History of the Byzantine Empire


The attitude of Constantine toward the Church



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The attitude of Constantine toward the Church.


Constantine did more than merely grant equal rights to Christianity as a definite religious doctrine. The Christian clergy (clerici) were given all the privileges granted to the pagan priests. They were exempted from state taxation and duties as well as from the officeholding which might divert them from the performance of their religious obligations (the right of immunity). Any man could bequeath his property to the Church, which thereby acquired the right of inheritance. Thus, simultaneously with the declaration of religious freedom, the Christian communities were recognized as legal juridical entities; from a legal point of view, Christianity was placed in an entirely new position.

Very important privileges were given to episcopal courts. Any man had the right, if his opponent agreed, to carry a civil suit to the episcopal court, even after proceedings in that suit had already been started in the civil court. Toward the end of Constantine’s reign the authority of the episcopal courts was enlarged still more: (1) The decision of a bishop had to be accepted as final in cases concerning people of any age; (2) any civil case could be transferred to the episcopal court at any stage of the proceedings, even if the opposing side did not agree; (3) the decisions of the episcopal courts had to be sanctioned by civil judges. All these judicial privileges increased the authority of the bishops in society but at the same time added a heavy burden to their responsibilities and created many complications. The losing side, in view of the illegality of appealing a bishop’s decision, which could not always be correct, often remained dissatisfied and irritated. Moreover, these additional duties introduced too many worldly interests into the lives of the bishops.

The Church at the same time was growing in material wealth through gifts from state resources of landed property or money and grain. Christians could not be forced to participate in pagan festivals. At the same time Christian influence brought about some mitigation in the punishment of criminals.

In addition to all this, Constantine’s name is connected with the erection of many churches in all parts of his immense empire. The basilica of St. Peter and the basilica of the Lateran in Rome are ascribed to him. He was particularly interested in Palestine, where his mother, Helena, supposedly found the true cross. In Jerusalem, in the place where Christ was buried, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected; on the Mount of Olives Constantine built the Church of the Ascension and at Bethlehem the Church of the Nativity. The new capital, Constantinople, and its suburbs were also adorned with many churches, the most prominent the Church of the Apostles and the Church of St. Irene; it is possible that Constantine laid the foundations of St. Sophia, which was completed by his successor, Constantius. Many churches were being constructed in other places during Constantine’s reign, at Antioch, Nicomedia, and North Africa.[34]

After the reign of Constantine three important Christian centers developed: the early Christian Rome, in Italy, although pagan sympathy and tradition continued to exist there for some time; Christian Constantinople, which very soon became a second Rome in the eyes of the Christians of the East; and, finally, Christian Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in 70 A.D., and the formation in its place of the Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D, old Jerusalem had lost its significance, although it was the mother church of Christendom and the center of the first apostolic preaching. Christian Jerusalem was called to new life in the period of Constantine. Politically, Caesarea, and not Aelia, was the capital of that province. The churches built during this period in the three centers stood as symbols of the triumph of the Christian church on earth. This church soon became the state church. The new idea of the kingdom on earth was in direct contrast with the original conception of Christianity as a kingdom “not of this world,” and of the rapidly approaching end of the world.[35]





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