THE AGE OF HERESIES, MONASTICISM, AND MISSIONS
The Age of the Christian Roman Empire existed between 312-590 AD, starting with the Emperor Constantine. This age changed the history of the church as it shaped doctrines and church traditions that are still in effect today. This was an age of heresies, monasticism, polities, and missions.
THE RISE AND CONVERSION OF CONSTANTINE
In the early fourth century, the Roman Empire showed definite signs of collapse. One of the things Dicletian, the Emperor, did was reshape the politics of the empire. "He was convinced that the empire was unmanageable. The constant frontier attacks called for reorganization. So, he divided the imperial power with three others and established four imperial courts, none of them in Rome" (Shelley, 92). This was extremely important, for it led to the power struggle that ended in Constantine being accepted as emperor.
At the pivotal battle in the struggle, Constantine received a dream from God telling him to conquer in the sign of the cross. He achieved a stunning victory, and converted as a result. He changed not only on the outside, but in every area of his life. This included his politics and his family life.
BEGINNINGS OF A CHRISTIAN EMPIRE
Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople (Istanbul) and strove to create a Christian empire. With Constantine, it seemed likely that the gospel would reach the entire world. "Prior to 312, Christianity had been outlawed and persecuted. Suddenly it was favoured and pampered…As a result, the church faced a totally new mission in the world" (Shelley, 96).
There were pros and cons to this new position in society. Constantine demanded obedience for all matters, even those clearly church business alone. There was also an influx of ‘converts’ who were not sincere about Christianity, but cared for political or social favour.
CHRISTIANITY IN A NEW GARB AND NEW ROLE - FOCUS ON CHURCH DOCTRINES
Now that Christianity was completely acceptable, major scrutiny fell on church doctrines. Scholars were forced to think about subjects like the Trinity, and "With such mysteries to disagree on, it wasn’t long before everyone was calling someone else a heretic" (Shelley, 99). Out of the many discrepancies over doctrine arose a meeting known as a ‘council’. Constantine realized that the debates had gotten out of hand, in Alexandria they were even causing riots. He wanted the issue decided once and for all. More than 300 bishops gathered at Nicea to formulate doctrine. The Nicene creed emerged, clearly stating that Jesus is of the same substance as the father.
THE COUNCIL IN CHLCEDON - WHOLLY GOD AND WHOLLY HUMAN
Another conference, the General Council in Chalcedon, was called in 451 to deal with the differences between the divine and human natures of Christ. It was decided that Jesus Christ is "truly God and truly man ... in two natures, without confusion, without change" (quoted in Shelley, 108).
MIMICKING THE ROMAN POLITICAL SYSTEM -EMERGING DIVISIONS
Slowly, the church created a structure that mimicked the Roman political system at that time. The church leadership was divided between four powerful bishops, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. Rome and Alexandria often supported each other on these issues, and Antioch and Constantinople responded in kind. This caused a widening gap between east and west, Roman Catholic and Orthodox.
STRENGTHENING THE MONASTIC SYSTEM AS THE PINNACLE OF SPIRITUALITYSomewhere in this struggle for power and leadership, the monastic way of life sprung up. "The model Christian was no longer the courageous bishop dragged before wild beasts in a Roman arena. He was now a lonely hermit in the forsaken Egyptian desert defying the devil" (Shelley, 116).
The ideal was achieving higher spirituality through self-denial; the monks saw the complacency in the church and were often running from problems in the church more than from the world. The monastic system developed from hermits running off into the desert to what is known in the modern world. Devout, intelligent men such as Benedict realized the danger in being off alone and developed rules for the system of communal living common today.
LOOKING UP TO LEO FOR LEADERSHIP
By the year 452, the Roman empire was again starting to crumble, and Rome was attacked by Attila the Hun. The city faced certain destruction, and everything was in chaos. Fortunately, Bishop Leo took control of the situation and negotiated with the Huns. The city was looted but not destroyed, and the thankful people looked to Leo for leadership. Leo is a very important character in this age, for "he demonstrates the papacy’s capacity to adapt to different environments ... the Roman Empire ... the Germanic kingdoms" (Shelley, 133).
Leo set a historical precedent in that he not only proclaimed authority over the church, he cited a systematic defence to back up his claim, thereby laying the theoretical foundation for papacy. In 445, the Emperor issued an edict turning this claim into law.
GROWING GULF BETWEEN THE ROMAN CATHOLIC AND EASTERN ORTHODOX CHURCHES
The ordination of a Roman pope continued to widen the gulf between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox church was centred in the east, and it accepted the authority of the bishop of Constantinople (the New Rome) as equal to that of the bishop of Rome.
By this time, the beliefs of the Orthodox church were quite different from the beliefs of the western Catholic church. Orthodox worship is intertwined with icons-"manifestations of the heavenly ideal". A debate began concerning the issue of icons-which things were considered sacred to worship. "Image-breakers" tried to get rid of the icons, fearing idolatry, but the church would not let them go.
THE END OF THE CHRISTIAN ROMAN EMPIRE?
In the west, the end of the Christian Roman Empire was 476. The area was controlled by Germanic tribes, and the church had a mission field. It was easy to bring the tribal peoples to a surface knowledge of Christ, for they wanted to fit into sophisticated Roman society. Convincing them to make a change of allegiance in their hearts was a different matter altogether. There was some progress, however, among the Franks. This lead into Europe, concluding with Charlemagne and a new, Christian Europe.
THE LESSONS FOR THE MODERN AGE
The message this age reveals to the modern reader is that there is nothing new under the sun. The issues the church is facing today are the very same as they were facing in the first centuries.
Like in Constantine’s Roman Empire, Christianity seems to be the North American religion of choice. Many, many North Americans believe they are Christians because they are not Buddhists and they were born in the USA. This is not as extreme as in the Roman empire, where non-Christians were persecuted for their beliefs. However, it has led to a fraction of the same apathy and social climbing in our churches.
It seems that the way the early church dealt with this was to stick close to doctrines and give leaders the authority to excommunicate heretics. I wonder if our churches wouldn’t be so complacent if theology such as is found in the creeds was preached from the pulpit and taught at church.
This is not to say that modern churches do not preach the Bible, but it may be proposed that it is possible that modern churches need to re-evaluate how much Bible content there is in services, and how watered down it is.
Another thing that struck me in this reading of the age of the Roman Christian Empire was how much of an influence believers can have without knowing it. Throughout these centuries there were believers who acted out their faith in their daily lives, and it changed the entire history of the world. Constantine knew of the Christian God before he saw Him in the dream. He called out to Him. There must have been family and friends, or even some of the martyrs who God used to let Constantine know who it was he needed to turn to when he was on trouble.
Christianity did not spread quickly through the Germanic tribes at all. And yet, there were missionaries who did not give up. Because of them, some of the Franks received the gospel and that paved the way to a Christian Europe under Charlemagne.
This is very encouraging to me. I am sure that these people felt useless and discouraged at times, just as we do. However, their labour was not in vain and neither is ours. We have the benefit to see their work through the perspective of history. They did not. History was to them just life, as it is to us. We may be witnessing to future evangelists and world leaders while not even knowing it. God has a plan for the church, and we should be encouraged that normal people influenced history. We can make a difference.
REFERENCEBruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1982.
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