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

Summary

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.

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