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.

Summary
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

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.


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.

Summary

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

Summary

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.


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”

Summary

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.

Summary

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.


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.

Summary

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.


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.


Why Study Historical Theology?

1. The study of history provides a classic mode of learning. Examination of primary and secondary sources help students to think about their subject rigorously. They must learn to organize and assess evidence, analyze problems, interpret complex events, and, finally, to write with clarity and precision. In short, studying Church History helps students learn how to learn.

2. History is popular. History’s special appeal comes from its distinctive subject matter, the human past. Church History is interesting because it deals with real people and events, not with abstractions.  The history of the Christian Church from the earliest times to the present offers a boundless variety for selecting favorite topics and pursuing personal interests.

3. Historical knowledge is important. Amnesia is devastating on the individual level. If I do not know who I am and where I have come from, then I cannot know where I am or should be headed.