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2. Terror and Toleration: The Church until Constantine

Terror and Toleration

From the first to the fourth centuries Christianity within the Roman Empire was viewed as a sect with suspicion, and mockery. Occasionally it was persecuted. Persecution was selective, it tended to focus on Leaders, Buildings, and the Scriptures. Christians were also persecuted outside the Roman Empire too, often suffering greatly in Parthia in the East.

1 Clement

First Clement (c.96): Leadership and Unity in the Catholic Church

There is no evidence for a monarchical episcopacy (i.e. a pope) in Rome by the end of the first century (ODCC, 363). Leadership in the primitive church, as witnessed in 1 Clement, was by overseers or elders. In the NT the terms ‘overseer’ (i.e. Bishop) and ‘presbyter’ (i.e. Elder) were used interchangeably of the same position (e.g. Acts 20:17 and 20:28). Church order was described in 1 Clement in the following terms: “We are of opinion, therefore that those appointed by [the apostles], or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry” (1 Clem. 44). The development of the monarchical episcopate became universal in the third century.

Ignatius of Antioch (35–c. 107): The Rise of the Bishop

Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch (probably of Syrian origin) and he wrote seven letters before his martyrdom (ca. ad 110–117). There is a strong emphasis on the monarchial episcopacy in the Syrian church. Though the church at Rome still had a plurality of elders when Ignatius wrote to them. Ignatius argued that an essential safeguard of the unity of the Christian faith is the bishop as guardian of the faith and authoritative teacher. Ignatius insists on the reality both of the Divinity and the Humanity of the Lord, whom he calls ‘our God Jesus Christ’. “The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology.”

The use of Scripture in Ignatius

Ignatius’ letters demonstrate familiarity with 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, 1–2 Timothy, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and the Gospel of Matthew (Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 133). It is possible he also knew 1 John (cf. Ign. Eph. 14.2).

Development of a NT Canonical Consensus

The 39 books of the OT canon without the Apocrypha was accepted by the Jews in Jesus’ day (Luke 24, Josephus Contra Apion 1.8). It was also accepted by major Christian theologians in the earliest stages of the post-Apostolic church (Mileto of Sardis, Victorinus of Petovium, Origen, Caesarius of Arles, Hilary of Potiers, , Eusebius, Athanasius, Jerome, Gregory Nazianzus etc.). The bulk of the NT canon was accepted as Scripture without reservation due to its Apostolic connection and content as well as its established place within the life of the church (public reading of NT Scripture, 1 Tim 4.13, 1 Thess 5.27, Col 4.16, 2 Cor 16.9). Citations from NT books as Scripture are already evident within the NT itself (2 Pet 3.16, 1 Tim 5.16), and also from our earliest post Apostolic witnesses in the first century (Didache, 1 Clement et al. In summary, the Four Gospels (with Acts), all thirteen of Paul’s letters, Jude, 1-2 John, Revelation (22 books out of 27) are clearly listed as Scripture and cited as such by the second century. All 27 NT books were received as Scripture by the third century (cf. Origen, Homily in Joshua 7.1). An emerging consensus on the extent of the NT canon was achieved while the church was still persecuted by the Roman Empire and before the first ecumenical council in the fourth century.

Why did some books take longer to achieve ecumenical consensus?

Some of the smaller NT books took longer to achieve universal recognition as canonical. The smaller books like 3 John were rarely quoted by church fathers and not used in the liturgy due to size and original destination (an individual rather than a church). The early church was careful not to accept every writing as Apostolic. They rejected pseudepigraphical works and rightly were cautious about accepting books that were not widely known (such as 1-2 Peter, James), or works of uncertain authorship (Hebrews).

An authoritative list of books or a list of authoritative books?

No ecumenical council gave a ruling on the extent of the canon until the council of Trent 1545-1563 (which included the Apocrypha as canonical). However, this “ecumenical council” has not been accepted by Protestant or Eastern Orthodox churches. Early church fathers generally appealed to the criteria of ecumenical usage, rather than the authority of the Pope or council in canon questions. Passive verbs used by the early church in relation to the canon e.g. acknowledging, recognized (Irenaeus Haer. 3.12.12), received (Serapion d. 211, HE 6.12.3). The canon was established for the church not by the church. Note Augustine, Sermon 162c.15, “Let us treat scripture like scripture, like God speaking; don’t let’s look there for man going wrong. It is not for nothing, you see, that the canon has been established for the Church. This is the function of the Holy Spirit.”

The Cult of the Saints

The veneration of Christian martyrs was a by-product of persecution (cf. 2 Tim 2:11, Revelation 20:4). It was also influenced by early the Christian’s reading of Scripture with a literal hermeneutic of historical continuity (cf. 2 Kgs. 2:14, 2 Kgs. 13:21, Acts 19:12). Some bishops like Caecilian of Carthage (c. 311) opposed the growing trend of venerating martyr relics and celebrating feast days.

Women in the Church

Pagan critics of Christianity (Celsus, Lucian) mocked Christianity for being a religion of women. Michael Kruger gives several reasons that Christianity was a draw for women: (a) Early Christianity included opportunities for real ministry involvement as deacons (with honour and dignity as opposed to temple prostitutes). (b) The church condemned female infanticide and child brides. (c) The church advocated for the permanency and exclusivity of marriage where divorce was restricted (less so in Eastern Christianity than in the West) and forbade the use of prostitutes/concubines.

Early Schisms in the third and fourth century

Early divisions in the church tended to be local and broadly speaking the church prized its ecumenical catholicity. An exception to this was Pope Victor I (d.199) who excommunicated the eastern churches for their custom of observing Easter at Passover. This bold move was ignored in the east and earned the pope’s rebuke from theologians in the west, including Irenaeus (EH 5.23-25). The hot button issue was what to with lapsed Christians (especially bishops) and other traditores (those who surrendered Scriptures to be destroyed), and libellatici (those who had procured forged certificates (‘libelli pacis’) from the civil authorities stating that they had sacrificed to the pagan idols). Novatism was a rigorist schism in the W. Church which arose out of the Decian persecution (249–50). The Novatianist refused to allow the lapsed back into fellowship. A Novatianist Church persisted into the 5th cent. and, in isolated communities, even later (ODCC, 1172). Donatism was a schismatic body in the African Church who became divided from the Catholics through their refusal to accept Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage in 311, on the ground that his consecrator, Felix of Aptunga, had been a traditor during the Diocletian persecution. The schism persisted until the African Church was destroyed by the Arabs in the 7th–8th cent. (ODCC, 503).

Edicts of Toleration

The Edict of Toleration by Galerius was issued in 311 by the Roman Tetrarchy of Galerius, Constantine and Licinius, officially ending the Diocletian persecution of Christianity. In 313 Roman Emperors Constantine I and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan that legalized Christianity across the whole Empire. This would have massive implications for Christianity.


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