THE STORY OF THE CHURCH - PART 2, TOPIC 1
In this segment we attempt to give an overview of the many outward changes that accompanied the legalization
of Christianity. The historical reasons for legalization, the major characters that participated in it, and the
outcomes of legalization up to the time of Justinian are briefly noted. A video of Christian art and architecture
of the period will be presented. Our goal is to have enough context to address the major theological controversies
in the next few segments. We will follow up the theological controversies with more historical information, such
as a treatment of monasticism.
- History of Constantine's conversion (Schaff 3-10 through 3-37) (Bainton I-90ff)
Constantine's father was the western Caesar under the tetrarchy established by Diocletian. When Diocletian and
Maximian, the two Augusti, retired, Constantius became the western Augustus. When Constantine's father died, he
took command of the troops (he was in Britain at the time), who proclaimed him the western Emperor. Through a series
of conquests and battles, he ended up outside Rome in 312 battling Maxentius, son of Maximian.
According to the stories told by him, he had a dream in which he saw the sign of the cross (actually a chi-rho)
in the sky, with the words "In hoc signo vinces", "by this sign conquer." The next day he added
this sign to the standards of his army, and won the battle. He entered Rome and became unchallenged as western
From this time forward he began to favor Christianity, but did not completely convert all at once. His legislation
favored Christianity more and more. At some time his mother, Helena, had become a Christian, and along with her
son she began to spend large sums of money building new churches and visiting the Holy Land.
Constantine quickly became embroiled in theological controversy, and he called the Council of Nicaea together in
325 to settle questions about the deity of Christ. He may have even suggested some of the wording for the creed.
He was baptized close to the end of his life (but a lot of people did that then), and died on May 22, 337.
- Development of the legalization/establishment of Christianity (Schaff 3-10 through 3-71)
- 313: "Edict of Milan," issued with co-emperor Licinius, granted liberty of worship to all Romans,
and restored Christian church property confiscated during Diocletian's and Galerius' persecutions.
- 313: Christian clergy exempted from government duty
- 321: Bequests to churches legalized
- 325: Emperor Constantine summons council of Nicaea
- 361-363: Julian the Apostate tries to reinstate paganism, but mostly allows religious liberty to the Christians
- 375-383: Emperor Gratian confiscates temples, abolishes privileges for heathen priests, etc.
- 379-395: Emperor Theodosius I prohibits heathen religious observances
- 435: Theodosius II commands that the temples be destroyed or turned into churches
- 527-567: Emperor Justinian prohibits heathenism upon pain of death.
- 529: Justinian abolishes the school at Athens, 900 years old.
- Results of the legalization/establishment
- Let's review what has happened here. The Church has now entered a position which it will hold in the West until
the 1500's-1900's, depending on which country you are talking about. In the East it held its position right up
until the rise of Communism in Russia and the Turkish invasions in Turkey and Greece. Historically, it is the majority
position that the church should be in some way established by the state. In England, Germany and elsewhere, this
is still true in Protestant countries also. Even the Protestant Reformation did not "reform" this state
of affairs, other than in its persecuted Anabaptist wing.
- Depending on your point of view, this is either the ruin of the church, a setback for the church, or even a
positive good for the church. Certainly Constantine deserves credit for turning the Empire from persecution of
the faith to defender of the faith. But within the reign of one emperor, the church grew from legality almost to
establishment as the state religion.
- We have to remember that this was the only position that a majority religion had ever held with any government
in ancient times. The concept of a free but unestablished religion was known (cf. the position of the Jews), but
an emperor wanted a religion that was not only true, but was a useful tool for organizing society.
- Limited almost exclusively to the "Catholic" Church (Schaff, 3-96)
- Emperors disapproved of all schisms and heresies. Nothing but a universal, united church would please them.
This was, of course, more helpful for a united Empire. There were some exceptions for the Novatians, and certainly
for the Arians during times when the Emperors were sympathetic to Arianism.
- Exemption of clergy from taxation and public service (Schaff, 3-96)
- These exemptions had already existed for other legally recognized heathen and Jewish religious leaders.
- Constantine extended the first exemptions to African clergy in 313, and to the whole Empire in 319.
- Abuses followed (not that these were unknown in times before legalization), and various laws were put forth
by Emperors to prevent the wealthy from pressing into ecclesiastical office in order to enrich themselves.
- Endowments to the church (Schaff, 3-97)
- By 321, Constantine had legalized the right of the church to receive legacies (estates left to the church).
- He also became a large contributor himself, and built many churches with his own money.
- The churches soon became wealthy, in some cases to extravagance. The administration of the money was
under the bishops, and became a great temptation and often an abuse.
- Government support of the clergy (Schaff 3-100)
- Not only were clergy now eligible for government stipends, but the above-mentioned endowments, and the resulting
enrichment of the church, brought clergymen to a new financial independence.
- This was often used to help others and provide examples of how to live with great resources, but just as often
became a source of reproach as the leadership now became known for their fine style of living.
- Episcopal jurisdiction and intercession (Schaff 3-102)
- Church courts, which had already existed, were now officially recognized by the empire. Certain spiritual or
episcopal matters were reserved exclusively to those courts.
- Bishops gained the power, formerly held by pagan priests and vestal virgins, of interceding with the secular
authority for "criminals, prisoners , and unfortunates of every kind." This often resulted in more merciful
treatment for prisoners, widows, orphans, etc.
- Asylum in churches, another custom lifted from heathenism, became attached to the Christian churches. This
was made law by Theodosius II in 431.
- Sunday as a legal holiday (Schaff 3-105)
- Although there were many exceptions and lax enforcement, the setting aside of Sunday began as early as 321
with Constantine himself. By the 400's all sorts of activities, mostly civil or entertainment, were prohibited
- Legal codes (Schaff 3-107)
- From the time of Constantine, Christian principles begin to influence the laws in various ways.
- Constantine abolished crucifixion, and began the abolition of gladiatorial shows; he discouraged infanticide
and encouraged the emancipation of slaves.
- The code of Justinian (527-534), which contained the best of pagan Roman and Christian Roman law, became the
inspiration for a thousand years of lawmaking.
- Status of women (Schaff 3-111)
- Schaff traces to Christianity the improved legal status of women and the family, but he gives little background
to show what the emperors were thinking here.
- Constantine granted women the same control of their property as men in 321 (other than to sell their landed
- Guardianship, which had been restricted to men, was granted to mothers in 390 by Theodosius I.
- Old Testament views of marriage, especially not marrying relatives, now became law.
- Divorce came under more restrictions than before, although this process went backward and forward.
- The unlimited power of the father over his children, which was an ancient Roman tradition, began to be limited
also, partly by the influence of despotic government and partly under Christian influence.
- Slavery (Schaff 3-115)
- Slavery was left intact, although subject to the same Christian cautions which are found in the New Testament.
Emancipation of slaves was encouraged in some circles, but not many.
- Gladiatorial Shows (Schaff 3-122)
- Constantine began abolishing this practice, but only in a limited way.
- By 404, they were pretty much fully stopped, at least between man and man.
- Union of Church & State and Secularization of the Church (Schaff 3-125)
- "These evil results may be summed up under the general designation of the secularization of the church.
. . . Christianity became a matter of fashion. The number of hypocrites and formal professors rapidly increased;
strict discipline, zeal, self sacrifice, and brotherly love proportionally ebbed away; and many heathen customs
and usages, under altered names, crept into the worship of God and the life of the Christian people." "Yet
the pure spirit of Christianity could by no means be polluted by this. On the contrary it retained even in the
darkest days its faithful and steadfast confessors, conquered new provinces from time to time, constantly reacted
. . . against the secular and the pagan influences . . ." (Schaff 3-125, 3-126)
- Christianity now contrasted negatively with the simplicity and poverty of the earliest Christians. Those abuses
which were so obvious during the time of the Reformation got their start in the 300's. They were protested against
immediately by the better teachers in the church, but evidently they were here to stay. The counterexample, monasticism
(which we will put off until a later week), is the exception that proves the rule. Monks were held in high esteem,
but the way of asceticism was soon seen not to be the way most Christians could live — which indeed is true, but
not in the way that they believed it!
- Excessive favor began to be shown to "Christian" emperors. This started almost immediately, with
Eusebius' favorable biography of Constantine. Constantine is still regarded as something of a "thirteenth
apostle" in the Eastern Orthodox churches. Politicians began to interfere into Church affairs, with Constantine
once again setting the example. He personally caused the calling of the council of Nicaea which settled the doctrine
of the Trinity.
- Persecution of heretics began almost immediately. This was not surprising, because for more than a century
the leaders had referred to heretics in the most extreme way, anathametizing and condemning any and all who disagreed.
This had become a habit. Therefore, when government power was available, the bishops were quick to wield it to
- It is easy to criticize Constantine for getting in the business of banishing heretics, but let's give him a
little bit of a break. When he recognized Christianity, he assumed that Christianity was an identifiable religion
and a group of people. The radical disagreements among Christians threatened him like paganism never did. He believed
that he had to try to unite Christians in order for society to benefit from Christianity. He pursued different
means to effect the union of all Christians, partly positive — like the Councils, and partly negative, such as
penalties for heresy.
- Theodosius, 380, decrees the following (Bettenson 22):
"It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue
in the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it hath been
preserved by faithful tradition; and which is now professed by Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria,
a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe
in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize
the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment,
they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall
not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement
of the divine condemnation, and in the second the punishment which our authority, in accordance with the will of
Heaven, shall decide to inflict."
- Doctrinal development, which had never paused, now had the leisure and the resources to bloom. This was, of
course, highly related to the existence of heretics. But merely adding the power of the state to the equation did
not automatically mean that heretics could be simply stamped out. Rather, in this age we see the greatest of the
church fathers working very hard to persuade and convict others of what they saw as biblical truth and Church tradition.
- Monastic reaction, which had begun before Constantine, now came of age. "Still, despite the precursors,
the great monastic exodus from society coincided with the era of Constantine: when the multitudes entered the Church
the monks went to the desert" (Bainton, I, p. 104). We will put off discussion of monasticism for a later
- Pagan customs and religious beliefs now came into Christianity with the masses of "converts" who
came in. (Dowley 141). Saturnalia's date was taken for Christmas; candles, incense, and garlands were taken after
some hesitation; and the veneration of Mary was greatly augmented by the former pagans who had worshiped Artemis
and Isis. Saints and martyrs took over devotion from the minor pagan gods, sometimes moving right into their temples
without missing a beat. Superstitious stories were now told of the martyrs (or their relics) healing from sickness
and performing other miracles after death.
- I suppose this is the time to talk about the theory, advanced in some Protestant circles, that the legalization
of Christianity and its establishment was the beginning or was completely the Satanic takeover of the church. These
types of stories will often date the beginning of corrupt "Catholicism" or "Romanism" to the
time of Constantine, at which time they will also contend that the true church was driven underground, to reappear
at the time of the Reformation (or at the time of whichever party is favored by those who are advancing the theory).
This kind of "history" is just as superstitious as the medieval Catholicism that they deplore. It ignores
all the facts about the doctrines and practices of the early church, and puts an artificial distinction between
the pre- and post- Constantinian Christians which looks plausible at a distance of 1600 years, but won't stand
up under any kind of scrutiny. The development of the church after Constantine was based upon all that had happened
before. It was surprising to be legal and favored, but the church continued on in the traditions that had already
been developing. This is not to say that many of those traditions weren't corruptions from biblical truth; I only
contend that they were organic developments from earlier traditions.
Back to Church History page
Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted
to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works
quoted may be found in Bibliography page.