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History of the 2nd Century Church: Final

Oct 25, 2007

There is no clear break between the second and third centuries in the history of the Church. The most natural break comes with the death of Polycarp in 155, which virtually ended the sub-Apostolic Age, that is, the time of those who had been the immediate disciples of the Apostle John.

The Roman Empire itself began to decline in 180 with the succession of the decadent Commodus to the throne. But Commodus was favorably disposed toward the Christians, not on account of his virtue, but actually on account of his vice. When his father left him the throne, he had an equally depraved sister, Lucilla, who soon attempted to have her brother murdered. But the tables were turned, and Commodus put her and her associates to death.

In confiscating the property of the plotters, he acquired the harem of one of the executed nobles, including a beautiful concubine named Marcia. She became Commodus' favorite among his 300 concubines. Marcia had been brought up by a Roman eunuch-priest named Hyacinthus, who was a high official in Commodus' court. As a eunuch, he was probably one who collected castaway baby girls in order to sell them as slaves or to harems. But he was also a "Christian," according to Hippolytus--at least by religious membership.

Because of these connections, Victor was able to gain favors from the Emperor, including the release of Christians that had been sent to the silver mines in Sardinia. (This was how Callistus was set free, the one who would become bishop of Rome in 221. He had not been sent to the mines for his Christian beliefs, but for crooked financial deals with Jewish money-lenders in the local synagogue.) At any rate, the moral condition of the Roman Church suffered from the time of Victor's claim of pontifical supremacy.

The third-century Church as a whole, however, should not be viewed apart from two main personalities of the late second century: Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. They lived far apart on opposite sides of the Empire, and their writings had great impact on the Church. There were many others, of course, but because we have few of their writings, they left no legacy for future generations to read. And even the books of Clement and Irenaeus did not tell us everything that they believed and taught.

We know, however, that both Clement and Irenaeus believed in Universal Reconciliation. Clement wrote about it boldly, as we have seen. But Irenaeus says nothing concrete about it in his eight volumes, Against Heresies. Nonetheless, we do possess a fragment of his which clearly teaches it. Fragment 39 reads,

"Christ, who was called the Son of God before the ages, was manifested in the fulness of time, in order that He might cleanse us through His blood, who were under the power of sin, presenting us as pure sons to His Father, if we yield ourselves obediently to the chastisement of the Spirit. And in the end of time He shall come to do away with evil, and to reconcile all things, in order that there may be an end of all impurities."

This can be read in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 575. It shows that he was in agreement with Clement of Alexandria. With all of the focus upon heresies, it is striking that this idea of the Reconciliation of All Things was not viewed as heresy. In fact, it aroused no controversy at all in those days. The earlier writers often spoke of eonian punishment without elaboration, but the translators usually rendered it "eternal punishment" according to their personal bias.

We are given an indication of Irenaeus' way of thinking when he writes in Against Heresies, V, xxvii,

"Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending."

Though written in Greek, only a Latin copy is preserved. Most likely Irenaeus used the Greek eonianfor "eternal," but even the Latin term aeternas needed an additional term to ensure that it meant "without end" and "never-ending." Of course, if eonian or aeternas were sufficient to denote unending time, the other terms would be redundant. It was necessary to use those other terms to show that the loss of evil works in the judgment of God will not only be for that eon (age), but also beyond it.

Irenaeus died in 202, Clement in 213. Before his death, Irenaeus "rendered Lyons a Christian city" (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Introduction to Irenaeus, p. 310).

Clement of Alexandria, who had succeeded Pantaenus in 189 A.D. as head of the School, fled to Antioch in 202 when the persecution broke out under the Roman Emperor Severus, who decided to enforce an old law prohibiting the conversion to Judaism or to Christianity. This hardly affected Judaism, because the Jews had withdrawn into their cocoon. But it greatly affected the Church, for Christians had been given the mandate of the Great Commission.

Origen's father was also imprisoned and soon martyred in the same persecution. Origen wrote to him, beseeching him not to deny Christ for their sake. He was fearless and zealous for the Gospel, and he would have exposed himself to the Roman authorities had not his mother hidden his clothing to prevent him from leaving the house.

The family had some wealth, but when Origen's father Leonides was executed, the government confiscated their property. This reduced the family to abject poverty. However, a wealthy lady took Origen into her house and provided for him so that he could continue to preach the Word. He insisted upon supporting himself, so he opened a grammar school. The following year, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, appointed Origen, now age 18, to replace Clement as head of the Theological School.

Meanwhile, far away in Rome, Victor died and was succeeded by Zephyrinus. The spirit of dominance, intolerance, and pride had infected Rome through the pontificate of Victor, and it appeared again in Zephyrinus, who succeeded him in the same year that Origen had become the head of the School in Alexandria (203). Cormenin says in his History of the Popes, Vol. I, pp. 33, 34,

"Victor had prepared the way for the dominion of the pontiff, and his successors did not neglect on any occasion to extend their power."

Victor's successors, Zephyrinus and Callistus, were the worst bishops to date, according to their contemporaries. This caused Hippolytus to break with them and claim to be the true Bishop of Rome.  In fact, the Roman Church now considers Hippolytus to be the first "anti-pope." For years, this part of history was unknown, and all of these men were considered to be "saints." But after a complete set of Hippolytus' writings were discovered in 1842, the conflict was exposed to the world.

Church officials were appalled and embarrassed to find Zephyrinus and Callistus denounced as such scoundrels. But because they were the official bishops of Rome, Hippolytus was cast out of heaven as an "anti-pope" under the assumption that the official bishops (or popes) must have been the ones chosen by the Holy Spirit.

And so, while the general history of the early Church finds its new era with the death of Polycarp in 155 A.D., the specific history of the Roman Church really entered a new era with Victor's assumptions of power from 190-194 A.D.


This is the final part of a series titled "History of the 2nd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 2nd Century Church


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