The Church in the Mainstream

The Church in the Mainstream March 23, 2018

I have been posting about the years around 200 as marking a decisive, formative, moment in the history of Christianity, at least as significant as the celebrated era around the Council of Nicea (325). It is difficult to exaggerate just how important this earlier period was for defining every aspect of Christian thought and belief.

Figures like Tertullian, Bardaisan, and Clement of Alexandria indicate the real maturity of Christian thought around this time, and their impact on the larger intellectual community. Besides those giants, we know of other prolific writers and thinkers who were celebrated at the time, but whose works have been lost. That comment would apply to the prolific historian Julius Africanus (c.160-240), and to most of the writings of Hippolytus.

By 210, an educated Christian could possess a really sizable library of authors from his or her own faith, including all the main genres of civilized discourse, in a way that absolutely had not been the case even a generation earlier. And the volume of publication was accelerating, in multiple languages. Pagans had no option but to pay attention, however grudgingly at first.

Adding to this relevance to the wider world, this was the first era in which Christians could plausibly aspire to some kind of political power. Bardaisan was well connected with the Syrian kingdom of Osrhoene, and around 200, that land’s king accepted Christianity. That court background indicates the respectable and even aristocratic background of some leading Christians by this time, and even in Rome elite Christian sympathizers mitigated official persecution. The court of emperor Alexander Severus (222-35) was notably friendly to Christians.

By 200, that Christian presence was becoming ever harder to ignore. This was the time that pagan philosophers found it worth their while to denounce and parody Christianity, as Celsus did so comprehensively in the 170s. Around 220, a Life of the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana depicted him as a kind of pagan version of Christ, together with miracles and even hints at a resurrection appearance. At every point, Apollonius is explicitly presented as a counter-balance to the depiction of Christ in the Gospels, a disturbing image that pagans felt the need to counter. At last for the non-Christian world, this was the point at which Christianity began to matter.

In turn, Christians like Clement and (later) Origen had to combat these assaults, and they did so by appropriating and adapting the advanced philosophical thought of the time. The more ferocious the assaults, the deeper Christians ventured into the intellectual arena. Christian thought came of age.

That new intellectual sophistication revolutionized theological debate. Ever since New Testament times, authors had borrowed Greek and particularly Platonic ideas and language, but by the 190s such adaptation was essential to make sense such emerging questions as the nature of God, the personality of Christ, and the role he had played in making the world. At every stage too, Christians had to decide how, or if, their distinctive positions fitted into older Jewish schemes.

The range of ideas under discussion in this era was staggering. Depending on the thinker and the school of thought, we might hear that there were two Gods, and one created spirit and one matter; or that Christ was fully human in his body, but divine in his inner spirit; or perhaps that God occupied the body of the man Jesus at the moment of his baptism, and left it at the crucifixion.

Around 200, one major division concerned so-called Monarchian thought, the idea that Father and Son were essentially the same, or else were forms of modes of one being. In this sense, we might even imagine God the father being crucified and dying on the cross, which later generations would consider as a grotesque theological absurdity.

These debates would continue for two centuries, but it was around 200 that Tertullian, above all, offered both the concepts that would become the building blocks of later theology, and the language. Tertullian was the first to frame the concept of “Trinity,” of what he daringly termed “three persons, one substance.” (tres personae, una substantia). Those terms – persons and substance – would have a very long afterlife.

Ever flexible, and ever quotable, Tertullian also offered a novel justification for his daring views, in this case on the Resurrection: certum est, quia impossibile: It is certain, because it is impossible.

The faith had come an inconceivably long way from the world of a few house churches under the ministry of fishermen and itinerant tent-makers. And it was no longer a fringe sect of Judaism.



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