We were discussing in our previous article the idea of the sacrament as entertained by the early Church Fathers during the first three centuries of the Church of God in the new dispensation, and we were about to quote from Cyprian to show that this Church Father used the term “sacrament,” with respect to prayer and the Trinity. This quotation now follows from his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “And in discharging the duties of prayer, we find that the three children with Daniel, being strong in faith and victorious in captivity, observed the third, sixth, and ninth hours, as it were, for a sacrament of the Trinity, which in the last times had to be manifested. For both the first hour in its progress to the third shows forth the consummated number of the Trinity, and also the fourth proceeding to the sixth declares another Trinity; and when from the seventh to the ninth is completed, the perfect Trinity is numbered every three hours, which spaces of hours the worshippers of God in times past having spiritually decided on, made use of for determined and lawful times for prayer. And subsequently was manifested, that these things were of old sacraments, in that anciently righteous men prayed in this manner. For upon the disciples at the third hour the Holy Spirit descended who fulfilled the grace of the Lord’s promise. Moreover, at the sixth hour, Peter, going up unto the house top, was instructed as well by the sign as by the word of God admonishing him to receive all of the grace of salvation, whereas he was previously doubtful of the receiving of the Gentiles to baptism. And from the sixth hour to the ninth, the Lord, being crucified, washed away our sins by His blood; and that He might redeem and quicken us, He then accomplished His victory by His passion. But for us; beloved brethren, besides the hours of prayer observed of old, both the times and the sacraments have now increased in number. For we must also pray in the morning, that the Lord’s resurrection may be celebrated by morning prayer.”—end of quote. It appears from this quotation that the early Church Father, Cyprian, used the words: sacrament and mystery, not only with respect to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but to the Trinity, the Lord’s Prayer, religion, etc. And this applies to the other Church Fathers also.
Views Concerning the Church and the Sacraments During the Second Period (300-750 A.D.): The Church
External growth characteristic of the Church during this period.
Having concluded our discussion of the history of the doctrine of the Church and the Sacraments during the first three centuries of the Church of God in the new dispensation, we now proceed to discuss the history of this doctrine as it was developed in the second period of the Church, during the years, 300-750.
This period, to which we now will call attention, is a period of tremendous significance for the Church of God. It follows upon what is known in Church History as “The Heroic Age,” embracing the first three centuries of the new dispensation and characterized by several terrible and bloody persecutions of the Church of God and cause of Christ in the midst of the world. Many of us are more or less familiar with this bloody period of the Church of God. Desperately the devil attempted to destroy the Church of Christ in the midst of the world, and we are reminded of this trying period in a passage such as Rev. 12:12-17, and we quote: “Therefore rejoice, ye heavens; and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman which brought forth the man child. And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent. And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away of the flood. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth. And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.”—end of quote. The Roman Empire put faith countless and relentless efforts to obliterate the name of Christ and His Church from under heaven. And the Church of the living God was compelled to hold fast that which it has in order that no man might take its crown.—see Rev. 3:11. These persecutions, however, came to an end in the years, 311 and 313. The wicked world had spent and exhausted itself in its wicked but utterly foolish and vain attempt to destroy the cause of the living God. Besides, the beginning of this age is highlighted by the reign of Constantine the Great to whom we will call attention presently somewhat in detail.
This period of the Church, we have already observed, is a period of tremendous significance for the Church of the living God. Having successfully withstood the onslaught of the forces of hell from without, the Church was now compelled to battle for its life against the attacks of the forces of evil from within. And this latter type of warfare is fully as difficult for the Church of God as to resist the forces of evil from without. The period of rest and tranquility which set in the years, 311-313, also gave the enemies of the truth an opportunity to operate within the Church and to undermine the very foundations of the Church of God. From 325 to 451 A.D. several ecumenical (world-wide) church councils were held, beginning with what is generally regarded as the most important of all Church councils, the Council of Nicaea, in the year 325. It was during this period that the Church of God experienced the Arian and Semi-Arian controversies. Arius denied the Godhead of the Christ. The Church, however, repudiated this heresy, established the Scriptural truth of the Trinity, declaring that the three persons, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, are coeternal and coequal. Later, in 451, the Church declared itself on the union of the two natures in the one divine person of the Son. We need not at this time call attention to these several controversies in detail, although I am sure that we realize that it is exactly during these early centuries of the new dispensation that the groundwork was laid for the development of the truth throughout the ages.
The external development of the Church in power and glory can never be divorced from the reign of one of the most famous of all emperors, Constantine the Great, and from the famous Edict of Milan in the year, 313. Two years prior to this Edict of Milan Emperor Galerius had called a halt to the persecutions of the Christians. The years, 303-311, had witnessed what is regarded as the severest and most diabolical of all persecutions, the persecution under the emperors, Diocletian and Galerius. The tortures which were inflicted upon the Christians during this persecution were so gruesome, we are informed, that it is not fit to describe them. Church buildings were ruthlessly destroyed. Bibles were burned. These persecutions far surpassed, in the number of Christians who were tortured and martyred in unbelievable cruelty, anything the Christians had been compelled to suffer until this time. Indeed, these persecutions were a fanatic and desperate attempt by the forces of darkness and of hell to uproot the cause of Christ and Christianity and completely wipe the Church of God from off the face of the earth. An outstanding Christian who died a martyr’s death during these persecutions was Cyprian to whom we have referred repeatedly in past articles. Origin also died as the result of tortures inflicted upon him during this time. This last great imperial (under the decree and direction of the emperors) persecution under Diocletian and Galerius, which was aimed at the complete uprooting of the new religion, ended with the Edict of Toleration of 311 and the tragical ruin of the persecutors. Diocletian had withdrawn himself from the throne in 305, and in 313 put an end to this embittered life, by suicide. In his retirement he found more pleasure in raising cabbage than he found in ruling the empire, a confession which we may readily believe to be’ true (President Lincoln had said once during the Civil War that he would gladly exchange his position, with that of any common soldier in the tented field). Emperor Galerius became ill and suffered unspeakable torments, reminding us of what the Scriptures inform us concerning Herod in Acts 12:21-23. His body, we are informed, swelled by an intemperate course of life to an unwieldy corpulence, was covered with ulcers and devoured by innumerable swarms of those insects which have given their name to a most loathsome disease. From his sickbed, which became his deathbed, he issued in the year, 311, an edict which granted to the Christians permission to hold their assemblies again. He asked for their prayers in behalf of the emperor and the Empire. This edict of Galerius was not a complete victory for the Church of God. It was merely a half-hearted toleration. However, it was nevertheless an involuntary and irresistible concession of the incurable impotence and powerlessness of heathenism and of the indestructible power of Christianity. This must be a self-evident fact. Humanly speaking, what chances of survival did the cause of Christ have when it was launched by the resurrected and glorified Christ in the midst of the heathen world? What chance of survival did the Church of God have over against the mighty heathen world-powers of that time? Indeed, the odds were overwhelmingly and hopelessly against the Church of the living God. The powers of darkness had at their disposal all the power and might and glory of this present world whereas the Church of the living God was the picture of utter helplessness. It is surely true that the wisdom of this world was made folly and the power of this world weakness by the alone living God. For some three centuries the powers of hell had waged relentless persecutions against the Church and the cause of Christ. Heathendom had finally exhausted its strength and spent its fury. Scripture had once more been vindicated that the gates of hell will not overwhelm the Church of God. The Church of God is indestructible because it is the work of God. The powers of darkness can kill the body but not the soul. God’s work continues throughout the ages. This Edict of 311 was followed, two years later, by an edict issued by Constantine the Great, and called the Edict of Milan. However, we will call attention to this Constantine the Great and his Edict of Milan in a subsequent article.