Great Church

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The Church Fathers in an 11th-century depiction from Kyiv

The term "Great Church" (Latin: ecclesia magna) is used in the historiography of early Christianity to mean the period of about 180 to 313, between that of primitive Christianity and that of the legalization of the Christian religion in the Roman Empire, corresponding closely to what is called the Ante-Nicene Period. "It has rightly been called the period of the Great Church, in view of its numerical growth, its constitutional development and its intense theological activity."[1]

The Great Church, also called the catholic (i.e., universal) Church,[2] has been defined also as meaning "the Church as defended by such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage, and Origen of Alexandria and characterized as possessing a single teaching and communion over and against the division of the sects, e.g., gnosticism, and the heresies".[3]

By the beginning of the fourth century, the Great Church already formed about 15% of the population of the Roman Empire and was ready, both numerically and structurally, for its role as the church of the empire, becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380.[4]

Roger F. Olson says: "According to the Roman Catholic account of the history of Christian theology, the Great Church catholic and orthodox lived on from the apostles to today in the West and all bishops that remained in fellowship with the bishop of Rome have constituted its hierarchy";[5] or, as the Catholic Church itself has expressed it, "This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure."[6] Thus, the Roman Catholic Church identifies itself as the continuation of the Great Church, which in turn was the same as the early Church founded by Jesus Christ. Because of this, it identifies itself as the "one true church".

The unbroken continuity of the Great Church is affirmed also by the Eastern Orthodox Church: "Orthodoxy regards the Great Church in antiquity (for most of the first millennium) as comprising, on one side, the Eastern Orthodox world (the Byzantine patriarchates presided over by the hierarch of the Church of Constantinople together with the Slavic Orthodox churches); and, on the other side, the Western Catholic Church, presided over by the hierarch of the Church of Rome."[7]


Irenaeus (2nd century – c. 202)

Lawrence S. Cunningham, and separately, Kugel and Greer state that Irenaeus's statement in Against Heresies Chapter X 1–2 (written c. 180 AD) is the first recorded reference to the existence of a "catholic Church" with a core set of shared beliefs as opposed to the ideas of dissident groups.[8][9] Irenaeus states:[8]

The Church, though dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: ... As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. ... For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the son, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Cunningham states that two points in Irenaeus' writing deserve attention. First, that Irenaeus distinguished the Church singular from "the churches" plural, and more importantly, Irenaeus holds that only in the larger singular Church does one find the truth handed down by the apostles of Christ.[8]

At the beginning of the 3rd century the Great Church that Irenaeus and Celsus had referred to had spread across a significant portion of the world, with most of its members living in cities (see early centers of Christianity).[10] The growth was less than uniform across the world. The Chronicle of Arbela stated that in 225 AD, there were 20 bishops in all of Persia, while at approximately the same time, surrounding areas of Rome had over 60 bishops.[10] But the Great Church of the 3rd century was not monolithic, consisting of a network of churches connected across cultural zones by lines of communication which at times included personal relationships.[10]

The Great Church grew in the 2nd century and entered the 3rd century mainly in two empires: the Roman and the Persian, with the network of bishops usually acting as the cohesive element across cultural zones.[11] In 313, the Edict of Milan ended the persecution of Christians, and by 380 the Great Church had gathered enough followers to become the State church of the Roman Empire by virtue of the Edict of Thessalonica.[1]

Historical references[edit]

In Contra Celsum 5.59 and 5.61 the Church Father Origen mentions Celsus' late 2nd century use of the terms "church of the multitudes" or "great church" to refer to the emerging consensus traditions among Christians at the time, as Christianity was taking shape.[12][13]

In the 4th century, as Saint Augustine commented on Psalm XXII, he interpreted the term to mean the whole world, writing: "The great Church, Brethren, what is it? Is a scanty portion of the earth the great Church? The great Church means the whole world."[14] Augustine continued to expound on how various churches all considered themselves "the great Church," but that only the whole world could be seen as the great Church.[14]

Theological underpinnings and separation[edit]

Emperor Constantine and bishops with the Creed of 381.

The epoch of the Great Church witnessed the development of key theological concepts which now form the fabric of the religious beliefs of the large majority of Christians.[1]

Relying on Scripture, prevailing mysticism and popular piety, Irenaeus formalized some of the attributes of God, writing in Against Heresies Book IV, Chapter 19: "His greatness lacks nothing, but contains all things."[15] Irenaeus also referred to the early use of the "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" formula which appeared as part of Christian Creeds, writing in Against Heresies (Book I Chapter X):[16]

The Church… believes in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit.

Around 213 AD in Adversus Praxeas (chapter 3) Tertullian provided a formal representation of the concept of the Trinity, i.e., that God exists as one "substance" but three "Persons": The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.[17][18] Tertullian also discussed how the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.[17] The First Council of Nicaea in 325 and later the First Council of Constantinople in 381 then formalized these elements.[19]

In 451, all the bishops of the Great Church were ordered to attend the Council of Chalcedon to discuss theological issues that had emerged.[20] This turned out to be a turning point at which the Western and Eastern churches parted ways based on seemingly small Christological differences, and began the fracturing of the claim to the term Great Church by both sides.[20][21][22]

Modern theories on the formation of the Great Church[edit]

Official Catholic publications, and other writers, sometimes consider that the concept of the "Great Church" can be found already in the Epistles of Paul, such as in "This is my rule in all the churches" (1 Corinthians 7:17) and in the Apostolic Fathers such as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.[23] Exegesis has even located the ecclesia magna in the Latin Vulgate translations of the "great congregation" (kahal rab) of the Hebrew Bible.[24] This interpretation was also offered by Pope Benedict XVI,[25] and by Martin Luther.[26]

Dennis Minns (2010) considers that the concept of a "Great Church" was developed by polemical heresiologists such as Irenaeus.[27] The presentation of early Christian unity and orthodoxy (see Proto-orthodox Christianity), and counter presentation of groups such as those sects labelled "Gnostic", by early heresiologists such as Irenaeus is questioned by modern historians.[28]

Roger E. Olson (1999) uses the term to refer to the Great Church at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451) when the Patriarch of Constantinople and Bishop of Rome were in fellowship with each other.[29]

In contrast to "Jewish Christianity"[edit]

The term is contrasted with Jewish Christians who came to be more and more clearly separated from the Great Church.[30] Wilhelm Schneemelcher and others writing on New Testament Apocrypha distinguish writings as being sectarian or from the Great Church.[31][32]

Gabriele Waste (2005) is among German scholars using similar references, where the "Große Kirche" ("Great Church") is defined as "Ecclesia ex gentibus" (Church of the Gentiles) in comparison to the "Ecclesia ex circumcisione" (Church of the Circumcision).[33]

In the anglophone world, Bruce J. Malina (1976) contrasted what he calls "Christian Judaism" (usually termed "Jewish Christianity") with "the historically perceived orthodox Christianity that undergirds the ideology of the emergent Great Church."[34][35]

In francophone scholarship, the term Grande Église (Latin: Ecclesia magna) has also been equated with the "more hellenized" as opposed to "Judaizing" sections of the early church,[36] and the Bar Kokhba revolt is seen as a definitive stage in the separation between Judaism and the Christianity of the "Grande Église".[37] Those stressing this binary view of early Christianity include Simon Claude Mimouni and François Blanchetière.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Karl Rahner. Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi. A&C Black; 1 January 1975. ISBN 978-0-86012-006-3. Early Church. pp. 375–376.
  2. ^ Robert W. Allison, "Early Christianity: Diversity, Conflict, Self-Definition and Dominance" (The Wabash Center)
  3. ^ The A to Z of the Orthodox Church. Rowman & Littlefield; 2010. ISBN 978-0-8108-7602-6. p. 143.
  4. ^ Pahner p. 378
  5. ^ Roger E. Olson. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition Reform. InterVarsity Press; 1 April 1999. ISBN 978-0-8308-1505-0. p. 278.
  6. ^ Lumen gentium, 8
  7. ^ John Anthony McGuckin. The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History. Yale University Press; 17 March 2020. ISBN 978-0-300-25217-0. p. 7.
  8. ^ a b c An Introduction to Catholicism by Lawrence S. Cunningham (Feb 16, 2009) ISBN 0521846072 p. 4–5
  9. ^ Early Biblical Interpretation by James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer (Jan 1, 1986) ISBN 0664250130 p. 109.
  10. ^ a b c History of the World Christian Movement: Volume 1: Earliest Christianity To 1453 by Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist(Jan 10, 2002) ISBN 0567088669 pp. 103–107.
  11. ^ History of the World Christian Movement: Volume 1: Earliest Christianity To 1453 by Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist (January 10, 2002) ISBN 0567088669 pp. 107–109.
  12. ^ Birth of the Church by I. Davidson (Apr 22, 2005) ISBN 1854246585 p. 381
  13. ^ History of the World Christian Movement: Volume 1: Earliest Christianity To 1453 by Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist (January 10, 2002) ISBN 0567088669 pp. 102–103
  14. ^ a b Expositions on the Book of Psalms Volume I by Augustine of Hippo Henry Parker, Oxford, 1847 p. 159
  15. ^ Eric Francis Osborn (Nov 26, 2001) Irenaeus of Lyons ISBN 0-52180006-4 pp. 27–29
  16. ^ Vickers, Jason E. Invocation and Assent: The Making and the Remaking of Trinitarian Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008. ISBN 0-8028-6269-1 pp. 2–5
  17. ^ a b Roger E. Olson, Christopher Alan Hall 2002 The Trinity ISBN 0-80284827-3 pp. 29–31
  18. ^ Eric Osborn (4 Dec 2003) Tertullian, First Theologian of the West ISBN 0-52152495-4 pp. 116–17
  19. ^ Donald Fairbairn (Sep 28, 2009) Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers ISBN 0-83083873-2 pp. 48–50
  20. ^ a b Pocket History of Theology by Roger E. Olson and Adam C. English (Nov 14, 2005) ISBN 0-83082704-8 Intervarsity Press pp. 46–47
  21. ^ Christ in Christian Tradition by Aloys Grillmeier, Theresia Hainthaler and Pauline Allen (Aug 1995) ISBN 0-66421997-7 pp. 1–2
  22. ^ Roger D. Haight (Sep 16, 2004) Christian Community in History Volume 1 ISBN 0-82641630-6 pp. 212–13
  23. ^ Monsignor David Bohr, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan The Diocesan Priest: Consecrated and Sent Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009)2010 p42 "The term ordinatio was originally used in Rome for appointing civil 17 Certainly the concept of the "Great Church" can be found already in the epistles of St. Paul (e.g., 1 Cor 7:17) and in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch."
  24. ^ Telesphor Smyth-Vaudry Peter's name: or, A divine credential in a name 1909 p84 "26) — "I will give thanks to thee in a great Church." (Ps. 34. 18.) — "I have declared thy justice in a great Church" (Ps. 39. 10). So divinely universal is the "great Church" — the Ecclesia magna — prophesied by David, that her very enemies ..."
  25. ^ Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, Michael J. Miller -Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life 2011 p18 "... which the ecclesia, or perhaps the ecclesia magna (Ps 22 [21]:25) constitutes the audience. In the New Testament there is a change—necessarily so, inasmuch as now the psalm with its situation emerges from the hypothetical and indefinite ..."
  26. ^ Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century 2001 -p. 164 "The 'ecclesia magna' (according to Luther, the 'great commonality' Cgro8e Gemeine')) of Hist, n 34 refers to Psalm 35, v. 18; on the 'universalis aeclesia' of Hist, rv 42: 474, 1, see p. 166, n. 44, below. 36 Hist, n 23: 68, 17f.; see also Chapter 3 ..."
  27. ^ Denis Minns Irenaeus: An Introduction 2010 p17 "In this book I have presumed that there was a reality corresponding to the term 'the Great Church', and that, by and large, Irenaeus represents it. This is a convenient simplification, but a simplification nonetheless. If we can speak of a 'Great Church' at all, this is at least partly because polemical theologians like Irenaeus identified certain views as incompatible with Christian truth and declared those who held them to be beyond Christian fellowship."
  28. ^ James L. Kugel, Rowan A. Greer Early Biblical interpretation 1986 p119 "The Gnostics are thought of as a perverse mirror image of the Great Church with their own succession of teachers and their own Rule of faith. ... Instead, we must understand what happened as the gradual emergence of unity out of diversity."
  29. ^ Roger E. Olson The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & ... 1999 p. 251 "PART V A Tale of Two Churches The Great Tradition Divides Between East & West Up to this point the story of Christian theology has been the story of a relatively unified Great Church, both catholic and orthodox. We have seen how heresies ... After the council, the Great Church was identified with the bishops in fellowship with the emperor and patriarch of Constantinople in the East and the bishop of Rome (also considered a patriarch) in the West, and these three usually maintained ..." p278 "According to the Roman Catholic account of the history of Christian theology, the Great Church catholic and orthodox lived on from the apostles to today in the West and all bishops that remained in fellowship with the bishop of Rome have"
  30. ^ Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich – 1966 Vol. 3 – p. 518 EKKLESIA "48 As Jewish Christians came to be more and more clearly separated from the Great Church, it is probable that they called both their assemblies and their places of assembly auvccycoyi!|. In the very earliest period all Christians, both Jew and ..."
  31. ^ Wilhelm Schneemelcher, R. McL. Wilson New Testament Apocrypha: Writings Relating to the Apostles ...- 2003 – p. 414 Acts of Peter and The Twelve Apostles "... of consideration: a) from the content and tenor of the text it is difficult to understand it as a product of the Great Church; it is ... The special way in which the ideal of poverty is presented in ActPt makes one instinctively think of the Ebionites. b) ..."
  32. ^ Alois Grillmeier Christ in Christian tradition (1965), vol. 1, p. 45 "Besides such Targumim, it seems that the existence of Jewish-Christian Midrashim, paraphrases of the Old Testament, can also be proven. It is further claimed that the early Christian sources, whether Jewish-Christian or from the great Church,"
  33. ^ Minemosyne – p. 251 "Diese bildeten die „Ecclesia ex circumcisione", der später die aus den Heidenvölkern herkommende „Große Kirche" oder „Ecclesia ex gentibus" gegenüberstand. Die Judenchristen, zu denen die Edelsten der Nation gehörten, umfaßten ..."
  34. ^ Edwin K. Broadhead Jewish Ways of Following Jesus: Redrawing the Religious Map of ... 2010 – p. 33 "1) Jewish Christianity is "the historically perceived orthodox Christianity that undergirds the ideology of the emergent Great Church."16 2) Judaism refers to rabbinic, Pharisaic Judaism. 3) Christian Judaism is, in a first century context, "a phase ...
  35. ^ B. J. Malina, Jewish Christianity or Christian Judaism: Toward a hypothetical Definition', JSJ 8 (1976), pp.
  36. ^ Revue théologique de Louvain Fondation universitaire de Belgique 2005– 36 p. 229 "Plutôt que des membres de la Grande Église séduits par le prosélytisme juif, ces chrétiens sont vraisemblablement les héritiers ..."
  37. ^ Revue des études juives: 2004 v163 p. 43 "... la révolte de Bar Kokhba a donc constitué une étape définitive dans la séparation entre le judaïsme et la «Grande Église». ... S.C. Mimouni, Le judéo-christianisme ancien, op. cit., et D. Marguerat, «Juifs et chrétiens: la séparation», in J.-M."