The death of Polycarp in 155 virtually ended the sub-Apostolic Age, that is, the time of those who had been the immediate disciples of the Apostle John. The British King’s declaration in 165 that Britain was then officially a Christian nation also marked an important milestone in the history of the Church. But insofar as organizational progression is concerned, the year 192 stands out as the most important of the century.
The Roman Empire itself began to decline in 180 with the succession of the decadent Commodus to the throne. (Of interest to some, the death of Marcus Aurelius and the accession of Commodus forms the backdrop to the recent movie, Gladiator.)
Commodus was favorably disposed toward the Christians, not on account of his virtue, but actually on account of his vice. When his father left him the throne, he had an equally depraved sister, Lucilla, who soon attempted to have her brother murdered. But the tables were turned, and Commodus put her and her associates to death. In confiscating the property of the plotters, he acquired the harem of one of the executed nobles, including a beautiful concubine named Marcia.
Marcia became Commodus’ favorite among his 300 concubines. Marcia had been brought up by a Roman eunuch-priest named Hyacinthus, who was a high official in Commodus’ court. As a eunuch, he was probably one who collected castaway baby girls in order to sell them as slaves or to harems. But he was also a “Christian” (at least by religious membership), according to Hippolytus.
Because of these connections, Victor (the heavy handed bishop in the Passover controvery of 192) was able to gain favors from the Emperor, including the release of Christians that had been sent to the silver mines in Sardinia. Among the prisoners released was Callistus, who would later become bishop of Rome from 217-222 A.D. He had not been sent to the mines for his Christian beliefs, but for crooked financial deals. At any rate, the moral condition of the Roman Church suffered from the time of Victor's claim of pontifical supremacy.
The third-century Church as a whole, however, should not be viewed apart from two main personalities of the late second century: Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. They lived far apart on opposite sides of the Empire, and their writings had great impact on the Church. There were many others, of course, but because we have few of their writings, they left no legacy for future generations to read. And even the books of Clement and Irenaeus did not tell us everything that they believed and taught.
We know, however, that both Clement and Irenaeus believed in Universal Reconciliation. Clement wrote about it boldly, as we have seen. But Irenaeus says nothing concrete about it in his eight volumes, Against Heresies. Nonetheless, we do possess a fragment of his which clearly teaches it. Fragment 39 reads,
“Christ, who was called the Son of God before the ages, was manifested in the fulness of time, in order that He might cleanse us through His blood, who were under the power of sin, presenting us as pure sons to His Father, if we yield ourselves obediently to the chastisement of the Spirit. And in the end of time He shall come to do away with evil, and to reconcile all things, in order that there may be an end of all impurities.”
This can be read in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 575. It shows that he was in agreement with Clement of Alexandria. With all of the focus upon heresies, it is striking that this idea of the Reconciliation of All Things was not viewed as heresy. In fact, it aroused no controversy at all in those days. The earlier writers often spoke of eonian punishment without elaboration, but the translators usually rendered it “eternal punishment” according to their bias.
We are given an indication of Irenaeus’ way of thinking when he writes in Against Heresies, V, xxvii,
“Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending.”
Though written in Greek, only a Latin copy is preserved. Most likely Irenaeus used the Greek eonian for “eternal,” but even the Latin term aeternas needed an additional term to ensure that it meant “without end” and “never-ending.” Of course, if eonian or aeternas were sufficient to denote unending time, the other terms would be redundant. It was necessary to use those other terms to show that the loss of evil works in the judgment of God will not only be for that eon (age), but also beyond it.
Irenaeus died in 202, Clement in 213. Before his death, Irenaeus “rendered Lyons a Christian city” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Introduction to Irenaeus, p. 310).
Clement succeeded Pantaenus in 189 A.D. as head of the School in Alexandria, after Pantaenus went to India to preach the gospel. It was the same year that Victor became bishop of Rome. Clement fled to Antioch in 202 when the persecution broke out under the Roman Emperor Severus, who decided to enforce an old law prohibiting anyone to convert to Judaism or to Christianity. This affected Judaism less, because the Jews had withdrawn into their cocoon and had no mandate to proselytize. But it greatly affected the Church, for Christians had been given the mandate of the Great Commission.
Origen's father was also imprisoned and soon martyred in the same persecution. Origen wrote to him, beseeching him not to deny Christ for their sake. He was fearless and zealous for the Gospel, and he would have exposed himself to the Roman authorities had not his mother hidden his clothing to prevent him from leaving the house.
The family had some wealth, but when Origen's father Leonides was executed, the government confiscated their property. This reduced the family to abject poverty. However, a wealthy lady took Origen into her house and provided for him so that he could continue to preach the Word. He insisted upon supporting himself, so he opened a grammar school. The following year, Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, appointed Origen, now age 18, to replace Clement as head of the Theological School.
Meanwhile, far away in Rome, Victor died in 198 and was succeeded by Zephyrinus. His election caused Hippolytus to break with that Church and form his own, calling himself the true Bishop of Rome. This made Hippolytus the first “anti-pope” in the eyes of the Roman Church. When his writings were discovered in 1842, the conflict was exposed to the world for the first time. Also, the following year we find Tertullian leaving Rome and returning to North Africa. Jerome says that he was treated rather badly by the clergy in Rome, and it is likely that this grew out of the power struggle between Hippolytus and Zephyrinus.
The spirit of dominance, intolerance, and pride which had infected Rome through the pontificate of Victor appeared again in Zephyrinus. Cormenin says in his History of the Popes, Vol. I, pp. 33, 34,
“Victor had prepared the way for the dominion of the pontiff, and his successors did not neglect on any occasion to extend their power.”
Victor's successors, first Zephyrinus and then Callistus, were the worst bishops to date, according to their contemporaries.
The idea of Papal supremacy properly began with Victor in 192 A.D., who excommunicated the Eastern bishops over the Passover-dating controversy. It came at the end of the second century and only increased with Victor's successors. Even so, this claim to be “Bishop of Bishops” was strongly refuted by Cyprian 60 years later in a different doctrinal controversy, in which Cyprian refused to submit to Pope Stephen of Rome. In that controversy, Victor actually excommunicated Cyprian.
Pope Stephen (253-257) is often called “the first pope” for his insistence that Cyprian defer to his doctrinal view. The idea, however, originated with Victor, who made the first unsuccessful attempt to force other bishops to submit to the doctrinal view of the Roman bishop.
The idea finally reached its culmination point in 606 A.D. with Pope Boniface III, who claimed exclusive right to the title, “Universal Bishop,” even though his predecessor, Gregory I (590-604) wrote, “whosoever calls himself universal priest or desires to be called so, was the forerunner of Antichrist.” Gregory proved to be the last Roman bishop to resist the power grab. Philip Schaff writes in Vol. IV of his History of the Christian Church, p. 220,
“Boniface III (606-607) did not scruple to assume the title of ‘universal bishop,’ against which Gregory, in proud humility, had so indignantly protested as a blasphemous antichristian assumption.”
I find it very significant that from 192 to 606 A.D. is precisely 414 years, a prophetic time cycle known as Cursed Time. (See my book, Secrets of Time.)
This 414-year time frame saw the rise of the “Little Horn” of Daniel's prophecy (Dan. 7:8), having the mouth “speaking great things,” which John describes as “blasphemy” (Rev. 13:6). Perhaps Pope Gregory understood this, but if so, his view was buried in the cemetery of history. From a biblical perspective, this assumption of power was “antichrist,” in that it usurped the position of Christ. I think that H. G. Wells said it best on page 650 of his Outline of History:
“But it is the universal weakness of mankind that what we are given to administer we presently imagine we own.”
King Saul was given a throne to administer under God, but in his rebellion against God, he soon imagined that he owned the throne. So it was with the Bishopric of Rome.
Three years after Boniface III fully usurped power over the Church as an antichrist, God called Mohammed to bring judgment upon the Church. Mohammed then began to preach publicly a few years later in 612 A.D. And we are still feeling the effects of that judgment today.