5.7 The Commonwealth
Christians came to Britain from as early as 200AD. Some were traders and others were Roman soldiers. The first British martyr was Alban. He was a soldier who was converted after caring for a priest who was being persecuted. He later allowed the priest to escape and was killed himself. The traditional date of his death was thought to be about 304AD, in the time of the persecution under Diocletian, but recent research puts the date at 209 in the time of the Emperor Severus.
Although Augustine was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, a Celtic church had been in existence before Augustine arrived, and bishops from the church in Britain were present at the Council of Arles in 314.
In Ireland, especially, a strong intellectual life had been developing in monasteries. Patrick was sent as a missionary, probably from Britain, to Ireland in the early 5th century. This church which was outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire had developed in a different way to the western church and its strength was in the scattered monasteries that could be found in all the tribal centres. In the century or so after the Romans left Britain around 410, and the Anglo-Saxons held power, Irish missionaries took the gospel to Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Europe.
Thus a church which was mainly Celtic in culture and origin developed in Britain without the help of the church of Rome.
In 306, Constantius I, the Emperor of the Western part of the Roman Empire, died at York, in Britain. His son, Constantine, was proclaimed Emperor by the Roman army in Britain, and became Emperor of the European and British part of the Empire. In 312 he defeated his rival in the West, Maxentius, and became sole Emperor of the western part of the Roman Empire. He attributed this victory to the Christian God and made his soldiers wear the Chi Rho symbol on their shields. He and Licinius, the Emperor in the East, proclaimed toleration for both Christians and pagans. Constantine defeated Licinius in 324 and became sole Emperor of the whole empire.
Arianism and the Trinity
A dispute in Alexandria soon drew in the Emperor. This dispute arose because of a teacher in Alexandria called Arius. He tried to state a Christian doctrine of God in a way that Platonists could understand. He started with the idea that the supreme God is one and that therefore Christ could not be eternal in the same way as God. His saying was, “There was when he was not.” Christ was not equal to the Father and had been created by the Father out of nothing, even though he was the highest of all God’s creatures.
Many in Alexandria supported him, but not bishop Alexander. A council of bishops in Egypt condemned his teaching, so he appealed for help to his friend Eusebius the bishop of Nicomedia. The Emperor Constantine tried to stop this debate dividing the church and so causing trouble in the empire. He planned to call a Council of the church to Ancyra but the opponents of Arius called a meeting first at Antioch to choose a new bishop for that city and to condemn the teachings of Arius. The Emperor was angry and called a Council at which he would preside – at Nicea, near his headquarters in Nicomedia.
At the Council in Nicea in 325 Constantine (probably at the suggestion of Bishop Hosius of Cordova) proposed the clause, that the Son was “of one substance” (homoousios) with the Father. The decision of the Council became the basis of the Nicene Creed which is a creed used by both the Western and Eastern churches. Although Arius was defeated, the teaching of Arianism did not die. Some of the Eastern bishops thought that homoousios was too much like the mistaken Monarchian teaching (the belief that stressed the unity of God, but denied the full divinity of the Son, and the Spirit).
Later a new Emperor, Theodosius, who did not agree with the Arians, called a Council in Constantinople in 381. The eventual outcome was to describe God as three hypostases (three persons) in one ousia (essence). Tertullian, a theologian from Carthage, had already suggested a Latin version: “three persons and one substance”.
This Council finalised the creed we call the Nicene Creed. Around the same time in the Western church the Apostles’ Creed was beginning to find its final shape (the Eastern church never used it).
The focus of theological debate then moved from Christ’s relationship with God to the relation of his human and divine natures.
One way to understand this debate is to see how different theologies developed in two of the major centres of the Eastern church, Antioch and Alexandria.
Alexandrians, following Origen, stressed the distinctness of the three persons of the Trinity. But they did not want to further stress a distinctness in the person of Christ. Apollinarianism and monophysitism were examples of this teaching taken too far. At Antioch they stressed the oneness of the Godhead and were much more ready to talk about two separate natures of Christ, human and divine, an idea the Alexandrians thought was heretical. Nestorianism was an extreme example of this kind of teaching.
A new Emperor called another Council, this time at Chalcedon, near Constantinople, in 451. At this Council the ideas of Leo, Bishop of Rome, were accepted. The extremes of both the Antiochenes and the Alexandrians were rejected. This Chalcedon definition has become the standard statement of orthodox belief in the Western church. Most of the Eastern church also accepted it, but some Eastern churches kept the teaching of Nestorius and set up centres in India, Persia and Arabia where their mission was highly successful – until the arrival of Islam.
You can read the Chalcedon Definition here.
A Latin Bible
In 382 Bishop Damasus, of Rome, persuaded his secretary Jerome to translate the whole bible into Latin. Just as Origen (185-254) had earlier produced a clear Greek text from a variety of sources, so Jerome edited a new Latin bible which became the bible for the western church for the next 1000 years. It is known as the Vulgate (meaning common).