Sunday, July 8, 2018
A History Lesson, Part 2
In AD 250 Emperor Decius (249-251) started the worst persecution Christians had yet faced. Decius commanded all citizens of the empire to sacrifice to the Roman gods, or face death. Those who sacrificed were given a certificate as evidence they obeyed, while some were able to obtain false certificates without actually sacrificing. Many Christians who could not obtain false certificates sacrificed to save their lives. It was during this time the term “martyr” (witness) became prevalent, used of those who died because of their refusal to participate in the sacrifices. Those who endured the persecution without denying Christ were called “confessors.” The martyrs and confessors were held in awe, and the names of martyrs were recorded in the churches. The anniversaries of these “saints‘” deaths were celebrated annually at their tombs.
After Decius was killed in battle, persecution relaxed and the question of readmission to the church was raised in regards to those who were not spiritually prepared to hold fast their faith under torture. Bishop Cyprian of Carthage stated, “Outside the church there is no salvation.” This led to demands for readmission, but the question was whether or not this was a sin which could be forgiven. Cyprian was then confronted with many who believed that the unusual courage of the confessors led to their being granted special power from God, and that the Holy Spirit ordained them to absolve people of their sins. Supposedly they could cover with their “merits” the “demerits” of those who apostatized, and they wanted Cyprian to issue a blanket pardon on that basis. Cyprian instead favored a system of readmission based on the degrees of seriousness of sins. He decided that leniency was to be granted to those who had sacrificed to the pagan gods only after extreme torture, while those who went willingly would receive harsher punishments. Cyprian’s argument won, and the church at large created a graded system of penance to allow the lapsed to return. (The North African idea of merits didn’t die - it reappeared later in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Treasury of Merit and indulgences.) Penance became the second sacrament, behind baptism.
When Diocletian came to the throne of the Roman empire in 284, he determined the empire was unmanageable and so divided it up into four parts under himself and three other men; he and Maximian were “Augusti“ and under them were two “Caesars.” At first he paid no attention to the growing power of the Christian faith, but in 303, two years before the end of his reign, he purged all Christians from his army, destroyed church buildings, burned the Scriptures and prohibited Christian worship. He issued edicts which led to the most savage persecution of Christians in history.
Diocletian abdicated in 305 and forced Maximian to also abdicate. The new eastern Augustus, Galerius, took the persecution to more intense levels (it is possible he encouraged Diocletian to begin the persecutions). The other replacement Augustus, Constantius Chlorus, who was in Britain, had never pushed the persecution in his district of Gaul, and now he ended persecution and even showed Christians favor.
Galerius, on his deathbed in 311, realized his efforts to eradicate Christianity had failed, so his last official act was to issue an edict of toleration, which effectively brought the worst Roman persecution to an end.
Galerius’ death brought about a struggle for imperial power. Constantius’ son, Constantine, led his forces to solidify the Roman empire under his control. When he came upon a militarily superior enemy in October 312, he prayed to the Christian God, and supposedly received a vision of a cross in the sky, with the words, “In this sign conquer.” This convinced him to attack, and his forces won the battle. Constantine saw this as proof of the superiority of the Christian religion with it’s powerful Christ.
Constantine’s conversion to the Christian faith is debated by historians and scholars, and is beyond the scope of this study. But, according to Bruce Shelly, “He allowed Christian ministers to enjoy the same exemption from taxes as pagan priests; he abolished executions by crucifixion; he called a halt to the battles of gladiators as a punishment for crimes; and in 321 he made Sunday a public holiday. Thanks to his generosity, magnificent church building arose as evidence of his support of Christianity. This public Christianity was matched by changes in Constantine’s private life. Making no secret of his Christian convictions, he had his sons and daughters brought up as Christians and led a Christian family life.” (Church History in Plain Language, pp.94-95)
Next time we will look at how the Roman church rose to prominence prior to Constantine’s conversion.