Once Upon a Time: The Church is Born (30-100 AD)
The early church had a very practical understanding of a composite society, this is inherent within the Gospel message, because there will always be those who stumble over the cross and those who glory in it. The following excerpt from The Epistle of Diognetus (ca 100 AD) illustrates this quite well:
“Christians are not distinct from the rest of men in country or language or customs. . . . They inhabit their own fatherland, but as sojourners; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is to them a fatherland and every fatherland a foreign country . . . . They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven.”
It is quite interesting that they were able to live as ordinary citizens in spite of the persecution, which the church endured; they did not cease to proclaim the Gospel nor did they engage in crusades to have Christ replace the god’s of Rome. The persecution was so extensive that none of the apostles saw the close of the century. Herod Agrippa killed James, the brother of John, in 44. Philip was crucified in 54. Peter was crucified in 67. John was the only apostle to escape a violent death and he likely died in 98. Andrew was crucified. Thomas was speared to death in the East. Bartholomew was crucified in India. Matthew was killed in Ethiopia in 60. James, the son of Alphaeus, was stoned. Simon was crucified in Britain in 74. Jude, commonly called Thaddeus, was crucified in 72. Matthias was stoned and crucified in Jerusalem.
Things began to change and the church slowly became disenchanted with inhabiting their fatherland as sojourners.
Losing Our Identity: The Apologists Contend for Themselves (100-200 AD)
In between the period of the Apostles, described above, and overlapping the period of the Apologists, is a period generally known as the Apostolic Fathers. They are considered to have been alive during the time of the Apostles and many were supposedly disciples of the apostles themselves. Their writings are primarily epistles and sermons written to edify the church. It is important to understand these general characteristics because they lived through the same persecutions as the Apologists and yet their responses stand in stark contrast to one another.
The Apologetic Fathers lived around 100-200 AD; however, the persecution that set the stage for their apologies began far earlier in history. Major persecution of the church began with Nero, in 54, and continued unimpeded until Constantine in 300. What makes the writings of the Apologists so different is that they did not write to edify the church, they wrote to defend the church. This sounds great; however, this is, in my opinion, one of the saddest points in church history. Because they did not write to defend church doctrine, they did not write out of evangelistic zeal, they did not write out of a passion for the glory of God, they selfishly wrote to secure the safe existence of the church. They no longer viewed themselves as sojourners in a foreign land whose primary citizenship was in heaven, but as men and women whose primary citizenship was in Rome. They failed to “fight the good fight of the faith” and fought for themselves instead. Little did they know that in the coming century an emperor would come to power and wage war not against them but on their behalf.
A Tale of Two Swords: Constantinianism
Constantine was co-emperor of Rome, with Licinius, from 311-324. In 312, at the battle of Milvian Bridge he claimed to have a vision of a cross, over which was phrase “By this sign conquer.” He was victorious and subsequently proceeded to issue numerous edicts and grants favoring Christians. The effects of this are seen even to this day, the Rx symbol present a most pharmacies is an abbreviated form of the Greek word for Christ and was emblazoned on the shields of Constantine’s army. This marks a massive turning point in church history; no longer was the church persecuted by the state, now it possessed the power to persecute through the state.
The church justified its new political rule by allegorically interpreting one verse of scripture. “And they said, ‘Look, Lord, here are two swords.’ And he said to them, ‘It is enough’” (Luke 22:38). From Constantine on the church has wielded both the sword of the spirit and the sword of steel with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, as the result.
If you wish to fully understand the horrors, which this brought about then I would recommend reading the Malleus Maleficarum (translated: Witch Hammer or Hammer of Witches). This is the standard handbook on the prosecution of witches/heretics. Originally published in Germany in 1487 it has been used by both Protestants and Catholics. The third section details the horrific methods by which confessions are to be extracted.
Constantine set numerous precedents whose influence throughout history cannot be imagined; in fact, much of American law and legal tradition can be traced back, through English law, directly to Constantine. It is because of this that we would do well to understand our history lest we continue to repeat its mistakes.
There are positive effects, though I do not consider them as such, of this new state church. The rights of women were elevated, incest was forbidden, divorce was made difficult, adultery became a punishable offense, as did infanticide, the grip of slavery was lessened, and the gladiatorial shows were partially abolished. I do not consider the results positive because they are the result of a new Sacralism, and this contradicts the very nature of the Gospel. Among the negative effects are the secularization and paganization of the church, the development of idols and icons, the synchronism of the church and Roman civil government, the persecution of heretics, and the secularization of the church led to monasticism. Membership in the church was no longer voluntary; as citizens of Rome you were citizens in the kingdom of God, there was no distinction between the two. This view of the kingdom of God had been proliferated to the degree that when Rome began to fall most thought the tribulation was at hand.
The next fifteen-thousand years of church history can very much be summarized by the church persecuting through the state; everything from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the Salem witch trials builds on the foundation Constantine laid. By the grace of God, this movement is not without its defectors and those who rebelled against it, which will be presented in my next post.