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.

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The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.

The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.

And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?

And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.

So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.

Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.

Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).

With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.

Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).

This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.

Evangelicals and Tradition: The Canon of the Faith

Greek Evangelical Church, Nicosia

Last Saturday morning, with the able help of a volunteer from the Greek Evangelical Church, I gave a seminar on ‘Evangelicals and Tradition.’ What I hope from this seminar is for evangelicals to be less … wary? afraid? of tradition but to develop the necessary skills of discernment to judge which parts of it are good, which are bad, and which are … adiaphora. Marginal. Not worth fussing over every time you meet an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian.

Following D H Williams’ lead in the very good book Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influences of the Early Church, I started us off with a discussion of the history and usefulness of the Canon of the Faith, beginning briefly with the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Gospel that we, as evangelicals, claim to be attached to so fiercely. Then I gave a wee history of such things, starting with Justin’s proclamation at his martyrdom in the mid-100s and Irenaios’ ‘Rule of Faith’ of the late 100s, then moving on to baptismal creeds such as the Dêr Balyzeh Papyrus of the early 100s and Hippolytos of the early 200s:

When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” 13And the one being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” 14He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. 15Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?”  16When each has answered, “I believe,” he shall baptize a second time.

17Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” 18Then each being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” And thus let him baptize the third time. 19Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” 20Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. (From an online translation of Hippolytos.)

This led to a fruitful, I believe, discussion of how similar Hippolytos’ baptismal ceremony is the Orthodox ceremony — triple immersion and anointing with oil! I said that the Orthodox got this from the ancient days; it is a tradition that they have maintained since the earliest days of the Church. Perhaps one evangelical-Orthodox wall was weakened by that realisation.

From there, I brought forth the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds of 325 and 381. The complaint could be made that the statements of 325 and 381 use non-biblical language, and that the Bible already teaches all of these things. However, as with Irenaios vs Gnostics who used Christian Scripture, so also in the battle against those who denied the divinity of Jesus. The argument was not over what was Scripture but how we understand it; so the Church came up with an interpretative lens, almost as old as the apostles themselves, drawn from Scriptural ideas and truths but using the language of Greek philosophy, to state unequivocally what the Scriptural and Traditional teachings about Jesus are.

And at the complaint that the Eastern Orthodox believe these creeds more than the Bible, I must protest. These creeds are but summaries of Gospel truth, created to meet a need that the Church had at that time. It is impossible to believe them more than the Bible. Ioannis Kassianos, a Romanian monk who lived for a time in Bethlehem then Egypt before settling in Marseilles, wrote this in the early 400s:

There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because it was formed from the Scriptures of God by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (De Inc. 6.4, NPNF trans.)

Another complaint I know of is that encapsulating the Gospel in such statements takes the life from it. This is a possibility—but it is a possibility even with the writings of Scripture, depending on how we use them. I prefer to view these statements of the centre of Christian tradition as fences or the boundaries of a playing field. We can say things they do not say, but if we say things that are counter to them, we find ourselves standing outside of the biblical, apostolic tradition that the Church has handed down to us as encapsulated in these creeds.

The purpose of all of this was to show how unchanging the central core of Christian tradition was throughout the ancient church, and how it is important for us today. Furthermore, when we go back to Irenaios, we see the importance of a central, unwritten Apostolic tradition that exists in tandem with the Scriptures, because the Gnostics, using the same Scriptures, claimed that their interpretation was the right one, and their unwritten tradition the true one. So what are we to do? Recourse to the Scriptures alone cannot save us when they, too, are using the Scriptures.

When most evangelicals think of tradition, we think of these ‘unwritten’ aspects of Christianity, we think of accretions adding up over time, we think of bishops, priests, and deacons, we think of saints and theologians, we think of stained glass, of Gothic architecture and Byzantine domes. In a very large, encompassing vision of tradition, these things are all part of tradition.

But what I hope to have shown here today is a core of tradition that remains very little modified over the centuries—that creed of 381 just discussed and on your handout is believed and affirmed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox, the Church of the East from Iran to China and India, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Christian Reformed, and the Nicosia International Church. Here is an aspect of tradition that we affirm today which was affirmed long ago by the Christians of the later Roman Empire.

If we want to get involved with ancient Christians, we must take the long view of Christian history. And in taking this long view, the question that arises is whether any given development is faithful to Gospel belief and Gospel living—to the Tradition as discussed above and enshrined in the Bible, as we’ll see in my next talk.

The Christians before the year 500 determined that Gnosticism, Monarchianism, Arianism in its various forms, Pneumatomachianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Eutychianism, certain strains of Origen’s thought, and many others were deviations from the truth handed down from the apostles, the paradosis, tradition in its truest sense. And we today owe much to this ancient tradition.

Ancient Christianity for (Greek) Evangelicals

Troodos MountainsThis January, I am joining the Greek Evangelical Church of Nicosia, Cyprus, to encourage the evangelicals of Cyprus to spend more time with ancient Christians. Seven years ago, after finishing my BA, I spent an academic year on the island of Cyprus working with students as part of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), and I have long desired to return to the island and share more of our Lord’s rich grace with the people who live there.

What exactly I’ll be doing

The main event in Cyprus will be a series of seminars on ancient Christianity at the Greek Evangelical Church. These will run the evenings of Wednesday and Thursday, 23 and 24 of January, and the day of Saturday, 26 January. The weekday topics will be ‘Ancient Christians of Cyprus’ and ‘Trinity and Mission: Ancient Thought on Jesus and His Mission in the World’, and the Saturday topics will be ‘Evangelicals and Tradition: Interacting with Ancient Christianity’ and ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church: Development and Authority.’

I will also be spending time visiting students and volunteers who work with the Cyprus Fellowship of Evangelical Students (CyFES). Seven years ago, CyFES did not exist. Now the Lord has blessed the island with a fledgling movement in both the Turkish North and Greek South, in which Greek Cypriot students are involved – a contrast to seven years ago when our ministry was almost entirely amongst international students. I want to see what our glorious God has been doing and tell the good news to those who supported me through prayer and finances when I first went to the island.

Why the Church Fathers? What is the missional purpose of this trip?

I believe that right now, as our cultures become less rooted, Christians need to maintain roots in the Gospel and remind ourselves of the blessings of God upon our spiritual forebears who helped us think clearly about what the Gospel is and what is integral to the Faith. The writings of ancient Christianity are the common foundation for all Christians, and a knowledge of their teachings and devotional practices and history can only serve to deepen our love of God and His incarnation as a man to save us and the revelation of his subsisting as the Most Holy Trinity. This deepened love, in turn, is fuel for mission in an increasingly lost and wayward world.

In Cyprus, the situation is a very particular one. At the forefront for my mission is the hostility between the evangelicals and Orthodox that runs back for over a century. Since the Orthodox claim the ancient heritage of ‘the Fathers’ as their own, evangelicals are often very wary to discover the wisdom of our ancient forebears of the faith. By helping nudge them towards these ancients — with the full support of their elders and minister — I hope to help them find ways of expressing the faith to the Orthodox that will make them seem less — well, frankly, less American; many Greek Evangelicals are called Americanos. The Greek Fathers can help evangelicals express the Gospel in a Greek idiom. This, whether it converts the Orthodox or not, will help the Orthodox view the evangelicals with less suspicion, hopefully helping bridge the divide of mistrust that gapes between them today.

Furthermore, the ancient Christians faced many challenges, especially in the area of Christology, that the Christians of Cyprus face day-to-day in their dealings with a very strong, very visible presence of both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons on the island, as well as certain fringe ‘evangelical’ and charismatic groups. The arguments and teachings of the ancient Church can help the modern Cypriot stand firm in the true evangelical way in the face of the allure of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Benny Hinn, or any other latter-day prophet.

Please pray for these seminars that the Lord will give me the right focus and words for each one and that the people of Nicosia’s Greek Evangelical Church will be edified and equipped for life in the topsy-turvy world of post-Christendom Cyprus, where their neighbours scorn them for not being Orthodox yet go to New Age seminars for ‘spirituallity’ themselves.