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.


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