Persecution In the Third Century, Part 4

The History of Christianity #59

Emperor Decius
Emperor Decius

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is 1 Peter 4:1 which reads: “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Tertullian. He said: “If the Tiber rises too high, or the Nile too low, the remedy is always feeding Christians to the lions.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Persecution In the Third Century” (Part 4) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Persecution Under Under Decius (Part 1)

In 249 AD, Decius took the imperial purple. Although Christian historians have depicted him as a cruel person, the truth is that Decius was simply a Roman of the old style, whose main goal was to restore Rome to her ancient glory. There were several factors contributing to the eclipse of that glory. The barbarians beyond the borders were increasingly restless, and their incursions into the empire were growing more and more daring. There was a serious economic crisis. And the ancient traditions associated with the classical times of Roman civilization were generally forgotten.

To a traditional Roman such as Decius, it seemed obvious that one of the reasons for all this was that the people had abandoned the ancient gods. When all adored the gods, things went better, and the glory and power of Rome were on the increase. By neglecting the gods, Rome had provoked their displeasure, and had been itself neglected by them. Therefore, if Rome’s ancient glory was to be restored, it was necessary to restore also its ancient religion. If all the subjects of the empire would worship the gods, perhaps the gods would once again favor the empire.

This was the basis of Decius’ religious policy. It was no longer a matter of rumors about Christian immorality, nor of punishing the obstinacy of those who refused to worship the emperor. It was rather an entire religious campaign for the restoration of ancestral religion – a religion that was being particularly undermined by Christianity. What was at stake, as Decius saw it, was the survival of Rome itself. Those who refused to worship the gods were practically guilty of high treason.

Given these circumstances, Decius’ persecution was very different from earlier ones. The emperor’s purpose was not to create martyrs, but apostates. Almost fifty years earlier, Tertullian had declared that the blood of the martyrs was a seed, for the more it was spilled the greater the number of Christians. The exemplary deaths of Christians in those early years had moved many who had witnessed them, and therefore persecution seemed to encourage the spread of Christianity. If, instead of suffering martyrdom, Christians were forced to recant, this would deprive Christianity of the heroic witness of the martyrs, and would be a victory for Decius’ goal of restoring paganism.

Next time, we will continue looking at Persecution Under Decius.

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