Lecture 2: Constantine's Influence
Course: Essentials of Church History
Lecture: Constantine's Influence
I. Christianity Rose Up in Asia Minor
So far in our study of early church history we have studied from the fullness of time, and the destruction of Jerusalem. We’ve moved through some of the mission to the gentiles, Paul’s work, the Apostles, spreading out to all different portions of that early Christian world. One of the things I failed to reflect on, it is quite helpful in studying church history by having a map in front of you. Interestingly, Christianity arose in that Asia Minor area that is present day Israel/Syria. We have the “Silk Trail” which runs from Mesopotamia all the way thru Persia and that Mesopotamian area and on toward China. Quite early on Christians found their way along that route as well as other commerce routes in that early world. Also one thing that needs to be mentioned is that there are traditions that tell us that the apostles found their way to many far flung places in that world scene. One of these apostles, the apostle Thomas, and it is said, that he was the first missionary to India. Some have set forward the name of Bartholomew as the one who actually made it there. But the frequency of the early reports that Thomas preached in India is very significant. And there is enough historical evidence to support at least the possibility that the apostle did indeed travel to that Asian land. The tradition is worthy of a historical note as Christian commentary of a global church in the first centuries of the movement.
One of the things that is true, archaeologists have actually found first century Roman coins in India.
And apparently it was the case that the Arabs were the first ones who understood that the monsoon winds would blow at a particular time of year and it would carry them across the vast expanses of ocean and they were able to make it to India. They were the ones who then took great advantage of the trade between India and other parts of the world because the spices from India were highly desirable, silk and other kinds of products were highly desirable, and so making contact with India was very important.
The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, a book written fairly early, yet not having a strong historical accuracy, says according an agent of an Indian king named Gundaphoros had come to Jerusalem seeking artisans to build a new palace back home. Thomas, a carpenter like Jesus heard the offer and took on the job. With his Indian host, he travelled to northern India where he was given necessary money to begin the construction. Instead of building a palace however, Thomas gave the money to the poor and set about performing miracles in the land as he shared the message of Christ, after being jailed, and then freed.
II. Spread of the Gospel by the Apostles
The Acts of Thomas says that the apostles traveled to other parts of India, reaching at last the region of modern Madras. There he was martyred by an angry King whose Queen Thomas had converted to his radical ascetic doctrine. Tradition locates the site of his burial at a shrine in the southeastern city of Millipore, where his tomb is still said to stand. Among the Indian churches a number of oral traditions and folk songs trace the origins of Christianity back to St. Thomas. The Indian oral traditions say that Thomas first landed in 52 A.D. in south India along the Malabar Coast. There, he preached to the people and won many converts to the Christian faith. Some who converted were Brahmans, while others were from various other casts. His preaching angered the Brahman leaders who ordered him to worship the goddess Cali. Thomas refused and was executed with a lance through his side. July 3rd is still celebrated by the Indian churches as the anniversary of this martyrdom.There are interesting stories about how Thomas travelled to far flung places in order to establish the faith; it is also said that the apostle Mark, the disciple Mark went to Alexandria after he had written his Gospel. While residing in the city of Rome things heated up with persecutions against the Christians; he exited there and went to Alexandria where he had a powerful ministry.
III. Examples of how the Gospel Comes into Contact with Human Culture
It’s interesting to note that each part of the world to which Christianity went had its own particular culture and its own particular circumstance. In regards to church history, there are concrete examples of how the gospel came into contact with human culture and just like Paul, climbing Mars Hill as it was recorded for us in the Book of Acts. He engages the people where they are with their own thought forms in that particular case he saw that there was a monument to the unknown god and so in his preaching he engaged them precisely where they were concerned. Now in the case of Alexandria there was a lot of philosophy that was very important to those folks. There were aspects of Egyptian and Persian thought forms that all gained a kind of mixture. So the Alexandrians were very interested in that philosophical side of things. So the Christian message had to be converted into language which would be a message that the Alexandrians would hear. In a like manner, St. Thomas had to express the Gospel in his setting there as he went to India. The Gospel went west, to Rome, and the center of the empire. In each and every instance it had its own particular form as Christianity went north and a little bit east into Syria we find that the Christians began to translate things into Syria. And there were a number of books that emerged including the Didache, or the teaching, in which the early Christian thought forms were expressed. So where ever Christianity went it had to adapt. We find now that the preaching of the Hebrew prophets comes full on into Greek culture. This struggle of the Gospel penetrating into culture is an interesting study for us as we think about church history.
IV. Constantine’s Conversion
Now we come to an interesting transition and turning point absolutely critical for the churches self-understanding. Constantine, who was the Emperor in Rome, had a conversion experience. This marks a turning point in the history of the church and Europe. It was the end of persecution for the Christians. The sovereign autocrat was inevitably and immediately involved in the development of the church. And conversely the church became more and more implicated in high political decisions.
It is characteristic that the western attitude to the conversion of Constantine and its consequences has generally been more ambivalent than the eastern. In the west there has been a sharper consciousness of the double sidedness of its benefits to the church. Certainly whenever the church has come into a position of power, it has also been tempted to use that power in ways which are not altogether godly. So Constantine allows Christianity to become one of the accepted religions within the empire. Now his conversion was certainly an inward experience of grace, but there are many who have been somewhat cynical about whether or not Constantine had a true conversion experience. For it would seem that he was never really very clear on the basic tenants of the teachings of Christianity.
In many ways his conversion was very much connected with his military undertakings at the time. He gained victory in battle and he did believe that his victory was the gift of God, a gift of the God of the Christians to be more specific. See, what happened was this; in 312 with inferior forces, and against all prudence, Constantine made a rapid invasion of Italy and attacked his rival, Maxentius in Rome.
Instead of remaining secure behind Aurelian’s walls, Maxentius chose to come out and fight with the Tiber River behind him. It was such unaccountable folly that Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge in 312 seemed to signal manifestation of celestial favor.The Roman Senate erected in his honor the arch that stands today by the coliseum depicting the drowning of Maxentius troops and proclaiming in its inscription that Constantine won by the prompting of the deity. The Deity to whom they referred was “the unconquered son”. The Christians believed the one God whom they worshipped had given them and Constantine the victory. Lactantius the Latin apologist, who taught rhetoric at Nicomedia in Asia Minor tells of a dream granted to Constantine directing him to put the χρ (chi rho) monogram on his shields and standards as a talisman of victory. This sign which appears on Constantine’s coins from 315 was a monogram of the name of Christ.Late 4th century writers called it the Labaru, its name and shape might suggest an echo of the double ax, which was an ancient cult symbol of Zeus. But that its meaning was universally understood to be Christian is shown by the fact that under Julian it was abolished.
Perhaps Constantine decided to make the Christian monogram his military standard even prior to 312. Before a battle against invading barbarians he told Eusebius of Caesarea a little time later that he had seen the Cross athwart the midday sun inscribed with the words “by this conquered”. The occasion may have been during his campaign against the Franks near Alton in 311. A contemporary pagan orator mentions a vision of the sun god on the eve of his victory on this occasion.In other words, Constantine was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in “the unconquered son”. The transition from solar monotheism, the most popular form of contemporary paganism, to Christianity was not difficult. In Old Testament prophecy Christ was entitled, “the SUN of righteousness”. Clement of Alexandria somewhere around AD 200 speaks of Christ driving his chariot across the sky like the sun god. A tomb Mosaic recently found in Rome, probably made early in the fourth century, depicts Christ as the Sun god mounting the heavens with his chariot. Tertullian says that many pagans imagined that Christians worshipped the Sun because they met on Sundays and prayed toward the east. Moreover, early in the 4th century there begins in the west, where first and by whom it is not known, the celebration of the 25th of December, the birthday of the Sun god at the winter solstice as the date for the nativity of Christ.
How easy it was for Christianity and solar religion to become entangled at the popular level is strikingly illuminated by a mid-fifth century sermon by Pope Leo the Great, rebuking his over cautious flock for paying reverence to “the sun” on the steps of Saint Peters before turning their back on it to worship inside the westward facing basilica . Now, if Constantine’s coins long continued to be engraved with the symbolic representation of the image of the son, his letters from 313 onward leave no doubt that he regarded himself a Christian whose imperial duty was to keep a united church.
He was not baptized until he lay dying in 337 but this implies no doubt about his Christian belief. It was common at this time and continued so until about A.D. 400 to postpone baptism until the end of one’s life, especially if ones duty as an official included torture and execution of criminals. Part of the reason for postponement had to do with the seriousness in which the responsibilities of baptism were taken. Constantine favored Christianity among the many religions of his subjects, but did not make it the official or established religion of the empire.When in obedience to a divinely granted dream, he decided to found a new capital for the eastern half of the empire at the magnificent strategic site of Byzantium on the Bosporus. He intended it to be a new Rome. Providing it with two noble churches dedicated to the apostles and to peace. But he also placed in the forum a statue of the sun god bearing his own features and even found room for a statue of the mother goddess Cybele. The genius of the city he solemnly invoked for the celebration conducted by Christian clergy on the 11th of May in the year 330.
So Constantine’s benefactions to the church were on a large scale. The ravages of persecution he made good by financing new copies of the Bible and by building churches especially the basilicas in Rome at the traditional shrines of St. Peter and St. Paul and in the Holy Land at Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulcher. The palace of his second wife Fausta, formerly the property of the Lateran family, he gave to the bishops of Rome as an Episcopal residence which remained so until 1308. He even assigned a fixed proportion of provincial revenues to church charity so large that even when cut to a third at its restoration after the suspension under Julian’s pagan revival it was reckoned generous. Constantine also endeavored to express Christian ideals in some of his laws protecting children, slaves, peasants and prisoners. An edict of 316 directs that criminals may not be branded on the face because man is made in God’s image.
By 321 Constantine’s faith had become a political factor. His eastern colleague, Licinius with whom he agreed on religious toleration in 313 was a pagan. And as suspicion of each other’s intentions rose, Constantine tried to enlist Christian support in the east. He succeeded in encircling Licinius by making alliance with the Armenians, who had recently become Christians. And when Licinius harried Christians near the Armenian frontier and prohibited synods; Constantine had an excuse for a crusading war culminating in a victory on the Bosporus in September 324 which left him sole ruler of the empire. Up to that point he had shared his rule with Licinius.
A. The Council of Nicaea
One of the things that Constantine then turned his face toward was the matter of the unity of the faith of the Christian church. In order for him to have a unified empire, he needed to have a unified church. He began to deal with the matter of the church. For within the church, there was a growing matter of unrest, he declared that there should be a council to be held in Nicaea. And so he enlisted the aid of several individuals in order to make this happen. Constantine began to make inquiry and then decided on Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, to be the one to lead this ecumenical council. When Hosius came to talk with the emperor he sided with one bishop, Alexander, over and against Arias another bishop who had a very different take on the person of Christ and then went to Antioch and Syria to inquire into the support that Aria had been receiving from Eusebius of Caesarea and others.
At a council of Antioch, where Hosius presided, Eusebius was excommunicated, subject to confirmation by the great council already called for Ankara. It was a clear attempt to prejudge the issue. Constantine reacted at once by transferring the council from Ankara to Nicaea near Nicomedia so that he could personally control the proceedings. So the council of Nicaea, soon to be recognized as the first ecumenical or world council because of the range of representation there was attended by about two hundred and twenty bishops, almost all of whom were Greek. Now it’s interesting to me to note that in the differing accounts that I’ve read of the council of Nicaea different numbers are given for how many bishops attended. If you take a look at some sources they will tell you 318 bishops. Henry Chadwick says that there were 220 bishops that attended the council. But none the less there were a goodly number and they convened on May 20th 325. Constantine urged the bishops to achieve unity and peace. He quickly made it clear that he deplored the censure of Eusebius of Caesarea and declared full support for his doctrines.
B. After Nicaea
The issue that was being decided at this particular council had to do with the so called Arian controversy. This controversy split the church for a time and had repercussions which were felt for about three centuries. Arias who originated the dispute, was a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt. About the year 318, he began to propagate views as to the divinity of Christ which was contrary to the accepted doctrine of the church. He taught that Christ had come into being out of no existence, out of nonexistence, and that once he was not, and that he was created and made. On this view the Son was inferior to the Father in nature and dignity, although the first and noblest of all created beings. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, took action in 320 and declared that he believed the Son to be consubstantial and coeternal with the Father. Arius was not straight forward in his controversial methods and cleverly tried to cloud the issues. He was deposed in 321, but being an able and charming man he was defended and befriended by immanent ecclesiastics, like Macarius bishop of Jerusalem, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian that we have come to know quite a bit about early church history from.
In this particular conflict, there were a number of arguments that were set out. We find that the creed proposed for the adoption by the council confirmed that the Son is of one substance with the Father. Its concluding anathema condemned the propositions that the Son is metaphysically or morally inferior to the Father and belongs to the created order. In other words what was being asserted is that the Son, let us put it this way, that Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the name of our God. That God has essential unity, there is one God and we worship only one God. That is affirmed by the Old Testament; remember the schema out of Deuteronomy chapter six: hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God, The Lord is one. In Jewish thinking this “one” was never thought of to be a mathematical number, but it was to say that God has essential unity; that God is, there is only one God. We do not worship many gods and therefore become an idolatrous people. But we worship the one true God who created heaven and earth. Now in the case of Christians, we essentially say we worship the God “whom” created heaven and earth, but also we must say that we worship this God “whom” raised the Son Jesus from death. So when we talk about God as being Father, Son and Holy Spirit we understand that there is one God and that the “oneness” has to do with an essential unity. And so they tried to describe this with Greek terminology saying consubstantial with the Father, the Son is no less God because he is called the Son, but He is called Son because he has a particular role to play in God’s one economy of salvation.
We would never say, that the Spirit sent the Father into the world to die on the cross and once he was ascended he sent Jesus into the world to remain with the church, no, we would never say; that would be a muddle of talking about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We would usually say that the Father created heaven and earth, and the Son was present at that creation as well; as well as the Spirit. The Spirit hovered over the deeps. We also say that the Son has a particular role in God’s saving economy even as the Spirit. So when these early church fathers were getting together to talk about the God whom we worship, they wanted to be very clear that the Son was not inferior to the Father in his Godliness. So they said that He is consubstantial with the Father; his very essence; that is why we use the word, metaphysical. His very essence participates or is the same as that of the Father.
He is not morally inferior to the Father, for he is pure and without sin, even as the Father is without sin, even as the Spirit is without sin. So the council began to hammer out their understanding of these matters.
C. Controversy About the Nature of Christ
Astonishingly enough after the strong partisanship that appeared before the council, 218 out of 220 bishops signed the creed, a unanimity that most certainly must have gratified the anxious emperor.
It is, however, clear that the crucial terms of the creed were not understood in a precisely identical sense by all the signatories. “Of one substance” affirmed identity. It declared that the Son and the Father are the same. But this was ambiguous, to some it meant the personal or specific identity, to many others it meant that a much broader generic identity. The happy accident of this ambiguity enabled Constantine to secure the assent of everyone except two Libyan bishops whose objections seem to have been less to the creed than to the sixth canon which subjected them to Alexandrian control. And by that one of the things that the council was trying to deal with was the lines of authority that passed between the different cities of power and the different bishops that ruled over the cities.
A quick word might be in order here. The organization of the early church really goes through quite a broad piece of development in these early centuries. When you take a look at the biblical material you find that there are a couple of Greek terms; πρεσβύτεροι which refers to bishops, it deals with the matter of elders, those, who have eldership rule over a church and then there is another term επισκοποι which term means overseers. In the early stages of the Christian movement, those two terms seem to be interchangeable, there didn’t seem to be a big difference between επισκοποι and πρεσβύτεροι, they were just used interchangeably.
However over the course of time, it seems as though that began to change. It was the case that in some cities of large population there would be more than one congregation and therefore more than one overseer. And so they all seemed to have parity. But over the course of time it would seem that in the life of any given large city where there were multiple congregations there began to emerge one overseer that had a prominent place.
Now at the ecumenical council of 325 already you have important centers of Christianity forming around Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and in the case of these two Libyan priests, they apparently needed to submit to the authority of the Alexandrian bishop. And that, for them, was the major issue here, as they attended the council of Nicaea. The outcome of the early vote is that there was unanimity among the bishops attending the council of Nicaea and this begins to set the stage for the debate which carries on after the vote at Nicaea. Also, attached to the creed are a number of canons which designate the lines of authority and the developing organization of the church. By 325 the Greek churches at least were accustomed to an organization based on the secular provisional system, and the unit normally conformed to that of the state. But what court of appeal would stand above of a provincial council? Unlike the west, the east had no single see of unquestioned preeminence. You see in the west, Rome had achieved that place of preeminence. But only great cities like Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. The one Greek city with many sacred sites was Jerusalem whose bishop showed a strong awareness that they presided over the mother church of Christendom. But it never became a major center of power in the church. Not until the 5th century in the face of impassioned opposition from Alexandria could the See of Constantinople establish a position comparable with that of Rome in the west.
But for the Latin bishops the western prestige of Rome, they simplified the problem and in 342 and 343 the Latin bishops at Surtica simply ruled that the court of appeal from a provincial synod should be judges appointed by the Pope. Even so the Surtican bishops had to pass a special resolution deploring individual bishops who brought the church into disrepute by continual visits to the court.
So, as the fourth century advanced, it became increasingly, the tendency for the final decisions about church policy to be taken by the Emperor. And the group in the church which at any given time swayed the course of events was very often that which succeeded in obtaining the imperial ear.
From Nicaea to the death of Constantine there is a period of conflict. The Nicene Creed remained unquestioned during this period in which Constantine was alive. Never the less the friends of Arias were able to recover much of the ground they lost in the summer of 325. This recovery was mainly the achievement of their brilliant leader Eusebius of Nicomedia. Who, by virtue of his position in his proximity to the court was well placed to get things done. So he orchestrated the fall of three very important individuals who stood in his way. The first to fall was the bishop of Antioch, Eustis, a violent critic of Origen’s theology that made it easy for the Eusebia’s to eliminate him. He spoke disrespectfully of Constantine’s mother Helena when she was visiting the holy land on pilgrimage in 326. A synod of Antioch opposed him.The second fall was harder for Eusebius to dislodge. Athanasius, he was of course a great defender of orthodoxy and had been one of the bright lights at the council of Nicaea. He had succeeded to the bishopric of Alexandria on Alexander’s death and soon after his election he received a letter from Constantine saying that Arias himself had now signed the Nicene Creed.
With a few private glosses and should be restored to communion at Alexandria. Athanasius refused to restore communion at Alexandria. When summoned to the Emperor, he so impressed Constantine by his qualities that the demand was not pressed. Unhappily he had trivial local troubles in Egypt which led to his downfall.There were some schismatic Christians who claimed that Athanasius had dealt with undo force with some who opposed his authority and so he was set down on that basis.
The third to fall was the bishop of Ankara, Marcellus. He had long carried on a pamphlet war against the theological tradition of Origen with its strong emphasis upon the dependence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three hypostasis. One of the issues that arose is that eastern Christianity seemed to emphasize the Threeness and was willing to use metaphors like, “God is like three human beings, and each having their own sphere of influence and yet holding in common the fact that they are all three are human beings.” Well that metaphor when applied to God who is far above human nature breaks down a bit, and of course the danger is running into tri-theism. Origen never fully escaped that problematic because of the way he described the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And so this bishop of Ankara, Marcellus had strong objection to the way that Origen had described Father, Son and Spirit as three hypostasis. To Marcellus, the unity of God was prior to all plurality. In himself God is one. And he is only three in a relative sense because of his activity in creation and redemption.
Marcellus wanted a strictly biblical theology based on text, not on Plato or Origen and he found an excellent proof text for his position in the words of St. Paul. That the Son, shall at the last deliver up the Kingdom to the Father, and God will be all in all; showing that any distinction between Son and Father is only temporary and relative to the created order. Politically Marcellus was not a powerful figure and therefore did not attract the fire of the Eusebia’s until 335. But immediately after that time period Constantine instructed all the bishops in the east to attend the dedication of his new church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem and planned that in celebration of the 30th anniversary of his elevation as Emperor, the ceremonies should include a splendid reconciliation of all those Arians who had come to submit since the council of Nicaea. Marcellus declined to soil his conscience by attending and was at once accused of disrespect to the Emperor as well as of heresy. By accounts of Constantinople in 336 he was deposed and now the usual exile followed.
D. After Arias Dies
So it is interesting that right about this time Arias dies. It is significant of the course of events and dates are shrouded in myths. He had been left out in the cold, almost forgotten laying sick and old. He had pleaded with Constantine to allow him the benefit of the sacraments before he died; sadly he complained his powerful friends like Eusebius of Nicomedia could no longer be bothered to do anything for him. It was charitably arranged that he should be formally restored at Constantinople, some twenty years later; Athanasius began to circulate the dramatic story that in response to the prayers of the local bishop, that he might be spared pollution, Arias was struck dead in the manner of Judas Iscariot on the eve of his restoration. Perhaps the heretic’s death came before the intended act of peace. Perhaps Athanasius story is untrue and he died shriven. It does not matter to the history because Arias had ceased to matter. He had long been discarded by both sides; he himself painfully realized he had become negligible.
There was lots of wrangling that took place after the council of Nicaea. We find that the Arian controversy actually created a situation in which a fair number of bishops in the church at that time actually embraced the Arian heresy; that there was a time when He was not. The third and final stage of the Arian controversy from Julius to Theodosius is marked by the appearance of new men and fresh problems cutting across the old issues. When Athanasius died in 373 he was perhaps the last survivor of those who had been present at Nicaea in 325, during that time there had been a number of events which had created a new atmosphere in which a compromise could take place. There were contributions that were made by Pope Leo. There were new negotiations that had taken place by many of the theologians of the time and finally in 381 the ecumenical council of Constantinople was called to order.
It is the sign of a sea change and the understanding of the problem that no representatives came from Rome; there was a change of those that were in charge of the council. The new bishop of Alexandria, Timothy, arrived reluctantly and late. The council had to decide about the succession at Constantinople where the Arian Demophilus had withdrawn before the Theodosian wind of change.
In a number of ways what happened is the council of Constantinople reaffirmed the resolution of Nicaea in 325 and the ecumenical council moved forward then and allowed Christianity to move forward with a more full understanding of the nature of the Son. So, the Nicaean controversy created this very interesting time period when many Arians actually served as bishops. Athanasius stood strong in his orthodox opposition to an understanding of Jesus Christ that was less than fully God. And so the doctrine having to do with the Son stood the test of time and was reaffirmed at the council of Nicaea 381. Later on in 431 when the council of Ephesus is convened. This council had to do with the controversy regarding the nature of Christ. How is it that we can talk about God come in the flesh?
What takes place there? Is it that God takes, overwhelms a physical body, a given human being and thus resides and dominates that human life so as there is only one will, namely a divine will in that human person? If so, does that mean that something is not fully human and not fully God, but a tertian quid or a third sort of creature? That is one of the questions that arose.
Nestorius was an eloquent bishop of Constantinople, opposed Euticus, a fellow who basically opposed the unity of the divine will in the incarnate Christ. Nestorius opposed Euticus and so stressed the two natures of Christ that he was accused of teaching that Christ was two persons. On the other side of the question you had Euticus who held that our Lord had one nature only, the divine having absorbed the human. One result of the growing stress on celibacy in the church was the insistence on the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary and to glorify her, she was given the title Theotokos, “the Mother of God” Nestorius protested, maintaining that Mary was the mother of the man Christ Jesus, but not of his deity. The council dealt with Nestorius and banished him to the desert of Nebeid. He had many followers in Syria and Persia who formed the Nestorian church. In its early days this church expanded remarkably rapidly. It established itself strongly first in Persia, then in Armenia. Its missionaries then pressed on further eastward and by 625 had reached China by way of central Asia and the Silk Road, a most honorable record. This church still exists in Armenia in spite of terrible persecutions from the Muslims.
E. The Council of Chalcedon
Twenty years later, Euticus, the implacable opponent of Nestorius and the council of Ephesus, was charged to his great astonishment, being a heretic and with teaching that Christ had only one nature, the divine; though defended by the turbulent synod of Ephesus in 449 known as the robber synod. He was condemned at the council of Chalcedon.This council with its attendance of 500 bishops affirmed that Christ has two natures unconfutable and unchangeably, but are united in one person. To this day the opposite doctrine of the one nature lingers on among the Jacobite’s in Syria and the Copts of Egypt and Abyssinia. So we have an interesting set of concerns that flows through the church. A lot of it has to do with identifying the God whom Christians worship over and against plausible but non-biblical forms of the same. So that is one of the things that took place during this time period. Now, I think one of the things that need to be said, as students of church history we begin to see how complicated things are. Because it’s not simply a matter of theology, there’re also matters of politics, who is close to the emperor? Who has power in a particular city? There are lots of issues that are involved in the negotiations that went back and forth.
Clearly there is a theological basis and foundation for the concerns of these councils. But notice that these councils are held in public and they are held in part at the pleasure of the emperor because he needs to have a unified church to have a unified empire. All of this is the result of that turning point that we began our session with, namely that turning point of Constantine.
F. Impact of Constantine
Perhaps we should pause and take just a moment or two to talk about the impact of Constantine. Constantine’s impact on the life of the church was such that it was still felt as late as the 20th century. You can read articles that talk about Constantine Christianity, and by that, what they simply mean is Christianity which has a friend in the government. Now that is simply not the case in many parts of the world. In many places Christians are persecuted by the government and it actually seeks to destroy them. But in the west, starting with Constantine, there have been places, certainly that was the case in Europe and in the United States where the church was at the very least tolerated and not persecuted and with that toleration there came a certain amount of privilege because of the privilege there was a certain kind of lax approach to doing Christian things that developed in the church. The immediate consequence of Constantine’s conversion was a cessation of persecution. Up until his conversion even at times of relative peace Christians had lived under the threat of persecution, and what was for many the hope of martyrdom. After Constantine’s conversion that threat and that hope dissipated.
G. Page Reaction to Constantine’s Support of Christianity
The few pagan emperors who reigned after him did not generally persecute Christians but rather they tried to restore paganism by other means. Now one of the results of the new situation was what many have called an official theology. Overwhelmed by the favor that the emperor was pouring on them many Christians sought to show that Constantine was chosen by God to bring the history of both church and empire to its culmination, where both were joined. Typical of this attitude was church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (not to be confused with Eusebius of Nicomedia, who we have already talked about in terms of the Arian controversy. He was a fellow who said this, “Looking westward or eastward, looking over the whole earth and even looking at heaven always and everywhere I see blessed Constantine leading the same empire”. He was so convinced of the blessing that Constantine was giving, that it was a blessing not only of empire but also to the church.
Now, others were on an opposite tack, or an opposite approach. For them the fact that the emperors declared themselves Christians and for this reason people were flocking to the church was not a blessing but rather a great apostasy. Some, who tended to look at matters under this light but did not wish to break communion with the rest of the church withdrew to the desert; there to lead a life of meditation and asceticism. Since martyrdom was no longer possible, these people believed that the true athlete of Christ must continue training if no longer for martyrdom then for monastic life. The fourth century thus witnessed a massive exodus of devoted Christians to the deserts of Egypt and Syria. This was a reaction against what they saw as being the lax condition in the church under Constantine where it had so many privileges and there was an influx of money, there was a rising level of power, there were all kinds of temptations and corruptions and so there were many Christians who said this is a bad thing, among those who remained in the church withdrawing neither into the desert nor into schism.
There was a great deal of intellectual activity, as in every such time period there were some who proposed theories and doctrines but that the rest of the church felt it had to reject. Most important of these is Arianism which gave rise to bitter controversies regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.
Julian’s reign marked another high point of another attitude against Constantine’s conversion; pagan reaction. There were many attempts over the course of the next centuries to revitalize paganism. Most Christians however reacted to the new situation with neither total acceptance nor total rejection. Most church leaders saw the new circumstances as offering unexpected opportunities, but also great dangers. Thus while affirming their loyalty to the emperor, as most Christians had always done, they insisted that their ultimate loyalty belonged only to God. Such was the attitude of the great fathers of the early church.
H. Effect that Constantine’s Conversion had on Christian Worship
One of the things that we need to say is that Constantine’s conversion also had a powerful impact on Christian worship. Until Constantine’s time, Christian worship had been relatively simple. At first, Christians began to gather in private homes. Then, they began to gather in cemeteries, such as the Roman catacombs. By the 3rd century, there were structures set aside for worship. The oldest church that archeologists have discovered is that of Dura-Europos which dates from about A.D. 250. This is a fairly small room decorated with very simple murals.
After Constantine’s conversion, Christian worship began to be influenced by the imperial protocol. Incense which was used as a sign of respect for the emperor began to appear in Christian churches. Officiating ministers who until then had worn everyday clothes began wearing more luxurious garments. Likewise, a number of gestures indicating respect which were normally made before the emperor now became part of Christian worship. The custom was also introduced to begin services with a processional. Choirs were developed, partly in order to give body to that procession and eventually, the congregation came to have a less active role in worship.
Already in the 2nd century, it had been customary to commemorate the anniversary of a martyr’s death by celebrating communion where the martyr had been buried. Now, churches were built in many of those places. Eventually, some came to think that worship was particularly valid if it was celebrated in one of those holy places where the relics of a martyr were present. In consequence, some began to unearth the buried bodies of martyrs in order to place them or part of them under the altar of one of the many churches that were being built.
Others began claiming revelations of martyrs who had not been known or who had been almost forgotten. Some even said they had received visions telling them where a particular martyr was buried, as in the case of Ambrose and the supposed remains of Saints Gervasius and Protasius. Eventually, the relics of saints of New Testament times were said to have miraculous powers. Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, gave special impetus to this entire development.
When in pilgrimage to the holy land, she thought she had discovered the very cross of Christ! Soon, this cross was said to have miraculous powers and pieces of wood claiming to have come from it were found all over the empire. This veneration of relics increased until the time of the reformation so much so that at the time of Luther he commented that there were enough crosses of Christ, held in various churches, to produce 12 or 15 different crosses. That much wood was held in churches. Many of these pieces, of course, were of dubious origin. And many of these developments with respect to worship practices continued on.
There was also the development of church structures. Some of the churches had an altar in the center (the floor plan was polygonal or almost round), but most of them followed the basic rectangular plan of the basilica. This was an ancient word which referred to the great public (or sometimes) private buildings whose main part was a great room divided into naves or by two or more rows of columns. Since these structures provided the model for church building during the first centuries after Constantine’s conversion, such churches came to be known as basilicas.
In a number of ways, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity had powerful effects on Christian belief patterns, worship patterns and position within the empire. And so it is that his conversion was really a turning point. The reaction against the official theology and what we might call the apostasy of the early days of Constantine found their form in individuals like Antony who left the city and the distractions of worldly living in order to devote themselves to the monastic lifestyle. And it’s interesting too that Justo L. Gonzales in his presentation of church history, the early Christians before the time of Constantine held up martyrdom as the highest ideal for a Christian to follow after, once martyrdom was no longer very likely, because Constantine had said the church is alright as a part of the empire. Then, the official alternative or the possible alternative for a Christian who really wanted to live out their lives in a very ultra-rigorous way was to pursue the monastic life, where they vowed celibacy, they left the city and went into the desert in order to live a life by themselves. Monks who leave their cells or seek the company of others lose their peace like the fish out of water loses its life; so says Anthony who was one of those early monastic Christians.
Monasticism also holds up celibacy as an ideal and quite often would be rather harsh in its treatment of the body. Following the words of Paul, one wants to be a very disciplined athlete, pummeling the body, so that you might be the best warrior. This had its downside because when taken to an extreme it would be something of a deprecation or something of a devalue of creation and the goodness of the human body and of the good gifts that God gives; interpreting them rather as being temptations. So the monastic reaction was one in which there were a number of people who went out in the desert. Now, this did produce and had a positive effect. It produced great discipline in terms of praying and it also produced some wonderful intellectuals. Jerome was one whose life is somewhat legendary in the fact that he devoted himself totally to the work of the church. And so the spread of the monastic ideal was incredibly important during his time.