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Constantine and the Church 6 – Outcome of the Council

Posted: August 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Constantine and the Church 6 – Outcome of the Council

As I mentioned in the last post, many of the myths about Constantine’s influence or control over the Church revolve around his imagined ability to control the outcome of the council at Nicaea or over the bishops of the Church in general. I looked at the bishops yesterday. Today I want to look at the outcome of the Council at Nicaea. While there were a number of issues discussed and decisions made, the central one revolved around the novel teaching of a priest named Arius. For those who may not be familiar with his teaching, it revolved around an idea in a popular hymn he wrote: There was a time when the Son was not. In other words, though the Son might be the first of all creation, the Son was not co-eternal with the Father. The Son was not uncreated with the Father.

Arius was quite intelligent and charismatic. Reports of his examination indicate that he was able to interpret the Holy Scriptures at every point in a way that supported his view. (As a side note, that does illustrate one of the fundamental flaws in the idea of Sola Scriptura, the idea that a text as complex as the Holy Scriptures somehow has any authoritative interpretation independent of its interpreting context or agent.) He also was good at popularizing his view in hymns and other media of his age. As a result, his view had spread pretty widely across the empire, especially with the legalization of Christianity.

Constantine clearly wanted the council to make a decision for or against Arius. Just as he was looking to the Church to act as an agent to help stabilize the empire, the Church was being ripped and torn between those who held fast to the traditional view of Jesus as the Son of God and those who followed Arius instead. It’s less clear which side he personally favored. Constantine stayed neutral in his official pronouncements and statements. But there were certainly synergies between the views of Arius and the Imperial cult that may have led Constantine to prefer such a view of Jesus. Although he did banish Arius after the council, Constantine also later recalled him. When he was baptized almost on his deathbed years later, Constantine specifically sent for an Arian bishop to baptize him. And his son, of course, embraced Arianism wholeheartedly when he succeeded Constantine.

So if Constantine controlled the council and the bishops were willing to acquiesce to his will, it certainly doesn’t appear that he did so very effectively. And I find it odd that a man who was able to win military battle after military battle and reunite the entire Roman Empire under a single emperor couldn’t manage a simple council filled with bishops and priests supposedly cowed by his might any better than that.

No, in this case, the “official” story is simply the more reasonable one. The council itself was not particularly influenced by the presence of the emperor and came to a decision about which Constantine was at best ambivalent.

Unless someone a specific Constantinian myth to raise, this post wraps up this series.

Constantine and the Church 5 – Who was at Nicaea?

Posted: August 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Constantine and the Church 5 – Who was at Nicaea?

Within the Church, of course, other than granting Christianity legal status, Constantine is perhaps best known for calling the council at Nicaea that eventually came to be recognized as the first ecumenical council. Yes, that phrasing is important. You see, there were many councils before Nicaea (though none with an emperor present) and there were a number in the years following as the Arian controversy continued to rage within the empire. There was really very little at the time that made this particular council appear any more or less “ecumenical”. It was mostly just another council and one that subsequently remained in considerable dispute. It wasn’t really until after what we now call the second ecumenical council affirmed the first, defined the Nicene Creed as we know it today, and became accepted by churches everywhere did this council truly become established as the first ecumenical council.

Myths swirl around this council, but when you deconstruct many of them, you find the idea that Constantine somehow imposed his will on the bishops and the church and changed what the church believed in one way or another.


Let’s look at one of the reports about the attendees of this council. Remember our earlier post on the dates of persecution relative to this council in AD 325.

At this period many individuals were richly endowed with apostolical gifts; and many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. James, bishop of Antioch, a city of Mygdonia, which is called Nisibis by the Syrians and Assyrians, raised the dead and restored them to life, and performed many other wonders which it would be superfluous to mention again in detail in this history, as I have already given an account of them in my work, entitled “Philotheus.” Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. Among these was Paphnutius of Egypt. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs. Yet this holy and celebrated gathering was not entirely free from the element of opposition; for there were some, though so few as easily to be reckoned, of fair surface, like dangerous shallows, who really, though not openly, supported the blasphemy of Arius.

So this group bearing scars and wounds from persecution by emperors for the sake of the faith would turn around a few years later and, for any reason whatsoever, compromise that faith in any way for another emperor?

Again I say, really?

Constantine and the Church 4 – Church Buildings

Posted: August 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I hadn’t actually planned this post in the series. But a few days ago the Internet Monk had a post on Architecture for the Glory of God and some of the comments in particular caught my eye. It seems like a number of those commenting had this strange idea that churches (the buildings) somehow began with St. Constantine the Great. As I mulled that perspective, I decided this topic fit naturally in the flow of this series.

I think one of the roots of this misunderstanding arises when people read in the text of the New Testament that the Church of Philippi met in the house of Lydia or that a Church met in the house of Philemon or other similar references and without understanding the context in which it was written interpret the references in light of our more modern nuclear family dwellings. This is one of the many places where, if you do not take the time to understand or learn the historical milieu, you will simply read into the text an interpretation that does not match the reality of the experience its words express. The “houses” referenced in the New Testament bear little resemblance to our private nuclear family dwellings today.

Rather, the “houses” mentioned in Scripture would have been households containing multiple families and servants or slaves. It would have also been the center of the business of the household, whatever that business might be. We know, for instance, that Lydia was a seller of purple (which also meant she was quite wealthy). The main entrance to the dwelling would have been into the atrium, like a large courtyard though it would often have been roofed. The water source of the household (well, spring, or cistern) would typically be in the atrium just inside the entrance. At the far end would have been a raised area that served as dining area (accessible to servants from the atrium). A chopping block would typically have been front and center. People would freely enter and exit the atrium over the course of the day to conduct business and, since the dining room was raised and open to the atrium, the head of the household would typically conduct business and oversee the activity from behind the chopping block flanked by the sons and/or the key overseeing servants. In a typical household, one hundred to one hundred and fifty people could easily fit in the atrium.

When a house was converted into a church, the water source served for baptisms when outside living (running) water could not be used. The atrium was where the people gathered. The chopping block became the altar and the dining room became what we would call the nave. The bishop sat in the place of the head of household flanked by his presbyters. Now, if that’s not what comes to your mind when you hear the words “house church”, you are thinking in modern, not ancient terms.

As far as what it looked like? Well, just as the liturgy was modified  from synagogue worship, we know that the interior of ancient churches also looked not dissimilar to synagogues, only with Christian icons and symbols rather than Jewish symbols. There was even a special place for the gospels to be kept similar to the way the Torah is kept in a synagogue. But it would have been as ornate as it could be made, just as synagogues were. Think incense. Listen for the reader chanting scripture (originally from just the Septuagint, but quickly adding the Gospels, and gradually other texts that were “read in Church”) and Psalms and hymns like the cantor does in the synagogue. The “simple” church that some seem to imagine simply never existed in the ancient world. It’s a modern invention.

So what did Constantine actually do? He restored the property (probably mostly households that had been converted into churches) that had been taken from Christians in the latest persecutions and he made Christianity legal so Christians could use or convert public buildings not just private households. And Constantine and his mother Helena (mostly his mother from what I understand) did personally have a few churches built. Obviously they had more resources than just about anyone else so could spend more. But the churches they built still looked essentially like the same sort of church. In fact, that basic design endured everywhere until pews were added in the West in the Middle Ages.

The drastic changes did not really occur until, to some extent, Calvin, and then really in the radical reformation and later. I’ve mentioned that a lot of Protestantism seems very iconoclastic. And that’s true. It’s also true that iconoclasm has its roots in the influence of Islam on Christianity. However, that original iconoclasm focused on actual icons, two-dimensional images of worship (Christ and God) or of reverence (the Theotokos and the saints). Islam held that God could not be portrayed in any way, which Christians held had ceased to be true in the Incarnation. And Islam was also against the depiction of any person. The interplay within Christianity involved emperors, empresses, persecution, and took the final ecumenical to resolve, but was at its core about the Incarnation of Jesus.

However, even mosques were and often still are ornate and beautiful. Ancient iconoclasm was not against beauty and art. No Abrahamic religion adopted such a broad iconoclasm, almost a denial of the value of the material reality, until modern Protestantism. Ugliness in architecture, plainness in clothing, and a stark lack of adornment are an extreme soul-crushing form of iconoclasm. I’m glad I wasn’t among those raised to believe that was either normal or good. Because it’s neither.

And that’s not Constantine’s fault.

Constantine and the Church 3 – What was the Church to do?

Posted: August 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Before I dive into Nicaea, about which myths seem to abound, I wanted to reflect on some of the implications of the earlier posts in this series. It should be clear by this point that the Church and those within it had no real input on whether they would be persecuted or not. There are some who accuse the early church of “capitulating” to the state to avoid persecution. But where’s the evidence of that capitulation? Where’s the evidence that Roman emperors even tried to engage the Church in their decisions to persecute or not to persecute?

What do people expect? That when an emperor decided not to persecute, Christians should have marched on the imperial capital and demanded to be tortured and put to death? Really?

Or when Constantine began his conversion and not only ended persecution, but made Christianity legal and looked to the Bishops to help stabilize the empire, what would we have had them do? They had never expected anything but persecution with sometime respite from time to time. When the emperor not only said he acknowledged Christ as Lord, but sought their help, would it have been somehow more Christian to reject him?

Is it not, after all, our proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is Lord? Is it not our charge to care for all? Are we not told that the powers are ultimately instituted by God and responsible to him? Was it an unexpected shift? Yes. Were they suspicious? Probably.

But what else, exactly, would you have had them do?

Constantine and the Church 2 – Church Under Persecution

Posted: August 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

We typically refer to the Church from the time of Nero to the time of Constantine as the Church under persecution. While that is true, it’s also true that the level and intensity of persecution waxed and waned a number of times during that period. The penultimate persecution was under the Emperor Valerian which ended with his son Gallenius in the year 260. In fact, Gallenius instituted a period of peace with Christians that not only ended persecution, but restored some of their property and afforded them a quasi-legal status. Christians were even allowed to serve in government positions. The peace with Christians which Gallenius instituted lasted forty-three years through the reigns of eight succeeding emperors and well into the reign of Diocletian.

There were a number of incidents which fueled Diocletian’s dislike of Christians. Finally, in the year 302, he and Galerius argued over the best approach to deal with Christians. Diocletian initially favored simply barring them from government and military service. Galerius favored extermination. The two men sought the advice of the oracle of Apollo, but were told that the “just on earth” prevented Apollo from giving advice. Taking the “just on earth” to mean the Christians, Diocletian acceded to Galerius’ plan and proceeded to attempt to destroy Christianity and eliminate all Christians.

Diocletian was an extremely efficient administrator and his persecution of the Christians has since come to be called the “Great Persecution”. It was by far the most comprehensive and thorough. Some estimates hold that as many as 20,000 Christians were killed during this persecution and countless more were imprisoned and tortured. The persecution continued past Diocletian’s abdication until 311 when Galerius issued an order of toleration or indulgence.

In 312, following a vision of the cross and having his army march under the Chi-Ro, Constantine won the undisputed title of Emperor of the Western empire. Constantine credited his victory to the Cross of Christ. In 313, he forced the then Emperor of the Eastern empire, Licinius, to issue a joint declaration known as the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity a legal religion in the empire and restored the property that Christians had lost.

The relationship between the two emperors degenerated however and in 320 Licinius instituted another persecution of Christians in the East that in part triggered a great civil war for control of the empire. Licinius cast himself as the defender of the ancient pagan religions and won the support of the Goth mercenaries. Constantine’s armies marched under the Chi-Ro. In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius and established himself as sole ruler of the entire empire.

Although Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire, he did cease state support of pagan religions and expected them to pay the tax. At the same time, he made Christianity legal across the empire, sponsored a number of churches, and officially brought Christians into government service. He viewed the Church as a stabilizing influence on the empire.

These dates of persecution will become important as we look at subsequent actions by Constantine with the Church.

Constantine and the Church 1 – Politics of Rome

Posted: August 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I think that sometimes, when people think of the Roman Empire in general and Constantine in particular, they don’t have a grasp for the full complexity of the situation. For instance, people often think of Rome having a single emperor at any particular point in time. But that was not true for broad periods of time. As a youth, Constantine lived in Rome under Diocletian. Although Diocletian had conquered all other claimants to the throne and seemingly could have been the sole ruler of the empire, he declared Maximian his co-emperor. Diocletian ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from Nicomedia while Maximian ruled the Western Roman Empire from Rome. Later, Diocletian further divided the empire in the East and the West with portions ruled over by two “Caesars” (junior emperors) each serving under their “Augustus” (senior emperor). Galerius and Constantius (Constantine’s father) were the two Caesars appointed. This is more formally known as the Tetrarchy.

Constantine grew up in Nicomedia, perhaps as something of a hostage to his father’s good behavior, during a period of religious toleration. As such, he was exposed to the finest education from both pagan and Christian teachers. After his Father was appointed Caesar in the West under the Augustus Maximian, he divorced Constantine’s mother and married Maximian’s step-daughter. In 305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicated with Galerius and Constantius assuming their respective thrones. Constantine and Maxentius, their sons, did not replace them as Caesars, though. Constantine became a virtual prisoner of the Eastern court under Galerius. With some intervention from his father, he was able to escape to the West some two years later.

Constantine served with his father and after his father’s death, the armies declared him Augustus. The other rulers in the Tetrarchy did not agree, but did make him Caesar in the West. The ends and outs are not particularly relevant to my topic, but eventually Constantine defeated all others and reunited the Empire under himself as sole emperor. After doing so, he relocated the capital of the Empire to the East in the city he planned and named Constantinople. (That city is now called Istanbul.)

This has been an extremely brief overview and I’ve omitted a lot of facts and details. Nevertheless, it should provide some context and insight into the extremely complex political situation in the Empire during the time of Constantine.

Constantine and the Church 0 – Series Intro

Posted: August 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Constantine | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

As I was writing my series on the history of the belief and practice of the Eucharist, I decided I would next reflect on the pervasive modern myth that Constantine somehow subverted or radically changed the Church. This myth surfaces in a wide variety of ways. Some people assert that the dogma of the Trinity was invented under Constantine. Others assert that the Church somehow immediately changed into an entity concerned about worldly power and glory. Others claim that Constantine somehow took control of Christianity. Others assert that previously legitimate Christian beliefs and writings were excised when the Church eventually established a New Testament canon of Scripture. While I don’t think the many ways this idea pervades much modern thought can even be numbered, it’s another common myth about the history of the Church.

I think in looking at the consistency in belief and practice of the Eucharist, I helped dispel the other common myth that the Church somehow “lost” the faith after the Apostles died. In this series, I’m going to tackle the idea that Constantine somehow “corrupted” the faith that the Church under persecution had preserved. There’s no more historical basis for the latter idea than there is for the former.

If you’re reading and there’s some particular version of this myth about which you wonder, please post it in a comment or email it to me. There are so many different versions of this myth that I can’t possibly address them all. So I’m going to focus on the general consistency of the faith before and after Constantine. But I’ll be happy to explore any specific topic if it’s one that is of particular interest to someone.