Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule



In the early period of the church any established teacher could baptize converts, consecrate the Eucharist or exorcise demons by the Holy Name. Since these services carried with them both financial and social advantages the supply of exorcists soon exceeded the demand. Moreover, the weekly instruction of the church, based as it was upon inspiration and revelation, encouraged those who possessed the gift of oratory to indulge in such liberal interpretation, if not outright prophecy, as to threaten the integrity of the accepted dogma. It was consequently not long before the elders and bishops, in order to preserve unity in belief, were forced to assume as much authority in articles of faith as in secular matters.

The earliest pronouncement restricting supernatural power occurs in an epistle written by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, to the Christians in Smyrna (?A.D. 120-150): 'Shun divisions as the beginning of evils. Let all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ the Father ... Let no man do anything of things pertaining to the church apart from the bishop. Let that be held a valid eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it. Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even so where Jesus may be there is the catholic church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape; but whatsoever he shall approve, this is well pleasing also to God.'

It appears to have been Clement of Rome who first endowed episcopal (of or pertaining to bishops) opinion with dogmatic sanctity. On the one hand there was an urgent need to exalt the prophetic power of the traditional Christian apostles and at the same time to deny the authority of the Hebrew prophets; on the other, now that the Testament was completed and the means of salvation had been revealed, the prophetic impulse, even among good Christians, must be firmly restrained. So Clement made to appear that prophecy was the voice of the Holy Ghost, who had taken possession of the prophets of old and spoken through their mouths to foretell the coming of Jesus for the benefit of Christians; it had been the Holy Ghost who had fertilized Mary and consecrated Jesus on earth; and when Jesus returned to heaven he in turn had caused the Holy Ghost to fall on the apostles in order to inspire their teachings. But after the apostles there were to be no more random visitations: the power of inspiration was now restricted to the 'officially' established successors of the apostles, the elders of the churches, who would speak, as Clement says, only by 'what we write through the Holy Ghost.'

The Ignatian epistle quoted above also contains the first ecclesiastic use of the word catholic. In secular usage this word meant 'on the whole, in general or generally, in prevalent use.' Ignatius uses it to designate the 'true' church, true by virtue of episcopal authority, and also that 'true' doctrine which was 'universally' accepted in contradistinction to the schisms which he was immediately deploring. Thereafter the word catholic came to mean 'orthodox' (orthodoxists are those of straight opinion), in the sense of officially approved. Only in later centuries did it lose this general meaning and become a specific designation of the Roman Church.

The immediate effect of episcopal centralization was to shift the supernatural power of Christianity from baptism and the sacrament to the persons of the bishops. Shortly these individuals were so powerful that they could exclude from their congregations any member of whom they disapproved, even though he had been baptized 'in the name of Jesus Christ.' Taking their authority from various incidents in the gospels, but particularly from the alleged statement of Jesus to his disciple Peter, as given in Matthew: 'And I will give unto thee the keys to the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind of earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,' they exercised in their anathema a power over the devout which in fearsomeness equaled the emperor's power of life and death. Though this power was not widely used until later times, within the first two centuries the ecclesiastic hierarchy, where so disposed, was in a position to demand mechanical obedience to its most fantastic enactments.

No less important than personal power in the growth of episcopacy was the financial advantage which accrued to those in office. The pagan religious corporations of Syria, Greece, Rome and Egypt were fabulously rich, the priests of Osiris controlling fully one third of the entire national wealth. It did not require great astuteness or more than ordinary cupidity to perceive the possibilities in the rites of baptism and the Eucharist, these being deemed absolutely necessary to salvation and resurrection. A further source of revenue lay in the nullification of malicious powers, since sickness, ever conceived to be due to demoniac possession, was for a voluntary contribution exorcised by means of the sign of the cross or by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. By the third century it had become customary to recite before the altar the name of the givers of oblations, and at a later time the names of the dead who were publicly prayed for in return for a proper consideration. Wherever a man of initiative entered the movement he acquired, in the manner of a noble in a feudal system, not only power to dictate on matters of creed and conduct, but affluence in proportion to the size and wealth of his see or diocese. No more than in the case of the pagan cults, but certainly no less, the new church offered a career to ambitious men and, especially in the large cities, its high offices became substantial prizes.

The alert pagans were not unaware of the physical benefits coming to the leaders of the new cult, but concern on this point apparently never played a major role in the antipathy that rapidly developed between the new believers and the unbelievers. No credible evidence supports the tradition that there was an organized prejudice against Christianity as a religion; to the polytheistic Romans a new god was no novelty and there was no basis in principle for conflict with the state. Indeed, the period of the church's growth was one in which there was a recrudescence of many faiths, and its early difficulties were largely a consequence of its own militant proselytism. The cult had inherited from Judaism a bitter detestation of pagan idols; holding these to be evil demons with which it was axiomatically in conflict it sought to displace them from all their accustomed niches, much to the annoyance of the pagans who had generally been tolerant of their neighbor's religion. It opposed in principle, if not in practice, any effort to achieve permanence in civic structure, since it held that such efforts were futile, the world being on the brink of destruction. Its doctrines that its founder had come to bring not peace but the sword and to create strife were not such as would soften prejudice, and the preaching of celibacy and the disparagement of state dignitaries did not aid its cause. From the first century it had been the custom of Christians to gather weekly at a love feast, or agape (love to God) at which they partook of the Eucharist and then dined together in the manner of the common meals of the Jews and pagans. When such meetings were prohibited from public places, the Christians continued to hold them secretly at the graves, ostensibly for the purpose of offering oblations to the dead, a universal pagan custom from which they could not be excluded. Already held in suspicion by the pagans, they soon acquired a reputation for the most heinous practices; their emphasis on the Eucharist gave rise to the tale that they sacrificed and ate children at these meetings, while their custom of 'spiritual marriages' between 'brothers and sisters' within the church brought upon them the calumny of incest. To worsen matters, the bishops, each seeking power or the opportunity to impose his ideas upon the dogma, were constantly quarreling with each other; they frequently resorted to arms and were often on the verge of starting civil war.

Lastly, the Christians were outspoken pacifists. They refused to bear arms for Rome, to swear by the divus Caesar and to pay homage to his effigy (as to a god) by burning incense before it. The outlying regions of the Empire were perpetually in a state bordering on siege, and everywhere local governors were required to maintain constant surveillance lest rebellion break out under foot. The touchstone of loyalty among Rome's many creeds and races was conformity with the imperial religion; whatever a man's beliefs, public refusal to swear by and pay obeisance to the statue of the emperor constituted high treason and was punishable by death. Enlightened emperors might laugh at their apotheosis, as did Vespasian, who is alleged to have remarked when he was dying, "I fancy I am turning to god," but the custom was supported as a means of ensuring imperial stability. The Christians' refusal to conform brought them into repeated conflict with the magistrates. They were soon accused of lese majesty, ignavia and black magic, outlawed on secular grounds as traitors to the state and denounced as 'enemies of the gods, of the emperors, of the laws, of morals and of all nature.'

It was bruited that the new atheists might bring about an earthquake or pestilence by evoking the wrath of the gods whom they reviled. In such a situation 'persecutions' were unavoidable, but church historians greatly exaggerated the mortality. The formula of the 'ten persecutions' is held to be fabulous, and those ascribed to Domitian and Nero probably had only a slight basis in fact. When persecution was officially undertaken by Diocletian, or rather by his Asiatic caesar, Galerius (303-311), it was because Galerius wanted to establish a church-state in the worship of the sun god. Other cults came in for punishment and the Christians suffered worst because they were most obstinate. Gibbon put the total number of Christians upon whom the penalty of capital punishment was inflicted by judicial sentence in this period at less than two thousand, and it is estimated that the figure would be scarcely more than doubled for the whole period of the Roman empire -- not one ten thousandth of the blood that Christianity itself was to spill in the course of its career.

If the early fathers were prone to overstate the extent of their persecution at pagan hands, the exaggeration but revealed a pride in martyrdom, for Christianity had within it an extraordinary impulse to self-sacrifice. The term martyr originally denoted one who testified to the durability of his convictions under such duress and provocation as the authorities might use for the detection of enemies of the state. The opportunity was soon forthcoming for men thus to testify, even in the face of death, and by their example to stir others to a firmer faith. The first documented instance of voluntary martyrdom is that of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who in 155 was burned with timber and faggots -- the favorite method of execution with later Christians -- when a festival mob ran wild after watching eleven Christian 'atheists' die in the arena. The mob denounced him as 'the father of the Christians, the destroyer of the gods, the man who had taught so many no longer to sacrifice and no longer to pray to the gods,' and they afterwards refused to deliver up his bones to the Christians for burial lest 'the Christians would now forsake the Crucified and worship Polycarp.' The precaution appears to have been well founded for the Smyrneans record that 'we afterwards took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.'

Ignatius prayed for martyrdom and, in unsupported tradition, found it at some unknown time and place, and the church fathers from Tertullian onward proclaimed the dignity of the martyr in glowing language. Soon a reflected luster shone upon the martyr's family and even the town in which he had resided. His tomb became an altar where his spirit was propitiated with hymns and psalms and songs of praise, where prayers were offered and miracles were worked.

The Fathers had approved Clement's dictum: 'If a man know himself, he shall know God, and knowing God shall be made like to him .... The man with whom the Logos dwells ... is made like to God ... and that man becomes God, for God wishes it.' Finding an example of god-making in the central theme of their human Savior who suffered and died and ascended unto heaven, men and women came to welcome, nay even to invite, martyrdom. Where the pagans of old had manufactured gods as occasion demanded by dispatching to the other world a king or temple prince, the Christians, as the pagans never had, conceived that by martyrdom they could individually attain a superior supernatural status, the most brilliant crown of glory going to him who was most resolute in suffering and who achieved the most violent death. So many Christians in Antioch willfully sought martyrdom by outraging pagan temples, by insulting the magistrates or by falsely claiming to have committed offenses against the state that the Proconsul Antonius amazedly asked whether they had not ropes and precipices to kill themselves.

Cruelty has its cult in every age. The taste of the Romans found satisfaction in the arena where naked men and women were mauled to death by lions or wild cows. The Christians learned to shudder at the cry of Christiano leonem, and claimed to have found the seed of glory in the disemboweled and mangled bodies of its victims; when called upon they faced the ordeal with a determination and fortitude which, had they not been so intensely feared as atheists and hated for being different, must have excited the admiration of the pagan mob. As it was, the pagans, cheering the wild beasts, looked disdainfully upon the human victims as an incomprehensible and alien species lacking any claim to sympathy. Indubitably there was something about Christianity that put its votaries in a world apart, some critical difference scarcely to be discovered in ritual or creed but belonging to the more fundamental affections by which, regardless of ritual and creed and even language, men sense each other to be either connatural or alien. It was a negative rather than a positive factor.

In part because of its origins within the serious and holy atmosphere of Judaism, in part because of its own ascetic tendencies and in part because of its fearsome apocalyptic doctrine, Christianity lacked qualities with which the pagans were highly endowed -- perspective and a sense of humor. Though it is etymologically uncommon to equate these terms, the equation in this instance is not far wrong. The pagans worshiped gods who knew how to laugh, and who did foolish, human things. Zeus, if we may judge from the comedy dialogues of Lucian (A.D. 165-170), has literary interests and quotes -- or misquotes -- Homer; he makes flourishing orations to the gods, though alas! his memory fails him in the middle of a sentence. When in Icaromenippus the philosopher Menippus visits heaven, Zeus treats him amiably and gossips with him. He asks Menippus rather nervously what men are saying about him nowadays -- mankind is so dissimulating, if not fickle. There was a time when he had been everything to them, every street, every market place had been full of Zeus, and he could hardly see for the smoke of sacrifice; now, other times, other gods -- Asklepios, Anubis, Artemis, and other foreigners -- had set up shrines and the altars of Zeus were cold as Plato's 'Laws' and Chrysippus's 'Syllogisms.'

Lucian was no philosopher, and he ridiculed the philosophers and their endless schools and rival systems no less than he ridiculed the priests and their myths and oracles. In the main he looked upon human life as a meaningless pageant of hopes and fears and follies, pleasures and passions and hatreds, absurd from its undignified beginnings to the burial rites which ended it. Certainly Lucian lived in the midst of pagans who were saturated with the grossest and most primitive conceptions. But this is just why Lucian's dialogues are notable. He was read by such pagans as had literary ability and interests, and was perhaps the most popular writer of his day in both Greece and Rome. It is small wonder that his readers, who could laugh at the gods and at themselves and make the gods laugh too, could not understand the laughless God and Christ of Christianity.


If the initial success of Christianity was in great measure attributable to its capacity to borrow pagan customs and beliefs, its greatest difficulty in its first four centuries lay in integrating these customs and beliefs with Judaic theology into an organized, coherent body of doctrine. With the growth of the church and the increased power of the episcopacy, dogma became of paramount importance. For the pagans, creed had been so subordinate to affective experience that it might be said to have been almost nonexistent. For the Christians, affection was in practice, whatever might be claimed in principle, subordinate to organized belief: the church was always on the defensive against both Jew and pagan and the fathers were forced at every turn to explain away some old pagan parallel or some new paradox. Consequently it soon developed into a society for epistolary debate; its dogma was formed by continuous controversy between bishops, and each addition decided by the polemical talents of the disputants.

In the earliest period of its growth those who were adverse to conceiving Jesus as truly human and as suffering on the cross as a man of flesh must suffer held with Marcion that Jesus had possessed only a phantom or apparent body, and hence they came to be known as the Docetae (dokeo, seen). Docetist opinion was in turn divided as to whether Jesus and his death and resurrection were not pure divine illusion, or whether, as a real man among men, he yet possessed an ethereal and heavenly flesh which was free of human distress and animal necessities and which consequently could not suffer death. By the opening of the second century the argument of the real versus the phantom Jesus had become involved in several systems of thought, collectively known as Gnosticism, which represented the hybridization in various manners of Persian dualism and Christian revelation.

All Gnostic sects agreed in laying claim to a higher knowledge -- of Gnosis, a mysterious form of information which was imparted by inspiration and which was not open to proof or argument. The chief preoccupation of the Gnostics was to account formally for the existence of evil. Starting from the Persian notion of absolute good and evil, they endeavored to maintain the Judaic principle of monotheism by making the power of evil entirely subordinate to the power of good. In some cases evil was held to be a consequence of the fall of the godhead into the world of matter, whereby the godhead was degraded and matter animated, giving rise to the 'powers,' some partly and some wholly evil, who hold sway over the world; or it was supposed that from the supreme divinity there emanated a somewhat lesser world, and from this another world was emanated and so on until the divine element was so far weakened and attenuated that a partly or wholly evil world was readily comprehensible. Again it was supposed that good and evil are the two hands of Yahweh, good the right hand and evil the left, evil having power over this world and good over the next. Another variant was the arrangement of good and evil in a quantitative hierarchy of 365 stages, with Yahweh at the top, evil at the bottom, and in between such abstractions as mind, word, judgment, wisdom and power scaled above various categories of angels and demons.

An essential element in Gnostic belief was the fallen divinity of light, Sophia, the intermediary between the worlds of evil matter and divine spirit, the Mother Goddess who descends into the abyss to effect creation, and whose son, the Demiourgos, governs the world in the belief that he is the Supreme God. That Sophia is Ishtar in disguise is indicated by her legends. In one she descends into this world in order, by means of her beauty, to provoke to sensual passion and mutual strife the angels who rule the world and thus to deprive them of power. She appears as the mother of the seven gods, or celestial bodies; or turns in presumptuous love towards the Supreme Deity and is degraded into mere matter by way of punishment, or she is taken prisoner against her will by the lower powers, as Ishtar was kept in Hades by Allat. In some undisputed instances, Sophia's worship was associated with sacred courtesans, a custom possibly borrowed from Attis and Cybele.

An aeon of supreme rank, the Soter, undertakes the work of delivering Sophia in answer to her prayer. He comes down through the spheres of the archons, taking on himself the forms of the spirits of each world; arriving in the darkness, he gathers the scattered light and reascends with the rescued Sophia into the realm of harmony. Soter and his legends contained fragments of Osiris, Attis, Mithra and other gods, and scarcely was Christianity started before he was identified as Jesus. Soter occupied Jesus throughout the latter's life, but left his body just before the crucifixion. The real reason Soter entered Jesus was to use him as a vehicle for imparting to the Gnostics the secret knowledge by which men's souls were to be freed from evil bondage and restored to the kingdom of light.

Gnostic beliefs were well developed before the rise of Christianity, but the two groups of ideas, both based on ultimate personal salvation, had a magnetic attraction for each other. It might be said that Gnosticism attached itself to Christianity with such parasitic and unwelcome fervor that the fathers were kept busy brushing it off. It was the necessity of analyzing and answering its arguments that set the church in its literary habits, nearly all the Christian literature of the second and third centuries arising from this debate. Gnosticism has been characterized as 'learned ignorance, lending an eager ear to new mysticisms,' and 'the human imagination gone mad,' but it presented the first grave danger which Christianity had to face, and the strength of the church was acquired in great measure by its efforts to defeat the sect's fantastic notions. It implanted in the Christian pantheon the intermediate hierarchies of angels and demons, and it introduced nascently the absolutes of Good and Evil. While the orthodox Christians believed that the soul at death went to the underworld to await there the resurrection when it would rejoin the body, the Gnostics scorned the idea of a resurrection on rational grounds, and held that at death the soul ascended directly unto heaven. This doctrine of 'immediate ascent' was opposed by Christianity for many centuries though it ultimately became the prevalent, if not the official, view. In the Gnostic sects temple prostitution was intended to prevent by magic influence the propagation of mankind, which they held to be the origin of all evil; their condemnation of marriage and sexual intercourse and all forms of carnal pleasure did much to promote the development of asceticism within the church, and supplied Augustine, probably the most influential among the men who shaped later Christian beliefs, with some of his most important notions. Lastly, because it had itself no organization, it stimulated by reaction a strong movement toward unified doctrine and inelastic organization in the church. It offered no lasting competition to Christianity probably because its beliefs were impossibly complex. Men and women could weep for a slain god and worship him, but they could not grieve over philosophical abstractions or be ecstatically stimulated by a multitude of angels and aeons.

To the pagan view Gnosticism was simply one of several aberrant forms of Christianity. To the Christian bishops, however, Gnostic beliefs were the notions of the devil himself. Paul had denounced the Gnostic theories as 'seducing spirits and doctrines of devils ... profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of knowledge falsely so called'; now the fathers anathematized its proponents as 'servants of Satan, beasts in human shape, dealers in deadly poison, robbers and pirates,' and on principle alone it was asserted that they were motivated 'by pride, disappointed ambition, sensual lust and avarice.' Thereafter the terms 'sect' and 'heresy' (the two being identical in New Testament Greek) became for them charged with the most painful opprobrium and were classed as one of the seven mortal sins. If Gnosticism were not significant in any other respect it would be memorable for having brought into existence for the first time in human history that form of damnable defilement engendered by disagreement with the doctrines propounded by ecclesiastic authority -- heresy.

In so far as Christianity had had its roots in Judaism it should by historic descent have been purely monotheistic, but this monotheism was fractured outright by the Pauline doctrine which accepted Jesus as a risen god whose existence was more or less independent of the primal godhead. The fathers could not conceive that Yahweh himself could be degraded to human form to suffer human appetites and the death of a mortal body, so at first they had said that Yahweh had put part of himself into Jesus's mortal body at the time when it was baptized by John. After the doctrine of the virgin birth had come to be generally accepted in the second century, it was held that the Holy Ghost had entered into Mary at the annunciation, and that she had supplied the divine Jesus with a mortal body. In this view the risen Jesus had to become a spiritual son of Yahweh and a sharer with him of the throne of heaven.

This division of the godhead, unavoidable both in the Pauline and later teachings, threatened the monotheistic principle for which the prophets had fought so valiantly. Hence the Christians were faced at the outset with a paradox that caused them acute embarrassment. They could not say to the polytheists, as could the Jews, "We have only one god," for it was patent that they had at least two, and only finespun distinctions, which the polytheists were prone to question, could keep the total at that number. The doctrine of the virgin birth, which served primarily to endow Jesus with divinity, served also if secondarily to purify Mary of carnality, and the doctrine soon came to specify not an incidental, but a perpetual virginity. Thus elevated by the divine afflatus, Mary soon began to compete in popular affection with Isis, Cybele and Demeter. It required but slight and easy changes to transfer to her the stately ritual of the goddess Isis, with its shaven and tonsured priests, its matins and vespers, its tinkling music, its jeweled images of the Mother of God; and the ancient portrait of Isis and the child Horus was ultimately accepted not only in popular opinion, but by formal episcopal sanction, as the portrait of the Virgin and her child.

Sometime in the second century there began a movement essentially of apotheosis; Mary was given a traditional father, Joachim, and a mother, Anna, and it was said that she had been nurtured in the Temple from her third to her fifteenth year. This culminated in later centuries in an abortive effort to elevate not only Mary and Joseph, but Anna, to godhead. The only doctrinal concession was the tacit agreement that Mary had herself been immaculately conceived, a conclusion which was, however, not endorsed by the Papacy until the late date of 1854. Without dogmatic authorization, by the time of Constantine the women of Thrace, Scythia and Arabia were worshiping Mary as a goddess, while elsewhere she was receiving prayers as a friendly mediator to deal with the Very Mediator Christ. There was needed only the apotheosis into sainthood of its real and legendary martyrs, of pagan gods, and of various heroes, for the Christian pantheon to consist of a goddess and two gods and as many subordinate spirits as populated any pantheon of old.

For more than six centuries Judaism had condemned the worship of idols, but images of Jesus and Mary and even of the more illustrious saints easily passed this traditional veto and rapidly came to play a role in Christian worship equivalent to the sacred statues of the pagans. In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas held that the same reverence must be paid to Christ's image as to himself, and in the same period Bonaventura maintained the same principle with regard to the Virgin's image, but long before these medieval churchmen put their approval upon the practice of idolatry the work of the prophets had been undone. By the sixth century all Christian temples had statues which spoke, wept, perspired or bled, these prodigies being officially approved. The saints listened to the people's prayers and rewarded them with miracles, and holy relics were taken onto the battlefield, or carried in long processions to avert drought, epidemics and other disasters. To be buried near a saint, to await the resurrection in the company of the blessed, was the dearest wish of every man. A venerable priest dared not undertake a voyage without a bodyguard lest zealous persons among whom he might have to linger should take steps to keep him as a distinguished corpse. The fortune was assured of any church that had the whole body of a saint; even a single bone or bit of apparel endowed an altar with additional supernatural power, and where relics could not be obtained an image was erected as a substitute. The chief difference between the Christian and pagan idols was that in place of the great stone sculptures of the past the Christians, lacking any artistic tradition or training, used painted wooden images or pictures of the crudest sort.

The quasi-divine saints would, perhaps, have been no serious embarrassment to the monotheistic principle so long as the pantheon was occupied by a supreme god. However, this ideal the Christians were never able to attain, and it was on the question of the unity or duality of God and Jesus that the most intense theological bitterness was evoked. This question was so fundamental that difference of opinion could not be tolerated within what could be called a catholic church. Moreover, the problem of the nature of Jesus had been further complicated by the writer of the Fourth Gospel, who had propounded that 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.'

The Word which John identified with God in the first sentence, and with Jesus in the second, read logos in the Greek, a term which, as has previously been remarked, is so complex in its meaning as to have no exact equivalent in any modern language. The Greek word had first been used by Heraclitus to designate the 'tendency' to order which was immanent in the physical universe, the inherent 'plan' of winds and waves and stars, the essential 'reasonableness' of things. The Stoics had virtually made a god of Logos by describing it as 'seminal reason' of the world, while to the Hellenized Hebrews the Logos was an almost independent being serving to purify Yahweh from direct contact with the world and at the same time to establish communication with him.

The Jewish philosopher Philo (born ca. 20 B.C.) conceived Yahweh as a being absolutely bare of quality, inasmuch as all quality imposes finite limitations, and of Yahweh no limitation can be predicated. Since a being absolutely without quality cannot move or act, Philo interposed between Yahweh and the world an infinite series of divine forces, in the Gnostic manner, the chief of these being the Logos, synonymous with the Wisdom of Yahweh and depicted as an archangel which manifested itself in revelation, and by the aid of which, with the lesser divine forces, Yahweh shaped the world. The Philonic Logos was at once the divine dynamic and the Egyptian magic word elevated to an archangelic position. The paradox, that the Logos was not Yahweh himself but an independently existing entity, while it was also an aspect of Yahweh, was no better resolved by Philo than by subsequent theologians. The difficulty was not lessened by the circumstance that Philo variously identified the Logos with a deity, a spoken utterance, a creative power, an instrument, an aspect of deity, a farseeing spirit, a refuge, the first-born of the deity, a high priest and mediator, the covenant, an eternal entity, an angel, the sun, a body of doctrine, the Scriptures, Moses, an abstraction of wisdom and the soul of the world. After Philo there was therefore amalgamated within the Logos something of the Greek concept of natural order or cosmic process, the Egyptian notion of the magic word, the Persian-Hebrew Angel, and the Wisdom or the divine dynamic of Yahweh himself. When to this admixture there was added the Platonic concept that, as divine wisdom, Logos was to be identified with 'absolute truth,' the meaning of the term, though extraordinarily elastic, was frequently perplexing.

John alleged that he had both seen Jesus and been instructed by the disciples, and on this authority, as much as for its quasi-philosophical nature, his work received the imprimatur of the early church. By the canonization of his gospel, the Logos was firmly implanted in the creed, to the further embarrassment of the monotheistic principle, for John's definition, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,' was so precise that it left no room for debate. The theologians were therefore forced in the following centuries to struggle with a one-god who was also three gods: an independently existing Logos, now virtually a Divine Spirit known in the Jerusalem baptismal formula as the Holy Ghost, a mortal Son, and a supreme Deity.


It was while this argument about the nature of God was waxing that the church had the good fortune to win the favor of the Emperor Constantine and to be established as the state religion. Constantine had been a worshiper of the sun god Apollo, but influenced by the example of his father, Constantius, and by the presence in the court of influential Christians, he had, from the time he became coemperor, been inclined to a policy of religious toleration. In the Edict of Milan (313) he declared for the equality of all religions, and within a couple of years, while still declaring for toleration, he openly began to favor the Christians. By 323, when Licinius, who shared the purple with him, as Emperor of the East, undertook some Christian persecutions, Constantine assumed a strong pro-Christian, antipagan attitude. Having developed an antipathy to Rome, and concluding that the time was ripe for society to be remodeled by imperial fiat, he resolved about 326 to found a new capital on the shores of the Bosporus, which was called after him, Constantinople, and from which all organized pagan worship was prohibited. At about this same time he began to pass laws which greatly favored the Christians, and to give them valuable financial and legal support.

Probably no more than one twentieth of the population of either Rome or the empire as a whole was at this time Christian, but what the sect lacked in numbers it made up in organization, unity and intellectual talent. The Christians, shut off from the pleasures of the world by asceticism, were amassing wealth, while their morality, sobriety and enthusiasm recommended them to Constantine's scheme of a world-wide reorganization of society. Though it was with considerable justification that the Christians claimed him for their own, his 'conversion' was nominal even by contemporary standards; after the event he put to death his wife, his son, a nephew and the nephew's wife, and then he had Licinius and his son strangled after promising them their lives. He continued to have himself figured on coins as a devotee of Apollo, Mars, Herakles, Mithra and Zeus. In putting off baptism until just before his death, Constantine was only following the precedent of many Christians who considered that, inasmuch as baptism washed away all sins and could not be repeated, it was bad economy to hurry it. When he died, the Roman senate in the customary pagan manner enrolled him with the divus Julius, Augustus and other emperors, among the gods.

Writers from Milton onward have cogitated on what might have been the history of the world had Constantine never been 'converted,' but no oracle among them has attempted on this speculation to recast a millennium and a half of history. As it came to pass, the immediate effects of his favoritism were the enrichment of the church beyond its dreams and the establishment of a priestly hierarchy which was soon to come into virtual control of the civilized world. Constantine's direct gifts of moneys and lands, though not of themselves considerable, so showed the new direction of the wind that there was an immediate influx of gain-seekers into the priesthood; the churches of Carthage and Constantinople before long had five hundred priests apiece, and laws had to be passed restraining the priests and bishops from further enriching themselves by lending money at interest. Freed of persecution and permitted to receive legacies in the manner of the pagan faiths, the Christian church was able to compete with the rich cults of Egypt. The Christians would have had Constantine engage in an active persecution of the pagans, but since he wished to keep the fidelity of the pagan majority he refused to do so. He did restrict private diviners, whom he caused to be burned alive, but here he acted apparently in accordance with a growing pagan custom of restricting divination to the temples. Constantine reorganized the church along imperial lines, giving legal status to the decisions of the bishops in all church disputes so that these dignitaries had the power of princes. He reserved to himself the supreme authority in ecclesiastic matters, but after his abandonment of Rome he could no longer exercise the office effectively and soon the imperial claim to leadership lapsed in favor of the Bishop of Rome. Only one thing remained to complete the potential structure of the medieval church: under the authority conferred by Constantine, the bishops could, with the emperor's co-operation, invoke the political decree of banishment in addition to their ecclesiastic prerogative of anathema; it remained for Theodosius the Great, in his edicts against the Manichees (381-389), to exalt this authority into the power to impose the death penalty and to cancel all rights of inheritance.

Had Constantine made to the bishops the Theodosian concession, the church might at least have had a simpler and perhaps more comprehensible creed, for just before he became sole emperor the churchmen had raised the arguments on the divinity of Jesus to the danger point. The efforts of each group to exterminate dissident opinion were rendered all the more difficult by the multiplicity of theories: conflicting heresies crossruffed each other until the faith of Christendom was on the verge of destroying itself by its internal disagreement.

The most oriental, and most dangerous of all heresies (if it could be called a heresy in the sense of a Christian sect) was Manichaeism, a cult founded by a Mesopotamian named Mani who came into opposition with the Magi in the Persian capital and was crucified in 279. Compounded of Gnosticism and Jewish, Babylonian, Zoroastrian and Buddhist speculations, it presented two kingdoms, of Light and Darkness, ruled respectively by Yahweh and Satan; to resist Satan, Yahweh creates Primeval Man who is defeated and captured by Satan, then rescued by Yahweh; in the course of rescue Primeval Man loses some particles of divine light which, mixing with darkness, bring the present world into being. Then Satan creates man, seeking thereby to imprison and preserve a portion of the light, but Yahweh, through Jesus, offers man a means of redemption by creating the sun, moon and stars to attract the particles of light and act as reservoirs of it until the redemption is complete. Though the Manichaeans made much of the claim that they appealed to human reason, Eusebius called their doctrines an 'insane heresy.' This sect had gained wide popularity in the fourth century and supplied to the Christian church the greatest of all its fathers, Augustine.

The main struggle for the unification of belief necessarily concerned the fundamental nature of the godhead. Every attempt to establish that Jesus and Yahweh were one, the latter having descended into the Virgin in order to be born, then only to die upon the cross, was labeled as Patripassian and vigorously condemned. Paul of Somasato, Bishop of Antioch, expressed the conviction that Yahweh could not appear substantially on earth and consequently could not become a person in Jesus: Yahweh had merely filled the human Jesus with his Logos. But neither a human Jesus nor an incarnate Logos could be accepted by the orthodox, and three assemblies of the church were convened in Antioch between 264 and 269, in the last of which Paul was condemned and forced to promise a reformation. He failed to keep the promise, in spite of a second condemnation and excommunication, and in 272, at the instigation of the Bishop of Rome, the Emperor Aurelian removed him from office by force of troops and placed a rival candidate in his place. A famed scholar of Antioch, Lucian, contended that the Logos was a second deity which had been created by Yahweh and had come down to earth and taken upon itself a truly human body in the form of Jesus. In this view Jesus was neither a man, since his person was divine, nor a god, since by definition he was other than the one-god, Yahweh, and totally human. Sharing the heretical reputation of Paul, he was excluded from ecclesiastic fellowship by three successive bishops, and probably only escaped formal condemnation by the circumstance that he suffered a martyr's death under the judgment of Maximin Daza (312).

Lucian's pupil, Arius, took up his teacher's effort at rationalization with no great intellectual success, arguing that Jesus was totally and essentially distinct from the Father, having been created by the Father out of nothingness; yet he was 'perfect God, only-begotten' and therefore not among created things. Arius had migrated to Alexandria where he had become pastor of a fashionable church, and had been passed over in the promotion to the bishopric, the appointment going to his rival, Alexander. Against Arius, Bishop Alexander insisted that 'as God is eternal, so is his Son, -- when the Father, then the Son -- the Son is present in God without birth, ever-begotten, an unbegotten-begotten.' 'They are two, for the Father is Father, and the Son is not the same ... but their nature is one, for the Begotten is not dissimilar to the Begetter, but his image, and everything that is the Father's is also the Son's.' Arius saw in this position the rankest heresy savoring of Gnosticism, Manichaeism and other noxious falsehoods. The argument continued in Alexandria for some years until, about 318, other bishops complained to Alexander that Arius's teaching was threatening the faith, and Arius was condemned and excommunicated. Arius's many friends quickly raised the argument to such a pitch that the emperor became disturbed. Knowing the danger of debate and wishing to use the church to unify the empire, Constantine wrote Alexander and Arius that they were equally right and wrong, and urged them to lay aside the insignificant subject of the controversy; failing in this effort at conciliation, he admonished them to leave ecclesiastic theory alone or else to argue in a gentlemanly manner like the pagans, who were being moved by the acrimonious debate to open ridicule and the assertion that all Christians were mad and carried on wild midnight orgies. So great grew the emperor's fear that the argument would stir the god or gods to wrath that he moved to the unprecedented extreme of decreeing heresy to be a criminal offense. This move, of course, only multiplied the trouble by multiplying the importance of the verb and participle, and even the punctuation, of the creed.

There being as yet no official creed, it was impossible to determine who was orthodox and who was heretical, so to draw this line Constantine called a general council of the church at Nicaea (325). By a packed vote the issue was decided in favor of Alexander -- Jesus and Yahweh were one -- and all thought of Jesus being created, subordinate or human had to be put aside. Accepting the decision of the council as final, Constantine excommunicated Arius and two bishops who held dissenting opinions, and banished them to Illyria. Eusebius of Nicomedia, who accepted the definition of the council but disapproved its anathemas, was exiled to Gaul.

Alexander, the chief proponent of what might now be called orthodoxy, died soon thereafter and was succeeded by his deacon, Athanasius, by whose conviction and fortitude the controversy was kept alive. The Arians were by no means subdued, and after three years they persuaded the emperor to recall the two banished bishops, and later to recall Arius himself. Whereupon the Arian bishops turned to the persecution of their persecutors. When Athanasius refused to reinstate Arius, he in turn was deprived of his office and banished to Trèves in 335. Then Arius died suddenly on the street, apparently of poison, and Constantine died the year after, having at the end been baptized by one of the Arian bishops whom he had previously banished. The Empire was divided between Constantine's three sons, while the church remained divided on the nature of Jesus. The Arians themselves broke up into half a dozen mutually anathematizing sects which attacked all orthodox opinion as new heresies while jointly trying to combat Manichaeism. The 'catholic' creed came to resemble chaos, theology became a 'sort of systematic insanity,' and a synod or council an occasion for secret murders or open bloody warfare.

Constantius, most ambitious of the three sons of Constantine, soon made himself sole emperor. As the successor of the baptized Constantine, he was the first Christian-bred emperor and his record was to presage events to come, for his usurpation of the power of his two brothers, the coemperors, was marked by half a dozen murders. He framed for himself the new and imposing title 'His Eternity,' calling himself Lord of the Universe, and he yielded to the requests of the Christians, as Constantine had refused to do, by closing the pagan temples and decreeing that all who used them or offered sacrifice should be put to death and their property confiscated. Thus official Christian persecution of the pagans was initiated within fifty years of the time when the Christians themselves had been suffering persecution. He decreed the death penalty for the use of idols at the very time when the Christians themselves were worshiping idols of the Christ, the Virgin and various saints in churches throughout the land. On the matter of the nature of Jesus he was in favor of Arius and opposed to Athanasius, and to settle the debate he decreed that in all ecclesiastic matters his will had the force of a canon, and forbade the bishops to condemn any opinion which he held. One bishop he tortured, one he put to death, others he banished, and he doubtless would have slain Athanasius had the Egyptian monks not hidden the heretic. At each episcopal election or expulsion, says a Christian historian, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch furnished scenes that would have disgraced a revolution. Julian relates in this connection that whole troops of those who were called heretics were massacred, while in many provinces towns and villages were utterly destroyed, and the orthodox populace, itself divided into factions, fought like savages in the very churches. 'There is no wild beast,' he said, 'like an angry theologian.' In the reinstatement of an Arian bishop in Constantinople there perished three thousand people, considerably more than had suffered death in the whole ten years of the last pagan persecution.

Under Constantius's successor, Julian, there was a brief moment of official paganism, and relative sanity. Although nominally educated as a Christian, Julian had never openly declared for the church and he disdained its irrational theories and bitter quarrels. A traveled and widely read scholar, he was the last representative of note of the decadent Hellenic culture, and the last Emperor of Rome possessing any intellectual capacity whatever. He leaned to the worship of Mithra, which before Constantine's time had been favored by the state, but he declared for a restoration of paganism generally, hoping that the pagan cults would learn something of philosophy, charity and asceticism from the 'Galileans,' as he called them. Nevertheless he disdained to persecute anyone for worshiping any deity so long as he kept the peace. He ordered the Christians to restore the property which they had appropriated from the pagans under Constantius, he recalled the banished heretics and he abolished the special privileges of the Christian priests. His worst blow against the church was that he put pagan teachers in charge of the schools, which would in the course of a generation have almost obliterated the new creed. Had he lived the normal span of years, it is probable that the Christians would have been undone, but his restoration was aborted by his death in battle with the Persians after he had been in power but twenty months. An obscure Christian officer of the guards, Jovian, whose sole claim to distinction appears to have been that he had driven the funeral car of Constantius eighteen months earlier, was elected by the army to succeed Julian and the Christians were soon again in power. The principle effects of Julian's reformation were to bring perpetual Christian anathema on his memory and to demonstrate to the Christian church the absolute necessity of holding temporal as well as spiritual power if it were to survive.


Only Julian's untimely death saved Christianity from its enemies, but nothing could save it from itself. It continued to divide and subdivide on questions of dogma, each faction employing gladiators to sustain its point, until in the reign of Theodosius the Great each controversy was leaving a wake of exiled or murdered theologians. This emperor reinforced the laws of Constantine by officially declaring (380) that Yahweh was One, that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were of equal majesty in the Holy Trinity; and that the 'senseless followers' of the other religions were to be branded 'with the infamous name of heretics,' while their conventicles were forbidden to call themselves churches. Fifteen penal laws passed by this emperor progressively deprived heretics of practically every right, and included one imposing the death sentence in extreme instances; and in 385, the Coemperor Maximus caused the Spanish theologian Priscillian and six other heretics to be burned at Trèves. The hateful heresy of which Priscillian and his friends were guilty was the insistence on continence in marriage. This ascetic ideal, in the form of celibacy, the church enjoined upon its priests, but having discovered in four centuries of unfortunate experience that superiority in numbers was more to be desired than purity, it was not prepared to endorse for general practice this particular form of mystic cleanliness.

New heresies arose as fast as the old ones could be suppressed. The councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) had failed to define how God and man were joined. The Apollinarians tried to do this by asserting that in Jesus the Logos took the place of the rational soul, and they considered Mary to be literally the Mother of God. They were opposed by Nestorius of Constantinople, who asserted that since the Logos was divine it could not have been born, and had merely resided in Jesus's body as in a temple; Mary was a woman, and to call a woman the Mother of God was absurd and blasphemous. Against Nestorius, Cyril of Alexandria held that the divine and human nature were perfectly united in one person. Nestorius was charged with blasphemy by Cyril and, at a Roman synod, anathematized and excommunicated. When Nestorius in retribution anathematized and excommunicated Cyril, the Emperor had to take a hand and called a general council at Ephesus in 431. Despite the support of armed troops, Nestorius was formally convicted of heresy and excommunicated and later banished. Cyril himself was afterwards charged with heresy by his colleagues, but he proved so ardent in the persecution of pagans, Jews and other obvious heretics that he died within the faith.

Except for the ever-present danger of schismatic fracture over the nature of Yahweh, Jesus and the Logos, the future of Christianity was assured. Under the Theodosian laws condemning all 'unbelievers,' the Christians returned with renewed enthusiasm to destroying the pagan temples and confiscating pagan property under the guise of 'reform.' Theodosius ordered the systematic massacre of from 7,000 to 15,000 men, women and children in order to punish the inhabitants of Thessalonica for a riot; by refusing him the Eucharist, Bishop Ambrose made him humble himself publicly and do penance for seven months. Yet so arduous were the Christians in their attacks upon the pagans that, over Ambrose's vigorous remonstrance, the emperor himself promulgated a law to prevent the Christians from despoiling the pagans of all they possessed. If the law was ever enforced it soon fell into neglect, and to find any safety or peace great numbers of pagans were forced to affect conversion. Schism as well as pagan opposition were henceforth pursued with militant vigor.

Quite apart from its hosts of subordinate spiritual powers, the faith had abandoned its historic claim to monotheism by resorting to a definition of the Supreme Deity which defeated both schism and reason: the Council of Nicaea (325) had decided against Arius, that Christ was truly Yahweh, coequal and coeternal with the Father, separate and yet one; the Council of Constantinople (381) had decided against Apollinaris and affirmed the Nicaean Creed that he was also truly man; that of Ephesus (431) had convicted Nestorius for the blasphemy of denying that the two natures were indivisibly one; and that of Chalcedon (451) had affirmed that they were nevertheless perfectly distinct. To effect the copula between God and Son, Nicea had welded the Logos into the official Creed, designating it, as in the Jerusalem formula, as the Holy Ghost. Constantinople completed the Trinity by adding to this declaration of belief, to which all true Christians must subscribe, ' ... And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.'

So it came to pass that all four decisions and three Gods became fixed in the official creed. After nearly four hundred years of conflict waged with anathema, excommunication and banishment, and aided by torture and poison and the use of gladiators and even armies, the churchmen in their efforts to frame a dogma that might survive had arrived at one in which rationality, the hated artifice of the devil-worshiping pagans, was undone. Tertullian was able to say, 'Certum est, quia impossibile est': 'I believe because it is impossible.' This was the principle upon which peace was ultimately attained. By establishing that reason was of no avail and that disagreement or heresy doomed men to eternal torment, the faith was made forever safe and the church was prepared to take over its reign of terrorism through the coming ages.

The transfer from pagan to Christian worship represented but little change. The statues of Jupiter and Apollo were readily christened St. Peter and St. Paul, and by the middle of the fifth century Christianity had acquired numerous pagan deities as saints. Osiris was sanctified as St. Onuphris, Mithra (Petra) as St. Peter, Cheron as St. Ceraunos, Castor and Pollux as St. Cosmo and St. Darnieu, Diana Illythra as St. Yllis, Artemis as St. Artemidos, Dionysus as St. Dionysus and also as St. Bacchus; Demetrius, Rusticus, Denis and Eleutherius -- some of these deities having been appropriated on the pretense that they were martyrs -- were sanctified, while Buddha, quite by accident, was canonized as St. Josaphat. A host of lesser pagan deities were as easily turned into devils and demons. The principles of sacrifice and propitiation were preserved, there was nothing unfamiliar in penance and atonement, and, with the adoration of shrines, sacred relics and images, the resort to emotionally titillating mysteries and the absorption and renaming of pagan festivals and holy places, the conversion of the Mediterranean world did not prove difficult.

Many reasons have been given for the 'fall' of the Roman empire, most of them but partial answers or mere guesses. Be the true causes what they may, it was not in the nature of the new faith to oppose the process of disintegration. At the opening of the Christian Era there had been schools in every considerable town, and many advanced academies in the great cities; these the Christians gradually allowed to die out, maintaining only a few theological seminaries. They were from the first not interested in the examination of nature, since the end of the world was so close at hand; by the time they had become accustomed to an indefinitely continued existence all natural knowledge had come to be identified with paganism, or interpreted as contrary to revelation and, in either instance, savoring of evil. Galen (?130-200) the physician, Ptolemy (?100-160) the geographer, and Diophantus (fl. ca. 250) the mathematician, were the last in their respective fields to follow the classic traditions, as Lucian (125-200) was the last exponent of Hellenic skepticism, and Julian (331-363) the last emperor to defend religious tolerance. The temple schools of Asklepios had been shut and public lecturing by nonofficial teachers had been practically prohibited in Rome and Constantinople in the fourth century. Under an edict of Theodosius, Bishop Theophilus in 389 destroyed the Serapeum in Alexandria, and with it nearly all the works in the only remaining pagan library of importance in the world. In 529 Justinian closed the schools at Athens, the last to teach Greek philosophy, and the intensity of this emperor's persecutions brought about within a short space of time the forcible baptism of 70,000 persons in Asia Minor alone, and so alienated the population of Egypt and Syria that the way was paved for the spread of Mohammedanism. The Christians preferred prayer and exorcism to pagan magic, religious to geometric theorems, the gospels to any other literature. So fallible was reason held that Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) condemned all literature and intellectual effort, and in the East the laity were forbidden to read even the sacred book.

Self-mortification, squalor and physical uncleanliness became esteemed Christian virtues -- with some justice Anatole France said that Christianity killed the bath, for at the opening of the Christian Era the Roman baths were famous. It was the widespread custom of mixed bathing in the great public baths which first caused the Christians to condemn them, but later the bath in general was condemned because it afforded pleasure and was a mark of vanity. Christianity undermined the family, the unit of the social system, by teaching that celibacy is an exalted virtue; and by its emphasis on continence it directed the sexual impulse into physical and psychological perversions. It dogmatically relegated women to an inferior position, socially, politically and intellectually, and by making a sacrament of marriage it permitted wives to become chattels and husbands boors. It supplanted courage and initiative by resignation: Providence had arranged things in their order, the rich and the poor, the well and the sick, the wise and the ignorant; and to question Providence was to question the wisdom of God. Misery was to be tolerated patiently in anticipation of everlasting glory. It did not highly esteem either personal or political freedom, and in no case was it prepared to fight for them. By its fallacious philosophy of free will and the countersense of predestination it obliterated education and experience from ethics and obstructed objective inquiry into the human mind. It rent philosophy by its dualisms of secular and holy, reason and faith, natural and supernatural, good and evil, and by its insistence that uninformed faith is a higher form of knowledge, that no earthly betterment could outweigh the overwhelming issue of salvation or damnation which awaited man after death, it paralyzed all curiosity and intelligent examination of the natural world. For the love of life it substituted the fear of death. For the sense of the dignity of man, fundamental to the precepts of the Stoics and of Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and other Roman moralists, it substituted the doctrine of personal inadequacy, the sense of guilt, and the habits of self-doubt and self-abnegation. In its cardinal doctrine of sin, for which it crucified the Christ, it promulgated a belief which was to crucify the whole of the western world for centuries to come.

Graphic RuleGraphic Rule 75Graphic Rule