Church History 101: The Age of Catholic Christianity (70 - 312)

A recent rendition of the Apostle's Creed shows a lack of modern understanding regarding the word "catholic":

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
He ascended into heaven,
He is seated at the right hand of the Father,
And he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy Christian church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting. AMEN.

The word "Christian", traditionally reads, "catholic," which means "universal." This is a version which has been gradually replacing the original - and correct - version of the creed. I assume that modern Christians changed this phrase so that they were not associated with the Roman Catholic Church. By doing this, they are missing the point that early Christians intended, and they are not living up to the spirit of the creed.

"Today, with the creed, we confess faith in 'the holy, catholic church.' That is what this period (the first century A.C.E.) gave us - 'catholic' Christianity. It was more than an organization. It was a spiritual vision, a conviction that all Christians should be in one body," Bruce L. Shelley, author of "Church History in Plain Language" wrote. The parentheses are mine.

What happened during the first century, "shaped the character of the Christian faith for generations to come," Shelley wrote. It was a time of intense persecution and phenomenal growth. At first, Christianity appealed mostly to the lower classes, as, Shelley says, we can see by their use of the Greek language. Higher classes spoke Latin. Before the second century, Christianity was being accepted by the higher classes as well. Intellectuals such as Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus of Antioch and Melito became the first apologists, which stems from the Greek word for "defense". These apologists wrote to the educated public in order to change the public opinion of Christianity.

Shelley writes that what started out as a "tiny offshoot of Judaism" later became the official religion of the Roman Empire. "Despite widespread and determined efforts to eliminate the new faith, it survived and grew. By the reign of Constantine (312 - 337), the first Christian emperor, there were churches in every large town in the empire and in places as distant from each other as Britain, Carthage, and Persia," Shelley writes.

How did this happen?

It first began with the Jewish people, Shelley writes. "Some authorities tell us that (Jewish people) may have numbered as high as 7 percent of the total population" in the Roman Empire. At times, Gentiles (both Greeks and Romans) were attracted to the Jewish religion and some became circumcised to identify with it. Some, however, did not undergo circumcision but observed synagogue services. The Jews called these Gentiles "God-fearers".

"The preaching of the gospel found its most fruitful response from this group. When Christian preachers made it plain to these folk that, without submitting to the rite of circumcision - which both Greeks and Romans considered degrading and repulsive - they could receive all that Judaism offered and more, it was not difficult for them to take one further step and accept Jesus as the Christ," Shelley writes. "Most of the 'God-fearers' knew the Old Testament well; they understood its theological ideas; they accepted its moral values ... This preparation for the gospel also helps to explain why Christians thought in catholic terms. Like the Jews and their synagogues, Christians had their local assemblies. But from the start they saw themselves as a kind of new Israel, a fellowship of believers throughout the world."

In Roman empire of that time, 'the world' meant 'cities,' so the early Christians began evangelizing in them. After 70 A.C.E, the center of the Christian movement moved to Antioch and then west to Ephesus, modern-day Turkey, and to Rome. Christianity also spread to India.

The expansion of Christianity to the north proved slow, Shelley writes, but historians know that there was a church in Lyons, France, where the great writer, bishop and apologist Irenaeus served. Churches sprang up in Spain and Christianity spread to Britain even though no one knows how it got there.

In North Africa, Christianity spread to Carthage (now Tunisia and Algeria). This is where the first Latin-speaking churches started. It moved west of Egypt to Cyrene and then to Alexandria. In all of these churches, Christians sought to make the gospel understandable to "people immersed in Greek culture," Shelley writes.

"By the end of the third century, no area of the empire was without some testimony to the gospel. The strength of this witness, however, was uneven. The strongest areas were Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Egypt, with a few other noteworthy cities such as Rome and Lyons. Village people in most areas were largely untouched."

Reasons for the Gospel's Spread

"There was a divine side to the expansion of the church," Shelley writes. "But God usually works through human hearts and hands, and there is some value in asking what human factors contributed to the spread of the gospel."

Shelley lists four reasons:
  • Burning conviction
  • Christianity met a "widely felt need in the hearts of people."
  • The practical expression of Christian love, and
  • Persecution
The early Christians felt a "burning conviction" in their faith. They were "captivated" by the resurrection and that "God had invaded time ... They knew that men had been redeemed and they could not keep (it) to themselves."

Christianity also met the needs of the people. Shelley says, "Ancient Stoicism, for example, taught that men achieve happiness by the suppression of desire for everything that man cannot get and keep." One could go inward and find God, Stoicism taught. On the other hand, Christians "added a note of grace. Only the active love of God - rather than the individual's self-respect - could make the Christian life possible and direct the believer outward to the needs of his fellow men. Many people came to see that what the Stoics aimed for, the Christians produced."

"The practical expression of Christian love was probably among the most powerful causes of Christian success," Shelley writes. Even Tertullian (160 - 220 A.D.), another Christian apologist and writer, remarked that the pagans talked about how much the Christians loved one another. "Christian love found expression in the care of the poor, of widows and orphans; in visits to brethren in prisons or to those condemned to a living death in the mines; and in acts of compassion during a famine, earthquake, or war," Shelley writes.

The Christians also respected the bodies of the dead. "Lactantius, the North African scholar (c. 240-320) wrote, 'We will not allow the image and creation of God to be thrown out to the wild beasts and the birds as their prey; it must be given back to the earth from which it was taken." Later, churches acquired land for cemeteries.

The last reason for Christianity's success was persecution. "Martyrdoms were often witnessed by thousands in the amphitheater. The term martyr originally meant 'witness,' and that is precisely what many Christians were at the moment of death," Shelley writes. "In instance after instance what we find cool courage in the face of torment, courtesy toward enemies, and a joyful acceptance of suffering as the way appointed by the Lord to lead to his heavenly kingdom. There are a number of cases of conversion of pagans in the very moment of witnessing the condemnation and death of Christians."

"The church is truly catholic only when it is impelled by the gospel to bring all (humanity) to living faith in Jesus Christ," Shelley writes. Many times, I have heard Christians say that we need to return to the days of the early church so that we can be successful, but what they mean is that we need to perform miracles and return to the excitement that surrounded them. From reading this blog post based on Shelley's exposition of the early church, what characteristics do you think the church should return to in order to gain "success" - or to carry out its mission to spread the gospel? It is a good question to consider. I hope this study of early believers inspires you.

Next week we continue our study of catholic Christianity.