THE IMPERIAL CHURCH
FROM THE EDICT OF CONSTANTINE, 313 A.D., TO THE FALL OF ROME, 476 A.D.,-THE VICTORY OF CHRISTIANITY
In the period upon which we are now entering, the most striking fact, and the most potent for good and also for evil, was the victory of Christianity. In the year 305 A.D. when Diocletian abdicated the imperial throne, the Christian religion was sternly prohibited, its profession was punished with torture and death, and against it all the power of the state was called into exercise.
Less than eighty years afterward, in 380 A.D., Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Roman empire, and a Christian emperor held supreme authority with a court of professed Christians around them. It seemed but a single step from facing lions in the amphitheatre to place beside the throne of the world! Soon after the abdication of of Diocletian, in 305 A.D., four aspirants after the imperial crown were at war. The two most powerful rivals were Maxentius and Constantine, whose armies met in battle at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber, ten miles from Rome, 312 A.D. Maxentius represented the old heathen persecuting element; Constantine was friendly to the Christians, although at that time not a professed believer. He claimed to have seen in the sky a shining cross bearing the motto, “Hoc Signo Vinces” -“By this sign thou shalt conquer,” and afterward adopted it as the standard of his army. The victory was with Constantine, and Maxentius was drowned in the river. Soon afterward, in 313 A.D., Constantine promulagated his famous Edict of Toleration, which officially put an end to the persecutions. Not until 323 A.D. did Constantine become sole emperor, and then Christianity was favored. Constantine’s personal character was not perfect. Though generally just he was occassionally cruel and tyrannical. It has been said that “that reality of his Christianity was better than its quality.” He delayed his baptism until just before his death, in the prevalent opinion of his time that baptism washed away all sins previously committed. He was certainly a wise politician, if not a great Christian; for he had the insight to ally himself with the movement which held the future of his empire. From this sudden change of relations between the empire and the church, world-wide and far-reaching results followed; some of them good, some of them evil, both to the church and the state. We can readily see wherein the new attitude of the government brought benefits to the cause of Christianity. All persecution of the Christians ceased at once and forever. For more than two hundred years, at no time had a Christian been safe from accusation and death, and at many periods, as we have seen, all had in imminent danger. But from the publication of Constantine’s Edict, in 313 A.D., until the Roman empire ended, the sword of persecution was not merely sheathed; it was buried. The church buildings were restored and re-opened everywhere. In the apostolic period, meetings had been held in private houses or in hired halls. Afterward, during times of cessation in the persecutions, church buildings began to arise. In the last persecution, that under Diocletian, many of these buildings were destroyed and others were seized by the authorities. All left standing were now restored, and the cities reimbursed the societies for those which had been demolished. From this time Christians were free to build churches; and edifices began to arise everywhere. In their plan, they followed the form and took the name of the Roman basilica or or court-room: a rectangle divided into aisles by rows of pillars, having at one end a semicircular platform with seats for the clergy. Constantine set the example of building large churches in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and his new capital, Constantinople. It was two generations after Constantine when images began to appear in the churches; the early Christians having a horror of all that might lead to idolatry. Although the heathen worship was still tolerated, the official sacrifices ceased. The fact that so radical a charge from universal customs, interwoven with every social and civic celebration, could be so speedily accomplished, shows that the heathen observances had long been mere formalities, and no longer expressed the belief of intelligent people. In many places the temples were consecrated as churches. This was especially the case in cities; while in remote country places heathen beliefs and worship lingered for generations. The word “pagan” originally meant “country-dweller,” but it came to mean, and still means “heathen.”
Throughout the empire, the temples of the gods had been supported mainly from the public treasury. These endowments were now bestowed upon the churches and the clergy. At first gradually, but soon more generally and more liberally, the public funds were enriching the church, and the bishops, priest and other officials in the Christian worship were receiving their support from the state, a welcome endowment to the church, but eventually of questionable benefit.
Many privileges were bestowed upon the clergy, not all by imperial enactment, but by custom which soon became law. Public duties obligatory upon all citizens were no longer required of the clergy; they were set free from taxes; all accusations against clergymen were tried before ecclesiastical courts. The ministers of the soon became a privileged class, above the law of the land. This, also, while an immediate benefit, developed into an evil, both to the state and the church.
The first day of the week was proclaimed as a day of rest and of worship, and its observance soon became general throughout the empire. In 321 A.D. Constantine forbade the courts to be held on Sunday, except for the purpose of giving freedom to slaves; and on that soldiers were commanded to omit their daily military exercise. But the public games were continued on Sunday, tending to make it more a holiday than a holy-day.
From the recognition of Christianity as the favored religion some good results came to the people, as well as to the church. The spirit of the new religion was infused into many of the ordinances enacted by Constantine and his immediate successors.
Crucifixion was abolished. This had been a common form of execution for criminals, except such as were Roman citizens, who alone had the right to be beheaded when condemned to death. But the cross, with Christians a sacred emblem, was soon adopted by Constantine as the standard of his army, and was forbidden as a method of inflicting death.
Infanticide was discouraged and repressed. Through all the former history of Rome and its provinces any infant unwelcome to its father had been either smothered or “exposed,” that is, thrown out to die. Some people made a business of gathering abandoned infants, bringing them up, and selling them as slaves. The influence of Christianity imparted sacredness to human life, even in the youngest child, and caused the widespread evil of infanticide to disappear throughout the empire.
Through all the history of the Roman republic and of the empire until Christianity became dominant, more than half of the population were slaves, without the slightest protection of law. A man could kill his slaves, if he had the whim to do so. Under one of the early emperors, a wealthy Roman was murdered by one of his slaves, and by law all the three hundred slaves in his household were put to death, regardless of their sex or age, their guilt or innocence. But with Christianity in control, the treatment of slaves at once became more humane; legal rights were given them never possessed before. They could bring accusation of cruel treatment against masters, and emancipation was sanctioned and encouraged. Thus everywhere the condition of slaves was ameliorated and slavery was gradually abolished.
The gladiatorial games were interdicted. This law was enforced in Constantine’s new capital, where the Hippodrome was never defiled by men slaughtering each other for the pleasure of the spectators; but the combats lingered in the Roman amphitheatre until 404 A.D., when the monk Telemachus leaped into the arena and endeavored to part the gladiators. He was slain, but from that time the killing of men for the triumph of a crowd ceased.
But while the triumph of Christianity resulted in much that was good, inevitably the alliance of the state and the church also brought in its train many evils. The ceasing of persecution was a blessing, but the establishment of Christianity as the state religion became a curse.
Everybody sought membership in the church, and nearly everybody was received. Both good and bad, sincere seekers after God and hypocritical seekers after gain, rushed into the communion. Ambitious, worldly, unscrupulous men sought office in the church for social and political influence. The moral tone of Christianity in power was far below that which had marked the same people under persecution.
The service of worship increased in splendor, but were less spiritual and hearty than those of former times. The forms and ceremonies of paganism gradually crept into the worship. Some of the old heathen feasts became church festivals with change of name and of worship. About 405 A.D. images of saints and martyrs began to appear in the churches, adored, and worshiped. The adoration of the Virgin Mary was substituted for the worship of Venus and Diana; the Lord’s Supper became a sacrifice in place of a memorial; and the elder evolved from a preacher into a priest.
As a result of the church sitting in power, we do not see Christianity transforming the world to its own ideal, but the world dominating the church. The humility and saintliness of an earlier age was succeeded by ambition, pride, and arrogance, among churchmen. There were still many Christians of pure spirit, like Monica the mother of Augustine, and faithful ministers, such as Jerome and John Chrysostom; but the tide of worldliness swept uncontrolled over many professed disciples of their lowly Lord.
If Christianity could have been allowed to develop normally without state-control, and state could have continued free the dictation of the church, both state and church would have been the better by dwelling apart. But the church and the state became one when Christianity was adopted as the religion of the empire, and out of the unnatural union arose two evils, one in the eastern, the other in the western provinces. In the east the state dominated the church until it lost all energy and uplifting life. In the west, as we shall see, the church gradually usurped power over the state, and the result was not Christianity but a more or less corrupt hierarchy controlling the nations of Europe, making the church mainly a political machine.