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Second Century

The Persecutions

The sec­ond cen­tu­ry saw the fur­ther devel­op­ment of the Chris­t­ian faith, and the greater per­se­cu­tion of the Church by the Roman impe­r­i­al author­i­ties for whom Chris­tian­i­ty was an “ille­gal religion.”

The Chris­tians were crim­i­nals in the eyes of the Romans, not only reli­gious­ly, but also polit­i­cal­ly. They trans­gressed the laws of the state because they refused to hon­or the earth­ly emper­or as king, lord, and god, which was required of them as mem­bers of impe­r­i­al soci­ety. They prayed for the civ­il author­i­ties and gave “hon­or to whom hon­or is due” (Romans 13:1–7), but they refused to give the earth­ly king the glo­ry and wor­ship which was due to God, and to His Christ, alone. Thus the Roman law declared: It is not law­ful to be a Chris­t­ian.

One of the first wit­ness­es to the Chris­tians which we have in sec­u­lar writ­ing is found in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry cor­re­spon­dence between Pliny the Younger and the Emper­or Tra­jan who ruled from 98–117. This cor­re­spon­dence reveals that Chris­tian­i­ty was indeed pro­scribed, and that though Chris­tians should not be sought out and were inno­cent of the gross charges against them, such as the sac­ri­fice of chil­dren and the eat­ing of human flesh (a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the eucharist which was con­duct­ed in “secret meet­ings”), the Chris­tians nev­er­the­less were to be exe­cut­ed if, when seized, they refused to give up their faith.

The per­se­cu­tion of the Chris­tians in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry was large­ly local, con­duct­ed accord­ing to the zeal of the local impe­r­i­al author­i­ties. Nev­er­the­less, the per­se­cu­tions were wide­spread and the Chris­tians were gen­er­al­ly hat­ed even by the most tol­er­ant and open mind­ed of the Roman rulers. They were hat­ed most­ly for what was con­sid­ered their stub­born­ness and intol­er­ance due to their exclu­sive devo­tion to Christ as Lord. They were per­se­cut­ed also for what was con­sid­ered to be the polit­i­cal dan­ger which they brought to the uni­ty of law and order in the impe­r­i­al reign, par­tic­u­lar­ly because of the increas­ing num­ber of per­sons who were join­ing the Church.

Among the most famous of the Chris­t­ian lead­ers and mar­tyrs of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry were the bish­ops Ignatius of Anti­och (d. c110) and Poly­carp of Smyr­na (d. 156), and the philoso­pher Justin (d. c165). Each of these men who were killed for the faith left writ­ings which, togeth­er with the Didache (the Teach­ings of the Twelve Apos­tles), the Let­ter to Dio­gne­tus, the let­ters of Clement of Rome, the Let­ter of Barn­abas, the Shep­herd of Her­mas and the apolo­getic writ­ings of such men as Athenago­ras of Athens, Meli­to of Sardis, Theophilus of Anti­och and the great­est of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry the­olo­gians, Ire­naeus of Lyons, all give a very vivid pic­ture of the faith and life of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry Church.

Defense of the Faith: Apologists

The most impor­tant devel­op­ments in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry in addi­tion to the per­se­cu­tions and the growth of Church mem­ber­ship were the defens­es of the Chris­t­ian faith against the false teach­ings, the so-called apolo­gies against the Chris­t­ian here­sies as well as against Judaism and pagan­ism. There was also the devel­op­ment of Church doc­trine and the begin­nings of post-apos­tolic the­ol­o­gy; the estab­lish­ment of the same basic church order in each local com­mu­ni­ty led by its bish­op, pres­byters and dea­cons; the first foun­da­tions of the Chris­t­ian litur­gy and sacra­men­tal life com­plete­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the Jew­ish syn­a­gogue; and the begin­nings of the estab­lish­ment of the canon of the holy scrip­tures of the New Tes­ta­ment Church.

At the end of the first cen­tu­ry and at the begin­ning of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, many false writ­ings about Christ were pro­duced. These were the so-called apoc­ryphal writ­ings (not to be con­fused with the Old Tes­ta­ment apoc­rypha), the so-called pseu­doepigrapha (See Gospels-St Luke). These false writ­ings car­ried the names of the apos­tles and intro­duced into Chris­t­ian cir­cles many fan­ci­ful and leg­endary sto­ries about the child­hood of Christ, the life of the Vir­gin Mary and the activ­i­ties of the apostles.

Togeth­er with the pseu­doepigrapha, there also appeared the false teach­ings of gnos­ti­cism, the Chris­t­ian heresy which trans­formed Chris­tian­i­ty into a kind of spir­i­tu­al­is­tic, dual­is­tic, intel­lec­tu­al­is­tic phi­los­o­phy. (See Let­ters of St Paul-Colos­sians) The gen­uine Chris­tians of the Ortho­dox faith had to con­tend with these false teach­ings. The result of their strug­gle was the pro­duc­tion of the the­ol­o­gy of the apol­o­gists, that is, those who defend­ed the true faith and the orig­i­nal gospel of Christ. The result also was the teach­ing of apos­tolic suc­ces­sion in the Church, the doc­trine that the gen­uine faith and life of Chris­tian­i­ty is passed over from church to church, from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion and from place to place, through the suc­ces­sion of the Holy Tra­di­tion of the Church in the con­se­cra­tion of bish­ops, whose teach­ings and prac­tice is iden­ti­cal to each oth­er and to that of the apos­tles of Jesus.

Anoth­er result was that the Church began firm­ly to estab­lish exact­ly which writ­ings belong to the holy scrip­ture of the Church and which do not, their deci­sion being based on the gen­uine apos­tolic tes­ti­mo­ny con­tained in the writ­ings, and their use in the Church at the litur­gi­cal gatherings.

Church Order and Liturgy

In the writ­ings of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry apol­o­gists, mar­tyrs, and saints, it is seen that each local Chris­t­ian Church was head­ed by one bish­op who presided over the Church which was admin­is­tered by the pres­byters or elders, and served by the dea­cons. Thus Saint lgnatius of Anti­och writes in his letters:

I exhort you to strive to do all things in har­mo­ny with God: the bish­op is to pre­side in the place of God, while the pres­byters are to func­tion as the coun­cil of the apos­tles, and the dea­cons, who are most dear to me, are entrust­ed with the min­istry (i.e. good works) of Jesus Christ. (Let­ter to Mag­ne­sians 6,1)

care, then, to par­take of one Eucharist; for one is the Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup to unite us with His Blood, and one altar, just as there is one bish­op assist­ed by the pres­bytery and the dea­cons, my fel­low ser­vants. (Let­ter to Philadel­phi­ans 4)

Where the bish­op appears, there let the peo­ple be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (Let­ter to Smyrneans 8, 2)

Saint Ignatius was the first to use the term catholic to describe the Church. It is an adjec­tive of qual­i­ty that tells how the Church is, name­ly, full, per­fect, com­plete, whole, with noth­ing lack­ing in it of the full­ness of the grace, truth and holi­ness of God.

In the Didache and the Apolo­gies of Saint Justin and Saint Ire­naeus, there are also descrip­tions of the Chris­t­ian sacraments.

Bap­tize as fol­lows: after explain­ing all of these points, bap­tize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spir­it, in run­ning water… (Didache 7, 1)

Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist but those who are bap­tized in the name of the Lord… (Didache 9)

On the Lord’s own Day, assem­ble in com­mon to break bread and give thanks (i.e. the eucharist, which means thanks­giv­ing); but first con­fess your sins so that your sac­ri­fice may be pure.

How­ev­er, no one quar­rel­ing with his broth­er may join your assem­bly until they are rec­on­ciled; your sac­ri­fice must not be defiled. (Didache 14)

Eucharist in the Apology of St. Justin

And on the day which is called Sun­day, all who live in the cities or in the coun­try gath­er togeth­er in one place and the mem­oirs of the apos­tles and the writ­ings of the prophets are read as long as time permits.

Then the read­er con­cludes, and the pres­i­dent ver­bal­ly instructs and exhorts us to the imi­ta­tion of these excel­lent things, then we all rise togeth­er and offer up our prayers; and as I said before when we have end­ed our prayer, bread is brought and wine and water; and the pres­i­dent in like man­ner offers up prayers and thanks­giv­ings accord­ing to his abil­i­ty and the peo­ple give their assent by say­ing ‘Amen’; and there is a dis­tri­b­u­tion and a par­tak­ing by every­one of the Eucharist and to those who are absent a por­tion is brought by the deacons.

And those who are well-to-do and will­ing give as they choose, each as he him­self pur­pos­es; the col­lec­tion is then deposit­ed with the pres­i­dent who sup­ports orphans, wid­ows, those who are in want owing to sick­ness or any oth­er cause, those who are in prison and strangers who are on a jour­ney and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

But Sun­day is the day on which we hold our com­mon assem­bly because it is the first day on which God, when He changed dark­ness and mat­ter, made the world, and Jesus Christ our Sav­ior on the same day rose from the dead. (Apol­o­gy 1, 67 of Saint Justin)