"The first Christians were Jews." So begins Henry Chadwick's classic book, The Early Church. This post will briefly outline the history of the ancient Church as presented in Chadwick. The time span of interest ranges from the apostolic times of the first century A.D. to the Muslim invasions of the seventh century A.D., but the dating and naming of eras (which, I must mention, are my own poor inventions) are oversimplified for convenience. There are three prominent themes in Chadwick's history: response to heresy, interaction with paganism, and separation of the Greek East from the Latin West. This outline will focus on these topics, and I hope it may prove of use to others as it will to me in seeking the significance of this formational period of the Church.
The primary debate of the apostolic age (30-70) was over the continuity of the Christian Church with Israel, especially whether to continue with Jewish customs like circumcision. St. Paul the Apostle, in his mission to the Gentiles, appealed to the Greek mind by emphasizing the wisdom of God rather than Christ's fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, the main impetus for Jewish conversion. The outcome of the continuity debate was a middle way embodied in the Pauline doctrine: the Jews were the race chosen by God to prepare the way for his Son, Jesus Christ, and while the New Testament fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament, the latter remained important as a pedagogical aid to understanding the fullness of God's revelation.
The sub-apostolic age (70-140) witnessed three trends. First, the center of Church activity moved from Jerusalem to the Gentile world: Asia Minor, Greece, Rome. While many Gentile Christians respected the Roman empire as a just earthly government keen on upholding law and order, the first empire-wide persecution of Christians began as early as 64 when Nero found a scapegoat for a fire that ravaged Rome. The Church went underground. The final trend during this time was the emergence of the first great heresy: Gnosticism. More a collection of diverse teachings than a doctrine, Gnostics generally believed in a dualist reality where the material world (including the human body) counted for nothing compared to the knowledge of spirit (gnosis) reserved for an elect elite. Such dualism gave the Gnostics license to forego a moral code (antinomianism) and engage in debaucherous rites, while orthodox Christian clergy fought hard to extinguish the heresy.
The period of early theological formation (140-250) witnessed greater debates between Christian and pagan thinkers and the popularization of Christianity: paganism was on the defensive. One of the first great Christian thinkers was Justin Martyr. Trained in the schools of Greek philosophy, Justin came to regard Christianity as 'the true philosophy', wore the costume of a teacher of philosophy, and created the Logos theology: the Father was God transcendent while the Son was God immanent, the two being different yet the Word (Logos in Greek, implying Jesus Christ) being derived from the Father. Another theologian of this era - one of my favorites - was a man named Origen from Alexandria whose teachings were later condemned by the Church. A scholar devoted to the ascetical life almost to the point of folly and self-mutilation, Origen had great knowledge of the pagan classics and of the Old Testament, saw Christ as the connection between the Old and the New Testaments, and believed that an allegorical interpretation of the Bible (as opposed to a literal or moral one) could reveal eternal truths. This period witnessed several new heresies: Quartodecimanism, simply a refusal to change the date of Easter from the date of the Jewish Passover to the Sunday following it; Montanism, a following of a man and woman in Asia Minor who claimed to have been possessed by the Holy Spirit and demanded recognition (the Church reacted to this movement by declaring that the age of miracles and revelation had already passed); and Monarchianism, an attempt to protect monotheism at the cost of denying independence to the Son in the Trinity.
The great age of the Greek East (320-410) witnessed the legitimization of Christianity in the Roman Empire as well as the golden era of the Greek Fathers. After converting to Christianity and ending the persecution of Christians, the Roman emperor Constantine held the first ecumenical (all-church) council in Nicea in the year 325. The council heralded two achievements: condemnation of the heresy of Arianism, which held that the Son was a creature, albeit divine, and creation of the Nicene Creed, the enduring statement of faith for all orthodox churches to this day. The Creed went as follows:
"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father;
And He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets;
And I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
I look for the Resurrection of the dead.
And the Life of the world to come. Amen."
The Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (361-3) was educated as a Christian and in the classics, but adopted paganism, outlawed Christianity, and began another empire-wide persecution of the religion. Only two years into his reign, Julian was assassinated by a soldier's lance. Before expiring, the emperor is said to have flung blood from his wound into the sky, exclaiming to the pagan sun-god, "Be satisfied" (a more suspect Christian version of the story goes that Julian rather shouted, "Galilean [Jesus Christ], you have conquered"). After Julian, the Roman empire again became Christian, but paganism in its various forms lingered, including the outcropping of new sects like the Manichees, a Middle Eastern version of a universalist religion combining elements of Buddhism, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. This era in Church history was the heyday of the Greek Fathers: men like St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, who preached the Gospel with passion enough to displease local authorities, who had him exiled. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom still remains the main worship service in every Eastern Orthodox church around the world. Additionally, the tradition of monasticism reached fruition during this time. The rigorous discipline of the apostolic era-Church was officially abandoned by Rome in 251, so ascetic Christians withdrew from society. The formational period of monasticism was a turbulent one, as the temptations towards seclusion for sinning's sake or self-mortification were great until men like St. Benedict developed rules for harmonious monastical life. Finally, two more Church conflicts arose during this time: Apollinarianism, a heresy which held that Christ did not have complete manhood because the Logos is unchangeable, and Donatism, a schism over whether traitorous bishops could still confer the Holy Spirit.
The golden age of the Greek churches was followed by the great age of the Latin West (410-500). Before this time, Rome and the western Church lagged intellectually behind Constantinople and the theological tradition of the eastern Church. Jerome was the first great western theologian. He wrote caustic polemics against western heretics, had great command of the Latin classics, and infused his writings with references to them, setting the tone for the dialect of Western Christian theology (Jerome even once had a dream that he was before the Judgement Seat and heard the damning pronouncement, "You are a Ciceronian [a follower of Cicero], not a Christian"). After Jerome came St. Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the greatest western theologian of all time. Augustine came slowly to the faith, only accepting canonical Christianity in his early 30s and only beginning to seriously study the Bible in his early 40s. In his autobiography titled Confessions, Augustine addressed a prayer to God in the style of a Psalm, which described the suffering of a soul until it returns to its God. While his belief in predestination and his disapproval of the East's doctrine of the Trinity further estranged the theology of the West from the East, Augustine's work The City of God - a response to Plato's Republic and the sack of Rome in 410, which asserted that God's Church in heaven is separate from the fate of earthly empires - was a masterpiece. Also during this era, the idea of the papacy - the primacy of the bishop of Rome above all other clergy - reached fruition. The popes Leo I and Gelasius I epitomized the doctrine of the pope as first among equals and successor of St. Peter (the scriptural argument for Roman supremacy comes from the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says, "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"). There were three main heresies in this era: Nestorianism, which held that there were two separate persons in Christ; Monophysitism, which believed that there was one nature in Christ, not two (while the ecumenical council of Chalcedon in 451 estranged the Monophysite Oriental Orthodox Church from the rest of Christendom to this day, modern theologians agree that the controversy was due more to poor politics and linguistics, not theological differences); and Pelagianism, which claimed that man can take the initial steps to salvation without the grace of God.
Finally, the age of separation (500-750) witnessed the conclusive parting of ways between the Greek East and the Latin West short of the East-West Schism in 1054. Barbarian invasions in the west dismantled what was left of the once-great Roman empire (Rome fell in 410, Carthage in 439) and by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604), the Roman Church saw its destiny more in missionary work with barbarians than in diplomacy with Constantinople. At this time, John of Damascus (675-749) summarized the achievements of the fathers of the Greek East. Pope Gregory and Saint John were the last church fathers of the West and the East, respectively. While Rome turned West towards the barbarians, the Muslim invasions which rocked the eastern empire (Jerusalem fell in 637, Antioch in 638, Egypt and Alexandria in 641, while Constantinople only thwarted disaster by the use of 'Greek fire') turned the attention of Constantinople to the East.
Henry Chadwick also includes a chapter on early Christian worship, art and music, an intriguing aesthetic history. In his conclusion, Chadwick writes, ". . . Eusebius was no doubt right in seeing the successive controversies as making much of the stuff of church history, and most of the main issues then faced by the church in its formative period have remained virtually permanent questions in Christian history - questions which receive an answer but are then reiterated in a modified shape in each age." What a fascinating idea: new theological problems are ancient questions in voguish clothing. Can it be the case that, for instance, contemporary absolvement of the body from moral laws is a resurgence of a neo-Gnostic philosophy? Or, is it the same spirit of naive universalism which moves modern fad religions and philosophies as once inspired the Manichees? To what extent can we look to the past for insight into solving present dilemmas? One of the best reasons for studying the thought of the Church fathers comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, where Bildad the Shuhite says to his ailing friend Job, "For enquire, I pray thee, of the former age, and prepare thyself to the search of their fathers; for we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow. Shall not they teach thee, and tell thee, and utter words out of their heart?" Indeed, if we look to the past, we will encounter dozens upon dozens of generations of people who have left spiritual roadmaps for the modern man.