[Partly revised 4/28/15]



The central issue theme of this course: to explain one of the most important turning points of history, the triumph of Christianity in the Roman empire. Just about everything we've talked about helped in one way or another to explain that triumph. And yet, the account isn't yet complete. I've brought the story up to AD 311--Galerius' decision to abandon the persecution of Christians. At this point, Christianity was very strong, but it's triumph by no means certain. Christians were not a majority, and renewed persecution was still a very real possibility. And yet before the 4th century was over, less than 90 years after the death of Galerius, Christianity was not only the dominant religion in Rome, but almost the only religion left in the Roman empire. How did it happen?

Typically, the textbooks will give credit to one great man, a man named Constantine, for the triumph of Christianity. And to a certain extent, it's right to emphasize the contributions of Constantine. Constantine is one of the most important figures in the history of the church--and the world.  The support he gave the church was certainly an important factor in the eventual triumph of Christianity over paganism. But while the political support of men like Constantine was important, there was something even more important to the success of the church--the triumph of Christian thinkers in the battle for the hearts and minds of men.

Constantine was an immensely competent person, an astute politician, and a more than decent general. He no doubt learned much from his father Constantius, a man who Diocletian had instituted as one of his Caesars, and a man who, on the retirement of Diocletian and Maximiam, had become a co-Augustus alongside Galerius. When Constantius had died, his place was supposed to be taken by his Caesar (Maxentius). But the army said no: they wanted Constantine to replace his father. This helped lead to a new round of civil wars in Rome. On Galerius death in 311, there were 6 men all claiming the title Augustus. One of these was Constantine.  He managed to put together a fairly formidable array of supporters. But equally formidable the support for his rival, Maxentius--and it was certainly no foregone conclusion that Constantine would win.

But finally it looked as if there would be a decisive battle. The forces of Constantine stood on one side, forces of Maxentius on the other. The night before the battle, Constantine had a dream, a dream that inspired him to put the chi/rho symbol on his banners. Then, on the day of the  battle, Constantine, sun worshipper that he was, looked up at the sun for a sign. He says he saw a cross emblazoned across sun and heard a voice that said, "in this, conquer."

Well, what's it mean? Who knows?  But when Constantine won the battle and made good his claim to be Augustus in the West, he attributed his victory to the favor of the Christian God. And Constantine, being a gentleman, returned the compliment: he began to favor the God of the Christians, and, of course, the Christians themselves.

(See the Edict of Milan of 313--read in class)

The Edict of Milan, agreed on by Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius, not only granted tolerance to the church, but restored much that Christians had lost during the times of persecution. Notice also that those who had profited from the compensation of church land were compensated when they had to give that land back.  Constantine was a gifted politician!. Constantine soon went beyond the Edict of Milan decree and issued all sorts of other decrees favorable to Christianity. These provided:

--money to Christian clergy
--Christian clergy exempted from taxes
--money to build churches
--confiscated lands restored
--Sunday set aside a day of rest
--Some pagan practices forbidden (mostly private practices, not public!)

In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius in battle and became the sole emperor of Rome. This enabled Constantine to go even farther. He shifted his emphasis to the East, builiding a new capital city: Constantinople. Old Rome was resistant to change: here, in Constantinople, Constantine could bring about the transformation he wanted. He created a new senate filled with his own men, many of whom were Christians. He sponsored new buildings including Churches, and in Constantinople Christian churches rather than pagan temples would dominate the architectural landscape.  Constantine put an end to bloody gladiatorial shows, replacing them with horse racing contests.

The impact on Roman society in general and on church in particular was tremendous. Not surprisingly, the number of those calling themselves Christians increased dramatically. At most, 10% of Romans in the West and 50% of Romans in the East were Christians when Constantine took over. In short order (by the end of the 4th century), 90% of Romans were at least nominal Christians. Christian art and architecture, now subsidized, take off. Christians now favored in educational system: Lactantius and Eusebius were very influential: tutors of emperors own sons! Copies of Bible were no longer burned, but subsidized by emperor.

It's easy to understand why Eusebius and his contemporaries viewed Constantine as a 13th apostle, a man who had done as much (or more) than Simon, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, and the rest.

But there was, perhaps, a price to be paid for Constantine's support of the church. Constantine expected the church to support him, and he expected the church to help him as he consolidated his control over the empire. And for the most part, the church did help: it served as the glue binding together a people that otherwise might have gone to war with one another at any time.

But the church only could do this if the church itself was unified, and there was no guarantee that the church would be. Heresy had been a problem in the church almost from beginning. So how was church to get its act together? Who was going to settle disputes in church and make sure church was unified?  I'll bet you can guess: Constantine himself!

But Constantine was no theologian, and he knew he was no theologian. What could he do? He decided to rely on church councils. For example, there was a dispute about who would be bishop of Carthage. Constantine called for a conference at Arles (AD 314).  He didn't really care what the decision was, as long as the assembled bishops made a deicison. And of course, it worked. The emperor supported the council's choice, and that was the end of the story.

More important was the Council at Nicaea in 325, the first of the "ecumenical" (universal) councils. The problem addressed here was the Arian controversy. Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria was creating problems by challenging the teachings of his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, on the nature of Christ.  Arius claimed that Christ had not existed from all eternity, "there was a time when son was not. Now the bishops didn't find it particularly hard to reach agreement: 218 of 220 assembled bishops agreed to condemn Arius' teaching. Further, the Council adoped the Nicene Creed, what seemed a clear enough summary of the essential truths of Christian faith--similar, in many ways, to what Ireneaus had called the "Rule of Truth."

"And the church live happily ever after without any more divisions." Well, no. The introduction of  the "homousias" term to the creed proved to be a real problem. Instead of saying Christ was of the "same" essence as good, shouldn't we just say he was "homoiousias," of "like" essence? No. This "homoiousias" (Semi Arian) positions was condemned at an ecumenical council in Constantinople (381) during the reign of the emperor Theodosius--the man who, by the way, made paganism illegal. Well, if Christ is God, who did Mary give birth to? God! Mary should be called "theotokos", the god bearer. Some people (e.g., Nestorius, the archbishop of Constantinople) argued that this was absurd. Were they right? No! "Nestorianism" was condemned at an ecumenical council in Ephesus in 431. Well, what about the nature of Christ?  Do the human and divine natures combine into one new nature? Or do the two natures remain distinct? Monophysites argued that the two natures combined, but, ultimately, their position was condemned at the Council of Calcedon (451).

Such disputes were destroying Christian unity. How can the church help glue the empire together when Christians disagree so vehemently with one another?  And what difference did these issues make anyway?  Why not shut up and cooperate with one another, just agree to disagree?

It's because they really thought it did make a diference. Nestorius said, "Give me, O emperor, the earth purged from heretics, and I will give you heaven in return. Help me destroy the heretics, and I will help you conquer Persia."

And in a way, Nestorius was right. A united Rome was incredibly strong and prosperous. What Nestorius couldn't see was the he was part of the problem, as much guilty as anyone else in helping to divide the church.

Now is all this Constantine's fault? Did the advent of the ecumenical council make things worse? It's hard to say. One thing is clear, though, and that is that Constantine changed the nature of the struggle. Before the time of Constantine, the only penalty for a heretic was exclusion from church--certainly an unobjectionable practice. If someone doesn't follow rules of your religion, well--let them start own church. But with Christianity becoming the official religion of Roman state, heresy became for the first time a political offense. Christianity was the glue holding empire together (just as emperor worship had once held empire together). And now, failure to conform to Christianity was just as bad a political crime as failure to worship the emperor had been in the days before Christianity.

In any case, Constantine introduced to the church a problem that was not at all easy to answer. Jesus had said, "My kingdom is not of this world." But what if, all of a sudden, Christ's kingdom were of this world, i.e., what if Christians found themselves in charge of a society? What should they do then? Jesus had taught his disciples to pray, "The kingdom come, they will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven."  How do we help that happen?  It's not at all easy to decide.  And for more than a thousand years after the time of Constantine, Christians have wrestled with this question, and there really is no easy answer. Despite constant effort, no one has yet succeeded in creating a truly Christian state.

But I need to make it clear that, while Christian societies invariably fail to live up to their ideals, the attempt to reach these ideals has had some exceedingly positive effects on societies. Rome itself is a clear example. As Rome becomes Christian, families become more stable. Divorce all but disappears. Infanticide and the abandoning of children disappear. Idolatry disappears. The gladiatorial shows disappear. Much social tension disappears as well, as rich and poor are united by brotherhood in Christ. And in addition to all that, Christianity brought with it a whole new way of viewing the world, and of viewing life itself.

And this brings us to final part of this question--the intellectual triumph of Christianity, the victory Christianity won in the minds (and hearts) of men and women in Roman empire.

The most important element of this victory: the Bible itself. Again and again, men and women fell in love with the scripture, so much so that they would often give their lives rather than allow a single copy of any one of the Old or New Testament books to be destroyed.

Among those who fell in love with the scripture, some of the greatest thinkers of the day, e.g., Justin Martyr. Justin (d. AD 165) was born in Palestine to pagan parents. He studied the philosophers: the Stoics, Aristotelians, Platonists, constantly searching for truth.  But he was more than a bit frustrated: there seemed to be no final answers among the philosophers.  And then an old man introduced him to the Old Testament prophets--and Justin became a fervent convert. He believed that in Christianity he had found the true philosophy. He moved to Rome, and started a school. While there he wrote a couple of important books. One, his first apology, is a defense Christianity against pagan accusations. But Justin doesn't just defend Christians against unjust charges. He shows in all sorts of ways the superiority of Christianity to pagan philosophy and to pagan religion. And apparently, there was simply no intellectual answer to Justin's argument. His primary opponent among those who still defended traditional pagan beliefs, a philosopher named Crescens, had to resort to political measures to silence Justin. Crescents went to the authorities with accusations that led to Justin's martyrdom.

The death of one man not going to stop the growth of Christian philosophy. Justin's pupil, Tatian, took over where Justin had left off, giving us another excellent defense of Christianity. At the same time, an apologist named Athenagoras was advancing the case for Christianity in the very heart of the pagan philosophical world, the city of Athens. What's interesting here is that, before his conversion, Athenagoras was a recognized expert in Plato (author of a book called "On the Difficult Saying in Plato"), and when a man like this converts--well, naturally enough his testimony to the philosophical rigor of Christianity carries a lot of weight.

Especially important is Athenagoras defense of marriage. He makes an exceedingly good case for the one man/one woman arrangement that came to dominate western society (at least as a standard) for more than a thousand years to come. Athenagoras is also an ardent defender of children, explaining, not only why infanticide is wrong, but also why it's wrong to take the life of an unborn child.

It's important to note that, while the apologists were thoroughly familiar with the Christian scriptures, they often make relatively little use of the Bible itself in their arguments. The reason is clear enough: the pagan philosophers they were trying to reach simply didn't accept the authority of the Bible. What they did accept was the authority of the great figures of Greek literature. And what the apologists do is to put together material from Hesiod, Simonides, Euripides, Menander, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics--showing from pagan sources the essential truth of Christian doctrine.

And apparently, the pagans who tried to refute them found themselves fighting a losing battle. A man named Celsus, for instance, tried to come up with a convincing counter argument to Christianity. His work was popular enough among a certain segment of the pagan philosophical community, but the Christians soon blew away his arguments. Or, rather, one Christian in particular blew away his arguments: Origen.

Origen, unlike most of the other apologists, was born into a Christian family. His father Leonidas was martyred c. 202 when Origen was a boy. He would have followed his father, but mom, not willing to lose both husband and son, hid his clothes so he couldn't go out and boldly declare his faith in Christ.

And it was a mighty good thing for the church that Origen did survive. He was one of the most brilliant of all church writers. At the age of 18, he was in charge of a philosophical school, teaching logic, dialectic, natural science, geometry, astronomy, ethics, and theology.

He was an incredibly prolific writer. He is supposed to have written some 6,000 works. We know titles of 800, and many volumes of his writing have survived. He wrote so much that a later church writer asked the question, "Who could read all Origen wrote?"

But Origen was impressive, not just for quantity, but for the quality of his work. Most historians would agree in calling him the greatest thinker of his day, perhaps one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

Now why does a man like that become a Christian? Well, in this case, because he was born into a Christian family. But why does he stay a Christian? And why is he so successful in converting others?

Well, to really understand that, you'd have to read Origen's own works, and the works of his rivals among the pagans. But I think I can offer at least a brief explanation of what's going on in Origen's mind and in the minds of so many other great thinkers of the time.

You see, pagan philosophy had achieved some enormously impressive things. The works of Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics are fascinating and attractive reading. But there was one huge problem with pagan philosophy. It didn't seem to lead anywhere! For 300, 400, 500, 600 years, the Greek philosophers continued to debate the same questions addressed by Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Democritus and the other 6th century B.C. philosophers, and they came up with--well, they came up with nothing. No definite answers in any philosophical field.

Anthropolgy? No answers. Teleology? No answers. Ontology? No answers. Epistemology? No answers. Ethics? No answers.

And by the time Christianity started to grow in the Roman empire, most pagan philosophers had decided that there were no answers. There never had been any answers. There never would be any answers. For centuries, the dominant philosophical school was that of the Skeptics, i.e. the people who believed there were no answers.

The Christian philosophers not only claimed that the questions could be answered, but they gave the answers. Clever, consistent, and convincing answers.

Consider the basic situation. You have a choice between a teacher who says, "Come study with me. I don't have any answers, but you'll learn from me that their are no answers." And you've got another teacher, a teacher who says, "I'll give you some answers, some solid answers, and further more, I'll answer the questions that concern you most deeply, questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and questions about how we ought to live our lives on this earth."

Now which of these teachers do you choose??

It isn't really very surprising that men and women of the 2nd and 3rd centuries chose in large numbers the Christian teachers, is it? You see, Christianity offered them coherent, comprehensive, and attractive answers to the great philosophical questions that the ancient world had wrestled unsuccessfully with for centuries.

And the answers stood up. For more than a thousand years, throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, Christianity provided more convincing answers to the great questions of life than any other philosophical or religious system. And in my opinion at least, things are no different today. The ideas of the early church are still the most plausible and attractive alternative to skepticism about the big questions of life, and it seems to me likely that these ideas will long continue to win the minds of men and women. And perhaps more important, their hearts will be won as well.