Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 12—100-476 C.E.—Snuffing Out the Gospel Light
“Men have discovered that it is far more convenient to adulterate the truth than to refine themselves.”—Charles Caleb Colton, 19th-century English clergyman
BEGINNING in 33 C.E., when Rome put Christianity’s Founder to death, that sixth world power of Bible history was at constant loggerheads with the Christians. It imprisoned them and threw some of them to the lions. But even when threatened with the martyrdom of serving as human torches to light Nero’s gardens, Roman Christians of the first century continued to let their spiritual light shine. (Matthew 5:14) In time, however, the situation changed.
“In the early part of the third century,” says the book From Christ to Constantine, “the church was beginning to become respectable.” But respectability had its price, “a lowering of standards.” Accordingly, “Christian living was no longer seen to be a requirement of Christian faith.”
The gospel light had waned to a glimmer. And “by the fourth century,” says the book Imperial Rome, “Christian writers were claiming not only that it was possible to be both Christian and Roman, but that the long history of Rome was in fact the beginning of the Christian epic. . . . The implication was that Rome had been divinely ordained.”
Sharing this view was the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. In 313 C.E., Constantine made Christianity a lawful religion. By combining Church and State, putting religious leaders into the service of the State, and allowing State control of religious affairs, Constantine did a real disservice.
Already in the early second century, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, had introduced a new method of congregational government. Instead of a group of elders, the monarchical episcopate provided for a single churchman to be in charge of each congregation. About a century later, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, expanded this hierarchical clergy system into a monarchical seven-grade hierarchy, the supreme position being occupied by the bishop. Under him were priests, deacons, subdeacons, and other grades. The Western church subsequently added an eighth grade, while the Eastern church settled for a five-grade hierarchy.
Where did this form of church leadership, combined with State approval, lead? The book Imperial Rome explains: “Only 80 years after the last great wave of persecution of Christians, the Church itself was beginning to execute heretics, and its clerics were wielding power almost equivalent to that of the emperors.” Surely this is not what Christ had in mind when he said that his disciples were to be “no part of the world” and that they should conquer it, not by force, but by their faith.—John 16:33; 17:14; compare 1 John 5:4.
“Saints” and Greek Gods
Long before Constantine’s time, pagan ideas had already adulterated the Christian religion. The mythical gods of Greece that had once strongly influenced Rome’s religion had also already influenced the Christian religion. “By the time Rome had become an imperial power,” says the book Roman Mythology, “Jupiter had become assimilated to the Greek Zeus . . . Later on Jupiter was worshipped as Optimus Maximus, the Best and Greatest, a designation which was to be carried over into Christianity and appears on many a monumental inscription.” The New Encyclopædia Britannica adds: “Under Christianity, Greek heroes and even deities survived as saints.”
Author M. A. Smith explains that this meant that “the many sets of gods were becoming intermixed, and the regional differences were getting blurred. . . . There was a tendency for people to think that the various deities were really only different names for one great power. . . . The Egyptian Isis, Artemis of the Ephesians and the Syrian Astarte could be equated. The Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, the Egyptian Amon-Re and even the Jewish Yahweh could be invoked as the names of the one great Power.”
While being fused with Greek and Roman thinking in Rome, Christianity was also undergoing changes in other places. Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage, and Edessa, all centers of theological activity, developed distinctive schools of religious thought. Herbert Waddams, a former Anglican Canon of Canterbury, says the Alexandrian school, for example, was “particularly influenced by Platonic ideas,” assigning allegorical meanings to most “Old Testament” statements. The Antioch school adopted a more literal, more critical attitude toward the Bible.
Distance, lack of communication, and language misunderstandings served to intensify the differences. Chiefly responsible for the situation, however, was the independent spirit and selfish ambition of religious leaders willing to adulterate the truth for personal advantage, thereby snuffing out the gospel light.
“Falsely Called ‘Knowledge’”
As early as the first century, Christianity was influenced by false religious teachings, causing Paul to warn Timothy to turn away “from the contradictions of the falsely called ‘knowledge.’” (1 Timothy 6:20, 21) This may have been a reference to a movement called Gnosticism that gained prominence early in the second century but that evidently got started in the first century, possibly with a certain Simon Magus. Some authorities claim that this may be the Simon mentioned in the Bible at Acts 8:9.
Gnosticism got its name from the Greek word gnoʹsis, meaning “knowledge.” Gnostic groups contended that salvation is dependent upon special mystical knowledge of deep things unknown to ordinary Christians. They felt that possessing this knowledge enabled them to teach, as The Encyclopedia of Religion says, “the inner truth revealed by Jesus.”
The origins of Gnostic thought were many. From Babylon, Gnostics took the practice of attributing hidden meanings to Bible numbers, which supposedly revealed mystical truths. Gnostics also taught that whereas the spirit is good, all matter is inherently evil. “This is the same chain of reasoning,” says German author Karl Frick, “that was already found in Persian dualism and in the Far East in China’s ‘yin’ and ‘yang.’” The “Christianity” presented by Gnostic writings is definitely based on non-Christian sources. So how could it be “the inner truth revealed by Jesus”?
Scholar R. E. O. White calls Gnosticism a combination of “philosophic speculation, superstition, semi-magical rites, and sometimes a fanatical and even obscene cultus.” Andrew M. Greeley of the University of Arizona says: “The Jesus of the Gnostics is sometimes incoherent, sometimes unintelligible, and sometimes more than a little creepy.”
Twisting the Truth About Christ
The Gnostics were not alone in twisting the truth about Christ. Nestorius, an early 5th-century patriarch of Constantinople, apparently taught that Christ was actually two persons in one, the human Jesus and the divine Son of God. In giving birth to Christ, Mary gave birth to the man but not to the divine Son. This view did not agree with Monophysitism (“one nature”), which held that the union between God and the Son was inseparable, and that although of two natures, Jesus was in reality only one, wholly God and at the same time wholly man. Accordingly, Mary would indeed have given birth to God, not just to the human Jesus.
Both theories were outgrowths of a controversy that had arisen during the previous century. Arius, an Alexandrian priest, argued that Christ is inferior to the Father. So he refused to use the term homoousios (being of one substance) in describing Christ’s relationship to God. The Council of Nicaea rejected his view in 325 C.E., ruling that Jesus is indeed ‘of the same substance as the Father.’ In 451 C.E. the Council of Chalcedon stated that Christ is God incarnate. The Babylonian-Egyptian-Grecian concept of a triune God had now crowded out Christ’s teaching that he and his Father are two separate individuals, in no way equal.—Mark 13:32; John 14:28.
Actually, Tertullian (c. 160-c. 230 C.E.), a member of the North African church, introduced the word “trinitas,” which found its way into Christian usage sometime before Arius was born. Tertullian, who was the first theologian to write extensively in Latin instead of Greek, helped lay the foundation for Western theology. So did “Saint” Augustine, another North African theologian of some two centuries later. “[Augustine] is generally recognized as having been the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica. But its next words are cause for concern for every sincere Catholic or Protestant: “His mind was the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy; and it was also the means by which the product of this fusion was transmitted to the Christendoms of medieval Roman Catholicism and Renaissance Protestantism.”
Catholicism in Crisis
Toward the end of the fourth century, Emperor Theodosius I finished what Constantine had started by making Catholicism the State religion. Soon thereafter the Roman Empire split, as Constantine had feared it might. Rome was captured in 410 C.E. by the Visigoths, a Germanic people who had long harassed the empire, and in 476 C.E., German general Odoacer deposed the Western emperor and proclaimed himself king, thus ending the Western Roman Empire.
Under these new circumstances, how would Catholicism fare? As of 500 C.E., it claimed as members some 22 percent of the world population. But of these estimated 43 million persons, the bulk had been victimized by religious leaders who had found it to be more convenient to adulterate the truth than to refine themselves. The gospel light of true Christianity had been snuffed out. But “Out of Darkness, Something ‘Holy’” would soon be born, as our next issue will discuss.
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Samples of Gnostic Belief
Marcion (second century) differentiated between an imperfect “Old Testament” God inferior to Jesus and Jesus’ Father, the unknown “New Testament” God of love. The idea of an “unknown god is a fundamental theme of gnosticism,” explains The Encyclopedia of Religion. This unknown god is identified as “the supreme Intellect, inaccessible to the human intellect.” The creator of the material world, on the other hand, is inferior and not absolutely intelligent and is known as the Demiurge.
Montanus (second century) preached the imminent return of Christ and the setting up of the New Jerusalem in what is today Turkey. More concerned about conduct than doctrine, he evidently tried to restore the original values of Christianity, but given to extremes, the movement finally fell victim to the very situation of laxity it condemned.
Valentinus (second century), a Greek poet and the most prominent Gnostic of all time, claimed that although Jesus’ ethereal body passed through Mary, it was not actually born of her. This was because Gnostics viewed all matter as evil. Thus, Jesus could not have had a material body or it too would have been evil. Gnostics known as Docetists taught that everything about Jesus’ humanity was mere appearance and illusion. This included his death and resurrection.
Manes (third century) was dubbed al-Bābilīyu, Arabic for “the Babylonian,” since he called himself “the messenger of God come to Babylon.” He strove to form a universal religion fusing elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism.
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Constantine helped snuff out the gospel light by fusing Christianity with pagan worship