Early Christianity
The Early Church in Europe

Constantine   The most significant event in the history of European Christianity was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity. Born in 280, Constantine became one of the four emperors of the empire after the retirement of Diocletian. This scheme soon fell apart until there were only three generals vying for control: Constantine in Gaul, the least populated portion of the empire, while rule in Rome was under the control of Maxentius, and the east under the control of Licinius. In 312, Constantine threw caution to the wind and marched on Maxentius's forces, even though he was vastly outnumbered. The most important battle occurred at Milvian Bridge; he both won the battle and killed his rival, making him emperor of Rome and Gaul and soon emperor of the east as well.

   Constantine claimed that his victory was the result of his conversion to Christianity; he, according to one biography, had been instructed to carry the banner of Christianity into battle. Since he won the battle, he decided to become Christian. Even so, he was not baptized until he was dying many decades later.

   Constantine, however, had several problems with his new faith. In particular, foundational Christianity was manifestly anti-political. Its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, consistently condemned worldly authority and insisted that the Christian life is a non-worldly, individualistic, non-political life. As a result, the foundational Christian texts are not only anti-Roman (for Judaea was part of the Roman Empire during the life of Jesus of Nazareth), but consistently dismissive of human, worldly authority. If Christianity were going to work as a religion in a state ruled by a monarch that demanded worship and absolute authority, it would have to be changed.

   The early Christians had tolerated the emperors and regarded them as a kind of necessary evil. Constantine, as a Christian emperor, though demanded their obedience both temporally and in terms of faith. To this end, he merged the office of emperor with the Christian faith and assumed authority over doctrinal matters. Added to this equation was the divinity or partial divinity normally bestowed on the emperor. Constantine's Christian conversion did not stop him from presenting himself as divine both in the theater of imperial power and on coinages. There's no reason to believe that Constantine did not in fact believe that he was divine, even in spite of his Christianity.

   This was a new and unsolvable problem in Christianity. As long as the emperor was a pagan, there was no question of the relationship between the church and the state. The church did its thing and the state did its sinful thing. The presence of Christian imperial authority, however, led to severe conflicts and disruption. The question of the relationship between the church and a Christian government has yet to be resolved in the West.


Schisms   Constantine had other problems as well. In Constantine's view, the Christian church was a powerful tool for unifying the Empire socially and politically. If the church could become unified, that would provide a bulwark against the centrifugal forces pulling the empire apart. The problem, though, was there was no established or unifying doctrine. In fact, there were as many forms of Christianity as there were communities of Christians. The church was severely divided over fundamental questions; in particular, the speculations of the eastern churches on the nature of divinity were considered grossly heretical by the Latin churches. What would finally call Constantine into action to unify the church was the schism between the Arians and the Athanasians.


Arianism   The major schism between the churches in the Greek-speaking east and the churches in the West was founded on the eastern insistence in engaging in philosophical speculation on questions of doctrine; the western churches, by contrast, largely focussed on administrative rather than doctrinal problems. If the church was going to be unified, however, these two separate approaches had to be unified. The flash point came with the dispute over Arianism, which the western churches regarded as outright heresy.

   The Alexandrian bishop Arius, like many of his eastern counterparts, was primarily interested in defining the nature of the Trinity—God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost—and insisted in his theology that there was an absolute division between God and Christ. God the Father, he argued, was hierarchically differentiable from God the Son. The opposite position, called Athanasianism


The Council of Nicea   Perhaps the most important task that Constantine undertook was the Council of Nicea which was called largely to arbitrate the conflict between the western church and the Arians and to decide the question of the relationship between imperial power and the church. The Council dealth with more than this controversy, however, and made major doctrinal decisions that were meant to apply to the whole of the Christian world. This council is important as the first attempt to centralize doctrinal authority among Christians.

   The Council officially ruled against Arianism, but the movement continued until the emperor Theodosius I officially condemned it and rooted it out in 383 and 384. The basic orthodoxy of Christianity was instantiated in what came to be called the Nicene creed, the basic statement of belief for orthodox Christianity. Constantine accomplished more, however, for the Nicene council also ratified his own power and Christianity would begin the long struggle, lasting to this day, between the anti-political ideas of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christianity that is compromised to allow for human authority and power.


The Donatists   The most important conflict of the fourth century was the doctrinal dispute between the Donatists and Catholics; this created the most significant division in the western church until the sixteenth century and the advent of Protestantism. Donatus was a bishop in North Africa during the persecutions of Diocletian; unlike the rest of the empire, the persecutions in North Africa were relatively mild as the governor only demanded that Christians hand over written copies of the Christian scriptures as a gesture of repudiating their faith. He did not really interfere with Christianity in other ways. Many Christians complied with the law. However, after the persecutions ended, those Christians that had not given up their scriptures called the others traitors and would not allow them back in the church—among these "traitors" were priests. Donatus argued that the sacraments were rendered invalid if they were administered by corrupt priests—Donatus wanted, then, a church of saints rather than a Catholic, or "universal," church.

   The North African Donatists were fiercely oppposed by the western church and energetically opposed by Augustine, who was bishop in Hippo in North Africa. The Donatists, however, hung on as a secret church until the Muslims invaded North Africa in the late 600's. The reason Donatism is important, though, is that the movement was revived in the twelfth century in Europe as the Catholic clergy had become desperately corrupt. A new, popular movement revived Donatism and not only criticized corrupt clergy but declared them unworthy to deliver valid sacraments. In this respect, sixteenth century Protestantism in its attacks on the corrupt clergy was the descendant of the the Donatist movement.


The Patristic Age   From the third to the fifth century occurred a period of incredibly rich, creative, and brilliant thought in both the Latin and the Greek church. Some of the best and most creative minds wrestled with this new religion, its theology, its organization, and its social and political implications in a virtual flood of writing. The writers of this period were eventually designated Fathers of the Church or the Patristic writers and represent perhaps the most creative period of Christian intellectual activity.

   The character of this theological and social thought varied widely; there is no unified Patristic "thought." The most radical differences among the Patristics were between Latin and Greek writers; the Greek writers focussed heavily on theological speculation while the Latin writers were less concerned with abstract questions as they were concerned with practical questions of organization, catechism, and governance of the church.

   Church history has acknowledge four individuals as the most important Fathers of the Church: Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. Augustine is discussed in another section of this module and Gregory is discussed in the learning module on the Middle Ages.


Jerome   Jerome (340-420) was vital to the history of the church for his translation of the Greek Christian scriptures and the Greek and Hebrew Jewish scriptures into Latin. Before Jerome, there existed Latin versions of the Christian scriptures, but Jerome brought all his talents as a masterful writer and rhetorician to the translation. His translation, called the Vulgate because it was written in common Latin, became the standard text of Western Christianity until the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.

   Jerome was not a major figure in the early church; he lived a quiet life first in Rome and then in Jerusalem where he ran a school. In the Middle Ages, however, he and his writings would become some of the most influential writings of the patristic era.

   In his writings he advocated mastery of language; along with Augustine, he was one of the staunchest supporters of a Christian "rhetoric." He was also influential in shaping the severely misogynist doctrines of the early and later medieval church. He believed that women were nothing but bad news for men—their passions were uncontrollable, they fell into sin, they were not ruled by reason, and that they degraded men. These texts were enormously influential in defining gender in the Catholic church and the medieval world.


Ambrose   Besides Augustine, the giant figure of the Latin patristic tradition was Ambrose (died 393), whose monumental created some of the great triumphs and some of the great tragedies of early Christian thought. He was the most important figure in Christianity in the last twenty years of his life. His most important innovation was the importation of Roman rules of governance into the church.

   Ambrose himself had been a Roman official. As bishop of Milan, he did not see the church office of bishop as fundamentally different from a Roman secular office. The bishop, like a governor, gave decrees, edicts, and commands. The Christians under his governance obeyed these decrees, edicts, and commands. Like a governor, the bishop was an aristocratic figure whose central virtue was efficiency; this became the model for church officials well into the sixteenth century.

   Under this new concept of church officialdom, the church would be run under its own law—canon law—that would be based on duties and punishments of officials and everyday Christians.

   One of Ambrose's most significant legacies to the Middle Ages and the medieval church was his fierce hatred of women. Like many other bishops, he felt several pressures urging the church to gender equality. On the one hand were communities of virgin nuns who were held up as the highest exemplars of spiritual life; on the other hand, the Gnostic religions, including Gnostic Christian religions, accorded women something approaching gender equality. Yet still there was Paul of Tarsus, who claimed that women shouldn't speak on matters of doctrine. So Ambrose concluded that church offices, ie, the priesthood, should be completely closed off to women. It wasn't enough to assert this; Ambrose had to prove why women were insufficient to occupy priestly offices.

   He argued that women were fundamentally flawed, especially in the area of sexual control. He believed that women were destined, through their sexuality, to always tempt men as Eve had tempted Adam. This was not the fault of men but rather the fault of women's lack of sexual control. In many ways, Ambrose's exclusion of women from church office reflected the Roman exclusion of women from offices. Ambrose, however, introduced a radically new element to Roman misogyny—he linked female inferiority to female sexuality. It was female sexuality that was the threat and the fundamental flaw of women; this was the logic that explained such paradoxical views as holding up virgin nuns as being the highest examples of spirituality while at the same time denying women any official role in the church. One cannot overestimate the influence of Ambrose's linking of misogyny with female sexuality—it is the single most dominant aspect of gender relations from Ambrose to our time.

   Perhaps more disastrous was Ambrose's religious intolerance and his legitimation of this intolerance. Throughout the early years of Christianity, the religion lived alongside a multitude of other religions. On the one hand was Roman and Greek paganism, the official religion of the empire; on the other hand were a multitude of other religions, from ethnic religions such as Judaism to mystery religions such as Gnosticism and Mithraism. Not only did Christians live side by side with these religions, but they often crossed over and sometimes incorporated elements of these other religions into their own.

   When the Emperor Gratian (375-383) signalled that the state religion would not paganism by removing the statue of Victory from the Roman Senate, Ambrose formulated an argument that if were Rome were a Christian empire, no other religion, including paganism, could be tolerated. In his debate in the Roman Senate with Ambrose, the pagan Symmachus argue eloquently for religious tolerance, but Ambrose argued that there was one and only one correct religion and all others should be stamped out.

   This position soon became the church's position and had two far-reaching consequences. From the fourth century onwards, one of the principal characteristics of Christianity was its intolerance—in fact, often extremely homicidal intolerance—of other religions. For Rome, however, this religious intolerance was one of the central reasons for the disintegration of the Roman Empire. In many ways, the Roman Empire held together because of its religious tolerance. Subject states did not enjoy being under the empire, but the cultural and religious freedom that they had at least made it bearable. When the Christian Empire began to suppress native religions, areas under Roman control soon rebelled. These rebellions fractured the empire in pieces at a point in time when migrating Europeans were invading the frontiers.


Monasticism   The triumph of the church resulted in problematic changes to the church. Ambrose, as noted above, began a trend of reconceiving clerical office as something more along the lines of secular offices. The Roman concern with practical administration drained much of the spiritual mission of the early church. The Patristic writings departed significantly from the spirituality of the earliest Christian texts; in the place of faith and insight they offered only rationality and arguments. This secularization of the clergy and the church as well as the rationalization of Christian discourse led to the growth of a new Christian phenomenon, monasticism.

   The earliest monks were not clergy, but ordinary individuals who fled the poverty of the church to live spiritually dedicated lives while suffering extreme poverty and self-affliction. Seeing the church as too worldly and too materialistic, they lived solitary lives of severe ascetism, or "world denial." This form of monasticism in which an individual ascetic lives alone is called eremetic monasticism, that is, the monasticism of a hermit.

   Monasticism first appeared in the eastern reaches of Christianity in the third century when the Roman Empire seemed to be falling apart; in this sense, monasticism was related to the anxiety and uncertainty of the age. It did not really spread, however, until after the conversion of Constantine and the realignment of the church along more material and political lines. At that point, the practice spread throughout the east to Egypt and North Africa. The extreme forms of eremeticism are legendary; these ascetic monks soon were sought out by Christians who literally worshipped them and the various material that came in contact with them—or came out of them.

   In the fourth century, monasticism soon adopted a communal form. Again, monks were not clergy but rather laymen that came together in a community to remove themselves from the world. This form of monasticism, called cenobitic monasticism, was most successfully implemented by Basil (330-379), who, after a time as a hermit monk, came out from the wilderness to found a community of other monks.

   The most essential difference between the communal monasticism of Basil and the eremetic monasticism practiced before was the nature of self-discipline and rejection of the world. The eremetic monks would discipline themselves to reject the world by engaging in self-torture, sometimes bordering on the psychotic. Basil, however, believed that one could discipline one's body and will as well as reject the world through constant labor rather than self-torture. So the community of monks he set up engaged in constant physical and spiritual labor; this would become the pattern for both Western and Eastern monasticism.


Benedict   While Basil set the pattern for monasticism, the most important figure in its development was Benedict (480-547), who composed a set of rules, the Benedictine Rule that would become the standard model of monasticism in Europe.

   Monasticism until the time of Benedict was largely an eastern and North African affair; the Romans, ever practical, didn't take much interest in removing themselves from the world and took even less interest in torturing themselves. Benedict, however, changed all that. His rule—which, by the way, he largely copied from another source—stressed that the life of the monk should at least be tolerable. While the monk did constant spiritual and physical world, he would also get enough to eat, a little bit of wine, and a good night's rest. Eastern monasticism on the other hand imposed severe depredations on its members—fasting, lack of sleep, and other unpleasant privations. Benedict's innovations that softened the severity of monasticism made it a more practical life-choice. One could remove oneself from the world and dedicate every hour of every day to the service of God and the disciplining of the self without having to suffer severely.

   The eastern monasteries were composed of more or less independent monks; Benedict's rule, however, specified that the community would be under the rule of one individual, the abbot. That abbot would govern all aspects of the community and the individual members would obey the abbot in everything.

   The Benedictine rule introduced into Western culture the idea of regulated time. For Benedict believed that every waking minute should be consumed by labor either physical and spiritual. The monastic community was regulated by an uncompromising daily schedule. At a certain time of the day, one would attend mass. At another time, one would work in the garden, and so on. Our entire orientation towards time in European and European-derived cultures owes its origins to Benedict's regulation of time.

   The Benedictine monasteries were perhaps the most important cultural practice of the early Middle Ages. They were the centers of learning in Europe well into the eleventh century and their missionary work was the only reason why Christianity spread throughout Europe. They were also the only line of transmission of classical culture into European medieval culture; had the Benedictine monasteries not formed it would have been highly likely that the heritage of the classical world would have been lost in the Middle Ages.


Leo I   Our history of the early Roman church appropriately ends with Pope Leo I (ruled 440-461), who is also known as Leo the Great. He was really the first major ecclesiastic and politician to recognize not only the reality of the Roman collapse but its consequences for world being born. In the face of a dying world and another world struggling to be born, he recast the office of the bishop of Rome and its political relationship to other political groups.

   He realized that he needed to deal with more than the Emperor of Rome, who controlled very little territory, and negotiated with both the Huns and the Vandals to secure some measure of independence and political control. He recognized, though, that the loss of imperial power meant the diffusion of the church's unified influence over the Christian world. The church had to somehow replace the emperors as a unifying force—the logical candidate was, naturally, the pope or bishop of Rome.

   We're accustomed of thinking of the pope as the supreme head of the church, but this was only a slow development. The pope, or bishop of Rome, occupied a position of respect in the church hierarchy but was by no means pre-eminent among Christian bishops through the Roman period. Even in the Middle Ages, the pope did not occupy this pre-eminent position until the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Leo I, however, believed that the pope should somehow become both a political and doctrinal unifying force. Should the empire fall, the leadership of the West, according to Leo, should pass to the emperor.

   He based his argument for the supremacy of the bishop of Rome on an old, semi-developed doctrine called the Petrine Succession. In the Gospel of Matthew 16.15-19, Jesus of Nazareth lays his hands on Peter and gives him the "keys to the kingdom." Since Peter became the first bishop of Rome, the bishops of Rome were the inheritors of Peter's mission, including those keys to the kingdom. Leo interpreted the Petrine Succession as instituting the bishopric of Rome as the rock or center of Christianity; the bishop of Rome, in Leo's version of the Petrine Succession, was the primate or "first" of the church in all matters of doctrine and governance.

   The effects of this decision were momentous. The western church had long before that accepted the Petrine Succession so they easily adopted Leo's claim that the Petrine Succession implied that the bishop of Rome was the primate of the church. The eastern churches, however, did not have a long history of accepting the Petrine succession—this one drive one more wedge between the two churches. Leo's doctrine of the primacy of the bishop of Rome also drove the engine of the history of the early medieval church which in large measure can be read as an attempt to consolidate and legitmate the power of the pope.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-31-97