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The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part IX

In our overview and historical review concerning the doctrinal development of the “universal church,” we’ve arrived at a defining moment in the history of Christendom where all of the concepts and early beliefs coalesce to form the first official statement of universality.  As we left off in the last post, the Council of Nicaea was convened by Emperor Constantine, in 325 AD.  While the primary aim was to confront the spread of Arianism, a teaching that denied the deity of Christ, the production of the Nicene Creed would be a major step towards defining and defending the universal nature of the church.  Recall that latitude and grace must be given to those in the first few centuries after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension for their desire to uphold and maintain unity in the face of persecution and legitimate, widespread heresies.  However, as we’ll see and as history teaches, this would have disastrous consequences.

The Council of Nicaea, at its core, was convened by Constantine to champion unity in the face of ever-increasing division, particularly doctrinally, but we must not forget the moral divisions that had and were taking place as well, which were at the root of the Donatist Controversy.  Hoping to bring resolution to a far greater and more serious threat involving Arianism, which we defined last time, the the Council, and its subsequent results, are a bit of a mixed bag.  As Philip Schaff notes, “the council was divided in the beginning into three parties,” the orthodox party, those who held to the deity of Christ, the Arians, those who denied the deity of Christ, and the majority, who took a middle ground between the two but leaned more towards the orthodox.

As the Council concluded, essentially a series of debates and discussions, Needham writes that Hosius of Cordova, a western bishop and Constantine’s court adviser on church matters, “convinced Constantine that the bishops should accept a statement of faith which clearly taught that the Son was not a created being, but was eternal and divine.” (pg. 204)  The first to propose a creed were the Arians, which was rejected and ripped up causing 16 of the 18 signers to abandon the heresy of Arian.  Eusebius, the historian, proposed an existing creed, the Palestinian Confession, which had been approved by Constantine and agreed upon by the “Arian minority”, but their agreement caused suspicion among the orthodox party who wanted a creed that the Arians could not substantially agree to sign.  Finally, a confession was drafted to establish the deity of Christ which became known as the Nicene Creed.  It (in English) is below with the Anti-Arian statements highlighted in bold

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, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.

Essentially, this creed stated that the Son was homoousios, or the same essence, as the Father.  In other words that they had the same nature and being.  Just as the Father was eternal and uncreated, so too was the Son.  Attached to this dogma was an anathema aimed towards the Arians, which declared them to be enemies of Christianity and that their books should be burned.  The anathema was as follows

“As for those who say, There was a time when He [the Logos] was not; and, He was not before He was created; and, He was created out of nothing, or out of another essense or thing; and, the Son of God is created, or changeable, or can alter – the holy, catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes those who say such things.”

It’s Important to observe that for the first time in history a statement on the unity of the catholic or universal church had been written and agreed to by the representative bishops and the presiding Constantine, giving power and authority to the state to enforce and act against all those who dissented.**  All but two of Arius’ supporters (as alluded to earlier) signed the creed leaving Arius himself, Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica sent into exile by the order of Constantine.  As Schaff significantly notes, “This is the first example of the civil punishment of heresy; and it is the beginning of a long succession of civil persecutions for all departures from the Catholic faith.  Before the union of church and state ecclesiastical excommunication was the extreme penalty.  Now banishment and afterwards even death, because all offences against the church were regarded as at the same time crimes against the state and civil society.” (pg. 630)

As an aside, it’s significant to point out that the original Nicene Creed, cited above, is not what is commonly rehearsed today.  Rather, the modern “Nicene Creed” is actually the Creed of Constantinople, which was a product of the ecumenical Council of Constantinople, 381.  The two are similar, yet perhaps a significant difference is the addition of the “one, holy, apostolic, catholic, church” added as an article of faith in the latter creed and not simply a statement of authority over anathema.

The Nicene Creed stands alongside the Apostle’s Creed in historical significance.  By summarizing the Council of Nicea in promoting the deity of Christ, while rejecting Arianiasm in the form of a creed, the early doctrine of the universal church now, rather than being implied, could instead be enforced.  Rather than being a general principle, it is now codified.  There is a new standard which must be agreed and adhered to, or one is found to be in opposition of the “universal church,” which by the way was presided over by the emperor.  Let’s pause to consider this for just a moment.  Is it right and just to summarize the doctrine of Christ’s deity and make it a/the standard of unity?  Perhaps, but remember we are at a period in history of moral declension, nominal Christianity, and the rise of Christendom.  Adhering to a confession says little about the condition of the heart.  It could simply mean that one adheres to the Creed to avoid being killed.  In a sense it is a man-made law enforcing the gospel.  Does it then follow that the universal church as it was being built upon the episcopate, having become largely nominal, and referring entirely to a visible institution, now convened under the direction and leadership of the Roman emperor, may deem itself to be the unified ‘holy, catholic, apostolic church’ capable of not simply excommunicating heretics and apostates, but wielding the sword exiling and executing all those in opposition?  Surely nothing could go wrong with that.

Philip Schaff summarizes the Council of Nicaea as follows

The council of Nicaea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors. It forms an epoch in the history of doctrine, summing up the results of all previous discussions on the deity of Christ and the incarnation, and at the same time regulating the further development of the Catholic orthodoxy for centuries. (pg. 631)

Upon conclusion of the Nicene Council, one would think that unity had been achieved and the doctrine of Arianism defeated once and for all.  However that was not the case.  After Nicaea, Arianism was condemned as a heresy, but soon after regained widespread acceptance throughout the empire through the efforts of Eusebius of Nicomedia (not to be confused the historian Eusebius of Caesarea) under the support of Constantius in the East, one of Constantine’s sons among whom the empire was divided (Constans in the West).  In 328, just 3 years after the Council and Creed of Nicaea, Eusebius was able to get Constantine to recall Arius from exile, though his influence was now minimal and his life would soon end drastically (336 A.D.).  Nevertheless, Eusebius pressed Arianism forward and “started a campaign to have supporters of the Creed of Nicaea deposed and exiled.  He achieved his greatest success in 335, when he persuaded Constantine to banish Athanasius for political reasons.” (pg. 211)  As Needham notes, this is the first of 5 times that Athanasius, the great champion of the deity of Christ, would be exiled, spending 17 of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile.

Just 3 years after the decision at Nicaea, the “universal church” waffled and fell back into Arianism.  Then, just over 10 years later, Arianism was dominating and now had the sword in their hand.  This is the kind of inconsistency one could come to expect when

  1. The empire, or state, is involved in matters of faith and
  2. When monolithic unity is assumed or even falsely created and
  3. When representatives make decisions for the whole.

Simply put, the church, if we can even use that term at this point, is not to be unequally yoked, with the state or any other institution.  It is always an unholy alliance and always leads to disastrous consequences.  Finally, it should give us pause to reconsider what it means to be unified, along with what are visible alliances are based on, and the biblical basis for institutionalized Christianity.

That said, the Arian controversy would continue to deteriorate and divide an already fractured catholic church.  At the death of Constantine, in 337, the empire was divided between East and West with Constantius in the former and Constans in the latter.  The East was pro-Arian, but still had those who supported Nicaea, as well as those who supported Origen, who believed the Son was not created, but an inferior divine being.  This view was summarized as homoiousious, the slight change of one letter (i) and a big change in meaning.

In the midst of this, Julius I, who some historians consider to be the pope, reviewed the exile of Athanasius and the charges against him ruling that it was unjust.  As a result, a council was called at Antioch in 341 by Eastern bishops who rejected not only Julius’ ruling, but Rome’s right to rule in the matter, further adding fuel to a unhealed split that would be centuries in the making.  It was at this council that they formulated their aforementioned homoiousious doctrine.  All of this contributed to a full-scale schism between East and West.  Constantine’s two sons attempted to reconcile this brooding division by calling an ecumenical council at Sardica in 343.  Needham notes that the council was a complete disaster, “The Western bishops insisted that Athanasius and Marcellus [another Nicene bishop] must be allowed to take part.  The Eastern bishops refused.  And so the council broke up into two separate councils, Eastern and Western, which hurled curses at each other.  The East-West split had become total. ” (pg. 212) Though the situation would calm down some in 346 with the reinstatement of Athanasius, in 350, General Magnentius murdered Constans (West).  In 353 Constantius, the Arian sympethizer from the East, defeated Magnentius to unify the Empire and once again reignite the Arian controversy.

In the next post, we’ll wrap up councils and creeds by looking at the Council of Constantinople.  We’ll see how a reunification of the catholic or universal church paved the way out of the Patristic Period and into the Middle Ages.

 

 

**There is some debate about whether the Apostle’s Creed, which refers to the “holy catholic church” was written prior to the Nicene Creed.  While that is debatable, the history of the Nicaea seems more sure.

Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers. Grace Publications: 2011

Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity A.D. 311-500. Hendrickson: 2006

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VI

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

The post below is a a little longer than the others in this series.

In our last post from this series we looked at the development of “Christian sacralism” through the influence of Emperor Constantine.  We also saw its effects upon the growth and expansion of the so-called universal church and how it’s evolution, essentially its institutional unity and episcopal leadership, were instrumental for the arrival of Constantinianism, or the marriage of Church with State.  A marriage that resulted formally in Christendom, or nominal Christianity.  This was a union that would not be easily broken and continues to bear bad fruit to this day.

One particular area of rottenness was the influx of immorality into the universal or catholic church, a byproduct of Christian sacralism.  This increasing lack of discipline, which existed in the centuries prior, as we’ve seen, increased exponentially with the merger with the State, but interestingly its influence occurred in two opposite directions.  Historian Phillip Schaff points out that the first influence “increased the stringency of discipline and led to a penal code for spiritual offences.”  Essentially this resulted in an enactment of civil punishment on all those who would oppose Christendom, which would lead to the death penalty for heretics and wars against infidels.  Second, “with an increasing stringency against heretics, firmness against practical errors diminished.  Hatred of heresy and laxity of morals, zeal for purity of doctrine and indifference to purity of life, which ought to exclude each other, do really often stand in union.”  Basically the 4th Century suffered from the same errors of Jehu (2 Kings 9-10), that of zeal against the idolatrous all the while harboring golden calves within their own hearts.  This is the height of hypocrisy, but its to be expected when the emphasis shifts towards an institutional, external, now state-sponsored church, if we can even use that term anymore and still retain the biblical meaning of ekklesia. (as an aside, all of this is not to take away from the genuine believers, and there were many, who loved the Lord and sought personal holiness)

Turning to Schaff again, he eloquently states the primary issue, “In that mighty revolution under Constantine the church lost her virginity, and allied herself with the mass of heathendom, which had not yet experienced an inward change.” (pg. 357)  Again, as we’ve asked in previous posts from this series, can this usage of “church” with the adjective universal rightly describe and define the “church”, or more accurately the ekklesia, that Christ died for?

No.

In this post, we want to look again at a schism, or movement in opposition from the catholic church.  Recall that in Part III of this series we introduced two of these prominent movements, Montanism and Novatianism, that opposed the universal or catholic church and her episcopacy.  Once again, we’ll turn to Berkhof for a review on the climate of schisms

The early Church Fathers, in combating these sectaries, emphasized ever increasingly the episcopal institution of the Church.  Cyprian has the distinction of being the first to develop fully the doctrine of the episcopal Church.  He regarded the bishops as the real successors of the apostles and ascribed to them a priestly character in virtue of their sacrificial work.  They together formed a college, called the episcopate, which as such constituted the unity of the Church.  The unity of the Church was thus based on the unity of the bishops.  They who do not subject themselves to the bishop forfeit the fellowship of the Church and also their salvation, since there is no salvation outside of the Church.

To reiterate, the universality or catholicity of the church was rooted in the episcopate, or office of bishops.  As we’ve seen with various movements opposed to the universal church they sometimes occurred because of doctrine, but most often because of practice, i.e. a laxity in morality.  Any movement of opposition or dissidence against the catholic church and especially her bishops was a forfeiture of salvation, because, “outside the church there is no salvation.”

This, however, created a major problem.  What to do with those apostates who wanted back in, the lapsed, and what to do with those who were baptized outside of the catholic church who wanted to join, the heretics?  This debate was not new and not easily settled.  In the third century, Cyprian held the position that those who were baptized outside the catholic church were invalid and therefore not allowed in without rebaptism.  He was opposed by Stephen (who the Roman Catholic Church view as one in the successive line of popes), who took the position that a baptism outside the catholic church was valid.  These debates concerning discipline and baptism ultimately led a system of penitence, which of course becomes an issue again with the Reformation. 

Fast forward a century and we arrive at another schism from the catholic church, one that again revolved around this issue of discipline and more specifically who was in/out of the universal, catholic church.  This third group, the Donatists, were arguably the most significant and garnered the most opposition.  Historian Philipp Schaff introduces this critical schism

Donatism was by far the most important schism in the church of the period before us (311-590).  For a whole century it divided North African chuchces into two hostile camps.  Like the schisms of the former period (100-325), it arose from the conflict of the more rigid and the more indulgent theories of discipline in reference to the restoration of the lapsed.  But through the intervention of the Christianized state, it assumed at the same time an ecclesiastical-political character.  The rigoristic penitential discipline had been represented in the previous period especially by the Montanists and Novatians, who were still living; while the milder principle and practice had found its most powerful support in the Roman church, and, since the time of Constantine, had generally prevailed. (Vol. III pg. 360)

The Donatists were born out of the bloodied soil of martyrdom that arose from the persecution of Diocletian.  The Donatist Schism officially began after the 311 Edict of Toleration, but finds its roots in 305 at the height of the Diocletian Persecution. Historian N.R. Needham provides a succinct overview of the movement’s beginnings

“The last great persecution under Diocletian had left the Church in North-West Africa bitterly divided.  Large Numbers of Christians refused to recognise the new bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (appointed in 311), because one of the bishops who ordained him had allegedly handed over the Bible to be burnt during Diocletian’s persecution.  The result was a split: two rival Churches came into being, each claiming to be the true Catholic Church in North-West Africa.  One Church was led by Caecilian, the other by a rival bishop called Donatus (died 355).  The followers of Donatus were called ‘Donatists’.

Basically, during the persecution from Diocletian, bishops were specifically targeted, many were killed, but some, perhaps out of self-preservation, handed over the Scriptures or denied the faith altogether.  Those who did were called traditores, i.e. traitors.  These traditors sought restoration back to their position of bishop by means of penance once the persecution had ended.  One of these restored bishops was responsible for the ordination of another bishop, Caecilian, and it was that ordination, along with any subsequent baptisms administered by him, that was called into question.  At some point, we will need to address what baptism actually meant in the early church, but that place is probably not in this series.

The problem, from the Donatist perspective, was that an apostate should not be allowed restoration, especially to the position of bishop.  All sacraments administered downstream of this bishop would therefore be invalid.  This belief was similar to the earlier response from Cyprian mentioned above because of the emphasis on the worthiness of the one administering the baptism.

In modern terms, imagine if a pastor apostatized the faith but later repented.  Should he be restored to his position of pastor?  If so, should he then be allowed to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  Would those baptisms be considered valid?

Because Donatism has often been labeled a heresy and because the summation of the movement has been about the one particular incident, then the stand they made might seem like much ado about nothing.  But at its heart was much more than whether one particular bishop who had denied the faith was qualified to ordain another bishop and subsequently whether that bishop could perform baptisms.  More than this, a debate was forming over the nature of the church, i.e. who was in and who was out, as well as whether holiness can rightly define membership.

Schaff summarizes,

“The Donatist controversy was a conflict between separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general Christendom of state and people.  It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness.” Vol III pg. 365

In 316, Constantine ordered the exile of all Donatists and the confiscation of their buildings, displaying the early effects of the newly installed Christian sacralism.  When these efforts at reconciling the Donatists with the catholic church failed, Constantine reversed his order in 321.

If you’ve followed along with this series up to this point, you may be asking whether this discussion of the universal church even matters.  For the Donatists, it did.  They were willing to die for the nature of the church.  This wasn’t and isn’t simply a matter of semantics, it was and is a matter of holiness.  It was and is about who can rightly be called the children of God.  It was and is about how the people of God embrace the pilgrim mindset as they live in this world.  Was the Donatist argument flawed?  Maybe, but the debate that lasted for over a century was revealing.  Simply put, the ongoing debate was due to a faulty conception of a universal/catholic church.

To get to the crux of this issue, it’s necessary to quote Phillip Schaff at length

“The Donatists, like Tertullian in his Montanistic writings, started from an ideal and spiritualistic conception of the church as a fellowship of saints, which in a sinful world could only be imperfectly realized. They laid chief stress on the predicate of the subjective holiness or personal worthiness of the several members, and made the catholicity of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments dependent upon that. The true church, therefore, is not so much a school of holiness, as a society of those who are already holy; or at least of those who appear so; for that there are hypocrites not even the Donatists could deny, and as little could they in earnest claim infallibility in their own discernment of men. By the toleration of those who are openly sinful, the church loses, her holiness, and ceases to be church. Unholy priests are incapable of administering sacraments; for how can regeneration proceed from the unregenerate, holiness from the unholy? No one can give what he does not himself possess. He who would receive faith from a faithless man, receives not faith but guilt.  It was on this ground, in fact, that they rejected the election of Caecilian: that he had been ordained bishop by an unworthy person. On this ground they refused to recognize the Catholic baptism as baptism at all. On this point they had some support in Cyprian, who likewise rejected the validity of heretical baptism, though not from the separatist, but from the catholic point of view, and who came into collision, upon this question, with Stephen of Rome.

Hence, like the Montanists and Novatians, they insisted on rigorous church discipline, and demanded the excommunication of all unworthy members, especially of such as had denied their faith or given up the Holy Scriptures under persecution. They resisted, moreover, all interference of the civil power in church affairs; though they themselves at first had solicited the help of Constantine. In the great imperial church, embracing the people in a mass, they saw a secularized Babylon, against which they set themselves off, in separatistic arrogance, as the only true and pure church. In support of their views, they appealed to the passages of the Old Testament, which speak of the external holiness of the people of God, and to the procedure of Paul with respect to the fornicator at Corinth.”

The questions that revolved around the Dontatist interpretation and application of Cyprian would remain, and the controversy would rage on for decades, until the arrival of Augustine, who would take up the banner of the catholic church and seek to silence the Donatist dissenters.  History remembers Augustine as the clear “winner” of this debate, as his works have survived and been a great influence, while the Dontatists have faded away.  But was he right?  We’ll examine his rebuttal in the next post.

The three “sects” that we’ve looked at up to this point, Novatianism, Montanism, and their culmination in Donatism, stand as sign posts for those who would challenge the authoritarian, institutional catholic church.  Additionally, they are evidence that orthodox believers, whether in sects or as separatists via schism, existed outside of what called itself the “universal church”.  Historically, all three have been referred to as heresies.  A heresy, rightly defined, is a belief that goes against Scripture.  Unfortunately, most of these early sects were called heresies because they went against the beliefs of the church while attempting to uphold Scripture.  You can almost hear the arguments forming for who holds the supreme authority, the church or the Scriptures? Sola Ecclesia or Sola Scriptura.

This isn’t to say of course that each of these movements were wholesale biblical, but neither were they wholesale heretical.  What they were, were early attempts to reform the church and conform her more to the image of the New Testament church.  They were begun by people who were not afraid to step outside of an external, institutional and eventually state-sponsored church.  Unfortunately, because of excesses in the movements, often tangential, they are largely viewed as heretical sects, but as we’ve seen and will ultimately conclude, this is a problematic and extremely slippery slope.

 

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part V

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

Last time, we took a brief detour to introduce an influential concept known as sacralism.  Summarily, it is the mixture of religion and state, and began to infect Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  In this post, we move from sacralism in theory and observation, primarily amongst pre-Christian societies and the Roman Empire, towards its infiltration into Christianity, owed largely to the ascension of Emperor Constantine.

Briefly, the political and religious climate, in the first few centuries after Christ’s death, lent itself to the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire, an outworking of their own sacralism.

Verduin comments

“The Roman State had its  officially designated Object of worship, and to it every Roman was expected to give homage.  It is significant that the early Christians did not launch a crusade to have this Object ousted and a new and better Object, the God of Scriptures, put in its place.  The primitive Church did not propose to remove the Object that had hitherto stood in the square and put its own Object in its place.  It was content to worship the Christian God in an off-the-street place and to ignore the Object that stood in a place where none belongs, being careful that no one would have reason to complain that by so worshiping at an esoteric shrine the Christians were drawing themselves away from the affairs of the Roman life.”

Essentially, Verduin is detailing the “pilgrim” mentality, described frequently in Scripture and adopted by faithful believers throughout the ages.

After the widespread and brutal persecution of Christians at the hands of Emperor Diocletian (303-311), which we’ll look at in a future post, and the passage of the Edict of Toleration (311) by Emperor Galeriaus (along with Constantine and Licinius) the stage was set for the perfect storm of Constantine and “Christian sacralism”.  Seeking to gain full control of the empire he had inherited, Constantine believed his military could not compete with the divination being practiced by his rival, Maxentius.  He therefore sought “supernatural” help, as it were, by turning to the God of Scripture. Schaff summarizes the events prior to the battle at Rome on October 27, 312

“[Constantine] leaning already towards Christianity as probably the best and most hopeful of the various religions, seriously sought in prayer, as he related to Eusebius (his biographer), the assistance of God of the Christians, while his heathen antagonist Maxentius, according to Zosimus, was consulting the sibylline books (prophetic and mysterious) and offering sacrifice to the idols.” (vol. 3, pg. 27)

As the well-known story goes, Constantine, either by way of dream or vision, sees a sign of the cross in the clouds and a vision of Christ Himself saying, “By this sign thou shalt conquer!” Verudin summarizes this epiphany, “There he had it! Make the religion of Jesus the religion of the empire and then look to it to achieve the consensus that he, sacralist that he was, and remained, felt he had to have.” (pg. 31

We may pause to reflect briefly upon whether the cross of Christ, not merely the symbol or charm one would wear on a necklace, but its meaning, the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ taking upon Himself the sins of those who would believe and suffering the wrath of God in their place, has any business being mingled in the political affairs of men, their wars, and their lust for power?

Verduin summarizes succinctly,

“The problem to which Constantine sought a solution was political rather than religious.”  

“We wish to say in passing (for we shall return to this matter later in this study) that this was to read a new and totally strange meaning into the ‘Cross.’  Is the Cross of Christ then a thing whereby emperors ambitions are realized?” (pg 31)

Finding the opportunity he had been longing for, Constantine then inscribed the symbol from his vision, overlapping Greek letters chi and rho, the first two letters of Christos (Christ), on the helmets and shields of his soldiers and went on to have victory over Maxentius at Rome, thereby taking a significant step towards unifying the empire under his rule (finally accomplished in 324 after the defeat of Luicinius).

This symbol, along with Christianity became the trend of the day, though not without its setbacks and difficulties. It also began the process for unification of the spiritual kingdom which Christ had come to establish, with the faltering empire of Rome, who sought to reclaim her glory. These developments did not happen overnight. Instead there were significant ebbs and flows that came and went with various emperors. In fact, some might argue that a greater advance of sacralism happened under Theodesius rather than Constantine. However, it’s often easier to pin its inception to the reign of Constantine.

There were certainly benefits from Constantine’s favor towards Christianity, for example the abolishment of ordinances offensive to Christians, the freedom of Christian slaves, the advancement of Christian education, and those debatable policies such as the civil observance of Sunday, contributions to the liberal building of churches and support of clergy, and assembling the Council of Nicea.  However, “Constantine stands also as the type of an undiscriminating and harmful conjunction of Christianity with politics, of the holy symbol of peace with the horrors of war, of the spiritual interests of the kingdom of heaven with the earthly interests of the state.” (Schaff Vol. 3, pg. 12)

Additionally, with Christianity soon to become the state sponsored religion, it now held the responsibility of punishing civil AND religious disobedience.  “Now also, however, the lines of orthodoxy were more and more strictly drawn; freedom of inquiry was restricted; and all departure from the state-church system was met not only, as formerly, with spiritual weapons, but also with civil punishments.  So early as the fourth century the dominant party, the orthodox as well as the heterodox, with the help of the imperial authority practiced deposition, confiscation, and banishment upon its opponents.  It was but one step thence to the penalties of torture and death, which were ordained in the middle age, and even so lately as the middle of the seventeenth century, by state authority, both Protestant and Roman Catholic….” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg. 7)

Constantine would go on to make Christianity visible and his edict of toleration of 313 would eventually lead to the exclusivity of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Constantine paved the way for the laws of Theodesius (379-392), which far more aggressively drew together the relationship of the universal church with the state.  As it relates to our study of the universal church, it was her organization and unity that allowed such a relationship to be formed with the state.  Schaff highlights this arrangement, “For only as a catholic, thoroughly organized, firmly compacted, and conservative institution did it meet his (Constantine’s) rigid monarchical interest, and afford the splendid state and court dress he wished for his empire.” (vol. 3, pg. 31)

Christian sacralism would soon become a reality. All those who would oppose the catholic church would now be subject to civil penalties, even death.  Now, not only would the church universal be wed to the state, she would wield the sword of the state against all religious opposition and dissidents, setting the stage for the infamous religious wars that would follow.  

As one may imagine, this marriage further diluted an already morally watered down universal church. To be born, not merely born again, in the Roman Empire, now meant an inherent Christianity, not paganism. Now the universal church would fully embrace the masses, regardless of whether or not they were genuinely converted.  Worldliness had indeed come to infect the universal church on a grander scale.  Schaff comments,

“From the time of Constantine church discipline declines; the whole Roman world having become nominally Christian, and the host of hypocritical professors multiplying beyond all control.” (intro vol. 3, pg. 8)

Do any of these occurrences regarding the “universal church” resemble anything about Christ’s ekklesia that He came to establish?  Clearly the answer is no.

Under the umbrella of these events, namely the reign of Constantine, the establishment of Christian sacralism, and the punishment of heretics by the sword, from which our third dissenting group, the Donatists, would emerge. We will examine their movement in our next post.

Sacralism is not limited to the 4th and 5th Centuries. In fact, it would dominate the next 1100 years until the Reformation. At that point, sacralism did not die out, but reinvigorated. Specifically with Martin Luther, we find the shift from the state’s marriage to Roman Catholicism to a new, younger, more attractive and virile bride, Protestantism.

A Reformation that began with similar motives as those others which had gone before, i.e. Montanism, Novatianism, Donatism, et.al. shifted towards a Magisterial Reformation, one which was dependent upon the state to further its reform and utilized the sword against any would be dissidents.

Schaff highlights the effects of Constantine’s sacralism that would trickle down and pollute the “church” for ages and significantly impact the Reformation,

“Constantine, the first Christian Caesar, the founder of Constantinople and the Byzantine empire, and one of the most gifted, energetic, and successful of the Roman emperors, was the first representative of the imposing idea of a Christian theocracy, or of that system of policy which assumes all subjects to be Christians, connects civil and religious rights, and regards church and state as the two arms of one and the same divine government on earth.  This idea was more fully developed by his successors, it animated the whole middle age, and is yet working under various forms in these latest times; though it has never been fully realized, whether in the Byzantine, the German, or the Russian empire, the Roman church-state, the Calvinisitic republic of Geneva, or the early Puritanic colonies of New England.”  Schaff Vol. 3, pg. 12

Thus, with Constantine we have the birth of Christendom.