Persecution In the Third Century, Part 5

The History of Christianity #60

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Romans 8:35-37 which reads: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from John Foxe. He said: “When the Christians, upon these occasions, received martyrdom, they were ornamented, and crowned with garlands of flowers; for which they, in heaven, received eternal crowns of glory.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Persecution In the Third Century” (Part 5) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Persecution Under Under Decius (Part 2)

Although Decius’ edict has been lost, it is clear that what he ordered was not that Christians as such ought to be persecuted, but rather that the worship of the gods was now mandatory throughout the empire. Following the imperial decree, everyone had to offer sacrifice to the gods and to burn incense before a statue of Decius. Those who compiled would be given a certificate or libellum attesting to that fact. Those who did not have such a certificate would then be considered outlaws who had disobeyed the imperial command.

The imperial decree found Christians unprepared for the new challenge. The generations that had lived under constant threat of persecution were now past, and the new generations were not ready for martyrdom. Some ran to obey the imperial command. Some bought false certificates declaring that they had sacrificed before the gods, when in fact they had not. Others stood firm for a while, but when brought before the imperial authorities offered the required sacrifice to the gods. And there was a significant number who resolved to stand firm and refuse to obey the edict.

Since Decius’ goal was to promote the worship of the gods, rather than to kill Christians, those who actually died as martyrs were relatively few. What the authorities did was to arrest Christians and then, through a combination of promises, threats, and torture, to try to force them to abandon their faith. It was under this policy that Origen was imprisoned and tortured. And Origen’s case found hundreds of counterparts throughout the empire. This was no longer a sporadic or local persecution, but one that was systematic and universal. As proof of the widespread application of the imperial decree, certificates of having sacrificed have survived from some rather remote parts of the empire.

One of the results of this persecution was that a new title of honor appeared within the church, that of the “confessor.” Until that time, practically all who were taken before the authorities and remained firm had become martyrs. Those who offered sacrifice to the gods and to the emperor were apostates. Due to the policies established by Decius, there were now those who remained firm in their faith, even in the midst of cruel torture, but who never received the crown of martyrdom. Those who had confessed the faith in such circumstances were then called “confessors,” and were highly respected by other Christians.

Decius’ persecution was brief. In 251 AD Gallus suceeded him, and his policies were set aside. Six years later Valerian, a former companion of Decius, began a new persecution. But he was captured by the Persians, who took him prisoner, and the church enjoyed another forty years of relative peace.

Next time, we will look at The Question of the Lapsed: Cyprian and Novatian.


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