History of the Church: Christian Antiquity - Notre Dame

Attacks Against the Church
During First Three Centuries

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I. Attacks by Pagans

We have said that, besides the attacks made on the Church by persecution, many of the pagans tried to shake the faith of the Christians by writing all sorts of untrue things against Catholic teaching, and accused the faithful of crimes which they had never committed. Thus the Christians were held up as atheists, because they would not adore the false gods of the Romans; they were also accused of being enemies of the State, and of being disloyal to the Emperor, and of many other crimes so grievous that they would have died rather than commit them. The enemies of the Church sought by these accusations to make the Christian religion appear less holy and less attractive to the pagans, and hoped thus to prevent many from becoming Christians.

But God raised up many learned and clever men, who, by their teaching, and especially by their writings, defended the Church against these dangerous attacks. These men were called "Apologists." Their writings are known as "Apologies," and are letters addressed to Emperors and others, in which the calumnies against the Christian religion are disproved, and which also contain instructions on Christian belief and the practice of virtue. Among the most learned of the Apologists may be named St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen.

St. Justin Martyr was born at Neapolis, in Palestine. His parents were pagan Greeks, and Justin eagerly studied every system of Greek philosophy, but failed to find the truth in any. One day when he was walking on the seashore he met an unknown man, who told him to study the doctrines of Christianity.

This he at once commenced to do. His longings after the truth were all satisfied by the teachings of the Church, and he became a Christian. St. Justin devoted the rest of his life to preaching and defending the faith. He wore the dress of a Greek philosopher, even after his conversion, because it won him a respectful hearing from the people. In A.D. 150 he went to Rome and opened a school of theology. St. Justin wrote two Apologies. The first was to the Roman Emperor, Antoninus Pius, and his Senate. In it he asked that the Christians might not be punished simply because they were Christians, but only if they were guilty of any real crime. This letter was favourably received by the Emperor, who granted his request. The second Apology was written to Marcus Aurelius, who answered it by causing St. Justin to be martyred. He gladly gave his life for the truth he had so nobly defended by his writings.

St. Irenaeus, a disciple of St. Polycarp, and Bishop of Lyons, wrote a refutation of all the heresies of his time, and said that they could all be condemned by the tradition of the Church established in Rome by the Apostles SS. Peter and Paul. All these early Apologists wrote in Greek, except Tertullian and St. Cyprian.

Tertullian, born at Carthage, A.D. 16o, was the earliest defender of the faith who wrote in Latin. He had been converted from paganism, and was most zealous in using his vast learning in the service of the Church. Unfortunately, in consequence of giving way to his fierce temper, as he himself owns, he fell away from the true faith and even founded a new sect. Still, his writings have been of much use, and are considered of very great authority. He lived to an advanced age, but it is to be feared that he was never reconciled to the Church.

St. Cyprian, a native of Carthage, was convented in the year A.D. 246. His two Apologies were written some years later. In the second he proves from Scripture the Divinity of Christ. St. Cyprian became Bishop of Carthage A.D. 248, and was beheaded during the persecution under Valerian before the walls of his native city, on September 13, A.D. 258.

Origen was the son of Leonidas, who lived at Alexandria. When his father was martyred, under the Emperor Septimius Severus, Origen wanted to be a martyr too, but his mother hid his clothes, so that he could not go out to declare himself a Christian.

Origen was exceedingly learned, and particularly famous for his knowledge of the Bible, of which he had learnt a portion by heart every day. He was soon placed at the head of the School of Alexandria, which was renowned all over the world as a great centre of learning. Some of Origen's speculative opinions have been condemned by the Church.

Among the most celebrated of Origen's works, which were very numerous, is his "Apology for the Christian Religion." It is specially directed against the calumnies of Celsus, a pagan philosopher. Origen spent twenty-eight years on a work called the "Hexapla," which contained in six parallel columns different versions of the Old Testament. During the Decian persecution Origen was cast into prison, and tortured in various ways for the faith. When Decius died he was released, but did not long outlive his sufferings. He died at Tyre in the year 254.

II. Attacks on the Church by Heretics

Even in these early days, the Church had enemies still more dangerous than her persecutors and calumniators. These were the leaders of heresy. The former could only harm the Christians in their life, or honour, or property, while the teachers of false doctrine often injured their souls by leading them to forsake the true faith. The founders or originators of a doctrine contrary to the truths of God we call heresiarchs. Those who follow the false teaching are heretics, and the false doctrine or teaching which denies some article of faith is a heresy. Unfortunately, several heresies began to be taught during the lifetime of the Apostles. The following are some of the principal heresies of the first three centuries:

The CERINTHIANS, who take their name from their founder, Cerinthus, who denied the Divinity of Christ, and against whom St. John wrote his Gospel.

The SIMONIANS (later Gnostics) were those who followed the teaching of Simon the Magician. He claimed to be the Messiah, and opposed the Church after being rebuked by St. Peter for offering to purchase the power of giving the Holy Ghost.

The GNOSTICS—i.e., those who know—were numerous during the second and third centuries. Their doctrines were a mixture of paganism and Christianity. The chief leaders of the Gnostics were Valentinus and Marcion.

The MANICHAEANS, founded by Mani, or Manichpus, taught that there were two Gods, one the author of good, the other the author of evil. They also held that Jesus Christ took a human body only in appearance.

Numerous sects which sprang up in the Church taught different heresies about the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, and they are therefore known by the name of ANTI-TRINITARIAN heretics.

The MONTANISTS were founded by Montanus, about A.D. 173. He gave himself out to be a prophet of Christ. His chief error was in teaching that the Church had not power to forgive all mortal sins. Tertullian was led away by this heresy, and attacked Pope Callixtus for condemning it. It was adopted by the Novatians, against whom St. Cyprian wrote. This error became widely spread in Asia, Europe, and North Africa.

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