Monday, July 06, 2020

Why I Wrote "Trinity, Canon, and Constantine: Clear Light on the Early Church"

by Alfred D. Byrd

Do you recall the controversy over The Da Vinci Code? In that controversy, supporters and detractors of the book and of the movie flung facts, opinions, and even fabrications at each other, often with scant context to guide interested listeners to the debate. Wouldn't it have helped them for there to be a short work that set out the persons, movements, and events of the time of the Early Church clearly and succinctly?

I thought so, too. Finding in print nothing I felt met the need I perceived, I wrote the short work myself and called it Trinity, Canon, and Constantine: Clear Light on the Early Church to let confused seekers of enlightenment on the Early Church know that the work might be what they were looking for. My book uses the chrono-topological technique, tracing persons, doctrines, and events within the greater context of history as time that passes and as times in which conflicting trends meet. I break up each of these topics into bite-sized chunks you can easily digest.

The span of time I've covered runs from the Church's establishment on the Day of Pentecost to the fall of Jerusalem to the Moslem caliph Umar. During this span, the Church existed largely within, and in an uneasy relation with, the Roman Empire, ruled first from Rome and then from Constantinople. Because of the Church's relationship with the Empire, you can't understand the Church's development without knowledge of corresponding developments in the Empire. Thus, I start my book, not with the birth of Christianity, but with an overview of the Empire, and each chapter contains an update of the Empire.

In following disputes in the early Church, you need to know in what order events occurred in it. The Church arose amid persecutions, at first by local religious authorities in Jerusalem and then by imperial servants of Rome, as a Jewish sect that ballooned when it began to take on Gentile (non-Jewish) converts. The Church's changing demographics brought on the first set of controversies within in. These centered on whether Gentile converts to the faith needed to observe Mosaic Law, the basis of the Jews' relationship with God. The Church's first council resolved this question in favor of Gentiles' freedom from the Law. The contrary position became a minority movement that soon lost its connection with the core Church.

As time passed, the Church faced several new crises. In the Jewish War, Herod's Temple, where Jewish Christians and non-Christian Jews mingled, was destroyed along with Jerusalem, and the link between Judaism and Christianity was broken. When the apostles (holy messengers) appointed by Jesus Christ died off, the Church went on under new leadership consisting of bishops ('overseers,' episkopoi in Greek) whom the apostles had set over local congregations or communities. The Church began to divide over Jesus' nature. Some Christians, reflected in the Ebionites, saw him only as a human prophet, as Moslems see him today. Other Christians saw him as wholly divine, having only a human appearance, as Gnostics teach to this day. A third set of Christians saw Him as both human and divine, though how He could be so, and what His relationship with God the Father and God's Holy Spirit was, would be matters of dispute it'd take centuries to settle. Christians began to record their teachings on faith and practice and to consider which of their writings were authoritative, containing apostolic teaching for the Church.

In the Second Century, the Church, facing persecution on the Imperial level, began to try to make peace with Rome's emperors. Church leaders began to write apologies (reasoned defenses) of Christianity in the form of memorials in which they explained to the emperors that salvation through faith in Jesus Christ produced in believers goodness that was a blessing, not a curse, to the Empire. Some Church leaders also tried to prove that Christianity was consistent with, and even a fulfillment of, Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism and Platonism. The leaders' effort to blend Christianity and philosophy was both a blessing and a curse to the Church. That effort at times produced clarity of doctrine, but also increased the conflicts among proponents of Jesus as wholly human, wholly divine, or both human and divine.

In the Third Century, the Empire was ruled by an Imperial dynasty that kept social order by naked military toughness. Under this dynasty, the Church experienced periods of intense persecution interspersed with periods of tolerance. During this period, a line of theologians based in Rome and in an African city called Carthage developed the doctrine of the Trinity, God as one nature in three "persons." It's impossible to understand this doctrine correctly unless you know that the term "person" was originally hypostasis, meaning something like "foundation" or "manifestation" in Greek, and that persona, the Latin translation of this term, meant "mask" or "role" rather than "individual" as we use "person." Those who formulated the doctrine of the Trinity never believed, as some have falsely claimed they believed, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three separate individuals, but taught that they are three revelations of the One True God.

When the strong dynasty ended, the Empire dissolved into a time of turmoil in which continual civil war was interrupted by invasions by Germans and Parthians (later themselves overthrown by a revived Persian Empire) and by wars of secession in which rival empires split off from Rome's authority. In the time of turmoil, the Church faced its strongest persecutions to date. These gave rise to a new crisis in the Church: what to do when recantors (Christians who had renounced their faith under torture or threat of execution) sought to rejoin the Christian communion. In Rome, recantors came to be readmitted to communion by confession and penace under a bishop's authority. In Roman Africa, a powerful Church leader named Novatian began a schismatic church when he proclaimed that the Church had no authority to forgive recantors. His church became a powerful rival of Rome's and lasted for centuries until the Islamic jihad swept over once Roman lands. Also during the time of turmoil, the Church faced a powerful new rival in the religion of Manichaeism, an offshoot of the Ebionite faith that incomporated elements of Buddhism and of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.

Despite persecution, schism, and rival religions, the Church kept growing. The world changed for it when Constantine the Great became emperor. Although reared as a pagan and long a devotee of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, Constantine learned respect for Christianity from his Christian mother, Helena, Emperor Constantius' concubine. Leading an army to conquer Rome, Constantine reportedly had a vision of a flaming cross in the sky and heard a voice say to him, "Hoc signo vinces," 'By this sign, you will conquer.' In response to the vision and the voice, Constantine had his troops paint on their shields the Greek letters Chi and rho, the first two letters of Christos, 'Christ.' When Constantine took the Roman capital, he issued a decree of tolerance for Christianity and made it the Empire's favored religion. Clearly, he hoped to benefit the Empire by allying it with a vibrant, rapidly growing religion, and Christianity benefited in turn from tolerance. Sadly, this brought to the Church fresh division, most prominently in the dispute between Trinitarians and Arians, who believed that only the Father was God and that the Son, though superhuman, was merely the firstborn of created beings. To resolve the dispute between the two parties in the Church, Constantine summoned the Council of Niceaea, which decided in favor of the Trinitarians. Still, Constantine waved between supporting Trinitarianism and Arianism, and the dispute between the two positions was far from over when Constantine was baptized as a Christian on his deathbed. Before his death, Constantine had moved the Empire's capital to a "New Rome" on the border between Europe and Asia — a city we know as Constantinople, 'Constantine's city.'

Having spent much of his life on reunifying the Roman Empire, Constantine divided it among three of his sons on his death. In fratricidal war, his son Constantius II came out on top and largely suppressed Trinitarianism in favor of Arianism. Lacking sons of his own, he left the Empire to his cousin Julian, who, disgusted with the strife within his familiy and within Christianity, became a pagan. As emperor, he tried to restore paganism as the Empire's official relgiion. His effort was cut short when he died under unclear circumstances during a quixotic invasion of the Persian Empire. His first three successors, Trinitiarian Christians, restored the work of the Council of Nicaea. His fourth successor, Theodosius the Great, outlawed paganism in the Empire once and for all.

Theodosius, imitating Constantine, divided the Empire between his sons after his death. Both of his sons were weak; their weakness weakened the Empire — particularly in the West, inherently the weaker section. As the West declined, and the East hung on, in the face of invasions by Germanic tribes and by the Huns, the Church grew under the teaching of its first three doctors: Ambrose of Milan, Jerome of Judea, and Augustine of Hippo. In a further pair of ecumenical councils, the Church further defined the doctrine of Christ as two natures in one Person and of the Trinity as one nature in three Persons. The Church's growth could not halt the decline of the West. Rome was first sacked by Alaric and then fell to Odovacer. From Rome's fall, the West — Brittania, Gallia, Hispania, and Italia &mmdash; would be ruled by Germans, first in the Empire's name and then in their own names.

Europeans who lived at the time of Romulus Augustulus' abdication of the Western throne didn't think of that act as an empire's end. Rather, they thought that the Western Empire went on under German patricians exercizing authority from the Emperor in Constantinople. Knowledge of the ancient world came to the future through the writings of Boethius and through the teachings of Celtic scholars and of Benedictine monks. Emperor Justinian made a herculean effort to restore the West to direct Imperial authority — an effort that destroyed several promising German-Roman civilizations. Justinian memorialized his triumphs by building Hagia Sophia, "a temple greater than Solomon's." Sadly, he couldn't reunite the Church, which was river with controversies between Trinitiarians, who teach that Jesus Christ is a disticnct human nature and a distinct divine nature in one Person, and Monophysites, who teach that Jesus Christ is a divine nature in a human body. The division between Trinitiarians and Monophysites remains until today, as the Coptic and Ethiophian churches, inter alia, are Monophysite.

Emperor Justinian made the last real effort to reunite the Empire within the boundaries that it had held at its height. After its time, it would face deadlyt invasions by Slavs, by Persians — and, in the end, by Moslems. Meanwhile, the Church fractured further as even more obscure disputes about the Trinity and about the nature of Christ eroded the doctrinal simplicity of the Apostle's Creed. Still, dedicated men and women would keep the Faith alive, as it is today.


You can learn more of Trinity, Canon, and Constantine: Clear Light on the Early Church by clicking on the link.

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