Church Education Trust



The Third Century

The Church in North Africa.

The story of Christianity in North Africa is one of the most remarkable in Church History. It grew to prominence early in the third century; its church life was characterised by warmth and zeal; it produced three great men, Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine, whose lives and writings have exercised a very great influence on the Church in the West; then it fell under the barbarian invasion from the fifth century onwards.

Finally it came under the power of Islam and has been barren and sterile ever since. The Roman province of Africa and Mauretania extended over what is now Tunis, Tripoli, Algeria and part of Morocco. The city of Carthage was a great centre of African Christianity. Roman civilisation and institutions were deeply rooted, intellectual life was vigorous and Latin was the chief language.


Tertullian was the first great Latin writer of the Western Church. Born in Carthage of pagan parents between 155 and 160, he was brought up as a cultured pagan and trained as a lawyer. He was a man of brilliant ability and wide reading. Converted in 192, he was well equipped to defend the faith against heresies and exercised considerable influence upon the Church in formulating and defining its theology.

He wrote a great number of works and over 30 treatises of his have come down to us. Tertullian's Apology, addressed to the Proconsul of Africa in 197 A.D. was perhaps the ablest of all that were written. It was a fierce protest against the tendency of Roman officials to blame the Christians for all disasters and an impassioned appeal for justice.

He wrote of the Christians' loyalty to the Emperor and their prayers for him and the Empire and dwelt on the truth of Christianity itself. Faith, he said, was in harmony with man's true nature and deepest needs.

In his "De Praescriptione", Tertullian deals with heresy. He lays down as his primary principle that the interpretation of the Scriptures must be related to faith. Men could adduce texts to support any heresy; but only those who possessed the rule of faith handed down from the Apostles and from Christ Himself could correctly interpret them.

He appealed to the unanimity of all the churches founded by the Apostles as to the true interpretation of the Scriptures, mentioning churches such as those at Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica and Rome. In his later years Tertullian forsook the Catholic Church and became leader of a group of Montanists at Carthage. He died about 220-225.


Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., became one of the largest cities in the world and next in importance after Rome. With a population of perhaps 23 millions, it had a restless intellectual community, its culture was Greek, there was a large Jewish population, and the Philosophies of Platonism, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism all influenced the minds of the people.In this city a catechetical school was established for the training of Christian teachers, and a number of outstanding men were its leaders.

The school was established because it was felt that the Church must face up to the world of learning around it. It took a broader view of heathen religions and philosophies than the church in North Africa and appreciated the elements of value in them. It taught science, mathematics and philosophy as well as religion, but its main preoccupatuon was with theology.

Its first recorded head was Pantaeaus, of whom nothing certain is known and he was followed about 180 or 190 A.D. by Clement. Clement believed that there was value in heathen philosophy and that all true learning was given by God to lead men to the Holy Scriptures, where we have the final revelation of Himself.

He regarded the Christian revelation as of a higher order than any of the partial truths of philosophers. Clement was driven from Alexandria in 202 in the fierce persecution under the Emperor Septimius Severus. He died in 220 in Caesarea. He was succeeded at Alexandria by Origen.

ORIGEN: (185 - 254)

Origen was the greatest scholar and thinker and the most brilliant teacher and writer in the Christian Church in the early centuries. His father, Leonidas, was martyred at Alexandria in 202 and Origen was eager to follow him to martyrdom. But in the following year, when only 18, he was appointed head of the Catechetical School.

In spite of persecution, he raised the school to its highest fame, and established a reputation for learning, sanctity and spiritual power. A keen ascetic, he fasted, refused wine and all delicate food, and slept on the bare floor. He worked prodigiously and was said by Jerome to have produced more books than any other man could read in a lifetime.

He had a very deep love of the Scriptures and showed remarkable skill in interpreting them. He produced commentaries on all the books of the Bible, and in his Hexapla wrote out the Old Testament in six parallel columns, the Hebrew text, the same in Greek characters, and LXX and three other Greek versions.

One of his most remarkable works was the "De Principiis" ("On First Principles"), which was the first work on systematic theology. In Oriegen's time it was necessary to reply to the heretical views about the nature of the Godhead being put forward by various schools of thought and to define the orthodox position.

Origen set himself to defend the teaching of the Church that Christ was truly God, that He had a personality distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit, and yet was one with Them. Origen also made a brilliant defence of the Christian faith in his work "Against Celsus";  Celsus had made a literary attack on the faith in his work "The True Word" and Origen replied to it point by point.

While believing in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Origen erred in the direction of excessive allegorical interpretation and the development of speculative theories. From 215 - 219 Origen was at Caesarea, where he established another centre of learning; then he returned to Alexandria. In 230 he was deposed from the headship of the school by Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria and he returned to Caesarea, where he continued to write and teach for another 20 years. Finally, after suffering considerably in the Decian persecution, he died at Tyre.


The Church of Rome has an unbroken line of tradition going back to the middle of the first century A.D., but its origin and early history is obscure. Its early bishops were not men of note and it took no prominent part in the affairs of the Church universal in early times, but from the beginning it was noted for the devotion of its members and their loyalty to the apostolic faith.

By the third century the Church of Rome had become prominent among the churches; its bishops had already begun to use the title of 'pope'. It was a large and well-organised community, and both Irenaeus and Tertullian commented on its soundness in the faith.

During the second century two opposing parties developed in the Church of Rome: the Catholic party, desirous of extending the Church's membership and excluding nobody who was willing to acknowledge official authority; and thePuritan party, favouring a smaller community, fully orthodox and adopting a strictattitude toward those who offended.

The dispute came to a head in the third century in the quarrel between Callistus, the leader of the Catholic party, and Hippolytus, the leader of the Puritan party. The latter strongly attacked the rulers of the Roman church and eventually broke away in protest against laxity of morals and discipline and formed a separate congregation. Persecution ended the controversy and both the Bishops Pontianus and Hippolytus were sent into exile: in exile the two bishops were reconciled and Hippolytus urged his followers to rejoin the church.


Hippolytus was a man of great learning and fervid personality and was a prolific writer. He wrote many commentaries, including one on the book of Daniel and a treatise on the Antichrist. His chief work was the "Refutation of all Heresies", in which he attacks the Gnostic systems and various Christian heresies. He lays great stress on the importance of interpreting Scripture as a whole, not by the use of isolated texts. He demonstrates the doctrine of Trinity in Unity from the Old Testament as well as the New.


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