ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fourth Century

Section 4: The Foundation of an Imperial Church

Steven Muhlberger

Constantine's first language was Latin. His original power-base and his first ecclesiastical advisors were from the west. Yet, when in 324 he returned after many years to the east as a conqueror, he must have felt he had discovered a realm worthy of his divine calling. The Eastern provinces were not only prosperous, but their great cities were now ruled by cultured, powerful, self-confident bishops at the head of large congregations. These bishops were also philosophically and theologically inclined -- far more than western ones -- to see Constantine as God's special instrument, even as a image of God. Here was a glittering cohort of holy men worthy to follow him, and inclined to do so.

The bishops, however, were divided among themselves. One issue was treason -- clergy suspected of cooperating with the persecutors were denounced, and in some places hard-line congregations elected new, uncontaminated bishops. Also, the influential church of Alexandria (one supposedly founded by the apostle Mark himself) was divided on a matter of theology, and in 324, bishops all over the east were picking sides.

This dispute is called the Arian controversy, after Arius, a priest in Alexandria who preached that the Son of God who walked the earth as Jesus, though no ordinary creature, was not equal the God the Father. The Son had not always existed; he participated in the Father's divinity through his perfect obedience to the Father's will. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria and Arius's superior, disagreed with this formulation because it denigrated the Son by denying his full divinity. Alexander told Arius to stop preaching his opinions. Arius refused. He appealed to influential bishops outside Egypt, and the battle was on.

Constantine, who had hoped to find in the church an image of heavenly harmony, was impatient at first, seeing this as clash of personalities, which to some extent it was. To the clergy involved, however, vital truths were at stake. Since salvation was impossible outside of the true faith, nothing could be more important. Alexander and the anti-Arians argued that unless the Son fully shared the divine nature of the Father, he was not capable of saving humanity. Nor could anyone be sure that Jesus's revelation was a final one. The Arians said that if the Son was equal to the Father, there would be more than one God, which was absurd. Furthermore, if the Son had become divine through obedience, that proved that even sinful human beings could do the same. Arian theology didn't deny salvation; on the contrary, it showed the true path to righteousness. Compromise on such points was barely thinkable to people who had seen their friends die for the faith, or who had suffered themselves.

Constantine had already mediated, unsuccessfully, a nasty split in the church in North Africa. He did not hesitate to try again. This time he had more luck. In 325 Constantine convened the first "universal" council of the church at Nicaea, where, under his presidency, a creed or statement of faith was drawn up. Arius's teachings were condemned, and the Son was declared to be "of one substance with the Father" (in Greek, homoousious). Unity, it seemed, had been restored. Indeed, the Nicene Creed is still seen today as a key definition of orthodox Christianity.

But the Council of Nicaea barely slowed down the theological dispute. Many bishops had their doubts about the word homoousious, since it was found nowhere in the Bible, and felt they had been pressured by the emperor into signing a flawed document. A party determined to revise the Nicene Creed sprang up, and ran a vigourous campaign to gain the emperor's ear. Constantine listened, and had recalled Arius from exile at the time of his own death in 337. A pro-Nicene party led by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was equally determined to allow no changes in the Creed. Despite the best efforts of emperors to impose unity, the dispute continued for over fifty years.

What is most important about the Arian controversy is that it was the first of many theological disputes that split the imperially-sponsored churches over the next 400 years. Some features of these disputes should be pointed out here. All of them originated in the Greek-speaking centers. Greek bishops were influenced by the sophisticated philosophy of Plato, which made possible many subtle distinctions in theology. Different opinions about the nature of God, especially about Jesus's relationship to the Father and the humanity he had come to save, had grown up in different centers (especially Antioch and Alexandria, both apostolically-founded churches). Disagreements about such matters involved people's deepest religious feelings, not just words. The belief that unity of belief was vital made it impossible to paper over the differences.

More mundane considerations complicated matters. Victory or defeat reflected on a bishop's personal legitimacy, the dignity of his city and its traditions, and his relationship to the vastly powerful emperor. Dirty politics was the natural result, as bishops used any tactic to discredit opponents and convince the emperor to depose and exile them. Athanasius, for instance, was accused of murdering a bishop named Arsenius and keeping his hand to use for sorcerous purpoese. Athanasius foiled this attack by producing Arsenius alive; other accusations against him may have had a basis in fact.

Divisions in the east continued as long as the three major bishoprics of Alexandria, Antioch and the emperor's special church at Constantinople were all under imperial rule, and somewhat beyond that time. The same divisions aggravated relations between the western churches and those of the east. At the simplest level, the two groups spoke different languages. Few westerners knew Greek well; most Greeks scorned Latin unless they wanted a career in the army or in law. Western bishops did not understand the philosophical debates, and thought that they were hardly worth understanding. The simple Nicene Creed, which was congenial to the western tradition, should suffice for any reasonable man. Easterners found it impossible to take this country-bumpkin attitude seriously. Yet these two solitudes were constantly embroiled. Not only was unity at stake: there was also the unique position of Rome to consider. The bishop of Rome was seen, as the apostle Peter's direct successor, as a theological authority - - not only by his fellow Latins, but also by any group in the east that seemed to be losing and might find a sympathetic ear in the west. The resulting intrigues tended to drive two quite different religious cultures further apart.

The heritage of Constantine is a complicated one. His patronage and that of his sons advanced the position of the churches in the empire, and created a special relationship between the emperor and the faith. Yet the very victory of the church set it against itself, as variant traditions based in different regional centers tried to establish themselves as the one true faith that everyone knew existed.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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