The reign of Constantine the Great forms a most important epoch in the history of the church. Both his father Constantius and his mother Helena were religiously inclined, and always favorable to the Christians. Some years of Constantine's youth were spent at the court of Diocletian and Galerius, in the character of a hostage. He witnessed the publication of the persecuting edict at Nicomedia in 303, and the horrors which followed. Having effected his escape, he joined his father in Britain. In 306 Constantius died at York. He had nominated as his successor his son Constantine, who was accordingly saluted Augustus by the army. He continued and extended the toleration which his father had bestowed on the Christians.
There were now six pretenders to the sovereignty of the empire-Galerius, Licinius, Maximian, Maxentius, Maximin, and Constantine. A scene of contention followed, scarcely paralleled in the annals of Rome. Among these rivals, Constantine possessed a decided superiority in prudence and abilities, both military and political. In the year 312 Constantine entered Rome victorious. In 313 a new edict was issued, by which the persecuting edicts of Diocletian were repealed, the Christians encouraged, their teachers honored, and the professors of Christianity advanced to places of trust and influence in the state. This great change in the history of the church introduces us to
The Epistle to the church in Pergamos exactly describes, we believe, the state of things in Constantine's time. But we will quote the address entire for the convenience of our readers, and then compare it:
"And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and
thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it." (Re 2:12-17.)
In Ephesus we see the first point of departure, leaving their "first love" — the heart slipping away from Christ, and from the enjoyment of His love. In Smyrna the Lord allowed the saints to be cast into the furnace, that the progress of declension might be stayed. They were persecuted by the heathen. By means of these trials Christianity revived; the gold was purified; the saints held fast the name and the faith of Christ. Thus was Satan defeated; and the Lord so ruled that the emperors, one after the other, in the most humiliating and mortifying circumstances, publicly confessed their defeat. But in Pergamos the enemy changes his tactics. In place of persecution from without, there is seduction from within. Under Diocletian he was the roaring lion; under Constantine he is the deceiving serpent. Pergamos is the scene of Satan's flattering power; he is within the church. Nicolaitanism is the corruption of grace — the flesh acting in the church of God. In Smyrna he is outside as an adversary, in Pergamos he is inside as a seducer. This was exactly what took place under Constantine.
Historically, it was when the violence of persecution had spent itself — when men had grown weary of their own rage, and when they saw that their efforts were to no purpose — that the sufferers ceased to care for the things of the world, and became more devoted to Christianity; while even the numbers of the Christians seemed to increase; Satan tries another and an old artifice, once so successful against Israel. (Numbers 25.) When he could not obtain the Lord's permission to curse His people Israel, he allured them to their ruin, by unlawful alliances with the daughters of Moab. As a false prophet he was now in the church at Pergamos, seducing the saints into unlawful alliance with the world — the place of his throne and authority. The world ceases to persecute; great advantages are held out to Christians by the civil establishment of Christianity; Constantine professes to be converted, and ascribes his triumphs to the virtues of the cross. The snare alas! is successful; the church is flattered by his patronage, shakes hands with the world, and sinks into its position "even where Satan's seat is." All was now lost as to her corporate and proper testimony, and the way to popery laid open. Every worldly advantage was no doubt gained; but alas! alas! it was at the cost of the honor and glory of her heavenly Lord and Savior.
The church, we must remember, is an outcalling (Ac 15:14) — called out from Jew and Gentile to witness that she was not of this world, but of heaven — that she is united to a glorified Christ, and not of this world, even as He is not of this world. So He says Himself,
"They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth. As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world." (John 17.)
The Christian's mission is on the same principle and of the same character as was Christ's. "As My Father hath sent Me," He says, "even so send I you." They were sent, as it were, from heaven to the world by the blessed Lord, to do His will, to care for His glory, and to return home when their work was done. Thus the Christian should be the heavenly witness of the truth of God, especially of such truths as man's total ruin, and God's love in Christ to a perishing world; and thereby should seek to gather souls out of the world, that they may be saved from the wrath to come. But when we lose sight of our high calling, and associate with the world as if we belonged to it, we become false witnesses; we do the world a great injury, and Christ a great dishonor. This, we shall see by-and-by, was what the church did as to her corporate position and action. Doubtless there were many cases of individual faithfulness in the midst of the general declension. The Lord Himself speaks of His faithful Antipas who was martyred. Heaven takes special notice of individual faithfulness, and remembers the faithful by name.
But the eye and the heart of the Lord had followed His poor faithless church to where she had fallen. "I know thy works," He says, "and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is." What solemn words are these, and from the lips of her dishonored Lord! Nothing was hidden from His eye. I know, He says; I have seen what has happened. But what alas! had now taken place? Why, the church as a body had accepted the Emperor's terms, was now united to the State, and was dwelling in the world. This was Babylon spiritually — committing fornication with the kings of the earth. But He who walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks judges her action and her condition. "And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, These things saith He which hath the sharp sword with two edges." He takes the place of one who was armed with the divine sword — with the all-searching, piercing, power of the word of God. The sword is the symbol of that by which questions are settled; whether it be the carnal sword of the nations of "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
It has been often said, that there is always a marked and instructive connection between the way in which Christ presents Himself, and the state of the church which He is addressing. This is most true in the present address. The word of God evidently had lost its right place in the assembly of His saints; it was no longer the supreme authority in divine things. But the Lord Jesus takes care to show that it had not lost its power, or place, or authority in His hands. "Repent;" He says, "or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth." He does not say, observe, I will fight against thee, but against them. As exercising discipline in the church the Lord acts with discrimination and with mercy. The public position of the church was now a false one. There was open association with the prince of this world, in place of faithfulness to Christ, the Prince of heaven. But he that had an ear to hear what the Spirit said unto the church, had secret fellowship with Him who sustains the faithful soul with the hidden manna.
"To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it."
The general defection would, no doubt, isolate the faithful few — a remnant. To them the promise is given.
The manna, as we learn from John 6, represents Christ Himself, as He came down from heaven to give life to our souls. "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever." As the lowly One who took the place of humiliation in this world, He is our provision for the daily walk through the wilderness. The manna was to be gathered daily, fresh from the dewdrops every morning. The "hidden manna" refers to the golden pot of manna that was laid up in the ark as a memorial before the Lord. It is the blessed remembrance of Christ, who was the humbled, suffering Man in this world, and who is the eternal delight of God, and of the faithful in heaven. Not only has the truehearted saint communion with Christ as exalted on high, but with Him as the once humbled Jesus here below. But this cannot be if we are listening to the flatteries and accepting the favors of the world. Our only strength against the spirit of the world is walking with a rejected Christ, and feeding on Him as our portion even now. Our high privilege is to eat, not of the manna only, but of the "hidden manna." But who can speak of the blessedness of such communion, or of the loss of those who slip away in heart from Christ, and settle down in worldliness?
The "white stone" is a secret mark of the Lord's special favor. As the promise is given in the address to Pergamos, it may mean the expression of Christ's approval of the way the "overcomers" witnessed and suffered for Him, when so many were led away by the seductions of Satan. It gives the general idea of a secret pledge of entire approbation. But it is difficult to explain. The heart may enter into its blessedness, and yet feel unable to describe it. Happy they who so know it for themselves. There are joys which are common to all; but there is a joy, a special joy, which will be our own peculiar joy in Christ, and that for ever. This will be true of all. "And in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it." What an unknown source of calm repose, sweet peace, true contentment, and divine strength, we find in the "white stone," and in the "new name," written by His own hand. Others may misunderstand us, many may think us wrong; but He knows all, and the heart can afford to be quiet, whatever may be passing around. At the same time we must judge everything by the word of God — the sharp sword with two edges — even as we ourselves are judged.
"There on the hidden bread Of Christ — once humbled here — God's treasured store — for ever fed , His love my soul shall cheer . Called by that secret name Of undisclosed delight — Blest answer to reproach and shame — Graved on the stone of white. "
Having thus briefly glanced at the Epistle to Pergamos, we shall be better able to understand the mind of the Lord as to the conduct of Christians under the reign of Constantine. The professing church and the world had joined hands, and were now enjoying themselves together. As the world could not rise to the high level of the church, she must fall to the low level of the world. This was exactly what took place. Nevertheless the fair form of Christianity was maintained, and there were doubtless many who held fast the faith and the name of Jesus. We now return to the conversion and history of Constantine the Great.
The great event in the religious history of Constantine took place in 312. He was marching from France to Italy against Maxentius. The approaching contest was one of immense moment. It was likely either to be his ruin or to raise him to the highest pinnacle of power. He was in deep thought. It was known that Maxentius was making great preparations for the struggle, by enlarging his army, and by scrupulously attending to all the customary ceremonies of paganism. He consulted with great pains the heathen oracles, and relied for success on the agency of supernatural powers.
Constantine, though a wise and virtuous heathen, was a heathen still. He knew what he had to give battle to; and while considering to what god he should betake himself for protection and success, he thought on the ways of his father, the Emperor of the West. He remembered that he prayed to the God of the Christians and had always been prosperous, while the emperors who persecuted the Christians had been visited with divine justice. He resolved therefore to forsake the service of idols, and to ask the aid of the one true God in heaven. He prayed that God would make Himself known to him, and that He would make him victorious over Maxentius, notwithstanding all his magical arts and superstitious rites.
While engaged in such thoughts, Constantine imagined that he saw, soon after mid-day, some extra-ordinary appearance in the heavens. It assumed the sign of a glittering cross, and above it the inscription, "By This Conquer." The Emperor and the whole army, who were witnesses of this wonderful sight, stood awestruck. But while the Emperor was gravely meditating on what the vision could signify, night came on, and he fell asleep. He dreamed that the Savior appeared to him, bearing in His hand the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and directed him to cause a banner to be made after the same pattern, and to use it as his standard in war, assuring him that while he did so he would be victorious. Constantine, on awakening, described what had been shown to him while asleep, and resolved to adopt the sign of the cross as his imperial standard.
According to Eusebius, the workers in gold and precious stones were immediately sent for, and received their orders from the lips of Constantine. Eusebius had seen the standard, and gives a long account of it. As the greatest interest has been thrown around this relic of antiquity by all ecclesiastical writers, we will give our readers a brief but minute sketch of it.
The shaft, or perpendicular beam, was long, and overlaid with gold. On its top was a crown, composed of gold and precious stones, with the engraving of the sacred symbol of the cross and the first letters of the Savior's name, or the Greek letter X intersected with the letter P. Just under this crown was a likeness of the Emperor in gold, and below that a cross-piece of wood, from which hung a square flag of purple cloth, embroidered and covered with precious stones. It was called the Labarum. This resplendent standard was borne at the head of the imperial armies, and guarded by fifty chosen men, who were supposed to be invulnerable from its virtues.
Constantine now sent for Christian teachers, of whom he inquired concerning the God that appeared to him, and the import of the symbol of the cross. This gave them an opportunity of directing his mind to the word of God, and of instructing him in the knowledge of Jesus and of His death on the cross. From that time the Emperor declared himself a convert to Christianity. The superstitious hopes and confidence of Constantine and his army were now raised to the highest pitch. The decisive battle was fought at the Milvian bridge. Constantine gained a signal victory over his enemy, though his troops did not number one-fourth of the troops of Maxentius.
The victorious Emperor paid a short visit to Rome. Amongst other things which he did, he caused to be erected in the forum a statue of himself, holding in his right hand a standard in the shape of a cross, with the following inscription: "By this salutary sign, the true symbol of valor, I freed your city from the yoke of the tyrant." Maxentius was found in the Tiber the morning after the battle. The Emperor evidently felt that he was indebted to the God of the Christians and to the sacred symbol of the cross for his victories. And this, we dare say, was the extent of his Christianity at that time. As a man he had not felt his need of it, if ever he did; as a warrior he embraced it earnestly. Afterwards, as a statesman, he owned and valued Christianity; but God only knows whether as a lost sinner he ever embraced the Savior. It is difficult for princes to be Christians.
Constantine now proceeded towards Illyricum to meet Licinius, with whom he had formed a secret alliance before going to meet Maxentius. The two emperors met at Milan, where their alliance was ratified by the marriage of Licinius to Constantine's daughter. It was during this quiet moment that Constantine prevailed upon Licinius to consent to the repeal of the persecuting edicts of Diocletian, and the issuing of a new edict of complete toleration. This being agreed upon, a public edict, in the joint names of Constantine and Licinius, was issued at Milan, A.D. 313, in favor of the Christians, and may be considered as the great charter of their liberties. Full and unlimited toleration was granted to them; their churches and property were restored without compensation; and, outwardly, Christianity flourished.
But peace between the emperors, which seemed to be established on a firm foundation, was soon interrupted. Jealousy, love of power, and ambition for absolute sovereignty in the Roman empire, would not allow them to remain long in peace. A war broke out in the year 314, but Licinius was defeated with heavy losses, both in men and territory. A peace was again concluded, which lasted about nine years. Another war became unavoidable, and once more it assumed the form of a religious strife between the rival emperors. Licinius attached the pagan priesthood to his cause, and persecuted the Christians. Many of the bishops he put to death, knowing they were special favourites at the court of his rival. Both parties now made preparations for a contest, the issue of which should be final. Licinius, before proceeding to war, sacrificed to the gods, and extolled them in a public oration. Constantine, on the other hand, relied upon the God whose symbol accompanied his army. The two hostile armies met. The battle was fierce, obstinate, and sanguinary. Licinius was no mean rival; but the commanding genius, activity, and courage of Constantine prevailed. The victory was complete. Licinius survived his defeat only about a year. He died, or rather was privately killed, in 326. Constantine had now reached the height of his ambition. He was sole master — absolute sovereign of the Roman empire, and continued so until his death in 337. For a description of the political and military career of this great prince we must refer the reader to civil history; we will briefly glance at his religious course.
All that we know of the religion of Constantine up to the period of his conversion, so-called, would imply that he was outwardly, if not zealously, a pagan. Eusebius himself admits that he was at this time in doubt which religion he would embrace. Policy, superstition, hypocrisy, divine inspiration, have been in turn assigned as the sole or the predominant influence, which decided his future religious history. But it would surely be unjust to suppose that his profession of Christianity, and his public declarations in its favor, amounted to nothing more than deliberate and intentional hypocrisy. Both his religious and ecclesiastical course admit of a far higher and more natural explanation. Neither could we believe that there was anything approaching to divine inspiration, either in his midday vision or in his midnight dream. There may have been some unusual appearance about the sun or in the clouds, which imagination converted into a miraculous sign of the cross; and the other appearance may have been the exaggeration of a dream from his highly excited state: but the whole story may now be considered as a fable, full of flattery to the great Emperor, and very gratifying to his great admirer and panegyrist, Eusebius. Few will now be found to give it a place among the authentic records of history.
Policy and superstition, we have no doubt, had a great deal to do with the change that was wrought in the mind of Constantine. From his youth he had witnessed the persecution of the Christians and must have observed a vitality in their religion which rose above the power of their persecutors, and survived the downfall of all other systems. He had seen one emperor after another, who had been the open enemies of Christianity, die the most fearful death. His father only — of all the emperors — the protector of Christianity during the long persecution, had gone down to an honored and peaceful grave. Facts so striking could not fail to influence the superstitious mind of Constantine. Besides, he might appreciate with political sagacity the moral influence of Christianity; its tendency to enforce peaceful obedience to civil government; and the immense hold which it obviously had on the mind of something like the one-half of his empire.
The Emperor's motives, however, are no part of our history, and need not occupy us longer. But, in order to have this most important period or great turning-point in church history clearly before our minds, it may be well to look at the state of the church as he found it in 313, and as he left it in 337.
Up to this time the church had been perfectly free and independent of the state. She had a divine constitution-direct from heaven — and outside the world. She made her way, not by state patronage, but by divine power, against every hostile influence. In place of receiving support from the civil government, she had been persecuted from the first as a foreign foe, as an obstinate and pestilent superstition. Ten times the devil had been permitted to stir up against her the whole Roman world, which ten times had to confess weakness and defeat. Had she kept in mind the day of her espousals, and the love of Him who says, "No man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church," she never would have accepted the protection of Constantine at the cost of her fidelity to Christ. But the church as a whole was now much mixed up with the world, and far away from her first love.
We have already seen, that since the days of the apostles there had been a growing love of the world, and of outward display. This tendency, so natural to us all, the Lord in love checked by allowing Satan to persecute. But in place of the church accepting the trial as chastening from the hand of the Lord, and owning her worldliness, she grew weary of the place and path of rejection, and thinking she might still please and serve the Lord, and walk in the sunshine of the world. This Satanic delusion was accomplished by Constantine, though he knew not what he was doing. "Whatever the motives of his conversion," says Milman, "Constantine, no doubt, adopted a wise and judicious policy, in securing the alliance, rather than continuing the strife, with an adversary which divided the wealth, the intellect, if not the property, and the population of the empire."
In the month of March 313, the banns of the unholy alliance between the Church and the State were published at Milan. The celebrated edict of that date conferred on the Christians the fullest toleration, and led the way to the legal establishment of Christianity, and to its ascendancy over all other religions. This was publicly displayed on the new imperial standard — the Labarum. Besides the initials of Christ, and the symbol of His cross, there was also an image of the Emperor in gold. These signs, or mottoes, were intended as objects of worship for both heathen and christian soldiers, and to animate them to enthusiasm in the day of battle. Thus he who is called the great Christian Emperor publicly united Christianity to idolatry.
But if we have read the mind of Constantine aright, we should have no hesitation in saying, that at this time he was a heathen in heart, and a Christian only from military motives. It was only as a superstitious soldier that he had embraced Christianity. At that moment he was ready to welcome the assistance of any tutelar divinity in his struggles for universal empire. We can see no trace of Christianity, far less any trace of the zeal of a new convert: but we can easily trace the old superstition of heathenism in the new dress of Christianity. Were it not for such considerations, the Labarum would have been the display of the most daring dishonor to the blessed Lord. But it was done in ignorance. He was also anxious to meet the mind of his heathen soldiers and subjects, and to dissipate their fears as to the safety of their old religion.
The earlier edicts of Constantine, though in their effects favorable to Christianity, were given in such cautions terms as not to interfere with the rights and liberties of paganism. But the Christians gradually grew in his favor, and his acts of kindness and liberality spoke louder than edicts. He not only restored to them the civil and religious rights of which they had been deprived, the churches and estates which had been publicly confiscated in the Diocletian persecution; but enabled them, by his own munificent gifts, to build many new places for their assemblies. He showed great favor to the bishops, and had them constantly about him in the palace, on his journeys, and in his wars. He also showed his great respect for the Christians, by committing the education of is son Crispus to the celebrated Lactantius, a Christian. But with all this royal patronage he assumed a supremacy over the affairs of the church. He appeared in the synods of the bishops without his guards, mingled in their debates, and controlled the settlement of religious questions. From this time forward the term Catholic was invariably applied, in all official documents, to the church.
After the total defeat of Licinius already referred to, the whole Roman world was reunited under the scepter of Constantine. In his proclamation issued to his new subjects in the East, he declares himself to be the instrument of God for spreading the true faith; and that God had given him the victory over all the powers of darkness, in order that His own worship by his means might be universally established. "Freedom," he says, in a letter to Eusebius, "being once more restored, and, by the providence of the great God and my own ministry, that dragon driven from the ministration of the State, I trust that the divine power has become manifest to all, and that they, who through fear or unbelief have fallen into many crimes, will come to the knowledge of the true God, and to the right and true ordering of their lives." Constantine now took his place more openly to the whole world as the head of the church; but at the same time retained the office of the Pontifex Maximus — the high priest of the heathen; this he never gave up, and he died head of the church and high priest of the heathen.
This unholy alliance, or unhallowed mixture of which we have spoken, and which is referred to and mourned over in the address to Pergamos, meets us at every step in the history of this great historical prince. But having given some explanation of the address, we must leave the reader to compare the truth and the history in a godly way. What a mercy to have such a guide in studying this remarkable period in the history of the church!
Among the first acts of the now sole Emperor of the world was the repeal of all the edicts of Licinius against the Christians. He released all prisoners from the dungeon or the mine, or the servile and humiliating occupation to which they had been contemptuously condemned. All who had been deprived of their rank in the army or in the civil service he restored, and restitution was made for the property of which they had been despoiled. He issued an edict addressed to all his subjects, advising them to embrace the gospel, but pressed none; he wished it to be a matter of conviction. He endeavored, however, to render it attractive by bestowing places and honors on proselytes of the higher classes and donations on the poor — a course which, as Eusebius acknowledges, produced a great amount of hypocrisy and pretended conversion. He ordered that churches should be everywhere built, of a size sufficient to accommodate the whole population. He forbade the erection of statues of the gods, and would not allow his own statue to be set up in the temples. All state sacrifices were forbidden, and in many ways he exerted himself for the elevation of Christianity and the suppression of heathenism.
We now come to the consideration of that which has been the great historical problem to men of all creeds, nations and passions; namely, whether the State which seeks to advance Christianity by the worldly means at its command, or the earthly power which opposes it by legal violence, does the greater injury to the church and people of God on the earth? Much may be said, we admit, as to the great blessing of impartial toleration, and of the great advantages to society of the legal suppression of all wicked customs; but court favor has always been ruinous to the true prosperity of the church of God. It is a great mercy to be unmolested, but it is a greater mercy to be unpatronised by princes. The true character of Christians is that of strangers and pilgrims in this world. The possession of Christ, and of Christ in heaven, has changed everything on earth to Christians. They belong to heaven, they are strangers on earth. They are the servants of Christ in the world, though not of it. Heaven is their home; here they have no continuing city. What has the church to expect from a world that crucified her Lord? or rather, what would she accept from it? Her true portion here is suffering and rejection; as the apostle says, "For Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." The Lord may spare His people, but if trial should come, we are not to think that some strange thing has happened to us. "In the world ye shall have tribulation." (Ro 8:36; Joh 16:33.)
But even from history, we think it can be proved that it was better for Christianity when Christians were suffering at the stake for Christ, than when they were feasted in kings' palaces and covered with royal favors. By way of illustrating our question, we will give our readers a page from the history of the great persecution under Diocletian, and one from the brightest days of Constantine; and we will quote both from Milman, late Dean of St. Paul's, who will not be suspected of unfairness to the clergy. We speak of the faithful only. It is well-known that in the later persecutions, when the assemblies of Christians had greatly increased, many proved unfaithful in the day of trial, though these were comparatively few, and many of them afterwards repented.
"The persecution had now lasted for six or seven years (309), but in no part of the world did Christianity betray any signs of decay. It was far too deeply rooted in the minds of men, far too extensively promulgated, far too vigorously organized, not to endure this violent but unavailing shock. If its public worship was suspended, the believers met in secret, or cherished in the unassailable privacy of the heart, the inalienable rights of conscience. But of course the persecution fell most heavily upon the most eminent of the body. Those who resisted to death were animated by the presence of multitudes, who, if they dared not applaud, could scarcely conceal their admiration. Women crowded to kiss the hems of the martyrs' garments, and their scattered ashes, or unburied bones, were stolen away by the devout zeal of their flocks."
Under the edict issued from the dying bed of Galerius the persecution ceased, and the Christians were permitted the free and public exercise of their religion. This breathing-time lasted only a few months. But how grand the sight which followed, and what a testimony to the truth and power of Christianity! The Dean goes on to say:
"The cessation of the persecution showed at once its extent. The prison doors were thrown open; the mines rendered up their condemned laborers; everywhere long trains of Christians were seen hastening to the ruins of their churches, and visiting the places sanctified by their former devotions. The public roads, the streets, and market places of the towns were crowded with long processions singing psalms of thanksgiving for their deliverance. Those who had maintained their faith under these severe trials received the affectionate congratulations of their brethren; those who had failed in the hour of affliction hastened to confess their failure and seek for re-admission into the now joyous fold."
We now turn to the altered state of things under Constantine, about twenty years after the death of Galerius. Mark the mighty change in the position of the clergy.
"The bishops appeared as regular attendants upon the court; the internal dissensions of Christianity became affairs of state. The prelate ruled, not now so much by his admitted superiority in christian virtue, as by the inalienable authority of his office. He opened or closed the door of the church, which was tantamount to an admission to or an exclusion from everlasting bliss; he uttered the sentences of excommunication, which cast back the trembling delinquent amongst the lost and perishing heathen. He had his throne in the most distinguished part of the christian temple, and though yet acting in the presence and in the name of his college of presbyters, yet he was the acknowledged head of a large community, over whose eternal destiny he held a vague but not therefore less imposing and awful dominion."
Intellectual and philosophical questions took the place of the truth of the gospel, and mere outward religion for faith, love, and heavenly mindedness. A crucified Savior, true conversion, justification by faith alone, separation from the world, were subjects never known by Constantine, and probably never introduced in his presence. "The connection of the physical and moral world had become general topics; they were, for the first time, the primary truths of a popular religion, and naturally could not withdraw themselves from the alliance with popular passions. Mankind, even within the sphere of Christianity, retrograded to the sterner Jewish character; and in its spirit, as well as its language, the Old Testament began to dominate over the gospel of Christ."
However agreeable to mere nature the sunshine of the imperial favor might be, it was destructive of the true character of the individual Christian and of the church corporately. All testimony to a rejected Christ on earth, and an exalted Christ in heaven was gone. It was the world baptised, in place of believers only as dead and risen with Christ — as having died in His death, and risen again in His resurrection. The word of God is plain: —
"Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead." (Col 2:12.)
Baptism is here used as the sign both of death and resurrection. But to whom was that solemn and sacred ordinance now administered? Again, we repeat, To the Roman world. Faith in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, acceptance in the Beloved, were not looked for by the obsequious clergy.
The profession of Christianity being now the sure way to wealth and honors, all ranks and classes applied for, baptism. At the Easter and Pentecostal festivals, thousands, all clothed in the white garments of the neophyte, crowded round the different churches, waiting to be baptized. The numbers were so great, and the whole scene so striking, that many thought these conspicuous neophytes must be the innumerable multitude spoken of in the Revelation, who stood before the Lamb, clothed with white robes. According to some writers, as many as twelve thousand men, beside women and children, were baptised in one year in Rome; and a white garment, with twenty pieces of gold, was promised by the Emperor to every new convert of the poorer classes. Under these circumstances, and by these venal means, the downfall of heathenism was accomplished, and Christianity seated on the throne of the Roman world.
The baptism of Constantine has given rise to almost as much speculation as his conversion. Notwithstanding the great zeal he displayed in favor of Christianity, he delayed his baptism, and consequently his reception into the church, till the approach of death. Many motives, both political and personal, have been suggested by different writers as reasons for this delay; but the real one, we fear, was personal Superstition had by this time taught men to connect the forgiveness of sins with the rite of baptism. Under this dreadful delusion Constantine seems to have delayed his baptism until he could no longer enjoy his imperial honors, and indulge his passions in the pleasures of the world. It is impossible to conceive of any papal indulgence more ruinous to the soul, more dishonoring to Christianity, or more dangerous to every moral virtue. It was a licence for such as Constantine to pursue the great objects of his ambition through the darkest paths of blood and cruelty, as it placed in his hands the means of an easy forgiveness, when convenient to himself. But on the other hand we think it was a great mercy of the Lord, that one, whose private and domestic life, as well as his public career, was so stained with blood, should not have made a public profession of Christianity by receiving baptism and the Lord's supper. Let us hope that he really repented on his deathbed.
The bishops, whom he summoned in his last illness to the palace of Nicomedia, heard his confession, were satisfied, and gave him their blessing. Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, baptised him! He now professed for the first time, that if God spared his life, he would join the assembly of His people, and that, having worn the white garment of the neophyte, he would never again wear the purple of the emperor. But these resolutions were too late in coming: he died shortly after his baptism, in the year 337.
Helena, the Emperor's mother, deserves a passing notice. She embraced the religion professed by her son. Her devotion, piety, and munificence were great. She traveled from place to place; visited the scenes which had been hallowed by the chief events of scripture history; ordered the temple of Venus to be demolished, which Hadrian had built on the site of the holy sepulcher, and gave directions for a church to be built on the spot, which should exceed all others in splendor. She died A.D. 328.
We have now seen, alas! too plainly, the sorrowful truth of the Lord's words, that the church was dwelling where Satan's seat is. Constantine left it there. He found it imprisoned in mines, dungeons, and catacombs, and shut out from the light of heaven; he left it on the throne of the world. But the picture is not yet complete; we must notice other features in the history, answering to the likeness in the Epistle.
The reign of Constantine was marked, not only by the church being taken out of her right place, through the deceptions of Satan, but by the bitter fruits of that degrading change. The seeds of error, corruption, and dissension sprang up rapidly, and now came publicly before the tribunals of the world, and in some instances before the pagan world.
Two great controversies — the Donatistic and the Arian — had their beginning in this reign: the former, arising in the West, from a disputed appointment to the episcopal dignity at Carthage: the latter, of Eastern origin, and involving the very foundations of Christianity. The latter was a question of doctrine, the former of practice. Both were now corrupted in their very springs and essence, and may have been represented by the false prophet and the Nicolaitanes; but more as to this afterwards. We will now briefly notice the two schisms, as they throw light on the nature and results of the union of church and State. The Emperor took part in the councils of the bishops as head of the church.
On the death of Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, a council of neighboring bishops was called to appoint his successor. The council was small — through the management of Botrus and Celesius, two presbyters who aspired to the office — but Caecilian, the deacon, who was much loved by the congregation, was elected bishop. The two disappointed persons protested against the election. Mensurius died when absent from Carthage on a journey; but before leaving home he had entrusted some plate and other property of the church to certain elders of the congregation, and had left an inventory in the hands of a pious female. This was now delivered to Caecilian, as he of course demanded the articles from the elders; but they were unwilling to deliver them up, as they had supposed no one would ever inquire for them, the old bishop being dead. They now joined the party of Botrus and Celesius, in opposition to the new bishop. The schism was also supported by the influence of Lucilla, a rich lady whom Caecilian had formerly offended by a faithful reproof; and the whole province assumed the right of interference.
Donatus, bishop of Cosae Nigrae, placed himself at the head of the Carthaginian faction. Secundus, primate of Numidia, at the summons of Donatus, appeared in Carthage at the head of seventy bishops. This self-installed council cited Caecilian before them, alleging that he ought not to have been consecrated except in their presence and by the primate of Numidia; and inasmuch as he had been consecrated by a bishop who was a Traditor, the council declared his election void. Caecilian refused to acknowledge the authority of the council; but they proceeded to elect Majorinus to the see, declared to be vacant by the excommunication of Caecilian. But, unfortunately for the credit of the bishops, Majorinus was a member of Lucilla's household, who, to support the election, gave large sums of money, which the bishops divided among themselves. A decided schism was now formed, and many persons who before stood aloof from Caecilian, returned to his communion.
Some reports of these discords reached the ears of Constantine. He had just become master of the West; and had sent a large sum of money for the relief of the African churches. They had suffered greatly during the late persecutions. But as the Donatists were considered sectaries, or dissenters from the true Catholic church, he ordered that the gifts and privileges conferred on the Christians by the late edicts should be confined to those in communion with Cae-cilian. This led the Donatists to petition the Emperor, desiring that their cause might be examined by the bishops of Gaul, from whom it was supposed that impartiality might be expected. Here for the first time we have an application to the civil power, to appoint a Commission of Ecclesiastical Judges.
Constantine agreed: a council was held at Rome in 313, consisting of about twenty bishops. The decision was in favor of Caecilian, who thereupon proposed terms of reconciliation and reunion; but the Donatists disdained all compromise. They prayed the Emperor for another hearing, declaring that a synod of twenty bishops was insufficient to overrule the sentence of seventy who had condemned Caecilian. On this representation Constantine summoned another council. The number of bishops present was very large, from Africa, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, but especially from Gaul. This was the greatest ecclesiastical assembly which had yet been seen. They met at Aries, in 314. Caecilian was again acquitted, and several canons were passed with a view to the African dissensions.
In the meantime Majorinus died, and a second Donatus was appointed his successor. He was surnamed by his followers "the Great," for the sake of distinction from the first Donatus. He is described as learned, eloquent, of great ability, and as possessing the energy and fiery zeal of the African temperament. The sectaries, as they were called, now assumed the name of the Donatists, and took their character as well as their name from their chief.
The Emperor was again entreated to take up their cause, and on this occasion to take the matter entirely into his own hands; to which he agreed, though offended by their obstinacy. He heard the case at Milan in the year 316; where he gave sentence in accordance with the councils of Rome and Aries. He also issued edicts against them, which he afterwards repealed, from seeing the dangerous consequences of violent measures. But Donatism soon became a fierce, widespread, and intolerant schism in the church. As early as 330 they had so increased that a synod was attended by two hundred and seventy bishops; in some periods of their history they numbered about four hundred. They proved a great affliction to the provinces of Africa for above three hundred years — indeed down to the time of the Mahometan invasion.
As this was the first schism that divided the church, we have thought it well to give a few details. The reader may learn some needed lessons from this memorable division. It began with an incident so inconsiderable in itself that it scarcely deserves a place in history. There was no question of bad doctrine or of immorality, but only of a disputed election to the see of Carthage. A little right feeling; a little self-denial; a true desire for the peace, unity, and harmony of the church; and above all, a proper care for the Lord's glory, would have prevented hundreds of years of inward sorrow and outward disgrace to the church of God. But pride, avarice, and ambition — sad fruits of the flesh — were allowed to do their fearful work. The reader will also see, from the place that the Emperor had in the councils of the church, how soon her position and character were utterly changed. How strange it must have appeared to Constantine that, immediately on his adopting the cross as his standard, an appeal should be made from an episcopal decision on ecclesiastical matters to his own tribunal! This proved the condition of the clergy. But mark the consequences which such an appeal involves; if the party against whom the sentence of the civil power is given refuse to yield, they become transgressors against the laws. And so it was in this case.
The Donatists were henceforth treated as offenders against the imperial laws; they were deprived of their churches; many of them suffered banishment and confiscation. Even the punishment of death was enacted against them, although it does not appear that this law was enforced in any case during the reign of Constantine. Strong measures, however, were resorted to by the State, with the view of compelling the Donatisis to reunite with the Catholics; but, as is usual in such cases, and as experience has taught ever since, the force that was used to compel them only served to develope the wild spirit of the faction that already existed in the germ. Aroused by persecution, stimulated by the discourses of their bishops, and especially by Donatus who was the head and soul of his party, they were hurried on to every species of fanaticism and violence.
Constantine, taught by experience, at length found that although he could give the church protection, he could not give her peace; and issued an edict, granting to the Donatists full liberty to act according to their own convictions, declaring that this was a matter which belonged to the judgment of God.
Scarcely had the outward peace of the church been secured by the edict of Milan, when it was distracted by internal dissensions. Shortly after the breaking out of the Donatist schism in the province of Africa, the Arian controversy, which had its origin in the East, extended to every part of the world. We have already spoken of these angry contentions as the bitter fruit of the unscriptural union of the church with the State. Not that they necessarily sprang from that union, but from Constantine becoming the avowed and ostensible head of the church, and presiding in her solemn assemblies, questions of doctrine and practice produced an agitation throughout the whole church, and not the church only, but they exercised a powerful political influence on the affairs of the world. This was unavoidable from the new position of the church. The empire being now christian, at least in principle, such questions were of world-wide interest and importance. Hence the Arian controversy was the first that rent asunder the whole body of Christians, and arrayed in almost every part of the world the hostile parties in implacable opposition.
Heresies, similar in nature to that of Arius, had appeared in the church before her connection with the State; but their influence seldom extended beyond the region and period of their birth. After some noisy debates and angry words were discharged, the heresy fell into dishonor, and was soon almost forgotten. But it was widely different with the Arian controversy. Constantine, who sat upon the throne of the world, and assumed to be the sole head of the church, interposed his authority, in order to prescribe and define the precise tenets of the religion he had established. The word of God, the will of Christ, the place of the Spirit, the heavenly relations of the church, were all lost sight of, or rather had never been seen, by the Emperor. He had probably heard something of the numerous opinions by which the Christians were divided; but he saw, at the same time, that they were a community who had continued to advance in vigor and magnitude; that they were really united in the midst of heresies, and strong under the iron hand of oppression. But he could not see, neither could he understand, that then, spite of her failure, she was looking to the Lord and leaning on Him only in the world. Every other hand was against her, and was led on by the craft and power of the enemy. But, professedly, she was going up through the wilderness leaning on her Beloved, and no weapon formed against her could prosper.
The Emperor, being entirely ignorant of the heavenly relation of the church, may have thought that as he could give her complete protection from outward oppression, he could also by his presence and power give her peace and rest from inward dissensions. But he little knew that the latter was not only far beyond his reach, but that the very security, worldly ease, and indulgence, which he so liberally granted to the clergy, were the sure means of fomenting discords, and of inflaming the passions of the disputants. And so it turned out; he was continually assailed by the complaints and mutual accusations of his new friends.
Arianism was the natural growth of the Gnostic opinions; and Alexandria, the hotbed of metaphysical questions and subtile distinctions, its birthplace. Paul of Samosata, and Sabellius of Libya, in the third century, taught similar false doctrines to Arius in the fourth. The Gnostic sects in their different varieties, and the Manichean, which was the Persian religion with a mixture of Christianity, may be considered rather as rival religions, than as christian factions; nevertheless they did their evil work among Christians as to the doctrine of the Trinity. Nearly all of these heresies, as they are usually called, had fallen under the royal displeasure, and their followers subjected to penal regulations. The Montanists, Paulites, Novatians, Marcionites, and Valentinians were amongst the proscribed and persecuted sects. But there was another, a deeper, a darker, and a much more influential heresy than had yet arisen, about to burst forth, and that from the very bosom of the so-called holy Catholic church. It happened in this way.
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, in a meeting of his presbyters, appears to have expressed himself rather freely on the subject of the Trinity; when Arius, one of the presbyters, questioned the truth of Alexander's positions, on the ground that they were allied to the Sabellian errors, which had been condemned by the church. This disputation led Arius to state his own views of the Trinity; which were substantially the denial of the Savior's Godhead — that He was, in fact, only the first and noblest of those created beings whom God the Father formed out of nothing — that, though immeasurably superior in power and in glow to the highest created beings, He is inferior in both to the Father. He also held, that though inferior to the Father in nature and in dignity, He is the image of the Father, and the vicegerent of the divine power by whom He made the worlds. What his views were of the Holy Spirit are not so plainly stated.
Alexander, indignant at the objections of Arius to himself, and because of his opinions, accused him of blasphemy. "The impious Arius," he exclaimed, "the forerunner of Antichrist, had dared to utter his blasphemies against the divine Redeemer." He was judged by two councils assembled at Alexandria, and cast out of the church. He retired into Palestine, but in nowise discouraged by the disgrace. Many sympathised with him, among whom were the two prelates named Eusebius: one of Caesarea, the ecclesiastical historian; the other, bishop of Nicomedia, a man of immense influence. Arius kept up a lively correspondence with his friends, veiling his more offensive opinions; and Alexander issued warnings against him, and refused all the intercessions of his friends to have him restored. But Arius was a crafty antagonist. He is described in history as tall and graceful in person; calm, pale, and subdued in countenance; of popular address, and an acute reasoner; of strict and blameless life, and agreeable manners; but that, under a humble and mortified exterior, he concealed the strongest feelings of vanity and ambition. The adversary had skilfully selected his instrument. The apparent possession of so many virtues fitted him for the enemy's purpose. Without these fair appearances he would have had no power to deceive.
The dissension soon became so violent, that it was judged necessary to appeal to the Emperor. He at first considered the whole question as utterly trifling and unimportant. He wrote a letter to Alexander and Arius jointly, in which he reproves them for contending about idle questions and imaginary differences, and recommends them to suppress all unhallowed feelings of animosity, and to live in peace and unity. It is more than probable that the Emperor had not thought of the serious nature of the dispute, or he could not have spoken of it as trifling and unimportant: but if the letter was drawn up by Hosius, bishop of Cordova, as is generally believed, he could not plead ignorance of its character; and must have framed the document according to the expressed feelings of Constantine, rather than according to his own judgment. The letter has been highly extolled by many as a model of wisdom and moderation; and, had the matter been of no graver importance than fixing the time for the Easter festival, it might have deserved that praise; but the Godhead and the glory of Christ were in question, and consequently the salvation of the soul.
Hosius was sent to Egypt as the imperial commissioner, to whom the settlement of the affair was committed. But he found that the dissensions occasioned by the controversy had become so serious, that both parties refused to listen to the admonitions of the bishop, though accompanied with the authority of the sovereign.
Chapter 11 - The Council of Nice