Church History:  The 200s

 

What happened in this century?

  • Persecutions continued and even intensified.

  • By this time, Christianity has developed into one institution, outside of which "no salvation is found."

Contact Mark Nickens, Ph.D. in Church History, at drnickens@triad.rr.com.  Questions, comments, and observations are welcome.

 

2009-2011 Mark Nickens

 

Go to Study Church History here.

The Big Picture:  The Quiet Century

The Third Century can be considered the "Quiet Century" of Christianity because persecutions were usually not widespread and internal matters began to dominate.  Two main stages of developing the Christian movement were over--the Apostolic Age, the Church Fathers--and a third stage, the Apologists, is coming to a close.  Christianity no longer has to defend itself as a viable movement, or even be concerned if it will last.  It has spread throughout the Roman Empire and grown to an extent that it can be considered a free-standing institution which can weather any attack.  As a measure of that, the emperor Decius, in 303, declared that all churches be destroyed.  So, by the late 200s, Christianity had become so prominent that it had buildings in many cities.  Thus the "Silent Century" witnessed what would be its greatest contribution to Christianity:  its growth in numbers. 

 

c. 200        Tertullian wrote "On Baptism" in which he mentions infant baptism.  He wrote against it, yet the fact that he mentions it proves that by this year infant baptism, or pedobaptism, was widely practiced.  To read his account, click here.

 

c.  200        Tertullian wrote "On Modesty" in which he used the word "Trinity" to describe the Godhead.  This is the first time that the word "Trinity" was used to describe God in a Christian sense.

 

More info:  To learn more about the development of "Trinity," click here.

 

203        A young Christian girl, Perpetua, is martyred.  To read of her martyrdom, go here.

 

c. 220        Development of the Clergy:  Tertullian refers to the Bishop of Rome as the "bishop of bishops" in his "Concerning Modesty."  To learn more about the development of the Canon, Creed, and Clergy, go to "The Big Picture" after the year 117.

 

c. 225       Tertullian died.

 

c. 230  The first church, which has been discovered, dates from this period.  To find out more, go here.

 

240       Sextus Julius Africanus died in this year.  He was one of the first people to predict a specific time for the return of Jesus.  He wrote "History of the World" which claimed that the Jesus would return 6000 years after Creation.  He claimed that Jesus was born in year 5500 (after the Creation) and would return around the year 500. 

 

250       Persecution by the Emperor Decius.  He believed the weakness of the Roman defenses was connected to the refusal of Christians and others not to sacrifice to gods.  All individuals who sacrificed were required to obtain certificates signed by an official.  Over forty of these certificates have been found.  To read one, go here.  Many Christians either sacrificed and received certificates or purchased certificates without sacrificing.  This caused a future problem when the church had to decide how, or if, to accept these apostate-Christians back into the churches. 

 

250       Paul of Thebes, the first known desert hermit/monk, fled to the desert and remained there the rest of his life.  Antony (see below) was more widely known.

 

250       Bishop of Rome/Pope Fabian was martyred during the Decian Persecution; his office would remain empty for a year because the church in Rome was in such disarray due to the Persecution.

 

250        Origen's list of suggested NT books.  Go here to see his list.

 

251        Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, wrote "On the Unity of the Catholic Church," which contained a definition of the Church:  "He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his mother."  In one of his letters (Epistle LXXII, 21) he stated "There is no salvation out[side] of the Church." 

 

The Big Picture:  The Understanding of One Church

The view of Christianity from sometime in the First or Second Century to the split between Catholics and Orthodox in 1054 was that of one Church which comprised all Christians.  Or, to put it another way, if you were not part of the Church, you were not a Christian.  Cyprian's definition of the Church above (year 251) encapsulated the idea of all Christians under one banner.  So by the mid 200s, the idea of one common Christian faith, i.e. the Church, gained prominence.  Therefore, by the mid-200s church leaders can make decisions which cut across Christianity about what to do with those who bowed under persecutions, and in 325 a Council of church leaders can be called, the Council of Nicaea, which defined what one has to believe in order to be a Christian.

 

251        Cyprian wrote "On the Lapsed" concerning those Christians who had sacrificed to the Emperor.  He believed that God would forgive them after repentance.  To read a portion, click here.  Not everyone agreed with Cyprian, as exemplified by Novatian.  He led a group of Christians who believed that the lapsed should not be allowed to rejoin churches so easily.  He was chosen as pope (and is considered an antipope by the Catholic Church) by three bishops who shared this idea.  While he was orthodox in his other Christian beliefs, he was excommunicated due to his schismatic actions.  The church body which he formed (consisting a number of churches) continued for several centuries.

 

c. 254       Origen died.

 

257-8        Persecution by the Emperor Valerian.  He forbid Christians to assemble and arrested many bishops.

 

258        Cyprian was arrested on September 13, and was taken to a public place and was beheaded in front of a large crowd (in present-day Tunisia in north Africa). 

 

260        The Emperor Gallienus revoked the persecutions imposed by Valerian.  Christians would, for the most part, not be persecuted again until 303.

 

c. 285        Antony (also Anthony) retired to the desert of Egypt in this year.  He is the first widely known desert hermit.  His example of desert isolation produced multitudes of imitators.  His type of monasticism is known as eremitic monasticism.  His fame occurred because Athanasius, a extremely popular church leader of the next century, wrote his biography.

 

300        Eusebius' list of suggested NT books.  Go here to see his list.

Primary Sources

Tertullian's mention of infant baptism:  "And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children."  From http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.vi.iii.xviii.html.  To go back to Timeline, click here.

Certificate acknowledging worship of gods:  "To the superintendents of offerings and sacrifices at the city from Aurelius . . . the son of Theodorus and Pantonymis, of the said city.  It has ever been my custom to make sacrifices and libations to the gods, and now also I have in your presence in accordance with the command poured libations and sacrificed and tasted the offerings together with my son Aurelius Dioscorus and my daughter Aurelia Lais.  I therefore request you to certify my statement."   To go back to Decius click here.  From Bainton, p. 89.

Defense of those who lapsed:  "But (say they) subsequently tortures had come and severe sufferings were threatening those who resisted.  He may complain of tortures who has been overcome by tortures; he may offer the excuse of suffering who has been vanquished in suffering.  Such a one may ask, and say, 'I wished indeed to strive bravely, and, remembering my oath, I took up the arms of devotion and faith; but as I was struggling in the encounter, varied tortures and long-continued sufferings overcame me.  My mind stood firm, and my faith was strong, and my soul struggled long, unshaken with the torturing pains; but when, with the renewed barbarity of the most cruel judge, wearied out as I was, the scourges were now tearing me, the clubs bruised me, the rack strained me, the claw dug into me, the fire roasted me; my flesh deserted e in the struggle, the weakness of my bodily frame gave way,--not my mind, but my body, yielded in the suffering.'  Such a plea may readily avail to forgiveness."  To go back to the Cyprian, click here.  From Bainton, pp. 147-8.

Question/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

Bibliography

Bainton, Roland.  Early Christianity.  Second Edition, 1984.  ISBN:  089874735X.

Cross, Frank L., ed.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Second Edition, 1993.  ISBN:  0192115456.