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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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2. The Church in the Roman Empire. The Chris-
tians would appear in the empire as a strange small
sect and for a time their recruits were perhaps chiefly
amongst the lowly, though churches for which the
epistles of Saint Paul were written can hardly be re-
garded as unimpressive. In the Roman Empire the
believers might be hated because they were confused
with the Jews or because the Jews incited the pagans
against them; but in the first two centuries they suffered
from the hostility of the populace rather than the
intolerance of the emperors. After the fall of Jerusalem
it was in Asia Minor that they came to appear most
numerous, most lively, and most capable; and for a
long time this was the most impressive seat of the
Church. In various parts of the empire the teaching
in the apostolic period itself would tend to vary, at
least in its emphases, and the tradition came to develop
on differing lines. Also, as time went on, one great
region (almost as a matter of temperament) would be
preoccupied chiefly with doctrine while another con-
centrated on asceticism and another became interested
in organization.

From the middle of the second century, Helleniza-
tion—which found its climax in Alexandria—had cap-
tured the mentality of churchmen, who, instead of
appearing as a mere sect came out into first-class con-
troversy with leading intellectuals. They had taken
Platonic ideas into their own system, but they set out
to show where pagan thought had gone wrong, and
claimed that Christianity was the culmination of Greek
culture, the real heir of ancient philosophy. While this
was happening, and the Church was settling down to
a long-term role in the world, there arose in Asia Minor
the Montanism which in a sense implied a reversion
to the primitive spirit, the exultant early days. It meant
a wave of “prophesyings,” a reawakening of more
immediate eschatological hopes, a severity in disci-
plinary matters and something like an actual thirst for
martyrdom. Dealing with these problems was part of
the larger process by which a sect that had envisaged
an imminent eschatological climax gradually turned
into a sedentary Church, realizing what it needed if
it were to exist on a permanent footing. Controversies
in the third century about penance, about relapses in
time of persecution, about the validity of baptism by
heretics, and about the rights of bishops, were part of
the consequences of this transition.

Christians were beginning to develop a larger world
view; scholarship was accumulating; the interest in
history was rising. Confronted by the multiplicity of
theological opinions, towards the end of the second
century, Irenaeus had insisted on the steadying influ-
ence of bishops, who were still regarded as the reposi-
tories of the original apostolic tradition. In spite of the
varieties at a certain level, an impressive uniformity
and consistency had been made possible by such pro-
cedures as the communication from one region to
another of the decisions made by local councils of
bishops. At the same time, the heads of great sees
attempted on occasion to secure the support of Rome
in a doctrinal controversy, and this was capable of
being construed later as an appeal to Rome. The
church in Rome, very much a church of foreign colon-
ists at first, was for a long time cosmopolitan—
consisting of groups that had brought their local tradi-
tions and customs with them. Like Christianity itself,
all new sects, all heresies, all novel teaching sought
to reach the capital of the empire; and the bishop of
Rome would have to meet early at a local level the
challenge that these were later to present to the
Church in general. When Christians from further east
brought to Rome their different dates for the celebra-
tion of Easter, he was in a position to be highly aware
of the inconvenience of this anomaly. Perhaps because
he was inclined to be less speculative than the bishops
of the Greek-speaking East, and more concerned for
tradition and order, he not only met problems early
but seems often to have commanded respect by his
actual decisions. In the remarkable period in which
the universal Church was developing its organization,
he gains in importance, though all his claims do not
go unchallenged. To us it might appear that the lead-
ership which he asserted was likely to become due to
him by reason of his merits. At the same time, it was
still recognized that the authority of a bishopric—or
a local tradition—depended primarily on the distinc-
tion of its apostolic origin. Rome could claim to go
back to Peter and Paul.


376

In the middle of the third century the expansion is
remarkable in Africa and in Western Europe, as well
as in the lands to the east of the Mediterranean. Further
east again, the missionary work pushes across Iraq,
though its effect is to be gravely limited from this point
by a Persian dynasty that is committed to Zoroastrian-
ism. At a time when the Roman Empire was coming
under pressure on the frontiers and was moving to-
wards a grim development—while in any case this
empire held hosts of déracinés, people feeling lost, not
quite at home in the world—the older paganism was
coming into decline. Oriental mystery cults attempted
to answer the need for a salvationist faith with its
mysticisms and forms of sacrament; philosophy outside
the Church was running to religiosity. By the second
half of the third century the Church had become an
imposing body and a powerful influence in the empire,
with important government and court officials amongst
its members. Amongst its assets in the great conflict
of religions were the possession of a sacred book; the
attachment not to a mythical figure or a demiurge but
to a Person who had walked in the world and could
be identified in history; the assistance of an imposing
organization; and the fact that this religion, besides
producing its martyrs and issuing in an expressive kind
of devotion, had become intimately connected with the
moral life and works of charity. The Church was be-
ginning perhaps to suffer even from its prosperity, and,
to some, the rise of heresies seemed to come as a
retribution for this. Already the controversies had
opened which led to the long conflicts over the Holy
Trinity and the Person of Christ.

Christianity had profited from the meeting of Jewish
religion, Greek philosophy, and the Roman Empire—a
conjuncture that seemed to coincide with the Incarna-
tion. It had profited from the defects of all three—
Jewish legalism, the tendencies of Greek philosophy
at this late period, and the frustrations and distracted-
ness of the Roman world. It had appeared at an ad-
vanced date in that long period in which much of the
ability and the yearning of the human race in Asia,
and now even in Europe—the result of a great anxiety
about man's destiny—had been directed to the explor-
ing of the possibilities of the spiritual realm. At a
turning-point in the history of man's religious conscious-
ness, Christianity, moreover, had moved into a highly
civilized world which had an advanced form of urban
life—a world which could support it with a certain
refinement of intellect.

Its success was bound to affect the mentality of
men—bound to alter their way of experiencing life,
their attitude to nature, their posture under the sun,
and their notions of human destiny. Since Christians
believed in the Incarnation, they were bound to deny
the gulf which the pagans had so often presumed to
exist between God and Nature—bound to reject the
view that matter is evil and that salvation must consist
in escape from the body. They could not believe that
in an eternity of cyclic repetitions Christ would go
on dying over and over again for sinners; so they were
released from extreme cyclic theories, while the Old
Testament presented history as moving forward, mov-
ing to an objective, an unrepeatable and irreversible
thing. The Old Testament indeed, forced them to look
at history and regard it as important, and it cannot
have been without significance that in Europe, for
generation after generation, men could not learn about
their religion without turning to what was really very
ancient history. Instead of a great emphasis on Fortune,
Christianity gave currency to the notion that the hand
of Providence was in everything and (as had already
happened) this might mean that retrospective reason-
ing could ultimately make sense of that kind of history-
making which goes on over people's heads, overriding
their conscious purposes and their predictions. Christi-
anity stressed the sanctity of human life, the impor-
tance of the family, the inadmissibility of sexual license
and the evil of such things as gladiatorial contests and
the murder of infants. It regarded suicide as wicked.
It insisted that man's life had a spiritual dimension,
but it combined a high view of personality and its
potentialities with an insistence on man's universal sin.
It must have affected the world—the very conception
of a human being—when, week in and week out, in
numberless localities, men were reminded to reflect on
their own sins, on forgiveness, humility, mercy, and
love.