Here’s a YouTube video I made a while back about the fourth century. I’ll be teaching fourth-century ecclesiastical history for Davenant Hall this January in my course called “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy (325-407).” You can sign up for it here! And if you’re not sold that the fourth century is a wild time worth studying, here’s the video:
council of nicaea
I’m teaching a course about Nicaea
I am teaching this term — “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy.” It’s an online course with the Davenant Institute, and you can read the official description here. When I approached this course, I did not want it to be simply the fourth century, nor simply, “How did the Arian/Nicene controversy get resolved?”
As a scholar who has spent a lot of time working with the Council of Chalcedon, I wanted this course to demonstrate how the questions being debated from the time of Nestorius’ episcopate to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 were questions embedded in the thought of earlier thinkers, so I wanted to see the course reach a terminus of at least 451.
I also did not want anyone to get the idea that in 381 everything was settled. So extending to 451 helps finish off the Nicene narrative and push us onwards. Of course, the Council of Chalcedon opens up new cans of worms and results, ultimately, in new schisms and all sorts of things going a bit belly-up. There are no living ecclesiastical bodies directly descended from the Council of Ariminum or from Eunomius of Cyzicus, but the opponents of Chalcedon have a strong presence in the Middle East and count themselves part of apostolic succession.
And they all accept the Council of Nicaea.
Anyway, this, perhaps, wider temporal boundary than usual meant that some authors you might expect — Sts Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, for example — are not covered in depth. Alas, such decisions must be made in a ten-week course.
I also wanted to assign entire works of substance, if possible, and not just excerpts or bits of sermons. I want my students to grapple with the tedious parts of ancient theological works as well as the parts of longer treatises that are interesting but may never make an anthology of texts on the Trinitarian or Christological debates. So they are reading all of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, all of St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, all five “Theological Orations” of St Gregory of Nazianzus (“the Theologian”), etc.
Another thing that I thought was important in approaching this period in theological history, and this is up to me in the lectures and discussions, was to avoid making conclusions into premisses — a perspective gained from Father John Behr here as well as in his book The Nicene Faith. Two examples: It is not straightforward that confessing the God Word as being homoousios (consubstantial/of one substance) with God the Father would obviously be orthodox. Nor is it straightforward that the Trinity is “three hypostaseis in one ousia“. Depending on how you define these words, both of these hallmarks of contemporary orthodoxy were susceptible to unorthodox understandings back then.
A final grand, structural thought was similar to the first. The ecumenical councils move from debating the Trinity to Christology, but the questions of both were abroad at the same time. Moreover, there is more afoot than either of these debates. That is one reason I wanted to include entire works. I also chose to include St Ephrem the Syrian because he represents a very different world than the Greek theologians, both because he is writing poetry and because he is writing in Syriac.
I do not know how lectures on these topics go with different professors. My educational background is in both theology and classics, so the world of Late Antiquity comes forth in my lectures not a little. I have no difficulty keeping the various members of the Constantinian dynasty clear in my mind. I know the political culture and political history of the period. I know the Latin poetry and even some of the Greek philosophy — besides, of course, all the Classical era classics! I love teaching this period and not losing sight of the wider political and cultural environment.
And I love not hiding the fact that I am an Anglican by conviction who has tendencies towards Eastern Orthodoxy.
After two initial weeks of covering the Council of Nicaea and then a blitz through history to 381, we have been and will be looking at Athanasius, Ephrem, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary and Augustine in one week, Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, and Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon. Hilary and Augustine are unfairly lumped together because I did not want to cut either of them, but I have trouble envisioning a course that devotes attention to Athanasius but excludes Cyril, and I think Augustine On the Trinity is just too large to grapple with here. That’s for next term, when I get to teach St Augustine. 🙂
I have taken great delight in teaching this class so far. I enjoy preparing the lectures, and the students have good energy, come prepared, and have important things to say as well as good questions. We are almost halfway through. I’ll miss my Monday nights with them when it’s done.
But then, soon enough, I’ll be teaching my next course for Davenant. But more on that anon …
Nicaea and the principle of church councils
Today, my local Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate of CP) was celebrating the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. I was hoping to slip into the Divine Liturgy, but no one unlocked the doors of the church, so I went for a short walk instead. Nonetheless, I felt it was timely, since this past Sunday my friend Cory was preaching on Acts 15, the ‘Council of Jerusalem’, wherein the Apostles gather to discuss whether Gentile Christians need to follow Mosaic ceremonial law or not.
The answer, as you know, is, ‘No.’
Actually, it’s a very interesting answer, because it includes this wonderful little phrase, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28). It was not simply 12 Jewish dudes sitting around offering their own opinion on what level of commitment to Jewish law followers of the Way ought to have. Rather, the holy Apostles and the elders were gathered together in council, in dispute, and in prayer, and the Holy Spirit inspired them to see the way forward for the Jesus movement.
On what authority do these Apostles and elders decide that they know what seems good to the Holy Spirit?
Well, on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom they had travelled for a few years, whose resurrection they witnessed, whose deep teaching they received, and whose ascension into heaven left them dumbfounded. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit Himself has descended in miraculous power upon these people. They were selected by Jesus before He ascended. And they were anointed by the Holy Spirit in a stunningly palpable way afterwards.
The principle governing the Acts 15 council at Jerusalem was that when the leaders of Christ’s church, set apart for headship and anointed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, prayerfully meet together, the Holy Spirit can communicate through them.
This, whether you agree with the Council of Nicaea and the other six ecumenical councils, is the biblical foundation of the authority of the councils. It is an application as logically applied to these councils as any application your local Baptist or Presbyterian minister is likely to give you for your own life from any other passage of Acts.
Arguably, more so.
I once heard one of the guys who was at some point associated with the word ‘Emergent’ (honestly, it was my sole encounter with him, years ago) state that he didn’t want to have to believe the Nicene Creed just because a bunch of guys said this was orthodoxy. Who, he said, were they to tell him what to believe?
The argument is this: They are the church’s chosen, anointed leaders.
The bishops gathered together in council. They argued. They prayed. Some guys may have been punched (unlikely — sorry, St Nicholas fans). They argued. They put together a faith statement. They argued about it. They signed off on it.
According to the ideal church structures of the time, each of these bishops was an actual spiritual elder. For example, St Spyridon was a shepherd of such great holiness of life that he was chosen to be bishop by the local community in Cyprus. The theory of episcopal election was that the local bishop, the overseer of local church life, was chosen — elected, even — by his local community, both clerical and lay. So each of the alleged 318 ‘Fathers’ at Nicaea was an elected representative of the Christian community in his home city. That, at least, is the theory.
Another fact is that they did not see themselves as a bunch of unrelated, discrete units, entirely autonomous of each other. They believed that the individual Christian believers, their local congregations, and the congregations of cities reaching from London to Adiabene, from Gallaecia to Alexandria, were united through the simple fact that they were Christ’s mystical body. Therefore, if you could get a majority of their elected, anointed leaders to agree about something, it was something to which to pay heed.
Now, you may think that is still all nonsense. And, in fact, the councils for which we have the blow-by-blow records show us how fractious these assemblies of Christ’s elected, anointed ministers could be. Furthermore, orthodoxy should probably be better determined than simply a majority vote. I, personally, agree with the seven ecumenical councils because I think they are the most philosophically defensible and biblically faithful expression of Christian doctrine out there.
But that’s a different argument, isn’t it?
The Council of Chalcedon today
Glancing over their calendar of upcoming services, I noticed that today the local Eastern Orthodox church was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in honour of the Fourth Ecumenical Council — the Council of Chalcedon of 451. A happy coincidence is that I was typing up notes from old notebooks yestereven, and I found this from Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars:
If only because of the other paths that could so easily have been taken, these debates give the mid-fifth century an excellent claim to be counted as the most formative period in the whole history of Christianity. Much recent writing stresses the earlier Council of Nicea (325) as the critical moment in defining the beliefs of that faith, the critical dividing line between early and medieval Christianity. In reality, the struggle even to define core beliefs raged for centuries beyond this time and involved several other great gatherings, any one of which could have turned out very differently. (pp. 18-19)
As it turns out, I was no big fan of Jenkins’ book and ended up not finishing it. Nonetheless, the Council of Chalcedon was a big deal, is a big deal, and will continue to be a big deal for time to come. Not only that, it’s a major reason that I am where I am today. Jenkins is right to point us beyond Nicaea to the other ‘ecumenical’ councils as defining moments in Christianity — and Chalcedon has ended up being one of the biggest defining moments.
You may be surprised to read that. Indeed, several years ago I wrote a post about how Chalcedonian orthodoxy is not really that controversial. We mostly think of Chalcedon like this: Jesus is fully man and fully God. The end.
The thing is, the affirmation of Nicaea at the ‘Second Ecumenical’ Council at Constantinople in 381 established the fact that God is Jesus, that Jesus is homoousios — consubstantial — with the Father. The church within the Roman Empire also rejected a fellow named Apollinaris whose teaching subverted the full humanity of Jesus.
The question that arose in the fifth century was not, ‘Is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ but, ‘How is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been right in his Christology, and asking such questions was not necessarily the right thing to do — but they were asked. Once asked, a question cannot be unasked. And once answered, however imperfectly, it cannot be unanswered. The church had to come up with an answer that was both philosophically coherent and biblically faithful.
No mean task.
Now, you may be partisan to a different ecumenical council. That’s fine. Allow me to explain why Chalcedon is such a big deal.
The Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal because it was not universally accepted.
The Council of Nicaea, after the conversion of the Homoian (‘Semi-Arian’) barbarian kings in the Early Middle Ages, has become universally accepted (we set aside modern heretics who have resurrected Homoian and Arian thought). This is part of why it’s a big deal. Along with it, First Constantinople of 381 is also usually tacitly accepted, because a version of its creed is the one that even the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East recites at the Eucharist.
After First Constantinople, the next council in our list of ‘ecumenical’ (or ‘universal’) ones is Council of Ephesus of 431. It is rejected by the Church of the East. That should make it a big deal like Chalcedon. And it is a very big deal, and I recommend you get to know it. However, the Council of Chalcedon is somewhat larger a deal because the Church of the East’s roots lie beyond the Roman Empire. Its story, little known to us in the West, is a different story. It is a story worth knowing, with its own contours living in the Sassanian Persian Empire, then under the Caliphate, and reaching as far East as China — but it is a different story.
You see, the Council of Ephesus was accepted by the Latin West, the Greek East, the Copts, and some amongst the Syriac-speaking world. Although there was division in its aftermath, in 433 things were patched up by the Bishops of Alexandria and Antioch in a document known by its first two words in Latin translation, ‘Laetentur caeli.’
In other words, the Church of the Roman Empire, in which Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, as well as Copts, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox, find their heritage, came to accept Ephesus. As did the church in Armenia.
This is why the Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal. Yes, the Church of the Empire formally accepted Chalcedon. But many of her bishops in the Greek East fought against. Some emperors tried to bury it and ignore it. Justinian called a Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, the Second Council of Constantinople, to try and deal with the divisions surrounding Chalcedon. He also issued various edicts beforehand, trying to find ways of framing theology that would both affirm the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon and reconcile the growing Mono-/Miaphysite movement. Similar attempts at interpretation and framing of the Fourth Ecumenical Council also led directly to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, in 681.
Depending on which side of the many refractions of Chalcedon and its reception or rejection you found yourself on, you could end up imprisoned, or with your tongue cut out, or exiled to Petra, or stripped of ecclesiastical rank, or elevated to the episcopate, or given charge of a monastery, or any number of various situations, good or bad. You could find yourself in schism with Rome. You could find yourself in schism with Constantinople. You could find yourself hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople making Latin translations of the Greek acts of the Council of Chalcedon.
You might write a very long theological treatise defending certain aspects of Chalcedon. You might write a series of theological tractates excoriating Chalcedon and Pope Leo, whose theology it approved, for heresy. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon true. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon false.
The Council of Chalcedon is one of the most significant events of the Late Antique Church, and we need to realise that its teaching and the reception of that teaching has shaped and moulded the lives of thousands of people for 1500 years.
I believe that understanding the theology and fallout of Chalcedon, skimmed over above, is especially important for western Christians today. First, most of us would agree with Chalcedon if we knew what it taught; many of us are members of ecclesial bodies that affirm the Christological teaching of the Council of Chalcedon. By knowing who we are, what we believe, and why, we can live confidently in a world increasingly unmoored and harbourless.
Second, the world is not boxed off as it once was. The Internet makes it easier to encounter our fellow Christians from the eastern churches who reject this council. Understanding Chalcedon makes it easier for us to understand and love them. Furthermore, as war, terror, extremist Islam and secular (including economic) unrest shake the foundations of peaceable life in the Middle East, Middle Eastern Christians are finding their way West.
Some are Chalcedonians in direct, unbroken descent in the Greek tradition, such as the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Some are Miaphysites who reject Chalcedon and teach that Jesus has one nature, one will, and one energy — the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches are amongst them. Some are ‘Nestorian’, such as the Assyrian Church of the East — many Iraqis who flee West belong to this church. There are other groups with a messy relationship with Chalcedon, such as the Chaldean Catholics, who are in communion with the Pope but try to accept both Theodore of Mopsuestia (the great teacher of Nestorius, condemned at Second Constantinople in 553) and Cyril of Alexandria (the great nemesis of Nestorius, victor at First Ephesus in 431).
Christian history is not dry and dusty and irrelevant. For the Christians of the Middle East, it is a living, breathing reality that permeates their lives. By coming to understand it better, we can love them better.
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.
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.
Constantine and the ‘Jesus of faith’
Some day, I think I’ll write a book about the Emperor Constantine I (‘the Great’, r. 306ish-337) for the popular audience. It seems to me that quality research about the man has been conducted within scholarly circles in recent decades, yet popular audiences continue to believe not only old stories but new ones made up since the old stories were overturned in a scholarly discourse no one but other specialists reads.
And I don’t begrudge scholars the specialist literature. I am going to contribute to it the moment my first publication hits the presses. Nonetheless, sometimes this knowledge needs to step beyond the Ivory Tower to the mean streets of the ‘real world’.
I am at present thinking along these lines because of the following from Michael Wood in the October issue of BBC History magazine, who writes:
Christians have got used to the huge fissure between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. Not that the Jesus of history isn’t a compelling figure: a Jewish exorcist, faith healer and teacher swimming in the soup of Hellenistic mystery religions and millennial cults of first-century Palestine, an altogether more believable and human character. It was the pivotal role of Paul in the construction of the narrative, and the appropriation of that narrative by the Roman empire under Constantine in the 330s, that turned him into the Jesus of faith. (27)
The educated reader doesn’t go to Dan Brown for history because she is too busy reading the quite good BBC History magazine to fill her hours. And here we have Michael Wood basically giving us Dan Brown, at least as far as Constantine (Constantine!) is concerned. Wood may be a good scholar of Anglo-Saxon Britain, but he needs to put better investment in the history of Christianity.
I won’t deal with the enormously debatable things he says about Jesus, Paul, and how Paul apparently constructed the narrative of the Jesus of faith, although I understand that Pauline studies has got beyond that sort of thinking these days, and large books by clever people point to a collective belief in the Jesus of faith on the part of all the apostles, not just Paul. Whatever. People who do Biblical Studies can do that.
Let’s look briefly at Constantine, because not even PhDs seem to have a clue what influence he had.
Now, maybe my problem stems from the fact that Wood does not even tell us what the Jesus of faith looks like. It’s the sort of trigger phrase that I’d think Wikipedia would flag. It means too many things. And within the things it means, Wood’s description of the Jesus of history is included, simply amplified.
This leaves me no alternative but to imagine that Wood means, by the Jesus of faith, the Jesus who redeems the world and the Jesus who is God.
What does Constantine have to do with either of those?
The former — pretty much nothing. The idea of Jesus’ death and life as redeeming and atoning for sin and bringing humanity to God, besides being in the New Testament, is at the forefront of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, most especially St Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 180s) but, if I could remember names, all over the place elsewhere.
The latter — well. That’s a funny story. You see, the Dan Brown version goes that there were these really happy, liberal, feminist Gnostics whom the angry, conservative, patriarchal orthodox destroyed at the Council of Nicaea under big, evil Constantine who wielded imperial power for the Church. I’ve shaken my head at this before.
Only the Gnostics have nothing to do with anything in the major events of church history starting in the 300s, a fact I’ve wondered at on this blog. Nicaea was a debate between ‘Arians’ and … um … ‘Nicenes’ … about the divinity of Jesus. And the remarkable thing is, the ‘Arians’ would have been willing to say that Jesus was/is God. Well, some of them. Not a homogeneous group (neither are the ‘Nicenes’). They just would have rejected the idea that Jesus is of the same substance (homoousios/consubstantialis) as the Father. I mean, at bottom-line Arianism.
The theology that was being argued at Nicaea was two sides of the theology borne not only from the New Testament Scriptures but the logos theology of St Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Origen of Alexandria (184-253) that takes John 1 with the utmost seriousness and tries to see how it works that Jesus, who is the logos, is also theos.
And, outside of the high-flying theology, we have Melito of Sardis, c. 170, proclaiming Christ as God in unequivocal terms. So also does Polycarp in his martyrdom and the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in like manner. Christians believed that Jesus was God.
So what did Constantine do??
What Nicaea did was help settle an unsettling conflict about how the faith in Jesus as God was articulated and what it means for Christians to believe it. It wasn’t actually settled until 381 within the empire, and persisted amongst the ‘barbarians’ for centuries.
This is to say: the Jesus of faith existed long before Constantine, and someone like him would even have been believed in by today’s media-darling Gnostics.
Constructing Christendom 1: What is it and whence did it come?
Many people have been speaking for the past few years about the Fall of Christendom, about how we now live in the Post-Christian West. Today I was doing some reading and thinking about the origins of ‘Christendom’.
What is it, though?
Christendom is the idea that for centuries in Europe and certain non-European kingdoms (think Ethiopia and Armenia) — besides those places formally colonised by Europe — there was a confluence of power, persons, and Christianity. Christians were kings or lords or emperors or presidents. Christians were chamberlains or generals or composers or philosophers or poets or architects.
In Christendom, as it is imagined, Christians hold power and influence in the political and cultural life of the realms. Typically, this is constructed in negative ways these days — bishops who make or break politicians, popes who wage wars, devout Christian slavetraders. The other side, also sometimes stressed, is emperors and kings making or breaking bishops, monasteries, and cathedrals.
Of course, the confluence of Christianity and western culture was much more fertile than that. ‘Christendom’ could allow for the construction of beautiful cathedrals and the composition of oratorios, the development of affordable or free education and healthcare through the Church’s charitable ministries.
And the persistence of something to hold onto when everything else may be going to pieces.
The man usually targeted for making this a reality is the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337, saint of the week here). He legalised Christianity, he granted favours to the Church, he built lots of churches, he helped fund the Church’s charitable works, he called the Council of Nicaea, he is thought to have founded Constantinople as a purely Christian capital (its level of Christianness is disputed). He is also falsely accused of all sorts of things, such as persecuting Gnostics, burning apocryphal Gospels, hiding the fact that Jesus was married, making Jesus a God for the first time, increasing the power of the bishops and stealing it from local presbyteries, and so forth.
From Constantine onwards, goes the Christendom narrative, the Empire and the Church were welded together ever more tightly, as when Theodosius I (r. 379-395) outlawed paganism in 381, and culminated in the East with the alleged theocracy — or caesaropapism — of Justinian the Great (r. 527-565) and in the West with Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) crowning Charlemagne (r. 768-814) Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800.
But wait! How do we get from Constantine to Charlemagne?
The development of Christendom in western Europe is tied up intrinsically with the political shift from the centralised government of the Roman Empire to the scattered polities that arose in its place.
The theology of Christendom is as old as Constantine, visible in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea such as In Praise of Constantine, The Life of Constantine, and The Preparation of the Gospel. Later, in the 400s, Orosius (385-420) in Spain, writing in the shadow of Alaric’s sack of the Eternal City in 410, would argue that the pax romana ushered in by God’s chosen emperor, Augustus (r. 31/27 BC – AD 14) was part of a divine plan that culminated with the century following Constantine. Church and Empire were to be intertwined henceforth forever!
Except that, after bouncing around in Spain for a while, the Vandals conquered Roman North Africa, 429-439. Rome’s breadbasket and many of her wealthiest provinces were not only gone but were in the hands of Arian Vandals who set about busily persecuting the Nicene church there. Orosius didn’t live to see that; his mentor Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius in Africa, did, just barely.
[Augustine is an important figure for how we should look at these ‘disasters’, but that would make this even longer than it already is. So we’ll talk about him another day.]
The Vandals proceeded to harass Sicily and conquer Sardinia, thus further reducing Rome’s grain supply and forging what one historian calls an ‘empire du blé‘ — empire of wheat.*
Meanwhile, Visigoths were busily settling various bits of Gaul (mostly what is modern France) and every once in a while sacking a city for good measure. Burgundians kept threatening the eastern border along the Rhine. Oh, and then Attila came and trashed everything in sight before going home and dying somewhere. And then the Alemanni crossed the Danube to do some of their own invading.
In 466, the Visigoths began their conquest of Spain, still holding much of southern Gaul. Spain would be theirs, and strong overall, until the Umayyad conquest beginning 711.
The fifth century also saw the coming of the Franks into northern Gaul, in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium, where they eventually supplanted the Roman rule.
The empire, in other words, was being dismembered, and the Roman ruling class was being replaced by or integrated into new polities. These often ran much along Roman lines except with no tax or tribute going to Rome, but over time they would subtly change with landed aristocracies, castles, and the peasantry.
Italy itself (and the last Roman ties to what remaining ostensible power she had in Gaul) was lost in 476 with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus and the accession of the Scirian (a non-Roman people group) Arian Odoacer to the kingship of Italy, which lasted until the Ostrogothic Arian Theoderic the Great took over in 493, ostensibly in the interests of the Emperor in Constantinople, but we all know that to be a sham. (Well, I think it was, anyway.)
By 530, we have this instead of the Western Roman Empire:
What does this have to do with Christendom?
It is clear that Orosius’ vision of the pax romana and Christianity coinciding and coinhering would not survive the century. The Roman Empire in the West was clearly not God’s chosen instrument for the passing along of the Gospel through the centuries, no matter how strong she was in Eusebius’ day or how hopeful Orosius was in the 410s. In the reign of Valentinian III (r. 425-455), with the loss of Africa and ongoing devestation in Gaul, Rome’s financial base was destroyed.
The Roman Empire could not be God’s chosen vessel. Could it?
Maybe it could. To keep life liveable (i.e. keep this post well under 1500 words), next post we’ll see how Christendom was constructed, and why the fifth century is so important for us as we look back on all that follows.
*Christian Courtois, Les Vandales.
As always, Canon Law gives unique insights into the ancient church
This afternoon, I read through the Canons of the Council of Nicaea (325), the Canons of the Council of Serdica (344), and the Apostolic Canons (before 347), looking for precedents for the statements in Leo’s decretals. I found a few, and I found some other interesting things along the way.
By and large, these fourth-century canonical documents show us a concern in the Church for the behaviour of ambitious bishops. Bishops are restricted from being translated to different cities. Restrictions are placed on the elevation of small towns to bishoprics. Bishops are not allowed to treat church wealth as their own; neither are their heirs allowed to inherit church property. People aren’t allowed to enlist secular authority to get their hands on a bishopric.
Alongside the bishops, the other clergy are a concern. They can’t just up and run off into another diocese whenever they feel like it, for example. And they will be deposed for a variety of issues.
What we see in the fourth century then, as councils are gathering and people are forging documents in the apostles’ names, is a church that has a bit of disorder but which, now that it is emerging from hiding, hopes now to gain more order and curtail abuses, since things can now more easily come to the light of day.
Amidst interesting observations like that, I found the Apostolic Canons good fun at times. For example:
Canon XXVII. (XXVIII.)
If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon shall strike any of the faithful who have sinned, or of the unbelievers who have done wrong, with the intention of frightening them, we command that he be deposed. For our Lord has by no means taught us to do so, but, on the contrary, when he was smitten he smote not again, when he was reviled he reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not.
My brother, when I posted this on Facebook a while ago, asked what would happen if a clergyman struck someone intending to do violence. Nothing, unless the person died, it seems:
If any clergyman shall strike anyone in a contest, and kill him with one blow, let him be deposed for his violence. If a layman do so, let him be excommunicated.
I am particularly struck by the emphasis on ‘kill him with one blow.’
Of course, violence is not the only concern. So is dining out:
If any of the clergy be found eating in a tavern, let him be excommunicated, unless he has been constrained by necessity, on a journey, to lodge in an inn.
We also get a sense of the general failings of ordinary clergy as less-than-shining beacons of good sense, sensitivity, and goodness:
If any of the clergy mock the lame, or the deaf, or the blind, or him who is infirm in his legs, let him be excommunicated.In like manner any of the laity.
Finally, the issue of passing on church property as inheritance. While celibacy for deacons, presbyters, and bishops was the norm in the Roman Church since an early date, the universal application and legislation of the rule during the Gregorian Reforms of the latter half of the 11th century was due in part to the issue of inheritance. Bishops and presbyters were acting like ‘feudal’ lords and passing on church property to their sons.
A bishop must not, out of favour to a brother or a son, or any other relation, ordain whom he will to the episcopal dignity; for it is not right to make heirs of the bishopric, giving the things of God to human affections. Neither is it fitting to subject the Church of God to heirs. But if anyone shall do so let the ordination be void, and the ordainer himself be punished with excommunication.
Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Spyridon
After Barnabas, the Church of Cyprus slips into the mists of unreliability. Cyprus re-enters reliable history in 325 at the Council of Nikaia. In different records for this council, 12 or 14 bishops from Cyprus are recorded as having been present. They all seem to have supported the teaching that Jesus is fully God, homoousios with the Father—a debate we will look at more closely tomorrow.
Two of them were singled out by fourth-century historians as being men of special holiness: Spyridon (two posts on him here and here) and Paphnutios. I want to focus on Spyridon. You will have undoubtedly seen his name on various churches on the island. You may probably have even heard the story how, at the Council of Nikaia he stood up and performed a miracle with a tile to prove that three things could be one. This miracle is not attested in any of our early sources for the events of the council, and I am disinclined to believe it.
Our two earliest records for the life of Spyridon are two ecclesiastical historians, Socrates and Sozomenos. They were both active in the first half of the 400s, so over 75 years after Nikaia. Socrates gives us the more sober account of this man’s life:
With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon.
Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed.
Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.
There is no necessity for us to believe these miracles. However, since we do believe in a mighty God who can do anything, I see no real reason as a Christian to doubt them. I have read a lot of church histories and saints’ lives, and when I combine these with the stories I have heard from today’s missionaries — whether in the jungles of South America or the jungles of London — I am inclined to accept that, whether these particular miracles are true, God was at work in these sorts of ways in the ancient Church.
Besides these miracles and others, Sozomenos gives us some other indicators of the character of Spyridon. For example:
It was a custom with this Spyridon to give a certain portion of his fruits to the poor, and to lend another portion to those who wished it as a gratuity; but neither in giving nor taking back did he ever himself distribute or receive: he merely pointed out the storehouse, and told those who resorted to him to take as much as they needed, or to restore what they had borrowed.
Sozomenos also tells us that Spyridon was hospitable to strangers and travellers and careful in administering his role as a bishop. What I find most encouraging about the story of Spyridon is its reminder that personal holiness and wisdom from God are what matter most in our ministers.
I am working on a PhD in church history. No doubt some people think this will make me uniquely qualified to be a pastor. I disagree—it will make uniquely qualified to be a university lecturer, but what have those skills to do with leading God’s people in the face of wisdom and strong character? Thus, our last glimpses of the Cypriot church before Konstantinos are of a hierarchy that is open to any believing Christian who has wisdom and good character.
What did Constantine actually do?
Today, for the second and final time this season, I volunteered at Edinburgh’s Christian Heritage Centre. I was talking with a lovely and interested couple from New Orleans about the religious history of Scotland, including lovely things like the pulpit at St Columba’s, and less lovely things, like killing of Covenanters.
I knew the woman was not necessarily in step with my vision of Christian history when she remarked, upon seeing that Columba (saint of the week here) had been given the isle of Iona, that that was where Mary Magdalene and her children fled when people were trying to kill them, ‘according to the legends.’ I said that such would have been news to Columba, who was the first Christian on the island in recorded history when it was given to him as a mission base by King Bridei of the Picts upon Bridei’s conversion.
Later, after they had viewed the entire display, we chatted in the sanctuary of S Columba’s. In the midst of a very interesting conversation, this lovely woman unloaded the shattering idea that Constantine (saint of the week here) ruined everything. He wanted the union of Church and State, and he said Jesus was God, and he set the canon of the New Testament, burning the other texts.
I said, ‘Constantine didn’t set the canon of Scripture.’
She gave me that knowing look people who don’t know Church History give me, saying, ‘Yes, he did.’
‘Well, it’s not in Eusebius.’
‘What about all those other things, like the Dead Sea Scrolls?’
‘The Dead Sea Scrolls are Hebrew; they’re Jewish texts, not Christian. The Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi are all in Coptic and very late. The canon of Scripture was already basically determined by Constantine’s day. The disputes at Nicaea were not between Gnostics and the Orthodox; they were disputes within the community of the ‘proto-orthodox’.’
That last bit probably didn’t help. What I meant was….
Well, we need the swirl of disinformation sorted out first. From what this lady was saying, I think the swirl is as follows. Jesus and Mary M were married and got it on big time. The so-called ‘Gnostics’ knew this, but the ‘proto-orthodox’ suppressed it to give more power to celibate bishops. The Gnostics represent the true stream of Christianity, and they did not believe that Jesus was truly ‘God’ the way we think of God, the Creator. This idea was something thought up by Constantine when he united Church and State, and called the council of Nicaea to make it official. At Nicaea he burnt the Gnostic scriptures.
I think this is part of what is going on. I think this mostly originates from Dan Brown and books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Whenever you challenge people on this, they tell you that you believe the official version and have had the wool pulled over your eyes.
But here we go, anyway. Disbelieve me if you wish.
First: The Canon of Scripture. This was established slowly over a long period of time. By Irenaeus’ day, we have the fourfold Gospel. Since most of the documents people such as the Jesus Seminars and Elaine Pagels are trying to foist upon us qualify at some level as ‘Gospels’, by the mid- to late second century, the Gnostic Gospels have been excluded by certain groups, such as those represented by Irenaeus, already. This trend seems to continue throughout the third century, visible in the earliest papyri and New Testament quotations in pre-Constantinian Fathers. Nowhere in any of the sparse documents relating to Nicaea do they establish the canon of Scripture.
This is because the people there all agreed on that. This was the problem. The people at Nicaea are the descendants of the people in the Gnostic debates we would think of as ‘proto-orthodox’ or ‘catholic’ — the theological descendants of Irenaeus, Justin, Clement, Origen. They just happen to disagree on a particular point; it is an in-house debate. The Gnostics and their writings do not figure into the Nicene debate at all. Arius and those who agreed with him were interpreting the same set of documents as Athanasius and those who agreed with him.
Constantine made everyone agree to the creed of Nicaea, but may not have even agreed with it himself. His deathbed baptism was at the hands of an ‘Arian’, Eusebius of Nicomedia. And his biography is given us by someone else who sympathises with the ‘Arian’ party in many ways, Eusebius of Caesarea. The Nicene victory does not actually come until 381, under Theodosius I with the theologising of the Cappadocians. Given the failure of other imperial attempts to establish their orthodoxy in the events beginning with Nestorius in 428 and leading to Chalcedon, the Henotikon, the Acacian Schism, Constantinople II, monothelitism, Constantinople III, and an enormous schism in eastern Christianity — I would wager that people actually agreed with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (my translation here).
This leaves Jesus as God. The idea is certainly not Constantine’s, and certainly pre-dates him. It is visible in varying forms and levels of intensity as early as the Gospel of John, and in Irenaeus and Melito of Sardis and Clement of Alexandria and Origen Tertullian and probably others I’ve not read, as well as Alexander of Alexandria, whose shock at Arius’ response was the trigger to it all. It is not an idea nobody believed, and, as noted above, was not exactly foisted upon everyone else. Indeed, Athanasius’ intensity for his belief in his version of ‘Jesus is God’ got him in trouble during Constantine’s reign.
This leaves Constantine’s alleged union of Church and State. The shortest response is, Why would an Emperor want to unite the Roman state with a persecuted minority? Yes, Constantine — for whatever reasons — converted. It seems to have worked well for him. But converting back to paganism would later work for Emperor Julian. The church was neither wealthy nor powerful. Furthermore, outside of getting people to sign on to Nicaea, its workings seem to have been left alone by Constantine. Any of his interventions, such as between ‘Catholics’ and Donatists in the West, were done at the invitation of the Church, and done as a last ditch attempt to make things work. Furthermore, in the 200s, at least one Christian community appealed to a pagan emperor against their bishop.
Furthermore, all of the state ceremonial and cult persisted during Constantine’s reign. And paganism was not outlawed for decades, and even then seems to have continued well into the reign of Justinian two hundred years later.
Whatever Constantine may have screwed up, he did not ‘decide’ Jesus was God, he did not unite Church and state, and he did not touch the Gnostic gospels at all. If we wish to vilify the man, find the right reasons — murdering his son and wife, for example.