“We murder to dissect,” said Wordsworth (in “The Tables Turned”). He wasn’t talking about church history, but he could have been. Anyone who tries to dissect the twined and tangled narratives of history into neat eras and linear movements, to bring order out of the chaos, is doomed to do some murdering of his own. So let’s get to it. I’ve chosen four pairs of identities for my vivisection: martyrs and monks, hellenists and heretics, emperors and enemies, and scholars and scientists.
Martyrs & Monks
According to church tradition, many of the apostles suffered brutal persecution and death under Nero (A.D. 37–68). Unfortunately, that was just the beginning. Those who inherited the faith from the apostles often shared their fate. Stories of martyrdom from the earliest churches abound: Ignatius and Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicitas, etc. There were particularly fierce periods of persecution under emperors such as Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, and—worst of all—Diocletian and Galerius. Some who “made the good confession” (1 Tim 6:12–13) in the face of persecution survived (“confessors”), and the church held them in high regard. But many did not survive (“martyrs”), and they were honored above all. Of course, there were also some who denied the faith under pain of death, only to repent when the danger subsided (“lapses”). Eventually, the dilemma of how to handle lapsed believers would roil the early church.
The Roman policy of persecution ultimately backfired, however. Martyrs became cult heroes of a sort, and their blood, to butcher Tertullian, was sprinkled across the empire like so many gospel seeds. Christianity spread at a viral pace and began to infiltrate the higher military, social, and political classes. Christianity gradually became tolerable—even respectable. As persecution waned, Christians grew comfortable. Bishops consolidated ecclesiastical power and wealth. The “blessed are the poor” aspect of Christianity was in need of recovery, and third-century monks answered the call. At first, it was a solitary affair—one thinks of Anthony and the Desert Fathers. Only later did monks order themselves into communities under a monastic rule. Those early monks and monasteries self-consciously played “John the Baptists” to the “Herods” of the established church, calling for repentance from worldly excess, for humility and simplicity of lifestyle, and for care of the poor. These virtues attracted even more interest from the pagan world.
Hellenists & Heretics
Intellectual engagement was another trajectory of the early church. When Christians weren’t being killed, they were being slandered by pagan critics who sought to discredit the faith, often with spurious arguments from Greek philosophy and rhetoric. But Christian apologists soon rose up to defend the faith, men like Justin Martyr (First Apology), Tatian (Address to the Greeks), Athenagoras (A Plea for the Christians), Theophilus (To Autolycus), Tertullian (Apologeticus), and Origen (Against Celsus). Instead of rejecting the philosophers out of hand, though, they showed how the best of Greek reason was compatible with Christian revelation. They critiqued some of it, of course, but there was much to plunder and reappropriate. “Their object was to christianize Hellenism,” according to Leslie William Barnard, “not to hellenize Christianity” (Athenagoras). Thus it was that Christian doctrine, already framed in the Koine of the New Testament, became ever more conversant with Hellenistic thought.
But that was a double-edged sword, and threats to orthodoxy were not merely external. Even as the apologists were exchanging salvos with the Greeks, some troubling ideas were emerging within the church as well: Gnosticism, Marcionism, etc. These were not the rapprochement and retrieval projects of the apologists but syncretistic stews of Hellenism and Christianity. In response, the early church clarified its book and beliefs. The New Testament was fixed at 27 books, and creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed were added to baptismal rites. As heretical teaching proliferated, so did the councils and creeds of the church. In A.D. 325, the Council of Nicaea crafted a creed to defend Trinitarian orthodoxy from Arius, who taught that the Son was created by the Father. At the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381, Gregory and Athanasius led the charge against Apollinaris, who taught that Jesus was not homoousios (“of the same substance”) with man. Many other councils and synods would follow as the church faced new challenges to orthodoxy.
Emperors & Enemies
The Council of Nicaea was a first for several reasons. It was the first ecumenical council, but it also marked the first intervention of the state in church affairs. The Roman Emperor Constantine claimed that the Christian God gave him victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge because his soldiers carried the Chi-Rho, an early Christian symbol, as their standard. Therefore, he legalized Christianity and became the first in a long line of “Christian” emperors. Thus began the age of imperial Christianity, the church-state complex (an industrial complex par excellence!) now known as Christendom. Constantine convened the council at Nicaea when it became clear that Arianism was a threat to Christian and therefore imperial unity. The latter was certainly his chief concern, which meant that Christianity had become useful—a religious means to a political end. Sadly, all of Christian history bears witness that when Christianity becomes useful, it ceases to be vital.
The church never died, of course. In fact, outwardly, it grew by every worldly metric: power, wealth, status, etc. When “Roman” became synonymous with “Christian,” the church became coterminous with empire, rapidly expanding its spiritual dominion to the furthest reaches of the Roman oecumene. But the church’s co-belligerency with Rome sapped vital energy from her mission, enmeshing her in the affairs of state and infecting her with worldly lusts and ambition. The transformation was virtually complete when the popes stepped into the power vacuum in Rome created by the imperial pivot to Constantinople. When Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, sacked Rome in A.D. 410, there were no resplendent Roman legions left, no elite infantry to crush the invaders. Instead, Rome’s first line of defense was Pope Innocent I, and all he could do was beg for mercy.
When Islam came calling, the church went on the offensive, ostensibly to defend the holy land. But ulterior motives often prevailed, making the crusades perhaps the nadir of Christian history. Crusaders put the nail in the coffin of East-West relations—already strained officially by schism (A.D. 1054) and unofficially by centuries of cultural, linguistic, and theological drift—when they sacked Constantinople in A.D. 1204. Christians who had taken up the sword against one another would die by the sword. From there, Christendom played out in many and various iterations, from the short-lived Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne in the West to the millennium of Byzantine Empire in the East. Though each iteration looked different, all of them strained to recover the faded glory of Rome in the heyday of Constantine.
Scholars & Scientists
Whether the storyline of imperial Christianity is central or peripheral to church history is a matter of perspective. While popes were bedding up with the rich and the famous—actually, they were the rich and the famous for centuries—Europe was falling headlong into the so-called Dark Ages, a period of cultural and economic deterioration that threatened the survival of classical civilization. But there were bright spots. Far from the centers of power, at the fringes of the known world, missionaries like St. Patrick were working tirelessly to spread the gospel among the least and the forgotten. Here were fledgling movements that actually resembled the Sermon on the Mount. And from these corners of the world, lowly scribes learned to preserve manuscripts that became the basis for the scholastic renewal of medieval Christianity. Universities were formed in Oxford and Paris to pursue the scholastic ideal, and Europe recovered a measure of scholarship from antiquity.
With the Renaissance, this renewal of classical learning branched out into the arts and sciences. European explorers ventured further and further out in search of new trade routes, and national governments underwrote these ventures in hopes of enriching their treasuries and expanding their territories. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese explorers eventually reached the New World, bringing with them a mixed bag of economic, political, and religious agendas. Despite widespread corruption and greed, earnest monks and missionaries labored in defense of the abused American natives. Against all odds, the gospel advanced in the New World. Meanwhile, the Western church back in Europe was beginning to feel the foreshocks of the Reformation with radicals like Peter Waldo, John Wyclif, Jan Hus, and Girolamo Savonarola. The advent of the Gutenberg press would fan the flames of these fledgling movements with the kindling of biblical scholarship and literacy. There were holes in the edifice of the “catholic” church, and they were about to be blown wide open.