A Brief Spiritual History of the Early Church

by "Hermogenes" of Nashville, TN


1. To understand the Jewish position at the beginning of Christ's ministry one needs to understand the entire history of God's people from Genesis on, however brief this might be. God made man in his image and likeness and gave him free will. He used this free will to eat of the tree of good and evil and was thus banished from the Garden of Eden. God told man to worship Him and follow His ways. Man continued to disobey and a series of misfortunes befell him until he repented and returned to God. Thus is the history of the Jewish people. God called on the prophets to warn the people to turn from evil. They did not so God withdrew from the Israelite Kingdom and it perished. This was when the Assyrian King Shalmaneser conquered Israel, sent the Israelites away and settled pagans in their place. Thus the kingdom was divided into Judea and Israel.

Among the people were a few pious ones, so God still warned of disaster through the prophets. The most famous was Isaiah, who foretold the destruction of the Judean Kingdom, the Jews placed into captivity and again return to their homeland. He also foretold the Savior's birth from the house of David and that he would be both God and man, suffer and die and that through their faith in Him they would be saved. The people did not listen. The prophet Jeremiah told of the captivity and persuaded the Jews to submit to Babylon. The people did not listened again and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar sent them into captivity in 589 B.C. The grand temple of Solomon was destroyed in 586 B.C.

God sent two more prophets during the Babylonian captivity, Ezekiel and Daniel. Ezekiel prophesied about the resurrection of the dead and the prophet Daniel told of the fall of Babylon, the following three kingdoms and the appearance of Jesus the savior of the world. This came to pass with the return of the Jews to Jerusalem under King Cyrus, who allowed the rebuilding of the temple.

During the next period, three more prophets came. The prophet Haggai predicted the glory of the new temple would be greater than Solomon's because the Savior of the World would come there. The prophet Zechariah told of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a colt and the prophet Micah foretold of John the Baptist as a fore-runner to Christ. Another 400 years were needed for these predictions to be fulfilled. During this time the people again wandered away from God's word and they were again subjected, this time by the by the Romans just before the birth of Christ.

Just before the Romans however, the Jews were persecuted by the Syrians, heavily taxed and they endured much sorrow. This set the stage for the yearning of a messiah, a savior from the oppressive governments and conditions of the time. There was an uprising against the brutal King Antiochus Epiphanes in which many were martyred. This was known as the Maccabean rebellion, circa 167 B. C.

The Hasmoneans assumed power and rather than being just priests, they declared themselves kings against the outcries of the Pharisees, strict followers of the Law. Growing political and religious divisions weakened the Hasmonean dynasty. The Sadducees bowed down to Roman rule while the Pharisees tried to separate the Roman rule and the Mosaic law. The Essenes sought to totally isolate themselves from society while awaiting the end of the kingdom on earth and the coming Messiah.

The Romans placed Herod the Great over Palastine. He did allow the Jews to build a great temple. However he was hated universally. He taxed heavily the population for his building program. He forced land owners into poverty and generally ran down the countryside with his excesses. Rome realizing their mistake with the Zealot rebellion of 6 B.C. over the census, broke up the area into a tetrarch form of rule, with Herod Antipas appointed over Galilee and Perea. Herod appointed several procurators to serve various areas, of which Pontius Pilate would play a role later. He served from 26-36 A.D.

So with all the political problems, slavery, oppression and the dissent between the religious factions, the Jewish people yearned for the coming of the Messiah who would free them from their earthly miseries and set up a world wide kingdom here on earth. They did not believe or they mis-interpreted the prophets who said that Christ the Saviour would come to bear our sins, suffer for us and be put to death and establish a new kingdom of heaven, not of this world, but a world to come.

Thus, in this tension filled arena, John the Baptist started his mission of announcing the apocalyptic-messianic message to the people. A savior was about to be born that would baptize them with the Holy Spirit, that the people needed to repent and be baptized with water to prepare for Him.

Jesus was thus born and immediately was hunted by Herod the King who feared the popular stories that a new king had been born who was to be the savior of the Jews. Jesus fled to Egypt and returned some 30 years later to start his ministry to the people.

His message of salvation, was an extension of the Jewish one, he came to fulfill the law, not to destroy it. But the Priests were wary of one who broke the Law and replaced it with a higher one. They hated Him and arranged for Him to be crucified.

The prophets predictions were filled in all aspects. The peoples rejected God again. The temple was finally destroyed in 70 A.D. and the land of Israel destroyed until 1947. The Jewish people were dispersed over all the world to suffer as outcasts and universally hated. The Christians, following the new teachings were to go out into the world and bring the message of Christ to all people.

2. The great city of Alexandria was founded in 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great, and became a great Hellenistic center of learning. Its library was world famous and attracted many scholars, theologians, physicians and philosophers to it's doors.

The first great Christian teacher in Alexandria was Clement (ca.215 A.D.). He repudiated the teachings of Gnosticism and taught the Hellenistic philosophy was both an ally and a foe of Christianity. His book "Exhortation To The Heathens" was a critique of the pagan religion; "Instructor" spells out the logic of Christian life and "Stromata" was thought on Christian issues at the time.

Clement saw the history of God with humankind as a process of education. He used this model to describe the Christian life of the individual believer as a gradual process of moral and intellectual transformation which issued in a likeness to God. This really combined the teaching of Tertullian who envisaged Christian life in primarily moral terms, as an affair of obedience to divine precepts; and the Gnostic belief that it was a once and for all enlightenment.

Clement left Alexandria in 202 A.D. to unknown destinations, but left behind Origen one of his students. Origen's views, expressed in his book "On First Principles" set the stage for the Arian controversy that pitted the Alexandrian school against the Antiochian school. Both schools mis-interpreted the writings of Origen that eventually had to be settled with the great Ecumenical councils.

The First Ecumenical Council was called in 325 A.D. in the city of Nicea, under the Emperor Constantine I. In Alexandria Arius was preaching a false doctrine that rejected the Divine nature and pre-eternal birth of the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Divine Son of God the Father, Jesus Christ and instead taught that he was only the highest creation. Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria declared his teachings false, deposed him, and Arius fled to Palestine.

Arius teamed up with Eusebius; both were students of Lucian of Antioch, and attacked Alexander in a letter writing campaign. Alexander held that the Son is generated eternally, without reference to time, comes from God himself rather than from non-existence, and is changeless and perfect. This position echoed Origen. Arius then countered that Alexander was teaching two, co-equals and unbegottens.

Both Arius and Alexander questioned the traditional approach that there was a pluralism of divine persons within a hierarchy of being. There was an eternal and unchanging first principle, God, who gives rise to a Son and Image, the Logos, and through this Image of Himself calls out of non-existence a world of creatures.

Emperor Constantine sent a letter of reconciliation to Alexandria via Hosius of Cordova. Hosius found that there was more hostility than the Emperor imagined. Hosius installed a Bishop Eustathius at Antioch who was anti Arius. The Antiochian Bishops issued a confession of faith that was against Arius. This caused further dispute and the Emperor called for a Council to resolve the problem. Thus the Council assembled in May 325 A.D. where the foundations of the Orthodox faith were laid down in the Nicene Creed.

The council was divided into three groups, one led by Eusebius of Nicomedia who were thoroughly Arians, the second group led by Eustathius of Antioch and Marcellus of Ancyra supported Alexander, and the largest group led by Eusebius of Caesarea which represented the conservative pluralism and subordinationism of the eastern tradition.

The council was from the start bent on refuting Arianism. Eusebius of Caesarea read His Baptismal Creed to show He was not in the camp of the Arians, which the Eastern Bishops approved. The Emperor then took another Baptismal Creed and altered both text's to serve their purpose. Thus they inserted into the text "true God from true God", "begotten not made", "from the substance of the Father" and "of one substance with the Father". Thus they refuted the Arian doctrine that the Logos is a creature. They asserted that He is truly the eternally generated "Son of God" and they insisted that he belongs to the same order of being as God.

Eusebius of Caesarea did have doubts about the word "Homoousios", of one substance. From his point of view, this could lead to some dangerous mis-interpretations. However he was assured of its correctness and the creed was accepted. It excluded Arianism and provided the Church with a formula to which all could agree.

This first council set up debates concerning the nature of Christ, commonly known as the Christological controversies. Eventually it led to several Ecumenical Councils to further define the Orthodox faith and to refute the heresies that arose from the various interpretations. The two schools, Alexandrian and Antiochian arose from these debates.

Athanasius summed up the central ideas of the Alexandrians thusly: Logos must be truly and fully God, on the ground that it is only through the gracious presence of one who is himself God that human nature can be divinized. The redemption of humankind required a non-mediated presence of God with and for humanity and the incarnation of the Logos was the moment in which just such a union of the truly human and the fully Divine occurred. The Arian position posed that the Logos has the sort of nature which is subject to all limitations of an ordinary human being: thus he is finite and creaturely.

Apollinaris, a friend of Athanasius, was the first to develop a systematic Christology. He affirmed that the Divine Son is immediately present to transform and divinized the sinful mortality of the human creature. He is God with us. Apollinaris view is that Jesus is the same as us but with God as his spirit, he thus becomes the human from heaven. This presented Christ's humanity as incomplete. Therefore he was attacked from several quarters.

The Antiochian stressed the role of the Christ as the second Adam, as one whose human obedience had a central place in salvation. Diodore was troubled with the notion of the language that attributed human characteristics or limitations to the divine Son. He insisted there must be a clear division between flesh and Logos. For Diodore they were not one single thing.

Theodore, Diodore's pupil and founder of Nestorianism held his humanity was so divided from his Godhead that he became two persons instead of one. However it was Nestorius that brought into prominent view the teachings of Theodore. Theodore also questioned the calling of Mary the Theotokos. Nestorius preferred Christotokus.

Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus, took up the fight against Nestorius. He felt that the Logos was in no way separated from Jesus' humanity and that the mother should be called Theotokos for the same reason that God is the father of Jesus. There is only one nature and one hypostasis. Thus a second Ecumenical Council was convened at Ephesus in 431 A.D. Cyril succeeded en deposing Nestorius but it was short lived.

The successor of Cyril was Dioscorus who sought the complete triumph of Alexandria and Proclus was Nestorius' successor and Flavian who inclined toward the Antiochian point of view. Dioscorus insisted that there is in Christ only one nature; the savior is from two natures, but after His incarnation there is only one incarnate nature of God the Word. This is the position commonly termed Monophysite. Many thought this was a denial of Christ's humanity.

Thus the Fourth council was called in 451 A.D. which rejected monophitism and proclaimed that, while Christ is a single, undivided person, He is not only from two natures but in two natures. They are one and the same Son, perfect in Godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly Human.

This council in effect created the Nestorian Church which was later extinguished by the Moslem and Mongol invasions. Also the Monophysite Church was created which still exist today as the Coptic and Armenian Church. It also spelled the demise of the Alexandrian school and its ranking among the Patriarchal Churches.

3. Prior to the beginning of the monastic movement in the third century the Christian Church had known their ascetics, but they were living quite individual lives, trying to avoid the persecutions of the time. Of course there were many martyred for the faith during the preceding years which filled the model of the new life in Christ where one gave up everything to save his soul in the afterlife.

Monasticism was a movement of withdrawal from life, the hectic pace and the institutions not to mention the heavy taxation and growing problem of slavery and peasantry. By withdrawing to the "desert" one could contemplate the "mysteries" and renounce worldly life and follow a life of prayer. This began during the reign of St. Constantine the Great. There were both hermits and small groups who sought the desert, reflecting a quest for solitude.

St. Anthony of Egypt (born 251) was one of the first notable monastics. He was a native of Egypt and about age 20 he sold his inheritance and moved to the desert to take up life as a hermit. He spent 20 years near the Red Sea, struggling against the demonic powers by fasting, vigils, work and constant prayer. Others, finding and hearing of him, gathered around him to form a loose group of hermits living in individual "cells". By the time of his death there were several thousand hermits in the deserts. Living alone was difficult and dangerous thus some banded together under the style of St. Pachonius.

St. Pachomius (ca. 290-346), a native of Chenoboskion, began as a hermit under an older ascetic named Palamon. He established an organized community of hermits in the village of Tabbenisi, living a common life. This "coenobium" meant they ate together, treated all property as common, and practiced a strict "obedience" to their superior or elder. The elder led the group according to a "rule" or set of guide lines as when to pray, eat, work, virtually every aspect of life. These communities supported themselves with their work. St. Pachomius founded nine coenobitic monasteries while his sister organized a coenobitic monastery for women.

In Syria, the monastic movement had a characteristic tendency of self-denial toward extremes. Simon the Elder ( ca. 390-459) was one of these, called a "Stylite" because he spent thirty years living on top of a pillar, praying and preaching to pilgrims.

Eustathius of Sebaste ( ca. 300-377) introduced the coenobitic rule to Cappadocia and Pontus and later into Asia Minor around the middle of the fourth century. Its spread was due to the efforts of Basil of Caesarea.

St. Basil of Caesarea (370), instead of holding to the doctrine of isolation, held that monasteries should be near cities so they could be of service to the people. Like the apostles, they lived a communal life, avoided extreme asceticism and lived by a rule that is the basis for the Russian and Greek monasteries today.

Evagrius Ponticus ( 346-399) came to the desert of Nitria in 382, bringing with him a Hellenised version and the teachings of Origen. The Coptic monks distrusted this and on his death, the "Origenist controversy" erupted leading to John Chrysostoms exile and death and to Evagrius' condemnation at the Council of 553. But it also allowed for his teachings on the monastic life to spread where it had a major influence on western and eastern monasticism. St. Martin of Tours (ca. 335-397) seems to be the first in the west to bring monasticism into the Church. A community of anchorites gathered around him in Liguge when he became Bishop of Tours.

About the same time as St. Martin of Tours, Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli ( 340-371) organizes the clergy of his church into an ascetically community. This practice was followed later by Augustine of Hippo.

John Cassian ( ca. 360-435) was a disciple of Evagrius of Ponticus and founded at Marseilles a community introducing the Egyptian ideal to the west.

It seems that the monastic movement continued to spread rapidly over the continent and even into the far reaches of Russia. In the west the Rule of St. Benedict was to become the norm.

St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-550) was originally a hermit who lived in a cave near Subiaco. As disciples found him, he organized them into small communities. His rule is simple and clear, communal and self-supporting. The head of the community was an abbot who demanded strict obedience, to cut off one's own will. Benedict monastery also comprised of a school which was the model for many universities that sprang up throughout Europe.

Early monasticism was a private struggle of the individual overcoming the temptations of this world. It gradually became a community event that had an impact on the Church. The Church finally recognized the monastic movement as a vital part of its doctrines and now the major Bishops and Patriarchs come from the monastic ranks.