The Pre-Nicene Church in the Fourth Century
We arrive now at the period A.D. 303 to 325, two decades that were to be more fateful for the Church than any period since Pentecost, and perhaps any subsequently down to the Reformation.
In the year 303, Diocletian unleashed the Great Persecution, under which the Church was to suffer, with the occasional respite, for a decade and more. At that time, Marcellinus was pope of Rome, St Peter was patriarch of Alexandria, Hermon was bishop of Jerusalem and Tyrannus was patriarch of Antioch.
The Great Persecution made many martyrs but there were also Christians who lapsed under persecution, the ‘lapsi,’ sacrificing to the pagan gods, or the ‘traditors,’ surrendering the holy books to the authorities. In some churches there was disagreement as to how strict the church should be in receiving back the repentant, and two schisms, one in the West and one in the East, broke out as a result.
In Egypt, St Peter wished to show clemency but Melitius, bishop of Lycopolis under his jurisdiction, believing his conditions too lax, protested and ordained his own clergy. Peter excommunicated him but the Melitian schism continued to afflict the church of Egypt for several more decades.
In North Africa, Cæcilian was consecrated bishop of Carthage by Felix of Aptunga, a traditor during the persecution, so that the Numidian bishops rejected his consecration and chose Marjorinus as rival bishop, creating a schism in the African church. Marjorinus was soon afterwards succeeded by Donatus, after whom the schism is named the Donatist schism. Like the Melitian schism, the Donatist schism was to trouble the Church for several more decades.
During this period, Marcellinus was succeeded as pope of Rome by Marcellus, whose brief pontificate was marred by disturbances resulting from the perceived harshness of the penances he imposed on the lapsi. He was succeeded in 309 by Eusebius, whose brief pontificate was marked by similar disturbances, who was succeeded in turn in 310 by Miltiades, of North African Berber descent. His pontificate lasted until 314, when he was succeeded by Sylvester. In Alexandria, St Peter was beheaded in 311 during the persecution and was succeeded by Achillas, whose reign lasted only from November 311 to June 312, and then by St Alexander. In Jerusalem, Hermon was succeeded by Macarius in 314. In Antioch, Tyrannus was succeeded by Vitalius in 308, followed by St Philogonius in 314, Paulinus of Tyre in 324 and St Eustathius in 325.
The debates on the dogma of the Trinity in the third century, already recounted, laid the groundwork for the Church’s defence of the orthodox faith for the future. It was to be thoroughly tried by the most complex and divisive controversy ever to torment the Church, a conflict that came to symbolize all heretical disputation, the Arian controversy. It would trouble the Church and Empire for 60 years, and continue for a further century among some of the Teutonic tribes, Goths, Franks and Vandals.
The third century also saw the origin of an institution that would become increasingly influential in the Church, monasticism. At first it was just individuals, fleeing into the desert to escape persecution, or more often seeking solitude to practise more perfectly Christian asceticism and prayer. It began in Egypt, where it came to be said that ‘the desert is a city,’ because of the number of ascetics who dwelt there. At this period, monasticism was still anchoritic, that is, individuals would pursue their own devotional practices, although they might live in caves or huts near each other. Later cœnobitic monasticism would develop, where a number of monks dwelt together under the rule of an abbot, pursuing shared devotional practices and labour. But even in the third century, certain monks were influential because of their exceptional piety and asceticism, and of these the most influential was the Egyptian monk St Anthony, who can legitimately be called the founder of Christian monasticism.
It is at this period that the formal writing of church histories began. Eusebius of Cæsarea, ‘the father of church history,’ began the tradition with his Ecclesiastical History, tracing the church from the Apostles to the Peace of the Church with the victory of Constantine in 324. This and his Life of Constantine are contemporary with the first decades of the fourth century. About the middle of the century there is an account of the Arian controversy in the Panarion, the catalogue of heresies written by St Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus. About a century after the publication of Eusebius’s history, there were published several continuations of it. Socrates Scholasticus, a lawyer in Constantinople, carried the account down to 439, Sozomen, another Constantinopolitan lawyer, covered the period 325–425, based in part on Socrates’ history. Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, wrote an account down to 428, valuable for reproducing numerous original documents. Although they were later than Eusebius, they had access to the copious documentation generated in this period of sharp controversy.