Politics and Religion: The Good the Bad and the Church in 3rd – 4th centuries A.D.

The line between politics and religion, specifically Christianity, was very clear when it was illegal to be a Christian, however, the conversion of Constantine changed the landscape. Shelley zeroed in on Constantine’s role with these words “Prior to Constantine’s conversion, the church consisted of convinced believers who were willing to bear the risk of being identified as Christians. Now many came that were politically ambitious, religiously disinterested, and still half-rooted in paganism”  (Shelley, 2013, p. 102). For the early church the integration of church and state had both advantages and disadvantages. The good was that the persecution that had marked the first three centuries of church life was a thing of the past. Christianity had gone from the outlaw to the law. The bad was that dedication was no longer the trademark of the Christian. Everyone and anyone could call themselves Christians if they at all perceived it would gain them any socioeconomic advantage. The church was in the middle, so while the state backing that came with Constantine was a boon to the church in terms of relaxed persecution it also meant that, since the church was the state, doctrinal division was tantamount to state division; Constantine would have no division in his empire so doctrinal issues were dealt with by council and banishment.

Constantine set the pattern of church councils when he called the Nicene Council to deal with the subject of Christ’s divinity in 325 A.D. The council did not only just represent church matters, they were a matter of national empirical unity. After the council had decided the imperial hammer fell and banishment was the decree. Arius and the other heretics found that disagreeing with the church council carried an empirical price. Constantine stands apart from the rest of the Christian emperors because of his dynamic entrance.  Litfin states it very well when they talk about how the nature of Constantine’s influence started with the impossible victory that was won on the steps of Rome: “Yet we cannot deny this military victory—which happened not on some distant barbarian frontier but on the outskirts of the Eternal City itself—did capture the imagination of contemporary observers” (Litfin, 2012, p. 774). In the wake of the precedent that Constantine set, the councils marched forward with doctrinal propose for the church but also an imperial political agenda.

The political nature that Constantine brought to Christianity did not overshadow the need for doctrinal unity. With or without the unity of the empire, the nature of Christ is no small matter to the church.  Bouman quotes Luther’s observation about the link between Christ and the true church: “I have also noticed that all error, heresy, idolatry, offense, misuse, and evil in the church originally came from despising or losing sight of this article of faith in Jesus Christ” (Bouman, 1969, p. 82). Luther’s point is made all the more poignant when it is noted that all of the major early church councils were convened over some aspect of Christ: Nicea 325 A.D., the full deity of the Son, Constantinople 381 A.D., the full humanity of the Son, Ephesus 431 A.D., the union of deity and humanity in the Son, and Chalcedon 451 A.D., hypostatic union (Shelley, 2013, p. 123). As far as the matters of the real church went, these were deal breakers, the nature of Christ directly affects the nature of the gospel. With or without the imperial political nature of these few centuries in early church history, these matters still had to be addressed for Christianity to become consistent and for it to gain the momentum it would experience going forward.

The good times had come for the church, no more persecution, the church was free to stop just surviving and start turning to dealing with perversion of the faith. Not only was the church free to act it was empowered to do so by a string of Christian emperors that started with Constantine, but with good there was bad; with empirical favor came imperial politics and with no persecution came the sycophant Christ follower. The church did not waste the opportunity, the layperson might have been able to use the church for political gain but theologian and bishop alike seized the opportunity to bring unification of the doctrine. The two forces of state and church coalesced for the purpose of unity and, through the four councils, brought about unity for the state and the doctrine of the church. Those that disagreed with this new amalgamation of church and state found themselves banished. If these banished were to continue teaching it would not be in the name of the church at Rome, soon to be called the Church of Rome.

 

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References

Bouman, H. A. (1969). Significance of the dogma concerning Christ as defined by the Council of Chalcedon. Concordia Theological Monthly, 40(2), 81-91.

Litfin, B. M. (2012). Eusebius on Constantine: truth and hagiography at the Milvian Bridge. Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society, 55(4), 773-792.

Noll, M. (2012). Turning points: Decisive moments in the history of Christianity. (3rd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Shelley, B. (2013). Church history in plain language (4th ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas

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