Church History Lesson 2


At the onset of the 4th century, Constantine the Great (or Constantine I) ascended the throne. He recognized that the state could use Christianity as an ally. It was under him that the church and state came to terms. He is said to have seen a cross in the sky with the words “in this sign conquer” in Latin, just before he defeated his enemies in the battle over the Tiber river.

On the evening before the battle, so the story goes, Constantine saw a cross above the sun as it was setting in the west. In letters of light the cross bore the words: Hoc Signo Vinces, which means, “In this sign, conquer.”

The next day, October 28 in the year 312, the battle was joined. It was a furious battle. The Prae­torian Guards fought like lions. They never gave ground, but their ranks were cut down where they stood. The army of Maxentius was completely defeated. Maxentius himself, attempting to escape over the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber River, was drowned.

The Edict of Milan Grants Equality

The battle of the Milvian Bridge was one of the great decisive bat­tles in the history of the world. It made Constantine master of the entire western part of the Roman Empire. But it had another and far more important result. Con­stantine felt that he had won the battle because he had received help from the God of the Christians, and he became a Christian. He who had been a worshipper of the sun-god Mithra now embraced the religion of Him who is the true light of the world.

The Edict of Milan put a stop to the persecutions, and proclaimed absolute freedom of conscience. It placed Christianity upon a footing of equality, before the law, with the other religions in the Empire. They declared that both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires would keep a neutral position on all faiths. Constantine the Great even commissioned the construction of several grand cathedrals. For the first time in ancient Rome, Christians could openly practice their religion without fear.

The World Invades the Church

The Edict of Milan proved to have a very definite disadvantage. It was now no longer a shame, but an honor to be a Christian. The Christian name now secured many and great material advantages. The Christian name had become a passport to political, military, and social promotion. As a result, thou­sands upon thousands of heathen joined the Church.

Unfortunately many of these were Christians in name only. The Christianity of Emperor Constan­tine himself was, if not of a doubt­ful, at least not of a very high character. What the Church gained in quantity it lost in quality.

Arian controversy

Arius was a presbyter over the church district of Baucalis in Alexandria, who was asked by his bishop to explain Prov. 8:22-31. Arius affirmed, among other things, that “the son, born of the Father before all time, created and constituted in being before all ages, did not exist before He was begotten.”

Arius’ theology may be summed up in four assertions:

  • First, the Son is a creature, a product “out of nothing” (ex nihilo) of the divine will. The Son is neither a communication of God’s being nor a derivation from it.
  • Second, inasmuch as the Son is a creature, he must have had a beginning. “We are persecuted,” said Arius, “because we say the Son had a beginning whereas God [the Father] is without beginning” (Ep. ad Euseb. Nicom.; in Epiphanius, haer. 69,6). Hence, the Arian slogan: “There was [a time] when He was not” (en pote hote ouk en).
  • Third, the Son can have neither communion with nor direct knowledge of the Father in any way other than that which is true of all creatures (notwithstanding Mt. 11:25-30!).
  • Fourth, the Son, being a creature, is peccable, that is, he is capable of both sin and change.

Arius was excommunicated in 318 by the synod of Alexandria (at which were more than 100 bishops) and was condemned by the synod of Antioch in 325.

The debate concerning the deity of Christ was monumental in importance. Man’s salvation was at stake, for Christ’s Person and work are inseparably united. At His birth an angel had announced, “Thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sin” (Matt. 1:21).

At this historic Council of Nicea in the year A.D. 325, and after much debate, the views of Arius were condemned as heresy. A statement of the true doctrine of the Person and work of Christ was finally adopted and articulated in the Nicene Creed. This creed is accepted by both the Western churches and those of the East, including the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches.


The passing of the Apostolic Fathers (who were taught the Christian faith by the Apostles), brought forth the Eastern and Latin Church Fathers. These men were ordained by God to keep on defending the truth of the scriptures against heretical teachers. In theirwritings we find the history, doctrines, and traditions of the Church. Three of the Latin Fathers were Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine.

  • AMBROSE (A.D. 339-397), the son of a Roman governor in Gaul (France) became the Bishop of Milan. Educated in the law in Rome, he became a faithful defender of the faith against Arianism for the Western Church. Ambrose wrote extensively. A lover of music, Ambrose wrote many songs. A lover of souls, he sought to bring people to Christ.


  • JEROME (A.D. 341-420), was born in Eastern Europe but was converted in Rome. He labored for thirty-four years in a monastery at Bethlehem (A.D. 386-420) and gave to the Church the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and from the Greek of the New Testament. For over 1,000 years, the Vulgate became the only form in which the Bible was known to Western Europe. It remains to this day the authorized version of the Roman Catholic Church.


  • AUGUSTINE (A.D. 354-430)

The greatest of the church fathers. Born in N Africa in the year 354. Though he had great promise, he was a poor student and neglected studies for play. As a result he did not learn Greek, and later regretted this. Around 16 he was sent away to school in Carthage, a wicked city with many temptations. He studied hard, but indulged in a life of wickedness. His father Patricius was a pagan, but his saintly mother Monica prayed earnestly for many years that her son might be converted. He moved to Rome, started to read the bible but found it uninteresting. He liked the heathen poets and philosophers much better.

He received the appointment as professor of rhetoric and public speaking in Milan. Ambrose was the bishop of that city, and Augustine would often go to hear him preach, not interested in what he said, but to observe his oratory. At some point he became ashamed of his wicked life, and one day he threw himself on the ground, highly agitated. He had been carrying a copy of Pauls epistles. While he was lying on the ground he heard a child singing “take up and read, take up and read”.  He got up and open the epistles and read”

Rom 13:13  Let us walk becomingly, as in the day; not in revelling and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy. Rom 13:14  But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.

From that moment on, he was  a changed man. On Easter Sunday the next year he was baptized. In time he became Bishop of Hippo in N Africa. He devoted himself to the service of the church. He defended the church against heresies and controversies that would divide the church.

In a controversy with a British Monk, Pelagius, Augustine worked out the true doctrine concerning man and his manner of salvation. Pelagius denied original sin, the total depravity of man and predestination. He believed man became corrupt as they grow up. Augustine taught that every man is conceived and born in sin, and can be saved only through the grace of God according to his good pleasure. In 431 the teachings of Pelagius were condemned as heresy be the General Council of Ephesus, and in 529 the Synod of Orange condemned the teachings of Semi Pelagians, that is is up to the individual to accept or refuse God’s offer of grace. The teachings of Augustine largely dominated the Roman Catholic Church of the MIddle ages and Luther and other reformers also received inspiration from him.

The Metropolitan and Patriarchal systems

Every church, or diocese had its bishop. At first they were all the same rank, but step by step the bishop of Rome acquired power over the other bishops. First bishops of larger churches and cities came to be looked on as higher rank than small churches. They were called metropolitan bishops. Then the churches of the five largest cities came to be regarded as having very special 45 importance. Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. These bishops became known as patriarchs. The first four were were in the eastern and Greek part of the Empire, and Rome was in the western and Latin part. Jerusalem was the mother church, but was gradually eclipsed by the others, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Church Expands

The influx of barbarians and the growth of episcopal power also brought changes in the worship of the church.

  • statues and visuals
  • Connection to monarchical states led to a more aristocratic and colorful liturgy
  • Development of church calendar and feast days
  • Ceremonies let to more sacraments ie marriage, penance
  • early theological development of doctrine of original sin led to infant baptism
  • belief that the priest acted in Christ’s place at Communion and offered a true sacrifice to God
  • Veneration of Mary developed rapidly by 590
  • perpetual virginity of Mary



The Roman Empire and the Christian Church came into exist­ence at about the same time. Both the Empire and the Church have now existed for about five hundred years. But now the Empire in the West is about to fall, while the Christian Church continues. But the fall of the Empire in the West will have a profound effect upon the whole history of the Church from this time on. It will mark an­other important turn in the road of the Church’s history.

German Tribes Invade the Em­pire

East of the Rhine and north of the Danube were German tribes. Behind the German tribes were the Mongolian Huns. The Huns crowd­ed the German tribes. The Ger­mans were barbarians but the Huns were worse. They were fierce horsemen, hideous to look upon. In mortal dread of the Huns, a Ger­man tribe, the Visigoths (West Goths) in 376 crossed the lower Danube. It was the first tribe of barbarians to enter the Empire. Soon they were joined by the Ostrogoths (East Goths).

Having failed in the East, the Goths, together with other German tribes, attacked the western part of the Roman Empire. The Empire was decaying, but it was large and still had some strength left. It took the barbarians one hundred years, from the crossing of the Danube by the Visigoths in 376 to the fall of Rome in 476, to conquer the western part of the Empire.These last hundred years of the Empire in the West were a time of great suffering and disaster. It was in those dark days that Am­brose, Jerome, and Augustine lived.


The Empire Falls but the Church Survives

In 410 Rome was laid waste by the Goths under Alaric. The bar­barians broke into the city by night. The inhabitants were awak­ened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet. For six days and nights the barbarians trooped through the city.

Soon the streets were wet with blood. At night the flames of the burning buildings cast upon the sky a reflection of lurid red. The palace of the em­perors and the residences of the wealthy citizens were stripped of their costly furniture, their pre­cious plate and jewels, their silken and velvet hangings, and their beautiful objects of art. The city which had plundered the world was now itself plundered.




The Franks and Christ

Among the first of the unconverted Germanic warriors to embrace Christianity were the Franks. Their king was a man named Clovis. The story of his conversion is very similar to that of Constantine. In the middle of a desperate battle, Clovis saw the sign of the cross in the sky. He made a pledge that he would become a Christian if he won the battle. The victory was his and Clovis kept his word. He was baptized into the Christian faith together with 3,000 of his warriors, on Christmas day in 496 in the city of Rheims.

Something else of significance happened with the conversion of Clovis. Up to this time in history, it was individuals who had accepted Christianity. Now, whole tribes technically became Christians when their kings were converted to Christ. As a result, many mere “professors” (Christians in name only) were coming into the church, bringing their worldly ways with them.



Prior to the final fall of the Roman Empire in the west, Christianity was introduced into Britain by Christian Roman soldiers. Elsewhere, a British monk named Patrick (c. 390-461) became the “Apostle Of Ireland.” Patrick was born to a deacon named Calpurnius at Ailclyde (now Dumbarton). When he was sixteen years old Patrick was captured in a raid by Irish pirates and sold to Milchu, an Antrim chieftain. He was forced to serve as a slave. Six years later Patrick escaped to Gaul where he became a monk. Following a desire to minister the Gospel as a missionary in Ireland, Patrick returned about 431, meeting with great success until his death.






Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) was perhaps the most important pope to emerge during the days when the new barbarian kingdoms were being built upon the ruins of the Roman Empire in the West. He was the first monk to become a pope, ruling from 590 to 604.

He called himself “the servant of the servants of God.” Born in Rome of wealthy parents, Gregory received a comprehensive education. Distinguishing himself in legal studies in 573, he was given the imperial appointment of prefect of Rome. Being deeply religious, however, he renounced the world. He gave up his wealth following the death of his father, and devoted himself to good works. He established seven monasteries in Sicily and one in Rome. With a humble spirit, Gregory labored faithfully to advance the kingdom of God. He moved through the organizational structure of the Church until he was elected pope in 590.

Gregory was the first of the popes to take unto himself broad political powers outside the Church. He had more real power in Italy than did the emperors, although legally and theoretically Italy still belonged to the Eastern Empire.

Despite the good that he did, Gregory also brought much harm to the cause of Christ. He taught that the Lord’s Supper is a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, that the saints in heaven can be of help to us, and that there is a purgatory.

He taught that sin might be forgiven on condition of repentance, which he defined to involve contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Satisfaction could be found in penance, with the penance being in proportion to the sin. In this system, man can earn and deserve not only salvation but also sanctification. On this understanding of holiness, a vast and complex penitential system was constructed in the Middle Ages. The fruit of this system was a mechanical theory of penance and indulgences, against which Martin Luther and others would one day vigorously protest.


Next week we will start up with Mohammed!