Update: Myth of Black Athanasius
See ancient maps of "Africa". Was Athanasius an "African" bishop? We must be careful to read history AS IS rather than making history fit our modern world.
CH101 - The Third Century
The Expansion of the Church, 202 - 303 A.D.
Persecution in the Roman Empire Under Severian
The third century began with a time of persecution under the emperor Septimius Severus (146-211 AD). Severus, who secured his rule with the defeat of Clodius Albinus in 197, was a professional soldier and cared very little for the politics of the day. With a short and strong build, his leadership was consistent with an aggressive and ruthless general.
Severus upheld the earlier rulings with regards to Christianity, thus it became illegal to convert to the new and expanding faith community. Although this has been disputed, it is certain that persecution erupted in Egypt under his rule. The strategy of the previous century was used - attack the leadership. Clement, the leader of the catechetical school in Alexandria, fled to avoid capture. He had discussed this line of thinking in his writing to oppose the emotional mentality of earlier martyrs who had freely offered themselves to the Romans to be imprisoned and executed.
We learn from Eusebius that one of those martyred was the father of a young man named Origen. Eusebius records that Origen's mother hid his clothing to prevent him from joining his father in death - many historians feel this is an exaggeration, but it is clear that Origen was a highly committed young man. He had been well-educated and soon after the persecution settled down he began holding classes for beginners in the faith, as well as philosophy classes.
Clement of Alexandria
The School of Alexandria
Alexandria was an established learning center for several centuries in the ancient world, housing one of the greatest libraries of all time. Philo the Jew had taught a unique blend of Judaism and Platonism. His biblical text was the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. For Philo, Moses represented the voice of God speaking to the Jews. He held up a lens of Plato to understand and to explain the meaning of the ancient Mosaic laws to his modern world.
The Writings of Clement
From his writings we learn that Titus Flavius Clemens came to faith after a personal search for philosophical truth that had led him on a good many travels. Clement led the catechetical school and many believe his writings were used in the training. It is clear that Clement followed in the philosophical mindset of Philo. He quotes or alludes to Philo and Plato hundreds of times. For Clement, Plato was the Moses of the Greek world, revealing the truth of God through his philsophical insights.
Several works of Clement survived, but he is most known for what some have called a triology, three major works (Protrepticus, Paidagogus, Stromateis) that fit together in something of a wholistic presentation. While many disagree with this description, I believe Clement did exactly what he announced to be his plan,
Eagerly desiring, then, to perfect us by a gradation conducive to salvation, suited for efficacious discipline, a beautiful arrangement is observed by the all-benignant Word, who first exhorts, then trains, and finally teaches. Paidagogus I.1.1-3
In summary, Clement uses his three works to point the way for the spiritual journey: he "exhorts" the hearer to embrace the gospel; he "tutors" the young believer in foundational principles - his second work deals with sacraments and spiritual ethics; finally, he lays out teaching for the mature believer in the final work, "Miscellanies."
Clement's first major work is titled (Protrepticus) “Exhortation to the Greeks” and is a presentation of the gospel to the educated sector of Greco-Roman society. Many scholars say this is Clement's most graceful piece of writing. This “Exhortation” is filled with citations from the most popular Greek writers, each citation being used to prove Clement's underlying arguments. The document reads like an anthology of Greek literature, and it is clear that Clement is not new to this literature. He is an educated man and he writes in high quality Greek.
The second work in this trilogy is (Paidagogus) "The Tutor." Spiritual disciplines are set forth in this work to "train" the soul and bring it to perfect knowledge. A paidagogue was typically a slave in the Greek world that would walk a child to school and help him with his studies. This document was probably used in Alexandria for catechetical training. Clement consistently uses an allusion to the Pauline/Hebrews "milk...meat" analogy to contrast spiritual babes from the mature. He urges the reader to gain the "meat" while the weak eat only vegetables.
The third work in this series is (Stromateis) “Miscellanies,” a strange work that covers a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. Clement says that his intention is to "hide" powerful teaching within a somewhat chaotic document - he will do this on purpose in order to keep the "untrained" from getting their hands on this important knowledge. Many have pointed to various philosophical points made in Stromateis, but others have observed that Clement's descriptions of the truly "spiritual" man is the important teaching being presented. There is also evidence that spiritual prayer, contemplative prayer, is the "meat" Clement wants the mature believer to get from this document,
And his whole life is a holy festival. His sacrifices are prayers, and praises, and readings in the Scriptures before meals, and psalms and hymns during meals and before bed, and prayers also again during night. By these he unites himself to the divine choir...engaged in contemplation which has everlasting remembrance. Strom VII.7.46,4; 49,4-5
His whole life is prayer and converse with God. And if he be pure from sins, he will by all means obtain what he wishes. For God says to the righteous man, "Ask, and I will give thee; think, and I will do." Strom. VII.12.73,1; 13.81,4
Clement's influence was eclipsed by his successor, Origen of Alexandria.
Origen of Alexandria
In the vacuum of leadership following the persecution under Severus, Origen became the head of the Alexandrian school. Origen was highly educated and became one of the greatest writers of the early church. Frustrated by the growth of Gnostic writings, especially commentaries on biblical text, Origen began producing commentaries and other writings. During the first half of the third century Christianity grew in numbers, but also gained a measure of intellectual and philosophical respect, bolstered largely by the writings of Origen which were numerous, dense in thought, and HUGE in size. He would sometimes dictate his biblical commentaries while stenographers jotted notes in shorthand to be later written out. It was said that several stenographers would work in shifts while Origen would go for hours every day.
He never mentions Clement, but follows in his tradition to some degree. Origen does not openly embrace Plato as Clement did, but his theological system is clearly marked by Platonism. It is Origen who truly develops the Alexandrian model of allegorical interpretation. Philo had done this with the Old Testament; now Origen applies the same methodology to Christian texts. For Origen each text had three meanings: a literal one, an ethical one, and finally a spiritual meaning. This system was developed to help explain what certain texts might mean when the immediately clear meaning cannot be correct (in the mind of Origen). The God of Israel could not have really decreed that His people kill every woman and child in some of the OT battle scenes. Origen would find a "spiritual" way to explain this. For Origen the spiritual meaning of the text was most important, thus sometimes he would minimize the literal meaning.
Origen could be seen as a prototype and a primary influence on the men who would commit themselves to celibacy in the monastic tradition. He never married, but gave himself completely to the service of Christ and His church. Eusebius reported that Origen castrated himself as a young man (a practice that most certainly happened in the Egyptian church), but this tradition regarding Origen is not completely reliable. What is certain is that Origen embraced a very spartan lifestyle, including all the Christian disciplines that would later become codified in monasticism.
The importance of Origin on the future of Christianity is difficult to overestimate. His writings were used by his contemporaries, but held in higher regard by the next few generations. Later generations would take sides regarding some of his controversial positions and come to blows. Referred to by historians as the "Origenist controversy," future leaders would part ways over the teachings of the second century writer.
On First Principles
Origen's major work, De Principii ("day prinCHEE pay" - On First Principles), contains many of these controversial topics. In the prologue of this work Origen warns the reader that this work is NOT for just any believer, but is designed to be read only by those who are solidly grounded in their faith and in philosophical training. He continues by saying that he will be speculating about things that are beyond human knowledge, but beneficial to be discussed. Various topics are addressed that would suggest Clement's emphasis: creation and how all things first began, the origin of evil, angelology, among many other topics. One topic that seems to emerge from time to time in church history is universalism. Origen speculates on how "all things" might eventually come under submission to God and in this context he states that "maybe after eons and eons Satan himself will repent." This kind of statement obviously caused concern, but it must be remembered that this appears in the one document Origen warns is NOT to be taken as orthodox theology. He does, however, defend his speculations publicly which shows that he takes his view seriously. Also important is how Origen gets himself into this situation - by trying to reconcile every disparate verse and force some kind of literal interpretation. The reader should also keep in mind that Origen is writing before formal orthodoxy had been completely established. Whatever the case, Origen's writings were at times condemned, and sometimes embraced. Interestingly, the "Origenist controversy" also had some influence in the divide between the Eastern and Western churches. Historically the Eastern fathers and churches have embraced Origen and the West has been much less sympathetic.
Persecution in the Roman Empire Under Decian
In 247-248 Rome celebrated 1,000 years of existence with a three day, nonstop party. The church had grow immensely during this first half of the third century, had begun to reach into every strata of society, and had experienced a relative respite from persecutions for around 30 years. In 248 the troops of Decius proclaimed him as emperor and in 249 he took control of the government. In 250 he participated in the annual sacrifice to Jupiter and then ordered that his example be followed throughout the empire.
It appears that resentments or prejudice had built up against the Christians - the order of Decius was quickly carried all around the empire, which was somewhat unusual. It was a brutal time for around 18 months. The bishops of Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem were executed. When the wave of persecution had passed bishops came out from hiding and exile to find thousands of lapsed believers wishing to be readmitted to fellowship. Second repentance had once again become a current issue and the man who faced it was bishop Cyprian of Carthage.
Cyprian of Carthage, Bishops, and the Pope
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage
Cyprian had gone into exile during the persecution, encouraging the believers through private correspondence. He returned to find that the "confessors," believers who had been imprisoned, had been given authority by the lay people to pray for, and grant forgiveness to the lapsed. Cyprian issued On the Lapsed which spoke definitively on the subject of how to deal with lapsed believers - this document was roundly accepted. In addition to the lapsed believers, a rival group in the church of Carthage selected a bishop to represent them in opposition to Cyprian. In Rome, meanwhile, there was something of a competition for the bishopric and two rival bishops (Cornelius and Novatian) were elected. Bishops in the surrounding areas, led by Cyprian, confirmed Cornelius with a majority vote. Novatian received only a minority vote and soon thereafter he defected from the church in Rome taking many followers with him. Cyprian responded with another tract, On the Unity of the Church where he speaks of the Petrine authority resting in Rome. He also emphasizes the unity of having one bishop, stating that one "cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church as his mother." This statement was obviously directed at Novatian for his defection.
In 254 the leadership in Rome elected a new bishop, Stephen. Almost immediately Cyprian found himself at odds with Stephen over the issue of baptism for the Novatian believers who wanted to come back to the "true" church. Cyprian had made it clear that these defectors could not be recognized - their Novatian baptism could not be accepted as legitimate or reversed by an orthodox rebaptism. Stephen held a much more conciliatory position. We have copies of at least two letters written by Cyprian to Stephen, both fairly aggressive in his disagreement. Unfortunately we do not have copies of Stephen's responses which, according to Eusebius, were every bit as stubborn. Cyprian admitted that the Novatianists baptized with the trinitarian formula, but that they were not in "the" Church. Stephen insisted on the primacy of the Roman bishopric, even calling Cyprian the "AntiChrist" for resisting him.
The Council of Carthage
Cyprian's response was to call a major council of 86 bishops (including Cyprian), the first Council of Carthage in 256. Cyprian opened the council with a speech criticizing those who would attempt to hold "tyrannical" power over the college of bishops, a clear reference to Stephen's attack on him. The attending 86 bishops, all from the North African region, expressed their support of Cyprian one by one, some even referring to the Novatians as "heretics."
Stephen began to threaten bishops in the eastern provinces with excommunication if they sided with Cyprian. The situation was quickly escalating into a major problem when, in August of 257, Stephen's unexpected death brought instant relief. Stephen's successor, Sixtus II, was far less strident and far more cooperative.
Bishops and the Pope
What becomes clear from the letters and writings of Cyprian is that the regional college of bishops was normative. The bishop of Rome was an important position, holding the seat of Peter, but it appears that Cyprian only used this expression as a tactic against his theological opponents. When he disagreed with Rome, the bishop there did not have primacy. The Roman bishop had already been referred to as "popa," the "father" of the Italian bishops, but the 86 African bishops at Carthage made it clear that the concept of a "Pope" holding supreme leadership had not yet been settled.
We saw the clear emergence of monoepiscopacy (a single bishop residing over a large city or region) in The Letters of Ignatius around the year 112-120 A.D. Now, in the 250's, we see that bishops worked together in a "college" format, meeting in regional councils to discuss, debate, and give verdict on important issues. From these letters of Cyprian, and from other documents, it seems that these regional colleges of bishops tended to stick together - representing their region even if it meant taking a position against a different region of bishops.
Canon of the New Testament, Part 5
The NT Canon in the Third and Fourth Centuries
By the third century there is a noticeable increase in citations from the "inspired" writings that eventually become the New Testament, and far less citations from works that do not make it into the New Testament. The most prolific third century writers are Tertullian (already mentioned), Hippolytus of Rome, Origen of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage.
An explosion of Christian literature comes in the fourth century with Lactantius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, and the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus), John Chrysostom, Jerome, Rufinus, and the great Augustine of Hippo (his Confessions was written in 396-97 AD). All of these writers illustrate how the New Testament had become settled with thousands of citations from the 27 "inspired" writings and fewer citations outside that list.
The Official Canon
Many people think the New Testament writings were agreed upon at the Council of Nicea. There were 20 canons (church rules) voted on at Nicea - none dealt with sacred writings. The first historical reference listing the exact 27 writings in the orthodox New Testament is in the Easter Letter of Athanasius in 367 AD. His reference states that these are the only recognized writings to be read in a church service. The first time a church council ruled on the list of "inspired" writings allowed to be read in church was at the Synod of Hippo in 393 AD. No document survived from this council - we only know of this decision because it was referenced at the third Synod of Carthage in 397 AD. Even this historical reference from Carthage, Canon 24, does not "list" every single document. For example, it reads, "the gospels, four books…" The only reason for this list is to confirm which writings are "sacred" and should be read in a church service. There is no comment as to why and how this list was agreed upon.
The New Testament developed, or evolved, over the course of the first 250-300 years of Christian history. No one particular person made the decision. The decision was not made at a church council. The particular writings that became those of the New Testament gradually came into focus and became the most trusted and beneficial of all the early Christian writings.
If you would like to use this article in a class or have it in a printer-friendly format:
download the paper.
The Issue of the Trinity (a brief overview)
The belief in what would ultimately be called "the trinity" begins in the middle of the first century, first with the Apostle Paul and most clearly articulated by John in his gospel and in the Revelation at the end of the first century.
[There will be a paper for download soon on the development of the trinity - you can request this paper to be sent directly to you - just give me your name and e-mail address.]
Until the first part of the third century and Origen of Alexandria, there really had not been any significant theological writing on this issue. Until Origen there was a simple acknowledgment of NT references, mainly John 1:1. By "simple" I mean a simple belief of what was written without trying to figure it out and explain it. What takes place, from this point forward, is that church councils and various writers try to define a theological point that almost all adherents admited was a "mystery."
Selections from the New Testament
There are numerous examples from the New Testament - for our purpose we will look at only a few. Paul’s creedal formula in 1 Cor. 8:6 is interesting - Paul uses the same Greek construction in this text to describe God and Christ. In English,
"...there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord (kurios) Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
Larry Hurtado deals extensively with the early usage of kurios in his comprehensive work, LORD JESUS CHRIST, Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans 2003) listing in Amazon. Hurtado gives a good account of how Paul uses "Lord" as a designation for Jesus to clearly identify him with YHWH in the Old Testament (see pages 108-118 where he specifically deals with this text and the Philippians 2 text mentioned below). Hurtado reminds us that in the LXX (the OT version cited by all the NT writers) YHWH is translated as kurios,
In this astonishingly bold association of Jesus with God, Paul adapts wording from the tradition Jewish confession of God's uniqueness, known as the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord" (Kyrios heis estin [LXX], translating Heb. Yahweh 'echad). p.114
Then the Philippians 2 text:
"...Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus..."
While I have doubts that most of the NT writers knew the Hebrew text, Paul probably did, yet he makes no effort to guard the sacred Name of Yahweh (YHWH). Here he refers to Yahweh with the traditional Greek ho theos (the God). He uses Hebrew terms at other times (as do other NT writers) but nowhere does he make reference to the sacred name - except that for Paul kurios IS a reference for YHWH.
In this Philippians 2 text, “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” Paul is citing Isaiah 45:23, a clear OT “one God” text. Yet Paul is using it in reference to Jesus. He does this in Rom 14:11 as well. Paul has just said that God has “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name above every name.” Paul intentionally says every name. Being a first century Jew, would he think Jesus would be above YHWH? No, Paul is saying Jesus IS YHWH.
The Gospel of John
John's gospel is the most deity-oriented of the gospels and it is dated late in the first century. John is the only NT writer to clearly refer to Jesus as the “word,” or logos. While there are similarities to Philo's logos here, John certainly kicks open the door with respect to the divinity of Jesus, and the centrality of that message:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1
"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" John 8:58
[Notice the graphic in the upper right section of the header above - the archway entrance into St Mary's divinity school in St Andrews, Scotland.
John 1:1 in Latin - In Principio Erat Verbum]
The famous “I AM” text of Exodus is rendered ego eimi in the LXX. It is important to remember that Jesus almost certainly did not speak these words in Greek, but rather in Aramaic. This, of course, would put more emphasis on the declaration than even ego eimi can convey. The fact that John records this pericope with ego eimi in Greek indicates his intention of showing the claim of Jesus (or at the very least the view the church had of Jesus at the end of the first century).
Against the suggestion that we insert the personal pronoun "he" after “I am,” it also needs to be pointed out that the construction of the John 8:58 text is unusual. Either the statement ends as most translations render it, “I am,” or it must read “I am before Abraham was born.” Either reading is unusual and points to the intentionality of John to make a point of showing a claim of Jesus to divine equality.
Ignatius (circa 112-114AD) affirms Jesus as God in the flesh, using the Logos theology of John's gospel, the Word – and to keep anyone from misunderstanding that he might be speaking of Jesus in a docetic or ebionitic way, “both made and not made,”
There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.
Ignatius to the Ephesians 7 (short)
...our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For "the Word was made flesh."
Ignatius to the Ephesians 7 (long version)
While it is true that we have two versions of Ignatius (a short and a longer, more “orthodox” version), one can see a strong pre-existence Christology even in the shorter version.
Irenaeus (cir. 175 AD) wrote against Gnostics and is fairly consistent with Ignatius, but also further elaborates the divinity of Jesus,
The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father "to gather all things in one," and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father...
Against the Heresies 10.1
Through the second century most of the discussion that relates to the concept of trinity focused on the nature of Jesus. First the church battled against ebionitic christology, insisting on the divinity of Jesus. Then some of the fathers battled against docetic christology that existed in many gnostic groups. There is very little discussion on the Holy Spirit. You can see that Irenaeus affirms the Holy Spirit, but there is no divinity language. There is evidence in Clement and Origen that teaching on the Holy Spirit was reserved for teaching catechumens (young believers preparing for baptism) and was guarded, kind of secret.
Up to this point the discussion tended to focus on "logos theology," trying to explain John 1:1. With Sabellius hypostasis was introduced, the idea of "substance" or "personality." Around 220 AD a Libyan leader named Sabellius rejected the idea of three personalities, wanting to hold tightly to a monotheistic position. Sabellius promoted a type of modalism, that each part of the trinity was revealed through energies but did not have a separate personality.
In the late 250's this theological discussion was taken up by Dionysius, the bishop of Rome and the bishop of Alexandria (and a student of Origen), also named Dionysius. To make things more confusing these two church leaders were not fluent with each other's language which caused what Frend calls "a comedy of errors." Dionysius of Rome understood the Greek word hypostasis to mean "substance" when his counterpart in Alexandria was actually talking about "personality." This linguistic struggle only made a delicate and technical discussion more difficult. In addition, the Greek word homoousias (same substance) had also been introduced in the discussion to reference whether the Father and the Son were of the "same substance." The Alexandrian Dionysius used the term "same substance," but refused to rely on it theologically because the word was not used in any biblical text. The Roman Dionysius was fully prepared for this usage.
In the end this discussion showed the willingness of regional bishops to work together for a common faith, but it also opened the door for the future problems that would follow. The concept of homoousias would resurface and the bishops at Nicea would act in a definitive fashion.
Paul of Samosata
In around 260 AD Paul of Samosata became the bishop of Antioch. Paul was a charismatic man - described by Eusebius as "loud-mouthed" and "brash." He had a lofty bishop's throne built for himself; he shouted and waved his hands while preaching; he smacked his thighs and stomped his feet to bring emphasis in his sermons; he called for people to wave hankerchiefs when he said anything that demanded a rowdy response. All of these things only made his theological abberations stand out.
With Paul of Samosata the difference between Antioch and Alexandria clearly comes to the surface. A strong Jewish influence had continued in the church of Antioch and is manifested in the theology of Samosata by an ebionitic slant, a focus on the humanity of Jesus. Paul of Samosata, who held a very dim view of Origen, believed that Jesus had not been eternally united with the Logos, but had been infused with Logos at his baptism.
In 264/265 Dionysius of Alexandria attacked bishop Paul's theology headon, calling a council - there were actually 2-3 different councils, each being used to sway enough leadership to act against Paul. At a council (cir. 265 AD) the Alexandrian bishops won the day and pronounced that in order to be in the catholic church one must affirm the preexistence of Christ. In 268 AD another council called for Paul to recant. He refused and was condemned, but his political connections kept him safe from being excommunicated.
The Coming Controversy
These third century struggles merely foreshadow the coming controversy of the fourth century. What is now known as the Arian controversy will ignite some of the worst strife to date within the Christian Church. This controversy will, in part, lead to the first major Church Council, the famous Council of Nicea in 325 AD. This council is famous partly because the bishops were summoned by the Roman Emperor, Constantine who hoped it would be the crowning achievement of the age of peace in the Roman Empire.
The Empire Reorganized - The Church Prospers
In 257/258 AD Emporer Valerian issued edicts against the Christians. This series of
persecution was not a general attack as had come from Decius. This was targeted at the
bishops and the upper class Christians.
In the 260's the borders of the empire were being breached by barbarian tribes. The
peace and security of the Roman Empire was threatened on every side. Emperor
Gallienus sought to keep things in order - he could not protect the outer regions, so
regional legions did their best. Territory was lost around the edges, but the empire was
In 261 Valerian was taken prisoner by the Persians and Gallienus became the sole
emperor. Weary of the violence against Christians, Gallienus issued an edict of toleration
which basically stated that Christians should be free to assemble without fear and their
properties should be returned to them and protected from confiscation.
In 284 Diocletian became the emperor, and to push back the encroachments of the
barbarians, Diocletian brings Maximian into his confidence. The two men rule the empire
as a team, Diocletian ruling in the east and Maximian in the west. In addition, both men
took on a prince so that, in effect, there were now 4 emperors, each waging war against
the barbarian hordes in a different region of the empire. The important fact to know
here is that Maximian selected Constantius to be his prince. He ruled over Gaul and
Britain and would have a famous son, known as Constantine the Great.
After the borders of the empire were basically restored, Diocletian went about rebuilding
the financial status of the empire. Standard coinage and regulated pricing was
established; taxes were increased which brought in record revenues, but the military also
had grown, needing more of this new funding. To secure his legacy, Diocletian started
several building programs.
The Church Prospers
By the year 300 AD, according to Eusebius, there were 40 churches in Rome. The third
Christian century was coming to a good close - everything was good - the church was
growing, church buildings were getting larger, and the Church was financially
prosperous. The peace of Rome was good and the Christian Church was enjoying being
a legitimate part of that peace.
For the 40 years after Gallienus issued his edict of toleration the church prospered.
Christians were to be found at every level of society and serving in every level of government,
even serving in the military with many becoming officers. With a wink and a nod Christians serving as governmental
officials and military leaders were allowed to avoid making the normal loyalty sacrifices to Rome.
If the third century ended well, the fourth century would begin with equal trauma.
Possibly one of the worst persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire was coming and it was completely
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The Novatian Controversy
Novatian was a very learned presbyter and teacher in Rome prior to being "elected" as a bishop. Following Tertullian, he took a strict view on the issue of second repentance
(what to do with "lapsed" believers who wanted to be readmitted to fellowship after having "sinned" during times of persecution). Around 252, shortly after most of the bishops in the western european/northern african region failed to support Novatian to lead the church in Rome, he led many of his followers away from the "catholic" church. For this he was branded a trouble-maker.
The Novatian controversy did not revolve around theology, but was an issue of church polity and leadership. The issue did not end here, however. As believers ventured to return to the true "church" another controversy erupted - should these Novatians be rebaptized in order to fully enter the life of the church again? This issue brought tension between Cyprian and Stephen, the new bishop in Rome.