The Faithful Union
The crisis over Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has passed. The civil turmoil within the Roman Empire temporarily ceases. But the hopes of many Christians are shattered. Instead of being delivered, Christians continue to suffer persecution as a result of Emperor Nero’s example. Each day brings fresh news of the imprisonment or martyrdom of relatives and friends.
Many Christians are confused. They thought the signs of the “end of the age” including Roman armies surrounding Jerusalem (Luke 21:20)-- had all been there. Events had appeared to be moving swiftly toward the anxiously awaited climax the triumphal return of Jesus Christ as King of Kings.
Then comes the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John, the last surviving apostle. It explains that what occurred in A.D. 66 to 70 was only a forerunner of a final crisis over Jerusalem at the end of this age of human self-rule. The end is not now.
In disappointment or in impatience, many who call themselves Christians begin to stray from the truth, or to renounce Christianity altogether. Those who stray become susceptible to “innovations” in doctrine.
Heresy is rife. Congregations become divided by doctrinal differences even though they all call themselves the Churches of God. Some begin to express doubts about the book of Revelation, and press forward with their own doctrinal views.
The apostasy foretold by the apostles moves ahead. Only the aged apostle John stands in the way. The more than three decades since the death of Peter and of Paul in A.D. 68 have been spent under the sole apostolic leadership of John. The churches directly supervised by him and faithful elders assisting him have held firm to the government of God over the Church and to God’s revealed truth.
Many lose sight of where and with whom God has been working. They turn from the teaching of John and faithful disciples to follow others who claim to have authority and preeminence and who call themselves God’s ministers. They become the mainstream of professing Christianity.
But some remain faithful even though now separated from the mainstream of Christianity. They hold fast to sound doctrine and resist the forces of the invisible Satan who deceives the whole world. They continue to believe the good news of the coming restoration of the government of God over the earth. They continue to wait for Jesus to return with power to enforce world peace.
Regardless of their doctrinal differences, whether apostate or faithful, all who call themselves Christians continue to suffer persecution.
The polytheistic Romans are not by nature intolerant to religion. They permit many different forms of beliefs and worship. They have even incorporated elements of the religions of conquered peoples into their own. But the various sects of Christianity pose a special problem. Adherents to the various pagan religions readily acclimate themselves to the deification of the emperor and the insistence that all loyal citizens sacrifice at his altar. But this kind of “patriotism” goes far beyond what is possible for any Christian, they are labeled “disloyal.”
Nero, the first of the persecuting emperors, had set a cruel precedent. During the next 250 years, 10 major persecutions are unleashed upon Christianity. In A.D. 98, Marcus Ulpius Trajanus, commonly known as Trajan, is elected emperor by the Roman senate. In his eyes, Christianity is opposed to the state religion and therefore sacrilegious and punishable. Among the many who die during his reign is the influential theologian Ignatius, bishop of Antioch in Syria, who is thrown to the lions in the Roman arena in A.D. 110.
Trajan’s successor Hadrian (117-138) and Antonius Pius (138-161) continue the carnage. Among those to suffer martyrdom during the latter’s reign is the illustrious Polycarp, elder at Smyrna and the leading Christian figure in Asia Minor.
With the accession of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), the Empire suddenly finds itself disrupted by wars, rebellions, floods, pestilence and famine. As often happens in times of great disaster, the ignorant populace seeks to throw the blame for these calamities on an unpopular class, in this case, the various sects of Christians.
The strong outcry raised against what the world sees as Christianity leaves Marcus Aurelius no choice. In troubled times as these, there can be only one loyalty to the emperor. He orders the laws to be enforced. The resulting persecution, the severest since Nero’s day brings a horrible death to thousands of Christians. Among them is the scholar Justin Martyr, who is put to death at Rome.
The Roman emperors Septimius Severus (193-211) and Maximin (235-238) continue the persecutions. Hunted as outlaws, thousands of Christians are burned at the stake, crucified or beheaded.
Emperor Decius (249-251) determines to completely eradicate Christianity. Blood flows in frightful massacres throughout the Empire. A subsequent persecution under Valerian (253-260) goes even further in its severity. But the persecution inaugurated by Diocletian (284-305) surpasses them all in violence. This 10th persecution is a systematic attempt to wipe the name of Christ from the earth! Diocletian’s violence towards the Christian sects is unparalleled in history.
An edict requiring uniformity of worship is issued in A.D. 303. By refusing to pay homage to the image of the emperor, all Christians in the realm become outlaws. Their public and private possessions are taken from them, their assemblies are prohibited, their churches are torn down, and their sacred writings are destroyed.
The victims of death and torture number into the tens even hundreds of thousands. Every means is devised to exterminate the obstinate religion. Coins are struck commemorating the “annihilation of the Christians.”
Only in the extreme western portion of the Empire do Christians escape. Constantius Chlorus Roman military ruler of Gaul, Spain, Britain and the Rhine frontier, prevents the execution of the edict in the regions under his rule. He protects the Christians, whose general virtues he esteems.
Diocletian’s reign also brings a development of great historic importance within the political realm. Diocletian realizes the Empire is too large to be administered by a single man. For purposes of better government of so vast an empire, Diocletian voluntarily divides the power and responsibility of his office, associating with himself his friend Maximian as co-emperor.
The two divide the Empire. Diocletian takes the East, with his capital at Nicomedia in Asia Minor. Maximian takes the West and establishes his headquarters at Milan in northern Italy. Each of these two Augusti, or emperors, then selects an assistant with the title of Caesar. These deputy emperors are to succeed them, and designate new Caesars in turn. The Caesars chosen by Diocletian and Maximian are Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. They are to command the armies of the frontiers.
After a severe illness, Diocletian abdicates his power on May 1, 305. He compels his colleague Maximian to follow his example the same day. They are succeeded by their respective deputy emperors, Galerius and Constantius. These two former Caesars are now Augusti, Galerius rules the East; Constantius rules the West.
When Constantius dies suddenly the next year while on expedition against the Picts of Scotland, his troops immediately proclaim his son Constantine as emperor. The smooth succession envisioned by Diocletian never takes place. For the next eight years there follows a succession of civil wars among rival pretenders for imperial power. Constantine engages these competitors in battle. The stage is now set for history making events, within both the Empire and Christianity.
It is now 312. The persecution inaugurated by Diocletian nine years earlier still rages. In Rome, Miltiades is bishop over the Christian groups there. By this time, the bishop of Rome has come to be generally acknowledged as the leader of Christianity in the West. He is called “pope” (Latin, papa, “father”), an ecclesiastical tile long since given to many bishops. (It will not be until the 9th century that the title is reserved exclusively for the bishop of Rome.)
Of the 30 bishops of the Church at Rome before Miltiades, all but one or two had died a martyr’s death. With a violent persecution underway, Miltiades expects nothing better.
It is October 28th. Miltiades emerges from his small house to discover the great Constantine standing in the street before him! With him are guards with drawn swords. Constantine had just defeated his brother-in-law and chief rival Maxentius (son of the old Western emperor Maximian) at the Milvian Bridge near Rome. Winning this key battle has secured Constantine’s throne. He is now sole emperor in the West.
But what does Constantine want of Miltiades? Does he intend to cap his victory by personally executing the leader of Rome’s Christians? The emperor steps forward. With Miltiades’ chief priest, Silvester, serving as interpreter, Constantine begins to speak.
What Miltiades hears signals the beginning of a new era. The world will never be the same again.
Just before the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine had seen a vision. In the sky appeared a flaming cross, and above it the words In Hoc Signo Vinces (“In this sign, conquer!”). Stirred by the vision, he ordered that the Christian symbol the monogram (the super-imposed Greek letters X and P, Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the word Christos) be inscribed upon the standards and shields of the army.
The battle was then fought in the name of the Christian God. Constantine was victorious. Maxentius was defeated and drowned.
The crucial victory spells not only supreme power for Constantine, but a new era for the Church. Constantine becomes the first Roman Emperor to profess Christianity, though he delays baptism until the end of his life. A magnificent triumphal arch is erected in his honor in Rome. It ascribes Constantine’s victory to the “inspiration of the Divinity.”
Soon afterward, Constantine issues the Edict of Milan (313), granting Christians full freedom to practice their religion. Though pagan worship is still tolerated until the end of the century, Constantine exhorts all his subjects to follow his example and become Christians.
Things have indeed changed! For centuries, persecuted by the Empire, the Christian Church has now become allied with it! Christianity assumes an intimate relationship with the secular power. It quickly grows to a position of great influence over the affairs of the Empire.
Christians of decades past would not have believed it, they are free from persecution. The Emperor himself is a Christian! It is simply “too good to be true.” Yet it is true! Many Christians puzzle over this new order of things. For nearly three centuries they had waited for the return of Jesus Christ as deliverer. They had waited for the fall of Rome, and the triumph of the kingdom of God. But now the persecutions have ended. The Church holds a position of power and respect throughout the Empire. The picture appears bright for the faith! What does it all mean?
Christians of various persuasions see many prophecies of persecution in the Scriptures. But nowhere does Jesus or the apostles foretell a popular growth and universal acceptance of the Church. No prophecy says that the Church of God will become great and powerful in this world. Yet look what has happened! How is it to be understood?
After centuries of believing that the kingdom was “not of this world” that the world and the Church would be at odds until Jesus’ returns, professing Christians now search for an explanation to the new state of affairs.
Continuing events within the Empire further fuel this reevaluation. In 321, Constantine issues an edict forbidding work on “the venerable day of the sun” (Sunday), the day that had come to be substituted for the seventh-day Sabbath (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday). Christians in general had hitherto held Saturday as sacred, though in Rome and in Alexandria, Egypt, Christians had ceased doing so. (In 365, the Council of Laodicea will formally prohibit the keeping of the “Jewish Sabbath” by Christians.)
In 324, the Emperor formally established Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. The previous year, Constantine had defeated the Eastern Emperor and had become the sole Emperor of East and West. Thus Christianity is now the established religion throughout the civilized Western world!
In an effort to further promote unity and uniformity within Christianity, Constantine calls a conclave of bishops from all parts of the Empire in 325.The council intended to settle doctrinal disputes among Christians -- is held at Nicea, in Bithynia.
The Council of Nicea confronts two major issues. It deals firstly with a dispute over the relationship of Christ to God the Father. The dispute is called the Arian controversy. Arius, a priest of Alexandria, has been teaching that Christ was created, not eternal and divine like the Father. The Council condemns him and his doctrine and exiles Arian teachers. (The movement, however, continues strong in many areas. When Gothic and Germanic invaders are converted to Christianity, it is frequently to the Arian form.)
The other major issue at the Council is the proper date for the celebration of Passover. Many Christians especially those in Asia Minor -- still commemorate Jesus’ death on the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan the day the “Jewish” Passover lambs had been slain. In contrast, Rome and the Western churches, emphasize the resurrection, rather than the death of Jesus. They celebrate an annual Passover feast, but always on a Sunday.
The Council rules that the ancient Christian Passover commemorating the death of Jesus must no longer be kept on pain of death. The Western custom is to be observed throughout the Empire, on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. It is later to be called “Easter” when the Germanic tribes are converted en masse to Christianity.
Most Christians accept this decree. They constitute mainstream Christianity and the world accepts them as such. But some refuse, and flee (Rev. 12:6) into the valleys and mountains of Europe and Asia Minor to escape persecution and death. They continue, away from the world’s view, as the true Church of God, lost in the pages of history.
As the majority of Christians view this new unity and uniformity within the Church and the near universality of its influence, a revolution in thinking takes place.
There is now One Empire, One Emperor, One Church, and One God. Many Christians wonder: Is it possible they have not fully understood the concept of the kingdom of God? It is possible that the Church itself, or even the now, Christianized Empire, is the long awaited kingdom of God?
Or, might it be that God’s kingdom is meant to be established on earth gradually, in successive stages? Could Constantine’s edicts be the first step in this process?
This is a time of reevaluation, of deep soul-searching. Some few declare the Church should wield no secular power, that such would be inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity. Entangling itself with temporal affairs, they assert, will only corrupt the Church from its true purpose. They declare that the world is still the enemy, only its outward tactics have changed.
But the majority feels differently. Here, they believe, is a great opportunity to spread their Christianity throughout the Empire and beyond. Hundreds of thousands even millions -- will be converted. The opportunity, they say, must be seized, not shunned!
The fateful union of Church and State is thus ratified. That move shapes the course of civilization for centuries to come.
Constantine the Great dies on May 22, 337. Water is poured on his forehead and he is declared “Baptized” on his death bed.
About a quarter century after Constantine’s death, his nephew Julian (361-363), gains the throne. Julian rejects the faith of his uncle and endeavors to revive the worship of the old gods. His hatred of the Christians gains for him the surname “Apostate.”
To spite the Christians, Julian patronizes the Jews, and even attempts to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. He is thwarted, however, by “balls of fire” issuing from the foundation, which makes it impossible for the workmen to approach. Despite Julian’s efforts, the old stories of gods and goddesses have lost their hold on the Roman mind. After Julian is killed while invading Persia, Christianity returns to full prominence in the Empire.
In 394, under Emperor Theodosius (378-395), the ancient gods are formally outlawed in the Empire. Conversion to Christianity becomes compulsory. The power of the Church in Theodosius’ time is best illustrated in an incident involving Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan. A man of savage temper, Theodosius orders the massacre of about 7,000 people of Thessalonica, as a punishment for a riot that had erupted there. The Thessalonians are butchered, the innocent with the guilty, by a detachment of Gothic soldiers sent by Theodosius for that purpose.
When the Emperor later attempts to enter the cathedral in Milan, Ambrose meets him at the door and refuses him entrance until he publicly confesses his guilt in the massacre. Though privately remorseful, the Emperor is reluctant to diminish the prestige of his office by such a humiliation. But after eight months, Theodosius the master of the civilized world -- finally yields and humbly implores pardon of Ambrose in the presence of the congregation. On Christmas Day, A.D. 390, he is restored to the communion of the Church. The incident emphasizes the independence of the Western Church from imperial domination.
Theodosius is the last ruler of a united Roman Empire. At his death the Empire is divided between his two sons Honorius (in the West) and Arcadius (in the East). Though in theory, only a division for administrative purposes, the separation proves to be permanent. The two sections grow steadily apart, and are never again truly united. Each goes its own way toward a separate destiny.
Meanwhile, the restless Gothic and Germanic tribes to the north grow stronger and more threatening to the peace of the Empire. For centuries the Romans have fought off the barbarian hordes. Now these tribes begin to move into the Empire in force. Not all, however, have come as enemies. For decades many tribes have been coming across the Roman frontiers peaceably, as settlers. Many Germans are now serving in the Roman army, and some in the imperial palace itself.
When Emperor Theodosius dies (395), one of these Germans is even named as guardian of his young son Honorius. He is Stilicho, a “barbarian” of the Vandal nation. A brilliant general, Stilicho repeatedly beats back attempted invasions of Italy by various barbarian tribes.
Most troublesome of all is Alaric the Visigoth. Stilicho repels numerous assaults by Alaric into the peninsula. But Honorius is jealous of the general who has so often saved Rome. In August, 408, he has Stilicho assassinated. The news of his death rouses Alaric to yet another invasion.
For a costly ransom, Alaric spares Rome in 409. But the next year he comes again. On August 10, A.D. 410, Alaric takes the “Eternal City,” and for six days Rome is given up to murder and pillage. For the first time in nearly 800 years, Rome is captured by a foreign enemy!
It is a profound shock. Many cannot believe it. When Jerome the translator of the Bible into Latin --hears the news in Bethlehem, he writes:
“My voice is choked, and my sobs interrupt the words I write. The city which took the whole world is herself taken. Who could have believed that Rome, which was built upon the spoils of the earth, would fall?”
Many bemoan the event as the fall of the Western Roman Empire. But there is still an emperor on the imperial throne. In a ceremonial way, at least, the Empire continues.
Alaric withdraws from the city and dies soon afterward. Rome grants the Visigoths the richest parts of Gaul as a permanent residence. By the middle of the 5th century, barbarian tribes are occupying most parts of the Western Roman Empire.
Of all the barbarian tribes, perhaps the non-Germanic Huns are the most feared of all. A nomadic people moving out of Central Asia, they are led by the famous Attila, known to the world of his time as the “Scourge of God.”
In 451, Attila invades Gaul, his objective being the kingdom of the Germanic Visigoths. The Roman General Aetius massing the combined forces of the Western Empire and the Visigoths holds his own against Attila near Chalons. It is called “the battle of nations,” one of the most memorable battles in the history of the world. It is Attila’s first and only setback.
Though checked, Attila’s power is not destroyed. The next year (452) Attila appears in northern Italy with a great army. Rome’s defenses collapse. The road to Rome lies open before Attila. Its citizens expect the worst.
The bishop of Rome at this time is a man named Leo. He has traveled northward to the river Po to meet the mighty Attila. There is no record of the conversation between the two. But one fact is clear. A fearless diplomat, Leo has confronted the “Scourge of God” and won. He has somehow persuaded Attila to abandon his quest for the Eternal City.
Attila dies shortly afterward. The Huns trouble Europe no more. The prestige of the papacy is greatly enhanced by Leo’s intervention on behalf of Rome. As the civil government grows increasing incapable of keeping order, the Church begins to take its place, assuming many secular responsibilities.
History will record that it was Leo the Great who laid the foundation of the temporal power of the popes. Leo has become the leading figure in Italy! In the religious sphere, Leo strongly asserts the primacy of Rome’s’ bishop over all other bishops.
Earlier in the century, the illustrious Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, had uttered the now-famous words, “Rome has spoken; the cause is ended.” At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the assembled bishops responded to Leo’s pronouncements with the words:”Peter has spoken by Leo; let him be anathema who believes otherwise.”
The doctrine that papal power had been granted by Christ to Peter, and that power was passed on by Peter to his successors in Rome, begins to take firm root.
In June, 455, Geiseric (Genseric) the Vandal king of North Africa occupies Rome. Again Leo saves the day. Leo induces Geiseric to have mercy on the city. Geiseric consents to spare the lives of Rome’s citizens, demanding only their wealth. Leo’s successful intervention further increases the prestige and authority of the papacy within the Empire, as well as the Church.
But the city of Rome is fast dying, and even the papacy’s efforts cannot save her. The Empire lives only in a ceremonial sense. The Western emperors are mere puppets of the various Germanic generals. Now even the ceremony is about to be stripped away.
It is 476. A boy-monarch sits on the throne in Rome. His name is Romulus Augustus, but he is satirically dubbed” Augustulus,” meaning “little Augustus.” By curious coincidence, he bears the names of the founder of Rome (Romulus) and of the Empire (Augustus) both of which are about to fall.
The German warrior Odoacer (or Odovacar) a Heruli chieftain, ruling over a coalition of Germanic tribes, sees no reason for carrying on the sham of the puppet emperors any longer. On Sept. 4, 476, he deposes Romulus Augustulus. The long and gradual process of the fall of Rome is now complete.
The Western Empire has received a mortal wound. Rome has fallen. The office of Emperor is vacant. There is no successor. The former mistress of the world is the booty of barbarians.
Zeno, the Eastern Emperor at Constantinople (founded by Constantine in 327 as the new capital for the Eastern half of the Empire), appoints Odoacer patricius (“patrician”) of Italy. But in reality Constantinople has little power in the West. Odoacer is an independent king in Italy.
With the fall of the Western Empire, ancient history draws to a close. A transitional period follows. Every portion of the Western Empire is occupied and governed by kings of Germanic race. Many of these barbarian kings are, like Odoacer, converts to Arian Christianity, opposed to the “Catholic” Christianity of Rome.
But their kingdoms are not destined to endure. Forces are already silently at work, forces seeking to mold out the ruins of the old Western Empire, a revived and revitalized Roman Empire, a non-Arian Empire! These forces will ultimately succeed in healing the deadly wound if A.D. 476 with epoch-making consequences.
To learn more of the fascinating story of the History of Europe and the Church be looking for the next installation, Chapter 3 is coming soon!