The messy reality of Post-Constantinian church history, part one

Church history after Constantine is a messier affair than many would like to believe. On the one hand, there is something of a triumphalist reading that makes Constantine a saint and the triumph of the Church a Good Thing that brought great benefit to Christ’s people. This view is pretty quickly weakened by discovering the activity of the emperors who supported theology and legislation contrary to the Triumphant Church’s interests.

The other view, one raised by Jnana in the comments on my last post, is the idea that the True Believers went underground after Constantine, and (at least in the version I’ve heard) all we need to do to find them is follow the trail of blood left by the activities of the Catholic/Orthodox Church up to the Reformation. The best discussion of this view that I’ve read is by Baptist scholar D H Williams in Evangelicals and Tradition; it is popular amongst Anabaptists, Quakers, and low evangelicals such as Baptists, many of whom trace their spiritual heritage to movements of the radical Reformation who were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and the national churches of the magisterial Reformation such as Anglicans or Lutherans.

Neither of these views is entirely wrong.

But the truth is different.

I shall address in this series of posts the second view, although in addressing it, I believe the first shall receive some refutation as well. For a methodological point, I shall use the traditional/common English names for all of the groups discussed, even if some of them presuppose later developments or were never used by their own adherents.

What are the activities the post-Constantinian church engaged in that the believers of this persecution view are thinking upon? Obviously, persecution. The driving out of their churches of people with divergent views. At times, the use of violence against them.

My first point, then, is Paul of Samosata. Paul of Samosata was a Monarchianist in the 200s (that is, well before Constantine), and the people of his local church as well as a council of bishops deposed him for heresy. I bring him up because this sort of activity against bishops on trial for heresy is exactly the sort of thing Constantine was accused of introducing. I argue that this is the sort of thing the church would have been up to, anyway. What imperial favour did was enable them to do it in a much more organised way and with better resources. Excommunication and deposition of clerics is not a Constantinian development.

Furthermore, when we take Paul of Samosata in conjunction with the Gnostics, we realise that there were boundaries of orthodoxy before Constantine, even if the precise definitions of Nicaea were not yet hashed out. Irenaeus of Lyons’ book about Gnosticism is called Against the Heresies; people were concerned about what sort of doctrine was being taught to the members of the church and were trying to make sure that only pure Gospel truth was on tap — I imagine that Gnostic circles would have been up to much the same; to my knowledge, we have insufficient evidence on that point.

The Gnostics are my second point. If the church in the fourth century after 312ish were really bent on persecuting all of its enemies, one would think the Gnostics to be a prime target. It seems they weren’t. My theory about Gnostics in the fourth century is that, since the Empire was favouring catholic Christianity, most of them just converted (a lot like pagan aristocrats), and their religious meetings and leaders couldn’t maintain themselves in the face of the growing catholic Church. That’s my theory. More of a hypothesis, really.

Moving on, then, to the actual groups targeted by the Constantinian Church. When Constantine secured his position as Emperor in the West after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October, 312), one of the things he wanted to do was clean up the affairs of his new-found religion. So he got a council together to deal with the North African Donatist Schism. This council was headed by the Bishop of Rome, and Rome decided in favour of, for want of a better word, we would call catholic Christianity in North Africa — although doctrinally they and the Donatists are not too far apart.

The fate of the Donatists was to carry on for centuries as a separate church without imperial support, and eventually being targeted by the long arm of the law in the 400s until the Arian Vandals came in the 420s and completely changed the whole shape of North African Christianity by being far more systematic and violent persecutors of non-Arians than the catholic imperial church had yet been of Arians or Donatists. The religious landscape of North Africa is unclear to me after Justinian’s reconquest in the 500s; certainly, if the post-Constantinian church ever went underground, it was in North Africa after the Caliphate conquered in the late 600s.

The Arians were next. In 324, after defeating Licinius in civil war, Constantine found himself emperor of the entire Roman world. One of his early moves was to try and clean house in the eastern churches as he had in the West. When the presbyter Arius wouldn’t stop saying things that Constantine thought to be rather silly, a church council was put together to deal with the matter. They met at Nicaea and approved a doctrinal statement you can read here.

This statement of faith is one with which the groups who believe that the Nicene Church persecuted ‘true’ believers can get behind. It confesses the full divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ without qualification. Arianism, on the other hand, preaches that Jesus is not fully divine but only like the Father and that he exists entirely in time, which would make him a lot like us. Which was kind of the point, but the Nicene argument is that what we precisely need is someone who is not like us (although, like us at the same time; hence Ephesus I and Chalcedon/Constantinople II).

Then came … Athanasius?? And here’s where Constantine’s church policy gets really messy for all involved, and why imperial favour is not necessarily good for the Church. Arius claimed to have made a full recovery from his heresy to Constantine, but his repentance did not meet the requirements of his bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria (saint of the week here). So Athanasius, not for the last time, found himself in exile — Athanasius, the staunchest defender of Nicene Christianity, found himself exiled by an emperor who was promoting Nicaea. This is because Constantine’s church policy was mostly about keeping the peace and finding unity at prices sometimes too high for his bishops.

After Constantine

The first group persecuted by the imperial church after the death of Constantine in 337 was … well … Nicene Christianity. Constantine’s sons were not all gung-ho Nicenes, especially Constantius (who seems a nasty piece of work to me) who had Athanasius exiled again more than once. Indeed, it was about the rule of Constantius that Jerome made the remark, ‘The whole world groaned to find itself Arian.’

Debates ranged and things went back and forth for much of the fourth century between different kinds of Arians and different kinds of Nicenes and different levels of commitment on the part of the emperors. Eventually, in 381, under the Emperor Theodosius I, Nicene Christianity gained its victory at the First Council of Constantinople, whose version of the Creed I’ve translated here. Interestingly enough, one of the victims of politics-meets-church was Gregory of Nazianzus, a Nicene who felt that Constantinople I didn’t go far enough. He went from Bishop of Constantinople to Bishop of a Cappadocian Backwater in no time at all.

381 is a potentially important date. Around this time, Theodosius I promulgated his anti-pagan, anti-heretical laws that banned all sacrifices and removed the right to assembly and worship from heretical groups. To what extent such decrees were implemented is an interesting question, given that Justinian I (r. 527-565) hired John of Ephesus to clear up pagan activities in Constantinople. Earlier, in the 420s, Archbishop Nestorius went on his own heretic-hunt in Constantinople that endeared him to no one.

Next time: Groups targeted by the Church from the late 300s onwards.

Part three: Orthodox victims of imperial/secular governmental activity besides Athanasius.

Part four: Also, the Inquisition (Spanish an otherwise; did you expect that?). And thoughts on ecclesiastical-governmental relations at large.

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius

A few weeks ago, I had the “opportunity” to stand in a doorway and discuss the Bible and Christology with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the floodgates of Heaven opened outside.  What stood out to me as we talked was how truly Arian their Christology is.  They encouraged me to read Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of his way …”) and tried convincing me that when the Word of John 1 is called “god” this doesn’t mean the same thing as the God with whom the Word is.

I did my best to pull out some St. Athanasius — Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father.  If like begets like (“Do you have a son? Is he of the same nature as you?”), and the Father is God, then God begets God, so the Son must be God.  I also used the analogy of the sun and its rays being different but the same and one being incomplete without the other.  That analogy breaks down — as well it should, for God is the Creator and entirely different from His creation.  St. Athanasius was an appropriate choice to use in debate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses because he spent most of his ecclesiastical career arguing against the heresy of Arianism.

St. Athanasius (c.296-373) is one of the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church.  He was born of Christian parents of Egyptian, not Greek, descent, and educated in the Greek Christian catechetical school in Alexandria.  He was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as a deacon and witnessed firsthand the debates about the divinity and eternity of Christ (Arius’ famous one-liner: “There was when he was not.”).  This is the Council that gave us that famous Creed that forms the basis of what we recite in churches around the world today (my translation here).  St. Athanasius was to spend the rest of his life combatting the teachings of the Arians and the Semi-Arians (or “homoiousians“), especially following his consecration as Bishop of Alexandria in 328.

He did his best to be a pastoral bishop, but constantly found himself running into heretical Arians or schismatic Meletians who were out to get him.  These run-ins, such as the Council of Tyre, had a tendency to end up with him in exile.  He was in exile in Trier (335-7), Rome (339-46), and the countryside around Alexandria (356-61, 362-3, 365-6).  While in exile within Egypt itself, he had occasion to take refuge with the nascent monastic movement that was flourishing at this time (ie. The Desert Fathers), encountering St. Antony about whom he would write one of the most influential works of hagiography (available in Carolinne D. White, Early Christian Lives).

His time spent in the West meant that the links between East and West were strengthened.  The Bishops of Rome during his episcopate (St. Sylvester I, St. Marcus, St. Julius I, Liberius, and St. Damasus I) were supportive of his teachings and polemic against Arianism.  Much of St. Athanasius’ work was translated into Latin, and he is one of the better-known Eastern Fathers in the West as a result of his time there and papal connections.

His theological works are focussed largely on the Person of God the Son, as seen in De Incarnatione Verbi Domini (On the Incarnation) and in his famous Contra Arianos.  One result of St. Athanasius’ reasoning about the Person of God was the statement that the Bible names God as Father.  This means that ontologically (ie. at the very root of Who God Is) God is Father.  Since God is eternal and unchanging, He will always have been Father.  One cannot be a father without offspring; God, therefore, begets the Son in eternity; God the Son is therefore eternal.  The implications for understanding Who God Is and what personhood is are far-reaching (see J.D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion, chh. 1-2).

St. Athanasius, like most of the Fathers, was not just a theologian, not just a pastor, not just a preacher.  He was also a believer in the life of holiness.  This was the root of his support of the monastic movement, for it is with the monks that we see the enduring persistence of costly grace (see D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, ch. 1).  We are reminded that orthodoxy and orthopraxy are not to be divorced.  We are to think holy thoughts and live holy lives, worthy of the calling to which we are called.

St. Athanasius fell asleep on May 2, 373.  May we be half as vigorous in our defence of Truth as he.

Further Reading: Christopher A. Hall’s two books Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers and Learning Theology With The Church Fathers both deal with St. Athanasius.  I also recommend reading On the Incarnation as an entrance both to Athanasius and Patristic theology.