How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 1 of 7: Fall of Rome

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

The Fall of Rome

5th Century

The Ruins of the Roman Empire

After the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christians were free to come out of hiding and organized public worship began. The church was organized in different cities. The Christian Church experienced the leadership of St. Jerome and St. Augustine. The first ecumenical council met in Nicea, (Turkey) in 325 A.D. and adopted a strong statement influenced by Athanasius that defeated the Arian heresy with explicit statements about the Trinity.  St. Jerome began collecting the Latin texts to organize the Vulgate Bible, which became the de facto Bible until it was adopted by the Council of Trent in the 16th century. and the prolific writings on faith and grace by Bishop Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) in the first quarter of the 5th century. Augustine’s the City of God.  Although historians record a line of church leaders, bishops or popes, dating back to Peter in 29 A.D., Pope Leo I is considered the first Pope of Rome who was supported by the local rulers outside of Rome in 440. A.D.  

The decline of Rome was slow but consistent.  It failed in multiple ways with the movement of populations from northern Europe, a declining in cultural values, loss of independent farms, deteriorating infrastructure, inflation and debt, and corruption. The Roman Church began to emerge as the leader and protector of the people. Churches were built as fortresses and monastic orders in the mountains protected church records and became safe places of opportunity for the youth.

As western Europe declined into chaos and fighting among feudal lords or kings, the Roman Catholic Church provided for both the physical and spiritual well-being of the people.  As the Eastern Roman Empire located in Constantinople and Asia Minor became a center for trade and political stability, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church divided on their teachings of the authority of the pope, importance of the Holy Spirit as coequal to God the Father and Jesus the Son of God, the historic dating of Easter, and the presence of statues in churches. These disagreements continued for centuries and eventually the Roman Catholic Church split into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The main theological differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic faith is that in the Eastern Orthodox Church the pope is considered a bishop and is not infallible, the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity but ‘does not proceed directly from the Father and the Son (Nicene Creed), Easter is dated on the Sunday closest to April 14, (although it can be celebrated on a date between April 4 and May 8) and icons (two-dimensional images) are used in place of statues (three-dimensional images). The Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church split into two separate institutions in 1054 A.D.

Why were there threats to the Christian faith in the first centuries of the Christian Church?

Why have the creeds of the Roman Catholic Church remained popular throughout world history?

Will church doctrine continue to be central to the beliefs of Christians in the 21st century?

Contact: hbitten@reverendluther.org

Link to Home Page for this Series

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