Peter and Paul after Antioch
Part 2: The Church Develops
By Arthur Wells
In part one of this series on Peter and Paul and the lessons of Antioch,
the relationship between the two men and their individual special
callings were considered. There was also a brief account of New
Testament chronology. This part considers only a very little of the
development of the Christian Church over the centuries. This is a
life-time study and a little more can be found on the website at
Councils through History and
Vatican II – The Historical Context .
The Apostolic and sub-Apostolic Periods
Both Peter and Paul were highly significant in promoting the teachings of their Master. As the only real theologian of the apostolic group, Paul developed a fuller expression of Jesus’ teaching and there is a body of opinion that Christianity may have taken a different form without the preaching and letters of Paul. The early disciples were all pious Jews, although it took Paul, the most learned of them to appreciate that Jesus’ message was also and essentially to the wider world. It must be remembered also that all the followers of “The Way” – later called Christians - were expecting the imminent return of Christ and the Last Judgement. This is reflected in Peter’s address to the crowds after Pentecost (Acts of the Apostles) and affected Paul’s teachings in particular and his views on marriage and sex. To speculate: we know virtually nothing of Peter’s wife, except that he had a wife. Peter left Palestine to preach as his master instructed. It is conjecture that he may have expected to be reunited with her soon at the Lord’s imminent return.
Many other early developments which have shaped 2000 years of Christianity were an accident of the time in which Christ was born, somewhere between 6 BC and 4 BC when the Roman Empire was still powerful – mainly ringing the Mediterranean... Christianity is a Middle-Eastern religion and it must not be forgotten that, like Jesus, the early Christians were Jews: “From the first, the Church was deeply conscious of its solidarity with Israel, and of the continuity of God’s action in the past with his present activity in Jesus of Nazareth and in his followers.” (Henry Chadwick, ref. a.; p.12)
The early Churches
After the Crucifixion and Resurrection (30 AD) the mother Church was in Jerusalem, with the Apostle James at its head. The Faith spread rapidly northwards and eastwards from Judaea and the majority of the missionary activity and the establishment of primitive churches developed into the largely Mediterranean territory of the Roman Empire. Paul seemed pre-eminent in founding churches, which were thought of as a family of churches. However, scholars seem agreed that aside from the New Testament, the first 150 years of Christian history is largely unrecorded and much is uncertain. This is important to recall as historians indicate initially the organisation was not standardised. Aspects of current organisational structures and practices would bemuse many Christians in the first millennium.
As the centre of empire Rome was a magnet for trade, immigration, and religious groups. It is known that some dozen synagogues flourished in Rome from the earlier Jewish Diaspora before the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Alongside them Christian communities were also certainly in Rome before Peter and Paul arrived. Tradition is strong that Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome. It is hardly possible to doubt that tradition, but scholars say it lacks full historical certainty.
The Church and Constantine
In 313 AD with the Edict of Milan, Constantine declared freedom of religion and (virtually on his deathbed) became a Christian. One result of Christianity becoming the state religion was the beneficial potential for rapid spread of the Faith within the Empire. (See also Vatican II Basics in Councils through History especially the paragraph Constantine the Great.) Among other potential and actual grave disadvantages was that the newly established state Church took on many secular aspects of empire, which it has not yet shed. Currently it seems to embrace teachings which Jesus could scarcely recognise, while at the same time inveighing against secularism. One crucial element of Vatican II was that the fathers drew attention to this and (in the Council constitutions and decrees), together with Paul VI, corrected the situation. However, the powerful residue of empire in the Vatican has not yet implemented many key Council teachings. Free expression of reasonable opinion on unsettled questions is inhibited in the Catholic Church and it is appropriate to reflect on these important problems shortly after the Feast of SS Peter and Paul.
The centuries between Constantine (d. 337) and Vatican II (1962-65)
A vital record of doctrinal and historical developments in the Church is contained in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Ed. Norman Tanner SJ, 1990, Sheed & Ward, London/Georgetown University Press, Washington). Prof. Tanner’s books also include The Councils of the Church – a Short History (2001, Crossroad Publishing, New York. Slim and an easy read)
A longer and equally invaluable “History of the Popes”: Saints and Sinners (Eamon Duffy; Yale Press 1997) uses valuable headings for eras in the Church which say much about attitudes regarding Bishops of Rome and aspects of political and religious developments over some 2,000 years:
- “Upon this Rock” c.33 – 461
- Between two Empires 461-1000
- Set Above Nations 1000 -1447
- Protest and Division 1447 - 1774
- The Pope and The People 1774 - 1903
- The Oracles of God 1903 - 1997
More of the centuries delineated by Duffy can be found on this website in Vatican II Basics which contains Councils through History and Vatican II – The Historical Context. In brief, this context shows that Vatican I (1869-70) left the ecclesiology of the Church unbalanced. Vatican II (1962-65) corrected the imbalance by recovering from apostolic and earlier times, the true function of each bishop. Their election and/or their appointment has varied over the centuries, but in the opinion of Prof. Nicholas Lash it has never before been so centralised and so controlled by Rome. Antioch is not our only court of appeal, as the debates in the Council demonstrate. However, what parallels or lessons can be garnered from Antioch to Vatican II and since will be considered in autumn/fall 2009.