We are currently looking at Christian apologetic writings from the 4th century AD. In our last article we saw that the 4th century for Christians exploded into an all-out attempt by the Roman Empire to destroy Christianity. Christian bishop and historian Eusebius of Caesarea lived through the Great Persecution and wrote about it in his well-known Church History.
The persecution came to an end in 313 AD with the Edict of Milan. Emperors Constantine I (Western Empire) and Licinius (Eastern Empire) agreed to allow all people in the Empire to worship the deity of their choice. Christians received their legal rights back and were allowed to own property and organize local church assemblies.
Keep in mind that thousands of Christians died during the Great Persecution – many of them leaders of local churches. What followed the Edict of Milan was the process of Christianity finding its way in a new world that did not include persecution, but did face other strong challenges.
[Podcast version available at the end of this post.]
One of the challenges Christians faced after the Edict of Milan was how to deal with what happened to them during the Great Persecution and how to unify again as the Church. While thousands of Christians were arrested, tortured and killed during the persecution, thousands more either offered sacrifices to pagan gods or obtained a certificate that said they had sacrificed. That certificate is called a libellus. You can see one of the many libellus that have been found in archaeological sites by clicking here.
Christians who did not sacrifice to pagan gods returned to positions of Church leadership in many cities in the Roman Empire. How would they deal with Christians who had failed in their stand against sacrificing to gods?
Christians who “lapsed” in their Christian faith and “relapsed” into paganism by sacrificing to pagan idols (sacrificati) were called lapsi. Why was this a problem to Christians who had not “lapsed” (known as confessors)? One answer might be seen as physical/emotional; the other as spiritual.
From the physical/emotional perspective many Christians were arrested, jailed, and tortured. Some died. Many of the “confessors” who lived were physically and emotionally scarred for life from the imprisonment and torture. They lost their personal property, along with jobs and businesses.
The lapsi were not arrested and were allowed to keep their property, jobs and businesses. They did not have personal and emotional scars from the persecution because they had sacrificed to pagan gods and denied Christ. Some of the lapsi had gone even further than that and given Roman authorities the names of other Christians, many of whom were arrested, tortured and killed. Those who turned on their Christian brothers and sisters were known as traditores (traitors). Many also turned over Christian texts to the Roman authorities who destroyed them.
How could Christians who had suffered so much for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods – attend church and have fellowship and communion with lapsi and traditores who they viewed as “apostates?” Many Christians didn’t believe they could or should forgive the “lapsed” and “traitors” for what they had done.
That leads us to the spiritual problem facing Christianity after the Edict of Milan. In Matthew 10, Jesus said these words –
“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 10:32-33
The Apostle Paul wrote –
“This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. He cannot deny Himself.” 2 Timothy 2:11-12
The Apostle Peter wrote –
“But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed.” 2 Peter 2:1-2
Many Christians believed the lapsi had done just that – they had denied Christ before men. Those who had not denied Christ by sacrificing to idols believed Jesus would deny the lapsi before God the Father. That was enough for many Christians to believe the lapsi and traditores could not be forgiven and received back into Christian fellowship and communion.
History of Responding to Lapsi
This issue had been addressed earlier in the history of the Church during the reign of Emperor Decius when he issued a decree that commanded everyone in the Empire to sacrifice to the pagan gods and the emperor. Anyone who complied received a libellus. Those who refused could be arrested and tortured. Some died.
Christians were divided about what to do about the lapsi more than 50 years earlier during the mid-3rd century. Novatian of Rome believed the lapsi should be not be allowed back into Christian fellowship and communion because they had forfeited God’s grace by denying Christ. Cyprian of Carthage believed the lapsi should be received back into fellowship and communion after a period of probation and penance (known as penitents).
Though Novatian died decades before the Edict of Milan, his followers continued to strongly object to lapsi from being received back into Christian fellowship and communion. Novatianism, as it was known, continued to oppose receiving lapsi back into the Church. Eusebius made note of it in his Church History –
“For with good reason do we feel hatred toward Novatian, who has sundered the Church and drawn some of the brethren into impiety and blasphemy, and has introduced impious teaching concerning God, and has calumniated our most compassionate Lord Jesus Christ as unmerciful. And besides all this he rejects the holy baptism, and overturns the faith and confession which precede it, and entirely banishes from them the Holy Ghost, if indeed there was any hope that he would remain or return to them.”
Eusebius also addressed the issue of unity in the Church after the Edict of Milan –
“1. But know now, my brethren, that all the churches throughout the East and beyond, which formerly were divided, have become united. And all the bishops everywhere are of one mind, and rejoice greatly in the peace which has come beyond expectation. Thus Demetrianus in Antioch, Theoctistus in Cæsarea, Mazabanes in Ælia, Marinus in Tyre (Alexander having fallen asleep), Heliodorus in Laodicea (Thelymidres being dead), Helenus in Tarsus, and all the churches of Cilicia, Firmilianus, and all Cappadocia. I have named only the more illustrious bishops, that I may not make my epistle too long and my words too burdensome.
2. And all Syria, and Arabia to which you send help when needed, and whither you have just written, Mesopotamia, Pontus, Bithynia, and in short all everywhere are rejoicing and glorifying God for the unanimity and brotherly love.’ Thus far Dionysius.
3. But Stephen, having filled his office two years, was succeeded by Xystus. Dionysius wrote him a second epistle on baptism, in which he shows him at the same time the opinion and judgment of Stephen and the other bishops, and speaks in this manner of Stephen:
4. ‘He therefore had written previously concerning Helenus and Firmilianus, and all those in Cilicia and Cappadocia and Galatia and the neighboring nations, saying that he would not commune with them for this same cause; namely, that they re-baptized heretics. But consider the importance of the matter.
5. For truly in the largest synods of the bishops, as I learn, decrees have been passed on this subject, that those coming over from heresies should be instructed, and then should be washed and cleansed from the filth of the old and impure leaven. And I wrote entreating him concerning all these things.’ Further on he says:
6. ‘I wrote also, at first in few words, recently in many, to our beloved fellow-presbyters, Dionysius and Philemon, who formerly had held the same opinion as Stephen, and had written to me on the same matters.’ So much in regard to the above-mentioned controversy.” Church History, Book VII, Chapter V
Eusebius became bishop of Caesarea soon after the Edict of Milan. Within a few years he was involved in one of the most dangerous heresies of the 4th century.
We will look into that in the next part of A Reading Plan for Christian Apologists.