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The Christian Church lived in relative peace from the death of Marcus Aurelius (185) to the time of the Emperor Decius (249). When Decius came to power, he inaugurated a universal persecution of Christians throughout the whole empire. The persecutions by Decius were continued in force by Valerian (253-260). During this time, not only were the Christians forced to sacrifice to the imperial gods, but the clergy were sought out to be killed and all Christian properties were to be confiscated and destroyed. There was an all-out attempt to purge the Church of its leadership and to destroy it completely.
After Valerian, however, Gaflienus, his son, stopped the policy of general persecution and the Christians once more lived in relative peace until the end of the century. During this period, there was an astounding growth in Church membership which perhaps reached up to ten percent of the imperial population.
The persecutions by Decius and Valerian, as well as the peaceful times which preceded and followed, brought a great interior crisis to the Christian Church in the third century. The question arose about what to do with those Christians who denied Christ under the threat of torture and execution, and who lapsed from Christian life into sin in times of peace. The maximalists in the Church urged that there could be no repentance for grave sins committed after baptism. In this, they followed the strict words of Hebrews (10:26) and the Roman writings of the Shepherd of Hermas (see second century) which aid that “he who received forgiveness of sins (in baptism) ought not to sin anymore, but remain in innocence.” The maximalists denied repentance to those who “lapsed” from the Christian life and opposed the bishops who agreed to allow the repentance and readmittance of sinners to Holy Communion after periods of penance. Thus, there were a number of schisms
In the Church which caused some people to leave the Church for what they considered to be a more pure and rigorous form of Christianity. Among those who left was Tertullian (d. c220), the great father of Latin theology in North Africa, and a prolific writer of Christian treatises of every kind. Tertuilian joined the heretical movement of Montanus which began in the end of the second century and claimed to be the church of the “new prophecy” of the Holy Spirit which was more perfect than that of the “second testament” of Christ.
The great defender of the Catholic Church at this time was Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage (d. 258), who himself died a martyr’s death after opposing the so-called “pure” Church of Novation in Rome which opposed the reintegration of the “lapsed” into the communion of the Church. Although a great reader of the theology of Tertullian, Cyprian defended the Catholic Church of the apostolic and episcopal succession against the spiritualistic “pure” churches of the self-styled maximalists. He insisted that the Church, as Christ, exists to save sinners and that “outside of the Church there is no salvation.” (Letter 73)
Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church . . .? This unity we ought to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopacy to be one and undivided… The episcopate is one, each part of which is held wholly by each one. The Church also is one… (On the Unity of the Church 4, 5)
It is not possible to have God as Father who does not have the Church as mother. (On the Unity of the Church 6)
He is not a Christian who is not in the Church of Christ. (Letter 55)
The third century also witnessed the emergence of the first formal school of Christian theology. It was located in Africa, in Alexandria, founded by Pantaenus, developed by Clement (d. 215), and crowned by the outstanding theologian and scholar Origen (d. 253). Whereas Tertullian, the father of Latin theology, absolutely rejected any alliance between “Athens and Jerusalem,” that is, between pagan philosophy and Christian revelation, the Alexandrians insisted that Greek philosophy was a sound preparation for the Christian Gospel and that the truths of the pagans could be and should be united to and fulfilled in the truths of the Christian faith. Thus, Origen wrote to his disciple Saint Gregory the Wonderworker:
I desire you to take from Greek philosophy those spheres of knowledge which are potentially an introduction to Christianity, and whatever information from geometry and astronomy may serve to explain the sacred books…
The work of Origen was phenomenal. He wrote numberless treatises on many themes. He did the first truly systematic and literary studies of the books of the Bible. His work laid the foundation for virtually all subsequent Greek theology in the Church. Much of the teaching of Origen was judged by the Church to be false, however, and because of its persistence among his disciples, its author was formally condemned by the fifth ecumenical council in the year 553.
Among the theologians of the third century who must be mentioned with Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement and Origen are Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 265), Hippolytus of Rome (d. 23 5), Gregory the Wonderworker in Cappodocia (d. c270) and Methodius of Olympus (d. 311). All of these men developed Orthodox Christian theology, and particularly laid the foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity which would cause such controversy in the fourth century. Paul of Samosata and Lucian of Antioch also lived at the end of the third century and are known for their heretical teachings concerning the Trinitarian character of God.
Writings also exist from the third century which give an insight into the canonical and liturgical life of the Church of this time. These are the so-called Teachings of the Apostles from Syria, and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235) who wrote in Greek. The former gives regulations concerning the hierarchal offices and the sacramental practices in the Church of Syria, and describes the liturgical assembly. The latter also gives similar information, in a more lengthy and detailed way about the Church in Rome. It contains the text of the oldest fixed eucharistic prayer in Church history that we possess, as well as the form for the sacraments of baptism, chrismation and ordination.
And when he who is to be baptized goes down to the water, let him who baptizes lay hand on him saying thus: Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty?
And he who is being baptized shall say: I believe.
Let him forthwith baptize him once, having laid his hand upon his head. And after this let him say: Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, And died and was buried And He rose the third day living from the dead And ascended into heaven, And sat down at the right hand of the Father, And will come to judge the living and the dead?
And when he says: I believe, let him baptize the second time.
And again let him say:
Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church And the resurrection of the flesh?
And he who is being baptized shall say: I believe.
And so let him baptize him the third time.
And afterwards when he comes up from the water, he shall be anointed by the presbyter with the Oil of Thanksgiving saying:
I anoint thee with holy oil in the Name of Jesus Christ. And so each one drying himself with a towel, they shall now put on their clothes, and after this let them be together in the assembly (Church).
And the Bishop shall lay his hand upon them invoking and saying:
0 Lord God, who didst count these Thy servants worthy of deserving the forgiveness of sins by the laver of regeneration, make them worthy to be filled with Thy Holy Spirit and send upon them Thy grace, that they may serve Thee according to Thy will, for to Thee is the glory, to the Father and to the Son with the Holy Ghost in the Holy Church, both now and ever and world without end. Amen.
After this, pouring the consecrated oil from his hand and laying his hand on his head, he shall say:
I anoint thee with holy oil in God the Father Almighty and Christ Jesus and the Holy Ghost.
And sealing him on the forehead, he shall give him the kiss of peace and say: The Lord be with you.
And he who has been sealed shall say: And with thy spirit.
And so he shall do to each one severally.
Thenceforward they shall pray together with all the people. But they shall not previously pray with the faithful before they have undergone all these things.
And after the prayers, let them give the kiss of peace.
The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We have them in the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord.
That is proper and right.
We thank Thee God through Thy beloved servant Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent in the latter times to be our Savior and Redeemer and the messenger of Thy counsel, the Logos who went out from Thee, through whom Thou hast created all things, whom Thou wast pleased to send out from heaven into the womb of the Virgin, and in her body He became incarnate and was shown to be Thy Son born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin. In order to fulfill Thy will and to make ready for Thee a holy people, He spread out His hands when He suffered in order that He might free from sufferings those who have reached faith in Thee.
And when He gave Himself over to voluntary suffering, in order to destroy death, and to break the bonds of the devil, and to tread down hell, and to illuminate the righteous, and to set up the boundary stone, and to reveal the Resurrection, He took bread, gave thanks, and said: ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you.’ In the same manner also the cup, and said: ‘This is my blood which is poured out for you. As often as you do this you keep my memory.’
When we remember His death and His resurrection in this way, we bring to Thee the bread and the cup, and give thanks to Thee, because Thou hast thought us worthy to stand before Thee and to serve Thee as priests.
And we beseech Thee that Thou wouldst send down Thy Holy Spirit on the sacrifice of the church. Unite them, and grant to all the saints who partake in the sacrifice, that they may be filled with the Holy Spirit, that they may be strengthened in faith in the truth, in order that we may praise and laud nee through Thy servant, Jesus Christ, through whom praise and honor be to Thee in Thy holy church now and forever more. Amen.