[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.
“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.