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The Church from Constantine

to Gregory

Any discussion of post-Nicene Christianity must begin with the conversion of Constantine to faith in Christ. Prior to his reign, Christianity labored under the burdensome classification of religio illicita. As we have seen, persecution was often intense. But with the conversion of Constantine the church not only escaped oppression, it soon enjoyed the official endorsement of the state.

After several years (305-12) of political treachery and intrigue, Constantine ascended to power, consummated in 312 by his defeat of Maxentius at the Milvian bridge. As the battle commenced, Constantine reported having seen a vision: the sign of the cross appeared in the sky, and above it the words In hoc signo vinces, or In this sign conquer. He immediately pledged that if he won the battle he would become a Christian. With his victory and rise to power the persecution of the church ended as he and Licinius (emperor in the East) granted freedom of worship through the Edict of Milan (313). The presence of two emperors created difficulties. A battle ensued in 314 but was indecisive. Peace reigned until 324 when Constantine defeated, captured and eventually killed Licinius. Historians differ on whether Constantine's conversion was genuine or motivated by political expediency. Whatever the case, the wedding of church and state commenced.

A.        Church/State relations under Constantine & his successors

Prior to Constantine the church had settled all its own affairs internally. Things were to change, the first example of which was the Donatist controversy.

The controversy had its origin in the Diocletian persecution and concerned the policy of the church toward those who, under threat of imprisonment or death, had surrendered the sacred writings to the state (they were called traditors).

In 311 Caecilian was ordained bishop in Carthage, North Africa, by Felix of Aptunga. Felix had been a traditor and was regarded by some as disqualified from exercising any form of religious authority. The opposition party ordained their own bishop, Marjorinus, who was succeeded by Donatus. Donatus himself had survived torture and imprisonment by the Romans and was thus (understandably?) impatient with and intolerant of those who had succumbed to such pressure to avoid a similar fate. The supporters of Caecilian insisted the sacraments were valid regardless of the moral activities of the one who administered them. Both parties claimed to represent the true church in North Africa and appealed to Constantine for approval. Two synods (Rome in 313 and Arles in Gaul in 314) found in favor of Felix and Caecilian. The controversy raged for another 100 years until Augustine achieved the defeat of the Donatist party.

Most important in all this was the precedent it set. It soon became commonplace that when ecclesiastical affairs were perceived as a threat to the peace/unity of the empire, or when in the opinion of the emperor the church could be used for political gains, a council or synod was convened under imperial sanction and the decision often enforced by the power of the state. However, as D. H. Williams points out, one should not conclude from this “that the production of fourth-century creeds was the result of the imperialization of the church” (155). The creeds were first and foremost an expression of the deeply held convictions of the worshiping community and “came to be accepted by the faithful only in slow stages. Conciliar formulas had to be proven and internalized by the life experience of the churches before they gained wide approval” (163). Local churches and their bishop(s) were not averse to voicing disagreement with imperial opinions, even to the point of outright resistance and its frequent consequence: banishment. Williams, therefore, insists that

“we fail to do justice to the evidence by characterizing patristic bishops as parties interested in capitalizing on imperial favor of the church through hatching schemes and political maneuvers with little concern for the integrity of truth or fulfilling the Beatitudes of Jesus. To be sure, the christianization of the Roman Empire meant the emergence of a new type of leader within the community, which the emperors tried to harness to their social purposes by assimilating them to magistrates, and fostering their charitable welfare, and in times of war or political crisis, by using their independence and ‘neutrality’ for complex negotiations. And yet these bishops no less represented the unity and continuity of Christian society guided by rules formulated within the Tradition which they had received and sought to uphold” (154).

The mutual interplay between church and state must be noted. Some of the immunities and privileges conferred upon the church by the state included:

1)         The exemption of church and clergy from most public obligations such as taxes, military service, manual labor, etc. Consequently, many wealthy men entered the ministry just to avoid paying taxes. The state responded in part by forbidding the wealthy from seeking employment in the church.

2)         Individual “Christians were reimbursed from the imperial treasury for their losses during the previous persecution” (Williams, 105) and the church often received grants of money from the state and soon became wealthy with extensive holdings in land, houses, and other properties. By the Middle Ages the church owned as much as 40% of all land in Christian Europe. This wealth contributed greatly to the materialistic corruption of the clergy during that period of time.

3)         The clergy received fixed incomes from the state as well as the church. According to Schaff (III:100), this was often attended "with a proportional degeneracy in their moral character. It raised them above oppressive and distracting cares for livelihood, made them independent, and permitted them to devote their whole strength to the duties of their office; but it also favored ease and luxury, allured a host of unworthy persons into the service of the church, and checked the exercise of free giving among the people."

4)         Bishops received the right to settle disputes between Christians in their own courts; all such court decisions were enforced by the law of the empire.

5)         The observance of Sunday and other sacred festivals received civil sanction. Certain activities were forbidden on Sunday under threat of penal retaliation by the state.

6)         The church now exerted influence on the state to enact more humane legislation concerning the poor, orphans, etc.

7)         The influence of the church led to the elevation of the status and rights of women. The church also secured the end of the gladiatorial shows and helped reduce the debauchery of the theatre.

There were dangers in this marriage of church and state. As Christianity became a matter of fashion, hypocrisy increased. Church discipline diminished, zeal was at times low, heathen customs occasionally crept into the life of the believing community. Schaff (III:126) is representative of those historians who take a somewhat negative position on these developments:

"The difference between the age after Constantine and the age before consists, therefore, not at all in the cessation of true Christianity and the entrance of false, but in the preponderance of the one over the other. The field of the church was now much larger, but with much good soil it included far more that was stony, barren, and overgrown with weeds. The line between church and world, between regenerate and unregenerate, between those who were Christians in name and those who were Christians in heart, was more or less obliterated, and in place of the former hostility between the two parties there came a fusion of them in the same outward communion of baptism and confession."

This assessment of the shift in church life subsequent to the conversion of Constantine is not shared by everyone. See especially the work by D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans).

Constantine died in 337 and the empire was divided among his three sons: Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius. In a war three years later Constantius prevailed and ruled unchallenged until his death in 361. During his reign the heathen were persecuted and the Nicene doctrinal standards were threatened (Constantius was an Arian). He was succeeded by Julian the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine, who in two years of power tried to exterminate Christianity. He failed, dying in battle with the Persians in 363.

Emperors favorably disposed toward the church ruled through the remainder of the 4th century, culminating in Theodosius the Great (392-95). Theodosius fought vigorously for the imposition on all of Christian orthodoxy. He issued rigid laws against all heretics. The once persecuted church was now the persecuting church.

B.        The Development of Monasticism

With the increase of decadence in the church many renounced society and its evils by withdrawing into the wilderness. Monasticism is one of the most important developments in the history of the early church. The principal causes were:

1)         Philosophically speaking, many monastics were dualists and viewed the body and spirit to be in eternal opposition. Thus withdrawal from the world, so they thought, would crucify the flesh and enhance the life and growth of the spirit.

2)         Appeal to certain texts of Scripture which appeared (falsely) to support monasticism (1 Cor. 7; 2 Cor. 6).

3)         The psychological tendency to retreat from the harsh realities of life during periods of crisis.

4)         With the end of persecution and martyrdom, those who desired it as a pledge of their faith and demonstration of devotion could find an adequate substitute in the deprivations of an ascetic lifestyle.

5)         Monasticism appeared to offer a more individualistic and supposedly personal relationship with God than did the formal routines of corporate church life.

"The desert," explains Bernard McGinn, "traditionally the home for demons and not for humans, was the place where the encounter with the spirits of evil – demons of lust, of gluttony, of anger, of desire for possessions, and the like – could be more readily encountered and mastered through the patient penance of the cell. These demonic powers, always present within the soul, became luminously real in the intense heat and introspective atmosphere of the desert" (I:136).

6)         The corrupting influence of the invading tribes drove many to seek purity in isolation from the world at large.

One early monastic, Abba Arsenius, allegedly had the following encounter with Jesus. "'Lord, show me the way to salvation.' And a voice came to him: 'Arsenius, run from men and you shall be saved.' He went to become a monk, and again prayed in the same words. And he heard a voice saying: 'Arsenius, be solitary: be silent: be at rest. These are the roots of a life without sin'" (Sayings 2.1; McGinn, I:136).

7)         Monastics, both male and female, came to be viewed as the ideal Christians, those alone who were capable of attaining perfection in this life.

The development of monasticism was four-fold:

First, there was what is called "free-form asceticism," that is, "small groups of men and women living ascetic lives in the context of village Christianity" (McGinn, I:133).

Second, many among the former groups eventually withdrew into the desert wilderness. This form of individualistic monasticism, of which Antony (250-356) was the most famous example, was designed to facilitate perfection through solitary struggle against the devil and the flesh. Geographical dissociation from the world was essential to spiritual victory over it. These monastics were often called eremites, from the Greek word for "solitude" or "wilderness".

Antony was stirred by Matthew 19:21 to retreat into the desert where he eventually barricaded himself in an abandoned fort for twenty years. In 305 some of his former friends tore down the door, only to reveal the "transformed" Antony:

"Antony came forth as though from a shrine, having been led into divine mysteries and inspired by God. This was the first time that he appeared from the fortress for those who came out to him. And when they beheld him, they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat from lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons. . . . The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection. . . . He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature" (Life of Antony, Athanasius, p. 42).

Antony is reported to have healed many who came to him and to have been quite successful in deliverance ministry. His example inspired many to withdraw from society into a similar solitary life.

Third, there was communal monasticism, which received its impetus from Pachomius (292-356). He established the first Christian monastery in upper Egypt where monks could live in community and be governed by a productive daily routine.

Fourth, monasticism came under the organizing and stabilizing influence of Benedict of Nursia (480-550) whose famous Rule set guidelines for monastic life. He founded the most famous and influential monastery in Europe, on Monte Cassino in 529, southeast of Rome.

Simon the Stylite (390-460) spent 10 years alone in a cell in Antioch. In 423 he began living at the top of a 60 ft. pillar. For 30 years he sat on a platform a mere 3 ft. in diameter! His example inspired countless others.

Shelley's assessment of monasticism is helpful:

"Once the early extravagances had subsided and monks began to live under stable and livable rules, the monastery began to assume tasks of enormous benefit to the church and to the world. In the fifth and sixth centuries practically every leader in the church was either a monk himself or was closely linked to monasticism. The monastic cell became a study and the monks became scholars" (135).

Be it noted that it was monasticism that provided both the spiritual and institutional context in which mysticism would emerge and flourish.

C.        The Emerging Dominance of Rome

We have previously seen the influence of Ignatius, Clement, Irenaeus and Cyprian in the development of the concept of the monarchical bishop. There were several factors that contributed to the pre-eminence of the bishop of Rome:

·      Papal claims were based on a unique interpretation of Mt. 16:17-19, according to which Peter was given authority by Jesus over the entire church. The first official claim for such authority was made by Leo I in 440-41 a.d.

·      The concept of apostolic succession, according to which the authority given to Peter could be transmitted or passed down to the bishops of Rome who succeeded him.

·      The association of both Peter and Paul with the city of Rome gave the latter considerable prominence in the mind of many Christians. Peter may well have been martyred there and Paul most certainly was.

·      Rome itself was emerging as the most populated and influential city in the empire. Thus the bishop of its church grew in power and influence. The fact that most Roman emperors lived away from the city itself was exploited by the bishops to increase their independence from secular rule.

·      Subsequent to the conversion of Constantine, it was normal for the emperor to seek the advice of the bishop of Rome on religious matters.

·      Of the five patriarchal cities Rome alone was in the west and thus exercised authority over a much larger geographical area.

·      The church in Rome was far more successful in its missionary endeavors than was the church in the eastern regions of the empire. The church in the east suffered considerable losses to Islam and struggled in its attempt to evangelize them.

These are the “Popes” (bishops of Rome) from Peter through the third century that are recognized by the Vatican today. The dates given are always estimates.

Peter                33-64

Linus               64-79

Anencletus      79-90

Clement I        90-99

Evaristus         99-107

Alexander I      107-116

Sixtus I            116-125

Telesphorus    125-136

Hyginus          136-140

[Be it noted that until now none of these “bishops” functioned as the singular head over the church in Rome. In all likelihood, the bishop would have presided over a council of presbyters or elders. It wasn’t until Pius in the middle of the 2nd century that a monarchical bishop emerged in church government in Rome.]

Pius I               140-154

Anicetus          154-166

Soter                166-174

Eleutherius      174-189

Victor I            189-198

Zephyrinus     198-217

Callistus I        217-222

Urban I            222-230

Pontian            230-235

Anterus           235-236

Fabian             236-250

Cornelius         251-253

Lucius I           253-254

Stephen I         254-257

Sixtus II           257-258

Dionysius       259-267

Felix I              268-273

Eutychian        274-282

Caius               282-295

Marcellinus     295-304

There were another 34 bishops of the church at Rome until we reach Gregory I (known as “the Great”), who was in office from 590 to 604. At the end of the third century there was discovered a letter allegedly written by Clement I to James, the brother of Jesus, in which James is called the “bishop of bishops” (he was leader of the church in Jerusalem). In the letter, Clement describes how Peter conferred on him as his successor the power of binding and loosing (see Mt. 16,18). The letter, notes Bernard Schimmelpfennig,

“was proof for the Roman bishops that they possessed the full powers of Peter, just as Clement did. At the end of the fourth century the doctrine was put forward that every Roman bishop possessed the cathedra petri [the chair of Peter]. Out of a combination of these various elements arose the doctrine of sedes apostolica (apostolic see), which stated that every Roman bishop, as Peter’s successor, possessed the full power of authority granted to this position. Because this was not bound to the person of the individual bishop, but rather was transpersonal and had been established by God himself, the bishops were considered inviolable. Leo I solidified this doctrine with the help of Roman law by making the Roman bishop the valid heir of Peter. From now on, the Roman bishop, by his own understanding, was the vicar (i.e., representative) of Peter, and through Peter, also the vicar of Christ for the entire church” (The Papacy, transl. by James Sievert [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1992], p. 26).

The 4 most distinctive and influential bishops of Rome were

Innocent I (401-417; he was the first instance of a son succeeding his father [Anastasius I] as pope);

Leo I (440-461; who claimed supreme and universal authority for the Roman papacy);

Gelasius I (492-96; who was the first to assume the title “Vicar of Christ”; he also propounded the doctrine of the “two swords” according to which authority had been granted by God over two spheres: sacred and temporal, with the pope being intrinsically superior to the secular ruler); and

Gregory the Great (590-604), who is regarded as last of the church fathers and first of the medieval popes. In spite of declarations by the Council of Sardica (343) and the emperor Valentinian III (445) that Rome was supreme, it was not until Gregory that the bishop of that city was acknowledged as possessing authority over the other patriarchs. Whereas the four eastern patriarchal cities believed in Peter’s connection with Rome and even affirmed the apostolic succession of the Roman bishops, they had always regarded the latter as bearing a higher rank but not a higher authority in the sphere of church dogma. With Gregory the universal supremacy of Rome was recognized.

E.         Four Great Church Fathers

1.         Ambrose (339-397)

Standing only 5ft. 4 inches, Ambrose was not a physically impressive man, but he was to become Augustine’s mentor and the one who taught him the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture. Augustine pointed to Ambrose as the one God used to effect his conversion. It was the latter’s godly character that carried the greatest weight.

2.         Chrysostom (347-407)

He began as an ascetic, living for two years in the mountains near Antioch. Robert Payne describes his life during this time:

“He retired to a cave, denied himself sleep, read the Bible continually and spent two years without lying down, apparently in the belief that a Christian must stand in order to obey the injunction: ‘Be ye watchful.’ The result was inevitable. His stomach shriveled up, and his kidneys were damaged by cold. His digestion permanently impaired, unable to doctor himself, he came down the mountain, walked to Antioch and appeared before Archbishop Meletius, who immediately sent him to a doctor” (Fathers of the Eastern Church [New York: Dorset Press, 1989], 197).

He advocated a more historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation, over against the allegorizing of Origen. Near the end of his life he became the patriarch of Constantinople, but was eventually removed from office because of his relentless assault on the opulence of the imperial court. His name literally means golden-mouthed, a tribute to his remarkable preaching gift. There exist today 90 of his homilies on Matthew, 55 sermons on Acts, 32 homilies on Romans, 44 sermons on 1 and 2 Corinthians, one commentary on Galatians, 24 homilies on Ephesians, 15 homilies on Philippians, 12 on Colossians and 34 on Hebrews.

3.         Jerome (347-420)

Jerome was not an original thinker, but excelled in linguistics. He was responsible for the Vulgate, the first Latin translation of the entire Bible. “Throughout his life,” notes Hall, he struggled to control an innate irascibility and extreme sensitivity. He was quick to take offense and to lash out fiercely at opposing positions and persons” (Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, [Downers Grove: IVP, 1998], 109).

4.         Augustine (354-431)