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Third Century

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 Lapsed

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)

Development of Theology

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.

Liturgical Development

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.

Baptism and Chrismation in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus

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.

Eucharist in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus

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.