Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 2, Constantine to c.600

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Yet deeper investigation has revealed that, in various places, practitioners of traditional religions and marginalised Christian groups alike survived despite their outlawed status see particularly chs.


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Hagiography and inscriptions unmistakably illustrate how many bishops continued to struggle with pagan communities and influences e. We have long known of their efforts in writing against classical Greek and Roman paganism as well as groups like the Manichaeans ch. It also needs to be noted that the Christianisation of the Roman Empire itself was often a tumultuous and divisive business and it sometimes contributed to problems with neighbouring Christian populations.

For example, in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Christian factions struggled against each other with alacrity and where the early Byzantines who established the Christianity of Constantinople exerted great pressure on its Christian opponents through taxation and bias in the courts, all the rival Christian communities were weakened.

They proved to be no match for the seventh-century invasions of Islam. The Cambridge History of Christianity includes by design significant coverage of Christian developments in the East and in the Orient — subject areas that are sometimes overlooked in surveys of this kind.

Such coverage is entirely appropriate, not least because Christianity is, and from its early days has been, a missionary faith with global aspirations. And yet too often the earliest Christian developments outside of the Mediterranean world go unremarked. This is regrettable, though partly understandable, owing to the relative paucity of evidence and the fact that surviving literary and documentary evidence exists in multiple oriental languages.

For example, in Africa, Ethiopian Christianity is in many ways the great survivor and its roots run deep. Like Christianity in Nubia, it flourished along the Nile and soon showed significant levels of cultural flourishing; but, unlike Nubian Christianity, Christianity in Ethiopia survives to the modern period.

In Egypt, where Christianity still survives albeit as a marginalised and frequently oppressed community , before the end of this era Coptic theologians had already begun to articulate an identity that would sustain them for centuries. In Asia Minor, Armenia and Georgia forged their national identities along with their Christian identity. Syria was home to vibrant and creative theologians for centuries.


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  • Christians also lived and practised their faith in Persia, present day Iraq, and India well before Constantine came to power. Though deeply persecuted in Persia, their numbers grew there and in fact throughout the region. In the meantime, a form of Christianity had made inroads among Arabs, at least in Palestine and Yemen and probably even deeper within Arabia. We also have indications that at least one monk entered China during the sixth century. To summarise, in this volume we deliberately move away from relating the story of Christianity with exclusive reference to the single imperial narrative and toward allowing these other Christianities to appear in their own rights.

    Even though many of them disappeared from history before the great missionary expansion of the nineteenth century, they are an important part of the rich flourishing of Christian religious and cultural expression that characterised our period. In many of these chapters as, in fact, in much of this introduction , our attention is naturally drawn to instances of conflict — but we also need to be aware that interactions within and between communities were not always conflictual; they could be, and sometimes were, mutually enriching.

    The story of Western Christianities from Constantine to the close of the sixth century is one of both expansion and the formation of diverse Christianities. Between and , Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital that came to be named for him: Constantinople.

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    It had overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls, and had no pagan temples. Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In , he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in he summoned the Council of Nicaea , the first ecumenical council. Constantine thus established a precedent for the emperor as responsible to God for the spiritual health of their subjects, and thus with a duty to maintain orthodoxy.

    The Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 2, Constantine to c.600

    The emperor was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. Constantine's son's successor, his nephew Julian , under the influence of his adviser Mardonius , renounced Christianity and embraced a Neo-platonic and mystical form of paganism shocking the Christian establishment. Julian's short reign ended when he died while campaigning in the East.

    Some, such as John Chrysostom and Athanasius , suffered exile, persecution, or martyrdom from Arian Byzantine Emperors. A popular doctrine of the 4th century was Arianism , the denial of the divinity of Christ, as propounded by Arius. Although this doctrine was condemned as heresy and eventually eliminated by the Roman Church it remained popular underground for some time.

    In the late 4th century Ulfilas , a Roman bishop and an Arian, was appointed as the first bishop to the Goths , the Germanic peoples in much of Europe at the borders of and within the Empire. Ulfilas spread Arian Christianity among the Goths firmly establishing the faith among many of the Germanic tribes, thus helping to keep them culturally distinct. During this age, the first ecumenical councils were convened.

    History of Christianity

    They were mostly concerned with Christological disputes. After its establishment, the Church adopted the same organisational boundaries as the Empire: geographical provinces, called dioceses , corresponding to imperial governmental territorial division. The bishops, who were located in major urban centres as per pre-legalisation tradition, thus oversaw each diocese.

    The bishop's location was his "seat", or " see ".

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    Among the sees, five came to hold special eminence: Rome , Constantinople , Jerusalem , Antioch , and Alexandria. The prestige of most of these sees depended in part on their apostolic founders, from whom the bishops were therefore the spiritual successors. Though the bishop of Rome was still held to be the First among equals , Constantinople was second in precedence as the new capital of the empire. Theodosius I decreed that others not believing in the preserved "faithful tradition", such as the Trinity, were to be considered to be practitioners of illegal heresy , [31] and in , this resulted in the first case of capital punishment of a heretic, namely Priscillian.

    During the early 5th century the School of Edessa had taught a Christological perspective stating that Christ's divine and human nature were distinct persons. A particular consequence of this perspective was that Mary could not be properly called the mother of God, but could only be considered the mother of Christ.

    The most widely known proponent of this viewpoint was the Patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius. Since referring to Mary as the mother of God had become popular in many parts of the Church this became a divisive issue. The councils ultimately rejected Nestorius' view. Many churches who followed the Nestorian viewpoint broke away from the Roman Church, causing a major schism. The Nestorian churches were persecuted and many followers fled to the Sasanian Empire where they were accepted.

    The Sasanian Persian Empire had many Christian converts early in its history tied closely to the Syriac branch of Christianity. The Empire was officially Zoroastrian and maintained a strict adherence to this faith in part to distinguish itself from the religion of the Roman Empire originally the pagan Roman religion and then Christianity. Christianity became tolerated in the Sasanian Empire and as the Roman Empire increasingly exiled heretics during the 4th and 6th centuries, the Sasanian Christian community grew rapidly.

    This church evolved into what is today known as the Church of the East. In the Council of Chalcedon was held to further clarify the Christological issues surrounding Nestorianism. The council ultimately stated that Christ's divine and human nature were separate but both part of a single entity, a viewpoint rejected by many churches who called themselves miaphysites. The resulting schism created a communion of churches, including the Armenian, Syrian, and Egyptian churches. Monasticism is a form of asceticism whereby one renounces worldly pursuits and goes off alone as a hermit or joins a tightly organized community.

    It began early in the Church as a family of similar traditions, modelled upon Scriptural examples and ideals, and with roots in certain strands of Judaism. John the Baptist is seen as an archetypical monk, and monasticism was also inspired by the organisation of the Apostolic community as recorded in Acts 2. Eremetic monks, or hermits , live in solitude, whereas cenobitics live in communities, generally in a monastery , under a rule or code of practice and are governed by an abbot. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, following the example of Anthony the Great.

    However, the need for some form of organised spiritual guidance lead Pachomius in to organise his many followers in what was to become the first monastery. Soon, similar institutions were established throughout the Egyptian desert as well as the rest of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Women were especially attracted to the movement. Central figures in the development of monasticism were Basil the Great in the East and, in the West, Benedict , who created the famous Rule of Saint Benedict , which would become the most common rule throughout the Middle Ages, and starting point for other monastic rules.

    The transition into the Middle Ages was a gradual and localised process. Rural areas rose as power centres whilst urban areas declined. Although a greater number of Christians remained in the East Greek areas , important developments were underway in the West Latin areas and each took on distinctive shapes. The Bishops of Rome , the Popes, were forced to adapt to drastically changing circumstances.

    Maintaining only nominal allegiance to the Emperor, they were forced to negotiate balances with the "barbarian rulers" of the former Roman provinces. In the East the Church maintained its structure and character and evolved more slowly. The stepwise loss of Western Roman Empire dominance, replaced with foederati and Germanic kingdoms, coincided with early missionary efforts into areas not controlled by the collapsing empire. Prominent missionaries were Saints Patrick , Columba and Columbanus. The Anglo-Saxon tribes that invaded southern Britain some time after the Roman abandonment, were initially pagan, but converted to Christianity by Augustine of Canterbury on the mission of Pope Gregory the Great.

    Soon becoming a missionary centre, missionaries such as Wilfrid , Willibrord , Lullus and Boniface would begin converting their Saxon relatives in Germania. The largely Christian Gallo-Roman inhabitants of Gaul modern France were overrun by the Franks in the early 5th century. The native inhabitants were persecuted until the Frankish king Clovis I converted from paganism to Roman Catholicism in Clovis insisted that his fellow nobles follow suit, strengthening his newly established kingdom by uniting the faith of the rulers with that of the ruled.

    After the rise of the Frankish Kingdom and the stabilizing political conditions, the Western part of the Church increased the missionary activities, supported by the Merovingian kingdom as a means to pacify troublesome neighbour peoples. After the foundation of a church in Utrecht by Willibrord , backlashes occurred when the pagan Frisian king Radbod destroyed many Christian centres between and In , the English missionary Boniface was sent to aid Willibrord, re-establishing churches in Frisia continuing missions in Germany. Following a series of heavy military reverses against the Muslims , the Iconoclasm emerged in the early 8th century.

    The Byzantine Iconoclast Council , held at Hieria in , ruled that holy portraits were heretical. The movement destroyed much of the Christian church's early artistic history. The iconoclastic movement itself was later defined as heretical in under the Second Council of Nicaea the seventh ecumenical council , but enjoyed a brief resurgence between and The Carolingian Renaissance was a period of intellectual and cultural revival of literature, arts, and scriptural studies during the late 8th and 9th centuries , mostly during the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious , Frankish rulers.

    To address the problems of illiteracy among clergy and court scribes, Charlemagne founded schools and attracted the most learned men from all of Europe to his court. From the 6th century onward most of the monasteries in the West were of the Benedictine Order. Owing to the stricter adherence to a reformed Benedictine rule , the abbey of Cluny became the acknowledged leader of western monasticism from the later 10th century. Cluny created a large, federated order in which the administrators of subsidiary houses served as deputies of the abbot of Cluny and answered to him.

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    The Cluniac spirit was a revitalising influence on the Norman church, at its height from the second half of the 10th centuries through the early 12th. The next wave of monastic reform came with the Cistercian Movement. The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to a literal observance of the Benedictine rule , rejecting the developments of the Benedictines. The most striking feature in the reform was the return to manual labour, and especially to field-work.