What caused Christianity to move from the catacombs the forefront of modern civilization? The church, the state and those who led them reshaped society. What’s the impact on the church as it infused with the masses? Complete loyalty to Emperor or uncompromising devotion to Christ becomes the backdrop of the Age of the Christian Roman Empire.
The Conqueror who changed Christianity
Many historians, theologian and casual observers agree that the conversion of Emperor Constantine and his triumph over his enemies were the turning point in Christian history. Why did the once hated “cult” called Christianity rise to such prominence so quickly and from such a lowly unimpressive beginning?
Around (284-305) an Emperor named Diocletian ruled 20 years before Constantine. He led Rome with absolute power and with no regards for human life. It is believed that he was the greatest persecutor of the Christian faith. Two years before of his reign ended he ordered his army to be wiped clean of Christians and the destruction of church buildings and the burning of the holy scriptures. Bishops were imprisoned, tortured and put to death via his Imperial edits.
Seven years later after his death it was still illegal to be a Christian and much blood shed continually flowed through the streets of Rome. In the spring of 312 Constantine conquered Rome. During his conquest he prayed to the Christian God and in a dream he saw a cross in the sky and the words“ In this sign conquer.” October 28, 312 A.D Constantine won the battle and this was his proof of the power of Christ and the superiority of the Christian religion. His favor rested with the Christians and their faith. He abolished crucifixions, halted the battle of gladiators as punishment and made Sunday a national holiday. He gave generously so that huge and palatial church buildings could be constructed. Constantine was baptized 337 shortly before his death.
The church for the first time could preach publicly, bishops were paid by the state and Christianity became the religion of the government. This was not without a price. The new Emperor controlled the bishops as he controlled the civil servants. Unconditional obedience was demanded even when it interfered or contradicted the church’s potion. Before Constantine the church was filled with believers willing to die for their belief, now it was filled with those with political ambitious, favor seekers and lover of paganism.
By 380 A.D. emperor Theodosius mad it an imperial command for the Roman Empire to believe in Christianity. Non- Christians were now persecuted if they didn’t believe in the God of Jesus Christ. The church had now become state and the state had become the church.
Who is Jesus and what is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Trinity)?
The life and existence of Jesus in the scriptures become the battle ground of the now state supported church. No other religion calls its followers to imitate and worship it’s deity like Christianity. Is he man, is he God, can man be God, can God dwell among flesh and how does one worship a three-in-one deity. These questions and many more began to surface as the church moved through the Roman kingdom.
318 A.D. Arius challenged the belief “the word became flesh” (John 1:14). He said that the true God is greater than man and couldn’t be like humans. When Christians call Jesus God they didn’t mean that he was deity but a lesser being or half-God. This appealed to many former pagans because it was like the beliefs they grow up with. Arius was excommunicated and banished for such teachings. The debate about “Who is Jesus” raged on for many years to come and will later divide many in the state supported church.
In the church two popular schools of theology began teaching very polarized interpretations of the biblical Jesus. One was in Alexandria and the other in Antioch. The Alexandrian stressed heavily the divine aspects of Jesus while the Antiochians stressed the human aspects. Between 350-450 questions circulated that demanded the church to give a clear answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”
Some major issues that took forefront were things like (1) Jesus was divine and not really human, (2) since Jesus was really human then we must acknowledge Mary as “Mother of God” because this shows that the divine could be born of woman and (3) Jesus combined the human & spiritual natures together. The spiritual absorbed the physical, calling into question the doctrine of redemption.
Other thoughts that eroded the church were the continual rise of Gnosticism and the Manichean beliefs which taught that the true Jesus had no material body and never really died. They thought most of the New Testament was true yet rejected anything that inferred that Jesus really suffered. Also, they didn’t accept the Old Testament.
It was the Manichean or the Gnostic faith that the famous Augustine believed as a young man. Augustine would become the bishop of Hippo.
How does one explain the three-in-one doctrine? If God is one and if God is three how do we explain it? How can that be? This debate continues even to this day. Between 321-381 a general council was called to clarify the three persons in one. The Latin word “persona” means a mask worn by an actor on stage. The mask wasn’t worn by God to hide but to reveal his character, which can’t be defined by one nature.
The Rise of Monastic ideals and the elevation of the papacy “Vicar of Christ.”
The late third and early fourth century a movement within the church began to take center stage. This movement appealed to the discipline of body and soul. As the church became an extension of the world some men desired separation from what they perceived as lust for material and physical pleasures. The first form of monasticism (the renouncing of the comforts of this life and the pursuit of spiritual rewards through self-discipline) were the hermits. The Greek word hermit means “desert”. The hermit often fled the church or what they saw as the corrupt institution. Gregory of Nazianzus complained:” The positions of honor are acquired by evil, not righteousness; and the post of bishop, not through integrity, but by influence and powerful.”
In 320 the first monastery was started. The goal of the monastery was a closer walk and greater intimacy with God. The belief is if one renounces society and all that it offers then you can truly be one with God. They believed that if you deny the body this frees the soul to commune with God. This monastic practice fell on Christianity with a force that changed Christianity forever. Every level of the faith was altered and it would one day become the standard of achieving higher office in the church. The monks had three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. The soul is attached to the flesh as a prisoner to a corpse, said the monk. This belief raises questions like, how does this relate the scriptures? Is this earning salvation? Is it repentance? Is this only for the very discipline?
Ronal Baiton (340-420) became the pioneer of monastic scholarship. Translated Old & New Testament into Latin.
Benedict: considered the father of monastic living. In 529 laid the foundations of the most famous monastery, the motherhouse of the Benedictine order. He drew up many of –the Rule- a regulation governing monastic living. It’s known as the Benedictine Rule which is used today in monasteries worldwide.
Rome was called the Eternal City. For 620 years Rome stood without foreign conquest, then the Visigoths invaded and plundered the once great city. One hundred years later June 452 Attila the Hun advanced on Rome. The emperor sent a convoy to negotiate the terms of peace. Attila was about to dismiss the delegates until he heard that Bishop Leo of Rome was present. Leo pleaded for the freedom of the capital and Attila agreed and with drew. The Bishop of Rome had saved the people and assumed a new role in the new world order.
The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church states at the First Vatican Council (1870), Jesus established the papacy with the apostle Peter; and the Bishop of Rome as Peter’s successor has supreme authority over the entire church. The term pope is nothing new or original to the doctrine of papal primacy. The word “papa” was used to describe every bishop’s fatherly care of his flock. It wasn’t until the sixth century that the term was reserved only for the bishop of Rome. Also, the honor for the church in Rome must be separated from the authority of the pope. First, Rome was an imperial capital, the Eternal City; the church was the wealthiest and the largest. Secondly, it stood with no rival in the western part of the empire. Its membership approached around 30,000. Then, just as today, large churches meant influence. Thirdly, many of the early Christian writers and apologist referred to Peter & Paul as founders of the church in Rome.
Before the reign of Constantine there is no recorded evidence that the bishop of Rome had any authority outside of Rome. As the Roman state grew in influence and structure so did the church. The church’s organization restructured in two ways: (1) councils grew in authority and (2) certain bishops directed the affair of other bishops. As issues surfaced councils were set-up and bishops met, irregular at first, to discuss particular issues. In the beginning everyone were equal but the churches started by apostles willed spiritual supremacy and also the larger churches started to exercised authority over the smaller townships. You can see that the church adapted to the type of structure as the empire. They were divided by provinces, metropolis and then several larger regions. The smaller churches were lead by “priest” from the word presbyter, the Greek for “elder.” The priests were usually sent from the larger churches and received direction from the city bishops. These developments propelled the bishop of Rome to a role of great importance.
On his first day as the bishop of Rome Leo preached about the greatness of Peter in whose post he now holds. Leo had now laid the foundation for the papal primacy. Jesus promised to build the church and Peter was his instrument and the bishops of Rome were his successors in authority. In 445 Emperor Valentinian III issued a decree for every bishop to attend the papal court. The edit turned Leo’s claim into law. March 445 A.D. Gaiseric, King of the vandals marched on Rome. Leo met the King at the city gate and begged for mercy. He offered money and pleaded with him not to burn the city. Gaiseric agreed but said “fourteen days’ looting”. The Vandals plundered the city building by building. They took gold, silver and prisoners. After the fourteen days the city had a service of thanksgiving. During the celebration Leo addressed the city and reminded them that God had saved them. Who protected you? Who preserved it from massacre? Turn to the Lord who has softened the rage of our enemies. This was his second time saving the city. Leo had assumed the title of “Pontifex Maximus”, the high priest of religion in the Roman Empire. The people knew Leo, not the emperor, had saved them and their Eternal City. Peter had come to power.