Thus far I have focused our studies in historic Christianity on the spread of the gospel in the first few centuries. These main figures and leaders are known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers, ‘ante’ meaning ‘before’ identifying this earliest period of the post Apostolic church before the council of Nicaea (325). As we move on to the fourth and fifth centuries we come into the period of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. The fourth century witnessed many important things in the growth of the church; the end of organized persecution for the faith, the recognition of Christianity as a State religion, the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the unity of the faith experienced at Nicaea and the protection against false teaching. All these factors, mixed with courageous leaders and teachers, combined to cause a huge explosion in the spread of the gospel.
Previously the new way of the Christian faith had been centered around trade routes, shipping ports and major cities. The largest cities in the Empire were Alexandria in Egypt, Carthage in North Africa and Antioch in Syria. By the mid fourth century, however, Christianity was no longer confined to large cities but was now spreading across the countryside into outlying villages and hamlets, filling in the spaces between.
The background to this period includes Diocletian, he was the Emperor from 284-305, he was famous for dividing the Empire into four and delegating to four generals, two were his sons, they were called the Tetrarchy, or rule of four. Constantine, son of Diocletian, was one of these generals and he ruled in the West. Diocletian abdicated in 305 due to sickness and debilitation, from this point the Tetrarchy began to fall apart as they each fought for supreme power. The civil wars of the Tetrarchy ran from 306-324 until Constantine consolidated all rule.
In 313 Constantine and another of the Tetrarchy, Licinius, made a treaty at Milan. Licinius married Constantine’s half sister and they combined forces against Maximinus in the East. At the same time as the wedding, Constantine and Licinius signed a declaration of religious toleration for the Christians, this was a political decision against Maximinus, who still had Christians arrested and held in prison. This is known as the Edict of Milan, and marks a turning point in the history of the church and the end of organized state persecution. It was not unitil 324, however, after Constantine had consolidated all rule, when all persecution would cease. 325 was also the year of the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of Church leaders from all over the Empire to form an agreement of Trinitarian doctrine and address disputes in the church.
Those known as the post-Nicene Fathers, after the council of Nicaea, include leaders up to Augustine, who died in 430, mid fifth century he is seen as the end of this era in early Christian history. From the sixth century on is generally recognized as the beginning of the Medieval period, which would last until the Renaissance of the fourteenth century. For the next several Tuesdays I will highlight a different key figure, or event, from the fourth and fifth centuries, concluding this series with Augustine.
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