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Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries
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EXCURSUS III

THE PRIMACY OF ROME IN RELATION TO THE MISSION

From the close of the first century the Roman church was in a position of practical primacy over Christendom. It had gained this position as the church of the metropolis, as the church of Peter and Paul, as the community which had done most for the catholicizing and unification of the churches, and above all as the church which was not only vigilant and alert but ready834834Evidence is forthcoming from the second and the third centuries, for Corinth, Arabia, Cappadocia, and Mesopotamia (cp. above, pp. 157, 185, 376; and below, Book IV.). In a still larger number of cases Rome intervened with her advice and opinion. to aid any poor or suffering church throughout the empire with gifts.835835A considerable amount of the relevant material is collected in my History of Dogma, I.(3) pp. 455 f. (Eng. trans., vol. ii. pp. 149-168), under the title of “Catholic and Roman.” The question now rises, Was this church not also specially active in the Christian mission, either from the first or at certain epochs of the pre-Constantine period? Our answer must be in the negative. Any relevant evidence on this point plainly belongs to legends with a deliberate purpose and of late origin. All the stories about Peter founding churches in Western and Northern Europe (by means of delegates and subordinates) are pure fables. Equally fabulous is the mass of similar legends about the early Roman bishops, e.g., the legend of Eleutherus and Britain. The sole residuum of truth is the tradition, underlying the above-mentioned legend that Rome and Edessa were in touch about 200 A.D. This fragment of information is isolated, but, so far as I can see, it is trustworthy. We must not infer from it, however, that any deliberate missionary movement had been undertaken by Rome. The Christianizing of Edessa was a spontaneous result. Abgar the king may indeed have spoken to the local bishop when he was at Rome, and a letter which purports to be from Eleutherus to Abgar might also be historical. The Roman bishop may perhaps have had some influence in the catholicizing of Edessa and the bishops of Osrhoene. But a missionary movement in any sense of the term is out of the question. Furthermore, if Rome had undertaken any organized mission to Northern Africa (or Spain, or Gaul, or Upper Italy) we would have found echoes of it, at least in Northern Africa. Yet in the latter country, when Tertullian lived, people only knew that while the Roman church had an apostolic origin, their own had not; consequently the “auctoritas” of the former church must be recognized. Possibly this contains a reminiscence of the fact that Christianity reached Carthage by way of Rome, but even this is not quite certain. Unknown sowers sowed the first seed of the Word in Carthage also; they were commissioned not by man but by God. By the second century their very names had perished from men's memory.

The Roman church must not be charged with dereliction of duty on this score. During the first centuries there is no evidence whatever for organized missions by individual churches; such were not on the horizon. But it was a cardinal duty to “strengthen the brethren,” and this duty Rome amply discharged.


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