The Ante-Nicene Period (literally meaning "before Nicaea") of the history of early Christianity refers to the period following the Apostolic Age of the 1st century down to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. This portion of Christian history is important, having a significant impact on the unity of doctrine across all Christendom and the spreading of Christianity to a greater area of the world. Those seen as prominent figures of this era, referred to as the Ante-Nicene Fathers or Proto-orthodox Christians, generally agreed on most doctrine while the teachings of those early Christian writers which the general majority considered to be heretical, were rejected.
Christianity throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries generally has been less studied than that of the periods that came before (Apostolic Age) and after it (First seven Ecumenical Councils). This is reflected in that it is usually referred to in terms of the adjacent periods with names as such "post-apostolic" (after the period of 1st century formative Christianity) and "ante-Nicene" (before the First Council of Nicaea). The 2nd and 3rd centuries were, however, quite important in the development of Christianity.
There is a relative lack of material for this period compared with the later Church Father period. For example, Ante-Nicene Fathers, a widely used collection that contains most 2nd and 3rd century writings, fills nine volumes, and includes the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria and the New Testament Apocrypha, among others. In contrast, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (consisting mainly of Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom) fills twenty-eight volumes.
The developments of this time were "multidirectional and not easily mapped". While the preceding and following periods were diverse, they possessed unifying characteristics lacking in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Christianity of the 1st century possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character, and self-identification as a messianic movement. The 2nd and 3rd centuries saw a sharp divorce from its early roots. There was an explicit rejection of then-modern Judaism and Jewish culture by the end of the 2nd century, with a growing body of Adversus Judaeos literature (see also Anti-Judaism). Christianity in the 4th and 5th centuries experienced imperial pressure (see State church of the Roman Empire) and developed a strong episcopal and unifying structure. The ante-Nicene period was without such authority.
Jeffery Siker reports that many variations in this time defy neat categorizations, as various forms of Christianity interacted in a complex fashion to form the dynamic character of Christianity in this era. The Post-Apostolic period was extremely diverse both in terms of beliefs and practices. In addition to the broad spectrum of general branches of Christianity, there was constant change and diversity that variably resulted in both internecine conflicts and syncretic adoption.
Duffy supports this model, noting that Christianity throughout the Roman Empire was "in a state of violent creative ferment" during the 2nd century. Orthodoxy, or proto-orthodoxy, existed alongside forms of Christianity that would become extreme deviance, or "heresy", in the near future, such as Marcionism, Valentinian gnosticism, and Montanism. However, Duffy states that during this period the orthodox and unorthodox were sometimes difficult to distinguish and that Early Christianity in Rome had a wide variety of competing Christian sects.
The four Eastern patriarchs affirmed Saint Peter's ministry and death in Rome and the apostolic succession of Roman bishops. However, they perceived this as a mark of honor rather than an overarching authority over belief and practices, as they still considered themselves to be the final authorities in their own regions, see for example Metropolitan bishops and Pentarchy, yet still under the overall guidance of the bishop of Rome. Other patriarchs did turn to Rome for support in settling disputes, but they also wrote to other influential patriarchs for support in the same fashion. Outside of a few notable exceptions, the body of literature left from this period, and even as late as the 5th and 6th centuries, is said by Bernhard Schimmelpfennig to illustrate the generally limited scope of the Roman bishops' authority but acknowledged the authority nonetheless.
William Kling states that by the end of 2nd century that Rome was a significant, if not unique, early center of Christianity, but held no convincing claim to primacy. The Petrine proof text first occurs historically in a dispute between Cyprian of Carthage and Pope Stephen. A bishop from Caesarea named Firmilian sided with Cyprian in his dispute, seething against Stephen's "insulting arrogance" and claims of authority based on the See of Peter. Cyprian's argument won out the day, with Pope Stephen's claims meeting rejection.
Cyprian's claim was that bishops held the keys to the forgiveness of sins, with all bishops being the successors of Saint Peter. Jerome later took up the argument for the primacy of the Roman bishop in the 5th century, a position adopted by Pope Leo I.
- Siker (2000). Pg 231.
- Siker (2000). Pp 231–32.
- Siker (2000). Pp 232–34.
- Siker (2000). Pp 233–35.
- Duffy (2002), pg. 12.
- Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.3.2: the "...Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. ...The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate."
- Schimmelpfennig (1992), pp. 49–50.
- Kling (2004), pp. 64, 66.
- Barrett, et al (1999), pg 116.
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- Barrett, David B., Bromiley, Geoffrey William & Fahlbusch, Erwin. The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (1999). ISBN 0-8028-2415-3.
- Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Yale University Press (2002). ISBN 0-300-09165-6.
- Kling, David William. The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times. Oxford University Press (2004). ISBN 0-19-513008-1.
- Schimmelpfennig, Bernhard. The Papacy. James Sievert, translator. Columbia University Press (1992). ISBN 0-231-07515-4.
- Siker, Jeffrey S. "Christianity in the Second and Third Centuries", Chapter Nine in The Early Christian World. Philip F. Esler, editor. Routledge (2000). ISBN 0-415-24141-3.