The Third Christian Century
Politically and economically, the third century of the Christian era was a time of instability in the Mediterranean world. From the assassination of the Emperor Commodus in A.D. 192 to the accession of Diocletian in 284 occurred ‘the Crisis of the Third Century,’ described by the Encyclopædia Britannica as ‘a century of war and disorder, during which nothing but the stern rule of soldier emperors saved the empire from dissolution.’ (14th ed., XIX, p. 505)
Christian communities could now be found scattered from Britain to India. Although, except in western Asia Minor and the province of Africa, they were still a tiny minority of the population, they were becoming well organised, assisted by the good communications of the Roman empire, scarcely affected by the political strife. Catechetical schools were developing to train the faithful and theological debate was deepening the understanding of the faith and combatting new heresies.
At the same time, Christians began to attract the notice of the authorities. Roman rule was tolerant of the traditional cults of the different peoples of the empire but looked askance at religious innovation. Worse from their point of view was the refusal of Christians to participate in the Roman civic religion—it made them appear disloyal. Sporadic local persecutions had broken out already earlier, but the Emperor Decius unleashed the first formal empire-wide persecution of Christians in the year 250. It lasted barely a year but would revive fitfully from time to time through the rest of the century.
The vast but ambiguous figure of Origen looms over the theology of the third century. He was one of the earliest of theologians and one of the greatest, but some of his views would later be rejected by the Church and he would never be recognised as a saint, even though he was a confessor. These issues would not arise until half a century after his death and the principal debate over his orthodoxy was still several centuries in the future but he cannot be ignored in the present context.
The difficulty of confessing the oneness of God and simultaneously the divinity of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit led to the principal heresies of the third century. ‘Monarchianism’ is the term used to describe them, from the Greek for ‘one ruler.’ By stressing the ‘monarchy’ of the Deity, they failed in one way or another to give a proper account of the Trinity.
The Decian persecution would lead to another problem for the Church—schism. The question arose as to what disciplinary action should be taken against those who gave way under persecution, surrendering the Sciptures to the authorities to be burnt (the ‘traditors’), or agreeing to sacrifice to the pagan gods, or bribing officials to escape sacrificing, or fleeing from persecution. Some took a harder line with these failings than others. Some believed that the purity of the Church was being compromised and so broke off communion with those they viewed as dangerously lax in discipline.
One of them was the Roman presbyter Novatian. He led the party that objected to the mild discipline imposed by Pope Cornelius of Rome on those who had lapsed during the Decian persecution. He set himself up as pope in opposition to Cornelius and sent his followers to recruit supporters throughout the empire. Although he was himself martyred in the persecution of Valerian in 257–8, the schismatic sect he founded, the Novatianists, persisted into the 5th century. The sect was orthodox in doctrine except for its claim that the Church did not have the power to remit the sins of the baptized who lapsed under persecution.
All of these pressures would culminate by the end of the century in the events leading up to the 1st Œcumenical Council at Nicæa in A.D. 325.