Early Christianity V
February 5, 2009 1 Comment
It was another Roman emperor, Constantine, who came to the rescue. But was his vision of Jesus, just before battle, a miracle or just smart politics? Constantine vowed to convert to Christianity if he won a battle. For centuries, his victory at Milvian Bridge was seen as a turning point for Christianity. But did Constantine really convert to the faith his empire had tried to destroy? Most historians doubt whether Constantine actually converted in the year 312. And there is some evidence that he retained a devotion to some Roman gods.
By that time Christian numbers ran into the millions. And Constantine no doubt thought, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
Constantine’s influential mother, Helena, was a devoted Christian. She traveled to the Holy Land and located the most important sites from the Christian story. She was instrumental in the building of great shrines that remain among the holiest Christian places of all.
Constantine was ruthless. He killed his son, his wife, and several relatives. He had in the past persecuted and tortured Christians. Yet, with numbers now in the millions, they were crucial to keeping his fragile empire together. He made Christianity legal in the year 313, thereby ending decades of brutal persecution. But it marked the start of fierce internal battles in the church, the biggest of which went to the heart of Christianity.
Once Constantine legalized the church, long-standing doctrinal questions broke into the open, the biggest of them concerned the very core of Christian belief: was Jesus truly the son of God or just a wise man?
Constantine really didn’t care which side won this debate. He wanted a unified Christianity because he wanted a unified empire. And he wanted Christianity to help him unify his culturally-diverse empire. So he wanted Christians throughout the empire to agree on all major theological issues. In the year 325 AD, Constantine called the world’s bishops to the small town of Nicea just outside the imperial city of Byzantium to grapple with the foundations of Christian theology.
What we now call the Nicean Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth” those tenets of faith come down from the fourth century and are still the bottom line of Christianity.
At the heart of the Nicean Creed and Christian faith is that Jesus was both God and man. The very earliest community had already giving Jesus the worship that could only be given to God. This happened within 30 years of Jesus’ death. However to find a philosophical language in which to say it took nearly 300 years.
The Council of Nicea was called in order to decide in what way Jesus is divine. Is Jesus a secondary deity, a subordinate deity or is he equal with God the Father. It was called in order to decide, and the side that won out was the side that declared that Jesus was equal with God the Father, that he had always been God.
Constantine’s Nicean Council was also a major political turning point for the church. Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion and that stopped the persecution. He made it a favored religion and he started giving lands to Christian bishops and supplying funds for the building of churches. This made it very easy to become a Christian, and especially to become a Christian leader. So it went from being a persecuted small sect to an important religion that was favored by the emperor.
Ultimately the vote of the Nicean Council had to do with power and with politics. And that’s how people decide who is on the inside and has the right way of thinking, and who is on the outside and should be excluded as a heretic. So 300 years after Jesus, Christianity was now the dominant religion of Europe and it would spread around the world.
In the span of three centuries, the life and death of a Jewish rabbi from Nazareth had become the basis of the favored religion of the Roman Empire and spread to millions of others.