We do well to remember that the developments which we have described in the chapter of which the following lines are a brief summary were taking place concurrently with the amazing spread of the faith which we attempted to cover in the chapter that immediately preceded it. While Christianity was winning the professed allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the population of the Roman Empire and was being carried beyond the Roman borders, it was developing a visible, organized fellowship, the Church, and was seeking to define what Christians deemed the essential convictions of their faith. This was accomplished within the context of the Roman Empire and of Greek and Roman patterns of thought. Always there was the dream, going back to Christ himself, of a unity of love embracing all those who bore his name.
Never was that unity fully realized. Indeed, the history of the Church was — and has been throughout — chronically punctuated by dissension, often bitter and between outstanding leaders in the Church. Bishops, synods, and councils employed emphatic language in condemning individuals and views from which they differed. Never was there a single organization which was comprehensive of all who professed themselves Christians. The efforts to define the distinctive doctrines of the Christian faith invariably sharpened divisions among Christians. By the close of the fifth century several rival bodies were in existence, each regarding itself as representative of true Christianity and most of them calling themselves Catholic and denying that designation to the others. Such unity as existed had been furthered by the development of the Church within a single cohesive political structure, the Roman Empire. Moreover, again and again Roman Emperors had intervened in the affairs of the Church in an effort, usually futile or at best ephemeral, to achieve unity. In the process it often seemed as though Christ had died in vain, that his teachings were being hopelessly compromised and, while honoured in word, were denied in practice.
Yet, by a seeming paradox which we are to witness again and again in the history of Christianity, the failure to live up to the ideals set forth by Christ and his apostles was paralleled by prodigious vitality. From being one of the smallest of scores of rival religious groups, Christians had become numerically dominant, and that within less than five centuries. In a civilization which was dying and which was ceasing to say or to do anything new, Christianity had stimulated the emergence of the Church. This Church, to be sure, was really several churches rather than one, but the very divisions were evidence of vigour and of the power which had been released in the Gospel, and almost all branches, with the possible exception of the Gnostics, had common features of organization and belief.
The organization of the Church bore the indelible impress of the political framework within which it had arisen. However, it was not a pale reflection of that framework, but a fresh creation. The creeds and the discussions out of which they were formulated were influenced by Greek and Roman thought, but they were essentially new. Forced by the fact of living in a particular intellectual climate to use terms and employ ideas which were features of that climate, Christians were saying something quite novel and even revolutionary. They were handicapped by the only terminologies which lay to their hands and by the grandeur and originality of the Gospel. None of the words which they employed quite expressed what they were struggling to understand and to express, but what they said was, like the Gospel itself, fresh and striking. Christians had not yet rethought the whole range of human knowledge in terms of Christ, but some, notably Origen and Augustine, had attempted to sec Christ in the setting of Greek philosophy, and in his City of God Augustine had endeavoured to discern the meaning of the entire human drama as disclosed in the Scriptures and Christ.
The Church and its faith were clearly a new creation. Their appearance and their spread were only the beginning of the story, for, as we are to see later, they were to continue to expand from the narrow confines of the Mediterranean world until by the middle of the twentieth century they had won footholds in almost every corner and among almost all the peoples of the globe.
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