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The Church Before Nicea (AD 200-325)

  • 1 Persecutions

      During the period from AD 200-323 the Church underwent three major persecutions in three decades. The first decade of persecution began by the dawn of the third century and ended in 210 AD The second decade of persecution was from AD 250-260. And the third decade of persecution was brought to a close in AD 313.

      By the beginning of the third century the Christian church was a reality to be reckoned with the Roman Empire. The Roman authorities began to persecute Christians due to their increasing prominence. They became prominent in three ways: (1) Many people were converted into Christianity and they increased in number. (2) The conversions took place in different parts of Roman Empire and thus the Christians were present in almost every part of the Empire. (3) Though comparatively small in number they were a group of people zealous for their faith and the Church was a close-knit organization. The Roman authorities feared the Christian Church that its power would be a source of danger to the State.

      Septimius Severus ruled Rome from AD 193 to 211. He wanted to check the progress of the Christians. He issued an edict and it was the first official persecution by edict. It aimed exclusively at converts. It made conversions illegal. The persecution was sharpest in Egypt and Africa. In Alexandria in Egypt, Leonides, Origen's father was beheaded and several of Origen's pupils were destroyed. In Carthage of Africa many Christians especially the newly baptized died under tortures. Many were burned at stake and many others were thrown to wild animals.

      After the death of Severus in 211, till the accession of Decius in 249 the Christian church was in peace. The second decade of persecution began with the edict of Emperor Decius in AD.250. It was ordered that all might make their profession of faith within a fixed date. All who failed to declare paganism were liable to persecution. People were asked to make offering in the temple and partake in the sacrificial meal. Those who made the offering were given a certificate. If anyone denied he was to be induced in every way to change his mind and if he remained obstinate was to be tortured and imprisoned until he apostatized. Decius did not want to make martyrs but apostates because he knew the martyrdom strengthened the Church whereas apostasy weakened it. Even then there were martyrs. In Rome Bishop Fabian had been martyred. Decius died in AD 251.

      After Decius, Gallus became the Emperor (251-253). He resumed the persecution in milder form. Emperor Valerian who was next to occupy the throne (253-260) revived the Decian persecution. In the first half of his reign, he favored Christians. But in 257 he started persecuting the Church. He did not try to destroy Christian religion. But he planned to deprive the Church of all its strength. For that he aimed at its hierarchy, worship and property. He issued an edict in 257 which deposed bishops from their sees, forbade assemblies for worship and all access to cemeteries and confiscated properties. In Africa St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was beheaded. Many great leaders lost their lives during his reign.

      The Church had peace for another forty years. Then the last an greatest of persecutions broke out in the region of Emperor Diocletian in AD 303. It continued under Galerius and Maximian for a decade till it finally ended in AD 313. Diocletian forbade meetings of worship commanded Churches to be leveled to the ground and Scriptures to be destroyed in fire, and ordered the Church officials to be deprived of their rank. More than his predecessors he succeeded in abstaining from bloodshed. He forced Christians to hand over the Scriptures an apostatize their faith through long imprisonment and torture. In 30 Diocletian resigned Galerius and Maximian who occupied the throne successively continued the persecution. Galerius died in AD 311 and Maximian in AD 313. By the initiative of Constantine the Christians were declared free through the Edict in AD 313. There ended the era of persecution.

  • 2 The Teachers of Antioch and Alexandria

      In the third century there flourished two Catechetical Schools, one in Alexandria and the other in Antioch. The candidates for Baptism was given special instruction in catechetical schools and the person who was given instruction was called catechumen. The two schools were famous for their celebrated teachers. Lucian of Antioch and Paul of Samosata were the two great teachers of the school of Antioch in the third century. Of them the former was its founder. But unfortunately these teachers were found heretical in their teachings. In the Alexandrian school the notable teachers of the period were Clement of Alexandria and Origen. They need a few words of introduction here.

    • Clement of Alexandria (Ca. 150-215)

        Clement, as his name indicates was a Greek from Athens. He became the pupil of pantaenus, the founder and head of the Catechetical school at Alexandria. (This Pantaenus visited India in A.D. 190). Clement succeeded his teacher as the head of the school in AD 190. He, by the time had been ordained presbyter. He was a great scholar, a deep thinker, a holy missionary and a good shepherd. Faith, prayer, love and joy were his great characteristics. His contribution to theology was that he tried to explain Christian truths to the intelligent class of the period. He took Greek Philosophy as an instrument to explain Christian faith to the intellectuals. In 202 he was forced to flee from persecution. He was succeeded in turn by his pupil Origen.

    • Origen (Ca. AD 185-254)

        The Church found some of Origen’s teachings erroneous. Bu the had influenced the later teachers of the school of Alexandria to a great extent. Origen was born in Alexandria. He studied under Clement. When his father Leonides was martyred, young Origen zealous for the faith desired to share the bliss of martyrdom. But his mother prevented him by his cloths. When peace was restored, Origen became the head of the school. Origen led a strict ascetic life of fasting vigil and voluntary poverty. In 250, in Decian persecution he was imprisoned and was subjected to prolonged torture which he survived only a few years. The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus used Origen much in shaping their theology.

  • 3 Formation of the Bible

      Another important development during the period from AD 21 to 325 was the formation of the Bible. The Bible is a collection of many books. The collection as we have today, tells us along story of selection and limitation. The Church in the early years after the Apostles was aware of three authorities: the Scriptures, the spoken word of Christ and the oral testimony of the Apostles. For them any reference to scriptures meant only the Old Testament. In course of time the works and words of Christ recorded by the Apostles i.e. the Gospels were circulated among them. Gradually they began to assume prominence and were put on the same level with the Scriptures of the Old Testament. There were a good number of books circulated among the Christians which claimed Apostolic authority. So the church had to cautiously select and make a Canon of books (body of writings which are accepted as genuine, authoritative, and inspired by God) of the New Testament. This process of collection and canonization of the books of the New Testament was speeded up by several factors.

      1. First among the factors that speeded up the formation of the New Testament Bible, was the Christian worship. In the Christian services it was customary, after the lessons from the Old Testament, to read any Apostolic letter. For example l Thessalonians was to be "read to all the brethren" (1 Thess. 5:27). After the Epistle to the Colossian had been read among them they were to hand over it to the Church of Laodicea and in turn receive another letter from Laodicea (Col.4: 16) The Epistles of Paul were widely circulated among the early Christian Churches. The first Epistle to Corinthians written by Clement of Rome (AD 100) was read in the Corinthian Church and was widely known in early church especially in the east. This book is included in the Orthodox Canon of the New Testament. But it is not found in the version of the Bible we commonly use today.

      2. Another cause that led to the formation of a Canon of the Christian Scriptures was the growth of Christian literature. Christian writers used familiar words and phrases of the Apostolic writers and in some cases quoted them. This enhanced the canonization and made the process easier.

      3. Thirdly, in the middle of the second century a Gnostic heretic called Marcion drew up his own list of sacred books. In the list he excluded the whole of Old Testament and accepted only a mutilated version of Luke and then of the Pauline epistles. The Church soon found it necessary to make a Canon of the New Testament.

      4. In the second century different versions of the New Testament books were made in different languages. Syriac version was circulated in Syria, and Latin version in Africa. In the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth century there produced a version in Sahidic dialect in upper Egypt. Those books so published formed the Canon of the New Testament in those regions.

      The effort to fix the Canon was not coordinated. It differed from place to place. A Canon of the New Testament called the Muratorian Canon (l80-190) compiled in Italy was the earliest ecclesiastical list of the New Testament books. It listed 22 books. Irenaeus accepted 21 books as Canonical. Hippolytus of Rome (AD 235), a disciple of Irenaeus had 21 books of the New Testament in his list excluding Hebrews. The Syrian Canon had only 22 books excluding Revelations, 2 Peter, 2 John and Jude. Tertullian (200 AD), a Father of the African Church was the first one to use the, phrase "New Testament". In Alexandria, Athanasius (367) gave a list of 27 books, the same as we see in the common version of the Bible.

      Thus the Canon of the New Testament came to be fixed by the different churches.

  • 4 Questions and Activities:

      1. Make a list of the martyr saints. Try to collect the biographies those saints.

      2. How can you be a true witness of Jesus Christ in your present circumstances?