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Monday, July 31, 2017

A Bleak History of Christian Mission - Part III

With the advent of the imperial Church (early 4th century CE), Christian missionaries, teachers of the faith, began to be used as a means of spreading the civic apparatus of the Roman Empire.

Ulfilas, the “apostle to the Goths” was instrumental in bringing the Gothic people into the fold of the Roman Empire.[i] He brought the Gospels to the Gothic people, written in their own language, but he did not teach them that Jesus of Nazareth, Joshua son of Joseph, was God, or the son of God, he preached the traditional understanding of who Jesus was, a man who had led an extraordinary life, a prophet who proclaimed The Way, and was killed for his faith. Ulfilas was a follower of Arius, and in the early fourth century the church was tearing itself apart over the question of whether it would adhere to the traditional understanding of who Jesus was, and the new understanding, championed by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria,  that in Jesus, the creator of the universe, God almighty had become incarnate. 

The Emperor Saint Constantine called the first Plenary Council of the Church at Nicea to settle the question once and for all. It was cast as a zero-sum game. The Church would not be allowed to hold both views, and the council was evenly divided.

The party of Athanasius won the day, the party of Arius lost. Many in Arius’ party relented, adopting the new teaching. Many did not. Those who did not adopt the new teaching become known as Arian Christians, heretics, they fled into exile, Ulfilas among them, or failing to flee, they were tortured and killed.

If it was not for the unfortunate events of the Council of Nicea, and the emergence of Arian Christianity as a heretical sect, his missionary activities, the use of the political power of the Roman Empire to convert the Gothic people would be fondly remembered by all Christians.

As it turned out, his conversion of the Goths to Arian Christianity set the stage for the first in a long (perhaps endless) series of inter-Christian wars.

The prosecution of war against the Arians, by the Christian leadership of the Roman Empire, may be seen as another example of orthodox Christianity in defense of itself, like the earlier persecution of the Gnostics, the Marcionites, the Marionites, etc…but there were distinct differences.

  1. Christianity was now the official religion of the Roman Empire and co-extensive with its government.
  2. The version of Christianity promulgated by Athanasius and codified at the Council of Nicea, was a departure from the traditional form of Christianity preached in the Apostolic Age.

It is important to note that the missionary work of Ulfilas, the conversion of the Goths,  marked the beginning of the Church’s role in the growth of the Empire, despite the fact that the outcome of Nicea led to centuries of conflict rather than cohesion and stability.

[i] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, From Paganism to Christianity (New York: A Marion Wood Book, Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 66.

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