Friday, July 6, 2018
A History Lesson, Part 1
Over the past decade I’ve posted my own articles, and links to other articles, which are critical of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teachings, as well as examining doctrinal differences between them. In order to understand the positions of these churches today, we have to learn the history of them up to where they parted company. This history will be lengthy and therefore posted in parts, but will put all the puzzle pieces together which show how Rome claimed supremacy for itself and how the division between the Eastern and Western Churches came about.
Bear in mind that the word “catholic” merely means “universal,” as in the “universal Christian church.” For purposes of discussion, the modern academic term “Byzantine empire” will be used of the Eastern half of the empire to differentiate it from the Holy Roman Empire — as the Western empire came to be called in the ninth century. However, it must be understood that those in the Eastern half saw themselves as a continuation of the Roman Empire, and the leader was still called “Caesar.” The Byzantine emperor was referred to as the Roman emperor, and the citizens spoke of themselves as Romans.
The first local congregations were under the care of the apostles, but as the Christian faith spread across the world the apostles appointed elders, or presbyters (from the Greek for “elders”) to be the local authorities. These men were also called “bishops” (“overseers”) or “pastors” (“shepherds”). Assisting these men in their duties were “deacons.” As time went by, these local congregations would place themselves under a local leader, known as the bishop of the city.
After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the center of Christianity moved north and then west. The first “headquarters” after Jerusalem was Antioch of Syria. The third bishop of Antioch was Ignatius, who was martyred during the reign of terror under emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). After the turn of the 2nd century, Ignatius wrote a series of letters to several churches in which he speaks of a single bishop in each church, under which is a body of presbyters and supported by deacons. Apparently the “bishop” was seen as the head presbyter/elder/overseer/pastor. It wasn’t until the end of the 2nd century that this system became common. (Many churches have this system today, with the pastor as the teaching elder supported by a board of elders, with deacons providing service to the congregation.)
At the end of the 2nd century the Christian church had to deal with Gnostic groups who claimed their secret teachings were passed down directly from Jesus. However, a mid-second century historian, Hegesippus, had traveled from Palestine to Rome hearing Christian teachings from the various churches, and discovered that Christian teachings were public and available to all, and the same in every location. He then drew up succession lists of at least the bishops of Corinth and Rome, showing how their teachings came directly from the apostles, who themselves had been taught by Christ. Later that century, Irenaeus in Gaul and Tertullian in North Africa followed this leading and pointed out direct succession for their teachings for all the bishops, proving that the Gnostics were the ones in the wrong.
During the 2nd century, and even moreso in the 3ed century, many changes were made in the understanding of essential Christian beliefs, including ideas as to the meaning of the Lord’s supper, and the development of the idea of “original” sin, for which infant baptism later became necessary. Part of this was caused by melding some pagan beliefs with those of Christianity.
One of the ideas that changed during the first two centuries was the idea of forgiveness for sin. Bruce L. Shelley, in his excellent book, Church History in Plain Language, gives us a good synopsis of this issue and how it related to Rome claiming a special position in the church:
During the first two centuries most Christians believed that baptism cancelled all sins committed up to that moment in the believer’s life. Serious postbaptismal lapses called for special treatment. Three sins in particular - sexual immorality, murder, and the denial of the faith (apostasy) - were considered forgivable by God, but never by the church. The penalty for any one of these was exclusion from the fellowship of the church and deprivation of the Lord’s Supper. Since the Communion, most believed, was a special channel of divine grace, withholding it placed a person’s salvation in peril. Ignatius called it “the medicine of immortality and the antidote of death.”
The first half of the third century was a long period of calm for the church; few were called before Roman officials to renounce their faith. Spiritual warfare seemed like a thing of the past, so many called for a relaxation of church discipline.
The first to accept repentant sinners as a matter of policy was the bishop of Rome. Callistus (217-222) readmitted penitent members who had committed adultery. He argued that the church is like Noah’s ark. In it unclean as well as clean beasts can be found. Then he defended his actions by insisting that the church of Rome was the heir of Peter and the Lord had given keys to Peter to bind and loose the sins of men. This marks the first time a bishop of Rome claimed this special authority. (p.74)
My next post will pick up the tale in 250 AD.