting through seven generations made the form of rule permanent.
The rise of sects and heresies in the church made some standards of faith and some authority to enforce them absolutely necessary. We shall notice in this chapter some of the doctrinal divisions which threatened the very existence of the church, and we shall see how the controversies of the over them awakened an imperative demand for discipline to deal with heretics and insure the unity of the faith.
When we inquire why this particular form of government was adopted, a government from above by bishops, in preference to one by the ministry as equals, we find that the analogy of the imperial government furnished a plan naturally followed in the development of the church. Christianity arose, not in a republic where citizens chose their own rulers, but in an empire ruled by authority. Hence as some government was necessary for the church, everywhere a form somewhat autocratic arose, the rule by bishops, to which the church willingly submitted, being accustomed to the same rule in the state. It is, however, a noteworthy fact that during the entire period under consideration, no bishop claimed universal rule, a bishop above the bishops, as did the bishop of Rome later.
Another marked feature of this period was the development of doctrine. In the apostolic age faith was of the heart, a personal surrender of the will to Christ as Lord and King, a life in accordance with his example, and as a result the indwelling of his Spirit. But in the period which we are now studying, faith had gradually come to be of the mind, an intellectual faith, believing in a hard and fast system of doctrine. Emphasis was laid in correct belief, rather than on the inner, spiritual life. The standards of Christian character were still high, and the church embraced many saints enriched by the Holy Spirit; but doctrine was becoming more and more the test of Christianity. “The Apostles’ Creed,” the earliest and the simplest statement of Christian belief, was composed during this period. Three great schools of theology arose, at Alexandria, in Asia Minor, and in North Africa. These schools were established for the instruction of those who, from heathen homes, had taken the vows of the Christian faith; but they soon developed into centers of investigation into the doctrines
of the church. With all of these schools great teachers were associated.
The school at Alexandria was founded about 180 A.D. by Pantaenus, who had been a stoic philosopher, bur as a Christian was eminent for fervency of spirit and eloquence in oral teaching. Only brief fragments of his writings have survived. He was succeeded by Clement of Alexandria (living about 150-254 A.D.), who taught and wrote on many subjects, displaying vast learning and intellectual power.
The school of Asia Minor was not located in any one center, but consisted of a group of theological teachers and writers. Its greatest representative was Irenaeus, who “combined the zeal of the evangelist with the skill of the finished writer.” In his later life he moved to Gaul(France), became a bishop, and about 200 A.D. died as a martyr.
The school in North Africa was at Carthage, and through a series of able writers and theologians, did more than either of the other schools to shape the theological thought of Europe. The two greatest names in this school were those of the brilliant and ardent Tertullian(160-220 A.D.) and the more conservative but masterful Bishop Cyprian, who died as a martyr in the Decian persecution, 258 A.D.
The writings of these Christian scholars, as well as of many others associated with them and inspired by them, have been priceless value, as our source of first-hand information concerning the church, its life, its doctrines, and its relation to the heathen world around it, during the centuries of persecution.