Five Turning Points of History of the Early Church

The history of Christianity is a continuity. Many historical events in the Early Church shaped the Christian churches today. In this blog entry, I am going to outline the five turning points in the history of Christian churches from the Apostolic Age to the times of Emperor Constantine that, in my opinion, impacted the ecumenical church the most.

I. Pentecost

The first turning point is the Pentecost after Christ’s ascension, when the Holy Spirit descended like as a “mighty rushing wind.” (Acts 2:2) The Holy Spirit started working in the church, the body of Christ, which is an assembly of Jesus’ disciples. Pentecost marked the beginning of the Christian church. While the Gentiles saw the Christian church as a cult or a sect of the Jewish faith, the Holy Spirit made the believers of Jesus Christ a distinct group. Christianity slowly evolved from a branch of Judaism to a totally separate religion. The Pentecost also started the movement of evangelism. The disciples travelled along the roads built by the Romans, converted people, and built churches in cities. Hence, the faith was not confined to the land of Palestine. Unlike Judaism, Christianity is not a racially exclusive religion. In addition to the existing Old Testament, the apostles and some early disciples wrote various books and letters that later became part of the canon of the Bible. These works were circulated among churches, and they were recognized by all or a majority of the churches. The addition of these books during the Apostolic Age also marked the distinction of Christian churches from Jewish synagogues. Some authors beyond the Apostolic Age, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna, wrote works of immense spiritual values. The Pentecost set off great academic Christian scholastics. Apostle Paul wrote great theological epistles. There were also other Christian scholars who wrote works such as dialogues with various faiths and philosophies (e.g., Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho), apologetics (e.g., Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Justin Martyr’s Apology and Second Apology, and Origen’s work against Celsus’ neo-Platonism), early works on the systematics of the Christian faith, commentaries to the Scriptures, and how Christians live. Their work interacted with their contemporary thoughts such as Platonism, Aristotelianism, Epicureaneanism, Stoicism etc., and defended the Christian faith as stated in Scripture.

II. Persecution Under Nero

The development of the church has not been without roughness. With the divine providence, Christians suffered from political persecutions. The second turning point is the persecution under Nero, the Roman Emperor from AD 54 to 68. There had been persecutions from the Jewish peoples and the Gentiles in many places since the Pentecost because of the theological differences from Christianity and pluralism respectively. On the other hand, the public were skeptical of the new religion because of rumors of Christians practicing incest and cannibalism. After the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, Nero, believed to be responsible, targeted at Christians as the scapegoat. (Chadwick, pp.25-26) In this persecution, a lot of apostles, including Peter and Paul, were executed. This persecution occurred only in the proximity of Rome, but it started the Roman-instituted persecution within the whole Empire for the next two and a half centuries. Subsequent persecutions occurred under a few Emperors, including Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Maximinus the Thracian, Decius, Valerian etc. The persecutions were of various geographical extents and manners. Some persecution involved the execution of Christians, with means such as crucifixion and beheading; some the confiscation of church properties; some torture such as burning in oil; some the encouragement of apostasy by luring Christians to be certified by sacrificing to pagan gods. Famous martyrs included Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, Blandina of Lyon etc. The persecutions strengthened the church, just as Tertullian said, “the blood [of martyrs] is the seeds of Christians.” A lot of academic works were written to defend the Christian faith from pagan and secular perspectives. For instance, in his Second Apology, Justin Martyr defended the Christians against the accusation of sexual immorality and cannibalism, and argued that it was the persecutors who committed the same thing. The Christian churches as one body grew during this persecution period.

III. The Great Persecution

The persecution against Christians came to a climax at the beginning of the fourth century, which is the third turning point: the Great Persecution, which started in AD 303. (pp. 121-124) At that time, Diocletian was the Emperor in the East, and Galerius was his assistant Caesar; Maximian was the Emperor in the West, and Constantius was his assistant Caesar. The question of loyalty in the army became a concern, and the Roman Emperors resorted it to the persecution against Christians. The cathedral opposite to the imperial palace at Nicomedia was razed on February 23, 303. An edict was posted the next day, declaring that all churches were to be destroyed, all Bibles and liturgical books surrendered, sacred vessels confiscated, and all worships banned. (pp. 121) However, the persecutions did not happen with equal ferocity in the East and West. In the East, when Diocletian retired, Galerius carried on a massive and bloody persecution in an attempt to bring Christians back to the traditional Roman religions. However, in the West, while Constantius did destroy some churches, nobody was executed. As a result, the Great Persecution led to schism. In the East, sacrifice was regarded as apostasy, but not the surrender of sacred books; but in the West, the surrender of sacred books was regarded by some as apostasy. The difference in opinions regarding the persecution and its aftermath aggravated the conflicts between the churches in the Greek East and Latin West, which were already culturally different because of not only the difference of lingua franca but also the intentional political division within one Empire. Moreover, there were more schisms at Rome and in North Africa, where a group called Donatists were formed. They broke apart from the catholic church, while they still proclaimed the same creeds. (pp. 124) The unity of church was undermined. The Great Persecution laid the foundation of further disunity within the Christian church. In AD 1054, the Great Schism permanently split the church into the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox. However, it did lead to positive consequences. Galerius issued an edict in AD 311 to put the Great Persecution to an end, announcing that it failed to restore the traditional religions among the Christians. Even the non-Christians in the Empire were unsympathetic towards the persecution. This paved the way of legalizing Christianity as one of the religions in the Roman Empire not long after the Galerius’ death in AD 311.

IV. The Edict of Milan

The persecution against Christians within the Roman Empire ended after the bloodiest one. The fourth turning point is the issue of the Edict of Milan in AD 313. Constantine, the son of Constantius, was the Emperor in the West. After a fierce civil war with the Emperor in the East, he recognized that it was the monotheistic god who made him win this war that was impossible to win, although he was probably unaware of the differences between the monotheistic sun-god and the Christian God. In AD 313, Constantine and Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, agreed to treat Christians benevolently within the Roman Empire. The agreement is called the Edict of Milan, which should probably be called “Letter of Nicomedia” because it is a letter, not an edict, issued in Nicomedia, not in Milan. The edict ensured religious toleration. The edict ended the persecution against Christians within the Roman Empire. Christianity was then regarded as one of the legal religions. From that time onwards, Christians were allowed to evangelize freely. Christian academics and institutions were protected, guaranteeing the continuity of Christian scholastics. With the momentum of evangelism built before the edict, Christianity became even more influential within the Roman Empire. There were certain Christian-influenced governmental measures such as the protection of the slaves, the weak, and the prisoners. Although there were efforts (like with Julian the Apostate) to reverse the trend, the Christianization of the Empire was unstoppable: Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in AD 380, ordered by the Edict of Thessalonica. It became the foundation of the cultures in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. Europe was once under the umbrella of Christendom. Even though contemporary Europe is post-Christian, the impact of Christianity is still beyond doubt. However, as Christianity became legalized, the Roman Emperor felt he needed to intervene the affairs in the church. This brought imperial politics into the body of Christ. It enhanced Christian influence on public life, but it also attracted ingenuine conversions in an attempt to advance to high places in politics. And the unity of catholic church was also influenced by politics, with the opinions between the churches in the Greek East and Latin West could be roughly understood through the political division between the East and West parts of the Roman Empire.

V. The Council of Nicaea

The legalization of Christianity facilitated the settling of controversies through official world councils. The first council happened a decade after the Edict of Milan, which is the fifth turning point: the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The schism within the catholic church caught the attention of Constantine, who felt the need to intervene to unite the newly recognized religion of the Empire. At that time, there were the Donatist controversy in the West, and the Arian controversy in the East. This Council was soon reckoned to be ecumenical. It settled on a creed, confirming the anti-Arian position of the church, which affirmed that the Son is “of one substance with the Father.” (pp. 130) This Council issued the first ecumenical creed in the history of Christianity, called the Nicene Creed. While there were similar ecclesiastical tradition that functioned as creeds before the Nicene Creed, with Tertullian’s “Rule of Faith” as one of the examples, the Nicene Creed started the good tradition to settle all controversies in creeds and confessions as official documents. It aids proclaiming truths with brevity and clarity, so that Christians could stand firm with clear conscience on the truths and the church traditions, as Apostle Paul said, “… stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15) Since the Nicene Creed, there has been more creeds and confessions that settled various doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversies through the history, including the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and even later the Westminster Confession.

VI. Summary

In summary, the five turning points that significantly shaped the church are:

  1. the Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit has been preserving the church as the body of Christ, distinct from the Jewish synagogues, and initiated the campaign of evangelism;
  2. the persecution under Nero from AD 64 to 68, that started the imperial persecution against the Christians within the Roman Empire;
  3. the Great Persecution under Diocletian and Galerius from AD 303 to 311, that caused schisms within the church, and was a precursor to the end of all persecutions;
  4. the Edict of Milan in AD 313, that ordered the religious toleration of Christianity, which later became the state religion of the Empire; and
  5. the Council of Nicene in AD 325, which set off the tradition of settling the ecumenical controversies with creeds and confessions with words, for the church to proclaim the truth with brevity and clarity against contemporary heresies.

  • Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, (Series: the Penguin History of the Church) (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1993).

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