Sunday, October 11, 2015

Christianity goes public

Legalization of Christianity allowed two councils to come up with the first formally adopted essential theological synthesis—or symbolon—of faith, the Nicene Creed. The change also brought about a huge transformation in the practices of Christians, their communities and places of worship into something vaguely recognizable to the modern eye.

To understand the change it is worth taking a good quick look at the “before” and “after” pictures of Christians as a social group.


The ante-Nicene Church was secret, persecuted and run by hardy volunteers who circulated carefully guarded writings and gathered in prearranged hidden places, often homes, for prayer, worship and study.

These communities started out as overwhelmingly Jewish in belief and practice but slowly began to Hellenize as rabbis opposed the followers of Jesus and Gentiles began to overwhelm in number the Jewish Christians. The geographic center of gravity of the Christian community still tilted toward Jerusalem, the destroyed original mother church, but slowly began to turn toward culturally Greek Asia Minor, today Turkey. The Judaic influence gave way to the Hellenic, to the point that almost all extant early manuscripts of Christian writings, including the New Testament, are only available in Greek.

They were originally led by a motley crew of 11 Jewish tradespeople who used the network of Roman roads to tell the story of the executed Galilean who had risen from the dead—the major selling point among people groaning under Roman rule—and spread the faith. Before moving on, however, they delegated someone as their stand-in overseer to teach and develop the faith of the new community of believers; these episkopos (bishops) in turn delegated their role to the elders of the community (presbyteros, or priests). These were all part-time unpaid amateurs and did it only out of conviction.

In Rome they gathered in underground caves known as catacombs, which can be toured today. Elsewhere they gather in homes or other secret places. They had secret signs, such as the crudely drawn fish—in Greek, ichthys—an acrostic for Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter, which translates into “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” In the classic 1951 film “Quo Vadis?” Deborah Kerr, who plays a young early Christian, draws it in the dust to test whether the Roman officer to whom she is attracted, played by Robert Taylor, is a believer; she cringes when he unwittingly reveals he is a pagan by saying, “Am I as ugly as that fish?”

In particular, eucharistic gatherings were closely protected to the point that the “secret of the Eucharist” was observed up to the 6th century in some localities; this meant that only baptized and confirmed Christians were welcome. This was for good reason: outside lay a hostile society and government, ready to kill them all at the slightest betrayal.


The post-Nicene Church was different in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it became legally tolerated in 313; in 380 it came to be the official religion of the Roman Empire—this status reverted several times to merely a legal religion, until it stuck—and, as such, subsidized by the state, had a legal status similar in some respects to that of the Church of England.

Culturally, the Church, meaning the overarching worldwide “federation” of Christian communities, was very diverse. The most respected sees were Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. Far out in the East, they prayed and worshipped in Aramaic and Syriac; in Greece, near the center, it was primarily Greek; and in Rome, and far off in the West, Hispania, it was Latin. The way they worshipped was similarly distinct.

The successors of the original church volunteers — by then learned academic philosophers who spoke Greek, Hebrew and Latin — became bureaucrats. The robes worn by clerics in modern church services are stylized versions of the 4th-century Roman bureaucrat’s attire, an equivalent of the late 20th century three-piece suit in Washington, D.C. Most of the leading theologians—and theological disputants—of the day were local bishops, who took seriously their charge since apostolic times to teach.

Christians no longer worshipped in private and, with state patronage, began to build structures set aside for that purpose alone, church buildings, frequently designed in an early version of a style called Romanesque. The 4th-century Church of St. Demetrius (Hagios Demetrios) in Thessalonica is a splendid example that still stands today.

Hagios Demetrios, Thessaloniki, 2008
photo by DMY Licensed via Wikimedia Commons
(Click on picture to view larger)
Buttressing all this activity were the post-Nicene Church Fathers, or the intellectual philosopher-theologians who tackled developing the thinking of the community. Their works responded to the issues of the day, which were very different from our own. Sometimes they wrote in opposition to criticism the still pagan world, often enough in vitriolic disputes among themselves and also against heresies that arose in the Christian Church. Their writings are regarded today as foundational to Christian faith, even if they do not have the canonical seal of being regarded as divine revelation.

The Road to Chalcedonian Christianity

The post-Nicene period—roughly 4th and 5th centuries—is when the foundations of all existing branches of Christianity were laid down. Six hundred or so years later, eastern and western Christianity would split; a thousand years or so later, Luther would claim that nothing after the 5th century was binding on Christians. These divisions persist.

The common Christianity held today by all Christians—often called Chalcedonian Christianity after a noted council in 451 that we shall discuss—developed at a time of enormous historical cataclysms. Just as Christianity gained an open public purchase in society, the existing political order began to crack, splinter and ultimately collapse.

The Roman Empire split into two after emperor Theodosius the Great died in 395. Rome was sacked beginning in 410, and the last western emperor was forced to resign by a Barbarian chieftain in 476.

The eastern empire based in Constantinople continued with ever weakening sway until 1453, when the city fell to invaders. However, already by the 10th century those Muslim invaders had begun to proselytize for Islam in Asia Minor, the Levant and North Africa, contributing to the effective collapse of a Christianity weakened by heresy in those areas. The lands that Jesus knew have not been predominantly Christian for at least a millennium. But this is a tease of what we will review further along.

Before all that, I will spend the next few entries reviewing the Church’s emerging structure and uses of worship and the leading ideas and thinkers in the post-Nicene era. Then we will wrap up the era with Chalcedon.

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