HI 522: CHURCH HISTORY
Handy, Lotz, Norris, and Walker: A History of the Christian Church, Fourth Edition
Luther Rice Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment of
the Requirements for the Degree
Masters of Divinity
Justin Z. DuBose
5218 Happy Hollow Court
Lula, GA 30554
I.D.# GC6831 / Phone: (678) 707-1491
March 29, 2011
Professor: Dr. Jones
Hours Completed: 0 -- Hours Remaining: 90
CONSTANTINE: HIS CONTRIBUTIONS TO CHRISTIANITY AND THE CHURCH
Presented to Dr. Marvin Jones
Luther Rice Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Course
HI 522: CHURCH HISTORY
Justin Z. DuBose
II. CONSTANTINE AS A CHRISTIAN
A. Personal acts as Emperor
III. CONSTANTINE AS A CHRISTIAN EMPEROR
A. Edict of Milan
B. Council of Nicea
C. Church of the Holy Sepulchre
D. Old St. Peter’s Basilica
IV. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. As a result, the church achieved official state recognition from Constantine, and the emperor greatly aided the church in its evangelical mission.
This paper will look at three specific achievements of Constantine: the Edict of Milan in 313, the Council of Nicaea in 325, and his building projects, specifically the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This paper will demonstrate that Constantine’s motivations were a genuine desire to obey the Biblical, Scriptural mandates at a personal level rather than simply at a national level. Understanding this personal commitment to Christ, which is far beyond trying to obtain God’s favor on a national level - such as simply to gain God’s favor for the protection of his empire - is the key to unlocking the motivation behind the successes of Constantine.
CONSTANTINE AS A CHRISTIAN
Personal acts as Emperor
Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, better known as Constantine, was Emperor of Rome from 306 until his death in 337. The fact that Constantine was a Christian ruler is undisputed. While this paper will focus on his actions as they affect the empire in its entirety, understanding his personal acts as Emperor – those which are less well-known and affect Constantine on a more personal level – are important to understanding his commitment to the Christian faith. Within a few years of becoming emperor, Constantine brought into his court a spiritual counselor. “By  he had taken on an ecclesiastical advisor”. 1 This advisor, no doubt, wielded great influence in matters of the church. After taking in this advisor, Constantine would pass several pieces of legislation in favor of Christianity. History records that, “in 321, he issued a decree that allowed churches to receive legacies, thus conceding them the legal status of corporations”. 2 This action was unprecedented, especially from the office of the emperor
1 Williston Walker, Richard A Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy. A History of the Christian Church: Fourth
Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 129.
2 Ibid., 129
himself. Constantine also “legislated that the Day of the Sun, the Christian “first day,” should be kept as a weekly holiday from work”. 3 Beyond official legislation, Constantine generously gave from his own funds to help churches and Christian charities. “Gifts of money were made to individual churches for charitable use. The emperor constructed basilicas at his own expense to serve as Christian places of worship”. 4 What was the result of such a personal commitment of the emperor to Christianity? Speaking of Christianity, one author aptly writes, “The movement started the fourth century as a persecuted minority; it ended the century as the established religion of the empire”. 5 Constantine’s convictions were deep, and, with those convictions, he changed the Roman Empire and the church forever. With his personal convictions established, let us turn to his official, more prominent actions as Emperor.
3 Walker, Norris, Lotz, and Handy, 129.
4 Ibid., 129
5 Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing), 89.
CONSTANTINE AS A CHRISTIAN EMPEROR
Edict of Milan
The Edict of Milan, issued in 313, proclaimed religious freedom and toleration throughout the Roman Empire. While this, in and of itself, was unprecedented in Roman history, the timing of the Edict made it all the more astounding. The Edict was an official end to the Diocletian persecution of Christians, the harshest in the history of Rome. While the Edict proclaimed religious freedom, for all religions, it was obviously targeted specifically at the Christian religion, given the preceding circumstances and Constantine’s own religious convictions. The effects of the Edict were far-reaching. “Anyone so desiring might publicly convert to Christianity. Those Christian places of worship destroyed or appropriated during times of persecution were to be restored, and confiscated Christian property was to be returned or indemnified”. 6 What a change! How astonished Roman citizens must have been with this change in policy! The effect of this Edict on the Christian religion, writes one scholar, was that “It opened the door for the elevation of Christianity to the same position which the old Roman idolatry
6 Johnson, Edward A. " Constantine The Great: Imperial Benefactor Of The Early Christian Church". Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:2 (1979): 163.
had hitherto enjoyed in the empire”. 7 This “position” that he speaks of, in regard to idolatry, is prominence at the highest levels of Roman power and authority for centuries. With one Edict, issued at the right time, Constantine altered the face of the Roman Empire. The effect of this Edict on the church, writes another scholar, was that “the church became at home in the world”. 8 Is this a good or bad place for the church to be at home? Some theologians see this Edict as having a negative effect on the church. One such theologian writes that, after the Edict of Milan, the church “became a wealthy institution, filled with nominal Christians who were more interested in being well-bred and socially acceptable than truly faithful”. 9 Whatever the effects of this Edict of Constantine issued almost 1700 years ago, the impact it had on Christianity and the church is still observable today.
Council of Nicea
Twelve years after the Edict of Milan, in 325, Constantine convened approximately 300 Christian bishops in the city of
7 Schaff, Philip. “Constantine The Great, And The Downfall Of Paganism In The Roman Empire”. Bibliotheca Sacra 020:80 (1863): 791
8 Cairns, Earle E. “Eschatology and Church History Part I”. Bibliotheca Sacra 115:458 (1958): 142
9 Tharp, David T. “Onward Christian Soldiers: The Church as a Militant Body”. Ashland Theological Journal 25:0 (1993): 18
Nicaea – modern day İznik, Turkey. The purpose of this convention was to settle the Donatist Schism, a fracture in the church as a result of the Diocletian persecutions. The outcome of the convention was the “Nicene Creed”, a creed still used by Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches, which articulated the beliefs of Christendom as a body. There are two significant contributions of this Council to Christianity and the church. It was the first universal council which represented all of Christianity, and was paid for with state money, no less. Secondly, it served as the first instance of unification within the Christian church. The church had, essentially, always been an “underground” institution, much more dispersed and localized than unified. One author writes of the bishops who attended the Council by focusing on their being victims of the Diocletian persecution. He describes them by saying that “many could show the scars of suffering and prison. One had lost an eye during the persecution. Another had lost the use of his hands under torture”. 10 With this, one can see the state of the church prior to Constantine. Now, the author contrasts the new state of the church under Constantine. “But the days of suffering seemed over now. The bishops did not set out for Nicea secretly, as they used to do, fearing arrest. They did not painfully walk
10 Shelley, 101
the long miles as they once did. They rode in comfort to the council, all their expenses paid, the guests of the emperor”. 11 Indeed, this single action of Constantine served as effective reinforcement of the fact that the Roman Empire was now a propagator of Christian ideals. This council - which emphasized the doctrine of the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Jesus, His death and resurrection, and the rapture of the church – laid a firm foundation for the unified church, upon which, to a great degree, it still stands. Constantine personally oversaw the Council and thus, like his Edict of Milan, had a great impact upon Christianity and the church.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which still stands today, was one of Constantine’s greatest achievements. The “Sepulchre” – the place where Jesus Christ was buried and resurrected – had for centuries been covered with dirt and a temple to Aphrodite built there simply in hatred of Christianity. Constantine ordered the temple destroyed and the dirt removed, so as to expose the sacred sepulchre. He then ordered that a church be built around the sepulchre, preserving it wholly intact. Interestingly, it seems as though no one at the time understood
this to be the place of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Even
11 Shelley, 101
the local bishops were astounded when Constantine instructed them to build the church on the location, claiming that the Holy Sepulchre was beneath the temple of Aphrodite. Eusebius, known as the “Father of Church History”, and who at the time was the Bishop of Caesarea, wrote his reaction when he heard “that Constantine and his mother were selecting a Venus Shrine as the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He stated that such was “contrary to all expectation”. 12 The church was built nonetheless, and today it is essentially undisputed that, on that site, Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. It is remarkable that this same site, which was thought meaningless even by local bishops and church fathers, is now accepted as the place which Constantine claimed it to be. One author writes, "We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus' burial, but we have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site”. 13 The site has been preserved despite damage from the Persians, the Muslims, and the Crusaders. Constantine’s contribution to Christianity with this site, especially given the circumstances
12 Martin, Ernest L. “The Crucifixion Site of Jesus”. Bible and Spade 05:4 (1992): 122.
13 Bahat, Dan. "Does the Holy Sepulchre church mark the burial of Jesus?" Biblical Archaeology Review 12 (1986): 26–45.
surrounding the location when he decided to build it, is
Old St. Peter’s Basilica
Another major archaeological achievement of Constantine is Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which has since been destroyed. On the same site, though, St. Peter’s Basilica of today stands, at least preserving Constantine’s efforts if not his structure. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the location of the Basilica was strategically decided. The ruins of “Nero’s Circus” remained, where many Christians, including the apostle Peter, were martyred. The Annals of Tacitus, an ancient Roman historian, have been preserved and one can still read about what took place at the Circus. Tacitus writes that, on this site, Nero “punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians”. He goes on to describe the cruelty of which he speaks. “First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus” (emphasis added). 14 Like his Edict of Milan, like his Council of Nicaea, and like his Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with this Basilica, Constantine aimed to rewrite Roman history. He wished to erase from memory the terrible relationship of the Romans and Christians. He wished not only to fulfill Scriptural mandates for himself, but also to procure the favor of the Lord for his empire. With the building of this Basilica, Constantine not only “spit in the face” of past, vile Roman emperors such as Nero, but he also replaced their structures with Christian sites which people today still enjoy.
14 The Annals of Tacitus, XV.44
Constantine demonstrated his commitment to maintaining a Christian empire. He sought not only to legislate in favor of Christianity, but he also sought to build lasting works to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ for generations to come and, in that effort, he has certainly been successful. What are the motivating factors for this lasting work? Certainly it has to be rooted in his Christian convictions. However, even more profound than that, one must understand the depth of these convictions, on a personal level, and the necessity of urgency of action caused by these personal beliefs. The best evidence of this comes from the pen of Constantine himself. In corresponding to a friend about his motivations in deciding some civil case, he writes, “They demand my judgment, who am myself waiting for the judgment of Christ.” 15 One cannot ignore the urgency in this statement, especially if one is familiar with the Christian expectation of the judgment of Christ. It is this motivating factor which pushed Constantine to use his position as Emperor of the Roman Empire to make effectual change for Christ. Both his sense of urgency, and in particular the
action that resulted, are invaluable lessons for the Christian
15 Keith, Graham. “Church-State Relations: The Impact of the Constantinian Revolution”. Reformation and Revival 13:4 (2004): 60.
today. The modern church has been, in a great many ways, fashioned by Constantine himself. May the Christians that comprise the church today never grow complacent with progress. Rather, like Constantine, may they seek to have an effectual change for Christ, motivated by their personal relationship with Him.
IV. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Bahat, Dan. "Does the Holy Sepulchre church mark the burial of Jesus?" Biblical Archaeology Review 12 (1986): 26–45.
Cairns, Earle E. “Eschatology and Church History Part I”. Bibliotheca Sacra 115:458 (1958): 142
Johnson, Edward A. " Constantine The Great: Imperial Benefactor Of The Early Christian Church". Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:2 (1979): 163.
Keith, Graham. “Church-State Relations: The Impact of the Constantinian Revolution”. Reformation and Revival 13:4 (2004): 60.
Martin, Ernest L. “The Crucifixion Site of Jesus”. Bible and Spade 05:4 (1992): 122.
Schaff, Philip. “Constantine The Great, And The Downfall Of Paganism In The Roman Empire”. Bibliotheca Sacra 020:80 (1863): 791
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing), 89.
Tharp, David T. “Onward Christian Soldiers: The Church as a Militant Body”. Ashland Theological Journal 25:0 (1993): 18
The Annals of Tacitus, XV.44
Walker, Williston; Norris, Richard A.; Lotz, David W.; and Handy, Robert T. A History of the Christian Church: Fourth
Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 129.
NG, LR, & NCU
My collection of personal papers written over the years