Christianity: From AD 300 – 400

Political Milestones: 300AD to 400AD

What a difference a century makes. Rome and China would spend this hundred year period in political disintegration. It was the beginning of the era of the “sixteen kingdoms” in the east, and the splitting and sacking of Rome in the west.

In the first decade of the century Rome attempted one final bloody attempt at exterminating the Christian curse. In a little over ten years three quarters of a million Christians were executed. This was followed by an utter reversal of fortune with the “conversion” of Emperor Constantine and the legalisation of the Christian Faith in 313AD.

When Constantine died in 337AD the Roman Empire was split in three factions among his sons. Constantine II took Spain, France and Britain, Constans I took Italy, North Africa and the Balkans, while Constantius II took the east.

In the most unlikely way, China and Rome “met” in the middle of the century through the shunting of several people groups across the super-continent over the course of many decades. It began when the Chinese were able to repel the Ruruan Mongols from their northern boundary, who in turn drove the Turkic speaking Huns to the west and south west; to the edge of Europe in the fertile plains between the Ural Mountains and the Ukraine, and into conflict with the Sassanids in Persia. This migration in turn pushed the Germanic tribes further west as both invaders of Rome and refugees on its fringes.

While this was happening, the Romans lost yet another emperor in battle. This time it was Emperor Julian, who was fighting yet another war with the Persians. The now fatally weakened empire was forced to allow the Visigoths, an offshoot of the marauding Goths, to occupy part of the empire in 376AD after they defeated the Roman army at Hadrianopolis. They were in flight from the Huns further to the north east. Then, in 385AD complete disintegration took place in Western Europe as the Barbarians took control of much of France and Spain. In 395 Emperor Theodosius died and the empire was irreparably split into eastern and western halves, and the western half began to disintegrate. Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) became the seat of any remaining Roman power.

Spiritual Milestones: 300AD to 400AD

In the very first year of the century Armenia became the very first Christian country. To this day they have tenaciously held on to this heritage. In contrast, the first decade of the century was a time of great bloodshed for believers in the Roman Empire. The tenth imperial persecution was ordered by Diocletian. Hundreds of thousands of Christians, mainly leaders, were hauled away and executed.

In 313AD a complete reversal of fortunes occurred with Emperor Constantine legalising the Christian faith. This began a new and completely unmarked chapter in the new religion. Though dramatic, this victory proved to be a major setback and still hurts the Christian faith today. By 380AD Christianity had become the official State religion of the empire. From despised and then being legalised early in the century, a church-state alliance power alliance emerged that would dominate and darken the European continent for the next thousand years.

The five-fold ministry gifts disappeared, being replaced by bureaucrats and administrators whose purpose was the continuation of church power and control over the populace and kings. Starting in 327AD Constantine built, at government expense, nine grand Christian temples on cemeteries around Rome. This included the first church at the Vatican and they were modelled after Roman government buildings, called basilicas. Many leading temples were also cleaned out and converted to churches. The era of the dedicated religious building was being ushered in, and deviously called “churches”. Needless to say house churches were banned as they were a threat to church power. Lay leadership also disappeared completely, being replaced with a rigid hierarchy of office holders, all clamouring for the next level of power. Many pagan priests converted and brought their practices with them. Greek oratory, which had become fashionable a century before in many house churches, became the chief means of discourse in these new “Churches”. This was born the sermon.

This two century period was to give rise to the Roman Catholic Church as we know it.

In 321AD, Constantine decreed that Sunday would be the day of Christian worship. Constantine was a follower of Mithras the sun god, and fused many of the practices of this religion with Christianity. Over in Israel, Constantine’s mother, Helena, built many shrines and “Christian” temples over sites of significance in Jerusalem and Bethlehem that remain to this day. From this time, Israel became known as “The Holy Land”

In 325AD, the emperor convened the Council of Nicea that formulated a creed of orthodox Christian belief. This was in response to the growing threat the Arian heresy was posing to the church. Arianism denounced the deity of Christ, a concept popular again today. Many Germanic tribes embraced this doctrine and their increasing influence meant this heresy did not die down for another 500 years. This new era would see many heresies attack orthodox Christian faith. They all had one thing in common; a determination to dogmatically and intellectually argue the nature of Christ. This was in stark contrast with the earlier era which emphasised human relationship with Christ.

Tragically, Christianity now had sacred rituals, sacred places, sacred objects, theology and sacred offices.

Yet the Gospel, warped as it was, still spread its wings in new areas. The Ethiopians embraced the faith in large numbers from 328AD onwards. In 342AD the first church was planted in Aden, Saudi Arabia and the Gospel spread rapidly along that coastline. In 250AD the three Nubian kingdoms of the upper Nile became officially Christian, a position they kept until the 15th century when they were forced to convert to Islam. And in 360AD the first churches were planted in the Picts of Scotland.

In the east of the Christian realm fierce persecution was the norm in the Persian Empire for the entire century. It only ended in 402AD. Because of the disintegrating communication with the Mediterranean churches, a Bishopic was set up in the city of Merv, in modern day Turkmenistan. What would become the “Eastern Church” was gathering form and substance. By the end of the century churches had been planted all the way to Lake Balkash in Kazakhstan, in many of the Germanic tribes, into the Atlas Mountains in North Africa and further into Iraq.

The century started with around 10-15 million Christians of great spiritual strength. At the end of the century these numbers had doubled but the quality of Christian life had been compromised in the Mediterranean region. A million believers lost their lives to the sword and the only substantial area of church growth was Central Asia. 13% of the world was now somewhere and somehow under the Christian umbrella. The Roman Empire was crumbling and life in Europe would forever be different.

Unfortunately, many people look back to the Roman era as one of progress and grandeur, and of the thousand years that followed it as the “Dark Ages”. This is a false view of history popularised by Humanist historians of the 19th Century. The reality was that Rome was rapaciously greedy, taxing the masses for the self-delusion of a few arrogant egos at the centre of one city. What we still see standing today is the legacy of tyrants. Its vast dependence on slavery and tyranny stifled invention and commerce. Some fifty per cent of the people living in the empire were slaves. Only a privileged few saw its glory, most saw its inhumane misery. It stayed afloat only through theft and suppression of human rights (Daniel 2:36-45, Matthew 22:17). For most people in Europe, life under Rome was itself a dark age in history and the growth of Christianity was the dawn of a new era filled with hope in the universal dignity of man. Below are a few of the changes Christianity brought to theses deeply pagan and selfish peoples:

  1. The large scale eradication of slavery after the fall of Rome is due to the influence of Christianity seeing all men as equals before God and slowly working that theology out into society. Once all men were free, innovation took off, as did the birth rate.
  1. Rome practiced a high level of sexual deviancy resulting in rampant disease, poor marriages and masses of unwanted pregnancies and children. Christians rescued these children and condemned behaviours that caused children to suffer or be aborted. In the same process they elevated the role and status of women and marriage.
  1. Most humans were considered chattels in the Roman world, whereas Christians saw them as children of God. Hence Christians started the first hospices (3rd Century), formed associations to look after the poor (2nd Century) helped the needy and orphans (4th Century), introduced mental asylums (3rd Century) and began the first schools that included girls (2nd Century).
  1. In Rome, and indeed every major ancient civilization, work and business was beneath the elite and distained. Wealth was extracted from slaves and the poor and spent on displaying status. Idleness was the highest value. However, Christianity used the work ethic of its founder to give ordinary people dignity in their vocations and business. This philosophical distinction would later lead to the development of capitalism in the monastic estates before the end of the first millennium.
  1. Most ancient societies and their respective religions were irrational. There gods were remote, impersonal or lacking consciousness. Christianity alone saw God as a rational, law-giving creator. This point alone enabled Christianity alone to develop theology, the reasoned study of God and his interaction with his creation. Theology would find its first great champion in the next century through the writings of Augustine of Hippo.

Slowly, inexorably, with the growth of Christianity, came new ideas about the nature of reality, humanity, the spiritual world, social roles and responsibilities that would change the world forever. A passion for humanity, with all its faults, was replacing the selfishness of Rome.