In the West pagan literature declined and virtually disappeared, while in the East a few passionate devotees of the old gods still made their voices heard. Christian writings increasingly took the center of the stage. In the East, writers devoted much energy to polemical statements on doctrinal questions and disputes. In both East and West the best minds among Christians faced the problem of how to treat Greek and Roman literature. At first, a few thinkers, mostly in the West, advised against reading anything but Scripture.
Judaism and Christianity
Though a good deal of dislike and misunderstanding had always characterized the attitudes of most Greeks and Romans toward each other, Roman admiration for Greek literature and art deeply influenced the work of Roman writers and artists. The triumph of Christianity tended to contribute new sources of misunderstanding and tension to the relationships between Easterners and Westerners.
Long before Arianism disappeared, a new and related controversy had shaken the Eastern portion of the Empire to its foundations. Exactly what was the relationship of Christ the god and Christ the man? He was both man and god, but how was this possible? And was the Virgin Mary the mother only of his human aspect, or, if not, how could a human being be the mother of god?
The early centuries of Christianity saw a series of struggles to define the accepted doctrines of the religion—orthodoxy—and to protect them against the challenge of rival or unsound doctrinal ideas—heresy. The first heresies appeared almost as early as the first clergy. In fact, the issue between those who wished to admit gentiles and those who wished to confine the Gospel to the Jews foreshadowed the kind of issue that was to confront Christianity in the first few centuries.
The Christian clergy could hardly have attained their great power had they not been essential intermediaries between this visible world of actuality and an invisible other world that, to the devout Christian, is as real as this one. In Christianity certain important ideas about the other world are embodied in ritual acts called sacraments. These sacraments, administered by the clergy, are central to an understanding of Christian doctrine.
Deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops all serve the laity and are called secular clergy. Early in the history of the church, however, another kind of devotee to Christianity appeared in Syria and Egypt—the monk, a man who felt that he must become an ascetic. The New Testament extolled the merits of abstaining from sexual relations if possible, and from all other fleshly indulgence.