Hey guys! So this episode is technically a part 2 to this episode where we covered some 250 years of early Christian history. Feel free to check that out if you haven’t yet, we’re going to start right where we left off. Let’s do it.
So we’re at the end of the 3rd century AD. Emperor Diocletian (who was big-time anti-Christian) divides the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves, and reorganizes the government into a tetrarchy, meaning there are 4 emperors ruling different quadrants, but trying to rule as a team.
As years pass, though, the tetrarchy system proves to be problematic and in the early 4th Century we find Emperor Constantine fighting for control of his Western Empire. In 312 AD before a battle, he has, as the story goes, a vision of a Christian symbol in the sky with the words “In this sign, prevail,” under it.
That night Christ tells him in a dream to have his soldiers paint the symbol on their shields. They do, they win their battle, and now for the first time, we’ve got a Roman Emperor who believes the Christian god is on his side. Constantine actually wasn’t baptized until years later on his deathbed, and just how Christian he really was is debated. Many think his conversion was sincere, and many think it was just a political move. You can come to your own conclusions.
The next year he issues the historic Edict of Milan, which was later co-signed by the Eastern Emperor Licinius. It didn’t make Christianity the Empire’s official religion, but it did legalize Christian worship, which was a huge deal. In 324 AD, Constantine overthrows Emperor Licinius and reunites the Eastern and Western halves of the empire as the sole ruler.
Constantine hoped that Christianity would help unite the Empire, but he’d quickly find out that Christianity itself was not united. After the Apostles were gone, leadership of the Church fell to local bishops. Bishops in more metropolitan areas or in churches established by apostles generally had the most influence.
For example, the bishop of Rome sometimes acted as a mediator when disagreements arose between other bishops, but the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, later known as the Pope, was something that hadn’t fully developed yet. When Christians ran into questions about their beliefs, resources for answers were limited and different groups sometimes arrived at different conclusions on fundamental issues.
Now, Constantine was both the Emperor and the Roman ‘high priest’ or Pontifex Maximus. As such, after legalizing Christianity, he felt he had authority to regulate both Paganism and Christianity in the empire. Under that authority, in 325 AD Constantine invites 1800 bishops to an all-expense paid meeting at Nicea, where “it will be easier for me [Constantine] to be present and take part in the council.” About 300 bishops actually show up, almost exclusively from the East. The main question they set out to resolve was: Who (and what) is Christ? The view of team Arius was that God the Father and Jesus Christ were two beings of two different substances and that Christ, who was created by the Father, was subject to the Father. The view of team Athanasius, on the other hand, was that God the Father and Jesus Christ were of the same substance, equal in power, and both eternal, never having been created.
Both sides claimed their view was scriptural. And that was one of the problems—scripture simply was not very clear on the subject. If it had been, this wouldn’t have been an issue. But by popular vote, Team Athanasius prevailed, the Nicene Creed was born, and the doctrine of the Trinity was put into words. Is Trinitarianism actually scriptural? Some say yes, some say no.
According to a University of Edinburgh professor of Divinity, “The proposition constitutive of the dogma of the trinity…were not drawn directly from the New Testament, and could not be expressed in New Testament terms. They were the product of reason speculating on a revelation of faith…[and] were only formed through centuries of effort, only elaborated by the aid of the conceptions, and formulated in the terms of Greek and Roman metaphysics.”
It’s also important to recognize that according to Catholic historian Karl Hefele, “this Council was, for Constantine, much more an affair of the state than an affair of the Church. …he worried little that they approve Arius or [Athanasius], but he worried a great deal that the majority should arrive at a conclusion of which he could make use to impose silence on the opponents, no matter who they were.”
Arius and 2 Bishops who didn’t get on board with the Council’s decision were banished by Constantine, though there were a few supporters of Arianism like Eusebius who “agreed to subscribe with hand only, not heart.” Of course, after the Council Christians continued to argue about Arianism. The irony being that before Constantine dies, he unbanishes Arius, banishes Athanasius, is baptized by Eusebius, his son fights against Trinitarianism, it’s just a big mess.
Nonetheless, the doctrine of the Trinity with its basis in the Nicene Creed and later expanded upon in other councils would eventually become authoritative to this day in the Catholic faith and in much of Protestantism. It has become for many the measuring stick by which it is determined who is really Christian, and who is not. And as a side-note, this is one reason why some people don’t think Latter-day Saints are Christians because we don’t accept this Creed as a revelation from God.
But while the rise of Christianity was going great for the Christians, it would prove to be not-so-great for the Pagans. In the next episode, we’ll see how those that had been persecuted for so long would become the persecutors themselves. Check out the links and some of my notes in the description for more info on this topic, and have a great day!
- You can read the Nicene Creed here: http://bit.ly/2HC2tNc
- The Encyclopedia Britannica on the Council of Nicaea: http://bit.ly/38T5vZP
- On the life of Constantine: http://bit.ly/2vMVxdA
- The problem of jurisdictional authority in the early church: http://bit.ly/2vGNW0j
- Papal supremacy developed over time? http://bit.ly/39Om1dm
- More on the development of papal supremacy: http://bit.ly/3bTRxbG
- Constantine’s vision at the battle of Milvian Bridge: http://bit.ly/2OTBYHf
- Some info on the Chi-Rho symbol: http://bit.ly/2vv1Su2
- Info on the tetrarchy: http://bit.ly/2T1kDx8
- Did Constantine convert to Christianity in 312 AD?: http://bit.ly/37oceco
- Quote from the Edinburg professor of Divinity (Encyclopedia Britannica): http://bit.ly/2HDUoI2