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History of the Church

Acceptance and Integration

Constantine to the Middle Ages

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The World

One of the greatest changes in history happened in the fourth century – an event which set Christianity on a new course.  Until this time the Christian could expect persecution; persecution brought martyrdom and martyrdom was the proof of faith that the world could not resist.  All this was before the time of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor.


After Constantine, with a brief exception, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Indeed, so much so that the Emperor presided over the church council at Nicea, attempting to restore harmony to the argumentative factions of the church.  He did not live to see the debate resolved, but he set a precedent:  the government of a Christian world has both power and interest in the affairs of the church.

This sounds strange to us today, with our history of church and state.  But recall that in those days everyone believed that God (or the gods) ruled.  It was clearly in the interest of the Empire that the gods (or God) be pleased with both the Emperor and the Empire; otherwise who knew what disaster might come?

This was particularly true for Constantine.  Like many other Emperors, he had to defeat a rival claimant for the throne.  He defeated Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.  In a famous scene, he prayed to the God of the Christians (his mother’s God, also) for help against his opponent’s use of sorcery.  At noon he saw a sign in the sky; he heard the command “In this sign, conquer.”  Some say this couldn’t have happened; but everything Constantine did after that tells us that he believed he had seen a sign from God.  In his reign Christianity went from being illegal to being legal – and a few years later the official religion of the Empire.  This would have its own interesting effects; but in one generation the church who gloried in her martyrs became the church, the handmaiden and ruler of the Emperor. 

This was also a time of expansion for the church.  The church could now send missionaries to the world not as furtive exiles but as emissaries of the church which now was allied with the great Roman Empire.  Two such missionaries stand out for us in this time:

  • Columba, the missionary to Scotland.  Noted for his courage, he plunged into the world of the Scottish chieftains and by his bravery and eloquence he converted most of the western part of Scotland.  He combined piety with politics, scholarship with faith, and served as the real founder of Celtic Christianity.


  • Patrick – yes, the St. Patrick.  As a young man of sixteen he was captured and enslaved by Irish raiders.  He eventually escaped back to Britain, but not before forming the deep conviction that he was to return to Ireland as a missionary.  He brought monasticism to the island; his courage in returning and boldness of preaching gave him standing with the leaders.  Not a well educated man, his followers (especially the monks) were influential in evangelizing much of Western Europe.


Other religions

One of the things that changed quickly in the church was her status of being “in the world, not of the world.”  The Emperor wanted the church as friend and ally; the change was inevitable.  The political conflict this brought encouraged the church to adopt various pagan customs as part of their worship and belief:

  • The use of candles and incense came primarily from this source (the Jews, you will recall, used lamps fueled by olive oil).
  • Christmas is celebrated near the winter solstice;  a heathen festival, the Saturnalia, was also celebrated then.  Many Christmas traditions started in the Saturnalia; the church adopted them into Christmas to better compete with the pagan festival.
  • Most important of all was the change in position of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Many pagans had worshiped Isis or Artemis (Diana).  Stories of Isis and her counterparts in other systems bore some relationship to Mary; indeed, many carvings of this time show mother and baby as Isis.  It was easy for these followers to transfer their devotion to Mary.

 Mosaic mural of Mary and the infant Jesus receiving gifts from the 
Wise Men.  In an alcove in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

 One non-Christian Emperor remained:  Julian the Apostate.  When he came to the throne he was nominally Christian;  after his crowning he announced that he believed in the ancient gods.  He attempted to restore the old worship by promoting “Hellenism” – a sort of mixture of the various old gods, held together by the veneer of Greek philosophy.  It was a mixture that might appeal to those old enough to remember when paganism was really alive; it had no real substance, however.  When Julian died, Hellenism collapsed.  The ancient gods troubled man no more.


The image of Christianity

In this time there were two things that changed the public’s view of Christianity.

  • First, the church cared for its own poor – and the rest of society as well.  In a program that would scandalize the conservative church today, the church provided what amounted to welfare – complete with housing – for the poverty stricken.  Indeed, Julian the Apostate issued orders for his Roman officials to duplicate this; evidently the example was too clear.
  • A Russian Orthodox 
monastery in the California Redwoods.Next, this age sees the beginning of monasticism.  There are those in the church who see the corruption the world brings into the church; they long for the purity of the true Christian.  Where before the ascetic would hide himself in a cave, now such men banded together to form monasteries.  These institutions would have great influence during the Middle Ages.



Since that time one other impression has arisen.  Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was his life’s work.  It was immediately accepted as the definitive work on the subject; Gibbon’s atheist beliefs made it clear to him that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the coming of Christianity.  In his mind, Christianity diverted large sums of money from the military strength of Rome.


The Church

Worship changes

The worship of the church was now public; it was on display.  This led to some interesting developments:

  • First, the worship ceremony of the church became more and more liturgical and less spontaneous.  Part of this was the desire to keep the people from following some heretic; to this end books were written to prescribe the worship ceremony.  Formality increased, as this was more comfortable to the average citizen, coming from a pagan background.
  • The liturgical year - 
click to enlarge.One such formality was the Christian year.  In pagan religions there was usually a yearly cycle – which told you when to plant.  The idea that there was such a cycle for the church quickly took hold; Easter taking the place of the planting festival.  The idea remains in most parts of the church to this day.
  • Romanesque architecture 
of old St. Peter's in Rome.  Click to enlarge.Another change was the construction of church buildings.  In keeping with the liturgical spirit, the design was standardized to some extent.  The basic shape of the basilica (a church without wings extending) and cathedral (a church in the general shape of a cross) were adopted in this era, and are with us yet.


Church Government

When the church was persecuted, most Christians cared little for the formalities of church governance.  But with the coming of Constantine, things changed.  We see some changes arriving:

  • Interestingly, the idea that there is one bishop for the city is not challenged.  It appears that the church felt this necessary for the unity of the church – a concept not much discussed these days.
  • The structure became more formal.  Acolytes, deacons, priests and so on were offices which developed in this period, ultimately being cemented during the Middle Ages.
  • We begin to see the rise of the Pope in this.  The claim of the bishop of Rome to rule the church is made in this era – made, but not recognized.  But as a practical matter of fact, Rome – until its fall – was the center of the Empire, and therefore the center of the church.  After the fall of the western empire, the bishop of Rome found himself taking on much of the power of the emperor – simply because there was no one else to do it.  The seeds of the Papacy were planted in this time.  The Eastern Empire did not finish its fall until the sack of Constantinople in 1453.  Rome had one bishop, a political figure.  The Eastern Orthodox had no such focal point.


Great Men

The church blossomed with men who made great contributions.  Space prohibits us from presenting them all; here are three best known to me:

  • Athanasius.  Athanasius was stubborn, outspoken, hot-tempered – and generally right.  He stands as the greatA modern icon of Athanasius.
  Click to enlarge. defender of the doctrine of the Trinity.  His motto was Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.”  His work, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, is still considered the demarcation point at which the full understanding of the Trinity is the doctrine of the church.  (For this reason he is despised by the Mormons).
  • Chrysostom.  Athanasius was a great thinker; Chrysostom was (by general consent) the greatest preaA modern icon of Chrysostom.
  Click to enlarge.cher the church has ever heard.  My shelves are graced by his works on church and family life; his understanding of wealth shows in his work on Lazarus and Dives.  In preparing for these lessons I have often turned to his words.  Often he shows me some new insight; never does he let me down.  He breaks no ground theologically, but sets the high water mark for practical preaching.
  • St. AugustineAugustine.  If there is a dominant personality to the church during the Middle Ages (and beyond) it is Augustine.  His Confessions created the diary style of writing; his work, The Trinity is still considered definitive; his City of God likewise.  He defeated the Manicheans in debate; likewise the Pelagians and the Donatists.  His understanding of free will, predestination, original sin, and grace form the core of Catholic doctrine today.

These three were from just one century; I’ve left out Ambrose of Milan (a prime influence on Constantine), Basil the Great (Eastern monasticism, the Trinity) and other Cappadocian fathers, Cyril of Alexandria (the great opponent of Nestorian dualism), Leo the Great (who saved Rome – twice), Jerome (translator whose Latin version was the text read in western Christianity until the modern era), Cassiodorus (who preserved much of scholasticism for the church) and Benedict (who devised the rule of monasticism).  It was a time for Christian thought to blossom.


New Testament text

A modern copy 
of the Codex Vaticanus - yours for a mere $6400.  Click to enlarge 
(price does not increase).The text of the New Testament received a much wider following.  Constantine consulted the church to determine the canon of the New Testament.  He sent out a royal commission to make official copies; these copies were then distributed to the great cities of the empire as official master copies from which copies could be made locally.  The number of copies continued to increase rapidly from there on.  Three “copies of copies” are known to exist today;  one of them (the Vaticanus) may in fact be one of the original, royal copies.

Manuscript of 
Ulfilas' translation of the Bible into Gothic.  This manuscript is at UC
 Davis.  Click to enlarge.Indeed, copies were made – but so were translations.  Jerome produced the Vulgate (from vulgar = common, meaning the common Latin instead of the learned Greek).  Ulfilas actually invented the alphabet for the Gothic language (after they had sacked Rome) to produce the Scriptures for them – an example still followed to this day.  In all ways the text of the New Testament was spread far and wide – giving us so many manuscripts today.



Christ and Doctrine

 The Arian Heresy

The Arians were the logical, scientific people of their day.  Like many since, they assumed that their theory was supreme and that the events of the Scripture would quite naturally fall in line to fit their theory. 

Their theory sounds strange to modern ears, and the debate was fought out in the language of Greek philosophy.  This makes the argument somewhat difficult for modern people to follow,  but it is important to try.  They believed that only God the Father was eternal; at some point before time began he begat the son.  (I told you this was strange.  How do you have time before time began?)  That son, the Logos (the Word) is the Christ – and that Christ invaded a human body (that of Jesus) and the Logos replaced Jesus’ human soul.  So we see two points of debate for us:

  1. Is the Son co-eternal with the Father, or is He begotten before time?
  2. Does Jesus have a reasonable soul, as we do, or was his replaced by this Logos?

At the church council of Nicea, this doctrine was soundly rejected.  That despite the fact that the African church in particular was thoroughly persuaded that the new, modern thought had finally displaced the old.  The council was presided over by the Emperor Constantine; he quelled the dissent but the argument persisted for years. 


The view is not at all gone.  Arianism is a central part of Mormon beliefs.  The Mormons view Athanasius as the man who misled the church.  Maybe it is all a vast, two thousand year old conspiracy.  Uh huh.


The Nestorians were another variant of the “Jesus is the body, Christ is the soul” school of heresy.  They approached it from a different point of view, however.  In so doing, they stirred a pot that still boils within the church. 

The church of this time (as noted above) began to elevate the status of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  (There are at least six ladies named Mary in the New Testament; but in phrasing it that way I find myself at odds with Roman Catholicism, as will be seen).  The church of this time began to refer to Mary as the theotokos, the “bearer of God.”  (This is often mistranslated “mother of God.”)  At the council of Ephesus in 431, this doctrine was condemned.

Theotokos has led a strange life since.  The church at Ephesus meant to correct the arguments of the Nestorians:  “How could God be a three day old baby?”  The church never answers that question; she just states it to be the central miracle of Christianity, the Incarnation.  That Incarnation required a mother, so that our Lord would be fully human, fully divine.  In the sense that Ephesus used it, the church was being entirely orthodox.  Indeed, that same understanding is common ground between Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox.  But it has given rise to the cult of Mary.

How serious is this?  We are told that the current pope is so devoted to Mary that he wants to proclaim her co-redemptrix with Jesus.  As one good Catholic friend put it to me, “If he does, you will watch the American Catholic Church disintegrate.”[1]


The Donatists

The Donatists were yet another group holier than thou.  They invented one new wrinkle, however:  they were the ones who first announced that everyone else was a heretic and they were the true church. 

They held to a very strict, legalistic interpretation of Scripture.  Anyone who disagreed was accused of traditio – betraying the Scriptures.  But gradually these people came back to the church.  I suppose it’s lonely being the only real Christian in the world.


The Nicene Creed

Against such heresies the church produced another creed – another defense of the orthodox faith against its foes.  Here it is:


We believe in one God, the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, and the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and comes again with glory to judge living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spoke through the prophets:

In one holy catholic and apostolic church:

We acknowledge one baptism unto remission of sins. We look for a resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.


Reading it through, you can see the result of the debates being put into play.  Particularly against the Arians, this creed told the common Christian the “right answer” – the ready defense that he must be able to give.


[1] And how this fits into Revelation I leave to you, the reader – but tread carefully on that carpet.

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