History of Church: Beginning

Francis X Murphy & Perry J Cahall. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2010.

The Christian Church took its rise with Christ’s commission to the Apostles: “Go out into the whole world and preach my gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). The historical fulfillment of that command began on the first Pentecost when, as Christ had promised (Acts 1:5), the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and disciples, and Peter preached to the “devout Jews from every nation … Parthians, Medes, Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Jews also and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:5-11). Calling upon them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38), “he added that day about 3,000 souls” (Acts 2:41).

The idealization of the picture drawn by Luke is not overdone. The primitive Christian community, although considered at first but another sect within the Jewish milieu, proved unique in its theological teaching, and more particularly in the zeal of its members, who served as witnesses to Christ “in all Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). While Christianity arose in the milieu of the religious life of late Judaism, and at first manifested an enthusiastic piety and messianic character similar to that of such sects as the Damascus and Qumran communities, the Christian Kerygma did not stop at the border of Judea, but penetrated the surrounding world that was unified and dominated by the Greek language and the Hellenic civilization.

Early Expansion

In Palestine, Greek was understood and used in business; among the Jews living in the diaspora, it became their native tongue. With the Greek language, a world of concepts, categories of thought, metaphors, and subtle connotations entered late Jewish ideology. The first Christian preachers turned particularly to the Hellenized portion of the Jewish people. After the martyrdom of Stephen, his fellow deacons, including Philip, Nikanor, Prochoros, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaos, seem to have scattered through Palestine, Syria, and the East and begun the missionary activity of the next generation.

The new sect received the name of Christians (Chris-tianoi) at Antioch (Acts 11:26), a Greek city, and, after his conversion, Paul addressed himself in Greek to the Jews gathered in the synagogues in the principal cities of the Mediterranean world. Paul was a thoroughly educated Jew, a Pharisee of the Pharisees in his own words, who in his travels addressed himself first to the Hellenized Jews, then to the gentiles. Paul’s powerful grasp of the central mystery of salvation in Christ, the Son of God, prevented the new religion from being infected by the Hellenistic mystery cults or from being absorbed into one of the Jewish or Gnostic sects. His theological insight preserved the mystery of redemption in and through the Church as the body of Christ.

Little reliable evidence exists concerning the missionary travels of the Apostles, but by the year 65 the Christian message had penetrated into Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. The movement was recognized, however imperfectly, by the Roman authorities, as is witnessed by Tacitus (Ann. 15:44) and Suetonius (Claud. 29:1), and Christians were apparently blamed by the Emperor Nero for the burning of Rome. In the persecution that followed, Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom.

Doctrinal Development. The theological evolution that accompanied the spread of the Christian kerygma was greatly influenced by developments in the late Jewish apocalypses, apocrypha, and eschatological literature and has been characterized as Judeo-Christian, its original impetus having been given by the community at Jerusalem. It was also strongly marked by the liturgical writings of Qumran, the angelological and eschatological doctrines of several dynamic Jewish sects, and the dualism of the Essenes. However, the collections of the Logia, or sayings, of Jesus and the Evangelia quickly found their way into Greek, and the Christian writers of the Apostolic age adopted the literary forms of the epistle and of the praxeis, or acts, in use among the secularist philosophers and their disciples. The next generation added other literary forms, adapting the diatribe, especially, to Christian use.

With the adaptation of literary forms came an assimilation of methods of propaganda and manner of expression current mainly among the Cynics, Stoics, Pythagoreans, and Epicureans, who spread philosophical and religious tracts among the ordinary people. James, for example, in his epistle, used the Orphic concept of “the wheel of birth” (3:6), and the Didache employed the Pythagorean device (also used by Hesiod) of the two ways in a moral context.

Conflict occurred between the Judaizers and Hellenists in explaining and developing the Christian message, as is evident from the Pauline warnings against aberrations from the traditional Faith that Christ gave to him and the other Apostles. This conflict is emphasized in the testimony of the Pseudo-Barnabas and the Clementine literature.

In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he indicates that the Church of Asia was organized with a college of presbyters and a president bearing the title and office of episcopus (bishop), and deacons. Some of the earliest Christian communities were seemingly monarchically organized, such as that under James in Jerusalem, but it is obvious that the faithful had a voice in the community life of prayer and witness to Christ, and they held the charismatic gifts of preaching, comforting the afflicted, and healing in great respect.

Gnosticism. One of the earliest heresies the Church had to address, which aided the process of doctrinal development, was gnosticism. Deriving its name from the Greek word for knowledge (gnosis), the core of the Gnostic system lies in the claim to a secret knowledge beyond that of the Faith of the Church, which had been secretly passed down from Jesus’ disciples to gain access to salvation. The Gnostic system was complex, and the movement contained many sects (like those of Basil-Ides of Egypt and Valentinus of Rome). The commonality among all Gnostics was an elitism that caused the Gnostic “elect” to look upon themselves as the few, enlightened, real Christians set above the common Christian believer. Dualism—in which spiritual reality is viewed as good, whereas material reality is viewed as evil—was another universally held belief in the Gnostic movement. To support this dualistic vision of reality, Gnostics claimed to possess secret knowledge regarding the origin of the world. In these elaborate creation myths, the world resulted from some pre-cosmic accident or disaster, with lesser gods or demiurges (often malevolent) controlling the material world. In this dualistic vision, the human soul was seen as a divine spark that needed to be liberated from the flesh. This vision led to polarized moral codes. Whereas some Gnostics adopted rigorous ascetical practices (some going so far as to reject marriage as evil) to liberate their spirits from the influence of the flesh, other Gnostics encouraged morally licentious behavior because the body had no real value. Dualistic beliefs meant Gnostics denied the incarnation, claiming instead the docetic (from the Greek dokeo meaning to seem) belief that Jesus merely appeared to take on flesh but was more like a phantasm. Gnostic dualism also denied the resurrection.

It is unclear whether Gnosticism predated Christianity as a syncretistic religious system, or whether Gnostic sects arose from within Christianity, amalgamating Christian belief with other religious and philosophical tenets of the Near East, such as those of Zoroastrianism and Platonism. From Judaism, Gnosticism borrowed and reinterpreted the creation narratives of Genesis, as well as Jewish apocalyptic views. From Christianity, the Gnostics focused on the theme of redemption but distorted it to mean redemption from the material world. Many think St. Paul encountered some form of Gnosticism in the communities of Corinth and Colossae. Tertullian of Carthage, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons are examples of Church Fathers from the first few centuries of Christianity who took up their pens to refute Gnosticism.

Clement I of Rome and Ignatius. By the turn of the second century, the Christian Church had emerged as a widespread entity united by a common faith and a communion of spiritual interests. The letter of the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth, although predominantly a moral exhortation to unity and obedience, reveals a consciousness of the Church as a strong, clear, ecclesiastical organization whose line of authority descended from God through Christ and the Apostles to the elders of the frater united community (Epist. Clem. 42:1-5; 44:1-2). Utilizing the holiness code of the Old Testament synagogic teaching, it imposed a Christocentric theology of virtues on the Christian community, advocated imitating Christ’s patience and long suffering (13:2-4) and guaranteeing man’s full deliverance in the Resurrection (24-26). Though apparently written by Clement I of Rome, the letter gives no direct evidence as to the structural organization of the Church in either Rome or Corinth.

In the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 116) to the Churches of Asia Minor and to Polycarp of Smyrna, a monarchical type of episcopal government prevails. Ignatius witnesses to a shift of spiritual interest from the Pauline preoccupation with Mosaic Law and original justice, to the Greek concern about fate and the value of existence. While the Judaic influence seems to have persisted in the Quartodeciman controversy centered in Asia Minor, in Rome and the Mediterranean cities there was a gradual development of theological consciousness that considered the Church a transcendent entity.

The Shepherd of Hermas in the treatise on penance described the Roman Church as a fairly populous assembly (c. 140) containing a segment of the rich as well as numerous poor. Many in both classes had relapsed into pagan ways of blasphemy and idolatry; they are described as hypocrites in concert with ambitious clergymen and dishonest deacons. But the majority are referred to as hospitable bishops, zealous priests, martyrs, and the innocent. The Church itself is well organized, with a hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. Considerable emphasis was placed on the achievement of gnosis (to be distinguished from gnosticism), or a superior knowledge of the triune mystery, particularly in relation to Baptism and the Eucharist. This was a direct offshoot of the rabbinic preoccupation with the “marvelous and true mysteries” that the one God “reveals to the hearts of his servants” as expressed in the Qumran theology (DSD 11.3; 15-16; DSH 7.1-7).

Formation of the Biblical Canon. The formation of the canon of Scripture was spurred in the middle of the second century in response to the teachings of Marcion. Marcion came from Asia Minor to Rome around AD 144. He was excommunicated for his teachings, many of which were contained in his book Antitheses. Marcion believed that the Old and New Testaments were irreconcilable. He associated the God of the Jews of the Old Testament with justice and wrath and the God of Jesus of the New Testament with love and mercy. He saw the law of the Old Testament in opposition to that of the gospel of the New Testament. Some have classified Marcion as a Gnostic because of his claim that the first generation of Jewish Christians had misunderstood Jesus’ message and his claim to have the true insight into Jesus’ teachings. Marcion also possessed some dualistic tendencies, denying that Jesus as the divine redeemer could have been born of a woman.

Rejecting any continuity between Old and New Testaments, Marcion claimed early Jewish Christians had corrupted the texts of the New Testament. He therefore sought to restore the text and compiled the first canon of Scripture in the history of the Church. This canon excluded all of the Old Testament texts and was comprised of only Luke’s Gospel (minus the Infancy narrative) and some of Paul’s epistles. Responding to Marcion’s canon forced the leaders of the Church to discern what writings should be considered Scriptural.

Over the course of the next few centuries, the Church undertook the process of discerning the biblical canon. The first-century Church had accepted the more extensive septuagint version of the Old Testament, which included seven books not originally written in Hebrew. However, deciding on the contents of the New Testament took longer. Questions surrounded texts like the Letter to the Hebrews, the Letters of John, and the Book of Revelation (due mainly to questions of authorship), as well as the Gospel of John when compared with the Synoptics. Other early writings, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and Clement’s First Letter to the Corinthians, were considered to have canonical potential, but were eventually excluded because they did not have Apostolic provenance. Some factors the Church considered seem to be whether the text dated back to the time of the Apostles, whether or not the text was used in the liturgy, and whether or not the proposed text was consistent with the received rule of faith transmitted by the Apostles and preserved by the bishops. The importance of this rule of faith preserved by the bishops as successors to the Apostles is attested to by early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyons, who provides a canonical list of Biblical books in his Adversus haereses, where he addresses the errors of Marcion. Irenaeus’ canon almost exactly corresponds to the modern day canon of Scripture.

One of the earliest lists of biblical books is the Muraturion canon, dated around AD 200. In North Africa, the Council of carthage in AD 397 published a list of canonical Scriptures, prohibiting that title for any other writings. The first papal statement on the canon comes from Pope Damasus in AD 382.


Tacitus described the Neronian persecution of the primitive Christians as due “not so much to their having set fire to the city, as to their hatred of the human race” (Annal. 15.44). This odium humani generis was equivalent to the Greeks’ misanthropia, a charge originally leveled against the Jews (Diodorus, Hist. 24), and subsequently used against the Christians because of their particular customs and refusal to participate in Roman civic and religious rites. Josephus listed these accusations as the adoring of a donkey’s head, ritual murder, and incest (Contra Apion. 79).

While the recognition of Christianity as a separate religion took place only gradually, there seems to have been a persecution under Domitian (81-96), apparently connected with messianic troubles and millenarianism, in which the senator Flavius Clemens was put to death for “atheism and Jewish practices” (Suetonius, Domit. 15) and Domitilla was exiled to Pandateria (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 3.18.4). The letter of Pope Clement I (1:1) speaks of the misfortunes of the Roman Church at this time, and the Book of Revelation (1:9; 2:3-13) refers to the persecution of the Churches in Asia Minor.

Accusations. Whereas Paul had called for obedience to the imperial authorities, Revelation registers hostility to the empire. This attitude is reflected also in the Sibyl-Line Oracles and the Ascension of Isaia. Under Nerva, peace returned. Trajan (98-117), in reply to the governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, decided that Christians were not to be sought out, but when denounced as guilty of crimes (flagitia), they were to be condemned if they refused to abjure. He also cautioned, however, against false and anonymous denunciations, indicating that pressure for persecution came not so much from the government as from people who were intolerant of those bearing the name of Christians (Epist.96.2-3). It is this decision, and not a governmental proscription, that Tertullian misinterpreted as indicating the existence of an institutum Neronianum (edict, or practice, adopted by Nero). The most famous martyr of this period was Ignatius of Antioch. Under Hadrian (117-138) Christians enjoyed comparative peace; but during the reigns of Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, they were attacked by intellectuals such as Fronto (Min. Felix, Octav. 9.16; 31.1-2), Lucian (Life of Peregrinus), and Crescens the Cynic (fl. 152). Galen, who visited Rome in 162 and 166, accused the Christians of fanaticism and credulity, but the great indictment was launched by the philosopher Celsus, who considered them charlatans and vagrants dangerous to the civic ideals of the Roman state. This was the basic accusation behind the persecutions.

The Apologists. By the mid-second century, the new religion had attracted a number of educated men, who used their literary competence in defending Christianity against the charges of atheism and idolatry, and began to assess the philosophical and moral thought of their contemporaries in the light of the Judeo-Christian teachings. They are known as the Apologists, but only a few of their writings have survived. They continued the catechetical approach of the older Apostles; this they combined with the propagandist methods of their contemporaries. Justin Martyr (c. 100-160) supplied both Jewish and pagan audiences with a rule of faith and a description of the rites of Baptism and the Eucharist while encouraging a conversion from pagan immorality to the Christian way of life. The Letter to Diognetus described the divine economy of salvation and claimed that Christians in the empire differed in no way from their contemporaries in marriage and family life, in civic custom, and the observance of the laws; but they avoided idolatry, strove to serve as models of moral excellence, and prayed for the preservation of the empire.

Reorganization and Expansion

In the last decades of the second century, there was evidence (c. 180) of a great reorganization of the Church and its missionary and catechetical endeavors. The Roman Church emphasized Christian unity in its controversy with the Church of Asia Minor over the date of Easter, a disagreement which persisted from the reign of Anicetus (154-166) to that of Victor I (189-198). Irenaeus of Lyons stated that Polycarp of Smyrna had visited Rome, but had failed to reach agreement on the question (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica 5.24.16). Although Polycrates of Ephesus acknowledged the Apostolic foundation of the Roman Church by Peter and Paul, he insisted that the customs of the Church in Asia had equal Apostolic backing.

Synods and Unity. The practice of holding synods to settle ecclesiastical problems seems to have begun in Asia Minor in the middle of the second century and was apparently based on a precedent of civil practice. Evidence supplied by Dionysius of Corinth in his so-called Catholic Epistles displays the interchange of doctrinal and disciplinary interests between the churches in Greece and Asia Minor. Testimony preserved by Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 5.25) indicates that in synods the churches of Palestine, Pontus, Osrhoene, and Gaul registered their agreement with the decision of a Roman synod under Victor that Easter should be celebrated only on a Sunday. Irenaeus gave a list of the popes from Peter to Eleutherius (174-189) and described the efforts made by the early heretics to obtain Roman sanction for their doctrines. Tertullian claimed that communion with the Roman See was regarded as communion with the whole Church (Adv. Prax. 1). He was the first churchman to utilize the Petrine text (Mt 16:18); yet the institution of the papacy had achieved a definitive form by the end of the second century: It was the center of unity. Rival claims to occupy the Apostolic see by Hippolytus (217-235) and Novatian (251) were disallowed by the other Churches, and these men were considered anti-popes.

In the dispute over the rebaptism of heretics that involved the churches of North Africa and Rome after the Decian (251) and Valerian (257) persecutions, Cyprian of Carthage acknowledged that the primacy had been given to Peter, and he saw in the cathedra of Peter a source of unity, while he still claimed the independence of individual bishops as successors to the Apostles. Despite difficulties with Novatian, Pope Stephen (254-257) asserted the validity of the Roman practice, and although a synod at Carthage (256) upheld Cyprian, no attempt was made to sever communion with Rome.

Local Churches. By the third century flourishing Christian communities existed in Gaul at Lyons, Vienne, Marseilles, Arles, Toulouse, Paris, and Bordeaux. Cyprian of Carthage wrote to the churches of León-Astorga and Mérida in Spain (Epist. 67) and mentioned the community at Saragossa. There were nineteen bishops at the Synod of Elvira (c. 306). In Germany churches at Cologne, Trier, Metz, Mainz, and Strassburg have left testimony in archeological remains, and the spread of Christianity along the trade routes of the Danubian provinces of Rhaetia, Noricum, and Pannonia is attested by the martyrs of the Diocletian persecution. North Africa was clearly a well-established Christian center based on Carthage in the late second century, and the Church in Egypt had developed with its center at Alexandria in the same epoch. A tradition attested to by Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century holds that the church in Alexandria was founded by St. Mark, disciple of St. Peter.

In Asia Minor synods in Phrygia between 172 and 180 dealt with the errors of Montanism (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.16). The satirist Lucian complained of Christians in Pontus (c. 170: Alexander 25). Armenia received Christian missionaries in the third century, with St. Gregory the Illuminator credited as bringing the faith there in mid-century. Antioch in western Syria had a Church of Apostolic origin from which missionaries Christianized the East. The house-church at Duraeuropos testifies to the presence of Christianity (third century) in eastern Syria; and Edessa, modern Urfa, and Osrhoene were likewise early recipients of the gospel, though the stories of Addai and Mari are legendary. Tatian and Bardesanes preached there (c. 170), and the Christian message spread to Mesopotamia and Adiabene in Assyria, to Parthia and to PERSIA, particularly under King Sapor I (241-272). A synod at Bostra testified to Christianity in ARABIA (c. 244), and there is evidence, however questionable, for its spread as far east as India.

Final Persecutions

The development of the Christian way of life and its expansion continued to meet grave difficulties from within because of doctrinal disputes, and from without, through sporadic outbursts of persecution. Under Marcus Aurelius (161-180), a Stoic philosopher, a series of physical calamities disturbed the empire in the form of famine, pestilence, and barbarian incursions. The people blamed them on the failure of the Christians to worship the pagan gods. A persecution broke out, the severity of which is indicated by the apologists Athenagoras, Melito, and Miltiades. Justin Martyr was put to death, apparently in Rome, with six companions; and a number of martyrs are recorded in Lyons (177), including Blandina, Photinus, and Ponticus (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.1-2). A letter from the Church at Lyons to that at Vienne described the persecution. After a period of peace, Septimius Severus (193-211) put down a series of Jewish insurrections and turned against the Christians, particularly in Egypt, where Leonides, the father of Origen, was martyred, and in Carthage, the place of the martyrdom of Felicitas and Perpetua (March 7, 203).

Caracalla (211-217) allowed his mother, Julia Domna, to propagate the mystery cults of the East, particularly sun worship, and Mithraism became an official cult of the army. This caused great difficulty for Christian soldiers and officials. Severus Alexander (222-235) showed clemency, influenced by his mother, Julia Mammaea, who heard Origen lecture at Antioch. But Maximinus Thrax (237-238), Decius (249-251), and Valerian (253-260) carried out systematic and severe persecutions of the Christians. Under Diocletian (284-305) and Galerius, a final attempt was made to destroy Christianity at its roots. The effort was not supported by the elder Constantius I in Gaul and the West, so it failed.

Conversion of Constantine

While the nature and manner of Constantine’s conversion is controverted, there is no question about the fact. With the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the taking of Rome (313), Christianity was accepted as a legitimate religion and rapidly reached a favored status in the empire, although it was not the religion of the vast majority. Determined to use the religious factor as a unifying force within the state, Constantine evidently employed Bishop Hosius of Córdoba as a counselor and accepted appeals in regard to the Donatist problems in North Africa. He instructed the bishop of Rome, Miltiades (311-314), to hold a synod at the Lateran, followed by others at Arles (314) and elsewhere, to resolve the situation, and resorted to force only later. With the rise of ARIANISM, he convoked the Council of Nicaea I (325), which defined the doctrine of the homoousios, or consubstantiality, of the Father and the Son.

Rise of the Pentarchy. Nicaea I determined also that, in the ecclesiastical organization, the sees of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch held special status as patriarchal dioceses, exercising some juridical jurisdiction as metropolitan sees beyond the boundaries of their provinces. The canons of Nicea mentioned the church in Jerusalem as having special honor as the birthplace of the Church (although the bishop remained subject to the jurisdiction of the metropolis of Caesarea in Palestine). Other sees, such as Carthage, Ephesus, Caesarea in Palestine, Caesarea In Cappadocia, Hera-clea in Thrace, and Arles in Gaul also assumed metropolitan status for surrounding sees; and the general organization of the Church was patterned on that of the civil dioceses. A fifth see soon gained prominence after Constantine constructed the city of Constantinople from 324 to 330 on the site of the city of Byzantium near the straits of the Bosphorus. Constantine made Constantinople, with its central location the capital of the empire, and styled it as the new Rome. By the fifth century, these fives sees—Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople—became the major sees of Christianity. The prominence and status of each, however, would be the source of much tension.

Constantine came to consider himself the providentially appointed guardian of the Church; Eusebius referred to him as an Isapostolos (the same as an Apostle). He started a vast building program in Rome that included the Vatican, Pauline, and Lateran Basilicas. He also built in Jerusalem, evidently under the instigation of Helena, and at Antioch and Treves. Eventually he transferred the seat of his government to Byzantium, which he rebuilt as the Christian city of Constantinople. His baptism on his deathbed by Eusebius of Nico-Media, however, gave encouragement to the semi-Arian bishops, and, under the sons of Constantine, turmoil marked theological disputes. A series of synods and counter synods involved such champions of orthodoxy as Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, and Pope Liberius in a sequence of painful exiles.

Basil of Caesarea died (379) just as the orthodox cause was about to succeed at the Council of Constantinople I (381) under Theodosius I (379-395), who made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Pagan opposition had reached a final climax under Julian the Apostate (361-363), but, with the removal of the statue of Victory from the Senate, despite the protest of the pagan prefect Symmachus, and with Gratian’s (375-383) renunciation of the title Pontifex Maximus, the power of the pagan priesthood was broken. Laws had to be passed to prevent the complete dismantling of the pagan temples.

Asceticism and Spirituality

The papacy of Damasus (366-384) and the close of the fourth century saw the rapid rise of a spiritual movement called Monasticism. Although one can find certain precedents for a monastic lifestyle among some of the Old Testament prophets and in Jewish sects such as the Essenes, most historians correlate the rise of monasticism with the advent of the Christian Empire. Once Constantine became sole emperor of the entire Roman Empire and started supporting the Church, persecutions stopped and martyrdom as a witness to faith no longer existed. Once Christianity became the official religion of the empire in 381 under Emperor Theodosius, many people joined the Church for political expedience. As it became easier and more comfortable to be a Christian than a member of any other religion, many Christians grew lax in the practice of their Faith.

During the fourth century, new witnesses to the Christian faith emerged in the form of monks. These men and women, the first of whom are referred to as the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, embraced a radical witness to the gospel by going out into the wilderness to live lives of penance and prayer for themselves and for the morally lax society they saw around them. They embraced an ascetic spirituality and entered into spiritual battle with evil in the world.

The word monk comes from the Greek word mona-chos meaning alone or solitary, and two basic forms of monastic living emerged, both having their origins in Egypt. The first type of monastic spirituality was that of the solitary monk. This form of monasticism is referred to as anchoritic (from the Greek anachorein, meaning withdraw) monasticism. St. Antony (251-356), who fled to the Egyptian desert around AD 270, is considered the founder of this form of monastic living. He embraced an eremitic (hermit comes from the Greek eremos, or desert, denoting someone who lives in the desert away from society) lifestyle on the east side of the Nile River, and over time many others followed Antony’s example, living in colonies of hermitages with Antony as their spiritual leader.

A second form of monasticism, also arising in Egypt, is the communal or cenobitic (from the Greek koinos bios, meaning common life) form. St. Pachomius is considered the founder of this form of monasticism. He established a community of ascetics around AD 320 in the desert at Tabennisi along the Nile River. Before his death he founded nine monastic communities of men and two of women, serving as spiritual leader of all of them. Each monastic community was divided into houses of monks, composed of twenty to thirty members, who lived according to a rule, or way of life devised by Pachomius to govern the community in the spirit of poverty and obedience. These early monastic communities were self-sufficient, with the members sharing times of prayer, worship, and labor.

Monasticism developed and spread quickly in Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor and was stimulated in Italy and Gaul, particularly by Athanasius through his Life of Anthony the Hermit. It attracted many who desired to follow Jesus Christ in a radical way and embrace a life of prayer and self-denial to witness to the world that seeking Christ is the most essential thing in life. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to Rome, with the development of the cult of the holy places and of the martyrs, took on enormous proportions and influenced the rise of a popular literature that paralleled the spiritual and theological writings of Ephraem of Edessa, John Casian, Didymus the Blind, and Epiphanius of Constantia (Salamis). The Lausiac History of Palladius, the Apophthegmata Patrum (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), the Historia monachorum, and the Peregrinatio ad Loca sancta of Aetheria encouraged ascetical and monastic interests. The monastic movement affected men such as Jerome, Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chromatius of Aquileia, and John Chrysostom. Many monks were called upon to serve as bishops, and others became great figures in the Church. Basil of Caesarea (the Great, c. 330-379) wrote a rule for monks in the Eastern Church and is considered the father of Eastern monasticism. Basil’s rule stressed obedience to the local bishop and emphasized the social aspect of monasticism, reminding monks that they could not focus exclusively on their own salvation. Martin of Tours (d. 397) founded a monastery in Gaul and is often called the founder of Western Monasticism. Monasticism in the West received a definite ascetic and mystical advancement with the writings of Evagrius Ponticus, who introduced order and method into the process of contemplation. John Cassian (360-435), a monk trained in Palestine and Egypt, produced writings that were incredibly influential in Western monasticism. Benedict of Nursa (480-543) is considered the traditional father of Western monasticism; he composed a rule that provided the dominant model for monastic spirituality in the West, centered around the simple principles of prayer and work.

Patristic Theology. The conversion of Augustine brought a new theological development in the West that, particularly through Ambrose of Milan and Rufinus of Aquileia, had been closely dependent on the Eastern Fathers. Augustine dealt with manichaeism, pelagianism, and donatism, as well as with the problems posed by the Trinity, truth, education, grace, marriage, virginity, and concupiscence. In the East, John Chrysostom proved an indefatigable homilist, commenting on St. Paul and the whole of Scripture in a popular and practical fashion. Jerome translated the Old Testament from Hebrew, provided a guide to the hebraica veritas, and utilized the works of Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea to put Scripture study, exegesis, and Christian literature on a firm basis. He encouraged an ascetical movement in Rome, and he became involved in the first phase of the Origenistic controversy precipitated by Epiphanius of Salamis. This occasioned difficulties between Jerome and Rufinus, as well as with Bishop John of Jerusalem, and eventually enabled Theophilus of Alexandria to depose John Chrysostom from the See of Constantinople, at the Synod of the Oak.

Two Theologies in the East. By the start of the fifth century, two principal theologies had emerged: that of Alexandria with its insistence on the divinity of Christ and an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures in the pursuit of man’s divinization in Christ, and that of Antioch, devoted to a literal interpretation of Scripture and an insistence on man’s perfection through the humanity of Christ in the Resurrection. The differences led to the Christological controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries and the Councils of Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), and Constantinople II (553), which made vigorous efforts to clarify the problems presented by the two natures and one person in Christ.

These councils also proved occasions for the expression of the latent rivalries among the sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople. The preeminence of the latter had been asserted at Constantinople I (381) when, based on its civil status as the new Rome, it was given a position of prominence second only to that of old Rome. Pope Damasus (366-384) voiced concern over this new status given to Constantinople, and this status was further challenged at the Council of Ephesus when Cyril of Alexandria ousted Nestorius of Constantinople as a heretic. At the Council of Chalcedon, Constantinople was given Patriarchal status and jurisdiction over all the sees of the East. Pope Leo I denied the validity of this decision, citing the lack of Apostolic foundation for the church in Constantinople and the primacy of the see of Rome through Peter over the entire Church. The canons of Chalcedon also freed Jerusalem from the jurisdiction of Caesarea and gave it the fifth place of honor among the great sees. Thus, by 451 the pentarchy of great sees in the Church was established with an order of precedence among them: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem. The bishop in each of these cities was given the title patriarch. The canons of the Councils of Constantinople I and Chalcedon, which altered the traditional primacy of sees (from Rome, Alexandria, Antioch), were not accepted until Constantinople IV in 870 and Lateran IV in 1215 (when the affirmation of Constantinople IV was clearly confirmed in the West). The interference of the emperors, particularly in the affairs of the Eastern Church, brought conflict with the patriarchs and a general, if reluctant, acknowledgment of the primacy of the bishop of Rome, to whom appeals in both doctrinal and disciplinary matters were regularly made.

Leo the Great. Pope Leo I (440-461) followed a tradition handed down at least from Siricius (384-399), through Innocent I (401-417), Celestine (422-432), and Sixtus III (432-440), in giving the Church organization a legal determination. He felt himself the vicar of Christ in the person of Peter and entertained a “care for all the churches”; he made liturgical, moral, and doctrinal decisions for the East as well as the West. His Tome to Flavian helped clarify the Christological issue at Chalcedon, and, in collaboration with Marcian and Pulcheria, then with Emperor Leo I (457-474), he attempted to stem the rise of monophysitism in Egypt and Syria. He defended Rome and Italy from the depredations of the HUNS under Attila (406-453), and the vandals under Gaiseric (c. 400-477). In dealing with the emperors, he was conscious that he was a citizen of the empire; hence he deferred to their authority, yet felt that that same authority was entrusted to the civil ruler for the enhancement of the Christian religion. This issue was further clarified by Pope GELASIUS I (492-496), who spoke of the “world as governed by two sovereignties, the papal authority and the imperial power that come from God, the supreme sovereign.”

Monophysitism. With the rebellion of Timothy Aelurus and Peter Mongus (d. 490) in Alexandria and Peter the Fuller (d. 488) in Antioch, Monophysitism gradually assumed a deep political as well as doctrinal and spiritual character. The great Monophysite teachers, such as Severus of Antioch (512-518) and Philoxenus of Mabbugh, were not actually heretics in doctrine because they followed Cyril of Alexandria literally. Their power came from their literary competence and the emphasis they placed on the spiritual doctrine of the divinization of man in Christ; they were aided by the persecution of the imperial government, which they used to influence the lower clergy, the monks, and the people.

The Emperor Zeno issued his Henoticon (484) to clarify the Christological issue but merely succeeded in occasioning the Acacian Schism between Rome and Constantinople. This was continued under Emperor Anastasius I (491-518), despite the efforts of popes Anastasius II (496-498) and Symmachus (498-514) to achieve a reconciliation. The Roman intervention was complicated by the rise of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy under Theodoric the Great and the rivalry of the Roman factions, one of whom elected Symmachus, whereas the anti-Byzantine party selected the deacon Laurentius and appealed to the Ostrogoths for support. Three synods in Rome (c. 502) settled the election in favor of Symmachus, and, despite a campaign of calumny on the part of the Laurentians, Theodoric accepted Symmachus as the true pope.

Age of Justinian

In 518 Justin I became emperor. He was Latin and Catholic, and with his nephew Justinian (527-565) he made peace with Rome, condemned the Monophysite factions, and supported Pope Hormisdas (514-523), whose decree condemning both eutyches and Nestorius and asserting the validity of Leo’s Tome and the Council of Chalcedon was made the touchstone of orthodoxy. Theodoric dispatched Pope John I (523-526) to Constantinople as an emissary; but despite an honorable reception, the pope’s mission failed, and the king maltreated him on his return. The philosopher Boethius and his intimates were also put to death in an anti-Byzantine outbreak.

Emperor Justinian I, a theologian and also an administrator, a legislator, and an autocrat, attempted to wipe out paganism and closed the University of Athens (529). He passed disabling legislation against Jews and heretics and introduced some Christian concepts into the Justinian code. At the suggestion of the deacon, later Pope Pelagius, he condemned Origenism as a possible solution to doctrinal troubles among the Palestinian monks. His close adviser Theodore Ascidas suggested the condemnation of the Three-Chapters as a countermeasure. Together with the Monophysite cause, Ascidas received the support of the Empress Theodora, who appeared to counter her husband’s religious policies, while living an edifying private life with him.

In 532 Justinian called a colloquy of Severian Monophysite and orthodox bishops. He pursued a vigorous policy of suppression of apparent Nestorianism, attempted to appease the Monophysite monks with the Theopaschite formula, and finally brought Pope Vigilius (532-555) to the capital and convoked the Council of Constantinople II, which redefined the Christological doctrine in what has been termed a Neochalcedonian fashion. The pope refused to attend the council after suffering ignominious treatment; he had issued his own Judicatum or Verdict on the Three Chapters in 548. During the council he put out his Constitutum, which condemned the writings of the three incriminated theologians prout sonant (as they read) but refrained from condemning them in person. The council (seventh session) condemned the pope and separated itself from the sedens but not the sedes (the occupant, but not the See of Rome); and in December 553 the emperor finally forced the aged pope to accede to the condemnation of the Three Chapters with his Constitutum II, in which he repudiated his former stand.

On the death of Vigilius, to counter the theological rebellion of the Western bishops, Justinian selected Pelagius I (556-561) as pope despite his previous opposition to the council. Pelagius found the West in turmoil, supported in part by the In Defense of the Three Chapters of Facundus oF Hermiane and the exiled African bishops. Schisms broke out in Milan and Aquileia. Justinian had given Vigilius a Pragmatic Sanction for the adjustment of civil affairs in Italy; and the pope protected the population against tax gatherers, the depredations of the soldiery, and the Lombard invasions. In his last years, the emperor favored the aphthartodocetic heresy attributed to Julian of Halicarnassus. But his suppressive measure against the Monophysites had had little effect. They were countered by the organizational efforts of James Baradai, and gradually Egypt and Syria became disaffected against the empire on both religious and nationalist issues.

In Gaul the conversion of Clovis (481-511) under the influence of his wife, the Burgundian princess Clotilda, brought the whole nation into the Church (as Avitus of Vienne remarked) and checked the spread of Arianism by the Ostrogoths. The tomb of St. Martin of Tours became a national pilgrimage center. Despite the interference of the kings in ecclesiastical affairs, more than thirty synods were held between 511 and 614. Among the more outstanding churchmen of this period were Remigius of Reims (d. 535), the great preacher Caesarius of Arles (d. 542), Germain of Paris (d. 576), and the historian Gregory of Tours (d. 594), as well as the poet Venantius Fortunatus of Poitiers (d. 601). The Gothic peoples, whose conversion had been effected by Bishop Ulfilas and by his translation of the Bible into Gothic, were gradually brought over from forms of Arianism to Catholicism.

Britain had been evangelized early; but the invasions of the Angles, Saxons, and Celts brought back paganism except in small sections of Wales and Cornwall.

Although Palladius had been sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine in 431, the conversion of the island was due to St. Patrick, who had studied at Lérins and Auxerre and returned to Ireland about 432. The Irish Church was organized on a monastic basis, and Irish monks set out from foundations such as that of St. Comgall at Bangor to Scotland, England, Gaul, Germany, and Italy, where they became an important aid in the development of the Church in the sixth and succeeding centuries.

Pope John III (561-574) made a strenuous effort to protect Rome and Naples from the Lombards, who had conquered Ravenna; and Benedict I (575-579) had to wait a full year before receiving imperial confirmation of his election from Constantinople. His successor, Pelagius II (579-590), turned to the Franks for protection against the lombards and supported Leander of Seville when he converted King Reccared (ruled 586-601) and the Arian visigoths to Catholicism.

Gregory the Great

Benedict of Nursia had laid the foundations of Benedictine monasticism with his monastery at Monte Cassino (c. 529) and evidently was encouraged by Pope agapetus (535-536) in the composing of his rule, which displays pedagogical wisdom and well-balanced asceticism in leading the monks to a perfect following of Christ. Benedictine monasticism received a great stimulus from Gregory I the great (590-604), who had served both as prefect of the city of Rome and as papal Apocrisiarius in Constantinople before being elected pope. Despite war and pestilence brought to Italy through the depredations of the Lombards and the continued schism in Milan, he initiated a far-sighted program of reform. He reformed church music and the liturgy, and, as his tombstone proclaimed, as the Consul Dei, he made efforts to bring the Germanic peoples closer to the papacy and sent Augustine of Canterbury and his companions as missionaries to the British Isles. He protested the use of the title Ecumenical Patriarch for the archbishop of Constantinople. His pastoral and exegetical writings helped to preserve a modicum of ecclesiastical culture for succeeding ages. His Liber regulae pastoralis was translated into Greek during his own lifetime and into Anglo-Saxon by Alfred the Great. His Moralia is a practical handbook of pastoral morality, in the form of a commentary on the Book of job. His exegesis of the Gospels and of Ezekiel, as well as his Dialogues on the lives and miracles of the Italian saints, though replete with legends, filled a great ascetical and spiritual need; and his 848 letters contain a major portion of the history of his age. While Cassiodorus (d. c. 580), at his retreat in Vivarium, Calabria, preserved theological and literary learning through his Institutiones divinarum et saecularium lectionum and his Historia tripartita ecclesiastica, Gregory, as the servus servorum Dei, created the moral, doctrinal, and pastoral atmosphere that prevailed in the early Middle Ages.

The first period of Church history came to a natural close with Gregory. The reasons for the rise and spread of the Christian Church have challenged the ingenuity and competence of historians, particularly in modern times, but the problem is impossible to solve without an acknowledgment of the intervention of divine providence in the course of human events. It is equally insolvable without a realization that the Church, although divine in its origin and objective, is governed by human beings whose perceptions and ambitions frequently trail far behind the grace and inspiration needed to give finality to the achievement of the kingdom of God on earth.