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.

Summary

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.

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