Introduction to early church history of Catholic Church 10

Introduction to early church history 10
 Jean Paul

Influence of Constantine on the Church

Constantine’s edicts of toleration of 311 and 318AD marked a turnaround in the relationship between Church and State.  The Emperor is regarded as patron of the Church.  This change continues to influence the relationship between Church and State in European countries up to today (eg in Germany the State imposes a tax to pay for the Church and it pays a salary to clergy).

The Emperor becomes the God given ruler - patron and protector of the Church.  The Church becomes bound into society and influenced by imperial authority, leading to the Emperor having influence over the decisions of the Church to preserve unity and integrity.

The first time this influence is seen is in the schism caused by Donatism (named after Donatus).  Donatism said that the validity of a sacrament depended on the righteousness of the priest administering it.  The schism had its origins in the disputed election in 312AD of the Bishop of Carthage.  The previous bishop had died during persecution but the subsequent election led to conflict between Caecilian and Majorinus.  Caecilian had been elected by the people.

Optatus of Milevis wrote a history of these events, he against Donatism.  There were three parts to this schism:
a)  Lucilla a wealthy woman who had been rebuked by Caecilian whilst he was still a Deacon for kissing the bone of someone she claimed to be a martyr before receiving communion.  Whilst Lucilla gave way out of fear of ecclesiastical censure she was opposed to Caecilian.
b)  Mensurius the previous bishop had entrusted the Church’s silver and gold to various individuals, but had also left an audit with others.  After the persecution had ended the Church authorities tied to recover the valuables only to find that some of it had been sold off and the money spent.
c)  The two other candidates for the election bishopric. 

All three groups separated themselves from communion with Caecilian - which is schism.

The three groups went on to make various accusations against Caecilian, however when asked for proof none of the accusations could be proven.  There was then a change of tack to accuse Felix of Aptunga, Caecilian’s consecrator, of betrayal during the persecution of Diocletian.  If Felix could be proven to have betrayed the Church then Aptunga’s consecration would be invalid.  The accusation was that Felix had burnt the scriptures during the persecution.

The bitter argument went on and ultimately Majorinus was consecrated bishop.  This meant that there were two opposing groups of bishops in North Africa.  Both sides in the dispute appeal to the Emperor, note not the Bishop of Rome or any of the other bishops.

The Emperor sends the appeals before a Synod of Bishops in Gaul - again note not in North Africa were the problem lay and not to Rome.  This Synod is held in 314AD and held at Arles with 33 bishops present.  Both sides send delegates to present their different opinions.  The Synod decides in favour of Caecilian.  The Synod then sent a letter to the Pope, Sylvester, explaining that as he wasn’t present they did not feel able to issue a harsher condemnation, so the Synod dealt with the issues in a general way and sent the decisions to Rome.  The Synod stated that they were not convinced by anything Marjorinus had to say.  There are a couple of other things to note about this letter - it invokes the Holy Spirit as having guided its work, and it refers to the Emperor as he who holds the greater diocese.

The accusations against Felix were dealt with by way of a trial before the proconsul for North Africa, Aelian.  There was no evidence that Felix had betrayed the Church - forged documents were produced but these were exposed during the course of the trial, the forger Ingentius, who confessed under fear of torture, was imprisoned.  Felix was cleared of burning the sacred scriptures or of having any knowledge of the events.

The problem doesn’t end here.  As the two groups couldn’t be reconciled Constantine issued an order in 317AD to the local authorities (under pain of imprisonment) that they were to force the Donatists to give up.  This leads to persecution of Christians by other Christians.

In 320AD the persecution order is annulled.

The Donatists were to remain a parallel Church from the time of the Barbarian invasions (in the 400’s) up to the Arab conquests (630-640AD).  The Barbarians were able to take over North Africa very quickly because either one side or the other of this dispute would open the city gates hoping that the Barbarians would attack the other side.  This didn’t work very well as the Vandals were Arians and so persecuted both sides.

Why was the movement so popular?  It represented a social and ethnic rebellion against Roman authority.  The Church at Carthage was headed by Roman colonials who had never integrated, they were military families that had been given land.  Even Augustine was unable to bring about reconciliation.  This situation leads to a weakening of Christianity in North Africa, so that when the Arabs arrive there are three groups of Christians that are fighting each other and so they were not strong enough to resist the rise of Islam.  This situation leads to the end of Christianity in North Africa.


Whilst the Donatist controversy was going on in the West in the East there was another problem.  In 320AD following the second war with Licinus Constantine takes over as Emperor of the East.  In the East there is a new theological controversy named for Arius  called Arianism.

It is not clear when this movement begins.  The traditional date is 318AD.  Arius was a respected senior presbyter in the Church at Alexandria.  He was educated in Alexandria and also at the Biblical school of exegesis set up by Lucian at Antioch.  Lucian’s biblical school had a reputation as being literalist.  Arius then had a theological and biblical education.

He was ordained Deacon by Bishop Peter of Alexandria.  He was briefly deposed but reinstated and ordained to the priesthood and he went on to become a senior presbyter.

Arius had an unfortunate set of views coloured by a combination of Origen’s subordinist doctrine (that Christ was a secondary figure to the Father) and the literalist interpretation of the Bible from Lucian.

Arius produces a definition of God which is that God is unbegotten (agennetoa in Greek) and that he was not created (did not come into being, agenotos).  Arius treats these Greek words as being essentially the same.  This led to the idea that Jesus could not be God as he was begotten, Arius will go as far as to say that Jesus was a preacher.  For Arius Jesus was a creature - the highest and greatest of all creatures but still a creature nonetheless. 

Socrates of Constantinople wrote a Church history that reports what happened next. 

The Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, was leading a discussion on the Trinity - the subject was the unity of the Trinity - this is a very ambitious topic.  Arius’ view was that the Bishop was giving a heretical view that the Trinity consists of 3 modes of the same person and not 3 different persons, this heresy was named Sabellianism after Sabellius.

Arius’ view was diametrically opposed to Sabellianism and in reply to the Bishop he said that the Son was begotten and therefore there was a time before which the Son did not exist so he could not be God.

Arius published a book describing his ideas called Thalia (The Banquet).  It is full of phrases such as:
The Father has none that are equal and alike in His glory.
He was ingenerated - unlike he who was generated [Christ]
He is without beginning [unlike Christ who has a beginning].
Christ was created at the beginning of creation and adopted as Son [so he is not God].

In 319AD Alexander met with his clergy in an attempt to resolve this locally. 

Background information Alexandria was the chief see of the area, its Bishops were the first to be given the title Pope.  The grain that fed the people of Rome was supplied by the grain fleets of Alexandria - as the Bishop owned these he was a very wealthy and influential man.  So even though Alexander wasn’t taking this issue outside his diocese he had enormous influence anyway.

The Synod of 319AD discusses the questions of the Trinity that Alexander had raised in his discussion and Arius’ ideas.  The result is an encyclical letter.  In the letter the Bishop wanted to silence the controversy and confine it to Arius - rather than have it affect the ignorant.  It condemns Arius as an apostate.  The letter also condemns Eusebius of Nicomedia, who supported Arius, over a number of issues.  First he had been translated from another diocese which was against the Canons in force at the time, he wanted to be closer to the Imperial Court that was based there at that time.  Second that he supported the views of Arius.  Arius had written to his fellow students from the Biblical school asking for support, these were known as the Collucianists.  One of the Collucianists was Eusebius, who wrote a letter supporting Arius and against Alexander.  In the encyclical Alexander wanted to tell people to ignore what Eusebius was saying.  The Encyclical finishes with a list of those considered to be apostate - which includes deacons, priests and two bishops, Arius and his supporters were anathematised. 

In 320AD Arius writes to Eusebius and his other Collucianists, and even Alexander, to defend his ideas.

As time goes on people take sides, this leads to both sides appealing to the Emperor who can see that the Church is being damaged by the controversy. 

Constantine tries to treat this as a local problem in Alexandria and he sends a mission of reconciliation led by Bishop Hossius (or Hosius) of Cordova in Spain.  Hossius had become attached to the Emperor’s court and travelled with him.  He is sent as mediator in 324AD to try to calm the waters.  He carried a letter from the Emperor in which the Emperor describe himself as exercising care over God’s people (giving him the title Episcopus or overseer).  Constantine went on to say that he regarded this matter as minor but was concerned that the divisions had become so deep that the people were no longer one body (important as the old Roman idea was that the good of the Empire and the Emperor depended an the right worship of God).  Constantine directed that such issues should not be discussed any longer as they just caused division and that both sides should forgive each other as the current situation was evil and was leading to God’s people being divided.

Constantine’s letter leads to a Synod at Antioch in 325AD to try to get agreement between the Bishops of the East.  This Synod is not successful.

Constantine summons a Council to meet in 325AD at Nicaea, it is held here as it is close to Nicodemia giving the Emperor the chance to control events - in fact he presides over the Council.  Constantine provides transportation for Bishops wishing to attend, but not many Western Bishops are involved - those like Hossius who were in the area anyway and 2 representatives of the Pope (the letter of Convocation from the Emperor did claim that Nicaea would be convenient for the Western Bishops but also included the real reason that it would allow him to be present).
The Council produced 20 Canons.  As an aside Canon 20 states that worshipers should not kneel on any Sunday or during the whole period leading up to Pentecost.

The Council produces a creed based on the Baptismal Creed brought to the Council by Eusebius of Caeserea.  In may ways it is similar to the creed we use today - although it has very little on the Holy Spirit.  There was an appendix to the Creed that said that any who did not believe the Creed were Anathematised. 

However the Creed agreed by the Council was a modified form of the Baptismal Creed of Eusebius.  In talking about Christ the Council added two things that He comes from the Father (ousia) and that he is consubstantial with the Father (homoousia).  Christ is from the substance (or essence) of the Father and He is of the same substance (or essence) as the Father.  This was an attempt to explain the relationship between the Father and the Son using philosophical terms - as both sides of the debate had been throwing around Scriptural terms to justify their argument.  These terms came from Constantine - probably suggested by Hossius.  The term homoousia in its Latin form (Constubstantialus) had been used in the West since the time of Tellurian.

The outcome of the Council would move the Arian controversy to a new stage.

The Council members consisted of 5 groups:
a)  Arius and his immediate followers.
b)  Moderate subordanists - Origenists, some of Arius’ ideas had come from Origen.
c)  Conservatives - a big group who did not want to use non-Biblical language but gave in under pressure.
d)  Alexander, Athanasius and company.  Athanasius was a deacon and Alexander’s right hand man.
e)  Anti-Arians - these had Sebellian or Modalist tendencies and represented the views that Arius was trying to oppose.  The foremost of this group was called Marcellus.

There were then two extremes and a large group of conservatives.  The original creed comes from the Origenist group but was cleansed of the Origenist influence by the addition of homoousia.  The final creed was very similar to the position of Alexander but the groups above in b) to e) all voted for it against Arius.

However there were problems with this in the East with homoousia as it has materialistic overtones two coins are said to be homoousia (of the same substance).  Another problem lay ousia with  as it could mean substance, essence or being - the English translation of the Creed uses the word ‘being’ but this does not reflect the argument.

The danger was that these words could be used by the Modalists to imply that the Trinity represents 3 modes of the same person. 

The solution will breakdown gradually.

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