Decian persecution (250-251)
While persecution in the first and second centuries persecution was sporadic, localised and sometimes severe. In the third century persecution sometimes became organised and state sponsored.
One of the things that troubled the third-century Roman world was a pandemic (possibly smallpox). This plague is often called Cyprian’s plague, as Cyprian (who is one of the church fathers), described what it was like at that time. Cyprian gave his life in the persecution that followed.
Constantine grew up a pagan. He was the son of one of the leaders of the empire. At that stage there were four leaders over the empire (two in the east and two in the west). His father was one of the two leaders in the west.
Constantine was with his father in battle at York (England) when his father was killed. The soldiers realised what a good soldier Constantine was and put him in the place of his father. Apparently, this was not how things were to take place. Now Constantine is one of the heads of the western part of the empire. He goes into battle against the other head of the west, in order to consolidate his power.
Constantine later told the great church historian, Eusebius, that the night before that battle he had a dream or vision. He says that in the vision he met Christ, and that Christ had told him to put the Greek letters Chi and Rho (the first two letters in Christ) on his banners. He went on to win this battle (the Battle of Milvian Bridge).
Now, all of a sudden, the church has gone from being a persecuted group within the Roman empire to having one of the empires in its number. In 313 Constantine and the emperor in the east, Licinius, sign the edict of Milan, which granted full tolerance to Christianity and all religions in the empire. In 324 Constantine became the sole ruler of the empire.
Constantine spent his later years building the city of Constantinople (or New Rome as he called it) on the site of the city of Byzantine at the point where Europe and Asia meet.
Constantine’s faith is an issue of debate. He had a wife and son put to death. He waits until his deathbed to be baptised for fear that he will commit as serios post-baptismal sin. He was baptised by Eusebius who we know as the great early church historian.
The Council of Nicaea (325)
In 318 a dispute broke out at Alexandra (Egypt) between the Bishop, Alexander, and one of his presbyters named Arius. Arius accused the bishop of Sabellianism, but Arius was denying that Jesus was fully God. Arius saw Jesus as being something between God and man. Arius claimed that there was a time when Jesus was not (i.e. that he was created in time).
Arius’s teachings were spreading. People could be heard singing a catchy tune that promoted the Arian view: ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’ Arius’s views turned bishop against bishop. Word reached the recently converted Constantine, who was more concerned about unity than truth. ‘Division in the church’, Constantine told the bishops, ‘is worse than war.’ To settle the matter, he called a Council.
The Council was held in Nicaea in Asia Minor (now in Turkey). Of the one thousand eight hundred bishops invited, about three hundred turned up. They argued and fought and eventually came up with an early version of the Nicaean Creed. All but two of the assembled bishops signed it. Arius and those two bishops were excommunicated. However, as we will see, that was not the end of the matter.
With all those bishops in attendance, it was convenient to deal with other matters of general interest. For example, Rome, Antioch and Alexandria were acknowledged as the three leading sees (seat of a bishop), with their bishops being given the title ‘Patriarch’.
Bishop Alexander of Alexandria had a deacon named Athanasius. When Alexander died, Athanasius become bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius spent his career defending the decision of Nicaea from later attacks. Athanasius wrote, that “those who maintain ‘there was a time when the Son was not’ rob God of his Word, like plunderers.”
Athanasius’s enemies called him the ‘Black Dwarf’, on account of the fact that he was a dark skinned and short Egyptian. He was exiled five times by four Roman emperors, spending fifteen of the forty-five years of his time as bishop of Alexandria in exile. Yet in time his views won out and shaped the future of the church.
But why did Athanasius have to defend the deity of Christ when it had been so overwhelmingly endorsed at Nicaea?
What had happened was that, a few months after Nicaea, Arius’s supporters convinced Constantine to revoke his exile. Arius even signed a version of the Nicaean Creed, that contained a few private additions. Constantine ordered Athanasius to restore this former heretic to fellowship. When Athanasius refused, his enemies spread false rumours about him. He was accused of murder, illegal taxation, sorcery and treason. It was the accusation of treason that lead to Constantine exiling him to Trier (now a city in Germany).
Constantine died two years later, and Athanasius returned to Alexandria. But while he had been away, Arianism had gained the upper hand. The leaders were against him and he was banished again. With the complicated political situation of the time, he was banished three more times before he came home to stay in 366. He was now about 70.
While in exile Athanasius spent most of his time writing to defend orthodoxy. He wrote a famous work about a monk that he knew. This work was called the Life of Saint Anthony. This work helped shape the Christian ideal of monasticism, was filled with fantastical accounts of Anthony’s encounters with the devil, became a best-seller, and made a deep impression on many people (including being a work Augustine read before his conversion).
In one of his letters to the churches in his diocese, Athanasius listed what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament, "In these [27 writings] alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed," he wrote. "No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them." It was this list that the church eventually adopted as the recognised books, and it is the same as those we use today.
Down to the middle of the third century the Roman church and other churches in western Europe were Greek speaking rather than Latin speaking. When Latin version began to appear in Europe they were of questionable quality. Jerome was commissioned to translate an authorised version. This became known as the Vulgate (lit. ‘common version’). The influence of this translation is seen in the fact that at the Council of Trent in 1546 declared the Vulgate to be the one authoritative text of Scripture, to which appeal must be made in all controversy.Jerome could be rude. He referred to his critics as ‘two-legged donkeys’ and said they were people who though ‘that ignorance is holiness!’