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Church History

More Councils



Unless noted, all Scripture taken from The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996, c1982.

- AD 376 to 664

Beginning around 400, monks and priests would have the crown of the heads shaved when they took their vows. For those with hair, this made their hair appear as a wreath around their heads. This became known as "tonsure." Pope Paul VI abolished the practice in 1972.

We discussed in our last lesson the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Arian controversy. This period saw a series of church councils meet to resolve a series of heresies and attacks upon the fundamental teachings of the Church. It is during this period that the practice of systematic theology truly has its birth as the church leaders (overseers) met to reach agreement upon the meaning of various biblical passages.

This is also the period where the unification of church and state swings more to the side of the church.  The Roman Empire continues to crumble as a political entity and Rome itself is saved, not by the Emperor, but by the Pope! Power comes to the church, and with that power comes corruption. Indeed, during this time the Middle or Dark Ages commence and one must marvel that God's church survived. To read many of the stories of the period and to review the lives of the leaders, one is almost forced to conclude there were no Christians around!  Yet, just as in the time of Elijah, God kept his remnant (1 Kings 19:1-18).

It was mentioned above that the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 reaffirmed the Creed from the Council of Nicaea. It is at this point in time that the people start calling this creed the Nicene Creed.  This council also dealt with the issue of Christ's humanity, declaring that He was fully and completely human.  This renounced those who taught that Jesus could not be sinless and still fully human. In particular, this council also offset the false teachings of Apollinarius who taught that Jesus had a human body but no human mind.

In the Western Church, Ambrose emerges as the hero of the moment. Ambrose supported the Nicene Creed but claimed never to have personally confessed a belief in Jesus. Notwithstanding this lack of faith, he became overseer of Milan in a movement designed to remove tensions between the Arians and the supporters of the Creed. The people of Milan effective appointed Ambrose overseer by unanimous proclamation!  A week later Ambrose had been baptized and made overseer. History, at least, suggests he became a true convert somewhere in the process of his life.

Ambrose's claim to fame was his open antagonism with Emperor Theodosius. First, Ambrose stood up to the Emperor in a dispute over the church rebuilding or paying for the rebuilding of a burnt Jewish synagogue.  Having won this battle, Ambrose then excluded Theodosius from the Lord's Supper after the Emperor allowed his troops to slaughter some 7,000 rioters. Ambrose required the Emperor to wear sackcloth and ashes for several weeks before allowing him to partake of communion.

For better or worse, the Emperor thereafter supported Christianity with his political might and power. The church and state grew even closer together and the church remained a strong partner in the Western Empire.

In the East, Theodosius found an opponent in Olympias, an extremely wealthy widow. She used her wealth to support the poor and to buy slaves so she could free them. She was ordained as a deaconess by the church. When she rejected the marital advances of the Emperor's cousin, he seized all of her property. Her response was to thank the Emperor from protecting her from backsliding into reliance upon material things! She is reported to has said "had I kept my property, I might have fallen prey to pride." 

The Emperor returned her property. She gave it away. During this period she became the patron of one of the great Church Fathers, the overseer of Antioch, Syria, John. Because of his eloquent, flowery sermons, John earned the nickname "Chrysostom" which means Golden-Mouth.

Chrysostom focused his preaching upon the original intent of the biblical texts. You may recall this approach differs from those in Alexandria (Origen and Ambrose) who searched for secret spiritual truths ("spiritualism"). Chrysostom made waves with the empire demanding holiness in the church and society. During this period many of the clergy remained unmarried but lived with "spiritual sisters."  One of Chrysostom's arguments was that there appeared to be too many "spiritual mothers" in the group! Since these sermons also were aimed at society, they were preaching against the sensual lifestyle of those in authority.

Ultimately John and Olympias were both exiled where they died.

Other figures become important during this time frame. Throughout the period, Barbarians moved toward or into the Roman Empire. The Barbarians as a general group were simply people who lived on the edges of the Empire.  The Romans called them Barbarians because the Romans could not understand their speech and thought they were saying "bar-BAR-bar." This group included the Goths, the Vandals and the Huns (an oriental group who pushed the other two into the Empire). 

The Roman's did not always deal in a logical manner with the Barbarians. For example in 408, Alaric the Goth asked for farmland for his people.  His request also included 18 tons of gold and silver and a ton of pepper(?)! The Emperor refused. The Goths attacked Rome and plundered the city for three days. 

The Roman Empire had fallen and the Middle Ages had begun.

The fall of Rome created shockwaves throughout the Empire.  From a theological perspective those in the East were impacted less than those in the West. Africa was still a large part of the West, however, and it is in this region where God raised up the next large voice of Christianity. 

The son of a godly, praying mother, Monica, a teenage Augustine dismissed Christianity in favor of Manicheism. This group required that he reject sex, an impossible request for the young lad. To find the truth, Augustine moved to Milan. There he was exposed to Ambrose's preaching. Ambrose, as noted above, allegorized the Bible searching for spiritual truths. On a park bench, with children singing in the background, Augustine gave his heart and soul to Christ. He became the overseer or bishop of the church in Hippo North Africa. 

One of the major controversies of the church has been that of how much man may contribute to his own salvation. At one extreme today are those who we refer to as super-Calvinists. They claim that man is so depraved he can do absolutely nothing. This is such a truth that God chose those to be saved prior to the formation of the world.  At the other extreme are those who believe man saves himself. As might be gathered from this comment, there have been a variety of encounters between these groups over the years.

The first major encounter is that of Augustine and Pelagius. Pelagius preached that people naturally posses the power to be holy.  This is because, according to Pelagius, people are not born sinful. Augustine argued that the first sin so corrupted men that no one naturally loves and, thus, cannot on their own find holiness. In this area, a full review of Augustine's arguments follows exactly the teachings of Paul.

On the other hand, Augustine has his shortcomings. He believed that sin was sexually transmitted. He also believed in infant baptism, finding that this purged primal sin and prepared a person to receive God's grace. And, Augustine followed Ambrose in using the allegorical method of interpretation.

Augustine avidly preached and wrote for the church. His efforts helped sustain the Western Church through the early period of Rome's fall. His work the City of God is still available to day and his teachings find their ways into the church theology for the next several hundred years, still being quoted by scholars today.

And, while the fires of the Barbarians continued to burn, the church faced other theological challenges. 

The next controversy displays one of the more humorous series of circumstances in the history of the church, showing the church has adopted too much the ways of the world.  The basic dispute is between Cyril, the overseer of Alexandria, and Nestorius who became the overseer of Constantinople in 428. 

Nestorius earned himself the nickname "Fire-Brand' in his efforts to burn down an Arian chapel. He had hoped that without a chapel the Arians would leave town. Unfortunately, the flames got out of hand and Nestorius destroyed an entire block of the town!

By this time in history, Mary the Mother of Jesus had acquired the common title of Theotokos, which means God-Bearer. Nestorius criticized this title. He thought he was preaching that Jesus was not only God, but also fully human. What people, including Cyril, thought he said was that Jesus was two persons, one divine and one human and that Mary only bore the human person.

In 431 a council was called at Ephesus.  Cyril and his followers arrived, called a meeting, condemned Nestorius, and adjourned the Council. Later, Nestorius and his followers arrived, convened the council, condemned Cyril, and adjourned. Still later, the Roman church representatives arrived.  They called the Council to order for a third time. This group sided with Cyril and Nestorius was exiled. But, the story continues.

The followers of Cyril became known as "One-Nature" thinkers. They were so eager to protect the fact that Jesus was not two separate people that they started teaching that Christ's divine nature consumed his humanity.  One-Nature theology became extremely popular, especially among the Egyptian Copts. Another council was called.

In 451, the council of Chalcedon was called. Over 500 overseers met. Leo, the Roman overseer had his hands full at home and did not attend. He sent a summary of his teachings, called a TOME.  Leo, essentially like what Nestorius thought he had taught, believed that Jesus had two natures united in one person. The Council combined the Nicene Creed, Cyril's writings and Leo's Tome to produce a statement of Christ known as the "Two-Nature" view which recognized "Christ . . . [is] . . . recognized in two natures, without confusion, division, or separation . . . but not as if Christ were parted into two persons." 

The exiled Nestorius stated that the council confessed what he had always taught!

Many Christians in Egypt and Syria still followed the One-Nature view.  These groups eventually divided from the West (Roman) and East Churches to form the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches. They still follow the One-Nature view. Another group of Egyptian churches remained connected with the Eastern churches but followed the One-Nature view. These are known as the Melkite or Imperial Churches.

It might also be mentioned that although Arius is mostly noted for his position that Jesus was of a different essence than the Father, his teachings also claimed that the Holy Spirit was yet a third essence. Though this teaching was never of great controversy within the early church, the Council of Chalcedon made it clear that all three members of the Trinity shared the same essence.

As we mentioned above, Leo did not attend the Council of Chalcedon because he was otherwise occupied.  Attila the Hun was on his way to Rome! Rome was without emperor, army, or defense.  In 452, the Huns attacked Italy and marched toward Rome. In a move without historical details, Leo somehow convinced Attilla to retreat from Rome!

The peace was short enjoyed.  In 455 the Vandals marched on Rome. While Leo could not convince them to retreat, he did persuade the Vandals not to rape or kill. Oddly enough, the Vandals remained faithful to their agreement with Leo, although they did loot and vandalize the city. 

In 476, Odovacer the Barbarian disposed the last Western emperor and the empire was truly dead. 

Leo has one other note to his tenure. It starts with Matthew:

Matthew 16:13-19 (NKJV)
13 When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" 14 So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

At some and sundry points in time the "church" has declared that its overseer traces his office back to Peter, using these verses, particularly verse 18 to support this position.  Obviously, this is not a true statement, but today's Roman Catholic Church maintains this position, tracing the Pope's authority back to Peter. 

Leo's claim to fame is that he is the first overseer of Rome who used or accepted the title of "Pope." 

At some point in history, the Roman Church filled in the blanks of time and traced the pope-hood back to Peter. If you would like to review a list of popes, as well as a list of Christian history summaries from a Catholic perspective, visit Et Cum Spiritu Tuo, http://www.cwo.com/~pentrack/catholic/chron.html.

The other developments of this time period will help the true church survive the Middle Ages. As mentioned above, a review of the entire history of the church from here until the Reformation will make one wonder how the church survived at all. One answer to this question is that a few godly men and women established a mechanism that would allow the church to endure.

Two of these were Benedict and his twin sister Scholastica. Born in Italy, this pair established a monastery and convent near each other. In 520, in a remote region of Italy, Benedict destroyed a pagan hilltop idol and built his monastery. He created a Rule as the guide for his religious community. The Rule of Benedict had no extreme demands. The daily routine included Bible reading, prayer, and work. The covenant was operated under the same Rule. 

Our friends the Barbarians destroyed the monastery in 589 and the monks fled to Rome.

Gregory of Rome was a powerful politician who encountered God in 573. Giving up his career plans, Gregory became a monk. When a plague ravaged Rome, Gregory left his monastery to minister to the sick. The people repaid his kindness by helping to have Gregory appointed the overseer (pope) of Rome.  In this position, Gregory encountered Benedicts monks and their Rule. In A.D. 599, Gregory sent 41 reluctant Benedictine monks to England.

Although reluctant, God's hand was upon this group evangelizing the Anglo-Saxons. By Christmas 599 ten thousand English, including the King of Kent, had been converted and baptized. Canterbury, Kent's capital, became the center of English Christianity and one of the Benedictine monks became known as Augustine of Canterbury.

Meanwhile, Gregory, deeply influenced by the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, developed the doctrine of purgatory. This is the place between death and heaven where God removes any remaining sin that might prevent total enjoyment in God's presence. Gregory also taught that forgiveness requires works of penance.  This doctrine would be expanded and greatly abused by later church leaders.

Gregory is most remembered by the people, however, for his music. Changing the nature of church music forever, Gregorian chants may still be heard today.

While I believe Leo is the first of the Roman overseer's to use the title Pope, Gregory is the first to clearly posses and exercise the powers normally associated with this office. He formed the structure that has led to the establishment of today's office of the Pope.  As such, many histories call Gregory the first pope.

Until about 400, "Haldrian's Wall" kept the barbarians out of southern Britain. Eventually, the barbarians broke through this wall. The British battle-chief who won twelve battles against the invaders was known as "King Arthur."

The Celtic-Irish churches and communites were not reached by the Anglo-Saxons. After the invasions, this group was cut off from the churches of both the East and the West. There were no overseers and monks and nuns ran these churches. One of the long term consequences was that Easter was not celebrated on a consistent date with the other churches. This ultimately created a tension leading to a mini-council named in honor of Hilda of Whitby. Hilda had trained hundreds of monks who helped to lead the Celtic-Irish churches.  At the council in 664, only Hilda and one of the overseers she trained supported the tradition of the Celtic-Irish churches. The effect of the council was to extend control of these churches to Rome. 

Finishing tidbit:

In the 400s Irish pirates enslaved a young lad. He would later escape, returning to his home. Later, the lad returned to Ireland as a missionary. He is honored today as Patrick, the Saint of St. Patrick's day!

Fifth Century Events

• As the barbarians increasingly threatened the Empire, sacking the city of Rome, Augustine wrote City of God (413-426), showing that the true movement of history was the unseen conflict between sin and salvation, between the city of man and the kingdom of God.

• Nestorianism spreads in the eastern church, emphasizing a distinction between Christ&s human and divine natures. Chalcedon creed describes Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, with the two natures existing together without confusion.

• As the emperor&s power declines, the Bishop of Rome&s increases. Pope Leo I (440-461) negotiates and saves Rome from Attila the Hun (452). He asserts authority over other bishops, claiming bishop of Rome is successor to Apostle Peter.

• Patrick (c. 390-460) sold as slave at age 16. He later escapes, goes to Ireland where he undertakes monumental mission.

• 496--Frankish King Clovis converted to Christianity and baptized. Conquers half of France and paves the way for Charlemagne&s "Holy Roman Empire."

• Church calendar with the Christian year begins to be in place. Cult of martyrs and relics widespread, and glorification of Virgin Mary grows. Incense is first introduced into a Christian church service in the West.

• With upheavals and disintegration of secular society, church hierarchy becomes more established and influential.

AD 500 (SIXTEEN GENERATIONS AFTER CHRIST)

Source: David Barrett.

Sixth Century Events

• 529--Responding to growing secularization of the church, Benedict of Nursia establishes monastery of Monte Cassino and the Benedictine Order. Benedict&s "Rule" for monks (c. 540) will become the most influential over future centuries.

• 530-532--Boniface II, first pope of Germanic ancestry

• Church and State are becoming more closely intertwined. Emperor Justinian (483-565) closes 1,000-year-old School of Philosophy in Athens 529, issues Code of Civil Laws reflecting Christian morals, sends missionaries as spies to China to smuggle out silkworms, reconquers N. Africa from the Vandals.

• Church buildings become more monumental. Justinian builds Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, dedicated to Christ as the "Holy Wisdom." Constructed 532-537.

• Dionysius Exiquus (d. c. 550), a monk in Rome, establishes modern system of dating, using events after Christ as "Anno Domini," in the year of our Lord. (He missed the date of Christ&s birth by a few years.)

• Columba (c. 521-597) goes as missionary to Scotland. Mission headquarters at Iona.

• Conversion of barbarian groups continues. Recared, Visigoth King in Spain and an Arian, becomes Roman Catholic.

• By the end of century the Western church tolerates magic and other manifestations of pagan spirituality as diverse cultures are incorporated into the church.

• Pope Gregory the Great ((c.540-604) gives the mass much of the shape it has today.

AD 600 (NINETEEN GENERATIONS AFTER CHRIST)

Source: David Barrett.

 

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