CHURCH HISTORY: AD 300 thru AD 500
NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.
The tension between this growing movement and the empire of Rome continued until just after AD 300. Persecutions would intensify and subside at different points along this curve, usually in response to political necessity and upheaval. The early Christian movement happened to be the second fastest growing religion in the Roman empire for two centuries. The fastest growing religious movement was that of Mithra (a Roman offshoot of what is typically called “Zoroastrianism”). Emperors were sometimes known to claim to be Mithra incarnate, and the last emperor who made such a claim was Chlorus, the father of Constantine. His birthday happened to be December 25, and the Constantinian Dynasty (started by Chlorus) enacted an imperial Advent celebrating his birth — but I digress.
Most people familiar with this period of history will know that Chlorus’s son Constantine changed the course of Christian history. While the story is generally understood, the details are quite muddy depending on exactly who is telling the story and what their ultimate goal is. Constantine found himself battling over a strategic bridge; should this bridge be captured, many said the fall of Rome would be imminent. As history tells the story, Constantine seemed to be backed up against enormous odds. According to his testimony, as Constantine considered the possibilities of retreat, surrender, or certain death, he had a vision where the Christian God showed him a shield with the Greek letters “chi” (Χ) and “rho” (Ρ) on it. He understood the meaning of these inscriptions to be, “In Christ you will conquer.”
The stories differ (one record is from Lactantius and the other is from Eusebius), but it seems that Constantine was “converted” that day, before the battle. He put this new chi rho symbol on the soldiers’ shields and they went on to victory. Constantine would credit this great Roman victory to the Christian God who delivered him from certain death.
Historians are all over the map on the truth of Constantine’s testimony. Many think the story is completely legitimate. Some say Constantine was a political genius and knew the writing was on the wall as Christianity continued to take a toll on the crumbling Roman empire, with now more than 80% of the empire being Christian. According to this theory (which happens to be my own opinion), Constantine took an opportunity to seize the momentum of popular opinion and attempted to synchronize the paganism of his father’s Mithra worship and the growing Christian momentum. Others claim there is some truth in the middle, that Constantine had some experience, maybe even misinterpreting the vision, and then later struggled to figure out what this change in worldview meant politically for an already divided Roman empire.
Nevertheless, this moment in Roman history changes the course of the Church forever — and as I see it, certainly not for the better. Many folks will flippantly state that Constantine made Christianity the state religion; this is simply not true. Constantine made it legal in the Roman empire to be a Christian. There were no more penalties and persecutions for Christians. It wasn’t until much later in the century that Theodosius would enact new legislation to give incentives to those who claimed the Christian faith (practically making Christianity the “imperial religion”).
This newfound freedom meant Christians didn’t have to run for their lives anymore. Great, right? Maybe. The problem was that ever since the breakup of Jews and Gentiles, the Christians had fallen prey to that pesky Gnostic Crisis. While they struggled to stay alive, these larger theological issues stayed on the back burner. But now that folks were free to return to lives of “normalcy,” these issues took center stage. The different effects of Gnosticism drove the Christians in this almost-completely-Gentile movement to argue about the nature of Jesus. Was he man? Was he God? Was he somehow both? As they struggled to find answers to questions the Bible wasn’t asking, they needed to make a decision on what we would later call “orthodoxy” before the movement completely splintered.
This led to almost two centuries of councils — church meetings where the movement sought to make decisions on how to move forward. While this medium had worked before (think Jerusalem Council), I think it was set up for a rougher road now that the movement was divorced from the Jewish backbone of truth and Text. While there were seven major councils in all, there are four that seem to stand out historically. I will attempt to close this era of history by simplifying (and oversimplifying) them and their major decisions here.
COUNCIL OF NICAEA (AD 325): The divinity of Christ. Ordered by Constantine himself, this council convened to deal with the teaching of Arianism (among other topics). Arianism is the belief that Christ is separate from God the Father. Out of this council, they drafted the Nicene Creed, which declares Christ is of one substance with the Father.
COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE (AD 381): The humanity of Christ. Ordered by Theodosius I (mentioned above), this council convened mostly to deal with the teaching of Apollinarism, the belief that Christ was not truly human. They eventually expanded the Nicene Creed, making adjustments that expounded on their previous ideas. They added Apollinarism to their small, but growing, list of heresies.
COUNCIL OF EPHESUS (AD 431): The singularity of Christ’s personhood. Theodosius II called this council to deal with the teaching of Nestorius, who taught (although history is divided on whether or not it was him) that Christ was actually two distinct ‘persons,’ existing as God in one and man in the other. The council declared that Christ was in fact one person at all times; they also declared no one was allowed to publish any teachings rivaling that of the orthodoxy declared in these councils. Furthermore, they discussed the teaching of Pelagianism, which rejected the idea of original sin and complete human depravity (taught in Augustinian theology). The Church sided with Augustine and rejected Pelagianism.
COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON (AD 451): The fullness of divinity AND humanity in Christ. Convoked by Marcian, this council dealt with the teaching of Eutychian heresy, declaring that Christ, while being one person, was not completely God and completely man simultaneously. Known as the “Hypostatic Union,” the council’s declaration spoke to the fact that Christ was both 100% God and 100% man simultaneously.
If all of this sounds just a bit ridiculous, as if we’ve lost the plot of the story, I would say yes and no. These theological issues are actually very significant. However, it does seem as though we’ve lost the plot of God’s great narrative entirely. This might not have been necessary if — again — we hadn’t lost touch with our Text and the methodology of relationship with God (as we’d understood it for 1000 years prior through Judaism), and if we hadn’t let Gnostic ideas invade our faith. This is the beginning of a downhill slide I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from. (But I have hope!)
It’s not long after this when Rome falls. This was not a surprise; the original strength of the empire had disappeared even before Constantine. The Romans were in constant flux and political instability. Eventually the Roman empire loses the vastness of its reach and becomes what history knows as the Byzantine Empire.
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