CHURCH FATHERS (21): Turning point

Rev. José Mario O. Mandía

Most of the Fathers we have mentioned so far had died as martyrs during the persecution unleashed by several emperors. The situation began to change in favor of Christianity when Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration (also called the Edict of Serdica) in 311. This edict officially ended the Diocletian persecution in the Eastern Roman Empire.

In February 313 AD, Emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, granting Christians freedom of worship. Eventually, Emperor Theodosius (347 – 395) would make Christianity the state religion.

Religious freedom brought about many positive developments in theological science, in liturgy, and in art.

“The development of ecclesiastical science is the distinctive feature of this epoch. Free from external oppression, the Church dedicates herself to the preservation of her doctrine from heresy and to the definition of her main dogmas. It is the age of the great ecumenical councils and its salient characteristic, the effect of the Christological disputes, is intense activity in theology” (Quasten III, p 1).

Christian literature was further enriched because writers embraced secular learning. “Thus the classical authors of the Greek Church like Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus combine excellent theological training with Hellenistic culture, with brilliant eloquence and a mastery of style learnt in the ancient schools and academies. A Christian humanism was born in which ecclesiastical literature reached its perfection” (Quasten III, p. 1).

Christian literature also benefited from the numerous correspondence of the Christian writers of this period. “Since most of it was composed with a view to ultimate publication, even private missives follow the rules laid down by the Greek stylists” (Quasten III, pp. 3-4). These letters are a valuable source of information about the period.

We have previously discussed the beginnings of the School of Alexandria (cf. Church Fathers, 14), Antioch and Caesarea (cf. Church Fathers, 17). They continued the work of interpreting Sacred Scripture and fostering theological discussion. In fact, it was in Alexandria where the biggest Christian heresy of that period was born. This heresy was promoted by Arius (256-336), a priest who started to preach that Jesus could not have been God, but the first among God’s creatures. We shall speak more about this next time.

With the advent of peace, it became possible to put together a comprehensive history of the Church. This work was pioneered by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260/265 – 30 May 339) with his Ecclesiastical History. He had become bishop of Caesarea Maritima just a year after the Edict of Milan. That gave him access to the theological library of the School of Caesarea where he had access to many church documents, acts of the martyrs, letters, earlier Christian writings and lists of bishops. He quoted the original works extensively, which turned out to be of great value after the originals were lost. Eusebius can rightly be called the Father of Church History.

The liturgy also developed with the advent of freedom of worship. Previously, during times of persecution, the Eucharist could only be celebrated in private homes. With the rise in the number of Christians, the first churches began to be built. The first sacramentaries (missals) appeared.

The end of persecution brought great progress, but because becoming Christian was no longer a dangerous thing, it meant that many Christians became lax in their spiritual life. This occasioned the rise of monasticism (Ancient Greek ‘monakhós’ – ‘solitary’), where people renounced worldly interests and dedicated themselves to spiritual works. The idea that someone can become holy while engaged in secular affairs was somehow forgotten. Initially, monasticism rejected the influence of secular culture, but monasteries eventually became centers of learning themselves.