Thursday, July 12, 2018
A History Lesson, Part 4
After Constantine’s conversion he convened general councils to settle major troubling issues. In 314 he convened a general council of the west at Arles, and in 325 he convened the first General Council of the whole church at Nicea. It was at the Nicene council that a policy of patriarchates was established, where the administration of the church affairs would be by bishops from three or four major cities. Alexandria, Rome and Antioch were preeminent in their areas, while Jerusalem was granted an honorary primacy.
In AD 330, Constantine moved his capital east from Rome to the town of Byzantium, and renamed it Constantinople, but it was also known as “New Rome“. This shifted the political center of the empire to the east, and in turn the bishop of Constantinople became the focus of spiritual and doctrinal leadership.
While the favoring of the Christian faith brought advantages, it also brought about great disadvantages. “Constantine ruled Christian bishops as he did his civil servants and demanded unconditional obedience to official pronouncements, even when they interfered with purely church matters. There were also the masses who now streamed into the officially favored church. Prior to Constantine’s conversion, the church consisted of convinced believers. Now many came who were politically ambitious, religiously disinterested, and still half-rooted in paganism. This threatened to produce not only shallowness and permeation by pagan superstitions but also the secularization and misuse of religion for political purposes.” (Shelly, p.96) “…the result was a decline in Christian commitment. The stalwart believers whom Diocletian killed were replaced by a mixed multitude of half-converted pagans. Once Christians laid down their lives for the truth; now they slaughtered each other to secure the prizes of the church.” (p.118)
There was an underlying cultural problem which helped cause divergence between the two halves of the empire: while the Western church was linguistically Latin, the Eastern church was Greek. When Constantine died in 337 and left his empire divided between his two sons, the divergence grew.
In 380 Emperor Theodosius made belief in Christianity mandatory, under the name of “Catholic Christians.” His imperial command said, “The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with divine judgment.” As Shelly points out, “Theodosius takes for granted the close link between his own will and God’s. It was a connection implicit in the Christian empire.” (p.97)
In 381 Theodosius called a council in which he said that the bishop of Constantinople was to take precedence immediately after the Roman bishop, because Constantinople was the New Rome. This didn’t set well with Rome, and the following year the Roman bishop Damasus declared for the first time that Rome was of primacy because, as he claimed, Jesus said he built His church on Peter, and Peter founded the Roman church.
Under Theodosius church structure began centering on powerful positions. The bishops of leading cities and imperial provinces became known as archbishops, and the center of his jurisdiction became known as the see. Shelly tells us, “Those bishops in the premier cities of the empire - Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch - were considered highest of all and were called patriarchs. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries these four powerful patriarchs were attempting to extend the prestige and power of their spiritual offices.” (p.111). Rome was now influential in the western empire while Constantinople was influential in the east.
The bishop of Constantinople came to rely on the church’s political position, and religion and politics became so entwined that the bishop began losing his independence from the emperor. Meanwhile, Damasus in Rome was subjected to weakened political control and began asserting the primacy claimed by Damasus’ appeal to Peter’s position.
When Theodosius died in 395, the Eastern part of the empire was ruled by his son Flavius Arcadius until he died in 408, while the Western part of the empire was ruled by his son Flavius Honorius until he died in 423. The leadership of the empire continued changing over the next few decades, and church leadership continued to be more and more focused at the two capitals.
In Rome the church leadership passed through seven bishops after Damasus until Leo 1, who became bishop in 440. Leo immediately preached on the issue of the authority of the church resting in the bishop of Rome by virtue of the authority of Peter’s position as the rock on which Christ said his church would be built (which was a gross misapplication of Scripture). This erroneously assumed any authority given to Peter thereby became the authority of the bishop of Rome.
The claim by Leo was made into an official imperial claim when, in 445, Emperor Valentinian III “issued a decree instructing Aetius, the Roman commander in Gaul, to compel the attendance at the papal court of any bishop who refused to come voluntarily. … The imperial document ran: ‘As the primacy of the Apostolic See is based on the title of the blessed Peter, prince of the episcopal dignity, on the dignity of the city of Rome, and on the decision of the Holy Synod, no illicit steps may be taken against this See to usurp its authority. For the only way to safeguard peace among the churches everywhere is to acknowledge its leadership universally.’” (Shelly, p.138)
At the council of Chalcedon in October 451, although Leo was the dominant figure, the council ended up giving the bishop of Constantinople the same authority as Leo’s, so that now there were indeed two sole and independent leaders - the bishop of Rome in the West and the bishop of Constantinople in the East. Leo’s representative protested but the 350 bishops meeting at the council did not alter their decision.
Next time: Attila the Hun and the Vandals change the political and religious status of Rome.