The Age of Catholic Christianity 70 – 312 AD: Persecution and Orthodoxy

These are notes from our Wednesday night class on church history, this evening (13 Sept 2006) taught by our Associate Pastor at FPC Edmond, John Gruel. John is a former doctor and orthopedic surgeon, and has a wonderfully intellectual and insightful approach to ministry, as well as the interpretation and application of God’s word in our daily lives. John gave me permission to podcast his presentation this evening, which is the fourth session in a 15 part study on this history of the Christian church. For our primary historical text we are using Bruce Shelley’s “Church History In Plain Language Updated 2nd Edition.”

What does “catholic” mean? Universal. From the inception of the followers of Jesus through about the first three centuries, there really was just one expression of “Church.”

The early church was molded or formed by several things:
1- the exclusion from Judaism
2- persecution from Roman culture
3- the development of heresy (beliefs that challenged common thinking and led the church to develop its orthodoxy and common scriptures)

When we left off last week, Christians were really a subset of Jews (Romans had been giving some slack to Judaism)
– as soon as Christians were no longer a subsect of Judaism, they started to experience persecution by the Romans
– unlike forbearers, Christians were very active in proselytizing
– in the past you could become a Jew, but Jews were not very active trying to convert people
– because of several factors, Christians were seen as more of a threat
– in the 60s under Nero particularly, Christians began to be seriously persecuted

Interesting: that women in higher classes as well as lower classes were active in spreading Christianity

Reason Christians experienced persecution:
– called themselves “saints” (that didn’t mean perfect, but in a strong sense it meant set apart, holy ones)
– people are always suspicious of those who are different
– early Christians lived simply and by Jesus’ teachings, that becomes almost a condemnation of the current culture
– rejecting the Roman gods made them social misfits, couldn’t do any crafts associated with pagan temples, work in pagan hospitals, etc
– soldiering was a treacherous occupation
– were regarded as atheists, rejecting the gods: seemed in the culture to be people without faith
– different ideas about marriage and sex, about slaves, about economics
– in early times, Christians often worshipped in secret

Because worship was secret, some rumors about orgies (from the kiss of peace) and cannibals (drinking blood and eating flesh)
– because of worship without any images of the Deity and not worshipping Roman gods
– Nero blamed the Christians
– superstitions led people to blame the Christians for many things

At same time the growth of emperor worship was happening in Rome, Christianity was on the rise
– emperors began to be seen as the embodiment of Rome and deities: in death and later under Nero in life
– by end of 1st century, it was common to demand emperor worship and see him as a god/king
– emperor worship made compulsory in 3rd century

Uncompromising faith of the early Christians really got them in trouble
– led to increases in persecutions
– were 10 Roman Caesars in the Roman period before Constantine
– Nero probably had both Peter and Paul killed
– Domician was probably the one who banned John to Patmos
– Trajan passed laws against Christianity, had Ignacious burned at the stake
— you could be forgiven for

What was the result of this persecution
– the church always thrives in an era of persecution
– in Eastern Europe after the Berlin wall came down, mission
– it has always been the case that persecution strengthens the faith

As the church grew and develop
– heresy: “out of bounds” (too far in one area)
– orthodoxy: “in bounds” or accepted thinking
– these questions led to the rise of theology (God talk, words about God, the study of God) – theos = God
– theology is always a secondary enterprise, primary things are God’s revelation (through scriptures, actions of others– through the scriptures and through the life of Jesus)
– scriptures and their meaning are all subject to interpretation: the theology is the interpretation of these things

Our primary response to God’s revelation should be praise and worship
– secondarily: to seek to understand these things

In a community of belief, it is the community that eventually defines what is clear thinking and what is out of bounds. Several things led to the need for theological thinking:
1- movement of Christianity from a Jewish tradition into a Gentile tradition (Jews has a worldview already that included God’s active hand in the lives of his people. Greeks, however, did not and were more philosophically oriented) Jewish believers accepted Jesus as part of what God had been up to.
2- Gentiles

Creeds developed, from Latin “credo” (I believe)
– Romans 10: Confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord: this was likely a creed
– Things reinforced by creeds: Jesus came in the flesh, was bodily resurrected
– credo of the trinity was being developed, look at the end of Matthew

2 main flavors of heresies concerning Jesus
1- people who say Jesus was a great GUY but not God (emphasize humanity of Jesus)
2- People who emphasize Jesus’ deity

Orthodox thinking has attempted to hold together both views: That Christ was 100% human and 100% God
– Ebionites were one group that defined Jesus as a human primarily
– “Jesus Seminar” curriculum take the this tack also (Jesus was wonderful but in the end just a man)

– had been traditions of God as spirit in the OT
– didn’t really hammer out the doctrines until the Councils started meeting, but these thoughts were already developing

Docetists said Jesus was all spirit (all God, not human)

Then came the biggest challenge: Gnosticism
– took hold around the end of the 1st century
– gnosis means knowledge or “to know”
– was a broad movement with several common elements
— 1- sense of secret knowledge (secret knowledge imparted by Jesus and it has been passed along, Da Vinci code is an example)
— 2-

Like orthodox Christians, gnostics did accept idea of one God, salvation
– had a sense of dualism: Universe is setup with balance of good and evil
– they saw spirit as good and matter as bad

Christian view of death is “I will be resurrected” but we still carry some of this spirit good/matter bad in our views
– Gnostics held that if matter is bad then God couldn’t have anything to do with humans
– have weird sense of material and spiritual, and the dualism that permeates gnostic teaching
– the gnostics did hold that Jesus came to redeem the world, but he wasn’t clear in his teachings so you need to get in on the secrets

Some of earliest Christian creeds: earliest written one was Apostle’s Creed
– these were statements that battle these three elements of heresy
– humanity needs salvation by a savior, not by secret knowledge
– salvation is through what Christ DID, not through secrets that he passed along

As church leaders were debating on orthodox beliefs, they had to determine which of the writings that were developing were authoritative

Formative event

Saducees just believed in first five books: The Torah

When did plenary inspiration come in? Mid 19th century. In those days religious leaders did not consider all scripture equally authoritative. Torah could trump later prophetic writings.

Paul used a lot of “echoes of scripture” in his writings (there is a book by Hayes that shows a lot of echoes of the Apocrypha in Paul’s writings)

What does “scripture” mean: something authoritative to you, that guides your life
– for us it has become a closed canon

Bible is formed by the witness of the worshipping community
– self-evidencing power to transform people’s lives
– if it is useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking– it has this “self evidencing” quality– that is how it becomes scripture

Scripture has this ability: it is living an active, sharper than a two edged sword, separates joint from ligament (Hebrews)
– has this ability to be ALIVE
– that is one of the tests you can apply to scripture! Do this! Read some of that stuff that didn’t get included. It does not have the same quality and power
– that is how things become canon
– look at lists of books from early church fathers: Ireneus, Origen, etc (just like with the Jews, everyone includes Torah, most of major and minor prophets, and same was true with the four gospels)
– some cited gospel of Hebrews (none cite the gospel of Thomas!)
– most letters of Paul, first 10 at least
– some others are not always there: Revelation, Jude, others
– some books that we don’t have as our canon: Clement’s letter to Corinth, the Shephard of ____ (at one time these were held up as almost as authoritative of scripture, but they did not become part of the canon)

Apocrypha includes 12-15 books not included in the Hebrew canon
– apparently a dispute between Martin Luther and someone caused Luther to declare that Protestants do not accept the authority of the Apocrypha

One of the earliest lists of these books is dated to 190: The Muratorian Canon
– widely accepted by churches
– is a bit different from the Bible we have now

Books to be included had to either be apostolic or closely associated with an apostle (Mark associated with Peter, and is thought to have written Peter’s testimony)
– mid to late first century for books authorship
– within the next century, we had acceptance

Most gnostic literature was written later
– how were these letters distributed? It is hard to bind that type of material

Marcion developed idea that OT God was bad, and NT God was good
– threw out Matthew
– about 140 he was influenced by gnostics

Montanus around 160 began preaching as a new prophet with a new message about an imminent return of Christ
– this was a lot like Mormonism
– this was a challenge to try and add more to the canon

Key thing: the development of the Canon took place over time as a gradual process
– big question: is it worth dying for? Officials would come to kill a church leader or ask for their holy books
– some books would be kept, others turned over

The idea that Peter was crucified upside down is in “The Acts of Peter” not included in our canon

The development of what we would call a catholic Christianity

Next time: development of leadership of the church and theological thinking


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