Early Church History

The first recorded separation of the Christian Church occurred in A.D. 251.  Novatian, bishop at Carthage (near the location of the present day city of Tunis) in North Africa, insisted that members who had renounced Christ during the persecution of Diocletian could no longer be recognized as members of the Church of Christ.  He was the first to use the term Cathar,.  A network of small affiliated congregations spread through Western Europe, Asia Minor and Africa.  Members of these churches were called Cathari (pure ones) and members of the larger body Catholics (universal).  Anyone who transferred from the Catholic churches had to be rebaptized.  Novatian is believed to have been martyred about 258 during the persecution of Valerian.

In A.D. 313 Donatus became bishop of the non-Catholic church in Carthage.  He believed they were the true church and required all new members to be baptized, including those who had been baptized in the Catholic Church.  He rebuked thr Catholic bishop for handing over Scriptures during persecution.  Donatus lived until 355, and when the Emperor Constantine supported the Catholic Church, Donatus asked the question “What has the Emperor to do with the church?”  In 394 AD there were 310 Donatist bishops.

Most historians consider Novatian and Donatus and the churches they led to be unrelated historical events.  Those known in later eras as Paulicians, Bogomils, Albigenses, Waldensians and Mennonites are also considered to be unconnected.  By and large, these names have been given by their opponents in the state churches, who have also lumped groups of varying doctrines together under one label, in order to condemn the pure Christians with the errors of others who had in truth departed from the true faith.  It must be remembered that church history has generally written by the persecutors, who endeavoured to destroy all the writings of those they persecuted.

Constantine’s purported conversion and ensuing military victory took place in 312.  As he ruled the whole empire from Rome, he also favoured the bishop of Rome as the supreme head of the Catholic church.  Thus began the Roman Catholic Church and all the familiar pretensions of the papacy.

Augustine of Hippo became a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in 396 and devoted his life to developing a theology to counter the influence of the pure church.  Among the doctrines formulated by Augustine are the following:
– the predestination and perseverance of the ‘fixed number of the elect’,
– the true church is invisible (no man can discern who is truly among the elect),
– the church is a mixture of wheat and tares,
– mankind is absolutely incapable of doing any good,
– the church believes for the Christians,
– grace is received through the sacraments,
– therefore babies must not be deprived of the grace provided by baptism,
– corruption of the priest does not affect the validity of the sacraments,
– coercion of dissident Christians is an act of loving correction.

During the Reformation of the 1500’s, the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglicans all carried Augustine’s doctrines over into the new churches.  Calvin further developed these doctrines into a form of predestination that makes grace almost impersonal, it affects whatever it touches almost mechanically.

Information for this summary is taken from Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, © 1977.

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