11. The Emergence of the
Catholic ("Universal") Church

What terrible situation was facing Christianity as it entered the 4th Century (300AD)?

In 303, deeply worried about the rising influence of the Christians in the Empire, Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a major round of persecution against the Christians in his eastern territories.  This was the worst, most cruel of all the periods of persecution that the Christians had suffered at the hands of the Roman government.  It reached to all parts of the Empire, it reached all classes of people--even into the members of the Emperor's families and friends, many of whom were Christians.  The Diocletian persecution lasted through the rest of his reign in 305--and even continued on after him until 313.

What did Roman Emperor Constantine do in 312 AD that changed Christian history?

  • It all dramatically changed with the miraculous conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine himself.  His conversion to Christianity came in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge--through a series of miracles and vows which brought him to faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Constantine was originally a worshipper of the Unconquered Sun, a widely popular religion in that time.  Interestingly, even as Constantine came to honor Christ, he retained loyalty to this god, even establishing the first day of the week as the holy day: "Sun" day.

How did his conversion to Christianity change the position of Christianity within the Roman world?
  • Within six months of Constantine's conversion he was asked by the Donatists in North Africa to settle a dispute they had with with "apostate" bishops--ones who had previously denied their faith under the pressure of Diocletian's persecution, but who had returned to the church and their positions of authority when the persecutions finally stopped.  The Donatists refused to recognize the right of these bishops to return to their places of authority within the church after having once denied the faith. Constantine did take up the matter--but found in favor of the restored bishops against the Donatists, and ordered the Donatists to submit to the authority of these bishops.
  • Constantine went from there to become increasingly active in imposing "order" on his new church--seeing this as his imperial duty to God (as always had been the understanding of the Emperor's responsibility to the empire: that is, to be the "defender of the faith").

How did Unitarianism challenge the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity?
  • Constantine was responsible for calling the Council of Nicea (325) to decide the dispute between Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria and his presbyter, Arius--who had come to espouse a Unitarian position.  The Council itself decided in favor of Alexander--and outlined the basics of the Nicene Creed, which stood at the heart of the Apostolic / Orthodox / Catholic (Universal) church's traditional Trinitarian doctrine passed down from generation to generation since the beginning of the church.
  • The major stress of Arius was the unity or oneness of God--rather than the idea of God being revealed to us in the form of a trinity or three persons--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--all of the same God nature.

What was wrong with Arias' Unitarianism?
  • Arius' Unitarianism tended to downplay the church's traditional understanding of Jesus as being pure God, replacing it with an understanding of Jesus as one who earned Godliness.  Thus Arianism or Unitarianism was adoptionist, in the sense that it felt that Jesus was rewarded for his faithfulness by being adopted at his death into the position of being Son of God.
  • The loss of the importance of God's grace.  It thus played into the hands of those who felt that the way to God was through immense human effort and self-discipline--following Jesus' example.  This kind of thinking greatly reduced the vital importance of Jesus in the Divine scheme of things--making him only a model for human action rather than as the substitute for human action.  It also downplayed the effect of man's sisnfulness as a barrier to God.  It made man his own savior through his own ability to perform enough goodness to earn the forgiveness of God.
  • Orthodox Christianity taught that the only way to God, the only "work" acceptable to God to remove the stain of sin from human life, the only path by which we were restored to oneness in our fellowship with God (Atonement), was by our faithfully clinging to the divine work of God through Jesus Christ on the cross as the only "ticket" to our salvation.  Anything else, any human work we put forward on our own behalf before God, merely serves to diminish the importance of the saving act of God Himself through His sacrifice as payment for our sins of His only begotten Son Jesus Christ on the cross.  Thus Arianism played down the role of God's grace in saving undeserving sinners.
  • The loss of the hope of human "election" by God.  Arianismn also stood in opposition to the doctrine--strongly put forward by the apostle Paul--of divine election or predestination, whereby those who were destined to salvation were the ones God alone, out of the mystery of his divine will, chose for this purpose.  According to Paul, we all are such sinners that no one could ever presume to work his/her way to heaven.  Only the merit of the cross earned by the faithful Jesus could compensate or atonefor our sins.

Read Romans 8:28-39.
  • Salvation by human faith alone, in God's grace alone.  Only those who through a total faith in God and the mysteries of his grace, who thus cling to Jesus' merit, not their own, could ever achieve heaven.  Only those who come to such faith in Jesus (again, by a miracle of God's grace), who truly make him the Lord of their lives, will ever enter the kingdom of God.  Only those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God to this understanding, who give up totally their own natural instincts to try to save themselves through their own good works or merits, will ever see eternal life.  Only those mysteriously touched by the power of God so as to be able to overcome their sinful, self-serving instincts, will be saved.   According to Paul and the early Orthodox or Catholic church, there is no way that we can work our way into heaven by our own efforts.
  • A side note:  The persistent danger of "works-righteousness.  Nonetheless, "works-righteousness," whereby persons supposed that they earned their way to salvation through the rigors of their own religious life, remained very popular among the people--and persisted through the centuries (even down to today).  It is a major heresy ever-ready in some new form (Pelagianism [early 400s], Armenianism [early 1600s]) to invade orthodox or catholic theology.

Why was the Nicene Creed so important to the Catholic or "Universal" Christian church?
  • In 325 Christian leaders from all over the Roman Empire gathered at Nicea as a church "Council" to write a clear statement that reaffirmed the church's position on the Trinity.
  • This statement we know as the Nicene Creed (actually not fully worked out until some additional church councils later) helped hold the line for the church as to what were acceptable views on the nature of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit--and what views were not acceptable and therefore not truly Christian or "orthodox."
  • Even in the church today we frequently recite the Nicene Creed as a statement of what it is that we Christians actually believe in:

  • We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

    And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.  He suffred and was burried, and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.  And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.

    And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.  And we believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.  We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.  And we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen

  • Actually, we more often recite the Apostles' Creed, which is sort of a shorter "1st cousin" to the longer Nicene Creed:

  • I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,

    And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and burried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

    I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.  Amen.

  • Please note:  the reference to the belief in one holy "catholic" church is not in reference to belief in the Roman Catholic church, but a belief in the unity of all the church:  Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Protestant (which includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.).  "Catholic" means "universal;" only the whole church is the truly "catholic" church.

How did the church move from persecuted to persecutor?
  • Under Constantine's successors, in accordance with typical Roman political and Greek intellectual logic, the rest of the Roman Imperium was soon required to become Christian.  Not only was everyone required to become Christian but they were required to hold exactly the same beliefs on every point of doctrine--as outlined in the Nicene Creed.  Not to hold to every point of theology of the official church was to mark oneself as a "heretic."  Thus not only were Arian Christians considered as heretics, but also people who tended to focus too much on Jesus' divine nature on the one hand or Jesus' human nature on the other.  Unless a person was able to keep a "balanced" view on Jesus' human and divine natures together (not an easy intellectual task), they were likely to be marked as a "heretic."
  • Thus the faith moved slowly from being a faith of the heart to a faith of the head.
  • Thus also Christianity moved from status of being the persecuted faith, to the position of being the official state religion of the Roman Empire, to the point of becoming itself the source of rigorous persecution of intellectual "heretics"--in the Roman urge to force even intellectual uniformity upon its far-flung political order.

In what ways did this reshape Christianity's basic character?
  • This development was to have a profoundly transforming impact on Christianity. Christianity at this point (300 years after its founding) ceased to be solely a private faith of the people before their God.  Instead it was refashioned by the imperial authorities to serve as the moral-ethical foundation for the entire Roman empire.  Instead of Christianity being a movement of the human heart beyond the circumstances of this life--it became a way of disciplining the human heart to the priorities of this life--particularly priorities as set down by the Imperial authorities.
  • Thus one of the major things that had made Christianity so appealing to the multitudes was taken away from it by its co-optation into the Roman Imperium.  It no longer could serve as a direct line to God for those who were looking in hope for a way out from under the heavy load of the Roman social order.
  • Christ was now thought of more as the friend of emperors and co-regent with them over the empire--than as the friend and personal savior of the people.  In consequence, Mary (mother of Jesus) came to fill that role of personal friend--as the "Mother of God," in the fashion of the still-popular Earth Mother cults that had been banned by the authorities.  Likewise, the highly venerated Christian "saints" replaced the other banned pagan gods as special protectors of the common people in their various enterprises in life. God and Jesus, Father and Son, had lost out in the hearts of the people as the source of their personal hopes.

What did Augustine teach us about the faith--that helped keep the faith alive during very trying times that were arising quickly?
  • Augustine, around the year 400, was to become the most important voice in the church after Jesus and the original Apostles (including Paul)--not only in his own days but for centuries to come, especially again in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation.
  • Augustine produced no new doctrines, but like Paul was able to explain the old doctrines at a time when deep changes in society were making things very confusing.  Augustine wrote at a time when very clearly Roman power was declining rapidly.  Barbarians were overruning the Empire and the Romans seemed to be helpless before them.
  • Faith alone / Grace alone.  In Augustine's debates with the Donatists and the Unitarian Pelagians (these issues were still hot 100 years later!) Augustine restated the church's position that a person is saved by that person's faith alone in God's grace alone--extended to us in the cross of Jesus Christ.  Human works have no role in the saving of souls.  Only our full faith or trust in God is required of us.

Read Romans 9:10-33
  • Predestination.  Since salvation comes from God alone then the question arises (as it did for Paul) who then can be saved?  Clearly, it is only those whose hearts God Himself has transformed by his power, the power of the Holy Spirit, so that they will be able to rise above their natural sinfulness to receive God's gift of grace.  Since not everyone obviously has been transformed this way it clearly appears that God has selected some for salvation and some for damnation.
  • In this matter of predestination, Augustine is merely repeating what Paul had to say on the matter.
  • The visible and the invisible church.  Thus not even good religious works assure us of salvation, since salvation is in fact an inner change in a person produced by the saving hand of God.  The only person other than God who knows whether a particular person is saved or not is that person himself or herself.  They will know in their hearts that something about themselves is different--that they truly do trust God with their lives, that Jesus is truly Lord of their lives.  We are in no position to judge such matters about another person.  Only they and God know if and when they have been touched by salvation.
  • Thus merely sitting in church, attending worship, performing Christian duties, etc. tells us nothing about a person, whether they are among the saved or not.  True, they are obviously members of the "visible church."  But it is the "invisible church" made up of the truly saved that interests God.  And some of them may not even be members of the "visible church"!
  • The City of God and the City of Man.  As Rome's power began to collapse what Augustine had to say (which was only a restating of what Christ and Paul had to say) about his times made a lot of sense.  The things of the world are always fleeting matters and we are wrong to place great hope on the world as the source of our joy and strength.  To do so is to cut ourselves off from an even greater joy and strength:  the joy of life in Christ.
  • Though Augustine himself did not escape the world and head off to a desert monastery as many in his time did, Augustine helped lay out the reasoning that inspired many others to do so.  And as Rome collapsed, these small Christian communities of very devout monks kept alive the small flame of learning and civilization that seemed to want to go out elsewhere in the face of barbarian migrations and the plundering of cities and farms.

Continue on to the next section:  12. The Medieval Church (400-1400)
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  Miles H. Hodges