Church Education Trust



The Fourth Century


This persecution was the longest and severest attempt of pagan Rome to stamp out Christianity. It was the result of the influence of Galerius on Diocletian. These two rulers spent the winter of 302 - 303 in Nicomedia. Galerius was influenced by his mother, who was jealous of the Empress and other ladies at court who favoured Christianity, and also by the pagan priests, who were bitterly hostile b the Christians. Further, he disliked the growing wealth and influence of Christians.

The persecution began suddenly on February 23rdt 303. The Praetorian Guard broke open the principal church in Nicomedia, burnt all copies of the Scriptures and destroyed the building. Next day the first imperial edict was issued for the suppression of Christianity. This and subsequent edicts were as follows:-

1st Edict:

(a) Churches to be destroyed and Church property to be confiscated.
(b) Copies of the Scriptures to be surrendered and burnt.
(c) Christians in official positions to be degraded.

2nd Edict:

Clergy to be arrested.

3rd: Edict:

Everyone to be compelled to offer sacrifice to the state gods.

4th Edict:

Profession of Christianity forbidden on pain of death.

In the West the persecution lasted for barely three years and there was little persecution at all in the territories administered by Constantius. But in the East it raged for ten years. In 305 Diocletian and Maximian both resigned and were succeeded by Galerius and Constantius.

Maximinus Daza and Severus were appointed Caesars by Galeriust who overlooked the sons of Constantius and Maximian. But Constantius summoned his son, Constantine, to him and they proceeded to Britain. There Constantius died in 306, naming his son as his successor. The legions acclaimed Constantine as the new Augustus. Galerius was compelled to acknowledge him, but only as Caesar; he appointed Severus as Augustus.

But in Italy Maxentius, the son of the retired Maximian, was proclaimed Emperor. In 307 Maxentius and his father captured Severus and put him to death and proclaimed themselves and Constantine Augusti. In 310 Maximian, who had quarrelled with Maxentius, was put to death for intrigue. In the East, Galerius, who had appointed Licinius as Augustus, died in 311.

In 312 Constantine invaded Italy and advanced to meet Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. Eusebius tells us that some time before the battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine saw a vision of a cross of light in the sky bearing an inscription in Greek, "In this conquer." After this he had a dream in which Christ appeared to him with the same sign of a cross, which He commanded him to use as a standard of victory.

With this new sign the legions of Constantine marched to defeat Maxentius, who was drowned in the subsequent retreat. Whether or not Eusebiust account is correct, Constantine certainly regarded himself from this time onward as a believer in the God of the Christian.

Meanwhile in the East, persecution had been revived by Maximinus after the death of Galerius, but it ended with the death of Maximinus in 313. In this year, the Edict of Milan was issued by Constantine and Licinius, proclaiming liberty to all to worship to their choice; churches were to be restored at the expense of the State.

Thus Christianity finally triumphed in its long struggle with the emperors of Rome; persecution had made its last and fiercest bid to destroy the faith and had failed. Many perished in the persecution; others were maimed and blinded. But their sufferings were not in vain. Two outstanding cases of conversion through the example shown by the martyrs were those of Arnobius and Lactantius.

Anobius a Professor of rhetoric was noted for his devotion to pagan religion and his attacks on Christianity. When he applied for baptism the Church was so astonished that he had to write a book in defence of Christianity before he was accepted.

Licinius continued as Emperor in the East until 323. Toward the end of this period some further persecution took place, but a quarrel arose between the Emperors and Constantine defeated Licinius, who died soon after, and became the sole Emperor.


There is little doubt that Constantine was geniune in his acceptance of the Christian faith. It is unjust to say that he had no higher motive than to use the church as an engine of government. But he did not immediately commit himself fully to the faith; he withdrew only partially from heathen practices at first and it was not till the year of his death (337) that he was baptised.

He still retained the title of Pontifex Maximus and his medals still bore the images of the gods. Nevertheless he began to introduce legislation which eventually produced a new constitution, replacing several heathen practices by those more consistent with Christian principles. In 315 he abolished crucifixion and breaking of the legs. He exempted the lands of the clergy from taxation.

He enacted a law ordering children whose parents were too poor to support them to be maintained at the public expense. In 316 he gave permission for the emancipation of slaves in churches. In 319 he prohibited private sacrifices and magic, In 321 he ordered the general observance of Sunday as a holiday throught his dominions. In the later part of his reign he built a new Christian capital at Byzantium and named it Constantinople.

Constantine encouraged his subjects to become Christians, but applied no compulsion; all had equal privileges. The results of Constantine's policy, however, were not wholly good. The patronage of the Emperor led many to enter the Church from insincere motives and with no real Christian convictions. People flocked into the Church with a resultant increase of worldliness and lowering of standards.

It also led to the Emperor taking part in the internal affairs of the Church. This created a dangerous precedent resulting in the interference of later emperors in the affairs of the Church, Church officials were given unaccustomed honours and this tended to make some of them worldly and ambitious.


This arose in Egypt about 306, and took its name from its leaders Meletius, a bishop in the south of the country. Like Novatian after the Decian persecution, Meletius and his followers took a severe line toward those who had failed in the persecution and broke off from the church to begin a schismatic movement which lasted for a century.


The Donatist Schism was a parallel movement which began in Africa in 305. The Donatists opposed all leniency to those who had failed in the persecution. In particular, they were opposed to the archdeacon Caecilian, who was suspected of having surrendered sacred books to the officials. When he was elected bishop of Carthage in 312, they objected to his appointment and appealed to Constantine.

Three Gallic bishops were summoned to Rome and fifteen from Italy. The bishop of Rome presided over the council and it was decided that there was no case against Caecilian. The Donatists then made a fresh appeal to Constantine and in 314 he called a council at Aries (in Gaul). It was attended by 23 western bishops, including three from Britain (London, York and Lincoln).

The council acquitted Caecilian of the charges made against him. The Donatists then withdrew from Caecilian's communion and in the following year appointed Donatus as their bishop. They regarded themselves as the only true church and all others as apostates. In 316, Constantine tried to suppress the Donatists by force, but without success. About the middle of the century the emperor Constans tried to reconcile the Christians of Africa.

He then tried force and finally sent Donatus and the leading bishops of the schism into exile, but they were restored by the emperor Julian. The movement continued till the 7th century, when African Christianity was extinguished by the Moslems.


The Arian Heresy precipitated a struggle in the Church which lasted for half a century. It was started In 318 in Alexandria by a presbyter named Arius, who accused his bishop, Alexander, of teaching Sabellianism. But it was Arius himself who was teaching false doctrine. His doctrine was that Jesus was pre-existent but not eternal; if He was the Son of God, there must have been a time when God was but the Son was not.

The Son was created out of what was previously non-existent. This teaching meant that Christ was neither God nor man; He was an intermediate Being between God and man. Furthermore he regarded God the Father as being remote from the world, separated by an impassable gulf and unknowable to man.

Arius was deposed from office in 321, but he had sufficient friends to gain support and put his case before them in terms that were not easy to refute. To many of those who flocked into the Church during this period because it was fashionable to do so, the Arian Christ was easier to accept than the Christ of the New Testament and less demanding on character and conduct. The dispute was referred to Constantine who finally called a council to settle the issue.


The Council was held at Nicaea, in north-west Asia Minor and was the first ecumenical council to be held, representatives being invited to attend from all parts of the world. It is said to have been attended by 318 bishops, nearly all from the East. But the man who made the greatest impact on the Council was the Alexandrian deacon Athanasius, defender of the orthodox position.

Arius himself was supported by Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia. Between these two parties was the majority of the Council, represented by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (the historian), ready to condemn Arius, but, being uncertain of their theology, somewhat inclined toward a modified form of Arianism. The creed proposed by Eusebiuis of Nicomedia found scarcely any support.

Eusebius of Caesarea then brought forth his creed; this was not acceptable to the anti-Arians, but was used as a basis for a new creed. In this it was decided to use the word 'homoousios' to describe the relationship between God the Son and God the Father; the word means 'of the same essence' with the Father. All signed the revised Creed except two, who were banished to Illyria together with Arius himself.

The council also dealt with the Meletian schism and the date of Easter. It was decided that Easter should be observed by the whole Church on the same day, the Sunday after the first full moon after March 21st; the Bishop of Alexandria was commissioned to send out each year a 'Paschal letter' notifying the right day.


The forty years following the Council of Nicaea is one of the less glorious periods of Church History; but it is brightened by the consistent witness of the one outstanding defender of the faith, Athanasius. The Council of Nicaea did not destroy Arianism. It was not long before Eusebius of Nicomedia was allowed to return from exile and through his intrigues at court Arius himself was reconciled to the Emperor two years after his banishment and the sentence of exile was revoked.

Eusebius then turned his attention to Athanasiust who in 328 was appointed bishop of Alexandria. A number of accusations were made against him but the Emperor dismissed them. In 335 the attack was renewed and further charges were made. Finally Athanasius was accused of having threatened to stop the corn-ships sailing from Alexandria to Rome.

Constantine then banished him to Gaul. But no new appointment was made to the bishopric of Alexandria. An attempt was then made to readmit Arius to communion at Alexandria, but it failed. Arius returned to Constantinople, where he died in 336.

In 337 Constantine died and the Empire was again divided, being shared out among his three sons. Constantine II ruled all the territory to the west of the Alps, Constantus ruled Egypt and the East and Constans Italy and Africa. Constantine II insisted on the recall of Athanasius and he returned to Alexandria.

The Arians renewed their charges against him, but he was supported by Constantine and the churches of Egypt and a council in Egypt in 338 acquitted him of all charges. But Constantius was under the influence of the Arian intriguers and they succeeded in forcing a new bishop on Alexandria by imperial authority alone.

Athanasius fled to Rome and remained in exile there for seven years (339 - 346). Meanwhile the Arians continued to press their attacks upon the Catholic position and in 341 a council at Antioch, attended by 97 bishops, none of them from the West, was persuaded by the Arians to confirm that Athanasius was lawfully deposed and that it was illegal for him to return.

In 343 a council was held at Sardica in Thrace (modern Sofia, in Bulgaria), attended by 170 bishops, 100 being from the West. Athanasius was present and the bishops from the East, objecting to his presence withdrew, held an opposition synod and excommunicated Athanasius.

The Council of Sardica, however, acquitted him and confirmed the Nicene Creed. Thus the East and the West were now opposed to each other over Athanasius. The Emperor Constans eventually prevailed on his brother to recall Athanasius and he was again welcomed back by his loyal supporters in Alexandria in 346. Following the death of Constans, Constantius became sole Emperor in 353. 

A new campaign was now launched against Athanasius by the Arians. In two councils held in 353 and 355 he was condemned on a new set of charges and in 356 an official was sent to eject him. Athanasius fled to the deserts of Egypt and remained in hiding until Constantius died. After further conflicts the Arians succeeded in having a creed adopted which stated that the Son was "like" the Father and repudiated all other creeds, including the Nicene. This Arian creed remained the official creed in the East for twenty years.

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