The Church Councils, part 6
Sep 07, 2019
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity brought a peculiar problem to the church for which it had no prior experience: political power. The Christian power brokers did not heed Jesus’ words about the proper use of authority, nor did they believe that authority was the power to be a servant. Hence, they used power to enforce religious creeds which in turn were established by the best carnal minds money could buy.
Even so, genuine Christian teaching was not fully extinct, even though the flow of history was quickly washing it away. Church historian, Philip Schaff tells us,
“But intelligent church leaders like Athanasius, Hosius, and Hilary, gave their voice for toleration, though even mean particularly toleration for orthodoxy, for the sake of which they themselves had been deposed and banished by the Arian power. Athanasius says, for example: ‘Satan, because there is no truth in him, breaks in with axe and sword. But the Saviour 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.” (History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, p. 39)
Having been deposed and exiled by an Arian emperor, even Athenasius himself seems to have learned a lesson in religious toleration. As long as Arians ruled the empire, they also ruled the church. Power tempts men to abandon the Golden Rule about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The more Christianity gained the power of empire, the less it seemed to resemble the humble ministry of Jesus and His apostles. Religion replaced relationship, unity raped love, and confessions to the latest creed replaced faith as the litmus test of salvation. Both freedom of conscience and the right to hear God’s voice became classed as heresy.
Constantius, the son of Constantine, was an Arian emperor who persecuted non-Arians, destroyed and robbed pagan temples, gave the booty to the church, and even made it the death penalty to make a pagan sacrifice or worship their images. He ruled from Constantinople (now Istanbul), but when he visited Rome in 357 for the first time and seeing how utterly pagan the city was, he abandoned any further attempt to enforce his own laws against paganism.
Perhaps then he understood his father’s motive in abandoning Rome and building a new city without pagan temples and idols. In Rome, Constantius was polite enough to visit the pagan temples, permitted them to sacrifice, and confirmed privileges upon the pagan priests.
Julian the Apostate
Constantius died in 361 and was succeeded by his nephew, Julian, who had seen firsthand the abuses in the church. These abuses had caused him to reject Christianity altogether by 351, when he was just 20 years old, but he wisely kept his apostasy hidden. In 355 he went to Athens, where he was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries, and this completed his transition from Christianity to paganism. Even so, his initiation remained hidden from the public.
When Julian came to the throne in 361, however, he finally had the power to be openly pagan without endangering his life. He ruled only 18 months and showed himself to be a brilliant military commander, a great intellectual with great executive ability, and having good moral character that far exceeded most emperors, Christian or pagan. But he was bitterly opposed to Christianity and made it his life’s mission to reinstate the worship of the Roman gods.
Julian understood also that pagan religions were as corrupt as Christianity. He thus attempted to reform paganism with the best precepts of Christian morality and to reduce its excesses. His pagan reformation soon made him enemies among the pagan priests. Julian discovered too late that the religion he sought to revive was morally worse than the Christianity he sought to repress.
Julian’s attack on Christianity actually took the form of religious toleration rather than open persecution. He had already seen firsthand that religious persecution did not work, so his tactic was to legalize paganism, along with all of the various factions of Christianity. He legalized all of the factions that had been suppressed since the Council of Nicea—the Arians, Apollinarians, Novatians, Macedonians, and Donatists.
During his short reign, competing denominations were given equal standing under the law. For this he was castigated by the Orthodox Christians who insisted that there was only “One Church,” that is, one creed to which all must subscribe regardless of conscience. Julian died on June 27, 363. He was buried along with the final chance for the revival of paganism.
The Return of Orthodoxy
The death of Julian ended the rule of the Constantinian family. Julian was succeeded by Jovian, a Christian general, who was chosen by his army. He ruled only eight months and was succeeded by Valentinian (364-375), who ruled from Constantinople but gave the city of Rome to his brother Valens. When Valentinian died in 375, his two sons, Valentinian II and Gracian, became co-rulers of the Western Empire.
Valens, who ruled the Eastern Empire, was killed in the Battle of Adrianople on August 9, 378, a disastrous battle against the Goths, Alans, and Huns. Two-thirds of the Eastern Roman Army was killed, and it marked the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire itself. It also changed church history forever.
Valens had no sons, so Gracian (in the East) appointed Theodosius to lead the army to defend the empire from the “barbarians.” This gave Theodosius the military power to become the eastern emperor in 379. Theodosius in the East and Gracian in the West agreed in 380 to make Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Rome.
They ended the public support for pagan temples, confiscated temple properties, and withdrew privileges of pagan priests. Paganism then became fully dependent upon voluntary offerings from the people. In the midst of this reformation, Theodosius called for another Church Council to establish once and for all the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Council of Constantinople
On February 27, 380 Theodosius, together with Gracian and Valentinian II, issued the Edict of Thessalonica, declaring Trinitarian Christianity to be the only legitimate imperial religion and the only creed entitled to the label “Catholic.” All who opposed he called “foolish madmen.”
Later that year, on November 26, he arrived in Constantinople, expelling the Arian bishop, Demophilus and replaced him with Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian Fathers. Keep in mind that this Gregory, along with his contemporary, Gregory of Nyassa, was an avowed Universalist, believing that God would save all men in the end, though most through judgments. Such universalist beliefs were still part of orthodoxy at the time and would not be questioned for another 20 years.
The gentle Gregory only reluctantly accepted the position as bishop of Constantinople, noting that Theodosius’ entry into the city resembled that of a hostile conqueror. Nonetheless, because he was a genuine Trinitarian, he was able to be true to himself in the difficult job of transforming the Arian church of that city into what was now being defined as Orthodoxy. The Trinitarian view in Constantinople was held by only a tiny minority.
In May 381 Theodosius summoned the Council of Constantinople to ratify his earlier Edict of Thessalonica, making the Trinity the main bulwark of Orthodoxy. While many claim that this Council was called to re-establish the Nicene Creed, it actually went beyond it. The Nicene Creed only established Binitarianism, while Trinitarian views began to be promoted two decades later. With the Council of Constantinople in 381, Trinitarian theology was fully established, and anyone holding alternate views were subject to the death penalty.
The fact is that it was Theodosius, not the bishops at the Council, who established the Trinity in 380 A.D. The Council was called in 381 to ratify the emperor’s belief. The bishops had already witnessed the emperor’s fanatical intolerance and his willingness to use brutal force. To vote against the Trinity might have had fatal consequences. Hence, one can hardly say that the Trinity doctrine was a revelation from God or that it was established by the Holy Spirit.
The Theodocian Code thus read:
“We shall believe in the single deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry 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 hostility which We shall assume in accordance with Divine Judgment.”
Though few could explain adequately how three are one, all were deemed “demented and insane” of they did not subscribe to the new and revised creed. Strangely enough, this revised creed, while emphasizing the personality of the Holy Spirit and his “equal majesty” with Father and Son, still made no mention of homoousios, even His coequal Godhead. Was this the bishop’s way of expressing passive resistance to Theodosius’ power grab?
The Nicene Creed had faced the problem of Father and an only-begotten Son, wherein they were fused into a single God. But the Theodocian Creed raised the question of whether the Holy Spirit was a second begotten Son or a second ingenerated God. If begotten, there would be two Sons; if not begotten, there would be two Fathers.
The result was that it was declared that it was impossible to really know God, that our feeble minds could not understand a single triune God, and that it was futile and even dangerous to ponder it too much or to ask too many questions. In the end, it became the creed of the church only because it had been enforced by the state.
The first casualty was freedom of conscience, which was lost for more than a thousand years. The second casualty was the idea that “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Simple faith in the promises of God (Romans 4:20, 21) had been replaced by swearing allegiance to man-made creeds enforced by military might.
This is part 6 of a series titled "The Church Councils" To view all parts, click the link below.