This week’s episode is titled, “Keeping a Record”
The first 3 Cs of Church History are at times a difficult puzzle to sort out because no coherent historical narrative was being kept.
Luke’s account in the Books of Acts recounts a time span of about 30 yrs & roughly narrates the spread of the Faith from Jerusalem to Rome. The next narrative doesn’t come till the writings of the Christian historian Eusebius in the 4th C. What we have for a period of over 200 yrs are the writings of the Fathers whose letters give little more than a thumbnail sketch of what was happening. We have to infer & assume a lot by picking up what facts we can about what was happening. As we’ve seen, the work of the Church Fathers focused mainly on providing pastoral & apologetic support. Gaining an historical framework for this period comes from merging secular accounts of history with the commentary of the Fathers. But with the work of Eusebius at the opening of the 4th C, the narrative becomes significantly clearer.
Eusebius began compiling his magnum opus of Church History in the 290’s. Titled Ecclesiastical History, it’s an attempt to provide a narrative of the Communion of the Saints from the Apostles to his time.
Eusebius was born & raised in Caesarea on the coast of Israel. He was a student of the Christian leader Pamphilas, who was himself a student of the great Apologist Origen. Eusebius became the bishop at Caesarea in 313. He played a major role in the Council of Nicaea in 325, which we’ll take a closer look at in a future episode.
Eusebius is a key figure in the study of Church History because his Ecclesiastical History is the first work after Luke’s to attempt an historical narrative of the Faith. He’s also an important figure because of his close association with the Emperor Constantine.
I want to quote the opening of Eusebius’ narrative because it gives us a sense of the monumental nature of his work. He knew he was attempting to reconstruct a narrative of the Church from scant resources.
In Chapter 1, which he titled, “The Plan of the Work” he writes –
It is my purpose to write an account of the successions of the holy apostles, as well as of the times which have elapsed from the days of our Savior to our own; and to relate the many important events which are said to have occurred in the history of the Church; and to mention those who have governed and presided over the Church in the most prominent parishes, and those who in each generation have proclaimed the divine word either orally or in writing.
It is my purpose also to give the names and number and times of those who through love of innovation have run into the greatest errors, and, proclaiming themselves discoverers of knowledge falsely so-called, have like fierce wolves unmercifully devastated the flock of Christ. …
But at the outset I must crave for my work the indulgence of the wise, for I confess that it is beyond my power to produce a perfect and complete history, and since I am the first to enter upon the subject, I am attempting to traverse as it were a lonely and untrodden path. I pray that I may have God as my guide and the power of the Lord as my aid, since I am unable to find even the bare footsteps of those who have traveled the way before me, except in brief fragments, in which some in one way, others in another, have transmitted to us particular accounts of the times in which they lived. From afar they raise their voices like torches, and they cry out, as from some lofty and conspicuous watch-tower, admonishing us where to walk and how to direct the course of our work steadily and safely.
Having gathered therefore from the matters mentioned here and there by them whatever we consider important for the present work, and having plucked like flowers from a meadow the appropriate passages from ancient writers, we shall endeavor to embody the whole in an historical narrative. …
This work seems to me of especial importance because I know of no ecclesiastical writer who has devoted himself to this subject; and I hope that it will appear most useful to those who are fond of historical research.
Eusebius was unaware of any previous attempt to provide an historical narrative of the development of the Faith from the late 1st C to his time in the early 4th, a period of a little over 200 yrs. From a modern perspective, Eusebius’ account might be considered suspect, relying as it does on tradition & at best fragmentary evidence. What must be remembered is the importance of that oral tradition and the accuracy of such transmission over long periods of time. Because the ancient world didn’t possess cheap and plentiful means of recording information, it was dependent on oral tradition & rote memorization. With the advent of the printing press and more economic media, the priority of the oral tradition declined. Eusebius had both written and oral source material to draw from. His work can be considered dependable, while subject to question when it leaned toward the ancient penchant for using history as propaganda.
As we return to the narrative timeline of Church history we need to pick up the story with the reign of the Diocletian who presided over the last & in many ways worst round of persecution under the Roman emperors.
Though Christians remember Diocletian for that, he was in truth one of the most effective of the Roman Emperors. By the time he came to the throne, the Roman Empire was a sprawling & unwieldy beast of a realm to rule. The City of Rome was an old & decayed relic of its former glory. So Diocletian moved his headquarters eastward to Nicomedia in Asia Minor, modern Turkey. Instead of trying to exert control over the entire empire himself & solely, Diocletian appointed Maximian as co-emperor to rule the western half of the Empire from Rome while he ruled the East.
One of the persistent problems that led to so much unrest in the recent decades was the question of succession; who would rule after the current emperor? To forestall that turmoil, Diocletian appointed dual successors for both himself & Maximian. Flavius Constantius became Maximian’s successor while Diocletian took on Galerius. This established what’s known as the Tetrarchy.
While Diocletian had no warm & fuzzy feelings for the followers of Christ, it was really his successor Galerius that urged him to launch a campaign of persecution. Galerius was a military commander who thought Christians made poor soldiers. He knew their loyalty was supremely to their God and thought they made for unreliable troops. Galerius was also a committed pagan who believed in the Roman deities. He attributed any setback for the Army & any of the regular natural disasters that shook the realm, to their displeasure that so many of Rome’s subjects were turning to the new god on the block. So it was really at Galerius’ urging Diocletian approved the severe measures taken against Christians and their churches. When Diocletian retired to his villa to raise cabbages & turned the eastern half of the Empire over to Galerius, persecution increased.
Eventually, Constantius replaced Maximian in the West, just as Galerius had assumed the mantle in the East. And Diocletian’s tetrarchy began to unravel. Galerius decided he wanted to be sole ruler and abducted Constantius’ son, Constantine who’d been named successor to his father in the West. When Constantius fell ill, Galerius granted Constantine permission to visit him.
Constantius died, & Constantine demanded Galerius recognize him as his co-emperor. No doubt Galerius would have launched a military campaign against Constantine’s bid for rule of the West, but Galerius himself was stricken with a deadly illness. On his deathbed, Galerius admitted his policy of persecution of Christians hadn’t worked and rescinded his policy of oppression.
In the West, Constantine’s claim to his father’s throne was contested by Maximian’s son, Maxentius. The showdown between them is known as the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Maxentius didn’t want Constantine marching his troops into Rome so he tore down the Milvian Bridge after marching his troops across it to meet Constantine. Just in case the battle went against Maxentius, he had a temporary bridge built of a string of boats across the river.
At this point, the story gets confused because there’s been so many who’ve written about what happened and the reports are varied. On the day before the battle, Constantine prayed, most likely to the sun-god. As he did, he looked toward the sun & saw a cross. Then, either he saw the words or heard them spoken, “By this sign, Conquer.” That night while he slept, Jesus appeared to him in a dream, telling him to have his soldiers place a Christian symbol on their shields. The next morning, chalk was quickly passed round & the soldiers put what’s called the Chiron on their shields. Chi & Rho are the first 2 letters of the Greek word Christos, Christ. In English it looks like a P on top of an X.
When the 2 forces met, Constantine’s veterans bested Maxentius’ less experienced troops, who retreated to their makeshift bridge. While crossing, Maxentius fell into the water & drowned. Constantine then marched victoriously into Rome.
A year later, he and his new co-emperor Licinius issued what’s known as the Edict of Milan, which decreed an end to all religious persecution, not just of Christians, but all faiths. For Constantine, Jesus was now his divine patron & the cross, an emblem of shame & derision for generations, became instead—a kind of charm. Instead of being a symbol of Rome’s brutality in executing its enemies, the cross became a symbol of Imperial power.
Bishops began to be called priests as they gained parity with their peers in pagan temples. These Christian priests were shown special favors by Constantine. It didn’t take long for the pagan priests to realize which way the winds of political favor were blowing. Many converted.
Now à there’s been much debate over the legitimacy of Constantine’s conversion. Was he genuinely born again or was he just a savvy politician who recognized a trend he could co-opt and turn to his favor? People will disagree on this and my meager offering is unlikely to convince anyone. But I think Constantine was probably a genuine Christian. He certainly did some things after his conversion that are difficult to reconcile with a sincere faith, but we have to remember the moral base he grew up in as the son of a Caesar & as a general of Roman legions was very different from the Biblical morality that’s shaped Western civilization. Also, Constantine’s actions which are so decidedly non-Christian, like murdering those who threatened his power, may have been rationalized not as personal acts so much as attempts to secure the peace & safety of the empire. I know that’s a stretch, but when analyzing history, we need to be careful about judging people when we don’t have at our disposal all the facts they did.
If we could sit down with Constantine and say, “You shouldn’t have executed that guy.” He could very well say something like, “Yes, as a Christian, I shouldn’t have. You’re right. But I didn’t execute him out of personal anger or suspicion or mere selfishness. It really bothers me that I had to off him; but I discovered he was plotting to usurp my throne and it would have thrown the empire into years of civil war & chaos.” To which we’d reply, “Well Constance, you need to trust God more. He’ll protect you. He put you on the throne, He can keep you there.” And Constantine might reply, “Yeah, I considered that & I agree. But it’s a tough call. You see, in terms of my personal life, I trust God. But when it comes to my role as Emperor, I need to make tough choices others who don’t wield the power I do will understand.”
Let’s not forget that Constantine, while being a competent general & astute politician, was at best a novice believer.
I share this little made-up discussion because it points up something we’re going to encounter again & again in our review of the history of the Church. We look on past ages, on what they believed and the things they did, with an attitude of moral superiority because we wouldn’t do the terrible things they did, or we assume would do some things they failed to. We need to be cautious with this attitude for the simple reason that when we take the time to listen to the voices of the past and let them explain themselves, we often come to a new appreciation for the difficulty of their lives & choices. We may not agree with them, but we at least realize in their own minds & hearts, they thought they were doing what was best.
You make up your own mind about the genuineness of Constantine’s faith, but let me encourage you to spend a little time looking up what Eusebius wrote about him and some of the tough decisions Constantine had to make during his reign.
Some of the things regarded as incompatible with a genuine conversion is that he retained his title of Pontifex Maximus as the head of the state religious cult. He conceived & hatched political plots to remove enemies. He murdered those deemed a threat to his power.
On the other hand, from 312 on, his favor of Christianity was quite public. He granted the same privileges to bishops, pagan priests enjoyed. He banned crucifixion & ended the punishment of criminals by using them in gladiatorial games. He made Sunday a holiday. His personal charity built several large churches. And his private life demonstrated a pretty consistent genuine faith. His children were brought up in the Church & he practiced marital fidelity, at least, as far as we know. That of course, was certainly NOT the case with previous Emperors or even the wider Roman nobility.
Critics like to point to Constantine’s delay of baptism to shortly before his death as evidence of a lack of faith. I suggest that it ought to be read exactly the opposite. Remember what we learned about baptism a few episodes back. In that time, it was believed after baptism, there were certain sins that couldn’t be forgiven. So people delayed baptism to as close to death as possible, leaving little chance for commission of such a sin to occur. Following his baptism, Constantine never again donned the imperial purple of his office but instead wore only his white baptismal robes. That sounds like he was concerned to enter Heaven, not a casual disregard of it.
Chief among Constantine’s concerns upon taking control of the Empire was unity. It was unity & strength that had moved Diocletian to establish the tetrarchy. Decades of civil war as one powerful general after another seized control and beat down his challengers had desperately weakened & impoverished the realm. Now that Constantine ruled, he hoped the Church would help bring a new era of unity based on a vital & dynamic faith. It didn’t take long before he realized the very thing he hoped would bring unity was itself fractured.
When the Church was battered & beaten by imperial persecution, it was forced to be one. But when that pressure was removed, the theological cracks that had been developing for a while became immediately evident. Chief among them was the Donatist Controversy we recently considered. In 314 the Donatists appealed to Constantine to settle the issue on who could ordain elders.
Think about what a momentous change this was! The church appealed to the civil authority to rule on a spiritual affair! By doing so, the Church asked for imperial sponsorship.
At this point we need a robot to wave its arms manically & cry “Danger! Will Robinson, Danger!”
Constantine knew this was not a decision he was capable of making on his own so he gathered some church leaders in Arles in the S of France to decide the issue. The Donatist bishops were outnumbered by the non-Donatists – so you know where this is going. They decided against the Donatists.
Instead of accepting the decision, the Donatists called the leaders who opposed them corrupt and labeled the Emperor their lackey. The Church split between the Donatist churches of North Africa and the rest who now looked to Constantine as their leader.
As tensions rose, the Emperor sent troops to Carthage in 317 to enforce the installation of a pro-government bishop opposed by the Donatists. For the first but far from last time, Christians persecuted Christians. Opponents of Constantine were exiled from Carthage. After 4 years, he realized his strong arm tactics weren’t working and withdrew his troops.
We’ll pick it up and this point next time.