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The Edict of Milan (A.D. 313)
The persecutions ended in 313 with the Edict of Milan, issued by Emperor Constantine. Unlike Diocletian, Constantine saw Christianity as an ally to help save the empire and Greco-Roman culture. When he and his army had been almost crushed by enemies, Constantine reportedly had a vision of a cross with the words In hoc signo vinces (“In this sign conquer”) on it. He took this as a favorable omen, defeated his enemies, and took control of the state.
After the Edict of Milan, the Roman Empire favored the church; there was freedom of worship, confiscated property was returned to Christians, and clergy were exempted from public service. Eventually the church was subsidized by the state, and Sunday was made the official day of rest and worship.
Constantine had continued to be chief priest of the pagan state and was not baptized until just before his death. But with the exception of one setback, under Emperor Julian, Constantine’s successor, Christianity continued on its way to becoming the official state religion. This meant that the state would be involved in attempting to settle the internal problems faced by the church.
Rome: Arch of Constantine
Looking from the Colosseum down on the Arch of Constantine, erected by Emperor Constantine after his victory in A.D. 312, which came after he saw a cross in the sky and the words In hoc signo vinces (“In this sign conquer”).
The Church Fathers
For more than a century after the Edict of Milan, a group of scholars invested great energy and brilliance in the careful study of the Scriptures to find their theological meaning. They are known as the post-Nicene church fathers because they lived and worked after the First Council of Nicea, held in 325 (see below; the earlier church fathers are known as the apostolic fathers—see The Apostolic Fathers—and the ante-Nicene church fathers). Six of these post-Nicene church fathers stand out, three in the eastern half of the empire, and three in the west.
In the east, Chrysostom from Antioch (347–407) taught that the Cross and ethics are inseparable; Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia (350–428), wrote biblical commentaries, insisting on a thorough understanding of grammar and the historical background of the text; and Eusebius (265–339) wrote, at the request of Constantine, a church history using and carefully evaluating primary sources. Most of our knowledge of the first centuries of the church comes from Eusebius’s work.
While the Eastern fathers wanted to discover the meaning of Scriptures by looking at grammar and history, the Western fathers translated Scriptures and wrote theological treatises. Jerome from Venice (347–420) went into retreat at Bethlehem to create the Vulgate, a translation from Hebrew into Latin, which was until recently the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. Ambrose (340–397) was an administrator and preacher who was not afraid to oppose the emperor and who made the state respect the church and refrain from entering into the spiritual realm.
The best-known and most influential of the fathers was Augustine of Hippo (354–430). His mother had prayed for his conversion to Christianity from the loose life he lived, and one day he was in a garden where he heard a voice telling him to read the Bible, which he had opened to Romans 13:13–14. He became a priest and later bishop of Hippo. Augustine wrote more than 100 books, 500 sermons, 200 letters, and one of the great autobiographies of all time, the Confessions. He created a Christian philosophy of history with his City of God, which he saw as a spiritual civilization that could replace the dying Roman classical civilization. Today both Catholics and Protestants look to him as an authority. Catholics like his emphasis on the church as a visible institution, his doctrine of purgatory, and emphasis on the sacraments (baptism, communion). Protestants like his emphasis on salvation from sin as a result of the grace of God, who gave His Son so that we all could be saved from sin and reconciled to God.
The Seven Church Councils
Several of these church fathers participated in a series of seven church councils (also called ecumenical councils because they involved the whole church) held between A.D. 325 and 787 to define basic Christian doctrines. They were attended by bishops and convened by emperors, which meant that after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in A.D. 476 most of the participants were from the Eastern church. The statements issued by the first four councils are still unanimously accepted by Christian churches even today.
Augustine was the primary figure at the Council of Ephesus (431). It was convened to deal with the so-called Pelagian controversy, which revolved around the question as to how human beings are saved. Pelagius, a British theologian, held that each person is created free and has the power to choose good or evil because he or she is a separate creation and therefore uncontaminated by Adam’s sin. Thus individuals can attain salvation by choice and effort. Pelagius’s opponent was Augustine, who argued that all persons are born sinful by nature and therefore cannot choose freely between good and evil, so salvation must come by grace on God’s part. The Council of Ephesus adopted Augustine’s view, and although the question has continued to come up many times since, the decision stands as orthodox Christian doctrine.
The other important councils were Nicaea I (325), which declared Jesus Christ to be deity along with the Father; Constantinople I (381) which upheld the deity of the Holy Spirit; and Chalcedon (451), which affirmed the two natures of Christ (divine and human) in one person.
The Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), a Byzantine structure in Constantinople (Istanbul), was built by Emperor Constantine (A.D. 360), burned (404), and was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian (537). The dome is 100 feet across and nearly 200 feet high. The minarets were added when the Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453 and turned the church into a mosque. It is now a museum.
The barbarian tribes had increasingly encroached on the western part of the Roman Empire from the end of the 1st century until it finally fell apart in 476. After the church was free from persecutions, it turned its energy toward evangelizing these peoples who were migrating around Western Europe. The spread of Christianity helped to preserve elements of the Greco-Roman culture, but the mass conversions of barbarians affected the church in that they brought many pagan practices into the church that had tried to Christianize them. Christians began celebrating Christmas after A.D. 350 on the date of an old pagan winter solstice celebration; the pagan elements were eliminated and replaced with the commemoration of Christ’s birth. Some would say that this weakened the church, but others argue that this is an example of the way Christianity has adapted itself to and transformed cultural practices as it continued to spread through the following two centuries.
Many barbarians had only partially converted to Christianity and church discipline became lax, so the church accommodated these barbarians who had been used to worshiping images by materializing the liturgy with the veneration of saints through relics, pictures, and statues. A more colorful liturgy developed along with a sharp distinction between clergy and laity. The number of holy days and festivals expanded as did the number of ceremonies that were ranked as sacraments. In the early church the sacraments were baptism and communion, but marriage, penance (doing something physical to atone for sins), ordination (ceremony to ordain bishops and other church officials), confirmation (ceremony to confirm one’s faith in Christ when one is old enough to have a clear understanding of the Gospel), and extreme unction (ceremony done when one is dying) were added as sacraments.
During the period when the Roman Empire was weakening, many Christians felt that society was becoming decadent and that the church had lost its spiritual focus. They responded by retreating into solitude to try to achieve personal holiness through contemplation and asceticism. The monastic movement had its origins in the 4th century, grew considerably during the 6th, was widely popular during the 10th and 11th centuries and again in the 16th, and is still practiced today by comparatively few.
The psychological need to escape from the world of harsh realities and civil disorder was, these men (and women) believed, supported by some Scriptures; for example, they took 1 Corinthians 7:1 to mean that Paul advocated celibacy. Monasteries also offered a more individual approach to God and salvation than the formal corporate worship of the times, and the pure monastic lifestyle was a living social criticism. Geographic factors, such as the warm, dry caves along the Nile (where monasticism began), along with the ability to raise food easily along the river, fostered its spread, and the nearness to the desert stimulated meditation. Indeed, when it spread to the West, the colder climate made communal organization necessary to provide food and warm buildings for winter.
Benedict was the best-known organizer of the movement in Europe. He founded Monte Cassino (in Italy) in about 529; it survived until World War II, when it was destroyed by bombs. Benedict organized and controlled several monasteries. His program of work and worship with dietary rules, vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—along with divisions of the day into periods for reading, worship, and work, as laid down in the still widely used Rule of St. Benedict—was almost universal by 800.
The monasteries served as the medieval equivalent of experimental farms as the monks cleared forests, drained marshes, built roads, and improved seeds and livestock breeds. They kept scholarship alive during the period A.D. 500–1000, when urban life was disrupted as the barbarians took over. The monasteries ran schools and copied manuscripts, collected and translated literature, and recorded history. Monks became missionaries and won whole tribes to Christianity, provided a refuge for social outcasts who needed help, ran hospitals, and provided food and shelter for travelers. However, when many of the best men and women of the Roman Empire went into monasteries, the world lost out on their leadership.
Eventually, some monasteries became wealthy due to their community thrift, so laziness, greed, and gluttony crept in. Monasteries aided in the development of a hierarchical, centralized church organization as monks were bound by obedience to superiors who in turn had superiors.
Church and State
Between A.D. 313 and 590, the catholic (universal) church in the West became the Roman Catholic Church that in structure and canon law reflected imperial Rome. The bishops had all been equal until 313, when the bishop of Rome became known as primus inter pares, “first among equals”; but beginning with Leo I in 440, the Roman bishop began to claim supremacy over other bishops. The need for efficiency and coordination led to the centralization of power. The Roman bishop was considered the guarantor of orthodox doctrine mostly because people had looked to him for temporal as well as spiritual leadership during times of crisis. For example, when the emperor was in Constantinople in 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths and the bishop with clever diplomacy saved the city from fire. Thus, when the western half of the empire fell in A.D. 476, people looked to the Roman bishop for political leadership.
The bishop of Constantinople was considered next in prominence to the bishop of Rome, and both political and ecclesiastical leaders acknowledged this hierarchy. Gregory I (the Great) in 590 claimed that Leo had been the first pope because he saved the city from destruction, defined orthodoxy by writing against heresies, and developed a central court of appeals to make final decisions after cases had gone through bishops.
Rulers had to submit to the pope because spiritual authority was more important than temporal. Gregory himself rejected the title “pope” (which literally means “papa”), but he had all the power of later popes and indeed fought the bishop (or patriarch) of Constantinople, who claimed the title of universal bishop.
When others wanted to make Gregory the supreme head of the church, he declined the title but would not allow anyone else to take it. Yet no one dared to go against Gregory’s will, and he made the bishopric of Rome one of the wealthiest, due to his talents as an administrator, and brought the English and the Spanish under Roman control. Along with his other talents, Gregory was a good preacher, writer, theologian, and musician; it was he who developed the Gregorian chant, which gained great importance in worship.
The Roman Catholic Church continued as the primary institution in the West, but not without threat. The emperors in the east (Constantinople) tried to get the church to be subordinate to the state, and followers of various heresies fought with the Roman bishop. Thus, by the 8th century the papacy was looking for a powerful ally who would acknowledge its claims to spiritual power as well as to physical possessions, since a developing system of taxation had enriched the papacy by requiring people to pay various kinds of taxes to the church. The pope found this ally in Charlemagne.
- Henry Hampton Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version., Completely rev. and expanded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000).
- David S. Dockery, ed., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992).
- Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
- Philip Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church; With a General Introduction to Church History, trans. Edward D. Yeomans (New York: Charles Scribner, 1859).
- Christopher M. Leighton and Charles Arian, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003).
- Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context: 1. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
- Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.