The Biography of the Bible, by Ernest Sutherland Bates, , at sacred-texts.com
THE CHRISTIANS of the first century A. D. lived in expectation of the second coming of Christ, therefore they felt no need of a permanent creed or sacred canon. As most of them were converted Jews, they naturally accepted the Old Testament, known to those outside of Palestine in the version of the Septuagint (completed in the first century B.C.), but beyond that they had only such fragmentary Christian writings as their particular congregations happened to possess.
When during the second century the hope of Christ's immediate return gradually faded and the necessity of finding some definite body of doctrine to hold the Christian communities together began to be recognized, the difficulties in the way were almost insuperable. The Christian congregations were scattered throughout the separate cities of the Roman Empire. The enhancement of the value of the individual brought by the Christian emphasis upon personal immortality, while it was one of the main reasons for the rapid spread of the new religion,
was also a danger in that it tended to foster highly individualistic and divergent interpretations of this new religion's meaning. Far greater than the likelihood of its being crushed by the sporadic and inefficient Roman persecutions was the possibility that Christianity would split up into a number of mutually hostile sects.
To arrive at any settled system of dogma it was necessary to answer a number of perplexing questions. Assuming that the Apostolic writings could be separated from the pseudo-Apostolic imitations that now began to appear in large numbers, were they to be considered as of greater, equal, or lesser authority in comparison with the literature of the Old Testament? To just what degree was the Mosaic law still binding upon Christians? What was the true relation between the human and the divine natures united in the Christ? And how answer the old question as to the existence of evil in a world ruled by a perfect deity? Upon these points, Christianity was time and again threatened with dissolution.
In contrast to paganism and to the rival Oriental religions, Mithraism and Isis worship, Christianity had the immeasurable advantage of possessing the imposing body of sacred scriptures in the Old
[paragraph continues] Testament. For a time, however, it was doubtful whether this immense advantage would not be thrown away at the outset. The Jews had rejected Jesus; the temptation was strong for the Christians to retaliate by rejecting everything Jewish. There was much in the Old Testament, particularly in its early parts, which was thoroughly inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. Why retain the scriptures of a religion whose priests had brought about the crucifixion of the Christ?
Thus the question of the inclusion of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible was at the outset involved in the larger question as to the meaning of Christian salvation—whether it was to be salvation in the world or salvation from the world. On this issue the future of Christianity turned: whether it should become a negative religion like Buddhism or Zoroastrianism or should follow the more positive path laid down by its founder. At the moment the forces making for the negative and pessimistic interpretation were numerous and powerful. The Roman Empire was full of Oriental cults practicing various forms of mystical asceticism. Greek philosophy which in its palmy days would have offered a defense was now tending downward in the same direction. Plato's identification of evil
with matter was bearing dark fruit in an ever-increasing dualism between the spirit and the body. Warred upon from right and left by the sensuality of paganism and by the asceticism of its own extremists, it took Christianity more than a century to find its way into the open.
The stoutest fighter for the preservation of Christianity as a monotheistic religion was the mighty Origen (Origines Adamantius), the chief Christian theologian of the third century and the first great textual critic. Born in Alexandria, the son of a Christian martyr, he was so precocious a student that at the age of eighteen he succeeded Clement of Alexandria as head of the catechetical school. The most prolific of writers, reputed author of six thousand works, he still devoted twenty years to a study of the Scriptures which resulted in his Hexapla, the first polyglot Bible, in which he arranged in six parallel columns the Hebrew Old Testament, his own Greek transliteration of it, the Septuagint, and three second-century Greek translations by Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus. Although in his youth he had emasculated himself in literal fulfillment of the supposed commandment of Christ in Matthew xix. 12, he was not a literalist in his general interpretation of the
[paragraph continues] Bible. The Scriptures, he held, should be read in three ways: as a record of facts, as a moral allegory, and as religious symbolism.
By the end of the third century, the danger that Christianity might abandon the Old Testament definitely passed. There had also by this time come to be accepted the nucleus of a canonical New Testament, consisting of the four Gospels and the Pauline Epistles. But the final status of the other New Testament works was still undetermined, as well as that of various Christian apocryphal writings. Out of a mass of early Christian "gospels" and "epistles," most of which were of little worth, several works possessed survival value, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement of Rome, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter. Two second-century works were also very highly esteemed: the Testament of Our Lord, which professed to be the very "testament or words which Our Lord spake to His Holy Apostles when He rose from the dead," and the Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of eight books ostensibly recording the words of the Apostles as written down by Clement of Alexandria. Popularly attributed to the Apostles also was the anonymous Apostles’ Creed, which in practically its later form already circulated during the second
century. This creed, however, did not attempt to define the precise relations between the Father and the Son, much less to explain the nature of the Trinity. Such creedal formulation, as well as the precise limitation of the canon, did not come until the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire accomplished a more definite unification of divergent tendencies and doctrines.
This occurred in the early part of the fourth century after Constantine the Great had been led to favor Christianity because, according to the accepted legend, Just before the decisive battle which made him emperor he saw in the sky a miraculous cross bearing the words in Greek, "By this, conquer." When Constantine chose Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, as the capital of the Empire, he presented the churches of the city with fifty magnificent copies of the Bible prepared at his expense.
A new heresy led to the formulation of a new creed. In Antioch the presbyter Lucian had been preaching strange doctrine, namely that Christ, since he had been created by the Father, could not be held equal to the Father. He was the first created of beings, created before all worlds, but he could not be considered coeternal with the Father without violating all logic. One of Lucian's pupils, the
presbyter Arius, taught the same doctrine in Alexandria where he was indignantly answered by another Alexandrian cleric, Athanasius. The bishop of Alexandria, after some hesitation, supported the latter, but Arius found an almost equally powerful adherent in another of Lucian's pupils, Eusebius, who had become bishop of Nicomedia. The quarrel spread from church to church; bishop anathematized bishop; the dispute at last became so scandalous that in 325 Constantine, in order to bring peace to the warring clergy, called the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in Asia Minor.
It was probably the most important gathering in the whole history of Christianity, for its decision would determine the official creed of the Christian Church for centuries to come. Arianism was a first faint beginning of what would today be called a Unitarian conception of Christianity; the Athanasians, on the other hand, were the stoutest of Trinitarians. The issue was decided neither by reason nor by the authority of the Scriptures, but by the relative strength of the contending parties. The Nicene Council resembled a truce between hostile armies rather than a peaceful convocation; both sides came armed, and physical conflict was narrowly averted; only when the Arians found
themselves decisively outnumbered did they accept a creed which anathematized their teachings.
The creed of 325 is popularly supposed to have been the Nicene Creed of later prayer books, but in reality it was merely an early and incomplete draft of that creed. It read:
"We believe in one God, the almighty Father, creator of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, born of the Father, only-begotten—that is, of the substance of the Father, true God from the true God, born, not made, homoousion—that is, with the substance of the same Father, through whom all things were made which are in heaven and on earth; who, for the sake of us men and for the sake of our salvation, descended, and was incarnated, and was made man, suffered, and arose again on the third day, ascended to heaven, whence he will come to judge the living and the dead; and in the Holy Ghost.
"However there are those who say: there was a time when he was not, and before he was born he was not, and that he was not created out of any substance, or who say that he was transformed from some other substance or essence—that is, that the Son of God is changeable or mutable—these
the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes."
Homoousion—"of one substance"—or homoiousion—"of like substance"—on this question of a single word the Christian Church was rent apart for many years. Although the Homoousians seemed to have won a definitive victory in the adoption of the creed of 325, following which Athanasius was made bishop of Alexandria, the Homoiousian Arians had given only a nominal submission. They intrigued successfully at court, another council was held at Tyre, Athanasius was deposed, and Arius returned to Alexandria in triumph. It was now the turn of the Athanasians to intrigue; a third council, two years later, held at Sardica, restored Athanasius to his diocese. Another two years, and he was again deposed. So the struggle went on, year after year. Five times Athanasius was driven into banishment, five times he was restored.
Meanwhile, the Arians, who were energetic missionaries, made many converts among the Northern barbarians. Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic, thereby making what is generally considered the first beginning of Teutonic literature. Believing that his converts were already sufficiently
warlike, he is said to have omitted the Book of the Kings from his translation lest it further increase their military ardor. It would have been well for the cause of peace had theological controversies also been eliminated in the process of converting the barbarians. Stammering their first Latin, the Goths became divided into Homoousians and Homoiousians, and the subtle words of a learned creed served as cause of battle in distant Gaul and Spain.
After fifty years of conflict, verbal and physical, the Athanasians emerged triumphant. The Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 adopted the Nicene Creed in its present form (with the exception of a single word, to be discussed later) and further declared this creed to be unamendable. Henceforward, the creed originated by Athanasius possessed an authority equal to that of the Bible itself; it had become a third Christian sacred scripture, brief but fully as potent as the Old and New Testaments.
The creedal triumph of Athanasius was accompanied by the acceptance of his personal canon of Biblical Scripture. Under the influence of Jerome and Augustine, the Athanasian canon was formally adopted by successive synods in A.D. 382, A.D. 393,
and A.D. 397. Thus it came about that the Bible contains the books which it now does.
The final acceptance of the canon was made certain, not only by the decision of the Church, but by the great Latin translation of Jerome (completed after fifteen years of labor in A.D. 405), which included none but the canonical books. An earlier anonymous translation of the Bible, known as the Old Latin translation, had been circulated since the second century, but with great divergence among the copies, particularly between the European and African versions of it. Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to make the necessary revision, which he did most thoroughly, retaining the Old Latin only for the Apocrypha and for the rest of the Old Testament going directly to the Hebrew text, though this unfortunately, as of course he could not know, actually represented a later version than that of the Septuagint on which the Old Latin had been based.
When the Vulgate, as Jerome's translation came to be called, was put before the people, it was bitterly attacked because of its alteration of familiar passages. Jerome was charged by his popular accusers, whom he contemptuously denominated "two-legged asses," with having impiously changed
the words used by the inspired writers of the Bible. It required a century and a half for his work to win general favor. But after that for a thousand years it was the only Bible known to western Europe.
In spite of the labors of Athanasius and Jerome, there still remained disputed points of dogma unmentioned in the creeds and unaffected by the canon. These questions were settled for orthodox Christianity by the master mind of Augustine, author of one of the most poignant of autobiographies, author of the most influential of all theological works, The City of God. In this last he gathered up and attempted to synthetize four centuries of Christian thought. With Paul he held to the dogma of predestination: that by Adam's fall the human race was corrupted so that men are born in a condition of original sin from which they can only be redeemed by God's grace operating usually through the ministrations of the Church. The harshness of this doctrine he tried to mitigate by holding with Origen that evil is mere privation of the good, thus introducing a hierarchy of relative goods wherein worldly possessions are regarded as legitimate so long as they do not turn the mind from higher things, marriage is still a sacrament
though celibacy is more blessed, and the State is beneficial as an earthly institution though the Church, concerned with spiritual things, is far higher, while highest of all is the Church within the Church, the City of God, composed of the Elect united in that love of God which is the supreme good. Thus Augustine found a place in his system for both the flesh and the spirit, the exoteric and the esoteric, worldly compromise and pure monasticism, in a system as broad and complex as was the Church for whose glory it was conceived.
One more heresy arose, indeed, even in Augustine's own time: that of the British monk, Pelagius, whose follower Coelestius, was condemned by the Synod of Carthage for holding "seven mortal errors," the most damnable of which were the assertions that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned, that the human race as a whole was unaffected by his sin, that unbaptized children might be saved, and that men were free to will the good without a special act of God's grace. The simple island monk's humanitarianism could make no headway against the subtle dialectic of Augustine, trained in the methods of the Greek philosophers.
Thenceforth for a thousand years there was little danger from individual heresy. The Church was in
possession of the Bible, clearly defined creed built upon it, and of a great mass of literature culminating in the work of Augustine which could be used to defend the Church's claims. It was well organized under its established system of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, centered in the twin seats of empire, Rome and Constantinople. Thus equipped and organized it would be able to survive even when the empire fell.
Nevertheless, internal unity had not been achieved. Impregnable as it had become against outside assaults or local rebellions, the Church still had two heads, and this was one too many. The long quarrel over the creed had expressed a struggle for power between East and West, the East being more liberal as it was less ecclesiasticized. Under the leadership of Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine, the West had won many battles, but the conflict was not ended. The further growth of the Church of Rome was destined to breed irreconcilable differences.
From the first, the Roman Catholic Church had claimed a priority based on the alleged martyrdom in Rome of Peter, the "Rock" on whom Jesus in Matthew xvi. 18–19, had said that he would build his church, giving to him "the keys of the kingdom
of heaven." As early as the second century Pope Victor I had threatened to excommunicate the Eastern churches if they did not accept the Roman date for Easter, a festival which had taken over the old pagan holidays in celebration of the Spring. In the Athanasian Creed reference is made to "the Catholic Faith" and "the Catholic Religion" rather than to the "Christian" faith or religion. After the fall of the Empire in 476 the Papacy secured control of the city of Rome with vast estates elsewhere in Italy, Sicily, and Africa. Politics and religion became inextricable in a church which thus enjoyed both spiritual and temporal power.
Meanwhile, over in Constantinople its Patriarch, who had secured the primacy among the churches of the East, watched the growth of his western rival with jealous eyes. The secret enmity between the two heirs of the Empire came to a head in the ninth century when Pope Nicholas I and the Patriarch Photius excommunicated each other. Officially, the quarrel was over the Nicene Creed. In the form of that creed used in the Roman Catholic Church the word filioque—"and from the Son"—had been added to the description of the Holy Spirit as "proceeding from the Father." Photius, the greatest scholar of the age, declared that this
addition, after the Council of Constantinople had declared the creed unamendable, was sufficient to convict the Roman Church of heresy. Boasting an Apostolic origin older than that of the Church of Rome, the Greek Church became "The Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Oriental Church" in opposition to "The Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Roman Church," each denying to the other the right to any of these titles save the geographic one.
Thus Christianity moved into the Middle Ages divided. But the Greek Church was early hampered by the growth of Mohammedanism, and aside from its extension into Russia had all that it could do to maintain itself at home. The Christianization of western Europe was to be accomplished by the Roman Catholic Church alone. Centralized and authoritarian as this body had become, without these qualities it could hardly have succeeded in its mission.