The term "Great Church" (Latin : ecclesia magna) is a term of the historiography of early Christianity describing its rapid growth and structural development 180–313 AD (around the time of the Ante-Nicene Period) and its claim to represent Christianity within the Roman Empire. The term is primarily associated with the Roman Catholic account of the history of Christian theology, but is also used by non-Catholic historians.
Terminology is the study of terms and their use. Terms are words and compound words or multi-word expressions that in specific contexts are given specific meanings—these may deviate from the meanings the same words have in other contexts and in everyday language. Terminology is a discipline that studies, among other things, the development of such terms and their interrelationships within a specialized domain. Terminology differs from lexicography, as it involves the study of concepts, conceptual systems and their labels (terms), whereas lexicography studies words and their meanings.
Early Christianity covers the period from its origins until the First Council of Nicaea (325). This period is typically divided into the Apostolic Age and the Ante-Nicene Period.
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of ancient Rome, consisting of large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean sea in Europe, North Africa and West Asia ruled by emperors. From the accession of Caesar Augustus to the military anarchy of the third century, it was a principate with Italy as metropole of the provinces and its city of Rome as sole capital. The Roman Empire was then ruled by multiple emperors and divided into a Western Roman Empire, based in Milan and later Ravenna, and an Eastern Roman Empire, based in Nicomedia and later Constantinople. Rome remained the nominal capital of both parts until 476 AD, when it sent the imperial insignia to Constantinople following the capture of Ravenna by the barbarians of Odoacer and the subsequent deposition of Romulus Augustus. The fall of the Western Roman Empire to Germanic kings, along with the hellenization of the Eastern Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire, is conventionally used to mark the end of Ancient Rome and the beginning of the Middle Ages.
The "epoch of the Great Church" is counted as beginning around the end of the second century when, despite the persecution of Christians, the religion became established numerically and organizationally,eventually becoming the state church of the Roman Empire in 380. However, the Church of East and Oriental Orthodoxy parted ways at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, both due to Christological differences.
The persecution of Christians can be historically traced from the first century of the Christian era to the present day. Early Christians were persecuted for their faith at the hands of both the Jews from whose religion Christianity arose and the Romans who controlled many of the lands across which early Christianity was spread. Early in the fourth century, a form of the religion was legalized by the Edict of Milan, and it eventually became the State church of the Roman Empire.
With the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the Empire's state religion. The Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Catholic Church each claim to stand in continuity with the church to which Theodosius granted recognition, but do not look on it as specific to the Roman Empire.
Oriental Orthodoxy is the communion of Christian churches that adheres to Miaphysite Christology and theology, with 60 to 70 million members worldwide. As one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, it has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Armenia, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and parts of the Middle East and India. An Eastern Christian communion of autocephalous churches, its bishops are equal by virtue of episcopal ordination, and its doctrines can be summarized in that the communion recognizes the validity of only the first three ecumenical councils.
In contrast, in modern Catholic usage, the "Great Church" broadly means the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic" unity of the Catholic Church (Latin Church) - continuing in authority from the apostles to today - and all bishops who remained in fellowship with the Pope.
The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with approximately 1.3 billion baptised Catholics worldwide as of 2017. As the world's oldest and largest continuously functioning international institution, it has played a prominent role in the history and development of Western civilisation. The church is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the pope. Its central administration, the Holy See, is in the Vatican City, an enclave within the city of Rome in Italy.
A number of Christian denominations assert that they alone represent the one true church – the church to which Jesus gave his authority in the Great Commission. The Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox communion and the Assyrian Church of the East each understands itself as the one and only original church. The claim to the title of the "one true church" relates to the first of the Four Marks of the Church mentioned in the Nicene Creed: "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church". The concept of schism somewhat moderates the competing claims between some churches – one can potentially repair schism. For example, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches each regard the other as schismatic rather than heretical.
Apostolic succession is the method whereby the ministry of the Christian Church is held to be derived from the apostles by a continuous succession, which has usually been associated with a claim that the succession is through a series of bishops. This series was seen originally as that of the bishops of a particular see founded by one or more of the apostles. According to historian Justo L. González, apostolic succession is generally understood today as meaning a series of bishops, regardless of see, each consecrated by other bishops, themselves consecrated similarly in a succession going back to the apostles. According to the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, "apostolic succession" means more than a mere transmission of powers. It is succession in a Church which witnesses to the apostolic faith, in communion with the other Churches, witnesses of the same apostolic faith. The "see (cathedra) plays an important role in inserting the bishop into the heart of ecclesial apostolicity", but, once ordained, the bishop becomes in his Church the guarantor of apostolicity and becomes a successor of the apostles.
The sees of Rome and Constantinople, both applying the Chalcedonian Definition, remained in full communion throughout the First seven ecumenical councils (325–787) and until the East–West Schism (1054).
An episcopal see is, in the usual meaning of the phrase, the area of a bishop's ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
The Holy See, also called the See of Rome, refers to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, known as the pope, which includes the apostolic episcopal see of the Diocese of Rome with universal ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the worldwide Catholic Church, as well as a sovereign entity of international law.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is one of the fourteen to sixteen autocephalous churches that together compose the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is headed by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople.
Cunningham, and separately, Kugel and Greer state that Irenaeus's statement in Against Heresies Chapter X 1–2 (written c. 180 AD) is the first recorded reference to the "Great Church" as the existence of a worldwide Christian church with a core set of shared beliefs. Irenaeus states:
James L. Kugel is Professor Emeritus in the Bible Department at Bar Ilan University in Israel and the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University.
Irenaeus was a Greek bishop noted for his role in guiding and expanding Christian communities in what is now the south of France and, more widely, for the development of Christian theology by combating heresy and defining orthodoxy. Originating from Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey, he had seen and heard the preaching of Polycarp, the last known living connection with the Apostles, who in turn was said to have heard John the Evangelist.
Circa – frequently abbreviated ca., or ca and less frequently c.,circ. or cca. – signifies "approximately" in several European languages and as a loanword in English, usually in reference to a date. Circa is widely used in historical writing when the dates of events are not accurately known.
The Church, though dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: ... As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. ... For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the son, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Cunningham states that two points in Irenaeus' writing deserve attention. First, that Irenaeus distinguished the Church singular from "the churches" plural, and more importantly, Irenaeus holds that only in the larger singular Church does one find the truth handed down by the apostles of Christ.
At the beginning of the 3rd century the Great Church that Irenaeus and Celsus had referred to had spread across a significant portion of the world, with most of its members living in cities (see early centers of Christianity). AD, there were 20 bishops in all of Persia, while at approximately the same time, surrounding areas of Rome had over 60 bishops. But the Great Church of the 3rd century was not monolithic, consisting of a network of churches connected across cultural zones by lines of communication which at times included personal relationships.The growth was less than uniform across the world. The Chronicle of Arbela stated that in 225
The Great Church grew in the 2nd century and entered the 3rd century mainly in two empires: the Roman and the Persian, with the network of bishops usually acting as the cohesive element across cultural zones.In 313, the Edict of Milan ended the persecution of Christians, and by 380 the Great Church had gathered enough followers to become the State church of the Roman Empire by virtue of the Edict of Thessalonica.
Justin Martyr (100–165) wrote (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 30 and Adv. Marcionem, 4.4) that when Marcion was excommunicated from the fellowship of the "Great Church" in 144 AD, he had to return the funds he had gathered.
Towards the end of the 2nd century, Irenaeus wrote about the heretical office holders in the "Great Church".In Contra Celsum 5.61 Church Father Origen mentions Celsus' late 2nd century use of the terms "church of the multitudes" or "great church" to refer to the emerging consensus traditions among Christians at the time, as Christianity was taking shape.
In the 4th century, as Saint Augustine commented on Psalm XXII, he interpreted the term to mean the whole world, writing: "The great Church, Brethren, what is it? Is a scanty portion of the earth the great Church? The great Church means the whole world."Augustine continued to expound on how various churches all considered themselves "the great Church," but that only the whole world could be seen as the great Church.
The epoch of the Great Church witnessed the development of key theological concepts which now form the fabric of the religious beliefs of the large majority of Christians.
Relying on Scripture, prevailing mysticism and popular piety, Irenaeus formalized some of the attributes of God, writing in Against Heresies Book IV, Chapter 19: "His greatness lacks nothing, but contains all things."Irenaeus also referred to the early use of the "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" formula which appeared as part of Christian Creeds, writing in Against Heresies (Book I Chapter X):
The Church ... believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit.
Around 213 AD in Adversus Praxeas (chapter 3) Tertullian provided a formal representation of the concept of the Trinity, i.e., that God exists as one "substance" but three "Persons": The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Tertullian also discussed how the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 and later the First Council of Constantinople in 381 then formalized these elements.
In 451, all the bishops of the Great Church were ordered to attend the Council of Chalcedon to discuss theological issues that had emerged.This turned out to be a turning point at which the Western and Eastern churches parted ways based on seemingly small Christological differences, and began the fracturing of the claim to the term Great Church by both sides.
Official Catholic publications, and other writers, sometimes consider that the concept of the "Great Church" can be found already in the Epistles of Paul, such as in "This is my rule in all the churches" (1 Corinthians 7:17) and in the Apostolic Fathers such as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.Exegesis has even located the ecclesia magna in the Latin Vulgate translations of the "great congregation" (kahal rab) of the Hebrew Bible. This interpretation was also offered by Pope Benedict XVI, and by Martin Luther.
Dennis Minns (2010) considers that the concept of a "Great Church" was developed by polemical heresiologists such as Irenaeus.The presentation of early Christian unity and orthodoxy (see Proto-orthodox Christianity), and counter presentation of groups such as those sects labelled "Gnostic", by early heresiologists such as Irenaeus is questioned by modern historians.
Roger E. Olson (1999) uses the term to refer to the Great Church at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451) when the Patriarch of Constantinople and Bishop of Rome were in fellowship with each other.
The term is contrasted with Jewish Christians who came to be more and more clearly separated from the Great Church.Wilhelm Schneemelcher and others writing on New Testament Apocrypha distinguish writings as being sectarian or from the Great Church.
Gabriele Waste (2005) is among German scholars using similar references, where the "Große Kirche" ("Great Church") is defined as "Ecclesia ex gentibus" (Church of the Gentiles) in comparison to the "Ecclesia ex circumcisione" (Church of the Circumcision).
In the anglophone world, Bruce J. Malina (1976) contrasted what he calls "Christian Judaism" (usually termed "Jewish Christianity") with "the historically perceived orthodox Christianity that undergirds the ideology of the emergent Great Church."
In francophone scholarship, the term Grande Église (French: Ecclesia magna) has also been equated with the "more hellenized" as opposed to "Judaizing" sections of the early church,and the Bar Kokhba revolt is seen as a definitive stage in the separation between Judaism and the Christianity of the "Grande Église". Those stressing this binary view of early Christianity include Simon Claude Mimouni and François Blanchetière.
Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures of Judaism, called the Old Testament in Christianity, and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with over 2.4 billion followers.
Polycarp was a 2nd-century Christian bishop of Smyrna. According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp he died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to consume his body. Polycarp is regarded as a saint and Church Father in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. His name 'Polycarp' means 'much fruit' in Greek.
Ebionites is a patristic term referring to a Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era. They regarded Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and his virgin birth and insisted on the necessity of following Jewish law and rites. They used only one of the Jewish–Christian gospels, the Hebrew Book of Matthew starting at chapter three; revered James, the brother of Jesus ; and rejected Paul the Apostle as an apostate from the Law. Their name suggests that they placed a special value on voluntary poverty. Ebionim was one of the terms used by the sect at Qumran who sought to separate themselves from the corruption of the Temple. Many believe that the Qumran sectarians were Essenes.
Marcion of Sinope was an important figure in early Christianity. Marcion preached that the god who sent Jesus into the world was a different, higher deity than the creator god of Judaism. He considered himself a follower of Paul the Apostle, who he believed to have been the only true apostle of Jesus Christ.
The Christian Church, also called the holy catholic church, is a Protestant ecclesiological concept of a church invisible comprising all Christians. In this understanding, "Christian Church" or "catholic church" does not refer to a particular Christian denomination but to the "body" of all "believers", both defined in various ways. Other Christian traditions believe that these terms apply only to a specific concrete Christian institution, such as the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, or the Assyrian Church of the East; or to a group of institutions, as in the branch theory taught by some Anglicans.
Cerinthus was an early gnostic Christian, who was prominent as a heresiarch in the view of the early Church Fathers. Contrary to the Church Fathers, he used the Gospel of Cerinthus, and denied that the Supreme God made the physical world. In Cerinthus' interpretation, the Christ descended upon Jesus at baptism and guided him in ministry and the performing of miracles, but left him at the crucifixion. Similarly to the Ebionites, he maintained that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but was a mere man, the biological son of Mary and Joseph.
An apostolic see is an episcopal see whose foundation is attributed to one or more of the apostles of Jesus or to one of their close associates. In Catholicism the phrase, with "the" and usually capitalized, refers to the See of Rome.
The Apostolic Fathers were core Christian theologians among the Church Fathers who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, who are believed to have personally known some of the Twelve Apostles, or to have been significantly influenced by them. Their writings, though popular in Early Christianity, were not included in the canon of the New Testament. Many of the writings derive from the same time period and geographical location as other works of early Christian literature which came to be part of the New Testament. Some of the writings found among the Apostolic Fathers appear to have been highly regarded as some of the writings which became the New Testament.
Pauline Christianity or Pauline theology is the theology and Christianity which developed from the beliefs and doctrines espoused by Paul the Apostle through his writings. Paul's beliefs were strongly rooted in the earliest Jewish Christianity, but deviated from some of this Jewish Christianity in their emphasis on inclusion of the gentiles into God's New Covenant, and his rejection of circumcision as an unnecessary token of upholding the Law.
In Christian theology, ecclesiology is the study of the Christian Church, the origins of Christianity, its relationship to Jesus, its role in salvation, its polity, its discipline, its destiny, and its leadership.
Papal primacy, also known as the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, is an ecclesiastical doctrine concerning the respect and authority that is due to the Pope from other bishops and their Episcopal sees.
Heresy in Christianity denotes the formal denial or doubt of a core doctrine of the Christian faith as defined by one or more of the Christian churches.
The history of early Christianity covers the Apostolic Age and the Ante-Nicene Period, to the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.
The Ante-Nicene Period of the history of early Christianity was the period following the Apostolic Age of the 1st century down to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. During this period proto-orthodoxy developed.
Christianity in the 1st century covers the formative history of Christianity, from the start Jesus' ministry and death until the last living of the Twelve Apostles. The latter period subsequent to Jesus death, resurrection and Great Commission, according to Christian tradition, is sometimes distinguished as the Apostolic Age, when the apostles spread the message of the Gospel to all nations and founded apostolic sees around the Early centers of Christianity.
Christianity in the 2nd century was largely the time of the development of variant Christian teachings, and the Apostolic Fathers who are regarded as defenders of the developing proto-orthodoxy. Major figures who were later declared by the developing proto-orthodoxy to be heretics were Marcion, Valentinius, and Montanus.
Early Christianity spread from the Eastern Mediterranean throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Originally, this progression was closely connected to already established Jewish centers in the Holy Land and the Jewish diaspora. The first followers of Christianity were Jews or proselytes, commonly referred to as Jewish Christians and God-fearers.
Historiography of early Christianity is the study of historical writings about early Christianity. Historians have used a variety of sources and methods in exploring and describing the history of early Christianity, commonly known as Christianity before the First Council of Nicaea in 326.
The Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers, Christian Fathers, or Fathers of the Church were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers. There is no definitive list. The era of these scholars who set the theological and scholarly foundations of Christianity largely ended by AD 700.