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3 The Six Ages of the Church IN S PIT E 0 F the unity and continuity of the Christian tradition , each of the successive ages of the Church's history possesses its own distinctive character, and in each of them we can study a different facet of Christian life and culture. I reckon that there are six of these ages, each lasting for three or four centuries and each following a somewhat similar course. Each of them begin, and end, in crisisj and all of them, except perhaps the first, pass through three phases of growth and decay. First there is a period of intense spiritual activity when the Church is faced with a new historical situation and begins a new apostolate . Secondly there is a period of achievement when the Church seems to have conquered the world and is able to create a new Christian culture and new forms of life and art and thought. Thirdly there is a period of retreat when the Church is attacked by new enemies from within or without, and the achievements of the second phase are lost or depreciated. At first sight these successive movements of achievement and retreat are a somewhat perplexing phenomenon since they seem to suggest that the history of Christianity is subject to some 34 The Six Ages of the Church 35 sociological law which limits its spiritual freedom and prevents the complete fulfillment of its universal mission. It is however a commonplace of Christian teaching that the life of the Church on earth is a continual warfare and that it cannot rely on any prospect of temporal and terrestial success. From this point of view the successive ages of the Church are successive campaigns in this unending war, and as soon as one enemy has been conquered a new one appears to take its place. This pattern of Christian history is found most clearly in the First Age of the Church, when from the first moment of its existence it became involved in a life-and-death struggle with the Roman Empire and with the civilization of the pagan world. And when after three centuries of conflict the Church was victorious and the Empire became Christian, the Church almost immediately had to face a new enemy in the form of a Christian heresy supported by the new Christian Empire. At the same time the first age of the Church is unique inasmuch as it was not following an existing tradition of faith and order as all the rest have done, but creating something absolutely new. Hence its initial phase, the Apostolic Age, stands in a sense outside the course of Church history as the archetype of spiritual creativity . For in that movement the creative activity of the Church was inseparable from the actual creation of the Church itself, so that Pentecost was at once the birthday of the Church and the beginning of the Church's apostolate. Moreover the newborn Church was faced almost at once with a second change of a more revolutionary character than she ever had to meet subsequently-that is to say, the extension of the apostolate from a Jewish to a Gentile environment and the incorporation in the new society of the great body of new converts drawn from the anonymous mass society of the great cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world from Antioch to Rome itself. We have a contemporary account of this change in the New Testament and this gives us an invaluable and unique insight into the beginnings of the Church of the Gentiles. But we possess no comparable account of the change from the Judaeo- 36 The Historic Reality of Christian Culture Christian point of view, nor are we much better informed with regard to the origins of the vernacular Syriac Christianity which was to have so great an importance for the future of the Church in the East. But the main achievement of the first age of the Church was the successful penetration of the dominant urban RomanHellenistic culture and for this there is no lack of materials. Although the Church remained outside the pale of civic society, without legal rights and subjected to intermittent persecutions, it nevertheless became the greatest creative force in the culture of the Roman world in the second and third centuries. It created a new Christian literature, both Greek and Latin. It laid the foundations of a new Christian art, and above all, it created a new society which existed alongside of...


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