John, the last of the Apostles, died in 101 AD, the only one to have passed due to natural causes, this brings an end to the Apostolic Age and brings with it the turmoil that is the 2nd Century.
With the Apostles no longer around to resolve disputes and correct falsehoods the Christian church experiences a multitude of disagreement regarding this fledgling church. Some teachings are obviously false, such as Docetism (teaching that Jesus was only a spirit and had no physical body) while others are not so easy to dispute, such as the teaching of Origen of Alexandria on the origin of souls (Origen taught that souls existed before conception), some Christian churches still hold to this teaching (LDS, Scientology, etc), but it’s something that isn’t covered in the Bible, one way or the other. The teaching on pre-existence comes from Plato, and is a carryover from Greek converts entering into Christianity and bringing their prior beliefs with them. But, since it is not directly stated in either Testament the issue cannot be definitively resolved.
During the first few centuries after the death of the Apostles many of these questions came up, and people dug themselves in on one side or the other. It wasn’t until 312 AD when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as his religion that things began to change for Christians. In 313 AD Constantine decriminalized Christianity and outlawed Jewish stoning of Christian converts, he also acknowledged Sundays as a day of rest, closing markets and public offices, though not actually banning work on that day.
In 316 AD Constantine was asked to resolve a conflict in Northern Africa called Donatism, the belief that the clergy must be pure and sinless for their ministry to be valid, and that only the absolutely pure and sinless could attain eternal salvation. This conflict was resolved, though it did result in the separation of some Donatists from the rest of the church, it also prompted the insertion of this prayer into the Divine Liturgy1:
O Lord God almighty, Who alone are holy, You accept the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart. Accept also the prayer of us sinners, and lead us to Your Holy Altar. Enable us to offer you gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Account us worthy to find grace in Your sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to You, and that the good Spirit of Your grace may dwell upon us and upon these gifts here offered, and upon all Your people, through the compassion of Your only-begotten Son, with Whom You are blessed, together with Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
Eventually enough of these conflicts arose so as to bother Constantine enough (he was a soldier and believed in order) that in 325 AD he called together leaders of the churches from various communities to resolve these issues once and for all, and to come up with a common set of beliefs.2 One of the chief issues was over the relationship between Father and Son. One side (Arians) held that Jesus was a created being, not co-eternal with the Father, and that the relationship was one like human father-to-son where the son is subordinate to the father, and thus was the same as that between God and His Son. This was the first schism in the Christian church, creating two paths for Christians – Arians and non-Arians (while there is no lineal connection between them and Arius the modern equivalent of Arius’ beliefs are the Jehovah’s Witness). Out of this council came the first doctrine which all Christians were required to believe in order to be part of orthodox Christianity.3 This was the Nicene Creed and its text is presented here:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.
The number of these Ecumenical Councils depends on what church you are in. Arians, for example, recognize none of them since they were excommunicated at the Council of Nicene (325 AD). The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 21 councils, the Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes seven, and the Oriental Orthodox Church stops after the third. With regards to the Protestant Reformation (c. 1521 AD) the various denominations adhere to anywhere from none to the Council of Trent (#19 by RCC count) in 1545 AD. Each of these Councils was called to resolve major issues that arose in the church over the years, with each Council the church divided. Sometimes the “losing side”4 left and created a church of their own continuing their beliefs (ex: Oriental Orthodox Church), other times they just dissolved into history(ex: Donatism) sometimes to reform later (ex: Arianism) other times completely lost to history.
In any case, with the death of the Apostle John any ability to resolve issues by appealing to someone who actually walked with Christ ended. One controversy after another appeared and split the church into a seemingly unending number of denominations, each with their own beliefs. Sometimes these separations were violent, like with the establishment of the Church of England, other times the separations were peaceful, just two groups going their own way. In either case I am sure tears were shed in heaven over the rending of the Body of Christ. Next time we will look into the Great Schism that separated East from West.
- Divine Liturgy is the Eastern term for worship services. At this time services were fairly standard across the Christian world (format), some prayers were commonly used in all churches, while others were still taking form. The DL was offered in many languages, usually either the language of the region they were being held in, or in a common language that most understood.
- There is a great deal of controversy over just how much Constantine did/tried to control the council and sway decisions. There is no way to actually know and that is as far as I will take it in this series.
- Orthodox here (lower case) is used in its Greek meaning – true teaching – not to be confused with the Orthodox Church.
- “Losing side” is a poor choice of words, but used here for lack of a generic term to identify those on the opposing side. In the Great Schism of 1054 Orthodoxy was on the “losing side” from the RCC view, and the RCC church was on the “losing side” from the EO church’s view. It’s all relative.