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Controversy and Councils in Late Antiquity
In the decades following the death of Jesus, Christians were forced to situate their beliefs and practices in the context of the wider religious landscape of the Roman Empire. The persecution of Christians and the emergence of apologetical literature to explain and to justify Christian belief and practice is a central component of the first three hundred years of Christianity. In the voice of Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-254) who defends Christianity in his work, Contra Celsum: "If we observe how powerful the gospel has become in a very few years, despite the persecution and the torture, the deatrh and the confiscation, despite the small number of preachers, the word has been proclaimed throughout the earth. Greeks and barbarians, wise and foolish, have joined the religion of Jesus. We cannot doubt that this goes beyond human powers, for Jesus taught with authority and the persuasion necessary for the word to be established." (Origen, On First Principles, IV, 1, 2) Indeed, there was some accuracy to Origen's words. In his day, there were Christians 'throughout the earth'-that is, throughout his world of the Roman Empire. Christians were most numerous in Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine (the East); as well, there were concentrations of Christians in central Italy, southern Spain, and Africa. There were Christians in Illyricum and in Gaul. Outside of the Roman Empire, there were Christians in Edessa; there is evidence of Christians in the Persian Empire as well.
Despite persecution, the numbers of Christians had increased since the death of Jesus. Christians were not persecuted continually for three centuries. As Henry Chadwick writes: "The sporadic nature of persecution, which often depended on local attitudes, and the fact that before the third century the government did not take Christianity seriously, gave the Church breathing space to expand and to deal with critical internal problems." (Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, 31)
What were some of these internal problems? The unity of this church was threatened by arguments between groups with different answers to fundamental questions like: What was the true interpretation of the Old and New Testaments? Who now occupied the teaching authority of the apostles and could give clear guidance to beliebvers? Where could one find reliable evidence of what the apostles taught? Who was Jesus? How was he Savior? Who had the authority to determine the answers to these questions, to determine right belief and practice, in his absence?
Competition between competing views peaked in the beginning of the fourth-century. It was at this time that the Ecumenical (empire-wide) Church Council, theoretically composed of bishops throughout the entire Roman Empire, became the authoritative body for determining orthodox (right) Christian belief and practice.
Five ecumenical councils can be placed during the period of Late Antiquity. The names of these councils, their date, the principle controvery addressed, and the link to an article by Bill East discussing the council in detail are included below:
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