(28) What Happened Next?
Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire – West to Spain, East to India, and South to Africa. Christians adopted the name “catholic” meaning their faith was universal and couldn’t be put down by pagan scorn, Roman persecution, or evil perversion of Christ’s teachings. Do we believe the church is still catholic in this sense? If not, why not? (Matt 16:18)
As the church grew, doctrines and structures were needed so Christians could know the difference between true and false teachers. It became important to know who learned from whom (e.g. John taught Polycarp – martyred around AD160 – who taught Irenaeus, etc.) How important is it today to know where a preacher gets his authority? (Acts 16:1-3)
Making the gospel intelligible to people from foreign backgrounds became important too, so centers of learning were founded, e.g. in Alexandria (supposedly by John Mark). Alexandria was a center of secular learning. What do we lose or gain if we separate Christian centers of learning from secular centers? (Proverbs 18:15, Colossians 2:8)
Meanwhile Christians cared for and converted the poor, so much so that they were criticized for despising education and culture. Is Christianity renowned for caring for the poor today? Should it be? (Proverbs 17:5, Matthew 19:21, 26:11)
Various Christian writers countered the “church for the uneducated” claim by writing learned letters to emperors, etc. Have you heard of Aristides, Justyn Martyr, Theophylus of Antioch? Irenaeus, writing around AD100, produced five large volumes about the cosmic implications of Christ, the reason Gnosticism was wrong, God’s plan throughout history, etc. How do we balance erudite cosmic implications of Christ with the personal implications of faith today? (1 Peter 3:15)
Tertullian is known as the father of Latin theology. He was born in Carthage in AD150. We still have 32 of his books! He argued that attacking Christians was legally and morally reprehensible, encouraged those facing martyrdom (Christians were regularly blamed when gods failed the city), condemned heresy, explained the Lord’s prayer and the meaning of baptism, and formulated Christian belief in the Trinity. Meanwhile Clement studied and wrote many books in Alexandria and India. The church was persecuted by authorities and wounded by heresies, but continued to grow until the loyalty of Christians came to the notice of Emperors! Would anyone be impressed by the loyalty of Christians today? Does theology unite or divide us, and what should it do? (2 Timothy 1:6,15)
About the same time, Montanus and his followers demanded total separation of church and state, claiming inspiration from the Holy Spirit, ecstatically prophesying Jesus’ imminent return, and insisting that any disagreement was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit! The Old Testament age was gone, they said, and so was the New. Now the Spirit ushered in a new age. To combat these claims, Christians began to separate out which writings were really inspired by the Spirit from those which were merely inspiring. Does Montanism remind you of modern movements? (2 Thess 2:15)
Before AD200, Christians (and others) might be persecuted for not burning incense to an emperor (Polycarp), for appearing to think themselves superior when they avoided pagan festivals, or as suspicious characters because they were different. They might struggle to find jobs because they couldn’t sacrifice to the gods who blessed their skills. Tertullian even forbade fellow Christians from becoming teachers because they might have to touch heretical books. Was Tertullian right? Can we serve in hospitals where non-Christian rituals take place? (Galatians 5:13-14)
Early Christians were frequently slandered too – accused of holding orgies, employing cannibalism, or even being atheists! Accusations were leveled by people who’d never attended Christian worship, of course, and Pliny wrote that he didn’t believe the charges but felt sure Christians must be doing something wrong to be hated so much. Do we, or does our society, ever slander or risk slandering people of other faiths? (Titus 3:1-2)
Things got seriously bad around AD250. Emperor Decius made worship of the Roman emperor compulsory for everyone except Jews! The words used to praise the emperor were almost exactly the same as those used by Christians to praise God. Christians saw this as fulfilment of John’s prophecies in Revelation – the beast from the sea is imperial power; the beast from the land is the imperial emperor. Read Revelation 12:11How did this all turn out? Should we read Revelation to tell us how to let God win for us, or to tell us the world’s about to end?
Early Christianity was faith first, then action. It was centered in belief in The Event – Christ’s death and resurrection – and grounded in orthodox theology. How does that compare with Christianity today? (1 Corinthians 1:23)
Early heresies included a belief that Jesus was a man who became Messiah as a result of his scrupulous obedience to Law (Ebionites). On the other side Docetism said Jesus only seemed human and didn’t really die. Gnosticism looked for a purely spiritual Jesus and was an umbrella for lots of different revelations, all opposed to “materialistic” Christianity which believed in a messy human Savior. The earliest apostles’ creed combatted this heresy and was used at Roman baptisms around AD200 (the words were finalized later). Are there similar heresies today? Does it surprise you that early Christians struggled more with the idea of God being born than with birth from a virgin? (Numbers 23:19, John 1:14)
The best way to combat heresy, of course, was to have a written basis from which to study theology. By 200AD, the Christian library contained four gospels, acts, Paul’s letters, James, 1&2 John, Jude, John’s Revelation, Peter’s Revelation, and the Wisdom of Solomon, plus the Shepherd of Hermas for private use. Does this list surprise you? Why or why not?
Read Romans 16:14. This may or may not be the same Hermas. He describes himself as a former slave. His book is a collection of 10 parable-visions, set around 90AD, probably written later than John’s Revelation. Peter’s Revelation existed by AD150 and goes into detail about the pleasures of heaven (milky white skin, everlasting flowers, choral music...) and pains of hell (Jewish-inspired, graphic, punishment-fits-the-crime). Both books were either dropped or disputable by AD250 when Origen made his sacred list. He was also unsure about James, Jude, John 2&3, Hebrews, the letter of Barnabas, the Teaching of the 12 apostles, and the Gospel of the Hebrews, but he added 1 Peter and 1 John to the earlier library. Paul’s letters seem to have been consistently accepted. Why do you think this might be?
By AD300, Eusebius was pretty sure about the gospels, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation (though he wasn’t sure who wrote Revelation). James, 2 Peter, 2&3 John and Jude were well-known but not universally accepted. Do you know which one was still being debated (or debated again) at the time of the Reformation?
100 years later, the Council of Carthage set up a canonical list for Western Christian churches. It included everything we now have in the Bible, and excluded the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel of Hebrews, the Acts of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, and the letter of Barnabas. The new list – Biblia, a set of books – was meant to comprise all the inspired New Testament writings. 2 Timothy 3:16, John 16:13-15. Was the church saying the Spirit had stopped inspiring people? Are we saying that when we say nothing should be added to the Bible? Where does Revelation 22:19 fit in?
Christians debating which books were Biblical maintained the Holy Spirit guided the writing of certain books, and now guides our interpretation of them. Does that allow interpretations to change as society and knowledge change?
Gnostics insisted that Jesus had given secret information to his followers. They traced their lineage back to the apostles, but church leaders traced theirs through an unbroken succession of bishops, consistency of public teaching, and adherence to the written word. Debate ensued over whether ceding power to bishops meant deserting the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. Can you see the same arguments and dilemmas playing out in churches today?
When Christians “lapsed” under torture and proclaimed Caesar as Lord (under Decius AD250) questions arose as to what sin is the “unforgivable sin against the Spirit,” and whether the lapsed could be readmitted to church. Meanwhile the “birthdays” of martyrs into heaven came to be celebrated with awe, and saints’ days arose. These saints were believed to have special power, just as Peter and Paul did – perhaps even power to redeem the lapsed. But forgiveness so large required a sacred element, so the sacrament of penance began to be observed. The church administered forgiveness as an outward sign of authority and grace. Where would you have stood on these issues, and why?
50 years later, Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity in AD313. Christianity became the state church of the Roman Empire in AD380, just 350 years after the death of Christ! Scribes began to make copies of Bibles, and the modern church was born. The Eastern and Western churches split apart around AD1100. Then Catholic and Protestant churches split in the 1500s. Do divided churches bring us closer to or further from the church of Acts, or neither? Do you think division is a good thing? Why or why not?