The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries

by Adolph (von) Harnack
translated and edited by James Moffatt
Second, enlarged and revised English edition;
London: Williams and Norgate / New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908 (from the 2nd German edition)..
Theological Translation Library, volumes 19-20

From the German, Die Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (1902, revised 1906, 1915, and finally 1924)

Book 2, Epilogue (scanned by Amna Khwar)



How rich, then, and how manifold, are the ramifications of the Christian religion as it steps at the very outset on to pagan soil! And every separate point appears to be the main point; every single aspect seems to be the whole! It is the preaching of God the Father Almighty <g> ( ra7- p ravTOxpaTwp), </g> of his Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the resurrection. It is the gospel of the Savior and of salvation, of redemption and the new creation. It is the message of man becoming God. It is the gospel of love and charity. It is the religion of the Spirit and power, of moral earnestness and holiness. It is the religion of authority and of an unlimited faith; and again, the religion of reason and of enlightened understanding. Besides that it is a religion of “mysteries." It proclaims the origin of a new people, of a people which had existed in secret from the very beginning. It is the religion of a sacred book. It possessed, nay, it was, everything that can possibly be considered as religion.


Christianity thus showed itself to be syncretistic. But it revealed to the world a special kind of syncretism, namely, the syncretism of a universal religion. Every force, every relation­ship in its environment, was mastered by it and made to serve its own ends-a feature in which the other religions of the Roman empire make but a poor, a meager, and a narrow show. Yet, unconsciously, it learned and borrowed from many quarters; indeed, it would be impossible to imagine it existing amid all the wealth and vigor of these religions, had it not drawn pith and flavor even from them. These religions fertilized the ground for it, and the new grain and seed which fell upon that soil sent down its roots and grew to be a mighty tree. Here is a religion which embraces everything. And yet it can always be expressed with absolute simplicity: one name, the name of Jesus Christ, still sums up everything.


The syncretism of this religion is further shown by its faculty for incorporating the most diverse nationalities - Parthians, Merles and Elamites, Greeks and barbarians. It mocked at the barriers of nationality. While attracting to itself all popular elements, it repudiated only one, viz., that of Jewish national­ism. But this very repudiation was a note of universalism, for, although Judaism had been divested of its nationalism and already turned into a universal religion, its universalism had remained for two centuries confined to narrow limits. And how universal did Christianity show itself, in relation to the capacities and culture of mankind! Valentinus is a contem­porary of Hernias, and both are Christians; Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria are contemporaries, and both are teachers in the church; Eusebius is a contemporary of St Antony, and both are in the service of the same communion.


Even this fails to cover what may be termed "syncretism," in the proper sense of the word. After the middle of the third century A.D., Christianity falls to be considered as syncretistic religion \1/ in the fullest sense; as such it faced the two other syn­cretistic products of the age, Manicheanism and the Neoplatonic religion which was bound up with the sun-cult. \2/ Henceforward, Christianity may be just as truly called a Hellenic religion as an Oriental, a native religion as a foreign.



\1/ One of my reviewers, de Grandmaison (in Etudes, Rev. par les peres de la comp. de Jesus, vol. xcvi., 5th Aug. 1903, p. 317) asks, "How can a syncretistic religion continue to be exclusive? That is what one fails to see." But if it gives out as its own inherent possession whatever it has taken over and assimil­ated; nay more, if it makes this part of its very being-why should it not be able to remain exclusive?

\2/ See my Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, Bd. I, pp. 766 f., 785 f. (Eng. trans., iii. 316 f.): "Three great religious systems confronted each other in Western Asia and Southern Europe from the close of the third century: Neoplaton­ism, Catholicism, and Manicheanism. All three may be characterized as the final products of a history which had lasted for over a thousand years, the history of the religious development of the civilized nations from Persia to Italy. In all three the old national and particular character of religion was laid aside; they were world-religions of the most universal tendency, with demands whose consequences transformed the whole life of man, both public and private. For the national cultus they substituted a system which aspired to be at once a theology, a theory of the universe, and a science of history, while at the same time it embraced a definite ethic and a ritual of worship. Formally, therefore, all these religions were alike; they were also alike in this, that each had appropriated the elements of different older religions. Further, they showed their similarity in bringing to the front the ideas of revelation, redemption, ascetic virtue, and immortality. But Neo-Platonism was natural religion spiritualized, the polytheism of Greece trans­figured by Oriental influences and developed into pantheism. Catholicism was the monotheistic world-religion based on the Old Testament and the gospel, but built up with the aid of Hellenic speculation and ethics. Manicheanism was the dualistic world-religion, resting on Chaldaeism, but interspersed with Christian, Parsi, and perhaps Buddhist ideas. Manicheanism lacked the Hellenic element, while Catholicism almost entirely lacked the Chaldee and Persian. Here are three world-religions developing in the course of two centuries (c. A. D. 50-250), Catholicism coming first and Manicheanism last. Both of these were superior to Neo-Platonism, for the very reason that the latter had no founder; it therefore developed no elemental force, and never lost the character of being an artificial creation. Attempts were made to invent a founder for it, but naturally they came to nothing. Yet, even apart from its contents as a religion, Catholicism was superior to Manicheanism, because its founder was venerated, not merely as the bearer of revelation, but as the redeemer in person and the Son of God." These three syncretistic religions all opposed the imperial cultus. Christianity was its only open foe, for the Neo-Platonic religion of the sun was indeed designed to confirm it. Yet Neo-Platonism also proved a foe to it, by transferring religion to the inward life. This cut at the roots of the imperial cultus. It was a supreme delusion on the part of Julian to imagine that he could link political religion with the Neo-platonic religion of the sun.




From the very outset it had been syncretistic upon pagan soil; it made its appearance, not as gospel pure and simple, but equipped with all that Judaism had already acquired during the course of its long history, and entering forthwith upon nearly every task in which Judaism was defective. Still, it was the middle of the third century, that first saw the new religion in full bloom as the syncretistic religion par excellence, and yet, for all that, as an exclusive religion. As a church, it contained everything the age could proffer, a powerful priesthood, with a high priest and subordinate clergy, a priesthood which went back to Christ and the apostles, and led bishops to glory in their succession and apostolic ordination. Christianity possessed every element in­cluded in the conception of "priesthood." Its worship and its sacraments together represented a real energy of the divine nature. The world to come and the powers of an endless life were in operation in the cultus, and through it upon the world; they could be laid hold of and appropriated in a way that was at once spiritual and corporeal.

To believers, Christianity dis­closed all that was ever embraced under the terms "revealed knowledge," "mysteries," and "cultus." In its doctrine it had incorporated everything offered by that contemporary syncretism which we have briefly described (pp. 30 f.). And while it certainly was obliged to re-arrange this syncretism and correct it in some essential points, upon the whole it did appropriate the system. In the doctrinal system of Origen which dominated thoughtful Christians in the East during the second half of the third century, the combination of the gospel and of syncretism is a fait accompli. Christianity possessed in a more unsullied form the contents of what is meant by "the Greek philosophy of religion." \1/ Powerful and vigorous, assured of her own distinctive character, and secure from any risk of being dissolved into contemporary religions, she believed herself.-able now to deal more generously and complaisantly with men, provided only that they would submit to her authority. Her missionary methods altered slowly but significantly in the course of the third century. Gregory Tharunaturgus, who shows himself a pupil of Origen in his religious philosophy with its comprehen­sive statement of Christianity, but who, as a Hellenist, excels his master, accommodated himself as a bishop in a truly sur­prising way to the pagan tendencies of those whom he converted. We shall hear of him later on. Saints and intercessors, who were thus semi-gods, poured into the church. \2/ Local cults and holy places were instituted.



\1/ The philosophy of religion which men like Posidonius and Philo founded, and which culminated in Neo-Platonism, was rounded off by the Christian philosophy of religion which developed until the beginning of the third century. Its final statement was given by Origen, It led to an alarming increase of dullness towards the reality of the senses and fostered an indiscriminate attitude towards life, but it deepened the inner life and modified the philosophical conception of God by introducing the doctrine of creation. The idea of the Incarnation was also brought within the range of speculation, and even at the present day there are many distinguished thinkers who venture to see in that idea the distinctive worth of the Christian religion as well as its main significance for the history of the human spirit. The contest with the materialists, the skeptics, and the Epicureans was waged by the apologists, especially by Origen and Dionysius of Alexandria.

\2/ The habit of seeking oracular hints from the Scriptures is part and parcel of this movement. So far as I know, the earliest evidence for it comes from the fourth century, but it is certainly later than that period. Cp Aug., Epist. lv. 37 " Hi qui de paginis evangelicis sorter legunt, etsi optandum est, ut hoc potius faciant quam ad daernonia concurrant, tauicn etiam ista mihi displicet corrsueludo, ad negotia saecularia et ad vitae huius vanitatem propter aliam vitam loquentia oracula divina velle convertere" ("As for those who read fortunes out of the pages of the gospel, though it were better they should do this than betake themselves to the demons, still, I dislike the-custom of trying to turn divine oracles which speak of another life into counsels upon secular affairs and the vanity of this life"). This, however, is more lax than the attitude of Hermas (Mand, xi.) towards the false prophets. Cp., too, the famous "tolle, lege" of Augustine's own history.



The different provinces of life were distributed afresh among guardian spirits. The old gods re­turned; only, their masks were new. Annual festivals were noisily celebrated. Amulets and charms, relics and bones of the saints, were cherished eagerly.\1/ And the very religion which erst­while in its strictly spiritual temper had prohibited and resisted any tendency towards materialism, now took material shape in every one of its relationships. It had mortified the world and nature. But now it proceeded to revive them, not of course in their entirety, but still in certain sections and details, and­ what is more-in phases that were dead and repulsive. Miracles in the churches became more numerous, more external, and more coarse. Whatever fables the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles had narrated, were dragged into contemporary life and predi­cated of the living present.




\1/ The question is not what amount of mythology, superstition, and sacramental­ism the church took over, but rather what was the result of its borrowings, and what it did not borrow. In regard to the first point, we have to reckon not only with the amount of analogous ideas and practices current here and there from the very first within the churches (for, of course, the fact that here or there a few Syrians were converted, does not mean that the entire cast of things was Syrian, any more than the incorporation of Greek converts means a peculiarly Hellenic tinge), but with the problem, When were such ideas and practices consecrated by the church and admitted to public use, or to public expression in prayer and doctrine (in a city, in a province, or throughout the entire church)? The story of this process remains to be written, and it can only be written in part. Besides, many elements came in side by side from the very first. Yet we can explain in certain cases, perhaps, when definite pieces of pagan mythology and ritual were taken over into the public representation of the church's religion, with the requisite alterations of their garb. The answer to such problems, however, needs to be sought with much more caution and care than is usual at present. Attempts to refer the primitive Christian Sabbath and Lord's supper, and the doctrines of the virgin birth, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension, etc., to the influence of a definite pagan origin (whether obscure or open), seem to me radically unsound and as yet entirely unsuccessful. (How these institutions and ideas came into existence at so early a period is another question.) Generally, we may say that if the catholic churches and not individual gnostic circles are kept in view (though even this distinction may be disputed), the fundamental principles of the idealistic philosophy were received, only to be followed by mythology and ritual. As for the second point, the most important thing is to determine for how long and with what strenuousness the church resisted astrology, the deadly foe of morals and religion. Anyone who will consider the influence of astrology during the imperial period, when the natural sciences had in general decayed, its knack of assuming the garb of science, its widespread diffusion, and its adaptation to the active and passive moods of the age, will be able to appreciate aright the resistance offered by the church (for gnosticism in this department too was pretty defenseless). Here we recognize a great achievement of the church. Schtirer, in his recent essay on the seven-day week of the church during the first centuries (Zeits. f. die neatest. Wiss., vi., 1905, pp. I f., 43 f.), has thoroughly investigated the position of the church towards astrology. In the second century, practically nothing was heard of it; i.e., it was attacked as pagan pseudo-science, as bad as polytheism, or worse. In the third century it raised its head within the church. In the fourth, it had to be sharply refuted. The theologians of the church always condemned it with indignation, but after the third century they no longer controlled the Christian communities, and they could not prevent it filtering in, and permeating alike the ideas and the speech of the people.




This church, whose religion Porphyry blamed for its audacious critique of the universe, its doctrine of the incarnation, \1/ and its assertion of the resurrection of the flesh\2/ -- this church labored at her mission in the second half of the third century, and she won the day. But had she been summoned to the bar and asked what right she had to admit these novelties, she could have replied, “I am not to blame. I have only developed the germ which was planted in my being from the very first!” This religion was the first to cut the ground from under the feet of all other religions, and by means of her religious philosophy, as a civilizing power, to displace ancient philosophy.\3/ But the reasons for the triumph of Christianity in that age are no guarantee for the permanence of that triumph throughout the history of mankind. Such a triumph rather depends upon the simple elements of the religion, on the preaching of the living God as the Father of men and on the representation of Jesus Christ. For that very reason it depends also on the capacity of Christianity to strip off repeatedly such a collective syncretism and unite itself to fresh coefficients. The Reformation made a beginning in this direction.



\1/ Cp. the pagan in Macarius Magnes. IV. xxii: <g> El Ii Kal TLS TWV 'ETJt7jvwv O[Tw K06405 Ti1v 'yvmu71Y, WS Ev T0&#8150;S ayaX rainy Evlay O'KE&#8150;V VOUICELY TOYS BEOVS, 7rsM'o KadapWTEpOV JxEV T71V EvsoiaV TOO 7rLOTEVOVTOS OTL ElS T71V 'yarrTEpa Mapias Ti)S 'rapSEVOV EIOESV Ti! Oe&#8150;uv, f $pVuP TE EyEVETO Kal TExUEV E07rapyaP4i871, ILEOTIV alaaroe \Sp'e Kal XOh'ljs Cal TWY ETl 7r0xx ToVTWV aTOiWTEpov </g>  ("A Greek might be silly enough to believe that the gods dwelt in their shrines, but he would at least be more reverent than the man who believes that the deity entered the womb of the Virgin Mary, became an embryo, was born and swaddled as from the fetus full of blood and bile and all the rest of it").

\2/ The points of agreement between Celsus and Origen are already striking and instructive, although Celsus's was not a religious nature; still more striking are the points of agreement between Porphyry and the Oriental church teachers of his age. Porphyry's acute criticism of the gospels (especially the Fourth gospel), which is at many points quite justified, as well as of the apostle Paul, with whom he had little sympathy, cannot blind us to the fact that, apart from these three points, he was substantially of one mind with the Christians, and that he and they breathed the same religious atmosphere. The main point of difference lay in the fact that he reverently combined the entire universe with the Godhead, refusing to separate the Godhead from it, although he hated "the garment spotted by the flesh" as thoroughly as did the Christian teachers.

\3/ Cp. The question started by Henrici in his Das Urchristenthum (1902), p.3.