The Papal Reform Movement, The Rise of Scholasticism, Monastic, Literary, Political, and Cultural Activities

Key Points during this time 

  • The papal revival of the eleventh century climaxed in the papacy of Gregory VII.
  • Conflict over lay investiture became the defining issue, expressing competing views of kingship and the proper relationship between church and state.
  • Numerous factors help explain the significance of the conflict between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII over lay investiture, including the imperial and papal revivals, the church’s entanglement in feudalism, and politics in Germany and Italy.
  • Through a display of penance, Henry IV gained a tactical victory over Gregory VII, but the papacy won the moral victory in securing the symbol of imperial humility before the pope.
  • Multiple factors played into the development of the First Crusade, including the evolution of penance, changing views about the church’s role in warfare, the influence of Islam, the practice of pilgrimage, and a desire to reunite the church.
  • Pope Urban II responded to the Byzantine emperor’s pleas for help by preaching the First Crusade, offering papal indulgences to crusaders and helping mobilize French nobles to lead the armies.
  • Although the First Crusade contributed to the deterioration of many relationships, the capture of select targets brought western military rule to the Holy Land for a period. Knightly monastic orders arose to protect the conquered lands and safeguard pilgrims.
  • The twelfth century saw an intellectual revival in medieval culture and the Western church, based on the kind of teaching and learning that occurred in cathedral schools.
  • Scholasticism was based on confidence in human reason and used a dialectical method of disputation to engage authorities and arguments in order to resolve problems, particularly those connected to the philosophical question of universals.
  • Scholastic methods and changing positions on the question of universals transformed the ways scholars engaged and debated such doctrines as the Eucharist, the incarnation, the church, and the atonement.
  • Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard are the most significant representatives of early Scholasticism, whose work and teaching shaped the assumptions, aims, and methods of intellectual inquiry in western culture for centuries.
  • Church reform and renewal in the twelfth century was triggered largely by increased monastic vitality and new expressions of monasticism, the most influential of which was the Cistercian reform of Benedictine monasticism.
  • The Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux was the guiding spiritual influence of the age.
  • A lasting synthesis between the monastic spirituality of Bernard and the dialectic methods of Abelard was achieved through the work of such luminaries as Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard.
  • Romanesque style combined Roman and Byzantine features with local elements, to shape the Christian art and architecture of the tenth through twelfth centuries.
  • A growing preoccupation with saints, their sites, and their relics—and especially Mary—shaped the popular piety of western Christianity, along with developments in music and poetry.
  • Rhythms of competition, antagonism, and cooperation continued to characterize church-state relations in the twelfth century, most evident in the relations between the papacy and emerging national monarchies. The Third Crusade was a failed expression of the impulse to cooperate.
  • Key developments occurred in the national Eastern churches in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. 

Summary of events during this time

Pope Nicholas II (1058–61) was apparently the first pope to be crowned like a king or emperor, signaling strong development of the papal monarchy in the eleventh century. The eleventh-century papal reform reached its climax in Gregory VII, a staunch opponent of simony and advocate for church independence from lay control. Gregory VII’s ambitions to fortify a strong papacy were best expressed in his fight against lay investiture. Lay investiture was the bestowing of the symbols of spiritual office in the church by lay rulers. Due to the church’s continued entanglement in feudal society, lay investiture had become a normal practice, but Gregory VII rejected the view of church/state relations it implied; Gregory affirmed a view of kingship that kept it subservient to spiritual authority, and to the pope in particular.

Triggered by Gregory VII’s excommunication of certain advisors of Henry IV of Germany as “simoniacs” due to their lay investiture, pope and emperor exchanged condemnations, resulting in the pope’s excommunication of the emperor and the pronounced deposition of the pope by Henry’s clerics. The conflict culminated in an episode at Canossa in 1077, where Henry walked barefoot through the snow in an apparent effort to gain Gregory’s forgiveness. Grudgingly, Gregory declared Henry forgiven, after which Henry continued to behave as authoritatively as before. Gregory fled in exile, but through his efforts the papacy gained the potent symbol of an emperor humbled before the pope. A final settlement of the issue of lay investiture was reached by Henry V and Callistus II at the Concordat of Worms in 1122, a decision later ratified at the First Lateran Council of 1123.

Numerous factors helped form the background to the First Crusade, including developments in the sacrament of penance, the acceptance of a Christian’s participation in warfare, the expansion of the role of knights, the influence of Islam’s concept of holy war, the papalization of warfare, the practice of pilgrimage, and the desire to reunite the church. Prompted by the Byzantine emperor’s plea for help and a host of background factors, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A number of French nobles combined forces and set out in 1096, fighting to conquer Nicaea, Dorylaeum, Antioch, Edessa, and Jerusalem, which fell in 1099. They established Latin states and Latin patriarchs, securing key cities and routes for transit and pilgrimage. 

In many respects, the Crusades hindered relations between Christians and Muslims and even between the Eastern and Western churches, though they did promote a greater sense of unity in Western Europe, strengthened the papacy, and helped trigger an intellectual revival in Western Europe. Knightly monastic orders, such as the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, combined the crusader warrior culture and the ideals of monasticism. They functioned to protect crusader interests in the Holy Land, to care for the sick and injured and to provide safe corridors of passage for pilgrims.

As learning moved from monastic environments to cathedral schools, an intellectual revival occurred in western culture, marked by the rise of Scholasticism. Focused at first on the interpretation of authoritative biblical and patristic texts, Scholasticism presumed a high confidence in the ability of human reason to acquire knowledge. Using the method of dialectical reasoning and collecting authorities and arguments on a question, Scholasticism sought to establish knowledge on the basis of reason alone. The scholars were particularly concerned with the question of universals and their relationship to particular things. Extreme realists (e.g. Anselm) held to the Platonic notion that universals have a real existence apart from and prior to individuals; nominalists (e.g. William Ockham) held that universals are merely inferences drawn from observation and have no real existence; moderate realists (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) held to the Aristotelian notion that universals are real but always exist in actual individuations.

Within the framework of Scholasticism, discussions about universals shaped the formulation of such basic Christian doctrines as those of the church, Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and Eucharist. In the second eucharistic controversy, Berengar taught against the popular belief of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, on the basis of Aristotle’s understanding that the accidents of the bread cannot exist apart from the bread’s substance. Building on the counter arguments of Lanfranc, Cardinal Humbert, and others, Guitmund defended the popular view using the new scholastic methods, explaining that the substance of the bread was changed into the body and blood of Christ. This understanding of the transformation (transubstantiation) became official dogma of the Western church, confirmed in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

 Anselm of Canterbury is considered the “Father of Scholasticism” due to his attempts to demonstrate the doctrines of Christianity on the basis of reason. Although routinely at odds with the English royalty in his desire to assert the church’s independence, Anselm found opportunity to write major texts that influenced the shape of scholasticism and the adoption of its methods. Characterized as “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm’s approach brought him to argue the case for God’s existence in the Monologion and Proslogion, and to present a theory of the atonement in Cur deus homo: the satisfaction/sacrificial theory. Couched in contractual terms and using the categories of feudalism, the satisfaction theory became more popular than either Abelard’s moral-exemplary theory or the ransom theory of the church fathers, helping to secure the place of the Eucharist and penance as the main sacraments by which people understood and participated in the meaning of their Christian belief.

 Peter Abelard represents a further development in Scholasticism. A brilliant teacher in Paris, Abelard’s character, personality, and views made him highly controversial. He sought an even higher place for human reason than Anselm allowed, pursuing a program of “doubting in order to know,” and attacking perceived errors and inconsistencies in the thinking of others and in the traditions of the church. Abelard’s love affair with Heloise resulted in scandal that disrupted his academic career; his unconventional teachings, tinged with personal arrogance, brought him into conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux and the pope. Condemned at a council of Sens in 1140, Abelard was eventually reconciled to the church. In Sic et non, he arranged opposing quotations from the Bible and the church fathers on various questions, inciting controversy but also establishing Scholasticism’s favorite method of studying a problem. Abelard proposed a disciplined method by which to treat differences in texts, in Know Yourself he upheld the importance of motives in assessing ethics, and he presented the moral-exemplary theory of the atonement. But his influence was primarily that of a teacher, since many of his students came to be influential scholars and church leaders. Although in many respects the forerunners of modern academics, scholastic theologians did not distinguish sharply between philosophy and theology. Furthermore, they nearly all had an element of mysticism in them.

The twelfth century saw a kind of “renaissance” in many different facets of culture and Christian practice. An increase in conversions to the monastic life and new expressions of monasticism infused the church with fresh vitality. Groups such as the Camaldolese, the Carthusians, and the Premonstratensians emphasized radical expressions of austerity. The Augustinian Canons provided skilled and committed clergy for the cathedrals. Most influential of all were the Cistercians, a dynamic reform that sought to recapture primitive Benedictine monasticism through simplicity, hard work, and seclusion. Bernard of Clairvaux was the most important Cistercian leader. Bernard warned against the excesses of ostentatious art, ornate liturgy, wealth and the dangers of the new dialectic and an exaggerated confidence in human reason. Focusing on traditional theology and personal devotion, Bernard became the guiding spiritual influence of the age. He stressed humility, devotion to Mary, and a loving, mystical relationship with God.

Hugh of St. Victor and the teachers of St. Victor’s in Paris achieved a synthesis of the new dialectic and traditional personal spirituality. He composed the first medieval synthesis of theology, a Christocentric treatment of sacraments that underscored the sacramental nature of all creation. Peter Lombard pursued Hugh’s agenda further, yet in ways that relied even more deeply on Abelard’s dialectic. His Four Books of Sentences constituted a clear and systematic treatment of Christian doctrine. It won official approval and came to serve as the basic medieval textbook in theology. John Gratian’s Decretum became the standard treatment of canon law. Aristotle was more fully disseminated and integrated into Christian thought by Otto of Freising and John of Salisbury. Though female, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen effectively preached her prophetic visions of judgment and composed a number of influential writings. Arabic philosophers and Jewish thinkers made significant contributions to western learning in the twelfth century as well.

Romanesque style combined Roman and Byzantine features with local elements to produce a distinctive art and architecture. The buildings were solid, simple, and permanent. Sculpture and painting were abstract, solemn, and majestic. Sacred music became more complex due to the development of polyphony; vernacular poetry celebrated courtly love, both affirming and subverting social norms of virtue and gender. Canonizing saints became the prerogative of the pope in the twelfth century.Saints were central to popular piety, especially Mary, revered as the Queen of Heaven. The practice of pilgrimage grew alongside devotion to the stories of the saints and the power of their relics. Pious activities and good works were understood to impact positively a person’s experience of purgatory.

 Church-state relationships continued to be tense in the twelfth century, most evident in the ongoing rivalries between the papacy and the emergent national monarchies. Though led by strong, flamboyant rulers, and giving rise to many romantic tales, the Third Crusade was a failure, accomplishing little. A tragic indicator of the strained relationship between the state and the church was the assassination of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, by king Henry II’s agents. As secular governments became better organized, the institutional life of the church did so as well. In the East, the Christian cultures of Georgia and Armenia reached new heights, the Serbians became staunchly Orthodox, Greek Orthodox scholars had significant accomplishment, and Eastern monasticism was revitalized. 

Western Church from the Seventh to Eleventh Centuries

Key Points during this time

  • In the clash between Celtic and Roman styles of Christian expression, a hybrid form emerged, loyal to Rome and Roman forms yet retaining many elements of the Celtic spirit.
  • Missionary-monks from Ireland and England helped restore, reform, and expand the church on the European continent.
  • The reign of Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty marked a season of relative peace and stability for much of Western Europe, with significant developments in Christian expansion, church-state relations, Benedictine monasticism, scholarship, theology, and church organization.
  • By the ninth century, Christian ritual and belief was coming to pervade the daily lives of many in medieval Europe, though various non-Christian elements persisted.
  • The Carolingian period saw a number of theological controversies, including debates about predestination, the Eucharist, the filioque, and religious art.
  • In the seventh–ninth centuries, the papacy moved decisively towards a papal monarchy, and the groundwork was laid for the medieval synthesis of church and state.
  • After a period of marked decline in the ninth and tenth centuries, revival in the institutions of monasticism, the imperial office, and the papacy set the stage in the eleventh century for the medieval synthesis.
  • The Norse and Viking invasions disequilibrated medieval culture, though the invaders were converted and Christianized in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
  • Church structures, especially the papacy, descended more deeply into feudalism during the ninth and tenth centuries.
  • Largely as a result of its autonomy from feudal structures, the monastery of Cluny was able to promote a sweeping reform of monasticism, thereby transforming the church’s impact on the society of the late tenth and eleventh centuries.
  • Imperial power passed from the Franks to the German Ottonian dynasty, key representatives of which supported church reform.
  • Reform-minded monarchs supported the installation of reforming popes such as Leo III, who transformed the papacy and helped lift it out of its feudal entanglements.
  • During an era when reforms in the Western church supported an independent papacy, tensions with the Eastern church came to a head in the controversy between Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius, resulting in the Great Schism of 1054.

Summary of events during this time

Though Christianity came to Britain prior to the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the withdrawal of Roman troops and subsequent invasions did not allow for its continued flourishing there. A Celtic form of Christianity came from Ireland to impact Scotland and northern England in the sixth century. Its clash with the Roman mission in England, brought by Augustine of Canterbury in 596, resulted in a sort of hybrid form of Christianity, combining Roman loyalties, structures, and liturgy with Celtic elements of passion, mission-mindedness, and a concern for purity. Anglo-Saxon missionary-monks like Winfrid (Boniface) ventured to the European continent, gaining the patronage of kings and popes in order to accomplish the work of restoring and reforming the church in some areas, while converting pagans in others. In many respects, they and their monastic foundations acquired the task of Christianizing the many converts from paganism, who struggled to distinguish the requirements of their Christian identity from the practices and attitudes of their pre-Christian society.

In the eighth century, Frankish power shifted from the kings of the Merovingian dynasty to the descendants of the Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, i.e. the Carolingians. An alliance between the pope and Martel’s son Pippin III, confirmed by papal anointing in 754, culminated in the Pope Leo III’s crowning of Pippin’s son Charlemagne as emperor in Rome on Christmas day, 800. Charlemagne was an ambitious and capable ruler, inspired by Augustine’s City of God, who saw his temporal role as integral to the purposes of God’s kingdom in the world. As a result of Carolingian rule, a period of peace and stability enabled wide-ranging developments in church organization, art, architecture, literature, and theology. The Carolingian renaissance saw the creation of schools, especially the court school at Aachen under the scholar Alcuin, as well as numerous other intellectual developments. These included several theological controversies, including debates about predestination, the true nature of the elements in the Eucharist, the filioque, and the place of religious art in worship. Charlemagne required the baptism of Saxon infants, assisted the church in such tasks as the collection of tithes, and took an active role in appointing church leaders, defining organizational boundaries, and settling theological disputes.

While the Carolingians consolidated power and influence, the papacy also moved towards a papal monarchy, assisted by the extensive claims of the mostly forgedPseudo-Isidorean Decretals. The partnership between the pope and Carolingian rulers was occasionally tense, yet it served to synthesize further the aims of church and state, blending the character of political and religious offices. By the end of the ninth century, the foundations for medieval Christian Europe had been laid.

Largely due to the invasions of Norseman and Vikings, Western Europe was greatly destabilized in the ninth and tenth centuries. The church became deeply entangled in the feudalism that developed in response to the instability. Imperial weakness and clerical corruption was paralleled by a significant decline in the character of the papacy. The migrating Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Czechs, Poles, and Magyars were converted and Christianized.

The establishment of the Benedictine monastery of Cluny in 909/10 was a watershed for renewal. Granted autonomy from lay interference, the monks of Cluny developed a program of reform that focused on clerical celibacy, the church’s independence from lay interference, and the need to Christianize society more fully, through such practices as the restriction of bloodshed and feuding.

The Saxon kings of the Ottonian dynasty instigated an imperial revival, adopting the imperial title and becoming involved in church affairs. Otto I (the Great) in particular was an advocate of Cluniac reform in the church, strengthening abbots and bishops partly for the sake of controlling the dukes and counts. The Saxons were succeeded by the Salian dynasty, of which Henry III provides a link between the imperial and papal revivals. Henry III worked to lift it out of its entanglements in local Italian politics, though he did so by means of controlling appointments to the papacy himself.

Leo IX represents the culmination of the cycles of revival as they impacted the papacy. Designated by the emperor, he insisted on receiving the election of the Roman people before assuming office. He brought Cluniac ideals to the papacy, along with a number of like-minded, strong associates. Internationalizing the college of cardinals and filling it with reformers, he consolidated a dynamic new vision for the church at Rome and its role in Christendom. A strong advocate of papal primacy, Leo sent his associate Humbert to Constantinople to treat with Patriarch Michael Cerularius, ostensibly for the purpose of achieving unity between the increasingly estranged Western and Eastern churches. However, the socio-political contexts of the two churches were so different and the issues so intractable that the result of the mission was an exchange of excommunications, marked by the Great Schism of 1054.

The Nature of Union with Christ

The nature of union with Christ may be described according to three aspects.

  1. Mystical—Our individual and corporate union with Christ far transcends all earthly relationships in its spiritual intimacy, its transformative power, and its everlasting blessings; this also clearly distinguishes Christ’s mystical body from his personal human body.
  2. Legal—When a person trusts Christ, he or she is granted the complete and everlasting inheritance of the sons and daughters of God; this is the basis for God’s righteous bestowal of all the other gifts of union
  3. Organic—On the basis of justification, the Spirit grants all the other gifts and benefits of Christ; being grafted into the vine, we now draw sustenance from him and bear good fruit in him (John 15:1–17)

Understanding Eastern and Western Churches

Key Points of Understanding Eastern and Western Churches

  • After the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, the Eastern church experienced a three-way split between the Church of the East (“Nestorians”), Chalcedonians, and Miaphysites/Henophysites, each with its key leaders and trajectory of later development.
  • During the emperor Justinian’s reign, the empire experienced its first flourishing of Byzantine culture.
  • Justinian sought to achieve unity in the empire, involving himself in the Theopaschite, Origenist, and Three Chapters controversies, without accomplishing lasting theological unity.
  • Justinian’s Byzantine culture saw marked developments in law, reconquest of territories, architecture, liturgy, art, theology, and popular devotion.
  • The monastic legacy of Benedict of Nursia and the “monkish papacy” of Gregory the Great combined to establish structures, practices, and expectations that would characterize ecclesial leadership through the Middle Ages.
  • The great liturgies were formalized in the sixth–seventh centuries, with the result that several distinct families were in use in different areas.
  • From the time of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, Eastern and Western expressions of Christianity may be distinguished according to different theological emphases, organization, and engagement with society.
  • The monotheletism promoted by church leaders and emperors as a means by which to accomplish unity was condemned in the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople III (680–81), defeated by a lasting reticence to revise Chalcedon and by the Christology typified in Maximus the Confessor.
  • The rise of Islam and its dramatic spread in the seventh and eighth centuries transformed the shape of the empire, posed significant challenges to the church, and prompted a series of Christian responses.
  • The iconoclasm sponsored by military emperors in the eighth and ninth centuries was refuted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II (787), defeated by popular piety and by the incarnational theology typified in John of Damascus.
  • The Photian Schism illustrates the complexities of Byzantine church politics and the growing differences between Byzantine and Roman expressions of Christianity and church.
  • Middle Byzantine culture saw developments in monasticism, literature, liturgy, popular piety, art, and architecture that would characterize the Byzantine church from that period forward.
  • Byzantine missionaries and missionaries from the Church of the East established Christianity in Moravia, Bulgaria, Russia, Central Asia, China, India, Korea, and Japan.

Summary of Events

Before Justinian came to power, in the aftermath of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, three different groups could be clearly distinguished in the Christian East.The Church of the East rejected Ephesus in favor of a stronger emphasis on the duality of Jesus Christ (“Nestorians”). The Chalcedonians adhered to the formulation of 451 and enjoyed a strong measure of imperial support. The Henophysites/Miaphysites (“Monophysites”) understood themselves to be more faithful followers of Cyril of Alexandria. They upheld an emphasis on Christ’s unity, rejecting Chalcedon and thereby prompting official repression. Each of the three streams experienced distinct processes of development, guided and informed by its own leaders. The Church of the East flourished in Persia and outside the Roman Empire. Within the empire, attempts on the part of emperors and church leaders to find a formulation that would satisfy Henophysites and Chalcedonians were ultimately unsuccessful.

Justinian’s rule (527–65) saw the first flowering of Byzantine culture, with major developments in law, art, liturgy, architecture, and theology. His efforts to regain lost territory brought Byzantine influence into Western provinces. In the face of continued disunity, Justinian got involved in several theological controversies, culminating in the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), the result of which was the condemnation of the Three “Nestorian” Chapters. His efforts to reconcile Miaphysites were unsuccessful. Justinian’s time was marked by the construction of grand church buildings and monasteries, creative developments in art and liturgy, and the growth of Mariology. In the West, the career and influence of Benedict of Nursia (d. 540) supplied the foundation of Western monasticism for centuries. With papal support, the Benedictine style of monasticism, with its emphasis on stability, authority, and moderation, came to be adopted throughout Western Europe. Gregory the Great (590–604) brought monastic ideals to the papacy and established lasting patterns for the functioning of the papal office and the Roman church. Combining ascetic discipline and strong administrative capabilities, Gregory’s leadership was characterized by a strong sense of the need for pastoral care.

The great liturgies arose in the fourth-fifth centuries and were formalized in sixth-seventh centuries. A number of factors favored the use of fixed liturgies, and several different families developed in both Eastern and Western churches. More pronounced than liturgical differences were the deep differences between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic churches. Partly due to the impact of barbarian invasions in the West, the two branches of Christianity proceeded along different trajectories, in theological emphasis, organization, and conceptions regarding the proper place of the church in its social context.

During the era of the great emperor Heraclitus, continuing efforts to unify Chalcedonian and Miaphysite Christians in the empire led to the proposal of monotheletism, emphasizing the unity of will in Jesus Christ. The view was ultimately rejected in the sixth ecumenical council, Constantinople III (680–81), at which the Christology of Maximus the Confessor was adopted instead, becoming deeply influential in Orthodox theology. The Roman church worked to affirm the orthodox legacy of monothelete-leaning Pope Honorius.

The rise of Islam was sudden and devastating to the Byzantine Empire and church. As a preacher of radical monotheism, Muhammad attracted many followers, who conquered large portions of Persian, Byzantine, and even Roman territory. Christian response to Islam shows a rapid process of development in thought and engagement. Certain militaristic Byzantine emperors adopted iconoclastic policies for the sake of purifying Christian practice, though the lengthy and difficult battle over the use of icons as objects of devotion resulted in the affirmation of icon veneration at the seventh ecumenical council, Nicaea II (787). John of Damascus’ incarnational theology prevailed, shaping Eastern Orthodox attitudes towards icons, religious art, and worship.

The Photian Schism resulted from the complexities of Byzantine church politics and conflicts between Orthodox and Roman churches. It illustrates the deepening differences between Byzantine and Roman expressions of Christianity and church. The Middle Byzantine period saw a dramatic flourishing of culture, expressed in Orthodox asceticism, church buildings, mosaic art, iconography, literature, and liturgy. In contrast to Roman missions, Eastern missionary efforts allowed churches to organize themselves along national or ethnic lines, in terms of language and polity. During the seventh–eleventh centuries, churches were established in many different regions, including Moravia, Russia, Hungary, India, China, Central Asia, Korea, and Japan.

Germanic Migrations, Doctrinal Developments, and the Papacy

Key Points during this time

  • The church was one of the principal institutions in Western Europe to survive the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire.
  • Ulfilas converted many Goths to a Christianity that was largely Arian, and its church exhibited distinctive features of organization, belief, and practice as a result of its Germanic context.
  • The movements and conquests of German tribes transformed Western Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries, the most impactful being the Franks under Clovis and the Ostrogoths under Theodoric.
  • The Germanic invasions had lasting effects on society and the churches; a number of Christian authors sought to explain the significance of the Germanic conquests in different ways.
  • The Augustinian-Pelagian controversy was practically resolved in favor of a “Semiaugustinianism” championed by Caesarius of Arles, a compromise view that would come to dominate the Western medieval theology.
  • A combination of circumstances and strong leadership contributed to the elevation of the role of Roman bishop (pope) to a status of primacy among Western bishops.

Various dates are proposed for the beginning of the Middle Ages, and different views exist as to why the Western Roman empire collapsed, but historians agree that deep transitions occurred in society and the church in connection with the empire’s decline. The church was the principal institution to survive the end of the empire. Ulfilas brought an Arian interpretation of the Gospel to the Goths, translating the scriptures into their language, and adapting early Germanic Christianity to its context. Clergy organized according to the clan culture, functioned as military chaplains, and supported “proprietary churches” closely associated with lay patrons.

Different tribes moved into various parts of Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Vandals settled in North Africa, persecuting catholic Christians and threatening Italy. TheVisigoths dominated Spain, where a synod in Toledo added the filioque clause to the creed, fortifying the Son’s divine status. The Franks settled in what would become Northern France. Their king Clovis and his men converted to catholic Christianity in the late fifth century; his long and effective rule strengthened the Merovingian dynasty. The Ostrogothsmoved into Italy. Under Theodoric, they preserved aspects of the late Roman culture they admired. For instance, statesmen and scholars such as Boethius, Dionysius Exiguus, and Cassiodorus helped transmit the learning of past generations into the Middle Ages. The Lombards moved into Italy in the late sixth century.

Literary responses to the barbarian invasions exhibit three basic viewpoints: that of Augustine, who held that political success and failure are irrelevant to God’s purposes; that of Orosius, who held that Christianity was meant to be the guarantor of the empire’s welfare; and that of Salvian, who saw the invasions as an expression of God’s punishment of the empire. Germanic incursion had marked effects on society and on the church. The church disappeared from some places, yet where it had been well established it adapted to the emerging rural economy, took over many public services, and supplied a universal sphere of authority that transcended that of local kings.

The Pelagian-Augustinian controversy culminated in the formulation of “Semiaugustinianism,” championed by Caesarius of Arles and upheld in the Synod of Orange (529). This view became the prevalent medieval view. It confirmed original sin and the need for prevenient grace, yet it held that baptism renews the ability of human beings to choose and do good, thereby supporting a pastoral emphasis on the efficacy of good works. The fourth and fifth centuries saw dramatic development in the role and status of the bishop of Rome, i.e. the papacy. The need for strong leadership in Rome became especially acute as the structures of empire dissolved. Over time, the pope came to be elevated above other bishops, acquiring the status of appellate court, the highest teaching office, and the vicar of Peter, responsible for pastoring the other bishops. These conceptions were more compelling in the Western church, and largely contested or ignored in the East. The church and especially the papacy enjoyed a greater independence of action and status from the state in the West. Leo I was “the first pope;” his methods, policy, and ideals outline the powers and role of the future papacy.

Understanding Augustine, Pelagius, and Semipelagianism

Key Points during this time.

  • Augustine of Hippo came to be one of the most influential thinkers in western Christianity, shaped by a variety of life experiences culminating in his dramatic conversion to Christianity.
  • Augustine left a voluminous quantity of writings that have become classics in western Christianity, addressing theology, ecclesiology, exegesis, and spirituality.
  • In response to Donatism, Augustine formulated influential understandings of the sacraments and the church
  • In response to Pelagianism, Augustine formulated controversial but impactful understandings of divine predestination and election, salvation, and human sexuality
  • Pelagius and Celestius were moralizing reformers whose views on human free will prompted fierce controversy, especially in Rome and North Africa, resulting in their condemnation in multiple councils
  • John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and others reacted to Augustine’s extreme views on divine election, holding to a position that allows a greater role for human free will in salvation, a view known as “Semipelagianism”

Due to the personal reflections he composed, we know more about Augustine’s life background and journey to Christian faith than we do most other patristic writers. His voluminous corpus of works illuminates our understanding of his pastoral career as bishop of Hippo and of the critical controversies of his setting. His writings have had a profound effect on western Christianity in most of its facets, covering theology, spirituality, exegesis, and numerous items involving pastoral care.

In response to Donatist emphases on purity, Augustine argued for an objective understanding of the sacraments’ effectiveness. He taught that a sacrament properly done, with the correct words spoken, was fully effective to the activity of God, irrespective of the purity of the administrator or the faithfulness of the church. Originally formulated to address the damaging effects of the Donatist schism, Augustine’s objective view of the sacraments became standard in western Christianity until challenged during the Reformation.

Pelagius was a moralizing reformer from Britain who taught in Rome and Palestine; his follower Celestius was also in Rome, in North Africa, and Sicily. They taught that humans had freedom of will to choose the good, that Adam’s sin laid down a bad example but did not convey actual guilt or weakness to other people, that it is possible for humans to do what is right and that some had in fact lived without sin, even before Jesus Christ. In response, Augustine formulated doctrines of original sin and divine election that came to exercise deep influence throughout the Middle Ages. He taught that Adam’s sin involved the entire human race in a fall, transmitting original sin through sexual activity, so that people are incapable of acting good or even exercising true faith on their own, without the intervening grace of God. In his grace, God elects some for salvation, working in their souls to trigger faith and restore their free will. Augustine points to the church’s tradition of infant baptism as evidence for his doctrine of original sin.

Though Pelagius, Celestius, and other followers of Pelagianism were condemned in multiple councils, not everyone followed Augustine’s extreme understandings of divine election either. Leaders such as John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins represent a “semipelagian” position, which allows a greater role for free will in human salvation. Cassian was also known for formalizing the fourfold method of reading scripture and Vincent for formulating the classic statement of the church’s doctrine on the role of tradition, both of which exercised great influence throughout the Middle Ages.

The Spirit’s Ongoing Ministry

Fulfilling Christ’s Pledge in the Upper Room Discourse (John 14–16)
Just as the Spirit is at work upholding creation and bringing about its fruitfulness even amid sin and corruption, so the Spirit also brings about the reality and fruitfulness of the new creation, inwardly convicting us of God’s judgment and convincing us of God’s mercy in Christ. In John 14–16, Jesus highlights three aspects of the Spirit’s mediation of Christ’s gracious reign.

  1. The Spirit’s ongoing ministry is judicial (16:8). The Spirit is sent to convict sinners of their sin and to convince them of God’s judgment and the free grace of Christ’s righteousness.
  2. As the Son is the embodiment of all truth, the Spirit guides into all truth (16:13). The Spirit does not replace or displace Jesus but unites us to Jesus and makes us children of our heavenly Father. The Spirit is not at our disposal but speaks only what he hears from the Father: the truth of the Son spoken in the Word.
  3. The Spirit glorifies the Son (16:14)—Just as the Son has glorified the Father by his work, so now the Father and the Spirit glorify the Son, and the Spirit brings us into enjoyment of this glory with the triune God; though Christ our Head is bodily absent, the Spirit continually joins us to him and keeps our faith fixed on what we do not yet see.

From John 14–16, we also see that the ascended Christ carries out the work of his offices by the power of the Spirit, making effectual Christ’s prophetic (e.g., 16:8), priestly (e.g., 14:16), and kingly (e.g., 16:33) activities.

Christological Controversies to Chalcedon (451)

Key Points During this time

  • Each of the four ecumenical councils contributes a distinct piece to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, functioning to preserve mystery within certain parameters.
  • The Antiochene and Alexandrine theological traditions differed in significant ways, producing different interpretations of Nicaea that were difficult to reconcile and triggered widespread Christological controversy.
  • The backgrounds and circumstances of the Christological controversies demonstrate the shifts occurring in how major religious conflict would be handled in the late empire. The consequences would include deposition of leaders and condemnation of entire traditions.
  • The clash between Nestorius and Cyril in the Council of Ephesus (431), the results of which were played out further in the “Robber Synod” of 449 and the Council of Chalcedon (451), highlighted the terms of debate between the Word-flesh Christology of Antioch and the Word-man Christology of Alexandria.
  • Chalcedon established a compromised definition, affirming the two natures (human and divine) in the one person of Jesus Christ.
  • Chalcedon and its canons impacted the church’s understanding of the role of ecumenical councils, the relationship of monks to the ecclesial hierarchy, and underscored the tensions between Constantinople and Rome as prestigious sees.

Summary of events

The ecumenical councils of the early church sought to clarify Christian beliefs about God and Jesus Christ. In particular, the first four ecumenical councils affirmed both God’s essential unity and the Trinity; they affirmed the unity of Jesus in one person and his duality in two natures, human and divine. Ostensibly, the councils attempted to preserve a large degree of mystery in the Christian understanding of the divine, while guarding against apparently extreme positions. The Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) are especially significant watersheds in the process—Nicaea laying the crucial groundwork, and Chalcedon culminating a lengthy process of discussion regarding the implications and boundaries of the Nicene formulation. The process involved numerous factors, including strong personalities, theological exploration through debate, specialized terminology, and the politics of church and empire; yet the church believed the power of God to be active in the process.

The process was complicated by diverse understandings of divinity and of Jesus Christ, especially those of the Antiochene tradition, typified by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, and the Alexandrine tradition, typified by Cyril of Alexandria, Eutyches, and Dioscorus. These two traditions were distinct in a number of ways. As their representatives disputed the best ways to describe the incarnation, bishops and emperors alike felt compelled to achieve unanimity of belief. The ensuing controversies resulted in great difficulties, including imperial enforcement of orthodoxy, the depositions of bishops, the condemnation of dissenting branches of the church, and lasting estrangement between those branches. A broad consensus of belief was achieved by the Definition of Chalcedon (451), held by much of the church in East and West to be the definitive interpretation of Nicaea. Yet it was unable to contain those of a more miaphysite persuasion, who have been routinely called “monophysites;” and those with an even more striking dyophysite leaning (so-called “Nestorians”) had previously been alienated from the fold by the Council of Ephesus (431). Chalcedon was important not only dogmatically, but also had conciliar, monastic, and constitutional aspects that achieved lasting impact in the church.

The Church in the Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries: Monasticism, Expansion, Life, and Worship

Key Points during this time

  • Under the influence of key leaders and through a variety of expressions, Christian monasticism shaped Christianity in significant ways.
  • The fourth and fifth centuries saw one of the most significant periods in Christian missions, with major expansion occurring in Syria, Persia, Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia.
  • Although Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, the Christianization of religious practices, moral behavior, and methods of rule was generally slow and gradual.
  • In the aftermath of persecution, the cult of the saints, observing saints’ days, the veneration of holy sites, and pilgrimage became major expressions of Christian piety.
  • In the fourth century Christian worship became more elaborate and the distinction between laity and clergy more pronounced. In particular, the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, and chrismation received greater attention and significance.
  • Practices of penance, ordination, and the church calendar became more formal and more complex during the fourth and fifth centuries.


Although some disciples of Jesus adopted lifestyles of rigorous discipline from the earliest times, the fourth century saw dramatic developments in Christian asceticism and the widespread growth of monasticism. Numerous tributaries of pagan, Jewish, and Christian origin influenced the shape of monasticism. The solitary expressions of anchorites and hermits, typified by St. Anthony of Egypt, grew alongside the communal monastic expressions of the cenobites, of whom Pachomius was an influential pioneer. A number of other early leaders contributed to the theory and practice of Christian asceticism, some of whom, like Basil of Caesarea in the East and John Cassian in the West, helped the mainstream church appreciate the contributions of monasticism to Christian culture and leadership.

Alongside and often assisted by the expansion of monasticism, Christian missionary efforts established churches in lands beyond its primitive range, including Syria, Persia, Armenian, Georgia, and Ethiopia. In some instances, it is apparent that Christians had been present in these environments long before the fourth century, yet the changed political and social location of the church in the Roman Empire facilitated the adoption of Christianity among the social elite outside the boundaries of Rome. These efforts saw the translation of the Bible and other sacred texts into local languages and the development of distinct forms of liturgy, belief, practice, and polity.

The dramatic growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries set the stage for an exchange of influence, in which the church impacted society and society impacted the church. Most emperors saw themselves as patrons of the church and sought to support the church and reform society according to Christian principles. Reforms in sexual ethics, the theater, and violent games were accompanied by the establishment of charitable institutions and provisions that discouraged paganism and limited Jews. Yet Christianity did not deeply impact fundamental economic structures or the often brutal practices by which the imperial office governed. The rigors of church discipline and moral standards relaxed, providing further impetus for the adoption of monasticism on the part of many believers who sought radical expressions of commitment to Christ.

With the end of persecution in the empire, monks and bishops came to be venerated alongside the martyrs as saintly exemplars. The cult of the saints grew to become a major expression of popular piety in the late antique church. Saints’ days, the building of martyria over saints’ tombs, the increased circulation of saints’ lives, and the veneration of relics all expressed enthusiasm for the saints as models and aids to faith and life. Pilgrimage to holy sites also became more common in the fourth and fifth centuries.

During this era, corporate worship practices became more elaborate, adapting to the changed circumstances of much larger congregations, an elevated social location, and worship spaces modeled on the basilica style. The outline of Christian liturgy took a form that would have lasting influence for centuries. Procedures associated with the sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, and chrismation became more formal and complex. Catechetical and mystagogical texts from the period reveal a high degree of deliberate reflection on the meaning and significance of the sacraments and corporate worship for individual faith and in the life of the church. Alongside pastoral concerns, the need to confess orthodox belief about the incarnation shaped practices and theology. The church calendar, previously oriented largely around Easter and Pentecost, developed so that Epiphany, Palm Sunday, and the birth of Jesus (Christmas) were more prominent.

The Church in the Fourth Century: Doctrine, Organization, and Literature

Key Points during this time

  • In the period following the Nicene council—and especially after Constantine’s death—the Arian controversy continued to create disunity in the fourth-century church, which saw many councils and at least four different major positions on the relation of the Father to the Son.
  • Through the work of key figures like Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, and the involvement of sympathetic emperors, Nicene orthodoxy came to be affirmed and generally accepted by the time of the Council of Constantinople (381).
  • Throughout the fourth century, church organization became increasingly formal and its clergy more distinct in role and status from laypersons.
  • The “great patristic century” (fourth–early fifth centuries) saw the production of great works of lasting influence on the part of several major writers and church leaders: in Greek: Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom; in Syriac: Ephraem the Syrian; and in Latin: Ambrose, Rufinus, and Jerome.

In the years following the Nicene council, the Arian controversy continued to create conflict in the church. Some felt that crucial positions had been betrayed, and the language by which consensus was supposedly achieved was open to varying interpretation. Hoping to achieve unity, Constantine sought to accommodate even some of those who had been condemned by the council; after his death, the division of his empire between his sons created further disruption, as they did not agree together on the Arian question. Throughout the fourth century, disputants settled into four major parties: the homoousians, who saw the Son as being of the same substance with the Father; the homoiousians, who saw them as being of similar substance; the homoeans, who would only go so far as to say that Father and Son are alike; and the anomoeans, who held that they are unlike. In a series of smaller councils, the Nicene Creed was repeatedly criticized, prompting its supporters to construct a coherent defense of its legitimacy and value.

Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria emerged as the most potent champion of Nicene orthodoxy through the middle years of the fourth century. His experience of enduring five exiles demonstrates the volatility of the period, as well as the role played by emperors in the conflict. Yet through his obstinate advocacy and his writings, he helped check the Arianizing positions and create support for Nicaea. In the last half of the fourth century, other church leaders and theologians—particularly the Cappadocians—helped consolidate support for Nicaea. Their efforts culminated in the Council of Constantinople (381), at which the Nicene position was affirmed. Theodosius I’s sponsorship of the council and his decree making Christianity Rome’s official religion (380) demonstrate the extent to which the empire would continue to be a major player in church affairs. Throughout the fourth century, church organization continued to become more formal and the roles and status of clergy more identifiably distinct.

The century and a half following Nicaea is the “Golden Age of Patristic Literature,” due to the number and quality of Church Fathers’ contributions to Christian thought. Although the various authors writing in Greek, Latin, and Syriac were diverse in personality and in the nature of their contributions, the literature they produced achieved a classic status within a short time and continued to inform Christian thought and practice for centuries. Despite the burgeoning growth of material in the Christian tradition, the Bible continued to take pride of place as the central resource for the Fathers and their heirs.

Diocletian and Constantine

Key Points during this time

  • During a period of imperial reform in the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians underwent the most severe and widespread persecution yet.
  • Though the person and motives of Constantine the Great are complex and somewhat mysterious, he achieved sole authority in the Roman Empire, ended the persecutions, favored Christianity, and ushered in Christendom.
  • The church was largely unprepared for the many challenges accompanying the change in church-state relations.
  • The Donatist controversy exem
    plified the way in which state involvement could affect church affairs, as rigorist and laxist factions faced off in North Africa and experienced the impact of imperial intervention.
  • Many bishops met in the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 to debate the theological views of the subordinationist Arius, resulting in the Nicene Creed and signaling new developments in the ways church and state leaders would tackle issues affecting Christianity at large in the Roman Empire.

When Diocletian became emperor in 284, he undertook a reorganization of the empire, establishing a new provincial map and distributing power through a tetrarchy. His colleague Galerian instigated the “Great Persecution” of Christians, the most systematic persecution yet, culminating in an edict requiring that all sacrifice to the gods or suffer severe penalty.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a period of civil war and continued internal strife, Constantine the Great emerged as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. His mother Helena had been a Christian, and Constantine began to favor Christianity in his reunified empire. Various theories seek to explain Constantine’s motivations, with perhaps the most likely being those that correlate his personal piety with his desire to have concord in the empire—under his solitary and God-given reign. In any case, the persecutions stopped and Christians began to be favored in a variety ways by the state, inaugurating an era of Christendom for which the church was not especially well prepared. Constantine sponsored grand Christian building projects and got involved in church affairs, including the Donatist schism of North Africa. In Carthage, tensions between laxist and rigorist groups, exacerbated by personal issues, came to a head in the contested election of the bishop, resulting in the emperor’s intervention by means of the Synod of Arles (314), the first church council called by an emperor. The synod found in favor of the more laxist party, causing their rigorist Donatist opponents to fracture away from the catholic church and form a schism that was actually a majority force in some parts of the North African church—a schism very suspicious of Christendom.

More far-reaching was the Council of Nicaea (325), also called by the emperor as part of his strategy to find and maintain unity in church and empire. Although political rivalries between the churches in Antioch and Alexandria fueled the controversy leading to this council, the presenting problem had to do with the teaching of the subordinationist Arius in Alexandria, who taught that “there was (once) when Christ was not.” Various perspectives met to discuss the matter at Nicaea, the majority being suspicious of new formulae, wanting to preserve unity, and desiring to defend monotheism and the divinity of Christ. Therefore, Arius and his supporters were condemned, and a creed was prepared using the term, homoousios, by which the council sought to preserve the belief that God the Father and God the Son shared the “same substance.” Despite the council’s decisions, the creed, and the emperor’s backing, the politics of the emerging new situation ensured that the controversy would continue to gain traction through much of the rest of the fourth century.

As the first “ecumenical council,” Nicaea marked a shift in the way the church discussed and enforced decisions about doctrinal matters that were central to the church everywhere. It is symbolic of imperial involvement in church affairs, and it also marked an important development in doctrinal history, through its enforcement of the creed with anathemas for any who would reject it.

The Development of the Church during the Third Century

Key Points During this Time

  • After a long history of enduring sporadic persecutions, the mid-third century saw the first systematic persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire
  • The cult of the martyrs developed in the last half of the third century, strongly impacting corporate and personal spirituality
  • Cyprian of Carthage engaged in a number of disputes regarding church order and discipline, composing treatises and letters that shaped western ecclesiology
  • Christian art and architecture began to flourish from the mid-third century, exhibiting styles and motifs common to the culture yet adapted to biblical stories and Christian purposes (especially funerary)
  • Manicheism posed a competitive threat to Christianity from the mid-third century
  • Texts such as Didascalia Apostolorum, and the work of leaders such as Gregory Thaumaturgus, Methodius, Lactantius, and Dionysius of Alexandria helped shape the church of the last half of the third century
  • Numerous internal and external factors appear to have contributed to the great success of Christianity in the third century


The third century was a time of tremendous growth for the church, although it faced some of the most severe challenges of its history. Under the emperors Decius and Valerian, Christianity was subjected to widespread and systematic persecution, resulting in numerous martyrdoms. Whereas the veneration of martyrs became a major feature of early Christian piety, the large number of apostates created a crisis in church discipline once the persecutions subsided. Cyprian of Carthage sought to find a middle way between the rigorist and laxist responses to those who denied Christ under threat of persecution, prescribing different manners of church discipline depending on the severity of the offense. Cyprian’s discussions of this matter and such things as the authority of the episcopacy made lasting contributions to church order and the practices of penance and church discipline in the western church.

The first identifiable Christian art appears around 200. Although much of it is funerary and therefore perhaps not entirely representative, surviving examples show that Christians adapted the motifs and style of their Greco-Roman context to create a body of highly symbolic art, much of which refers to biblical stories of rescue and themes of hope.

With its Christian elements and strong dualism, Manicheism posed a competitive challenge to the later third-century church. The later third century was also marked by a number of important texts, such as the Didascalia Apostolorum, and influential leaders, such as Dionysius of Alexandria and Gregory Thaumaturgus. Methodius and Lactantius wrote important texts that shaped the church of that era.

Scholars attempting to explain the success of Christianity in the third century adduce a number of external and internal factors contributing to the church’s growth and vitality. However, attempts to account for Christianity’s success turn out to be more descriptive than explanatory.

Christ’s Kingship

The Resurrection

As the eternal Son of God, Christ’s kingship begins in creation; but in redemption, Christ is shown to be Head and Mediator for the church as well. This is not another creation but a new creation—redeemed creation looking forward to the consummation. Although there is a certain order in Christ’s exercise of his offices, they are true of him at all times: he is never Prophet without being King, or King without being Priest. Nonetheless, we should distinguish Christ’s present reign in grace from his future reign, which will also manifest glory and power. The kingdom is currently like its King before his exaltation, appearing weak and foolish to the world. It is visible not in majesty but in Word and sacrament, discipline, discipleship, and fellowship. As in his other offices, Christ exercises kingship as both divine and human. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords not only as God but as the faithful and last Adam, David’s greater son, whose reign has begun even now and will be realized fully in the age to come.

The Ascension

The most direct account of Christ’s ascension is in Luke 24:13–51 (reiterated in Acts 1). In these passages, it becomes clear that Christ’s ascension and return in glory are part of the gospel itself.  Christ continues to exercise all three offices in his heavenly exaltation, proclaiming and bringing about his Word, interceding for his people, and ruling all things for our good, by the Holy Spirit.

The Significance

The ascension is not simply an exclamation point to the resurrection; it is a distinct event in redemptive history, grounding the significance of eschatology (we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realms but do not yet see him face-to-face), pneumatology (Christ is now present to us by the Spirit’s activity through Word and sacrament), and ecclesiology (the church is a community between two ages, already belonging to the new creation but still on our pilgrimage). Christ’s ascension both grounds the church’s present struggle and guarantees our future triumph.

His Kingdom

Since Pentecost, the Spirit has come to apply the benefits of Christ through the preaching of the gospel, ushering in the new creation, in and through the individual and corporate life of believers, their children, and those who are “far off” (Acts 2:39). This means that the Spirit’s application of redemption can never be separated from the history of redemption. Nor can the doctrine of salvation ever be separated from the doctrine of the church; the same King creates and sustains both by the same means: Word and sacrament.

Covenant and Kingdom

Unlike the covenant at Sinai, which Israel violated against her Great King, God’s covenant with Abraham and David depended on God’s own unwavering faithfulness despite the unfaithfulness of his human subjects. This covenant and all its promises are fulfilled in the new covenant in Christ, who fulfilled the Sinai covenant as well, since he is himself the faithful King and the faithful subject.

The Kingdom and Eschatology

The kingdom of God is “from above”; it is an inbreaking of the age to come rather than a developmental progression drawn from the resources of the present age. Since it is a kingdom we are receiving from God rather than building for ourselves, it cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:25–29). We must avoid both underrealized and overrealized eschatology. Underrealized eschatologies, like dispensationalism, fail to see the real presence of Christ’s kingdom breaking into the present age before his return; overrealized eschatologies, like liberation theology, expect Christ’s present reign to include blessings—such as a fully just and godly civil society—that he has promised to bring only at his return. As difficult as it is in practice, we must affirm that Christ’s kingdom is already truly present, but not yet in its consummated form.

Church Life in the Second and Third Centuries

Key Points During this Time

  • After an intensive and often lengthy period of preparation, converts were initiated into Christianity through a highly symbolic baptism ritual
  • Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays and other times for worship and instruction; celebrating the Eucharist was central to Sunday gatherings
  • The church was known for advocating high standards of personal morality, including sexual behavior and charity
  • Women were prominent in the story of early Christianity, as celebrated martyrs, in special roles of church service, and defining new social roles through celibacy
  • Christian hope of bodily resurrection supplied a powerful testimony. Christian expectations included chiliastic and non-chiliastic understandings of the end times.


Although early Christian practices exhibit the influence of their social contexts, they also display distinctive features and definitively Christian expressions. Christians took seriously the matter of initiation into the church, requiring converts to undergo an intensive period of instruction and preparation prior to baptism. Understanding of doctrine and the practice of Christian moral behavior were expected. The baptismal ritual itself showed great care and abundant symbolism. Although initially baptism seems to have been intended for those capable of making a mature commitment, in time infant baptism came to be a routine practice. Christian art depicting baptism illuminates our understanding of early Christian conceptions of this ritual.

Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays from the earliest times, in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection. Weekly assemblies included the reading of Scripture, preaching, hymnody, prayer, and taking up collections for those in need, but centered on the celebration of the Eucharist. As a mystical participation in Jesus’ body and blood, the Eucharist functioned as an argument against Docetic and Gnostic interpretations of the incarnation. By the late third century, the unbaptized were excluded from the eucharistic portion of the assembly.

In addition to weekly assemblies, Christians met for worship and agape meals at other times. They observed regular fast days and had other personal devotions. The apologists stressed the high moral standards of Christians, pointing to their ethics as an argument for the truth of Christianity. Dependent partly on Jewish moral instruction, the moral philosophy of the day, and Jesus’ own teaching and example, Christians claimed a spiritual power to live extraordinary lives. Many early Christian texts focus on moral behavior, including celibacy as an expression of extreme devotion to God in Christ. Christian attitudes towards the state and military service remained ambivalent.

Women played a prominent role in the growth and stability of the early church. Many subverted social expectations by choosing to adopt lives of celibacy. Some became heroines as martyrs. Although women seem not to have been commonly involved in preaching and presiding at liturgical functions, in roles such as that of deaconess they served the church in key ways.

Christian attitudes towards death were very impactful as a part of the Christian witness. Christians observed many of the same burial practices as their Jewish and pagan neighbors, yet inscriptional and artistic evidence shows the hope with which Christians faced death. Partly as a matter of biblical interpretation and partly in response to Marcion and Gnostics, some Christian teachers held to a chiliastic understanding of the end, in which Christ would assume the rule of earth from Jerusalem for 1000 years after his return. The more pervasive view of the end saw the promised millennium as a more symbolic or spiritual event. Both groups taught the resurrection of the body and maintained the vindication of the righteous in the final judgment, resulting in heavenly reward.

The Fathers of the Old Catholic Church and Their Problems

Key Points During this Time

  • Though diverse and often judged inadequate by later standards, the fathers from the late second and early third centuries sustained the faith and decisively shaped later Christian thought and practice
  • In response to heresy, Irenaeus articulated the premises on which the old catholic church developed
  • Tertullian was the first Latin theologian and had great influence on western Christianity
  • Alexandria was a key Hellenistic Christian center; its teachers Clement and Origen developed the foundations of philosophical Christianity
  • The church struggled to define the nature of the church’s holiness, wrestling with problems evident especially in the career of Hippolytus and in conflict regarding the status of the lapsed
  • Debates about liturgical practice (Quartodecimans), church discipline (laxist vs. rigorist) and theology (Monarchianism) animated much theological reflection during the period
  • Due to its leadership, size, location, and role in the controversies of the age, the church at Rome rose in prominence to become the chief church by about the end of the second century


In contrast to the apologists of the second century, who attempted to explain the faith to outsiders, the fathers of the old catholic church undertook the task of addressing insiders, using philosophy and rational argument, along with the Bible and the Christian tradition they had inherited. These early formulators of Christian theology combatted heresy, yet some of them would eventually be found to be inadequate or problematic themselves, by later standards of orthodoxy. Yet they all had a hand in shaping Christian belief and practice in this formative period.

Irenaeus of Lyons argued against Gnosticism, stressing the unity of God the creator and the unity of Jesus Christ. He presented Jesus as recapitulating human experience and bringing God’s plan of salvation to its climax. Appealing to the notion of apostolic succession as a way of guaranteeing the authority of recognized teachers, he underscored the orthodox legacy of the church of Rome. Tertullian wrote in Latin and had a profound influence on the shape of western Latin theology. He composed apologies and numerous treatises against heretics and defending orthodox belief. Suspicious of secular learning and the influence of culture on the church, Tertullian was a rigorist and eventually converted to Montanism.

The church in Alexandria was shaped by its context; it was in a center of Hellenistic culture and learning. The Christian teacher Clement encouraged an intellectual appropriation of the faith and he saw the value of pagan philosophy as a tool in Christian discussion. He opposed Gnosticism, writing works of apologetics, ethics, and reflection on various aspects of Christian faith. Origen was a brilliantly gifted Alexandrian teacher in the same tradition. He pioneered the scholarly study of scripture, wrote the greatest Greek apology of early Christianity, and composed the church’s first systematic theology. Some of his speculations were controversial and his personality and success sparked jealousy.

Hippolytus was probably a presbyter in Rome who went into schism when his rival Callistus was elected bishop. Though uncertainty exists as to Hippolytus’ true role and the full extent of his authentic literary legacy, a notable heresiological work and an influential book of church order are among the texts traditionally ascribed to him. The apparent career of Hippolytus highlights the way in which several factors were coming together to elevate the status of the church at Rome by the end of the second century.

In addition to responding to persecution and heresies like Gnosticism, the fathers of the old catholic church faced a number of challenges. The Paschal controversy involved the church in Rome and churches in Asia especially; it involved a dispute regarding the correct observance of Easter in the church calendar. Modalist and Dynamic Monarchian teachers in the church found different ways of defending monotheism, yet the resulting Christologies were deemed to be deficient and dangerous by orthodox theologians. The pressures of persecution had caused some Christians to lapse. Their desire to return to the church after the threat of persecution had passed created debates between “rigorists” and “laxists” about the nature of the church, the place of penance, and the proper exercise of episcopal authority.

The Defense against Rival Interpretations

Key Points During this Time

  • Partly in response to internal and external pressures, the early church developed a three-fold defense of what is apostolic: the episcopate, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon
  • The monepiscopacy grew out of practical leadership concerns and came to be associated with the idea of apostolic succession
  • The rule of faith and the creed were received as summaries of the apostolic teaching, for instruction and liturgical use
  • The Apostles Creed grew out of an earlier formula of baptismal confession used in Rome, attesting to an early practice of regularly reciting in worship a concise statement outlining key tenets of orthodox Christian belief
  • The formation and recognition of the New Testament canon underwent four stages: Scripture principle, canonical principle, closed canon, and recognition of the closed canon; several criteria of canonicity functioned in an interrelated way
  • The church did not create the canon but recognized it, putting itself under the authority of Scripture


Partly as a natural development in its identity formation and partly in response to rival expressions of Christianity, the church of the second and third century developed a “three-fold defense of “what is apostolic”: the monepiscopacy, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon. These interrelated components were understood to constitute reliable channels of apostolic authority as the church moved further away from the generation of the apostles themselves. Though aspects of each component exhibit signs of having been shaped by continuing interactions with “heretics,” they also convey beliefs and practices that were present prior to those controversies.

The bishop functioned as the authoritative teaching office and channel by which the apostolic message had been preserved. The evidence indicates that the earliest Christian communities were led by a plurality of elders or bishops, yet by the early second century a monepiscopacy is emerging, signaled first by the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Having a single bishop over the local church allowed churches to address a number of practical leadership matters more effectively. By the late second century, the theory of apostolic succession was being developed by Irenaeus, deployed to demonstrate that the recognized teaching chair of a given church ought to be received as the custodian of apostolic truth as it had been handed down since the apostles’ time, from generation to generation. By the third century (Hippolytus), the idea had developed that bishops are successors to the apostles themselves.

The rule of faith and creed functioned as guides by which to interpret the essence of the apostolic message. The rule of faith was a summary of apostolic teaching, in a flexible form that varied somewhat from place to place. It guided the reader or hearer in discerning the basic plot and gist of proper Christian doctrine and behavior. The creed was more succinct and fixed in form, deriving from baptismal confession formulae for regular liturgical use. The fourth-century Apostles’ Creed from Rome stands as the heir to an earlier form, the Old Roman Symbol of the third century. The Roman church led the way in adapting baptismal confessions into a fixed creedal formula, and the Apostles’ Creed became a standard piece of liturgy throughout western churches.

The canon functioned as the repository of the content of the apostolic teaching. Christians inherited the idea of canon and the Jewish Scriptures from Judaism, though differences existed as to which text to use (Hebrew or Greek) and what the precise contents of the Old Testament should be. The church relied mostly on the Greek Septuagint, translating it into many other languages, and largely accepting the books and expansions circulating with Greek copies of the Old Testament. The development of the New Testament canon proceeded through four stages: the recognition of the Scripture principle (late first/early second century), the canon principle (by about 180), a closed canon (by the fourth century), the recognition of a closed canon (in the fourth/fifth centuries). The criteria by which books were received as canonical were their inspiration, their apostolicity, their antiquity, their catholicity, their use in public worship, and their right doctrine.

One persistent question under discussion concerns the relationship between the church and its channels of authority, particularly the New Testament canon. Whereas a process of development involving human activity is undeniable, the church did not create the canon so much as recognize it, and by doing so put itself under a separate authority rather than keeping its own power.

Heresies and Schisms in the Second Century

Key Points During this Time

  • Early Christianity was characterized by a certain variety in belief and practice
  • A strategic and gifted administrator, Marcion led an effective movement that rejected Christianity’s Jewish roots, distinguished the creator god from the redeemer god, emphasized asceticism, and advocated an authoritative canon of Scripture based mainly on portions of Paul’s writings
  • In the 2nd century, Gnostic movements developed systems of belief that interacted and competed with catholic Christianity, combining Jewish, Christian, and pagan beliefs
  • In an attempt to achieve a philosophical-religious solution to the problem of evil, Gnostic groups taught complex cosmologies that tended to involve extreme dualism, a strong rejection of matter as evil, and redeemer myths
  • In rejecting Gnosticism, “orthodox” Christianity affirmed the oneness of God, the essential goodness of creation, the full incarnation of Jesus Christ, and bodily resurrection
  • Largely in response to perceived worldliness and formalization of the church, Montanism arose as an exuberant movement stressing prophecy, rigorous ethics, and eschatological enthusiasm
  • Encratism describes a tendency in some Christian circles towards extreme asceticism
  • The appeal to existing standards of belief and practice suggests that “orthodoxy” in some sense existed prior to Christian “heresy”


In the struggle to define boundaries of belief and practice, the early church grappled with the diversity to be found among those claiming to follow Christ. Early Christian doctrinal self-understanding took shape partly in response to these challenges. For instance, the wealthy shipbuilder Marcion rejected the Jewish roots of Christianity, teaching that the creator god and redeemer god are separate and that the savior Jesus is to be understood in a Docetic manner. He contended that Paul was the only true Apostle and put forward a canon of Scripture based on Paul that was highly selective and heavily edited. Despite the Roman church’s rejection of his teaching in 144, he effectively organized a movement of many Marcionite churches.

Gnosticism is an umbrella term that covers a number of different groups and teachings interacting with Christianity in the second and third centuries. Although our knowledge of Gnosticism was limited due to the shortage of ancient sources, modern discoveries have enriched our knowledge greatly—particularly the find in 1945 of a number of original Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Gnosticism drew on pre-Christian, Jewish, and Christian ideas, synthesizing them into fully developed Gnostic systems by the second century. Different teachers promoted distinct systems, each group being defined by its favored myth of origins, its sense of group identity, and its insider language. Common features included an account of a “fall” in the spiritual realm that resulted in the creation of matter, which is evil. A “redeemer” imparts knowledge (Gnosis) to save those with a spiritual nature, so that they may escape their material prison and be reunited with the divine in the spiritual realm. Valentinus was the most influential Gnostic teacher, but there were many teachers and groups. To escape material entanglement, most followed an ascetic ethic, though some may have been libertine instead. With its streamlined dualism and elitist mentality, Gnosticism’s mythological and philosophical answer to the problem of evil proved attractive to many in the Greco-Roman culture. In response, “orthodox” Christians taught that the creator God is the one true God and that creation is good. They insisted on the full incarnation of Christ and the salvific importance of his bodily death, the significance of history in revelation, and the resurrection of the body. Out of this conflict, a number of important lessons may be found for today’s church.

Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla began a prophetic movement in the churches of Phrygia in the 150s or 170s. Believing themselves to be the voices of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete), the Montanists of “the New Prophecy” preached judgment, seeking to convict the established church of moral laxness and compromise with the surrounding culture. The movement may be seen partly as a reaction to growing institutionalism of the church in the generations following the Apostles. Montanism did not teach different doctrines, but their ascetic rigors and disruptive tendencies prompted negative reactions. The first known synods of bishops met in order to deal with the problem. Focusing on matters of authority, the synods emphasized the importance of Scripture and the place of bishop as authoritative teacher, resulting in the Montanists being declared as schismatic.

Encratism” describes a movement or tendency among some early Christians towards extreme asceticism. Many surviving apocryphal texts promote asceticism and the Syriac church (e.g. Tatian) was characterized by this tendency. A contemporary debate considers whether “orthodoxy” may be understood to have preceded “heresy,” or whether early Christianity was simply highly diverse at its origins. Though early diversity and a legacy of development are undeniable, the ability of the orthodox to make plausible appeals to existing standards indicates that there were inherited norms of belief and practice.

The Church and the Empire

Key Points During this Time

  • Popular opinion responded negatively to Christian aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and Christians’ unwillingness to worship pagan gods. Imperial authorities were bothered by the apparent obstinacy of Christian subjects unwilling to show political loyalty by worshipping the emperor and the gods of Rome.
  • Roman persecution of the church prior to the mid-3rd century was sporadic and localized, not systematic.
  • Christian apologists of the 2nd century responded to both popular and philosophical accusations against Christianity, employing the philosophy and rhetoric of the day in order to rebut accusations and promote Christian belief and practice.
  • The logos Christology of the 2nd-century apologists supplied Christian intellectuals with a way to address non-Christian concerns about Christian teaching, as well as providing the foundation for later Trinitarian speculation.
  • The surviving literature of 2nd-century martyrdom supplied stories and themes that permanently shaped the self-understanding of the Christian church.
  • A developing theology of martyrdom was expressed through several characteristic motifs, many of which helped connect the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ.


Although persecution of Christians in the second century was sporadic and localized, the threat and occasional reality of its occurrence contributed greatly to the formation of early Christian identity. Popular opinion responded negatively to Christians for a number of reasons, including their aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and especially their refusal to honor the gods of Rome and the surrounding culture. Many non-Christian intellectuals found Christian belief to be ridiculous and criticized the social composition of the church. Imperial authorities were bothered by Christian stubbornness in refusing to demonstrate their allegiance to Rome by the usual means, i.e. worshiping the genius of the emperor and the gods of Rome. The legal basis for Roman persecution expressed Roman sensibilities of justice, but also strict Roman insistence on submission to imperial authority.

Christian apologists sought to respond to the critics of Christianity in a variety of ways, relying mainly on the philosophy of the day as a means by which to explain Christian belief. Some sought to clear up misunderstandings about Christian practice, stressing the virtues by which Christians lived. Others upheld the moral superiority of Christianity in comparison to pagan culture. Justin Martyr laid aside numerous popular charges against Christianity, sought to explain Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism, and advocated an understanding of Jesus Christ that connected him to the principle of the Logos. This gave non-Christian intellectuals a framework in which to understand the significance of Christ and shaped early Christian belief.

Although martyrdoms were sporadic, their occurrence led to the celebration of their faithful acts, especially in the composition of accounts of their martyrdoms. These circulated throughout the churches, shaping Christian theology and liturgy as the church connected the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ. Martyrs were understood to be faithful witnesses and heroic athletes, and the descriptions of their deeds were tinged with commonly occurring motifs, such as grace, Eucharist, baptism, the Holy Spirit, and eschatological hope. Christian self-understanding came to be pervaded by the ideals conveyed by descriptions of martyrs’ deeds.

Son of God: The Son of the Father in the Spirit

Christological heresy arises through failing to affirm of Christ all that Scripture asserts: by either denying the divine or human nature at the expense of the other, confusing or conflating his natures, or dividing his person. I remember Sinclair Ferguson teaching at PRTS on the importance of knowing Jesus Christ to the ends of the page found in chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, but then strongly warning us, anything beyond that page is heresy. Looking back to that lesson from 2010, it still surprises me that I receive more questions regarding Christology than any other loci. Just like the title Son of Man, the scope of Son of God encompasses Jesus’ humanity as well as deity. Jesus Christ is both the eternal Son and the true and faithful human son; he is both the one who speaks the divine law and the one who answers the summons with perfect obedience for us.

Sonship: Ontological and Official

The New Testament claims Adamic and Abrahamic senses of sonship for Christ: he is Son upon condition of obedience, according to the image of God, and he is Son unconditionally and forever—except that in the latter sense, Jesus’ unique divine sonship is not by grace but is his very nature as the one and only Word and Son, eternally begotten of the Father (e.g., Matt. 22:41–46; John 1:1–3, 14, 18). The narratives of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, Paul’s consistent witness to the humbled and exalted Lord (e.g., Rom. 1:3–6; 8:3–4; Gal. 4:4–5; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–17, 18–23), and many similar passages clearly testify to the character of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Spirit, as the fully divine and fully human Son of God.

Preexistent Son

The trajectory of liberal theology since the Enlightenment has been essentially Arian (or Adoptionist, discussed below). In this view, “the Jesus of history” was a pious rabbi who was transformed into “the Christ of faith” through the influence of Greek philosophy on developing Christian orthodoxy. Yet even critical scholarship has found no basis for any sharp distinction between Jewish and Hellenistic Christologies in the early church. Jesus was crucified for claiming equality with God; he claimed to be “Lord” prior to David (Matt. 22:41–45), the “Word” prior to creation, and the “I AM” prior to Abraham (John 8:58). The New Testament authors urge faith in and worship of the man Jesus as God and Lord. The doctrine of the incarnation is the center of Christology, bringing together Scripture’s testimony to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus Christ, as summarized in the Definition of Chalcedon (451).

Exegetical Summary

While the Word “was” God (John 1:1), he “became” flesh (v. 14) by taking to himself our human nature in all its aspects in Mary’s womb, yet he was without sin (Heb. 4:15), by the power of the Spirit. Each nature is entirely preserved in its distinctness, in an incomprehensibly intimate union in and as one integral person, Jesus Christ. Scripture gives no place to a view of Christ that pits his divine nature against his humanity, nor assigns some actions of Christ to one nature and some to the other. Jesus, God and man, does all things from the Father by the Spirit. Likewise, Jesus’ growth and limitations and temptations were real; without surrendering or compromising his divinity, the Son fully assumed our humanity and redeemed us in and through it.

Dogmatic Development

This section concerns the main traditional heretical christological views, rather than specific persons who may be associated with them. As with the doctrine of the Trinity, the formal delineation of Christology arose, not from academic or philosophical speculation, but from the concrete faith and practice of the Christian community. The chief historical heresies regarding denial of the incarnation (defined above) are the Ebionite heresy, Adoptionism, Docetism, Gnosticism, and Arianism. The chief heresies regarding the relation between Christ’s divinity and humanity in one person (also defined above) are Apollinarianism, Monophysitism (or Eutychianism), and Nestorianism. The Monophysite and Nestorian heresies represent the extremes of two tendencies of christological reflection: the Alexandrian and Antiochene, respectively. Alexandrian Christologies tend to emphasize the unity of Christ’s person, sometimes to the extent that his humanity is absorbed into his divinity. Antiochene Christologies, on the other hand, emphasize the distinction of Christ’s natures, sometimes to the point that Christ seems to be two persons acting in tandem, one divine and one human. The Council of Chalcedon condemned both views, affirming the ancient catholic consensus that Christ is one person in two natures. During the Reformation, as a result of controversy over the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed came to suspect Lutherans of Monophysitism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ according to both natures), while the Lutherans suspected the Reformed of Nestorianism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ’s divine nature only). The Lutheran-Reformed debate turns on two key concerns: (1) the communicatio idiomatum and (2) the extra CalvinisticumWith the rise of Socinianism and then Protestant liberalism, Arianism returned to the fore; often by way of either Nestorian or Monophysite trajectories, Jesus’ true and full divinity was rejected.

Barth did much to revive a salutary emphasis on Christology “from above,” stressing that God was at work in Christ for redemption and that the Son is eternally divine and became fully human (but not without problematic elements in his views). Theologians like Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg have come from a different direction in line with broader modern trends, emphasizing Christology “from below” by beginning with the character of Jesus’ humanity to illuminate the character of his divinity. The latter approach, however, tends to end up with a divinized man who is quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct from all other persons. Only in the distinctiveness of each nature, united in one person, do we find the complete Savior who can bring total redemption from sin and death.

The Subapostolic Age

Key Points During this Time

  • “Jewish Christianity” became less prominent during the subapostolic era due to mutual rejection of each other by many Gentile and Jewish believers, though distinctive strands of Jewish Christianity persisted briefly in such groups as the Ebionites, Nazoraeans, and Elkesaites.
  • The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” consist of a loose corpus of texts in different genres composed in the subapostolic era, addressing various issues of identity, moral practice, and church life.
  • Apocryphal literature and other forms of early Christian literature attest to the range of popular piety and doctrinal convictions of early Christian communities.
  • Debate exists as to whether the subapostolic literatures are best understood as testifying to the decay in the vitality of apostolic faith or simply as distinct adaptations to changing circumstance.


The deaths of key Jewish Christian leaders and the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in Palestine brought a new situation for the church in the last part of the first century. The proportion of Gentile Christian believers grew, as Jewish synagogues took steps to exclude Christians and the more extreme elements within each group polarized to the extent that common ground was difficult to find. By the middle of the second century, even the church in Palestine was largely Gentile. However, three strands of Jewish Christianity survived for at least a few generations, each characterized by distinctive features. The Ebionites, whose name was probably based on the Hebrew expression for “the poor,” revered Jesus as a prophet and Messiah, but denied the virgin birth. They observed ascetic practices and were concerned with purity issues. They expected Gentile believers to follow the Law of Moses. The Nazoraeans followed the Law of Moses but did not expect Gentile believers to do so. The Elkesaites followed the Gnostic revelations of the prophet Elkesai. Within orthodox Gentile churches, the influence of Jewish Christianity may also be seen in the use of texts heavily influenced by Jewish Christianity, including the Didache, the Pseudo-Clementines, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Sibylline Oracles.

Out of the subapostolic period of the late first and early second centuries a number of texts collectively known as the Apostolic Fathers survive, supplying unique insight into early Christian thought and practice after the passing of the apostles. The Didache is a manual of church life. Dating from about the end of the first century, probably from Syria, this text focuses mainly on moral instruction for new converts and instruction regarding the conduct of worship practices and church order. Epistle of Barnabas dates from the first half of the second century and is primarily concerned with Christian identity. Barnabas argues that Christians are the legitimate heirs to the Old Testament covenant, particularly due to their figural interpretation of it, in contrast to the Jewish literal interpretation. 1 Clement was written in the 90s by one of the presbyters of the church in Rome, in response to leadership conflict in Corinth. The letter emphasizes the importance of stability and respect for appointed authority and includes rich imagery and theological reflection. 2 Clement is not actually by Clement, but is a homily of moral exhortation composed by an unknown author in the second century.

Shepherd of Hermas is a composite apocalyptic text from second-century Rome. It supplies helpful information about the organization and social location of the Roman church, but focuses on the issue of how to address post-baptismal sin. Ignatius was a bishop of Syrian Antioch who wrote a series of letters to different churches in the early second century, while en route to Rome to face trial and probable martyrdom. The letters depict a leader eager to offer testimony to his faith in the face of suffering and death, who is also concerned with stressing the importance of church unity in response to the threats of divergent beliefs. He is the first writer to attest to a three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyters, and deacons in each congregation. Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians in response to Ignatius; the letter is saturated with New Testament language. Papias of Hierapolis wrote five books of Explanations, commenting on the oracles of Jesus. Only fragments survive, offering a tantalizing glimpse into early traditions regarding the composition of the Gospels.

The second and third generations of Christianity also saw the production of New Testament Apocrypha—texts purporting to be from the time of the apostles, yet manifestly from different times and contexts. These include texts of various genres—Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses, for which a few examples illustrate the breadth of the literature. The Gospel of Thomas is an early collection of Jesus’ sayings, displaying an Encratite or Gnostic bent. The Gospel of Peter is a passion narrative with Docetic leanings. The Protoevangelium of James expands the narrative of Jesus’ birth, focusing on traditions regarding the Holy Family, especially Mary. Apocryphal Acts focus on the careers of the apostles, preserving early traditions about their ministries and deaths and often displaying ascetic tendencies. The anti-Gnostic 3 Corinthians was normally included with the Acts of Paul. In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus is depicted as offering a graphic description of the torments of the wicked in the afterlife. These texts provide insight into the popular piety of the second and third centuries, as well as clarifying the significant diversity that existed among Jesus’ followers.

Some debate exists as to the significance and use of the subapostolic literature. For some, they show the continuing development of Christian belief and practice along a consistent trajectory from the New Testament period. For others, they betray a decline in vitality and imagination, as church leaders focus more on structures, moralism, and legalism. In either case, they attest to the ongoing devotion of committed followers of Jesus, responding to changing circumstances and new situations.

Christ’s Threefold Office

Christ as Prophet
The prophetic vocation is not only to accurately predict future events, but more fundamentally, to speak God’s actual judgment and deliverance into history. Although Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” promised in Deuteronomy 18:15, he is not simply another Moses. He speaks on his own authority, which is the same as the Father’s; he forgives sins in his own person; he not only has stood in God’s counsel but has eternally and personally come from God. Jesus speaks God’s active word as the prophets did, but wholly unlike them, he is himself the hypostatic Word of God. He is the message as well as the messenger.

Christ as Priest
Christ’s priestly ministry is inseparable from his representation of the elect in the eternal covenant of redemption. Christ was “born under the law”—whether the covenant of creation or its recapitulation at Sinai—“to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5 ESV).

A. Christ’s Priestly Life

Jesus was appointed everlasting High Priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10 ESV)—that is, according to the “better covenant” of God’s unchangeable oath to Abraham rather than the Mosaic covenant’s Levitical priesthood, which depended on the mediation of sinful human beings (Heb. 7:11–22).

Jesus is both the great High Priest and the spotless, once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin. Beginning with the incarnation, he continually accomplished his Father’s will on our behalf as the unsurpassable thank offering. This is his active obedience or law-keeping (Matt. 20:28; John 8:29; Heb. 10:7). Simultaneously, he bore our sins—especially the curse of sin and God’s wrath for sin—as the unrepeatable guilt offering. This is his passive obedience or suffering.

Christ’s Priestly Death: The Meaning of the Cross

While the event of the cross cannot be divorced from the accounts of Christ’s life, teaching, and ministry that precede it in the Gospels, none of the other important aspects of Christ’s saving work can be established unless his death is acknowledged as a vicarious substitution of himself in the place of sinners. Christ’s cross is a sacrifice and satisfaction for sin. Though God’s sinful, covenant-breaking people could do nothing to reconcile themselves to God or avoid his sentence of just condemnation for unfaithfulness, Jesus offered himself on our behalf to usher in the new covenant whose standing is dependent on his steadfastness rather than ours. Blood atonement lies at the heart of both the offense and the wonder of the Christian proclamation. God’s motive is not abstract or arbitrary (much less bloodthirsty); sacrifice for sin and loving gratitude to God are fundamental to the covenantal context of God’s holy and righteous law. The substitutional nature of sacrifice is clearly seen in the Mosaic law’s description of the transference of sin and guilt before God to sacrificial animals (e.g., Lev. 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31; 6:7), vicariously representing the worshipers and their need for atonement. In Christ’s life and death, we have a thank offering that restores what we owe to God and a guilt offering that propitiates God’s wrath.

Christ’s cross is also a military conquest—despite all appearances, Christ was the victorious King even when Satan and the powers of this evil age thought they had won their age-old war with God. The meaning of the cross is multifaceted. All of the following have been proposed as theories of the atonement, and while each by itself has significant problems, several identify something important about Christ’s work—although the truth in any of them hangs together only in light of the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice.

  • Ransom theory—Because of human rebellion, Satan became our rightful lord; Christ triumphed over Satan by luring him into the trap of killing him at the cross (thinking Jesus was a mere man), though he would triumph in resurrection (through his deity).
  • Recapitulation—Christ redeems by becoming the true Adam and representing in himself the true life of humanity before God on our behalf, even unto death.
  • Christus Victor—Through the seeming defeat of the cross, Christ conquered all the demonic and sinful powers arrayed against God.
  • Satisfaction theory—Christ’s crucifixion was his just payment for sin’s affront to God’s dignity and majesty.
  • Moral influence theory—Peter Abelard’s view, taken up by Socinians and many Enlightenment thinkers, that the purpose of Christ’s death was to provide a powerful example of God’s love for sinners that would provoke our repentance and imitation.
  • Governmental theory—Hugo Grotius’s view that Christ’s death is not substitutionary or atoning but rather the basis on which the righteous character of God’s will and his rule are exhibited.

In modern theologies, various versions of the moral influence and governmental theories have dominated, in principle or in practice. These views have gone hand in hand with a denial or downplaying of the doctrine of justification—forgiveness is necessary only in light of real personal transgression. In all of their iterations, they rest on three false premises.

  1. A denial of God’s wrath and the necessity of his justice being satisfied.
  2. A rejection of the possibility of vicarious substitution in the relationship between God and sinners.
  3. An emphasis on the exemplary, at the expense of the expiatory, character of Christ’s death.

We should therefore bear the following points in mind when defending the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. The cause of the atonement lies in God’s own pleasure and love; God’s free expression of his love and mercy, as well as his holiness, justice, and wrath, flow from his own character, and none can be pitted against the others. Sin is not merely a weakness that needs to be reformed but also a guilt that is incurred, invoking covenant sanctions. The atonement is grounded not only in God’s moral character and freedom but in the united determination of the persons of the Trinity; vicarious atonement is misunderstood as a vengeful Father taking out his rage on a passive Son. Christ’s sacrifice is both a guilt offering and a thank offering, a whole life of representative service.

Finally, the question of the extent of the atonement has been answered in three ways in the history of the church: universalism, hypothetical universalism, or definite (limited) atonement (defined above). The following are the two main arguments in favor of definite atonement. It emphasizes the relationship between the Trinity and redemption; those who are actually redeemed in time have been mercifully chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. It emphasizes the efficacy and objectivity of Christ’s saving work; Christ did not die for the abstract possibility of the redemption of sinners (although his death is sufficient to atone for all sin whatsoever); rather, he died for the concrete accomplishment of the redemption of everyone who belongs to him.

Understanding the The Messianic Heir

All of God’s covenantal purposes converge in Jesus Christ. As the eternal Son who would take on our humanity, he is Mediator of the covenant of redemption; as the second Adam, he has fulfilled the covenant of creation on behalf of the elect; as the incarnate, crucified, and risen Savior and Lord, he is head and heir of the covenant of grace, along with all whom he has redeemed.

The Faithful Adam and True Israel

Like Adam, Israel failed to drive the serpent out of God’s sanctuary, succumbing to his seduction. But God promised to preserve a remnant from destruction, from whom the Messiah would come, who would finally crush the serpent’s head and deliver not only Israel but the nations.

Messianic Savior: Son of David

The Davidic covenant is like that with Abraham: an unconditional, unilateral promise of God’s own faithfulness to his Word—in David’s case, the promise of an heir who would reign everlastingly (2 Sam. 7:11–17 and reiterated throughout the prophets). The New Testament takes pains to identify Jesus as this royal son of David’s line. Yet he would not restore the temporal theocracy of the Jewish nation but rather would reign over all the earth in righteousness and peace, bringing Jews and Gentiles together in the unending kingdom promised to David.

Son of Man, the Second Adam

The Son of Man is God’s earthly messianic representative, who is given everlasting dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth—although his kingdom does not arise from any earthly regime (see esp. Dan. 7:9–27). In the Gospels, this title is Jesus’ favorite self-designation, emphasizing his mission to judge, to save, and to reignAlthough Son of Man, as the fulfillment of Adamic sonship, often emphasizes Jesus’ humanity (e.g., Matt. 20:28; Mark 2:27–28), especially in John’s gospel this title carries a simultaneous emphasis on Jesus’ deity (e.g., John 3:13; John 6:53–58; 8:28).

Servant of the Lord

In Isaiah’s Servant Songs (esp. chaps. 42, 49, 50, 52–53, 61), Israel’s corporate commission as God’s covenant servant is embodied in the person of the Messiah to come, the true and faithful Israel, who will secure redemption through obedience and suffering. Jesus proclaimed himself to be this servant (Luke 4:16–21), as did the apostles (e.g., Matt. 12:17–21).

Jesus & the Church

Key Points During this Time

  • Christianity developed within the community of Jesus’ earliest disciples on the basis of core Jewish beliefs, as interpreted and exemplified according to Jesus’ teaching, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection.
  • The most significant controversy in the very early Christian church concerned the terms by which Gentiles would be accepted into the community.
  • With the church’s expansion from Jerusalem, traditions about the work of particular apostles became associated with specific locales by the end of the first century, most notably: James in Jerusalem; Peter and Paul in Rome; John in Ephesus; and Thomas in Syria.
  • Early Christianity was not uniform, yet a common faith in Jesus and a common core of apostolic traditions helped shape a specifically Christian set of doctrinal commitments, worship practices, and ethical expectations.
The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul

Jesus’ first-century ministry of healing and teaching not only attracted large crowds, but he also gathered a number of disciples with whom he worked closely. Many acclaimed him as the Messiah, the Lord’s “anointed” who would deliver God’s people, Israel. After the Romans put Jesus to death as a political threat, reports of his resurrection led his disciples to become convinced that God had vindicated him as Messiah (Christ), and the events of Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection became the pillars of Christian faith. Early Christian beliefs, worship, and ethical practices owed much to the traditions of Judaism, to which were added distinctive Christian convictions about the role of Jesus Christ as the world’s savior.

The early church in Jerusalem consisted mainly of Jewish believers, though they were a diverse lot; some were Judaean, but many were Hellenistic Jews from the Diaspora. They looked to Peter and then James, the brother of Jesus, for leadership. Once persecution at the hands of the Jewish establishment broke out against Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, the Hellenists in particular were scattered, taking the message of Jesus’ gospel (or euangelion, meaning “good news”) into the synagogues of many different cities of the Roman world. Soon, even large numbers of Gentiles were being attracted by the Christian message and lifestyle, causing the most significant controversy for the church of that era: the terms by which Gentiles should be received into the church. The Apostle Paul effectively championed a liberal position on the issue, with the result that Gentile Christians were in the majority by the end of the first century.

Fairly strong evidence supports the tradition that both Paul and Peter ended up in Rome and were martyred there under the emperor Nero. Peter probably played a significant leading role in the church at Rome, though the claims that Peter was the “pope” are anachronistic. Other locations came to be associated with the work of specific apostles, namely John in Ephesus and Thomas in Syria. The church at Ephesus may have been the most influential church of the mid- to late-first century, very likely the point of origin of some or all of the Johaninne literature of the New Testament. Strong traditions also place Jesus’ mother Mary in Ephesus, under the care of John. East of Antioch, the gospel spread among communities of Syriac-speaking people, whose traditions preserved certain Semitic features and a literature with strong ties to the name of the Apostle Thomas.

First-century Christian communities were diverse. Yet they enjoyed a significant measure of unity, due to a common faith in Jesus, a shared heritage in Judaism, a core of apostolic teaching, and habits of frequent travel and communication between churches. Out of this matrix arose characteristics that would come to distinguish churches far and wide, such as a shared commitment to interpret the Old Testament scriptures in light of Christ, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday assemblies, and moral emphases.

Roman, Greek, and Jewish Worlds Set the Setting

  • Christianity began in a cultural setting defined by three circles of influence: Roman law and government, Greek culture, and Jewish religion.
  • Christian attitudes, practices, and social norms showed the influence of pre-existing cultures, yet were worked out within a distinctively Christian frame of reference
  • Judaism provided the immediate religious context for Christianity

Alexander the Great

The setting in which Christianity began was primarily shaped by three key influences: the political rule of the Roman Empire, the cultural impact of Greek expansion, and the religious legacy of Judaism. These three not only shaped the world in which Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, and died; they also provided the setting in which Early Christianity grew and flourished. The Roman Empire defined the political and legal environment of the early church. Christians faced charges in Roman courts and their cases were adjudicated by Roman appointed judges. Latin was the official language of government and was especially in use in the western part of the empire. Following the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Greek (Hellenistic) culture spread over much of the Mediterranean world and beyond. Greek was the language most commonly used throughout the Roman Empire. For centuries, Hellenistic standards were the primary influences on education, literature, and philosophy. As Christians developed their own theology, they did so mainly using the categories and terminology inherited from Greek philosophy. Christian practices were deeply shaped by the practices of the broader culture.

Jesus was born a Jew and his earliest followers were Jews. Although the Jewish homeland (Israel) was the scene of a number of revolts against Rome and was eventually taken away from the Jews, the principal elements of the Christian faith found their original significance in expectations shared by many Jews regarding the Messiah. Early Christian worship and leadership were modeled on that of the synagogue, and Christians used the Jewish scriptures, especially the Greek Septuagint. Christian ethics owed a great deal to Jewish principles. One of the most remarkable aspects of the story of the church is to be seen in the transformation of a movement centered on a person of Jesus’ humble origins, to become the official religion of the empire and a decisive influence on western civilization and the world.

Calvin on the Evils of Roman Catholic Worship

Calvin on the evils of Roman Catholic worship and the remedy for the idolatry of having images in worship. He writes, 

But, besides the clear testimonies which are everywhere met with in Scripture, we are also supported by the authority of the ancient Church. All the writers of a purer age describe the abuse of images among the Gentiles as not differing from what is seen in the world in the present day; and their observations on the subject are not less applicable to the present age than to the persons whom they then censured.

** Taken from Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, 29. 


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