The geographic extension of the faith continues

In spite of the old and the new resistance, the spread of Christianity continued. By the close of its first five centuries Christianity had become the professed faith of the overwhelming majority of the population of the Roman Empire. The Jewish communities held to their ancestral religion, and here and there, usually in remote rural districts or mountain valleys, the ancient pagan cults lingered. In some groups and areas Christians were a smaller element than in others. Many of the nominal Christians paid only lip service to their ostensible faith and remained pagans at heart. Yet outwardly Christianity had triumphed. Moreover, Christianity continued to spill over the boundaries of the Roman Empire and was being carried to non-Roman peoples.

The spread of the faith within the Empire was furthered by more than one factor. As for several generations past, the momentum of early successes carried it forward. The Emperors were active in curbing the old faiths and in encouraging the acceptance of Christianity. Some were more zealous than others, but after Julian none sought to roll back the tide and the majority furthered it. There was no violent persecution of pagans comparable to that with which Christianity had formerly been confronted. Yet we hear of encouragement given by Theodosius I (reigned 379-395) to the demolition of temples. Theodosius proscribed not only sacrifices but also secret visits to pagan shrines and commanded that apostates from Christianity be deprived of all honours and of the right of inheritance and of conveying property by will. In many places temples were destroyed by Christians, often led by monks. Early in the fifth century imperial edicts forbade making official holidays of the special days of the old cults, withdrew all privileges enjoyed by pagan priests, and commanded the destruction of temples still standing in rural districts. Later the incomes of temples were ordered diverted to the army, the destruction of pagan images was decreed, and surviving temples were to be given to some other public use. Pagans were commanded to go to the churches to receive Christian instruction, and exile and confiscation of property were made the penalties for refusing to be baptized. Jews were treated with lenience. Indeed, they were dealt with more mildly than were Christian heretics. Occasional sporadic outbreaks against them are recorded, but they were permitted to rear their children in the faith of their fathers and restrictive legislation against them was chiefly designed to estop them from what they were sometimes doing, winning Christians, usually Christian slaves in their possession, to Judaism. Encouraged by the Emperors, bishops were active in the conversion of the non-Christians in their dioceses. Some required no incentive from the state, but were zealous on their own initiative, inspiring and directing missionaries. Thus in the fourth century Martin of Tours, whom we are to meet later as the leading pioneer of monasticism in Gaul, on becoming bishop of the see by which he is known seems to have found most of the surrounding countryside pagan. He led his monks in preaching, in destroying temples, and in baptizing. Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, a friend of Martin, established Christian outposts not far from the later Flanders. About the middle of the fifth century a synod meeting at Arles in the southern part of Gaul held that a bishop was derelict to his duty if he did not stamp out the worship of idols in his diocese.

Augustine was by no means the only convert of Ambrose of Milan. Son of a Prefect of Gaul, well educated according to the standards of the time, Ambrose (c. 340-397) was a civil official. Prefect of Upper Italy, when to his intense surprise and great reluctance and while still a layman and not yet baptized, he was constrained by the insistence of the populace to become Bishop of Milan. Entering upon a course of theological reading the better to fill his unsought post, he combined a Stoic background with Christian faith and became one of the most famous of bishops, administrators, and preachers. He was also a writer of hymns. He opposed the pagan party in Rome, won many non-Christians in his diocese, and encouraged missionaries in the Tyrol.

A contemporary of Ambrose, John Chrysostom ("the golden-mouthed," so called for his eloquence), whose dates were c. 345-407, was originally headed for the career of advocate and was accordingly trained in oratory. Moved to seek Christian instruction, he was baptized in his mid-twenties, became a monk, and then, being ordained, rose to be the outstanding preacher in his native Antioch. Earnest, eloquent, he won widespread acclaim and at the instance of the Emperor was elevated to the episcopal see of Constantinople. In this post he sent missionaries to pagans, including the Goths on the borders of the Empire. Banished because of his courage in rebuking vice, he gave himself to winning non-Christians in the vicinity of his exile. He urged that the Christian owners of the great latifundia have chapels on their estates and work for the conversion of those who tilled their fields and vineyards. He held that the most effective means of conversion was the example of Christian living. "There would be no more heathen if we would be true Christians," he said.

In Alexandria late in the fourth century the bishop led in the destruction of temples and the Serapeum, the great shrine of Serapis which dominated the city from its hill, was turned into a church.

Although by A.D. 500 the large majority of the population of the Empire were Christians, in some areas and groups, as we have hinted, the proportion was larger than in others. In Phoenicia and Palestine there were many pagans well after the close of the fifth century. Even in Antioch, one of the strongest Christian centres, at the end of the sixth century paganism still had a recognized head. Athens long remained a stubborn citadel of the pre-Christian philosophies and numbers of the Christian youths who flocked there as students had their faith weakened or destroyed. It was not until the year 529 that the Emperor, by closing the schools in Athens, formally put an end to that focus of pagan infection. Although the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410 dealt a severe blow to the pagan party in that city, it was not until the sixth and seventh centuries that some of the remaining temples were turned into churches. At the close of the sixth century paganism survived in Sardinia and Sicily and missionary effort was still in progress in Corsica. In the seventh century there were pagans in the mountains between Genoa and Milan. At the end of the fifth century idolatry remained strong in Spain and the south of Gaul. While at the close of the fifth century paganism had by no means completely disappeared in the Roman Empire, its days seemed clearly to be numbered.

The expansion of Christianity beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire which had begun before the time of Constantine continued in the fourth and fifth centuries. Whether it was accelerated by the official espousal of the faith by the Emperors would be difficult to determine. In at least one area, the Persian Empire, support by the Roman Empire was a handicap. Rome and Persia were chronic and deadly enemies. The Persian rulers, Zoroastrian by religion, had their natural opposition to a growing, non-Zoroastrian faith heightened by the fear that Christians would be sympathetic with Rome. Their apprehension was not allayed by the fact that Constantine, posing as the protector of the Christians, protested against their persecution by the Persian state. In general, however, the continued adoption of the faith within the Roman Empire seems to have facilitated its spread outside the Empire.

This certainly was true of the barbarians who were invading the Empire from the North. They tended to conform to the culture of the Roman world, for it was the only civilization which most of them knew. Since Christianity was increasingly associated with that civilization, it was natural that they should adopt it.

The Goths were the first of the northern peoples among whom Christianity had a marked spread. That was because, being the earliest of the Teutonic peoples extensively to harass and invade the Roman provinces, they were also the first to be brought into continued intimate contact with the religion which was rapidly becoming the faith of that realm. It may have been that Christianity was first introduced among the Goths by Christians whom they had taken captive in raids in the third century. Two of the forms of Christianity with which we are to become familiar in the next chapter made headway among the Goths, the Arian and what came to be known as the Catholic. To these was added a third, that associated with Audius, a bishop of great purity of life who was banished for what were regarded as heretical doctrines and while in exile became a missionary among the Goths. However, most of the Gothic Christians were Arians.

The most famous missionary among the Goths was one of their own number, Ul-filas (c.311-c.380). When and how Ulfilas became a Christian we do not know. The usual conjecture is that it was while he was in Constantinople as a young man. It was a mild form of Arian Christianity with which he became acquainted and which he propagated. At about the age of thirty he was consecrated bishop of "the Christians in Gothia " What seem to have been his first missionary labours were north of the Danube. After a few years, seeking to protect his converts from persecution, he obtained permission to move them into Roman territory south of that river. Ulfilas translated part or all of the Scriptures into Gothic, presumably devising an alphabet for that purpose and thus for the first time giving Gothic a written form. It is an early instance of what was to be common in succeeding centuries, for more languages have been reduced to writing by Christian missionaries than by all other agencies put together.

Arian Christianity continued to spread among the Goths until most of them belonged to that branch of the faith. It was the Visigoths among whom Christianity was first strong and it was chiefly from them that it gained entrance among the Ostrogoths, the Gepids, and the Vandals. When these peoples settled within the Empire, as they did in the fourth century, a large proportion of them were already Christian. The fact that they were Arians while the bulk of the Roman population were Catholics reinforced a tendency to keep the two elements of the population separate. As, however, the inevitable acculturation and assimilation proceeded, Arianism gave way to the Catholic form of the faith. That process was not completed until late in the sixth century.

Others of the Teutonic peoples adopted the Catholic form of the faith from the very outset of their conversion. Thus the Burgundians, moving south of the Rhine early in the fifth century, accepted the Catholic Christianity of the provincial population among whom they settled. A little later the Burgundians who remained on the right bank of the Rhine became Catholic Christians. The Burgundians were thus the first predominantly Catholic Germanic people. Subsequently, when they established themselves in the Rhone Valley, they turned Arian, perhaps through contact with the Arian Visigoths.

More important for the future than the conversion of the Burgundians was that of the Franks. In the fifth century the Franks became dominant in the northern part of Gaul and the lower portions of the Rhine Valley. Late in that century their leader, Clovis, made himself master of much of Gaul and laid the foundations of what for the next four centuries and more was to be the most important state in Western Europe. He took to wife a Burgundian princess, a Catholic, and acceded to her request that the first of their children be baptized. He himself was eventually baptized, the traditional date being December 25, 496. He did not constrain his warriors to follow him, but eventually they did so. Clovis adopted the Catholic rather than the Arian form of Christianity, perhaps because he wished in that way to identify himself with the Roman provincials, Catholics, over whom he was ruling.

It was in the fifth century that we first hear certainly of Christianity in Ireland, that island beyond and yet near to the western bounds of the Roman Empire, The most famous of the missionaries to Ireland was Patrick. Patrick was a native of Roman Britain, but of what part we are not sure. He was at least a third generation Christian, for he speaks of his father as having been a deacon and his paternal grandfather a presbyter. We cannot be certain of the date of his birth, but the year most frequently given is 389. Presumably reared as a Christian in fairly comfortable circumstances, perhaps with a smattering of Latin, when about sixteen years old Patrick was carried away captive to Ireland by one of those raids which, breaking through the weakening defenses of the Roman borders, were harassing Britain. For at least six years he was a slave in Ireland and was set to tending flocks. There, perhaps through the solitude and hardships of his lot, his inherited faith deepened and he filled his days and nights with prayer. Dreams came which aroused in him hopes of seeing his homeland and which nerved him to seek and obtain passage on a ship. We are not certain of his life for the next few years. He may have wandered in Italy and perhaps spent some time in a monastery on an island off the southern coast of Gaul. It is clear that he eventually made his way back to Britain and was greeted with joy by his family as one risen from the dead.

Again there came dreams, now with what seemed to him a letter, "the voice of the Irish," with the appeal: "We beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk with us once more." Heeding the call, Patrick returned to Ireland, but how soon and when we do not know. He was consecrated bishop, but again we cannot tell by whom or when. He seems to have had many years in Ireland, for he speaks of baptizing thousands and of ordaining clergy. Although he himself was not a monk, under his influence sons and daughters of chieftains adopted that way of life. His was both an arduous and a perilous missionary career, for he had to face opposition from fellow clergy and from armed foes. He seems to have reached a ripe old age. Other missionaries shared in the conversion of Ireland, That island became a centre from which, as we shall see, Christian influence was to radiate not only to Britain but also to much of Western Europe.

Christianity continued its spread among the peoples to the east of the Roman Empire, chiefly civilized folk along its eastern borders.

In Armenia the Christianity which had been adopted en masse by the population and its rulers became better understood and more identified with the nation's life. Before the end of the fifth century the Bible was put into Armenian and other Christian books were translated from Greek and Syriac. For many decades paganism survived in some of the mountain fastnesses, but towards the close of the fourth century a deepening and purification of the Christianity of the nation was effected under the leadership of Nerses, a descendant of Gregory the Illuminator. In the fifth century Armenia was dominated by the Persians and the overlords attempted to impose their religion, Zoroastrianism, upon the land. Numbers of the faithful suffered martyrdom, but by the end of the century the Church breathed more easily.

It was in the fourth century that Christianity seems to have been introduced among the Georgians, in the Caucasus, north of Armenia. Progress continued, apparently under the prospering encouragement of the ruling house. As in Armenia, a Persian invasion was accompanied by an attempt to force Zoroastrianism on the country, possibly to offset Christianity with its ties with the Roman Empire. In the fifth century, however, a king led a national uprising which purged the land of the fire cult and created bishoprics and erected many churches.

In Mesopotamia, on the debated border between the Roman and Persian Empires, Christianity had its chief hold among the Syriac-using population. It made some headway among the Persians proper and a Christian literature arose in Pahlavi, or Middle Persian. But Zoroastrianism, the state cult, did not exhibit the weaknesses of the official paganism of the Roman Empire and offered more effective resistance to new religions, such as Manich^ism and Christianity, than did the latter. In the first half of the third century, when Christianity was spreading fairly rapidly, a dynastic revolution which brought the Sassanids on the throne was accompanied by a revival of national feeling and of the associated Zoroastrianism. This dimmed the prospect for Christianity. From time to time, notably under Sapor II (reigned 310-379), persecution was especially severe: the number of Christian martyrs is said to have been as many as sixteen thousand. The fortunes of Christianity varied with the state of the political relations between Rome and Persia. During the recurring wars persecutions of the Christians, as suspected supporters of Rome, were intensified. The one exception was during the brief reign of Julian, when, in spite of hostilities between the two realms, Christians, out of favour with the Roman Empire, were regarded more leniently by the Persians. However, the wars with Rome brought Christian captives into the Sassanid realms and through them facilitated the spread of the faith. In the intervals of peace the restrictions on Christianity seem usually to have lightened. Some of the Persian nobility became Christians and one from that class is said to have been a zealous and successful missionary among his fellow-Persians and to have carried the faith even to the fierce Kurds in their mountain fastnesses.

Christianity was brought into Central Asia. By the end of the fifth century it counted converts among the Turks and the Hephthalite Huns and had bishoprics in the cities of Herat, Merv, and Meshed, From these centres irradiated caravan routes along which it might be conveyed to even more distant points. It may have been furthered by remnants of Hellenistic culture left in these cities in the wake of Alexander the Great.

A national organization was achieved for Christianity in the Sassanid realms. This was accomplished at a council held in 410. At the head was a Catholicos or Patriarch with his seat at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital. The state accorded him recognition and held him responsible for the conduct of his flock. Thus the Christians constituted a recognized minority enclave within the Persian domain. At times this led to state interference in the selection of bishops and there was the ever-present danger that unworthy aspirants for the office might obtain the post by bribery or political favouritism.

The distinctiveness of this Persian (or Assyrian) Church was further accentuated in the fourth century by doctrinal differences. The Persian Church was penetrated by the views of the relation of the human and the divine in Jesus which are associated, somewhat inaccurately, with the name of Nestorius. We are to hear of this development more in detail in the next chapter. The views which were condemned by the Catholic Church in the Roman Empire are more accurately connected with the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia. They gained a strong foothold at Edessa. Expelled from that city, their exponents became teachers in Nisibis, the chief centre for the training of the clergy of the Persian (or Assyrian) Church. From Nisibis they spread throughout that church, but usually they were not extremely held.

In the fourth and fifth centuries the Christian communities in Arabia grew. Some of them were on the eastern borders of the Roman realms, some on the edge of Mesopo tamia, some along the Arabian margin of the Persian Gulf, and others in the south of Arabia. They represented various strains of the faith, several of them far removed from orthodox or Catholic Christianity.

Christianity also obtained a foothold on the African side of the Red Sea, in Axum, from which the Christianity of the later Ethiopia or Abyssinia seems to have had its rise. The traditional account tells of a philosopher from Tyre who, taking with him two youths, one of them Frumentius, sailed for "India." On the return voyage they were seized by the inhabitants of one of the ports on the west coast of the Red Sea. All the ship's company were massacred except Frumentius and his fellow-youth. The two rose to high posts in the service of their captors and Frumentius set himself to the spiritual care of the Christian merchants from the Roman Empire whom he found there and built for them houses of worship. He went to Alexandria, asked the archbishop of that city, Athanasius, for a bishop, and Athanasius responded by consecrating him and sending him back to his flock. Whatever may be the truth of this story, it appears to be certain that Athanasius appointed one Frumentius Bishop of Axum. It seems probable that Frumentius won the king of Axum and that in consequence Christianity became the official faith of that state. This was in the first halt of the fourth century. Thus was begun a connexion between the Christianity of Abyssinia and that of Egypt which was to persist into the twentieth century.

It is probable that in the fourth and fifth centuries Christians were to be found in India and Ceylon. Some doubt exists because of the uncertainty of the identification of geographic names and the confusion of the south of Arabia with India. If there were Christians in India, their associations were probably at least in part with the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

Enneagram Essentials

Enneagram Essentials

Tap into your inner power today. Discover The Untold Secrets Used By Experts To Tap Into The Power Of Your Inner Personality Help You Unleash Your Full Potential. Finally You Can Fully Equip Yourself With These “Must Have” Personality Finding Tools For Creating Your Ideal Lifestyle.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment