I have to submit a paper tomorrow for a class on Church history. The topics are two fold – Constantine and Arianism. I thought I might use this blog as a scratch pad of sorts. So, here is the first part….
Admittedly, as a pluralist in a democratic society with a good start into the 21st century, the notion of a State-controlled church is appalling, and while I acknowledge these biases, I will seek to keep those prejudices to a minimum. There is little doubt that Constantine’s conversion is of great importance not only to Christianity but so to the entire world. His conversion and subsequent involvement into the affairs of the Church gave rise to the Tradition of Ecumenical Councils, involved the Emperor as pontifex maximus (which as a pagan title, Constantine used in his capacities in which he officiated of the Roman religions, only ending near his death) which was a traditional role for the Roman Emperor, codified orthodoxy and led to all sorts of bloodshed against those who opposed the reigning orthodoxy. While in his position, he sought only to unite the various factions of Christianity, there is little doubt that he actually understood the various differences. It was not Constantine so much as those who followed after him, including his sons, and ultimately, Emperor Theodosius I with his decree that leveraged the might of Roman against those whom the Church now found as heretics or otherwise disagreeable. Further, for all his public and political appeals to the Christian God, his personal appeal of a good conscious did not come until his death bed, when we was baptized by an Arian bishop who had been expelled by the soon to be dead Emperor. It was this conversion that, perhaps, was the real one, if there is such a case, in that his time was short and he realized that his baptism was needed to effect his conversion.
His political conversion came during wartime, when in the midst of the battle he looked to his god, the Sun, and was supposedly given a vision of the cross by which he was to conquer. He quickly defeated and then killed his enemy, Maxentius. From there, he paid homage more to his vision of Christianity, paying for the clergy out of the Treasury, called the Nicean Council, expelled Bishops, adopted not only the books of the bible but so too the Lucian text, and even would go so far as to set the date for Easter[i]. As Roman tradition believed, religions were the key to the gods, so to make those religions happy, the Emperors would give divine favor. Constantine must have seen something advantageous in Christianity; of course, the relationship was symbiotic as well. For the Church, they must have seen in Constantine the end of persecutions which in fact he did bring about, a certain safety and security, and, the chance to spread the Gospel to the entire world, albeit with the help of the Roman Legions. There should be no doubt that Constantine took a huge political risk in publicly endorsing Christianity in that while the religion was growing, it was by no means the largest of the Empire. It was still ‘new’, with unsettled doctrines, books and no real central authority. Constantine could have ended his political career by appealing to such a divisive and historically persecuted people, especially since those previous persecutions were generally done in accordance with political motivations of blaming the Christians for the troubles of the Empire. No doubt that both the Church and the Emperor gained from the relationship, there is no doubt, but to what loss did the Church suffer?
While the West was generally united around certain theological points, the East with its center in Alexandria was still dealing with the remains of Origenism, which is no better expressed than in the third century correspondence between the Bishops of Rome and that city. Yet, there was still unity among the various theological differences as seen in the struggle to gain orthodoxy. I would contend that by the nature of the voluminous correspondence between the factions, and the rare excommunications, that a certain unity even against certain theological differences was being sought. With the State Church, State Doctrines were needed, as was revisionist history and a normalizing of that State Religion. As Gonzalez[ii] points out, with the arrival of Constantine, the Church settled down and gave up certain theological expectations. One of those expectations was for the Parousia, which as often is the case in secure times Christians have failed to look for since they are experiencing what they deem as divine favor.
What the Church lost most of all was the independence as loyal opposition status as the Kingdom of God on earth. Admittedly, while this view is theological, there was a certain amount of loyal opposition to Rome’s Imperialism and the Emperors’ divine claims. With Paul’s writings and the Gospel of Mark[iii], we see the Christian communities encourage to both obey the Empire, but up to the infringement of declaring Caesar Lord and God. This anti-imperialism bent in the New Testament is prevalent not only Mark’s opening assault against Emperor Vespasian, but so too Paul’s open declaration that Jesus is Lord as well as the Apocalypse’s revelation of the evils of Rome (via Babylon) and the reward that the Empire must eventually suffer for the persecution of Christians. The Revelator’s work stands as a summons for Christians to remember that Christ alone is the master of human history. When the Church quickly allied with Constantine and was suckled by the State Treasury, the Community lost the need to stand against the Empire as suddenly, the fortunes of the Empire and the Church seemed to be one and the same. Granted, this didn’t happen all at once, but with Constantine’s conversion, the road was paved with good intentions.
The Church also lost its social concerns. Widely read is the history of the early Church were the Christians were known for their hospitality, their pacifism, and their duty to the poor of their secular communities. They would take in orphaned children and widowed women, as well as provide for the poor. As Gonzales points out, the glory of Rome was not bound in helping or otherwise uplifting the poor, but in military might, the wealth of the nations, and the adoration by the subjects of the Emperor. Opposed to this is the book of James, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians were to treat even the rich equally, to see the poor as God’s children and blessed, and to engage in pacifism[iv]. With the Glory of God confused with the glory of Rome, these things were done away with. Now, instead of Tertullian[v] and Origen[vi]’s insistence of non-involvement with the State, suddenly, Bishops and Priests assumed diplomatic roles as well as other servants of the Imperial Government. Further, even Constantine’s favorite historiographer, Eusebius of Caesarea, lamented the ‘increasing freedom’ under Constantine which ‘transformed our character to arrogance and sloth.[vii]’ What the Church would not return, at least in the West, as the centuries progressed, and it was the most vital gift given to it by Christ – the moral authority enshrined in the voice of the loyal opposition.
[i] David L. Dungan, Constantine’s Bible, Politics and the Making of the New Testament, 94-95, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
[ii] Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, 133-135, Harper One, New York
[iii] See Adam Winn, The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel, Berlin, for a his views, which have informed this author’s view of Mark’s aim, on the purpose of Mark’s Gospel as an early Christian communities attempts to rebut the Emperor Vespasian’s claims to be Judah’s Messiah.
[iv] Christians are not allowed to use violence to correct the delinquencies of sin – Clement of Alexandria
[v] In us, all ardor in the pursuit of glory and honor is dead. So we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings. Nor is there anything more entirely foreign to us than affairs of state. – Tertullian
All the powers and dignities of this world are only alien to, but are enemies of God. Through them, punishments have been determined against God’s servants. Through them, too, penalties prepared for the impious are ignored. – Tertullian
[vi] We are to scorn trying to ingratiate ourselves with kings or any other men – not only if theirfavor is to be won by murderers, licentiousness, or deeds of cruelty – but even if it involves impiety towards God, or any servile expressions of flattery and fawning. – Origen
[vii] “But increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth; we began envying and abusing each other, cutting our own throats, as occasion offered, with weapons of sharp-edged words; rulers hurled themselves at rulers and laymen waged party fights against laymen, and unspeakable hypocrisy and dissimulation were carried to the limit of wickedness. At last, while the gatherings were still crowded, divine judgement, with its wonted mercy, gently and gradually began to order things its own way, and with the Christians in the army the persecution began. But alas! realizing nothing, we made not the slightest effort to render the Deity kindly and propitious; and as if we had been a lot of atheists, we imagined that our doings went unnoticed and unregarded, and went from wickedness to wickedness. Those of us who were supposed to be pastors cast off the restraining influence of the fear of God and quarrelled heatedly with each other, engaged soly in swelling the disputes, threats, envy, and mutual hostility and hate, frantically demanding the despotic power they coveted.” – History of the Church, 8.1