Church History I
First Baptist Church Dandridge Dr. Justin Terrell Jterrell@fbcdt.org
Constantine: A New Era of Christianity
Throughout the first three centuries, the church both grew and suffered greatly. While more people in the world were being converted to Christ, the Romans intensified efforts to persecute and destroy the people of God. Emperors such as Nero, Trajan, Domitian, and Decius inflicted cruel and extreme measures to punish and destroy local churches. However, a major development took place within the Empire that would change Christianity for centuries. It came with the unexpected conversion of a Roman emperor named Constantine. His rule would open new doors for the Christian faith for years to come – for better or for worse.
1. The Rise of Constantine
a. Reorganizing the Empire: Near the beginning of the fourth century, the Roman Empire, led by Emperor Diocletian, enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. However, Diocletian believed the Empire needed to be reorganized into two divisions: East and West. Each division would be ruled by its own emperor and assistant emperor, which were called the “Augustus” and “Caesar” (e.g. President and Vice-President). So, rather than having one primary leader, the Roman Empire now had four – two in each division. Diocletian did this to alleviate the frequent civil wars that broke out over the process of succession. Therefore, when the “Augustus” died, the “Caesar” took his place. Furthermore, Diocletian divided up the East and West into twelve new administrative districts called “dioceses,” and changed the
structure of the courts and military, along with other economic and social reforms. Some have argued that these reforms were so successful it allowed the Roman Empire to thrive for another 1,000 years in the East. At any rate, Diocletian took on the title of “Augustus” and ruled the East, and chose Galerius to rule along with him as “Caesar.” Likewise, in the West, Maximian became “Augustus,” and Constantius Chlorus became “Caesar.”
- Renewed Persecution: Following the reorganization, Galerius (Caesar of the East) became incredibly hostile to Christianity. He convinced Diocletian to bring intense persecution against the church, which resulted in four edicts: (1) All church buildings destroyed, Bibles burned, and worship forbidden; (2) All clergy arrested and imprisoned; (3) All clergy were forced to sacrifice to the gods or be tortured; (4) All citizens throughout the Empire were required to sacrifice to the gods or be executed. Such action was also enforced by Maximian in the West, in places like Italy and Northwest Africa. As one might imagine, persecution became extreme and martyrdom was abundant. However, Constantius Chlorus proved to be more tolerant of the Christian faith, which led to less persecution and no executions in Spain, France, and Britain. But overall, the church was being severely attacked and oppressed throughout the newly reorganized Empire. Gonzalez notes, “Thus was unleashed the most cruel of all the persecutions that the ancient church had to endure” (104). Without doubt, it was among the darkest days since the beginning.
- Replacement in Leadership: In AD 305, Diocletian became ill and stepped down from leadership. Since it was his plan from the beginning for he and his counterpart Maximian to rule only for a twenty-year period, he forced Maximian to resign at the same time, which led to Galerius and Constantius becoming the new “Augustus” of the East and West, respectively. However, when Constantius died in AD 306, Maxentius became the new Augustus of the West, and Constantius’ son Constantine (AD 280-337) became the new Caesar. In the East, Galerius finally gave up and decided to stop persecuting the church. He was a sick man, and even asked Christians to pray for him. However, he would soon die in AD 311. He was replaced in the East by a new Augustus named Licinius, and a new Caesar named Maximinus Daia, who began persecuting the church again. But then a major civil war broke out in the West, which led Constantine to invade Italy and take on Maxentius – and the result would be a major turning point in Christian history.
2. The Conversion of Constantine
a. The Milvian Bridge: In AD 312, Constantine approached Rome with a smaller army, which drew out Maxentius from behind the thick walls of the city and into battle on the Milvian
Bridge, spanning the Tiber River. Tradition says that Maxentius was given assurance of victory from a pagan spirit. Even though Constantine had been a pagan sun worshiper (Unconquered Sun), the night before the battle he had what some described as a “dream”
(Lanctantius) or “vision in the sky” (Eusebius). He saw or heard the words, “By this sign you will conquer,” and the sign was the Greek letters Chi (X) and Rho (P), the first two letters of “Christ,” overlapping each other to form a cross. Then Constantine prayed to the God of the Christians for victory and placed the symbol on his soldiers’ shields (labarum). He then led
his troops to an unlikely win against Maxentius, who was killed in the skirmish by falling and drowning in the river.
- Conversion: Following the victory, Constantine conformed outwardly to Christianity and became a great champion and protector of the Church. It was said that he regularly attended Christian worship, he listened to the longest sermons without murmuring, he observed Easter with great seriousness, he condemned pagan idolatry and affirmed Christianity as the one true faith, and he redirected personal praise and applause to heaven (Needham, 166). Following the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine broke tradition by entering Rome and refusing to offer thanks to the gods. Rather, he erected a statue of himself holding a cross in the center of Rome, with the inscription, “I saved your city and set it free from the tyrant’s yoke by this sign of salvation, the true proof of heroic virtue.” However, some have argued that his “conversion” wasn’t authentic – he wasn’t baptized, he never came under the authority of a bishop, he didn’t attend the catechumen classes or learn biblical doctrine, and his moral life didn’t always seem pure. Critics believe that while he claimed to be a follower of Christ, it was more as a means to achieving victory and having the favor of God on his side – rather than a true-life submission to Jesus as his Lord.
- Outcome: However, after becoming ruler of the entire West, one of his first decisions was to meet with Licinius (East) and form an alliance. The two would agree to stop persecuting Christians, and return churches, cemeteries, and other properties. This agreement was made in AD 313 and became known as the “Edict of Milan,” which historically marks the date the Romans stopped persecuting the Church. For the first time, the Empire gave Christianity full legal status and tolerated the faith. However, Licinius began persecuting the church once again, only until Constantine imprisoned and executed him at the battle of Chrysopolis in Asia Minor. Now, in AD 320, Constantine was the single undisputed leader of the entire Roman Empire. There were mixed opinions about this outcome. Some saw it as a fulfilment of the “Kingdom of God,” as Christianity was now the dominate religion in the world; others saw it as an insincere attempt by a pagan leader to gain power and control by turning to God for help. It is not the opinion of historians that Constantine had a thirst for power, but he merely wanted to restore the glory of the old Roman Empire that had been divided. However, unlike the other emperors before him who tried to achieve dominance through paganism, Constantine believed it could be done on the basis of Christianity. This led Constantine to build a “New Rome” at the crossroads of the world in ancient Byzantium, which would be called “Constantinople” (modern Istanbul, Turkey).
• Critical Question: Gonzalez asks, “There is no doubt that the conversion of Constantine had enormous consequences for Christianity, which was forced to face new questions. What would happen when those who called themselves servants of a Carpenter, and whose great heroes were fisherfolk, slaves, and criminals condemned to death by the state, suddenly saw themselves surrounded by imperial pomp and power? Would they remain firm in their faith? Or would it be that those who had stood before tortures and before beasts would give way to the temptations of an easy life and of social prestige?”(108).
3. Christianity During the Reign of Constantine
- Persecution Relief: One of the most noticeable changes in Christian life following the reign of Constantine was the absence of widespread persecution. While this may appear to be a huge relief, some were disappointed because it removed the opportunity of martyrdom.
- Watered-down Faith: With Christianity becoming the emperor’s religion, many in culture began flocking to the church. While we might see this as positive, some in the early church saw this is nothing more than false conversions for political and social gain. Becoming a Christian offered great social and cultural benefits. In fact, people were flocking to the church so fast that there was little time to prepare them for baptism, much less guide them in the true Christian life once they had been baptized.
- Exodus: Due to the influx of “pagan believers” some Christians withdrew to the desert to live a life of meditation and ascetism. Since martyrdom was unlikely, they wished to display their devotion by living a monastic life. These monastics fled to places like Syria and Egypt.
- False Teaching: As more people from the pagan culture engaged with the church, they brought their own ideas and understandings of faith with them. This development led to controversies over doctrine, such as the Trinity. Confusion and division followed.
- New Forms of Worship: Following Constantine’s conversion, the church noticed the influence of paganism in Christian worship. For the first time, incense was used in worship, which had always been a sign of respect for the emperor. Ministers began wearing more luxurious and prestigious garments to lead the church. Worship services now included processionals, choirs were developed, and the congregation became more like spectators than participants. Like in pagan culture, it was believed that the relics of the saints had miraculous powers, so church buildings were built on top of places where martyrs were buried or other holy sites (e.g. Church of the Nativity, Mount of Olives, Holy Sepulcher, etc.), and the bones of buried martyrs were exhumed and placed under the altars of many churches. Constantine’s mother, Helena, took a trip to the Holy Land, and thought she had discovered the very cross of Christ. Upon her return, she sent small pieces of this wood all over the Empire to bring upon miraculous powers. All these new rituals came from pagan influence.
- New Places of Worship: In the ancient world, there were large public and private buildings called “basilicas,” which consisted of a spacious circular room, following by a long rectangular hall that was separated by two or more rows of columns. These structures provided the model for the church buildings that followed Constantine’s conversion, and the buildings appeared in the form of a large cross. We still see this architecture in modern Catholic cathedrals today. The interiors were beautifully adorned with high windows, stained glass, mosaic tiles, and pictures from biblical scenes. Jesus was presented as sitting on a throne, much like a Roman emperor. A prominent element was the large baptistry, which could accommodate several people at a time. During this time, baptism was performed by immersion, which continued until the ninth century. Baptism by sprinkling was only a substitute when people experience extreme conditions such as poor health, cold temperatures, or scarcity of water.