Church Education Trust



The Second Century

The first 70 years of the second century is one of the most obscure periods in church history. Our information is derived from various sources of widely different character. The beginning of this period was a time of special danger; the apostles had now passed away; the church was faced with dangerous heresies; there was the ever-present danger of persecution; and there does not seem to have been leadership of quite the same quality as in the Apostolic Age.

The fact that the Church came through this period can only be explained with reference to the working of the Holy Spirit. Information as to the main features of the Church during this period has to be gleaned and inferred from various sources.

The Scriptures.

The Church had accepted the Old Testament as authoritative Scripture on the authority of the Lord Himself; it is important to remember this. By the end of the first century a number of other books were regarded as Scripture.

The Epistles. 

The Epistles of Paul were written during the period from 49 - 67 A.D. It is clear from II Peter 3:15 & 16 that his Epistles were already recognised as Scripture in Apostolic times, I Peter and I John were also recognised early as being divinely inspired.

The Gospels.

It seems reasonably certain that the four Gospels were in circulation early in the second century, as a collection of inspired records of the story of Jesus Christ.

Acts of the Apostles. 

The Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke as the sequel to his Gospel and would be accepted as of equal authority.

The Canon of the New Testament.

Although it seems clear that the Epistles of Paul were brought together into a collection of books by the end of the first century, and the four Gospels into another collection early in the second century, it was not until much later that all the books were collected into one volume to form a canon or authoritative list of sacred writings. In 367 Athanasius gives a list exactly agreeing with ours and this was confirmed by the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D.

Early Christian writtings.

1st Epistle of Clement:

Written from Rome to the Church at Corinth about 95 A.D.; interesting as being probably the earliest of the sub-apostolic writings. Written on the occasion of a quarrel which had arisen in the Corinthian Church, the letter is long and the writer, in deep earnestness, appeals to the Scriptures, quoting from both the Old Testament and New Testament writings. He alludes to the Neronian persecution and to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul.

2nd Epistle of Clement.

A sermon rather than a letter, probably written between 120 and 140. There are frequent quotations from the New Testament writings as well as from the Old Testament. Its purpose is to glorify Christ and to exhort the congregation to repentance.

The Epistle of Barnabas.

Written, possibly in the 2nd century, probably about 130; not a work of great value. The writer claimed that the Jews had misinterpreted the Old Testament ceremonial laws, but he himself presented a strange interpretation of them.

The Shepherd of Hermas.

Written between 140 and 150; rather a fanciful and imaginative book, but evidently popular. Its object was to encourage the maintenance of a high standard of living in a period when many Christians were tending to fall back to the standards of heathen society. The book is in three parts:-

  1. Hermas is convinced of sin, repents and is forgiy t; recorded in a series of five visions.
  2. Twelve commandments are given to Hernias by an angel in the form of a shepherd.
  3. Ten parables, developing more elaborately the thoughts contained in the first part.

The Didache.

The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the Nations; written probably in the early part of the 2nd century. It consists of two parts. The first is a moral treatise describing the two ways of life and death. The second gives instructions concerning baptism, fasting, prayer, the Eucharist and the treatment of apostles and prophets.


From the earliest times converts who wished to be baptised were required to testify to their faith. So long as converts were Jews, with Jewish background, it was sufficient to confess that "Jesus is Lord". Later, when Gentiles with pagan or heathen backgrounds were converted, it was evidently felt that a fuller expressbn of faith was needed. So a baptismal creed was developed.

The earliest Creed was known as the Apostles' Creed, the earliest form of which dates back to the early part of the second century, but it was not till much later that it assumed its full form, as used today.


This was simple, and based on the service of the synagogue. Its main elements were the reading of the Scriptures, an expository sermon and prayers. It was followed by the communion service. The Gospels and Epistles were in early use for public reading alongside the Scriptures of the Old Testament.


In the Apostolic Age the words 'bishop' and 'presbyter' were applied to the same person. In course of time it appears that one of these bishop-presbyters was appointed to act as president or chairman. At some time in the second century it became common practice for this leading figure to be known as the bishop of his church; this practice prevailed almost everywhere by the middle of the century. The institution of a single bishop with full authority over his church was strongly advocated early in the second century by Ignatius.


Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was sentenced by the emperor Trajan to be thrown to the lions and was martyred in Rome some time between 107 and 117. In the course of his journey from Antioch to Rome he despatched letters to seven different churches, including the Church at Rome.

The keynote of Ignatius' letters is unity, unity of ministry, of sacraments and of doctrine. In his letters the expression "the Catholic Church" occurs for the first time. He called for obedience to the bishop as the best means of maintaining unity. In doctrine Ignatius was in complete harmony with the New Testament.

He speaks of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth and the Atonement, and stresses the deity of Christ. He warned against the spirit of Schism, against Judaising and against heresy known as Docetism which was threatening the Church. His quotations from Scripture are sparing, but his writings reveal intimate acquaintance with the Epistles of Paul and St. John's Gospel.

PERSECUTION: Position of the Church in the Roman Empire.

TRAJAN 98 - 117A.D.  

Roman writers make unfavourable references to Christians and indicate that they were an unpopular class of people in the eyes of the Romans. Tacitus, in his account of the Neronian persecution, refers to them as "a class hated for their abominations". Nero evidently felt confident that no protest would be readily forth coming if he put the blame for the fire of Rome on the Christians.

The reasons for this attitude are these: Christianity was a new movement; it was not a national religion and had no official standings it had no idols or visible gods; there were social customs in which Christians refused to have any part; they refused to offer sacrifice or pay any respect to Roman gods and would have no part in the growing practice of emperor-worship.

The activities of Nero`s police forced the Christians to meet in private and this gave them the appearance of being a secret society. But there was no definite enactment against Christianity or expression of official policy until the reign of Trajan. During his reign Pliny, the governor of Eithynia, wrote to the Emperor and asked for guidance in dealing with Christians.

Trajan replied briefly that Christians should not be sought out and anonymous accusations were to be ignored. If accused and convicted, they were to be punished; if they recanted and offered sacrifice to Roman gods, they were to be acquitted. Although this rescript officially condemned Christianity as a crime, it nevertheless had the effect of checking official persecution.

HADRIAN 117-138 A.D.

Hadrian followed a similar policy to that of Trajan. In a letter addressed to Fundanus, proconsul of Asia, he discouraged popular clamour against Christians, and active persecution, insisting on definite evidence that the accused had broken the laws. Nevertheless, if a Christian were required to demonstrate his loyalty to the Emperor by offering incense or recognising his divinity and refused to do so, he was liable to the penalty of death.

From the time of Hadrian, onwards, for about a century and a half, the Christian Church occupied an anomalous legal position; officially it was an illegal religion and liable to extreme penalties. But for long periods the Church was left undisturbed and Christians occupied important positions in the state.

ANTONINUS 138-161 A.D.

Antoninus Pius followed the same policy as Hadrian. During his reign one of the most outstanding saints of the second century was martyred, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was a disciple of the Apostle John and would be about 30 when John died. A man of simple faith and deep devotion, he was much respected and admired.

When an old man he visited Bishop Anicetus of Rome to discuss the date of Easter. Incidentally, it is clear that he met the Bishop of Rome on equal terms. In 155, during an out break of anti-Christian activity in Asia, the mob shouted for Polycarp and he was brought into the arena. When required by the proconsul of Asia to revile Christ, he replied, "Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my Saviour and King?" Thereupon he was burnt at the stake.

MARCUS 161-181 A.D.

Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher with a reputation for a noble character, But his attitude toward the Christians was one of contempt and he encouraged rather than discouraged persecution. Early in his reign Justin Martyr met his death, together with several companions, at Rome.

When asked by the Prefect, Junius Rusticus, "Do you suppose that you will rise again, and live for ever?" Justin replied, "I do not suppose it, I know it." In 177 a particularly brutal persecution broke out in the Rhone valley, in southern Gaul. It began with an outbreak of mob violence, later supported by the local magistrates. 45 people suffered death, including Pothinus, Bishop of Lyons, who was 90 years old, and Ponticus, a boy of fourteen.

Outstanding among the sufferers was the slave-girl Blandina, who was frail of body and timid of spirit; day after day she was subjected to various kinds of torture, but steadfastly maintained her faith and refused to recant. No other persecution showed up the patience and devotion of Christian martyrs more effectively than this one.

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