CONSTANTINE

AND THE CHRISTIAN STATE 

Constantine ruled the entire Roman Empire! His success assured Christianity a place in society. Constantine recognized the church and bestowed special favors on both individual believers and the church. As we noted, he even restricted offensive heathen practices.

Constantine took the traditional title, "Pontifex Maximus." The title originally applied to Roman "high priests" who were the "great bridge builders" between man and the gods. The Emperors used it to designate themselves head of all the state religions. I want you to note that Christianity is not the state religion at this time, although it enjoys imperial favor. Believing he was "God's man," Constantine referred to himself as a "bishop, ordained by God to oversee what is external to the church."

The new Emperor dreamed of a united Empire. He expected Christianity's cross-cultural appeal to fuse the people together in a single religious body. Instead he found a faith internally divided. During Constantine's reign two great controversies afflicted the church. In this lecture I look at these two controversies and discuss Constantine's efforts to end them.

I. Donatism

Donatism began in 311 when Caecilian became Bishop of Carthage. By 311 a bishop needed ordination by three other bishops. Donatus, a Carthaginian deacon, protested Caecilian's ordination because one bishop was a known traditore. A traditore obtained a libellus or handed over Scripture during persecution. Donatus argued that failure to remain faithful invalidated ordination.

When Donatus and his party failed to remove Caecilian they elected Majorinus as "true Bishop" in 312. Majorinus died in 313 and Donatus became the splinter group's bishop.

Carl S. Meyer discusses other contributing factors to the Donatist controversy. Meyer states that "nationalism, economic unrest, appeals to rigorism and zeal for orthodoxy aided the movement." Another writer identified other grievances. David F. Wright says:

Caecilian's hasty consecration had precluded their own archbishop from taking his traditional place in consecrating the bishop of Carthage. The ambitions of the disappointed clerics, the greed of frustrated clerics and the pique of a formidable lady rebuked by Caecilian for her superstitious devotion to a martyr's relic all played their part. Caecilian had been rather cool towards the confessors awaiting martyrdom, and his predecessor Mensurius had almost gone along with the authorities.

Constantine was introduced to the problem when he sent relief money to North Africa. Constantine directed relief funds to the bishops for distribution thinking they would distribute the funds to meet the greatest needs. Which Carthaginian bishop should receive the funds? Both bishops claimed orthodoxy and both refused to recognize the other. In addition, since needy Donatist congregations existed outside Carthage they claimed they did not receive their share of relief funds.

The Emperor appointed Melchiades, the Roman bishop, to investigate. Melchiades and five Gallic bishops summoned Caecilian and ten bishops from each side to Rome. A hasty decision favoring Caecilian followed. The Donatists complained they did not receive a fair hearing. Constantine ordered a second hearing to convene in Arles in 314. Again numerous bishops representing both sides came from throughout the Empire although most came from Gaul and Italy. The hearing again exonerated Caecilian although they decided proven traditores should be removed from the ministry. The Donatists found this unsatisfying and they appealed directly to Constantine. In a judgment issued in 316 the Emperor said:

At the investigation I clearly perceived that Caecilian was completely blameless; a man who observed the customary duties of his religion, and devoted himself to it as was incumbent upon him. It was plain that no fault could be found in him, such as had been, by the invention of his enemies, alleged against him in his absence.

The recalcitrant Donatists refused to accept the authority of either the Council at Arles or Constantine. Losing patience, Constantine threatened to take care of things. He said:

I am going to make plain to them what kind of worship is to be offered to God... What higher duty have I as emperor than to destroy error and repress rash indiscretions, and so cause all to offer to Almighty God true religion, honest concord and true worship.

The Emperor then ordered the confiscation of Donatist churches and banished their leaders. He continued harassing Donatists until numerous Donatist martyrs poured out their blood into North African sands.

Ultimately Donatists disappeared into the North African desert. Donatist bodies become "rural" churches opposing Roman policies, bishops and "citified" ways. Constantine withdrew his oppressive measures and ignored them, but they didn't die out until after 411.

II. The Arian Controversy.

About 318 or 319 Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, preached a sermon to his presbyters entitled, "The Great Mystery of the Trinity in Unity." Arius, an ascetic and popular presbyter, objected because the sermon "failed to uphold a distinction among the persons of the Godhead." Arius, a Libyan native, received his education in Lucian's Antiochene school. Lucian of Antioch took a thoroughly literal approach to biblical interpretation and this approach led Arius to a subordinationist view of Christ's relationship to God. In a letter to Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, Arius describes his teaching:

The Son is not unbegotten, nor part of the unbegotten in any way, nor is he derived from any substance; but that by his own will and counsel he existed before times and ages fully God, only-begotten, unchangeable.

And before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist; for he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning. For that reason we are persecuted, and because we say that he is from what is not. And this we say because he is neither part of God nor derived from any substance.

Upset with Arius's obvious heretical views, Alexander called for a council. One hundred Libyan and Egyptian bishops met in 318 to discuss the issue. The council excommunicated Arius, five other presbyters, six deacons and two bishops. Other church leaders educated by Lucian rushed to Arius's rescue and schism resulted.

Constantine wrote Alexander and Arius hoping to effect reconciliation. When that failed, he called a council to convene in Nicaea in 325. Most historians consider this "the first ecumenical council" with over 300 bishops present. A majority of the 300 came from the Empire's eastern regions.

The Emperor involved himself directly in the council approaching it much like a military staff meeting. As a result, the "junior officers" (bishops) carefully voted with their "general" (Constantine). Originally Constantine favored the Arian position. It soon became obvious to him that the other party, the Athanasians -- after Athanasius, the new Alexandrian bishop -- were well represented. A compromise creed came to the floor but the Athanasian party demanded inclusion of the term "homoousios," meaning "identical in substance." The council accepted the compromise creed as amended and called on all bishops to sign it. The council banished Arius and two bishops who refused to sign. This amended creed was rewritten in 381 and stood as the Nicene Creed.

As written in 325, the creed failed to represent most bishops' thinking and dissent arose over an "enforced creed, a creed not representative of the church." Due to influence from Eusebius of Nicomedia, Constantine recalled Arius from exile in 328. The Emperor ordered Athanasius to restore Arius as presbyter in Alexandria. When Athanasius refused, the Emperor deposed him. Arian Christians called a synod which condemned Athanasius and the "orthodox party." The controversy continued raging during Arius's and Athanasius's lifetime although the tide changed several times. Athanasius, for example, faced exile five times! Arius, the controversy's chief antagonist, found himself in and out of favor as well. Finally, in 336, Arius became ill with diarrhea and, at the age of 86, died in a public latrine. The controversy continued and still remains with us today.

What we've seen in these two cases is the failure of Constantine's effort to pacify and unite Christianity. In spite of the division, the fourth century proved to be a time of vitality. Both Arian and Orthodox Christianity grew rapidly; so much so that at times we're unsure who had the upper hand. Constantine's own family divided over Arianism. Ultimately Arianism became so powerful that Orthodoxy doesn't overtake it until 496 when Clovis, King of the Franks, converted to Christianity.

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