Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Fourth Century
The Century of the Church Fathers

With Constantine ends the "Age of Martyrdom" and begins the period of the great Fathers of the Church.

The Church Fathers

For the Church to bestow the title of "Doctor "on any of her members she requires:

  1. That he should be learned in all matters concerning religion.
  2. He must be eminently holy.
  3. The title must be confirmed by the Pope or a general Council.

The term Father was in early times given to all bishops, but later it came to mean only those writers whose works were of sound doctrine and of great value in the Church, and who had led holy lives.

Greek Fathers.

  • St. Athanasius,
  • St. Basil,
  • St. Gregory Nazianzen,
  • St. John Chrysostom.

Latin Fathers.

  • St. Ambrose,
  • St. Augustine,
  • St. Jerome,
  • St. Gregory the Great (sixth century).

St. Athanasius, the ablest opponent of Arianism, was born in Alexandria in 296. When he was thirty years of age he was consecrated Bishop of Alexandria, and the history of his episcopate is told in the history of his controversies with the Arians, and his sufferings endured in defense of the Nicene Creed—five times he was exiled from his see.

St. Basil the Great was born at Caesarea in 330. His name, Basilius, signifies royal, and truly princely was he in mind and heart. He was a bulwark against the Arians, and at the same time a hero of Christian charity and a mine of sacred knowledge. He drew up the first code of rules for religious life.

St. Gregory Nazianzen, the friend of St. Basil, was born about the year 330. The theater of his triumphs was Constantinople, which he purged of error with irresistible power and success. He closed his long, active life in holy solitude.

St. John Chrysostom, the "Golden-mouthed," was born at Antioch about 344. He was distinguished as an expounder of Holy Scripture. His invectives against the vices of the imperial court caused his banishment from Constantinople.

St. Ambrose, the "Athanasius of the West," was born about 344. When the See of Milan became vacant in 374, Ambrose, though yet a Catechumen, was elected by both Catholics and Arians as their bishop. He protected the property of the Church against the Arian empress, Justina, and was equally firm in his dealings with the Emperor Theodosius. This emperor had ordered a massacre of seven thousand of the inhabitants of Thessalonica. In punishment of this conduct, St. Ambrose refused to admit Theodosius into the Church until he had done full penance. The hymn Te Deum is attributed to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, whom he converted.

St. Augustine, born in the year 354, was one of the most remarkable men of all time. Although he received a Christian education from his mother, St. Monica, he fell into sin and heresy. He was converted by the soul-stirring words of St. Ambrose. In the year 395 Augustine was made Bishop of Hippo, in Africa, and by his numerous and invaluable writings, by the apostolic discharge of his duty, and by the holiness of his life, he became the adviser and friend of all Christian writers of his time.

St. Jerome was born in 331. He prepared himself by travel, and by the austerities of an eremitical life for the duties of his high calling. Pope Damasus entrusted to him the translation of the Holy Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. This translation is known as the Latin Vulgate. His learned works constitute some of the choicest treasures of the Church.

St. Gregory the Great was born in 540. On his accession to the Chair of St. Peter, in 590, he found Italy in a deplorable condition. He labored with wonderful zeal and success to uproot heresy, to heal schism, and to revive religious fervor among the Christians. He sent missionaries to England, which resulted in the conversion of the country. He was a true reformer of Church discipline, and is the father of a plain chant called after him "Gregorian Chant."

Other Church Fathers are:

  • St. Ephrem of Syria, Priest of Edessa.
  • St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the Catechist, who wrote twenty-three catechisms.
  • St. Cyril of Alexandria, the principal adversary of Nestorius.
  • St. Leo I, Pope, opponent of Eutyches.
  • St. Epiphanius, Archbishop of Salamis, compiler of the first history of the heresies.
  • St. Gregory of Nyssa, champion of the Church against Arianism.
  • St. John Damascene, the last of the Church Fathers in the East.
  • St. Hilary of Poitiers, who saved France from Arianism.

Triumph of Christianity

It was by the conversion of Constantine to Christianity that God restored peace to the Church after three centuries of persecution. The imperial crown was disputed with this prince by Maxentius, who had made himself master of Rome. Constantine was approaching the city to give him battle. While encamped close to the Milvian Bridge, awaiting the final struggle which was to decide the supremacy of the Western Empire, Constantine saw in the heavens at midday a cross of light with the words, "In this sign thou shalt conquer." Our Savior appeared to him the following night and commanded him to use as his standard in war the symbol, promising that it would be the pledge of victory. Constantine did as he was commanded. He had a standard constructed, known in history as the $$Labarum##, which was destined to displace the Roman Eagle.

This standard consisted of an upright lance, with a transverse beam at its upper extremity. From this beam hung a banner, beautifully decorated with gold; the monogram of Christ was worked on the banner.

Under this standard Constantine marched to victory. Twelve years later, 324, another war broke out, which ended in the death of the Eastern Emperor, Licinius. Thus Constantine became sole Ruler of the Roman Empire, and openly proclaimed himself a Christian.

Constantine favored Christianity by: LIST Putting an end to all persecution. Granting great privileges to Christians and restoring their churches. Forbidding death by crucifixion out of respect for our Lord. Commanding the observance of Sunday. Bestowing the Lateran Palace on the Pope.

He helped Pope Sylvester I to assemble the first Council of Nicaea, 325. The correctness of views held by Constantine on the relation between Church and State may be inferred from his remarks at this Council. "God has placed you as leaders of the Church," he said; "me He has appointed merely to protect and defend its temporal part."

According to Eusebius, Constantine was baptized only a few days before his death at' Nicomedia; but the Roman local tradition is that he was baptized at the Lateran by Pope Sylvester, about 312.

The Heresies of the Fourth Century

The Heresy of Arius.
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity had been assailed in the third century by Paul of Samosata and the African Priest Sabellius. But in the fourth century Arius, an apostate priest, taught that God the Son is not equal in all perfections to God the Father; that He is not co-eternal with the Father, but is created by Him as first and chief among creatures. God raised up in the person of St. Athanasius a formidable adversary of this heresiarch, whose errors were condemned in the General Council of Nicaea, 325. However, owing to the hypocrisy of its teachers and to the influence of the imperial court which had banished St. Athanasius, Arianism spread over a large part of Christendom.

The Heresy of Macedonius.
Allied with Arianism was the heresy of Macedonius, who taught that the Holy Ghost is not of the same nature and essence as the Father, but less than either Father or Son. This error was condemned in the Council of Constantinople, 381.

The Nicene Council had added explanations to that part of the Creed which teaches us what we must believe about Jesus Christ, true God and true man; the Council of Constantinople did the same to the Eighth Article, explaining more fully the Catholic Doctrine about the Holy Ghost.

The Creed called the Nicene, which is said on Sundays and the Feasts of Our Lady, and of the Apostles and Doctors of the Church, consists of two parts. The first part was drawn up at Nicaea to explain the first seven articles of the Apostles Creed. The second part, the explanation of the last five articles, was added at Constantinople.

  • Supporters of Arianism
    • Constantia, sister of Constantine the Great
    • Constantius, son of Constantine
    • Valens, the Roman Emperor

Julian the Apostate treated Arians and Catholics alike while endeavoring to restore paganism. Desirous to falsify the prophecy of Christ concerning the Temple of Jerusalem, he issued orders to rebuild it, but his designs were thwarted. While engaged in war with Persia, he was struck by a javelin. His blood spouted out, and in despair, Julian threw some of it toward heaven, crying out, "Galilean, Thou has conquered."

The death of Julian ended the struggle of paganism with Christianity, for Jovian, who succeeded him as Emperor, was himself a Christian, and had suffered for his faith under Julian.

The Schism of the Donatists
In 311, certain bishops headed by one Donatus pretended that the ordination of Cecilian, Bishop of Carthage, was unlawful. The question being submitted to the Pope, he decided in favor of Cecilian. This enraged the Donatists, who took possession of the churches by main force and destroyed the alters and sacred vessels.

St. Augustine took the greatest trouble to bring back the Donatists, and succeeded in converting many of them. All the African bishops were ordered to meet at Carthage, there to settle the dispute by a conference presided over by the tribune Marcellinus. At the end of three days Marcellinus decided in favor of the Catholics. St. Augustine had hoped that the heretics could be conciliated by an appeal to reason, but acts of violence and cruelty on the part of the Donatists and their adherents, gave evidence that stringent measures were needed.

To protect their lives and property, as well as to ensure their freedom of religious opinion, the Catholics were obliged to call upon the civil power. Many of the Donatists returned to the Church; however, the schism lasted in Northern Africa till the arrival of the Saracens in the seventh century. The works of St. Augustine show that much was written in defense of the Donatist schism, but little remains of these writings.