THE IMPERIAL CHURCH
THE FOUNDING OF CONSTANTINOPLE. THE DIVISION OF THE EMPIRE. THE SUPPRESSION OF HEATHENISM. THE CONTROVERSIES AND COUNCILS. THE RISE OF MONASTICISM
Soon after Christianity was recognized as the religion of the Roman empire, a new capital was chosen, built, and established as the seat of authority- an event which brought to pass important results int the church, as well as in the state. Constantine recognized that Rome was closely associated with the heathen worship, filled with temples and statues, strongly inclined to the old religion, its situation in the midst of a great plain left it open to attack from enemies. In the earlier times of the republic the city had been more than once besieged by foreign foes; and in its later history, armies from the provinces had many times enthroned and dethroned empowers. In the system of government organized by Diocletian and continued by Constantine, there was no place for even the shadowy authority of the Roman senate. The emperors now possessed unlimited power; and Constantine sought a capital untrammeled by traditions and especially under the auspices of the religion. Constantine showed great wisdom in the choice of his new capital. He selected the Greek City of Byzantium, which had been standing for a thousand years, situated at the meeting of Europe and Asia; where the continents are separated by two narrow straits, on the north the Bosphorus, and on the south the Hellespont(now Dardanelles), together sixty miles long, generally less than a mile wide and nowhere more than four miles wide. The site of the city is so fortified by nature, that in all its history of more than twenty-five centuries it has rarely been taken by enemies, while its rival Rome has been overcome and ravaged many times. Here Constantine fixed his capital and planned the great city universally known for many years as Constantinople, “the city of Constantine,” but now officially called Istanbul.
In the new capital the emperor and the patriarch(which was the title subsequently given to the chief bishop of Constantinople) dwelt side by side. The church was honored, but was overshadowed by the authority of the throne. Partly from the presence and power of the emperor, but also from the pliant, submissive nature of its people, the church in the eastern empire became mainly the servant of the state, although at times patriarchs like John Chrysostom asserted their independence. In the new capital were no temples to idols, but soon many churches arose. Of these the largest was named Sancta Sophia, “Sacred Wisdom.” It was built by Constantine, but after its destruction by fire was rebuilt by the emperor Justinian (537 A.D) on a magnificent scale, surpassing any other church of its day. It remained the leading cathedral of Christendom for eleven centuries, until 1453 A.D., when the city was taken by the Turks. Then in one day it became a mosque, until after World War I. The division of the empire soon followed the building of the new capital. The boundaries were so wide and the danger of invasion from barbarian around was so imminent, that one emperor could no longer protect his vast dominions. Diocletian had began the division of authority in 305 A.D., Constantine also appointed associate emperors; and in the year 395 A.D. Theodosius completed the separation. From the time of Theodosius the Roman world was divided into Eastern and Western, separated by the Adriatic Sea. The Eastern emperor was known as Greek, the Western as Latin, from the prevailing language in each section. The division of the empire was a foreboding of the coming disruption of the church.
One of the most remarkable facts in history is the rapid transformation of a vast empire from the heathen to the Christian religion. Outwardly, at the opening of the fourth century, the old gods were entrenched in the reverence of the Roman world. But before the fifth century began, the temples had been abandoned to ruin or turned into churches, sacrifices and libations had ceased, and in profession the Roman empire was Christian. Let us now notice how heathen fell from its lofty state.
Constantine was tolerant, both in temperament and from political motives, although emphatic in his recognition of the Christian religion. He sanctioned no sacrificed to the images formerly worshiped, and put an end to the offerings to the statue of the emperor. But he favored the toleration of all forms of religion, and sought the gradual conversion of his subjects to Christianity, through evangelization and not by compulsion. He retained some of the heathen titles of the emperor, as that of pontifex maximus, “chief priest”-a title by the way held by all the popes since. He continued also the support of the vestal virgins at Rome.
But Constantine’s successors on the throne were intolerant. The conversion of the heathen was moving forward rapidly enough, even too rapidly for the well-being of the church. Yet the early Christian emperors after Constantine sought to accelerate the movements held by the temples and heathen priests, whether given by the state or by worshipers, were seized, and, in most places, transferred to the churches. The heathen sacrifices and rites of worship were forbidden, and their observance was made a penal offense. Not long after Constantine’s reign his son ordered to all worshipers of idols the penalty of death and confiscation of their property. Heathenism for a generation before its final suppression had a few martyrs; but very few in contrast with the number of Christian sufferers through two hundred years. Already many of the temples had been consecrated as churches; and after some years it was ordered that those still remaining should be torn down, unless needed for Christian worship. The command was issued that no one should write or speak against the Christian religion, and all books of its opposers should be burned. One result of this edict has been that practically all our knowledge of the anti-Christian or heretical sects is obtained from books written against them. The enforcement of these repressive laws varied greatly in different portions of the empire, but their effect was that heathenism entirely passed away in the course of three or four generations.
As the long conflict of Christianity with heathenism was ending in victory, a new strife arose, s civil war in the field of thought, a series of controversies within the church over its doctrines. While the church was fighting for its life against persecution, it remained united, although rumblings of doctrinal dissension were heard. But when the church was not only safe but dominant, sharp debate concerning doctrine arose, shaking its very foundations. During this period three great controversies were carried on, besides many lesser ones, and to settle these vexed questions councils of the whole church were called. At these councils bishop were voting members. All the lower clergy and laity were expected to submit to their decisions.
The first controversy arose over the Doctrine of the Trinity, especially the relation of the Father and the Son. Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, about 318 A.D., set forth the doctrine that Christ though higher than the human nature was inferior to God, and was not eternal in existence, but had a beginning. Against these views, the great champion was Athanasius, also of Alexandria. He asserted the unity of the Son with the Father, the deity of Christ and his eternal existence. The controversy extended throughout the church, and after Constantine had vainly endeavored to end the strife, he called a council of the bishops, meeting at Nicaea in Bithynia 325 A.D. Athanasius, at that time only a deacon, was permitted to speak, though not to vote, and was able to bring the majority of the council to condemn the teachings of Arius, in the Nicene Creed. But Arius was politically powerful; his opinions were held by many of the upper classes, and by the son and successor of Constantine. Five times Athanasius was driven into exile, and as many times recalled. When a friend said to him, “Athanasius, yoy have the whole world against you,” he answered “Be it so- Athanasius against the world – Athanasius contra mundum.” His last seven years were passed in peace at Alexandria, where he died in 373 A.D. His views finally, but not till long after his death, became supreme throughout the church both east and west. They are definitely set forth in the Athanasian Creed, formerly but not now believed to have been written by Athanasius.
Next came the controversy over the Nature of Christ. Apollinaries, bishop of Laodicea(360 A.D), asserted that the divine nature took the place of the human nature in Christ; that Jesus on earth was not man, but God alone in human form. The majority of bishops and theologians held that the personality of Jesus Christ was a union of God and man, deity and humanity in one nature. The Apollinarian heresy was condemned by the Council of Constantinople, 381 A.D., and was followed by the withdrawal of Apollinaries from the church.
The only extended controversy of this period arising in the western church was over question relating to sin and salvation. It began with Pelagius, a monk who came from Britain to Rome about 410 A.D. His doctrine was that we do not inherit our sinful tendencies from Adam, but that each soul makes its own choice, whether of sin or of righteousness; that every human will is free and every soul is responsible for its decisions. Against this view appeared the greatest intellect after St. Paul in the history of Christianity, the mighty Augustine, who held that Adam represented the entire race, that in Adam’s sin all mankind sinned, and all mankind are held guilty; that man cannot accept salvation by his own choice, but only by the will of God, who choose whom he will save. The Pelagian view was condemned by the Council of Carthage 418 A.D., and the theology of Augustine became the standard of orthodoxy in the church. Not until modern times, under Arminius in Holland(about 1600) and John Wesley in the eighteenth century was there any serious breaking away from the Augustine system of doctrine.
While these great controversies were raging, another movement began, which in the Middle Ages grew to immense proportions. This was the rise of the monastic spirit. In the early church were no monks nor nuns. The Christians lived in families, and though keeping apart from idolatrous associations, were still members of society in general. But in the period now under consideration we note the beginnings and early progress of a movement toward the monastic life.
After Christianity became dominant in the empire, worldliness crept into the church and became prevalent. Many who sought a higher life were dissatisfied with their surroundings, and retired from the world. Either alone or in groups they dwelt in seclusion, seeking to cultivate the spiritual life by meditation, prayer, and ascetic habits. This monastic spirit began in Egypt, where it was fostered by the warm climate and the few necessities for living.
Instances of the solitary life may be found early in Christian history, but we may consider Anthony as its founder about 320 A.D., for his life first attracted general attention and led to thousands of followers. He lived for years alone in a cave in Egypt, was widely known, and held in reverence for the purity and simplicity of his character. Multitudes followed his example, and the caves of upper Egypt were thronged by his disciples. They were called “anchorites” from the word meaning “retirement.” Those who formed themselves into communities were called “cenobites.” From Egypt the spirit spread over the eastern church, where the monastic life was adopted by multitudes of both men and women.
One peculiar form of asceticism was adopted by the pillar saints, of whom the first was a Syrian monk, Simon, called Stylites, “of the pillar.” He left the monastery in 432 A.D. and built in succession several pillars, each higher than its predecessor, the last one sixty feet high and four feet broad. On these pillars in turn he lived for thirty-seven years. Thousands emulated his life, and Syria held many pillar – saints between the fifth and twelfth centuries. But this form of life never obtained followers in Europe.
The monastic movement in Europe spread more slowly than in Asia and Africa. The individual, solitary life of the ascetic soon gave place in Europe to the establishment o monasteries, where work was united with prayer. Benedict’s Rule, by which the western monasteries were generally organized and directed, was promulgated in 529 A.D. The monastic spirit grew through the Middle Ages, and will be noticed again in the history.