Church History 101: A short history of church history from 64 AD to 600 AD (part three)

Continuing where we left off in post one, which was somewhere towards the end of the third century, we are rapidly approaching D-Day for the Christian church. Or Armistice Day. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, or apparent conversion to Christianity, made Christianity the official state religion, and changed the landscape of the church forever. Being a state religion meant having rigid notions of doctrine in place in order to determine who was being a good citizen, and who was inspiring political unrest through heretical rocking of the boat. Truth became a democratic process, and this period saw a number of councils making significant decisions on doctrine, and the collapse of the Empire, and continuation of the church, brought about several interesting interchanges driven largely by power struggles within the church, or seeking the aid of the church… so lets go back to the end of the third century, having just farewelled Origen and Cyprian…

The Life and Times of Constantine, and the Council of Nicea
The Third Century ends with another bout of persecution under Diocletian. Diocletian split the empire into east and west, appointing Maximian as his co-emperor. Eventually the empire is split again, and Constantinus is basically appointed as co-emperor of the West. Diocletian’s persecution of Christians was particularly mean. He tried to wipe them out to satisfy some oracles. He ordered all scriptures, churches, and Christians to be burned (or just to not meet, but to hand over any copies of the Bible they had). The Christians of the west were ok, because their emperors did not enforce the edicts of Diocletian and Galerius.

Diocletian ends up abdicating in 305 A.D, and a year later Constantinus, Constantine’s father, dies and as a result Constantine is pushed into the role of emperor of the West. Constantine basically goes about reuniting the empire, and by 313 he and one of his relatives, Licinius, issue the edict of Milan – a policy of tolerance for Christians. Licinius eventually renegs on this deal, and Constantine then ousts him and becomes emperor of both sides of the empire. He moves the capital to Constantinople, and is eventually baptised as a Christian – fusing church and state, with Christianity now the official religion of the empire. A pretty massive turnaround in 300 years – from crucifying to worshiping Jesus.

This newfound status in the empire means the church has to thrash out some issues that have been bubbling away under the surface. First cab off the rank is Donatism – the Donatists appeal to Caesar, who rejects their views and banishes them in 316 A.D.

Then Arius starts up. Launching the Arian controversy which needed the Council of Nicea to unanimously (almost, 2 said no) define the Creed for Christian belief- the Nicene Creed. The council settled a bunch of issues, and as a result Constantine sacked any Arian sympathising bishops and exiled them.

At around this time Pachomius establishes a monastic community – a communal home for hermits. Monastries become a cool place to hang out by yourself. Monasticism essentially replaces martydom as the means for Christian sacrificial living.

A brief snapshot of figures from this period

1. Constantine: Control freak, megalomaniac emperor who was shrewd and effective often employing propaganda to get what he wanted – he took control of a fractured empire and ruled it for over twenty years, went from protecting the freedoms of Christians, to becoming one and making Christianity the state religion. Unseparated church and state. Though continued to patronise Roman religions throughout his life.

2. Arius: Ascetic dude who liked pagan philosophers and sparked a massive controversy within the church because of his Stoic interpretations of doctrine. Founded Arianism. Eventually died on the toilet just before being reinstated to the church (after Constantine’s successor revealed a penchant for Arian theology. Reinstated by Constantine in in 328 A.D.

3. Athanasius: The main opponent to Arius, presented the adopted view at Nicea. Taught that since only God is to be worshiped, and the New Testament calls for Christ to be worshiped, that Christ is God. Only God can save, Christ saves, Christ is God. Only somebody who is human and divine can offer eternal life. Only God can pay the debt for sins. Son of God, Son of Man used interchangeably for the one figure. Christ came to restore us to God. Becomes bishop of Alexandria after the Council.

4. Eusebius: Submitted a creed to the council that heavily influenced the final form of the Nicene Creed, wrote a history of the church up until 300A.D.

A brief snapshot of beliefs and events from this period
1. Donatism: Sprang up out of the Diocletian persecution (but came to a head a decade later). Argued that anybody who had complied to Diocletian’s orders was permanently tainted, and anybody who had any contact with them was also permanently tainted.

2. Arianism: Taught that Jesus was the Son of God, but not eternal, that he was in fact created ex nihilo before the creation of the world, Jesus was not human, or god, but was unique – a lesser divinity, not of one substance with the father (like, but different) – Arianism saw Jesus as an event in the life of God, rather than leading the life of God all along.

3. Nicene Council : Rejected Arianism, settled on the Nicene Creed as an appropriate outline of the faith. Took two months to decide on an alternative view. 220 Bishops in attendance, recognised Origen’s three hypostasis – the father, son and spirit. Also recognised Alexandria, Antioch and Rome as important churches with authority over others. Also settled the date of Easter.