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Church History

Church And State

- 247 to 420

Modern events and ancient persecutions have a peculiar way of intersecting in our lives.  Consider,

The overseer of Terni was martyred in 269.  The church designated his feast day as February 14.  His name? Valentine!

Another overseer imprisoned during this time period was Nicolas of Myra – Saint Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus!

During this period the church survives, in part, by its union with the state.  This helps the church in many aspects of its life, but it will ultimately weaken the church as the church and state merge into a single entity in the eyes of many during various periods of history.

At the same time, there were great periods of Roman persecution of the Christians.  The combinations of these events create a difficult time for the church, a time where heresy mixes with state views.

For all practical purposes, there are only two truly key players in this chunk of history – one “good,” maybe, and the other truly bad.  But, to get to them we need to review a couple of other steps.

The Roman Empire turned 1,000 in A.D. 247.  An endless, great party mixed New Years, Mardi Gras, and every Super Bowl party into a single long feast.  Living up to their moral standards, many Christians did not participate. 

Irony follows.  A great plague broke out in Rome following the party.  The Romans blamed the Christians for angering the gods by not participating in the anniversary party.  Emperor Decius started another round of persecution.  The period was shortened by Decius’ death in 251, but many Christians died, including Origen.  The period left behind an ongoing problem for the church.

While the majority of Christians had not participated in the feast, many Christians had participated.  One of the events of the feast was sacrificing to the Roman gods, so these Christians had participated in the pagan sacrifices.  The new issue was whether or not these Christians could re-enter their churches. 

The basic church position was that if the believer repented, he could re-enter the church.  Since not all of those trying to re-enter were repentant, the issue could be stated as one of discernment.  How could you admit those who were sorry for their actions without admitting false believers who claimed repentance but were not sincere in this actions.

This battle would be fought, in all places, in Northern Africa by Cyprian of Carthage.  Cyprian himself hid during the persecution, returning to a church in confusion.  Cyprian felt that a believer could show his repentance by prayer and fasting.  His opponents were known as Donatists.  This group believed that anyone who had avoided martyrdom was a false believer.  While they would not go so far as to exclude all of this group, they developed a position that said overseers who had cooperated with the Empire should not be allowed to confer the rites of the church – ordination, communion, baptism.

This battle would continue without a complete resolution until the next wave of Roman persecutions took Cyprian’s life.  This wave of persecution came under the reign of Diocletian who became emperor in A.D. 284.  Under the hand of God’s divine providence, Diocletian made a practical political decision that would influence the church for many centuries to come.

Diocletian understood the vastness of the empire and the inability of one person to properly maintain control.  As such, he divided the empire into two parts.  He appointed administrative assistants for each part, establishing a rule that upon the death of the emperor, the assistant would become emperor.  Effectively there were two emperors, one in the East and one in the West. 

Diocletian established his throne in the East and named Galerius as his assistant.  Both of these men persecuted the Christian.  Further, Galerius dreamed of ruling over both parts of the empire.  To accomplish this he kidnapped the Western emperor’s son.  In 305, when the co-emperor became deathly ill, Galerius allowed the son to return to his father.  The son was Constantine.

Upon his father’s death, Constantine demanded, and received, co-emperor status.  During Galerius’ remaining lifetime, Constantine strengthened his position and became a great military leader.

Meanwhile, the dying Galerius came to his senses and realized his persecution against the Christians had not accomplished anything permanent, other than to drive the Christians to their God.  Galerius issued a death bed decree that allowed Christianity so long as it did not disturb the public order.

Meanwhile, Constantine had met his opponent, another power hungry solder named Maxentius.  The winner would rule the empire.  Maxentius retreated to Rome and Constantine approached for battle.  The “miracle” came the night before the battle in A.D. 312.

Legend says that as Constantine prayed about the battle, he saw the above cross in the sky with the words “By this sign, you will win.”  The legend claims that Constantine dreamed that Jesus Christ commanded him to place a Christian symbol or Cross on his men’s shields.  The cross sign represents the first two Greek letters of the Greek word Christ.  In English these letters are x-p.  The legend also claims that Constantine added this sign to his personal battle-flag.

Without worrying about the details of the battle, Maxentius drowned attempting to escape and Constantine marched into Rome under the sign of the Cross.  The following year Constantine and his co-emperor, Licinius, issued the Edit of Milan whereby Christianity essentially became the state religion in the Roman Empire.  Constantine claimed to be a Christian, although history does not completely support this claim.  He did grant the church leaders widespread favors and powers. 

Rather than unify the empire, Christianity created problems for Constantine.  The Donatists called upon Constantine to settle the ongoing dispute over who could ordain an overseer or elder.  Constantine decided against the Donatists, but the church was now tied to the state and would remain so for the next 1200 years!  Constantine helped to preserve the church and spread the Gospel message, but was he good?

It should be noted that the Donatist controversy existed in Rome as well.  A presbyter named Novatian also argued that those who had renounced their faith during the persecutions should not be allowed to re-enter the church.  The result in Rome was the formation of a minority position that would last for many years.  It appears in general terms that the Novatians ultimately merged with the Donatists.

Novatian did aid the church in fighting the Monarchians.  This group denied the Trinity, claiming essentially that only God the Father was God.  Novatian defend the orthodox position of the Trinity, but this heresy would arise again in the future.

Another minor heresy was that of Manicheism.  This was Gnosticism with Oriental elements.  As a religious movement it died under its own lack of structure, but in the process, it’s levels of beings found followers who put the teachings to work in a different setting.  It sounds vaguely similar to Mormonism.  Manicheism’s lasting effect was that it assisted the church to argue for the separation of clergy and laity.

Constantine also had his Marcion.  His name was Arius, an elder in Alexandria Egypt.  At issue was the issue of Jesus’ divine state.  To understand the issue, one must appreciate that the early church did not believe that God could experience emotions.  However, if Jesus was fully divine and fully human then He did experience emotions.  Thus, God the Father through the Son experienced these same emotions.  While most of the church accepted this position, Arius went a different route.

Arius taught that Jesus was not God!  Arius taught that Jesus was a created being.

If this sounds familiar, you will find a similar modern day teaching in the doctrine of Jehovah Witnesses and the Mormons.

Arius put his claim to music – “Once the Son did not exist.”  The church learned to play this same game.  The Christian’s wrote a chorus to offset the effect of Arius’ song – we know the chorus today as the Gloria Patri.

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.”

Constantine did not rely solely upon the power of music.  To maintain the unity of the church and peace in his empire, the Emperor invited all of the overseers in the known world to Nicaea, a village in northern Asia Minor (Iznik, Turkey).  The date was July 4, 325.  Constantine declared himself an overseer and apostle and oversaw the Council.  More than 300 overseers and 2,000 elders and deacons attended. 

The history of the council suggests that most in attendance did not understand the issue at hand.  One small group attacked Arius while another small group defended Arius.  This later group made the mistake of explaining Arius’ position in simple detail.  When the collective body discovered that Arius truly meant that Jesus was not God, charges of Blasphemy filled the air. 

A statement of faith, a Creed, was drawn up and signed by all but two of the overseers in attendance.  While the phrase “of one essence with the Father” created concern for the Eastern churches, the overriding need to oust Arius carried the day.  The Eastern churches were concerned that this phrase suggested that somehow the Father and the son were not distinct. 

Constantine excluded Arius and anyone who refused to sign the Creed from the church.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ousias] of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance [homoousion] with the Father, through whom all things came to be, those things that are in heaven and those things that are on earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and was made man, suffered, rose the third day, ascended into the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

The key to the Creed is the homoousion stressing that Jesus is not merely like the Father but is of the identical substance as the Father.  This term would create ongoing controversy for the next 50+ years.

In an effort to make peace, Constantine attempted to restore Arius to the church.  His efforts were battled by Athanasius of Alexandria.  Athanasius refused to restore Arius, clashing with the emperor.  Ultimately, Constantine exiled Athanasius on the charge of treason. 

Constantine died in 337.  His body was baptized by a follower of Arius and the Roman Senate declared Constantine to be a God.

Constantine was followed by his nephew, Julian.  Constantine’s son had killed Julian’s parents when the was a young child, creating a great deal of hatred in Julian for Christians.  Julian cancelled all of the civil privileges of the Christian clergy and restored all of the exiled overseers in an effort to create chaos in the church.  His  plan backfired as the churches of the East and the West actually started to talk to each other.

Athanasius called a council at Alexandria to deal with Arius.  All in attendance support the position of the Nicene Creed.  The group further understood the concerns of the East and proclaimed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were three separate Persons who shared the same essence.  The controversy was not finally put to rest until 381 under the rule of Emperor Theodosius.  The West favored Athanasius’s view, whereas the East wanted a modified statement.  At the Council of Constantinople the Nicene Creed was fully accepted by the church, reaffirming the homoousian clause.

Julian feared the power Athanasius had over the church and sought to kill him.  The overseer fled to the desert where he was hid by desert monks until Julian’s death.  While the monks had formed over the early years of the church as a means to abstain from physical pleasures, the groups soon discerned that it was not correct for them to be alone.  As a result communities were formed where monks could live together and still live a life of prayer and quiet service.  These communities were called monasteries.  The female versions were called covenants.  The females were called nuns, from the feminine form of the Latin word for monks.

One of these monks was Jerome.  His life of a monk was relatively short lived, as he returned to Rome realizing God had not meant that he live alone.  He was one of the early defenders of the idea that Jesus’ mother Mary remained a virgin throughout her lifetime.  As we saw in the last lesson, he also translated the Scriptures into Latin. 

Many people did not like the Latin language Jerome used.  These people called his translation “vulgate,” the Latin word for common or vulgar. 

Clearly not all of Jerome’s contributions were valuable, but this demonstrates the importance of the movement we call monks.  One group located in Cappadocia (Turkey) was at the forefront of the fight to maintain and keep the Nicene Creed.  This effort helped to unify Christian theology in both parts of the Roman Empire.  Their leaders were Basil, his sister Macrina, his brother Gregory, and a family friend also named Gregory.  While many monasteries lived quiet, austere lives, this group worked rather than meditating all day, sang songs, helped others, sold what they grew and gave the proceeds to help the poor, and banned fasting and self-punishment.  They started more monasteries and covenants in the cities where their members taught doctrine to thousands. 

In addition, many of these groups were responsible for making copies of the Holy Bible.  It was there efforts that assured we have copies of God’s Word today.

As a closing note, let’s consider Julian one last time.  Julian grew up in an extended family who claimed to be Christian.  Yet, the Christians he knew were the ones who killed his parents, imprisoned him, and forced him to learn the Scriptures without providing him the reasons for doing so.  This effort fueled his hatred of God and Christians.  Christianity cannot be forced upon people who are not ready to receive God’s Word.  It cannot be ordained by the state nor can it be force-fed to children.  Think about it!

Fourth Century Church Events

The fourth century, like the sixteenth, and perhaps our own twentieth, is one of those periods in church history when momentous changes take place that stand out as pivotal turning points in the history of God&s people.

The century witnessed major changes and transitions in church relations with state and society. Here are six:

• Empire Persecutes Church -- At the beginning of the century the church went through the "Great Persecution"--the last and the worst. Instituted by emperor Diocletian in 305, it was intended to wipe out the church. It failed.

• Empire Tolerates Church -- Emperor Constantine professed Christianity and the church was given legal status. Often you will hear that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. He didn&t. But he did restore its losses and gave it favored treatment as one among many tolerated religions.

• Empire Challenges Church -- Paganism didn&t give up without a battle. Emperor Julian (361-363) attempted unsuccessfully to reestablish paganism.

• Empire Adopts Church --Christianity was officially made the state religion under emperor Theodosius IX in the year 381.

• Church Challenges Empire -- In a dramatic confrontation that foreshadowed centuries of church-state jockeying for position, Bishop Ambrose of Milan defied the emperor.

• Church Persecutes Opponents -- It started off the century as a persecuted minority. By the end of the century the persecuted church had turned into a persecuting church. Its motives made sense. It saw itself as combating heresy, false religion and evil forces. In many ways it was a different church and a different world at the end of this century.

• Canon of New Testament confirmed. In the 367 AD Easter letter of Athanasius, and at Councils in 382 and 397, final recognition was given. These do not create the Christian scriptures but confirm what was already generally recognized and accepted.

• Millions of new members pour in. Becoming a Christian is no longer a risk, but can even be politically and socially opportune, so the church has to deal with a new laxity in standards of belief and behavior.

• Persecuted Church turns into persecuting church. By the end of the century the church that had for so long endured persecution as a minority faith, now becomes a persecutor.

• Major Councils - Church now needs to clarify and define what it believes. Long time required to understand and explain person and nature of Christ. Under emperor Constantine the first major council of church held in Nicea (modern Turkey) in 325. Second major Council held at Constantinople in AD 381.

• Donatists Arise in 311 - No sooner does the church achieve toleration than a severe rupture occurs within the North African church that would continue for three hundred years. What had been one of the strongest early centers of the church is so weakened it was eventually lost to Christianity.

• Major Missionary Advance as Ufilias takes Gospel to the Barbarian Goths in mid-century.

• Church Buildings Flourish -- After legalization the church gets big into real estate. Often its great basilicas are built on the sites of what were formerly pagan temples.

• Capital of Empire moves to Constantinople -- In 324 city founded. City dedicated on May 11, 330. Rome no longer the center of power for the empire and church begins to fill in the gap at Rome.

• Eusebius& Church History --Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea becomes the first significant church historian and gives us invaluable documentation on the early church.

• Augustine converted in AD 386. He would become one of the most important theologians in all of church history.


Source: David Barrett.




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