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Fourth Century


The fourth cen­tu­ry began with the great­est per­se­cu­tion ever waged against the ear­ly Church, that of the emper­or Dio­clet­ian. The longest list of ear­ly mar­tyrs comes from this peri­od (303–306).

After Diocletian’s abdi­ca­tion, a pow­er strug­gle devel­oped among the impe­r­i­al lead­ers. In 312, Con­stan­tine engaged in bat­tle with his main con­tender for the west­ern throne, Max­en­tius. Before the bat­tle of the Mil­vian bridge near Rome, Con­stan­tine had a vision, per­haps in a dream. He saw the Cross or Labarum (Chi Rho: XP) of Christ with the words, “In this sign, con­quer.” He placed the Chris­t­ian sym­bol on his troop’s tunics and weapons, and they won the battle.

In 313, Con­stan­tine met Licinius, the East­ern ruler of the empire, in Milan. Togeth­er they issued an edict giv­ing free­dom to Chris­tians to prac­tice their faith in the empire. Before Con­stan­tine died he built a city in the ancient site of Byzan­tium for his new impe­r­i­al cap­i­tal. He named the city after him­self — Con­stan­tino­ple. Con­stan­tine him­self was bap­tized only on his deathbed in 337. Togeth­er with his moth­er, Helen, who recov­ered the True Cross of Christ in Jerusalem, Con­stan­tine is rec­og­nized as a saint of the Church. Chris­tian­i­ty became the offi­cial reli­gion of the empire in 380 by decree of the emper­or Theo­do­sius.

Inner Struggles

Dur­ing Constantine’s time, the Church recov­ered its prop­er­ty and was free from exter­nal per­se­cu­tion. Inner trou­bles imme­di­ate­ly arose, how­ev­er, to dis­turb the peace. First, there was the Donatist Schism in North Africa. This was a schism between those who sup­port­ed a cer­tain Dona­tus to be the bish­op of Carthage, and those who sup­port­ed the reg­u­lar­ly elect­ed bish­op a man whom the Donatists opposed because of his weak­ness in the time of the per­se­cu­tion. Instead of forc­ing the Church to solve its own prob­lems, Con­stan­tine inter­vened in the con­tro­ver­sy. First, he sided with the Donatists, then he sided with their opposers, using impe­r­i­al pow­er to enforce his deci­sions. The schism result­ed in the ulti­mate destruc­tion of the once glo­ri­ous Church in North Africa, and estab­lished the prece­dent of impe­r­i­al inter­ven­tion in Church affairs.

The Ari­an con­tro­ver­sy then arose. Arius, an Alexan­dri­an priest, taught that the Divine Logos, the Word of God who became man — Jesus Christ — is not the divine Son of God. He was mere­ly a crea­ture like every­thing else cre­at­ed out of noth­ing by God. Accord­ing to Arius, God is not the uncre­at­ed Holy Trin­i­ty. God is the Father, the Cre­ator, alone. God the Father cre­at­ed His Logos or Word or Son as the first and great­est of His crea­tures. This Logos, Who may be called divine only in a man­ner of speak­ing is God’s instru­ment for the sal­va­tion of the world, being born as the man Jesus. Thus Jesus Christ is not the uncre­at­ed, divine Son of God hav­ing exact­ly the same uncre­at­ed divin­i­ty as God the Father. He is a crea­ture, as is the Holy Spir­it. God is not the Holy Trinity.

The First Ecumenical Council

The con­tro­ver­sy raised by the teach­ing of the Ari­ans was brought to the deci­sion of the whole Church at the Coun­cil which Con­stan­tine called in Nicea in 325. This coun­cil, known as the First Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cil, decreed that the Logos, Word and Son of God is uncre­at­ed and divine. He is begot­ten — that is, born or gen­er­at­ed — from the Father, and not made or cre­at­ed by Him. He is of one essence with the Father (homoousios). He is True God of True God, the Word of God by Whom all things were made. It is this uncre­at­ed, only-begot­ten divine Son of God Who became man from the Vir­gin Mary as Jesus Christ the Mes­si­ah of Israel and the Sav­ior of the world.

The Second Ecumenical Council

The deci­sion of the Nicene Coun­cil was not uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed in the Church for a long time. The con­tro­ver­sy raged for many decades. Numer­ous coun­cils were held in dif­fer­ent places which for­mu­lat­ed var­i­ous state­ments of faith. The Ari­an par­ty gained impe­r­i­al sup­port and the defend­ers of the Nicene faith were great­ly per­se­cut­ed. The trou­bles per­sist­ed until 381 when, at a coun­cil in Con­stan­tino­ple, known now as the Sec­ond Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cil, the orig­i­nal deci­sion of Nicea was reaf­firmed and the divin­i­ty of the Holy Spir­it was pro­claimed. The com­bined state­ment of these two coun­cils com­pris­es the Sym­bol of Faith, the Creed of the Ortho­dox Church.

The Fathers of the Church

The great defend­ers of Nicene Ortho­doxy were Saint Athana­sius the Great, bish­op of Alexan­dria (d.373) and the Cap­pado­cian bish­ops, Saint Basil the Great (d.379), his broth­er Saint Gre­go­ry of Nys­sa (d.394), and their friend Saint Gre­go­ry Nazianzus the The­olo­gian (d.389). These fathers of the Church taught and explained the true Chris­t­ian faith, suf­fer­ing great­ly for their defense of the cen­tral doc­trine of Ortho­dox Chris­tian­i­ty, that God is the Most Holy Trin­i­ty: three uncre­at­ed and divine per­sons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spir­it, in one and the same uncre­at­ed, divine nature.

The Councils of the Church

The Coun­cil of Nicea also made a num­ber of canons con­cern­ing the order and dis­ci­pline of the Church. These canons con­firmed the pri­ma­cy of the Church of Rome in the West, Alexan­dria in Africa, and Anti­och in the East (Canon 6), and the recog­ni­tion of the dig­ni­ty of the Church in Jerusalem (Canon 7). The coun­cil also made the rules for deter­min­ing the date of the annu­al cel­e­bra­tion of East­er. The coun­cil pro­hib­it­ed the prac­tice of pen­i­ten­tial kneel­ing at the Churchâ??s Sun­day litur­gy (Canon 20).

The Coun­cil of Con­stan­tino­ple also pro­duced canons, one of which stat­ed that “the bish­op of Con­stan­tino­ple shall have the pre­rog­a­tive of hon­or after the bish­op of Rome because Con­stan­tino­ple is the New Rome.” (Canon 3)

Liturgical Development

The fourth cen­tu­ry wit­nessed a num­ber of litur­gi­cal devel­op­ments. Dur­ing this time, the eucharis­tic prayers of the divine litur­gies, named after Saint Basil the Great and Saint John Chrysos­tom (d.407) were sub­stan­tial­ly for­mu­lat­ed. The cat­e­chet­i­cal ser­mons of Saint John Chrysos­tom togeth­er with those of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (d.386) show that the sacra­ments of Bap­tism and Chris­ma­tion were being cel­e­brat­ed in the fourth cen­tu­ry almost exact­ly as they are done in the Ortho­dox Church today.

By this time, the 40 Day Lent and the East­er Feast were well estab­lished. The Nativ­i­ty of Christ was sep­a­rat­ed from the feast of Epiphany or Theo­phany, thus becom­ing a sep­a­rate feast of the Church to off­set the pagan fes­ti­val of the Sun which was cel­e­brat­ed on the twen­ty-fifth of De- cem­ber. (See Book 2 on Wor­ship)

Monastic Life

The fourth cen­tu­ry also saw the flour­ish­ing of monas­tic life in Egypt — led by Saint Antho­ny the Great (d.356) — in Syr­ia, and in the West. Among the monas­tic saints of this peri­od were Paul of Thebes, Pachomius, Hilar­i­on, Sab­bas, Macar­ius of Egypt, Epipha­nius of Cyprus, and Ephraim of Syr­ia. Among the monas­tic saints in the West were Jerome, John Cass­ian, and Mar­tin of Tours. The famous bish­op saints of the fourth cen­tu­ry were Saint Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, Saint Spyri­don Trimunthys, and Saint Ambrose of Milan.