Lecture 6: The Legalization of the Church
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Course: Church History I
Lecture: The Legalization of the Church
Well, good morning, everybody. How’s everybody this morning? All right? Good. Thank you for your papers. I think they were well done on the whole. It’s always good to see them. Let’s pray together, shall we, and we can begin. Father, thank you for this day. Thank you for this time that we have together now and bless us, I pray, as we work and as we study together. Help us in all that we do to grow to be more like our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ, for whose name’s sake we ask it. Amen.
Today I want to look at the whole question of the legalization of Christianity which was a process which occurred mainly in the early fourth century. This is a question which has continued to affect the life of the Christian church ever since and whether there is a separation of church and state or not it really doesn’t matter very much because the whole concept of a relationship between the church and state, whatever it may be, essentially goes back to that time, however it is defined and whatever we may think about it. So we do have to look very carefully at this issue because, of course, it affected the Christian church very deeply at the time and has continued to work itself out in the centuries since.
If we go back to the New Testament, it’s quite clear, of course, that the apostles and the New Testament church had no connection with the state. I mean, that’s obvious. They weren’t hostile to the Roman authorities. The apostle Paul in Romans – in Romans chapter 13 – lays out very clearly that it is the duty of Christians to obey the secular authorities because they have been set over them by God for their own good. So Christians were not by nature an anti-state or revolutionary organization. I mean, that wasn’t part of the gospel proclamation. On the other hand, of course, the reason or one of the reasons why they weren’t against the secular state is because they weren’t really that interested in it. The Christian gospel was a gospel of eternal salvation. It was the preaching of the kingdom of God which was not of this world. The purpose of the church was to proclaim and bear witness to a mission which went beyond anything any secular government could do and, therefore, of course, the activities of the state, whatever they might be, could only be secondary and therefore of lesser importance in the mind of Christians. And although Christians didn’t have a problem with this – I mean, they just let things be – the state saw things in a different way, and in particular the Roman state did this because the Roman state made counterclaims or at least made claims to universal dominion, not only over the bodies of their subjects but over their souls as well. We forget this. The Roman Empire was a spiritual organization and although this is not emphasized in histories today, we must never forget that that was very much at the heart of their self-understanding at the time. You can see this, of course, in such things as the fact that the emperors when they died were deified; they were made gods and, therefore, of course, the reigning emperor could be venerated as the son of a god. So there was that aspect to be taken into consideration.
But Rome as a city, Rome as a concept also had a spiritual mission. It was Rome’s destiny to rule the world according to the Romans, of course, and they created or fostered myths of various kinds which served to back this up. Early Roman religion was very much an ancestor cult, the worship of the ancestors, the cultivation, oddly – I mean, this doesn’t fit with the ancestor cult idea but it’s a kind of counterweight to it – of the vestal virgins. They set aside women in Rome who were told to tend the fire, the eternal flame of the city of Rome which burned on the capitol hill in Rome and there was a temple there to the goddess Vesta and these virgins tended the fire. That’s all they did for their entire lives, an incredibly boring existence but never mind. There they were, and to violate a vestal virgin was one of the worst crimes that a Roman could commit. And occasionally that happened. You can imagine the vestal virgins just longing for it but still. Well, you know, just sitting there tending the fire the whole time. But when it happened, I mean, very severe punishments were meted out to those who did this, and so it was taken very seriously in that respect.
The army, of course, was part of this. Soldiers in the army had to swear allegiance not only to the emperor but also to the gods and so on, and this made it very difficult for Christians who had a conflict here. They could not swear to the gods. Roman religion was full of soothsayers and people like this. Whenever any great thing was about to happen, somebody would kill a lamb or sheep or something and then look at its entrails and try to read from the entrails what the fate of the next campaign was going to be, or whatever it was. You know, this sort of thing was part and parcel of public life in Rome.
Now because the Roman religion was essentially polytheistic – they were allowed many gods – of course, they could absorb the Greek gods, they took over the Greek gods. They just changed the names and sort of made them part of the Roman pantheon as well, and they could take on board Egyptian gods and Persian gods and you name it. You know, anybody could find a place there somewhere. Jews were a problem to some extent because, of course, they worshipped only one God. But the Romans could deal with that as well. Polytheists don’t mind if you worship only one God as long as you don’t try to push the belief in one God on anybody else. And, of course, the Jews didn’t do that. They demanded tolerance for themselves but they weren’t particularly proselytizing in their approach and so they were left in peace. Disliked by the Romans but allowed to carry on because to do otherwise would have been much more difficult.
Christianity, however, was a problem because Christianity provided an alternative universalism. When I say universalism, I don’t mean what we mean today by this, that everybody is saved or anything like that, but rather that the Christian church claimed as the Roman Empire claimed that it had the right to preach the gospel to every creature, that it had the right to exercise spiritual dominion over those who heard the gospel and, indeed, over those who did not because you must remember that the Christian church did not leave unbelievers in peace like Jews, you see. The Jews said, well, if you’re a gentile, that’s just too bad. Poor you. You’ll just have to go on eating pork and things, but we know better than that. Christians would not leave unbelievers or gentiles in peace because the dynamic of the Christian church was evangelistic. And therefore, of course, you couldn’t be just left alone. It was to your benefit to be pestered by some evangelist coming along and telling you that you needed to be saved. And so Christianity could not just sit back. The Christians couldn’t just sit back and just be themselves and leave everybody else to their own devices. That was not possible.
And so, therefore, of course, it presented a real threat because if the Christian church got its way, let’s say if the majority of the population became Christian, what would happen to the Roman Empire? The Roman Empire would presumably collapse because the spiritual basis on which it was built would be rejected. You see, this is the problem. If you don’t believe that the emperor is a god, if you don’t believe in the vestal virgins and in the protecting deities of the city of Rome and you don’t believe in looking at sheep’s entrails in order to find what the future is going to be and all this kind of thing, then, of course, the public life of the state is called into question, and you would not be able to continue this. And if you couldn’t continue this, what would happen. Presumably, most Romans felt it fall apart, that there would be nothing to keep the state together. There would be nothing to bind people into a common allegiance.
And so this was the threat, the perceived threat, that here you had another organization based on different principles working in a different way which was in effect challenging the legitimacy of the established order, as I said, perhaps not intentionally but that was what it amounted to in the end. And this is, of course, why every time the Roman Empire faced a crisis and after the second century the crises mounted – they were increasingly common – why Christians took the blame for this. They were easy to blame because they appeared to constitute a secret organization which in the eyes of the Romans was out to destroy the established social order.
Now Christians themselves, of course, spent a great deal of time refuting this. They said, “No, we’re not here to destroy the state. We are here to preach the kingdom of God and we expect the state to conform to this. We expect the state to surrender to the claims of Christ.” But, of course, nobody really understood what that would involve. I mean, what would it mean for the Roman Empire to accept the claims of Christ? What would the consequences of this be? And this was not answered. You know, if the Emperor had become a Christian, what would have happened? Well, around the year 200 or 250 nobody could tell you what would happen. I mean, there was no answer to that question. And so, therefore, the Christians could challenge, you see, they could say these things but they wouldn’t know what the consequences would be. Nobody had a plan as to say, well, here’s the alternative. If you all become Christians, this is how we will live. This wasn’t worked out in any way, and so people are kind of left hanging, and when you’re left hanging, you’re very insecure.
Now in the first half of the third century, from about 200 to 250, there was a quantum leap in the number of Christians, at least in the eastern part of the empire. We know this mainly from evidence in Egypt. Egypt is, of course, the place where most of our evidence for daily life in the ancient world comes from because the sands of Egypt preserved the papyri and so on. We have records from Egypt in a way that we don’t have from the other countries. But we can tell from such things as wills that people made. That kind of thing lets us know that an increasingly large percentage of the population was professing faith in Christ. And possibly by the year 250, even the majority in Egypt – this is hard to say because, of course, it’s based on surviving evidence and so that’s sometimes hard to read or what to make of it – but people would sort of commend their souls to Christ and so on as they died or leave their goods to the church or something like this. And as this became increasingly common, you can kind of guess that the church membership and the influence of the church was growing accordingly.
Now it was, of course, a movement from the grassroots up. I mean, undoubtedly, say, in the year 250, you would be more likely to find Christians among the lower classes of the population than you would among the aristocracy. I mean, that’s certainly true. But this sort of situation can only go on so long because, of course, although the aristocracy was in control and could resist up to a certain point, you can’t really control large numbers of people against their will for a very long time. I mean, sooner or later something will give and the force of numbers will start to tell. And the emperors were aware of this. This is why from about the year 250 persecution of Christians became more intense. It didn’t necessarily become more frequent, but it became more intense when it happened because there was an increasing realization that the threat was growing and was not going to go away anytime soon.
What is remarkable from our point of view is that in the year 251 when the persecution broke out, it started by a mass destruction of church buildings. Now you read this kind of thing in documents today and you don’t think twice about it. You think, oh, great, you know, there are people in my neighborhood that would be delighted if somebody would go along destroying Dalton church and Holy Trinity and them because they just buy up the neighborhood and make more parking lots. And so the mass destruction of churches would be welcomed in certain quarters. But having said that, you suddenly sort of stand back and say, but these people were illegal. This was not supposed to happen. There shouldn’t have been church buildings. Christian cemeteries are desecrated but there shouldn’t have been such things. You see what I mean? Why were they there in the first place?
And this is when you have to realize that we’re not dealing with the church as we understand it today. We are dealing with drug dealers and people who grow marijuana in their backyard and that kind of thing. Because it is something illegal which is nevertheless spreading and getting out of control. You see what I mean? And we know this. I mean, I say that take the drugs as an example because that’s the closest thing I can think of in modern society where there is a similar phenomenon. The state does what it can to stamp it out, and more and more you find that, you know, what are they doing? Well, they’re pulling up marijuana plants and so on. And where are the marijuana plants? Well, sort of outside Beeson here, you know, sort of in that little square that you thought was sort of pine trees. You know what I mean? This stuff turns up in the most unlikely places. People suddenly seem to have it all over. How did it get there? What’s it doing? It’s a mystery to me. I mean, I can walk down the street and never see it. No one offers me marijuana or anything like that. Well, maybe they figure I’m so far gone I don’t need it. I could just walk past this and never see it. But there are other people who couldn’t walk from here to the other side of campus without being offered it five times. And they say it’s everywhere, it’s everywhere, don’t you see it? I say, no, I don’t see it. I just walk straight past it. But that’s me, for whatever reason. But other people see it everywhere and realize that it’s there. And when people tell me this, I say, well, how? It’s illegal. How is this possible? You see what I mean? And yet you realize but it is possible. It is going on and it’s very widespread and so on, and ordinary law-abiding citizens like myself walking past, I mean, just don’t see it. But those whose eyes are open or who are potential sort of customers or whatever find it everywhere. You see what I mean?
And this is the way Christianity appeared in the early part of the third century. It would have been possible in Rome or Alexandria or Antioch or somewhere like that to walk down the street and not see it. Or you might have seen things – I suppose somebody sort of had a little fish on the back of their bag or WWJD bracelet or something but you just wouldn’t pay attention. You wouldn’t know what it was. You see what I mean? And as long as your attention is not drawn to this kind of thing, you don’t notice. You don’t ask. You don’t bother.
But it was spreading all the time and, of course, when a persecution broke out, then suddenly the majority of the population would be forced to realize that there’s a huge problem. There’s these Christians all over the place and they need to be rooted out. And where are they and who are they and what’s going on? You see what I mean? This is the situation that you face at this time.
Now the most interesting thing from this period which happens is in the year 260 a woman by the name of Zenobia who was queen of the city of Palmyra – Palmyra is over here somewhere in the desert of Syria between Syria and Mesopotamia. I can’t find it. It’s in there anyhow – and Palmyra was what the Romans called a client kingdom. That is to say it was actually an Arab kingdom on the frontier because the Romans controlled the eastern frontier of their empire along here basically by paying the local tribes to make sure nobody invaded. And depending on how you look at it, the Romans thought of these people as client kings and the local tribes thought they were doing quite well to be funded by the Roman Empire, basically to carry on doing what they’ve done all along, which was beat their neighbors’ brains out.
So anyway, every once in a while this arrangement would go wrong because of internal problems within the Roman Empire. The money wouldn’t be delivered or something like that, and then there would be a revolt. And this is what happened in Palmyra around the year 260. Queen Zenobia who was ruling at that time – I forget how she came to power but it wasn’t very pleasant, I know that but I don’t remember the rest – anyhow, she led a revolt against Rome which was remarkably successful, because within a year or two she had managed to conquer most of Syria or this area which, of course, was officially Roman territory but she was in effect ruling it from her base in Palmyra.
Now when she captured Antioch, which she did in the year 260, she was faced with a problem because Antioch was not a Bedouin tent city. It wasn’t the sort of thing that she was used to handling, and so she needed somebody on the spot who could run the place for her, someone with the capability of running an urban center of that kind. I mean, remember Antioch was the third city of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria, so this was a major undertaking. Who did she find? She appointed a man called Paul of Samosata. Samosata is where he came from and it’s now in Turkey. It’s up here somewhere on the Euphrates up there. And this Paul became the governor of Antioch and was governor of Antioch for the twelve years that Zenobia ruled it, from 260 to 272. The interesting thing about this is that Paul just happened to be the Christian bishop of the city. In other words, he is the first example of a leader of a church occupying high office in the state.
Now this development is, of course, extremely interesting because Zenobia obviously felt that she could rely on the Christians in Antioch, first of all, to support her, and secondly, to be numerous enough and strong enough to control the city of Antioch. You see, that’s the other side of it, because she clearly would not have bothered appointing the head of the Christian church as governor of the city if he had had no power base there, if he had been an obscure person who nobody would listen to. I mean, clearly, Antioch at that time must have had a very large and influential Christian population because otherwise Zenobia’s little tactic would not have worked.
Now what is even more interesting is that it seems – and here we have to guess slightly from the events that took place during this time; we know, but we have to read between the lines as far as the politics are concerned – but in the year 268 while Paul of Samosata was still governor under Queen Zenobia there was a synod held in Antioch of the church of that area, the province of Syria, which condemned Paul for heresy. Now the heresy which Paul held is the heresy which we now call Adoptionism.
Adoptionism is the belief that Jesus is a man born of Mary and Joseph and that at some point God reached into this man Jesus and adopted him as his son. The only real question is at what point did this happen? The claim was later made that Paul of Samosata said that Jesus was adopted by God as his son at the time of his baptism because, of course, in the account of the baptism of Jesus in the scriptures, that is basically what it seems to say. You know, the heavens were opened and a voice came down from Heaven saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” All right. That is the moment of adoption, when the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. That kind of sets the seal of adoption.
Adoptionism was a plausible and believable heresy because it basically turned Jesus into the first Christian. This is its importance in history because Jesus was adopted by the father at his baptism. You and I are, of course, adopted by the father at our baptism. We are adopted sons and daughters of God as well. So Adoptionism as a heresy is a way of saying that Jesus is simply the first and greatest Christian.
Now you may think this is a rather strange heresy and, of course, when you put it as clearly as that, it is a very strange heresy. But the power of Adoptionism is that it keeps recurring in every generation. The WWJD phenomenon is in effect a modern form of Adoptionism because you’re turning it round the other way, but if you think that you have to do what Jesus did, in effect you’re making Jesus into the first Christian, into a model for the Christian life. And this is a very subtle heresy because like all subtle heresies it’s partly true. I mean, Jesus is in some sense a model for our life but he was not the first Christian. In fact, Jesus was not a Christian nor could Jesus ever have been a Christian, nor could Jesus even today be a Christian.
Now I know if you stand up on Sunday and say that in your church, you’ll probably be thrown out which is another sign of the power of Adoptionism. But if you stop to think what a Christian is – a Christian is a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ – it’s obvious that Jesus cannot possibly be a Christian because Jesus is not a sinner saved by grace by faith in himself. You see what I mean?
So if you think of it like this, you suddenly realize that this is not possible. And it’s very important that it shouldn’t be possible because Jesus is not just our big brother, you know, our friend sort of showing us the way and all that. I mean, people sort of put a lot of emphasis on this side of things. He is our Lord and our God. We confront him. He confronts us, and to be a friend of Jesus is to be obedient to him. It’s a different kind of relationship than the relationship of brothers and sisters in the church, and we need always to remember this. So Adoptionism, although it has elements of truth in it, of course – all these things do – is nevertheless fundamentally wrong in its most basic assertion about Jesus, which is not an accurate reflection of the truth.
All right. Well, that’s Adoptionism. The historical question is did Paul of Samosata believe this? Did he preach this? This is what we cannot be sure of. Everybody claimed that he did, and perhaps he did, but the reason why we are a little bit suspicious of this is that it seems that there was something else going on in the church of Antioch at the time and this is a very remarkable thing, that there were people in the Antiochian church who supported Rome and the claims of the Roman Empire against Zenobia who wanted the Romans to come back and claim the city back again who were not happy at the fact that they were being ruled by this rebel queen and who attacked Paul of Samosata, the leader of their church, because they saw him as her puppet. Certainly it is true that in 268 when he was condemned for heresy and deposed as bishop – obviously, you couldn’t do that – he didn’t leave. He remained bishop of the church because he was protected by the queen, so a political element did enter into it to that degree, and Paul in fact did not lose his position and presumably also his life until the Romans came back again which they did in the year 272. So there’s a very complex situation here which as I say is hidden from our eyes to a large extent. We have to read between the lines to figure out what was really going on and we’ll never get to the bottom of it. We can’t be sure what was actually happening. But what we see and what I want you to bear in mind is, first of all, clearly, a rebel queen thinks the church is important enough to try to get it on her side. And this seems for some reason or other to cause division within the church itself because there is a sufficiently large element in the church which is loyal to the legitimate regime even though they know perfectly well that the legitimate regime persecutes them.
Now the emperor who re-conquered Antioch was a man called Aurelian, who was emperor from 270 to 275, and he was an interesting character because apparently he made Jesus one of his household gods. This is the sort of thing you get in India with Hindus and so on today. But he tried to sort of buy off the Christians by including Christ as one of the gods whom he worshiped. And what is more, Aurelian tried to promote worship of the sun – as in the sun shining in the sky, that sun, S-U-N not S-O-N – worship of the sun as a unifying force because he said everyone can worship the sun. The sun shines on the just and the unjust and so on. And he tended to identify, apparently identified the Jewish God and the father of Jesus Christ with the sun. That was his sort of pagan understanding of this.
How true this is, again hard to say. But that fact that somebody like Aurelian clearly realizes that you’ve got to do something - there’s got to be some kind of accommodation with the Christian church – shows that he learned the political lesson of what had happened with Zenobia. If you don’t make an accommodation with the church, you’re liable to find that the church is co-opted by the next rebel who comes along. You know, this is the scenario which was starting to develop and shows you why this was such a political crisis at the time.
Well, the natural outworking of this was delayed for a couple of generations because in the year 285 a remarkable man by the name of Diocletian managed to take over the empire, and Diocletian initiated a major reform of the structures of the empire at the time. He realized that the Roman Empire was too big for one man to be able to rule it successfully and yet, of course, the dilemma of Rome was that one of the great selling points of the Roman Empire was that it was a universal state. So he couldn’t dismember the empire. He couldn’t just break it up and say, all right, we’ll have lots of little empires. That wasn’t the answer. What he had to do was decentralize the administration without losing the unity which, of course, had kept the empire together.
So what he did, the solution he came up with was very interesting, was to create four emperors: two chief emperors, each of whom was called an Augustus, and two junior emperors to whom he gave the title Caesar. I hardly need tell you that Diocletian was himself the senior Augustus – there were two. There were two who were equal but he was slightly more equal than the other one, of course. And what he did was he divided the empire first of all into east and west. He became the Augustus of the east, basing himself in the city of Nicomedia which is just there in Turkey not far from modern Istanbul. There. That was his capitol. And the western emperor, the western Augustus, was allowed to set up in Rome and rule over the west. All right? And, of course, their deputies were Caesars and they just had a roving commission you might say around the empire. But in theory the Augustus of the west was meant to rule in Italy and the Caesar looked after Gaul and Spain and Britain in the western part. Diocletian looked after the east, Egypt and Syria and Asia Minor, and his Caesar looked after the Balkan area supposedly. That was the idea.
Diocletian also realized that the succession was the key. In other words, it was all very well to have two Augusti and two Caesars but how do you secure transition of power to the next generation. Well, of course, he hit on the idea that there should be a term limit for being emperor, that no one should be emperor for more than 20 years. And at the end of 20 years, the Augusti would retire and the Caesars would take over. They in turn would appoint other people as Caesar and so the system would continue.
Now this is actually a very sophisticated system and very difficult to work properly, because 20 years is a long time, particularly when the average age lifespan was something like 40 to 50. And what it meant was that the chief emperors, the Augusti, had to appoint Caesars who were considerably younger than themselves because, of course, these Caesars could at least in theory be around for 40 years. You know, that’s a very long time, especially when you think that in the United States, for example, the longest time that a person could theoretically be in power is 16 years because you could be vice president for eight years and then you could be president for eight years after that, which would make it 16 years, on a similar sort of way of thinking. Sixteen years would be your limit. But has anyone ever done that? I don’t think so. At least not recently. In recent years, it hasn’t actually worked in practice. So you can see how even on that time scale 16 years is not really a long time. It’s hard to think of an example of somebody who’s actually done it. You see what I mean?
So imagine what Diocletian was doing over a 40 year period and remember with the life span very much shorter. This was really asking for a great deal. And Diocletian was extremely lucky that his Caesars actually lived to see the 20 years out. When he and his co-emperor in the west resigned on the first of May in 305, they took over. They were still alive and able to take over which was a remarkable thing but clearly a system which was subject to a great deal of chance and wasn’t likely to survive very long.
Now Diocletian, as I say, was a very determined person as you can imagine. He would have to be in order to ram through that kind of reform. He was, however, a Roman in the traditional mold, and his approach to the Christians was basically wipe them out. There was no question of accommodation with these people. They were a danger. They were a menace. They were destroying things. They were if not themselves rebellious, nevertheless, subject to being influenced by potentially rebellious people. We cannot allow this danger to survive. And so shortly before his retirement in the year 303, he launched what is now known as the Great Persecution. And the Great Persecution was actually designed to root out Christians once and for all. But, of course, by then it was far too late. There were too many Christians. Too many prominent people had become Christians. There were too many people prepared to hide Christians because they were closely related to them or something like this. The disease had spread too far to be controlled.
Nevertheless, the Great Persecution which only lasted for about 18 months left a deep wound on the church. It didn’t really affect the Roman Empire very much, but it did affect the church very deeply because one of the things that the Christians were told to do at this time was to hand over their sacred books. In other words, the Bible had to be handed over to the state authorities to be burned. And this was a shocking thing because book burning was something that didn’t happen in the ancient world. I mean, people didn’t do that sort of thing, so to burn the sacred books of the Christians was really an extreme measure being taken against them.
However, the Christians who did this, who handed over the books in order to save their lives because, of course, that was the exchange – you give us your books and we won’t actually kill you – the word for somebody who hands over something in Latin is traditor, like the word “tradition” which is a handing over. But traditor is the origin of the modern English word “traitor” because a traitor was somebody who handed over the sacred books, and this gives you some idea of how this was viewed by the rest of the church.
Now when the persecution ended, of course, the trouble began in the church because the great question was can we readmit these people? Can they come back? Can they repent of their sin and be restored to fellowship in the church? And, of course, you can imagine what a difficult problem that was, and it was curious because the end of persecution was actually worse for the church than the persecution itself. Because in the time of persecution, you knew who was who and people went to their deaths and so on and that was that. But when the persecution was over, then the church fell apart internally because people would squabble over what to do with those who had not shown the courage of their convictions and who now wanted to be restored to fellowship. So that was the effect that this had on the church itself. It was a very difficult and serious problem.
However, the persecution ended when Diocletian resigned because his successors were not prepared to carry it on, so it just stopped there. Nothing much happened for a little while as far as the church was concerned. It was more or less left in peace, but in the year 306 – in other words, the year after Diocletian resigned – the new Caesar, who had been appointed in the west who was a man called Constantius and who was actually head of the armies in Roman Britain (he was posted at the city of York in what is now England), died. And the army there unanimously elected his son whom we know as Constantine to succeed him.
Now this was, of course, strictly speaking, illegal because the succession of Caesars was not determined by the army but by the Augustus, and the Augustus was a long way away in Rome and he was basically faced with a fete accompli, you know, you can choose who you like but we’ve already chosen and that’s who you’re stuck with. The Augustus did not like this for reasons which you can imagine. Whatever he thought about Constantine himself, the procedure was wrong. And so instead of harmonious, happy ever after type living, war broke out because Constantine realized that he had to fight for his title. Otherwise, he would be deprived of it.
And so from the year 306 onwards Constantine gradually strengthened his armies. He was in Britain which was a good place to be because Britain was very difficult for anybody to invade and also it was a kind of barracks for the Roman Empire at the time, so it had a very large concentration of troops there. So Constantine was able to win them over. He then crossed into continental Europe and won over the armies of what is now northern France, Germany and so on, and gradually made his way south, conquering – or perhaps conquering is the wrong word to use, but subduing or obtaining the allegiance of most of Western Europe as he went along.
Of course, the key to success was Italy. If he could capture Italy, conquer Italy and establish himself in Rome, then no one would question his title. And this is what he realized he had to do. And so in the year 312 – I mean, it took him a while to get his act together – he invaded Italy and reached the city of Rome sometime in October of that year. And then occurred one of the great turning points in European history because on the night of the 27th of October 312, as Constantine was preparing his soldiers for the battle which would determine who would control the city of Rome, he saw in the sky a sign which was not the cross, as was portrayed by later legend, but rather the Chi-Ro sign – the first two letters in Greek of the name of Christ – and the words underneath saying “in this sign you shall conquer.” And the following day before the battle, he ordered this Chi-Ro sign to be painted on the shields of all his soldiers as a kind of superstition, really. He had seen the sign. This was going to give him the victory, so he put it on his shield or had all his soldiers put it on their shields. He duly won the victory and entered the city of Rome and, of course, proclaimed himself as Augustus, the chief emperor of the west. He then retired to Milan in northern Italy where he spent the winter, and during that winter in February of the year 313 he issued an edict legalizing Christianity.
Now these events, as I have recounted them, are reasonably well attested. I mean, we can say that that much more or less happened as it is stated. Questions that people ask about all of this become much more difficult to answer. For example, of course, the question that everybody immediately asks, was Constantine converted? Did he become a Christian? This is extremely difficult to say because, of course, a lot of it hangs on what you mean by a Christian. Somebody who has a vision in the sky and then sort of paints the vision on the shields of his soldiers for basically superstitious reasons is not perhaps what we would think of as your ideal pastor. I mean, if somebody came along and gave that kind of testimony, you might be a little bit concerned that they hadn’t quite got the point somewhere along the line.
All right. But then, of course, Constantine was not a theologian. He hadn’t been to seminary or anything like that. He was a soldier. His understanding of life was the sort of thing you expect to find from soldiers, so in other words, basically, very straightforward, honest, you know, do this/do that, don’t ask too many questions, and just get on with it. It tends to be sort of that kind of thing. And that’s what he did. That’s the way he reacted. So what do we say about this? We shall never, of course, be able to determine what was going on in his heart and mind. I mean, this is beyond our ability to fathom. We don’t know this. All we can say is how it changed his behavior. And this is, of course, what matters as far as the history of the church is concerned. Because Constantine took what for him must have been a very risky step which was to legalize the church, to give the church the status of a corporation in Roman law which meant, of course, that it could own property. It meant that people could give things to it legally. It meant that its officials could have legal status in society and so on. It was a tremendous advantage to the church in its internal life.
Constantine did not make Christianity the religion of the Roman state. This is not true. People think this is what he did, but he did not. In fact, in showing favor to the Christians, he was often careful to make sure that this favor was balanced by equal consideration for pagans or at least was expressed and explained in a pagan sort of way. Thus, for example, in the year 321 when he declared the Christian Sabbath as a day of rest, an official public holiday for the first time, he was very careful to identify this as the day of the sun and reviving the sort of cult of sun worship and saying, well, sun worshippers can have the day off as well. You see what I mean? Because it’s the day of the sun. So there was an ambiguity here, you might say. I mean, sort of an attempt to cater to both sides in this particular argument, and this is the way Constantine tried to handle things as much as he could.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the weight of his favor fell on the side of the Christians. One very big thing was that he exempted Christian ministers – that is, the people who are official pastors and so on – he exempted them from taxation and from military service. And, of course, to this day, as you know, ministers get special treatment in both spheres, that they are not usually called up for military service and they get special tax arrangements. There are special things done for them. So this all really goes back to Constantine and, of course, it was something which was very much to the church’s advantage, at least to the clergy’s advantage, you might say, the leadership in this way.
The eastern part of the empire which Constantine did not control was, of course, a very different proposition. You have to remember that Constantine was basically a rebel against the system. It’s true that he was rebelling in order to maintain or confirm the title which the army had bestowed on him, but still he had not been officially recognized by anybody, and the eastern half of the empire – the emperors there were not prepared to accept him as a colleague. And, of course, his legalization of Christianity was viewed by them as the sort of thing a rebel chief would do. I mean, this is Queen Zenobia all over again, and remember Zenobia was still in living memory at this time. I mean, it was only 40 years before that Zenobia had finally been overthrown so plenty of people remembered her and remembered that time. And, of course, this was a repeat performance, if you like, from their point of view.
So Constantine had to conquer the east as well, and this took him another twelve years to accomplish. He did it, but he did not finally subdue his enemies in the east until the year 324. And so it was in the year 324 that his edict for the legalization of Christianity took effect throughout the empire. Previously, it had only taken effect in those areas that he controlled. So although the legalization dates from 313, in reality it did not become universal until eleven years later in 324. And, of course, this is very significant because it helps to explain why the first great council of the early church took place in the year 325. You see, this is not accidental; it is the year after the legalization of Christianity becomes a reality throughout the Roman Empire. In other words, the first occasion when the universal church was able to meet in this way without interference or without suffering persecution, so these things tie in remarkably well.
Now the trouble was, of course, that Constantine in legalizing the church did not know what he was taking on. He did not fully understand that the church had its own inner dynamic. The church had its own inner tensions which he could not control. These tensions broke out very quickly in the west and especially in North Africa, because North Africa was the place more than anywhere else where the problem of repentant sinners posed itself with the greatest acuteness, in other words, what to do with the people who had betrayed the church in time of persecution. And in North Africa there was very strong feeling that these people should not be readmitted to the church. And tension arose when church leaders turned out to be more liberal than that. The church leadership was prepared to forgive – well, not forgive and forget exactly, but forgive after suitable penance and let these people back into the fellowship, whereas the ordinary rank and file members of the church were very upset by this.
In order to make a point, a woman called Lucilla turned up one day in the church in Carthage and went to communion – went to receive communion from the head of the church, from the bishop of the church there and apparently as she was taking communion held out the bone of a martyr – pretty macabre thing to do, but nevertheless she collected martyrs’ bones – for the bishop to bless. Now, of course, the bishop would not do this. The bishop did not believe in this. The church forbade this kind of thing. Nevertheless, what Lucilla was doing – this was a provocation, of course. I’m sure she didn’t care one way or the other whether the bone was blessed or not, but the refusal of the bishop to do this was interpreted as a denial of the place of martyrdom and of the martyrs in the church. Therefore, the interpretation goes around, not only is the bishop allowing runaways and renegades to come back into the church, he’s actually refusing to honor those who died for their faith.
This, of course, in modern terms would be if your presidential candidates not only supported draft dodgers in their rights to come back and occupy high positions in government and so on, but also decided that cenotaphs and things like that should be ignored or torn down or whatever because why bother with the dead. You see what I mean? The shockwaves that went through the North African church can be understood if you look at it in that kind of way.
This feeling was captured by various people, but the man who got it all organized was a man called Donatus who was elected bishop of the rebel church of the breakaway group, the breakaway group which said that we cannot compromise. We cannot allow people who have betrayed the faith back into the fellowship. And it is for this reason that they are called Donatists. And Donatism as a schism – it’s not a heresy, it’s a schism. A schism is a breakaway in the church; a heresy is false doctrine. Donatus did not preach false doctrine. I mean, he didn’t have the wrong view of Christ or the Trinity or something like this. What he preached was strict discipline, and strict discipline on the assumption that it was possible to have a perfect church and indeed that only perfect people should be allowed into the church. You see, this was the underlying theology, if you like, of this movement. And because as I say in North Africa there was this very strong feeling, Donatism split the North African church in two. In fact, the Donatists were probably the majority for most of the time for most of the fourth century. Certainly, they became a very disruptive influence. And Constantine was suddenly faced with the trouble because the bishop who had been tricked, if you like, in this way appealed to the emperor to send troops to restore order in the churches because, of course, the Donatists were trying to take over the churches, trying to expel those who were not on their side and all over the place there was trouble one way or the other. And so the troops came in to put down the rioting and all this kind of thing, and they naturally sided with the moderates, if you like, not with the fundamentalists who were the Donatists, you might say.
And so this, of course, simply made everything worse, but not only that, it convinced the Donatists that the moderates had sold out to the devil because the soldiers who only a few years before had been persecuting the entire church were now persecuting the Donatist group and that proved that the Donatists were the true church because a true church must be persecuted. If you’re not being persecuted, there’s something wrong with you. That was their theory.
Well, all right. Donatism was a major problem and difficulty for a long time, but as I say, it was essentially a schism. That is to say a break in the church, a division in the church, not a heresy. Things were very different in the east because during the time when Constantine was battling to conquer the east, trouble had broken out in the church in Alexandria because one of the presbyters or priests of that church had got up and had preached and proclaimed that Jesus Christ was not the eternal son of God, that Jesus Christ was a creature who had a very special place in relation to God, yes, but was not God in the strict sense of the word.
This was the famous Arius who was to go down in history as the arch heretic of the Christian church. And in the year 318 he was condemned in Alexandria and deprived of his right to preach. Of course, because the church was still illegal in Alexandria, this decree could not take effect. Arius could go on doing what he wanted to do because there was no means of getting rid of him. I mean, what could you actually do? You could say that he shouldn’t be there but you couldn’t physically remove him from his church.
This all changed, of course, in 324 when suddenly Constantine arrives. Suddenly the church is legalized. Suddenly the church has the power or can obtain the power to determine who belongs to it and who does not. And so the question of what do about Arius immediately comes to the surface and Constantine, who did not expect this – I mean, this is not what he wanted – suddenly finds himself legalizing a church, liberating a church from the shackles of persecution only to discover that it is internally divided, not now because of schism but because of something much more dangerous, heresy. And so a council of the church has to be called to determine (a) what the heresy is and (b) what to do about those who follow it. And that is, of course, the origin of what we now know as the first council of Nicaea in the year 325 and that is what we will come back to and discuss another time.
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