Constantine’s influence upon the Church.
We have already called attention to the fact that Constantine, in his famous Edict of Milan, granted Christianity equal rights with the heathen religions before the law. The age of persecution by the heathen world has become history. The word of God as recorded in Rev. 12:12-17, had been fulfilled with respect to the heathen world. Of course, more persecutions would follow for the Church of God in the new dispensation, even until the end of the world. But this phase of the fury of the devil had been fulfilled. Christianity had been legally established. Its place in the midst of the world was now assured. Constantine surely had taken care of this.
However, the Edict of Milan also proved to have a very great advantage for the Church of God. It was now no longer a shame but an honor to belong to the Church of Christ. The Christian name began to be held in high honor and esteem. This name now secured many and great material advantages. It had become a passport to political, military, and social promotions. The result was that thousands upon thousands of heathens joined the Church. To be counted and regards as a heathen was now a disgrace, The Church grew by leaps and bounds. Many who joined the Church were Christians in name only. The Edict of Milan of 313 opened the floodgates through which a mighty stream of corruption poured into the Church of God as revealed and, constituted in the midst of the world. And the Church became more and more a national institution, a kingdom of this world. This will become more evident later when we trace the power of the popes in the history of the Church and of the world. Whereas the heathens had been in control of the world and had persecuted the Church, this relation was not reversed. The civilized world passed over into the control by the Church. And the power of the church increased until the kings and princes of this world shook and trembled before the pope at Rome who finally was able to do with the mighty of the earth as he pleased. We will see more of this in subsequent articles.
This development need not surprise us. To view the name of Christian with honor and esteem is indeed also applicable to the church-world of today. The Scripture surely point us in this direction. We are told that, as the end of times approaches, the love of many will wax cold. This surely implies that many will then have the name of Christians who are not Christians. Today, in many churches, it is a disgrace not to be a member in full communion in the Church of God. Confession is simply the expected and honorable procedure. Moreover, the development of the Church along the line of outward and earthly power was also to be expected. The word of God also points us in this direction. The thirst for power is always present in the Church of God. And it is surely our task to maintain constant vigilance against this evil.
The Post-Constantine Period.
Continuing with the development of the Church in external power and glory in the world during this second period, 300-750 A.D., we believe it to be of interest to call attention to the occurrence of events immediately upon the death of Constantine, the “first Christian emperor,” With the death of this tremendous figure his monarchy also came, for the present, to an encl. The empire was divided among his three sons: Constantine II. Constance, and Constantius. The days of the monarchy were temporarily ended.
The accession of the three sons of Constantine the Great was not in Christian style, but after the manner of genuine Turkish, oriental despotism: it trode upon the corpses of the numerous kindred of their fathers, excepting two nephews, Gallus and Julian, who were saved only by sickness and youth from the fury of the soldiers. Three years later a war followed of the brothers for the sole supremacy. Constantine II was slain by Constance, who was in turn murdered by a barbarian field officer and rival, Magnentius. After the defeat and the suicide of Magnentius, who had hitherto reigned in the East, Constantius became sole emperor, and he maintained himself through many years until his natural death in 361.
The sons of Constantine the Great did their Christian education little honor and departed from their father’s prudent policy of toleration. Constantius, temperate and chaste, but also jealous and vain and weak, entirely under the control of eunuchs, women, and bishops, entered upon a violent suppression of the heathen religion, pillaged and destroyed many temples, gave the booty to, the church or to his eunuchs, flatterers, and worthless favorites, and prohibited, under penalty of death, all sacrifices to and worship of images in Rome, Alexandria, and Athens, although the prohibition could not be carried out. Hosts now came over to Christianity, though, of course, for the most part with the lips only, and not with the heart. But this emperor proceeded with the same intolerance against the adherents of the Nicene orthodoxy and punished them with confiscation and banishment. His brothers supported Athanasius, but he himself was a fanatical Arian. In fact, he meddled in all the affairs of the church which was convulsed during his reign with doctrinal controversy. He summoned a multitude of councils, in Gaul and Italy and Illyricum and in Asia, aspired to the renown of a theologian, and was fond of being called bishop of bishops, though, like his father, he postponed baptism until shortly before his death.
There were those, it is true, who justified this violent suppression of idolatry by reference to the extermination of the Canaanites under Joshua in the old dispensation. However, intelligent church leaders, including Athanasius and Hilary, gave their voice for toleration, although even they mean particularly toleration for orthodoxy, for the sake of which they themselves had been deposed and banished by the Arian power. Athanasius, for example, is quoted asfollows (the reader will understand that our churches today would hardly endorse this statement): “Satan, because there is no truth in him, breaks in with axe and sword. But the Savior is gentle, and forces no one, to whom He comes, but knocks and speaks to the soul: Open to Me, My Sister? If we open to Him; He enters; but, if we will not, He departs. For the truth is not preached by sword and dungeon, by the might of an army, but by persuasion and exhortation. How can there be persuasion where fear of the emperor is uppermost? How exhortation, where the contradicter has to expect banishment and death?” With equal force Hilary confronts the emperor with the wrong of his course, in the words: “With the gold of the state thou burdenest the sanctuary of God and what is torn from the temples, or gained by confiscation or extorted by punishment, thou obtrudest upon God.”
Paganism, however, made a final attempt to recover lost ground and regain its ascendancy in the Roman empire during the reign of Julian, the Apostate. Julian, surnamed the Apostate, a nephew of Constantine the Great, was born in the year, 331, and was therefore only six years old when his famous uncle died. The general slaughter of his kindred, not excepting his father, at the change of the throne, could hardly be expected to instill enthusiasm-and respect into the young prince for the Christian religion. That Julian was an apostate does not mean, we understand, that he ever entertained any love for Christianity and the Christian religion. He was an apostle because he was educated in the Christian religion, wore its mask for a considerable number of years, and later discarded this mask, declaring himself in favor of heathenism or paganism.
Julian became the sole head of the Roman empire in the year, 361, and openly declared himself a friend of the gods. Of him we are told that he sought to unite the fame of an Alexander, a Marcus Aurelius (one of the emperors), a Plato, and a Diogenes (a Greek philosopher). He practiced the strictest economy in the public affairs and banished all useless luxury from his court, dismissing with one decree whole hosts of barbers, cup-bearers, cooks, masters of ceremonies, and other superfluous officers, with whom the palace swarmed, although he surrounded himself with equally useless pagan mystics, babblers, sophists, soothsayers, etc. In striking contrast with his predecessors he maintained the simplicity of a philosopher and an ascetic in his manner of life, and gratified his pride and vanity with contempt of the pomp and pleasures of the imperial purpose. He lived, chiefly on vegetable diets, abstaining now from this food, now from that food, according to the taste of the god or goddess to whom the day was consecrated. He wore common clothing, usually slept on the floor, let his beard and nails grow, and neglected the laws of decency and cleanliness. In military and executive talent and personal bravery he was not inferior to Constantine; while in mind and literary culture he far excelled him. His reign, however, was a complete failure. The ruling passion of Julian and the soul of his short but most active and remarkable reign was fanatical love of pagan religion and bitter hatred of the Christian religion, and that at a time when the former had already forever given up to the latter the reins of government in the world. He considered it to be the great mission of his life to restore the worship of the gods and to destroy the religion of Jesus in the midst of the world. He would fain believe that the gods had called him to this hopeless and utterly futile task. And unto this end all the means, which talent, zeal, and power could command, were applied; in him paganism makes a final and utterly futile attempt to destroy Christianity. This is Julian’s place in history, the place which the Lord had assigned to him. Unto that end the Lord gave him great gifts and talents, equipped him, from a natural point of view, unto his life’s calling. And he used those talents to the full, in order that the utter folly of that which opposes the living God and His Christ may be fully revealed. Julian represents the final gasp of heathenism to uproot the cause of the living God and of His Christ in the midst of the world. How he attempted to destroy the cause of the Christ we will see in a subsequent article.