Bishops - Part 4: In the Age of Constantine
January 29, 2011 Length: 40:27
In his ongoing series on bishops, Fr. Thomas explores the fourth century under the Emperor Constantine.
This is the fourth of our reflections on the bishop and the clergy, generally, in the Christian Church through history. We reflected already on the Church in the first three centuries. We began with the New Testament, and then we had two podcasts about the structure of the Christian Church in the first, second, and third centuries, about how the Church got organized and how it was structured and the place of the bishop, because already in the New Testament, we have bishop, presbyter, and deacon in the Church; we have widows, we have virgins. We see the Church defined as a kingdom of prophets and priests, as a new nation, a peculiar people, chosen people, and we see the Church in the earliest time being structured in a very particular way, rooted, of course, in the Old Testament.
But it is the Old Testament Church, so to speak, the Qahal Israel, the Church of Israel, the Qahal Yahweh, the Church of Yahweh, in the time when the Messiah has come, when the Messiah has been on earth, has been crucified, raised, glorified, and the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh and the end of the ages has come. The Christians understood their Church as the New Covenant community, the ecclesia, the gathering, the assembly, as witnessing to Christ, preaching the Gospel, holding securely the faith once for all delivered to the saints, worshiping God properly in spirit and truth, teaching correctly the understanding of God and humanity and everything else, just understanding the truth of all things in Christ, and bearing witness to this until Christ comes again.
The Church structure was structured exactly for that purpose. It was structured to bear witness to the kingdom of God that had come to the world in Christ, and to bear witness to Christ himself as the way, the truth, the life, the Son of God, the image of God, the word of God, the power of God, the unique human being who is God incarnate and reveals the one, true, and living God who is his Father.
Now, we said, in our reflection on those first three centuries, that the Church was, of course, illegal. It was illegal in the Roman Empire. It was considered a superstition. It was considered a danger to the empire, because the Christians had their own God, they refused to offer incense to the emperor as to God, they refused to say that Christianity was just one of the religions of the empire that was supporting all imperial policy and praying for the protection of the empire. The churches certainly did pray for the emperor as supreme, as it says in St. Paul’s letters, and certainly took their place within the Roman Empire, but they absolutely refused to be idolatrous. They absolutely refused to be polytheists. They absolutely refused to recognize the gods of the pagans as on equal status with their God, the one, true, living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose Son Jesus was.
And we know about these things. We reflected about them, and we saw how the Church began to develop, and how it became a community in local places, and then a connection, a chain of communities in communion with each other, headed by the one bishop with the presbyters and the deacons and the faithful people, and how that Church operated, how it acted, how it kept the faith, and how it dealt with heresies and schisms and divisions in the first three centuries.
But what we want to see right now is that it did it all on its own. It had no governmental support. In fact, it was opposed by the government, persecuted, and the last violent persecution took place at the end of the third century under Diocletian. But at that time, it already became in the Roman Empire unpopular to persecute Christians, because Christians were seen as law-abiding people, except for the fact [that] they would not sacrifice to the gods. They were seen as moral. They were seen as law-abiding. They were seen as helping the poor and the needy, not only their own, but even others. And they were generally respected, and they had grown into a formidable presence within the Roman empire, even though they were illegal.
But then the fourth century comes. The fourth century comes and the Emperor Constantine, [about whom there are] very complicated stories that are very hard to unravel and to really understand, with masses of details and interpretations through history about what actually happened. But what we know for sure happened, what we can say for sure happened was that Constantine began to honor the Christian God and came to believe in the Christian God and believe that the Christian God was, in fact, the highest divinity that the enlightened and illumined pagans were worshiping, because the pagans, to use that term, although maybe that’s not a proper term, but the polytheist religions of the Roman empire that existed to support the empire and the religion of the empire itself—which supported many religions as long as they sacrificed for the well-being and the good of their local region and of the empire as a whole—they were tolerated and even considered necessary, because the gods had to be appeased.
Polytheists, many of them, the more enlightened, they said, “Yeah, there’s many gods, there’s many powers, there’s many lords, there’s many forces, but there is the highest divinity, the one, true, supreme divinity which is somehow over all and to which they all somehow refer.” These were the religions of the Roman empire that were affirmed as protecting the empire, and that people who believed in these did not compete with each other. They just said, “You have yours, we have ours, we’re all together in this empire.”
Well, the Christians refused to do that, but Constantine, this emperor, in the beginning of the fourth century, came to believe, and he swore at the end of his life that he had had a vision, that he saw the cross, that he saw the words “In this Sign you will conquer,” and for whatever reasons—psychological, supernatural, political, pragmatic—Constantine decided that he should put himself under the protection of the Christian God, and that’s what he did. And in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Milan, where he became the leader in the West and then he became the sole emperor of the whole Roman Empire, he definitely converted in that sense to Christianity.
However, the conversion is a kind of a very difficult thing to explain how exactly he understood it, because Constantine himself was not baptized until 12 days before he died, in the year 337. So he was the emperor for 20 years, not being formally a member of the Church, not being a communicant of the Church. When, for example, he called the Council of Nicaea, and other councils also, to deal with problems in the empire that had to do with Christianity, he was not a member of the Church, even though he presided at the Council and called the Council.
He considered himself a kind of a bishop. He called himself an episcopos of the Church, who was called by God and fated by God to protect and guard and honor and give freedom to the Christians, and even to become himself a Christian at the end of his life, but he did this at the same time while still dealing with the many gods of what we can call paganism, the many religions of the Roman empire, and he tried to bring them all together, and he tried to see how he could assuage and use and not offend the Romans, the great, great majority of the leaders of his empire who were polytheistic pagans. As one of the authors on this theme said, “It was more important for him to have peace and harmony and to collect the taxes than it was to get involved in theological disputes and to start destroying pagan temples and taking on all the pagan empire.”
He did not do that, but he worked hard to bring the two together, and in a sense he probably even understood in the beginning that’s what he was doing. He was going to show the pagans, the Gentiles, so to speak, the non-Christians, the enlightened ones, that there were many gods and many lords, and we all agreed that, but the God of gods and the Lord of lords was one, and that was, in fact, the God of the Christians. And the Christians were not subversive, and the empire should be put under the Christian God because Constantine believed that he was called by God for this purpose; he believed that he was fated by God. He had a vocation from God to do this, and he believed that his job was to bring unity and uniformity and harmony and peace and prosperity and security and protection to all the people of his whole empire, non-Christians and Christians alike, everybody who was involved in it, even in some sense the Jews had to have their place, and others.
But he definitely saw that this was what he had to do, but he realized that he had to, so to speak, co-opt the Christian God into this. He had ultimately even to bring it all under the power of the Christian God, but he had to do it in a very pragmatic, a very political way, and it’s hard to tell even what he himself was believing in his heart of hearts while he was doing the things that he did.
Now, probably, someone wrote, the greatest shock that Constantine got was, when he thought that, coming to Christianity, that everything would be harmonious and peaceful and united and he’d have the power of the Christian God and that he would bring all people to this power and he would be himself this divine agent for this God on earth for the most marvelous empire that ever existed, perhaps even that which was predicted in the Bible that would come when the Christ would come, there would be this kingdom that would have no end, and he saw that as the Roman Empire or something. But in any case, Constantine himself certainly decided that he would give freedom to the Christians and that he would support the Christians and that he would try to use the Christians for the purposes of God that he himself was called to and that those things should come together in that particular way.
We say that he might be shocked once that happened that it didn’t work so well, because there were so many divisions among the Christians. There were heresies, there were schisms, there were competitions, there were problems like even about the date of Easter and so on, and many different groups, like the Donatists and others were appealing to him for intervention and for help, and various bishops were doing the same things. Constantine had to handle all of these things.
But we’re not really interested in that so much now, today, and we’re not even interested right now today in the theological controversies and how that all worked itself out, because we know for sure that Constantine did call the Council of Nicaea, he did support the Nicene Creed, but then he did have his questions about that. Then he was influenced by people who said maybe that wasn’t completely and totally right. Some of even the great Church Fathers of the East, like Basil and Gregory—Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian—they had their questions about Nicaea at first, until they got it straightened out by St. Athanasius and came to understand the meaning of “Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not created,” the famous “homoousios” of the Nicene Creed. There are all those theological issues, but we’re not interested in them now.
What we’re interested in just for today is just one simple thing. We’re interested in what happened to the bishops, and what happened to the Church structures after Constantine the Great, and what happened generally in the fourth century, because it begins with the conversion of Constantine, who’s converted and liberates Christians and begins to support Christianity immediately after his conversion in the first decade of this century, and then by the time you get to the end of the century, the last decade of the century, the fourth century, you have the Emperor Theodosius making Christianity the one officially established religion of the Roman Empire, where the other religions did not receive the support of [the empire] and were in fact deposed when in any way that they would challenge the truth and the power of the Christian Church.
So the fourth century is so critical. You cannot really overemphasize or exaggerate what a huge revolutionary change took place in the fourth century and what a change took place in the Church structures, and particularly in the Christian clergy.
When we looked at the first three centuries, before Constantine—and here I would mention two books that I think, I know it’s hard to give the titles of books over the radio, but there’s two books that I would like to mention. One book is by John (Zizioulas), who is currently the Metropolitan of Pergamon. It’s a book called Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries. This was Metropolitan John’s doctoral dissertation. It was translated into English and published by Holy Cross Press in 2001. It’s definitely worthy to be read, and necessary to be read if people are interested in the structure of the Church of the first three centuries. It’s called Eucharist, Bishop, Church by John (Zizioulas).
Another book is by Lewis J. Patsavos—P-a-t-s-a-v-o-s. He’s also a professor, a Greek Orthodox professor. He taught at Holy Cross, and this is his doctoral dissertation that was translated and published by the Holy Cross Press in the year 2007, so that’s not so long ago, 2007. His book is called A Noble Task: Entry into the Clergy in the First Five Centuries. That’s Lewis Patsavos: A Noble Task: [Entry] into the Clergy in the First Five Centuries. These are both Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School Press publications.
They show how the Church developed and was structured in those first three centuries, but then you come to the fourth century where practically everything is changed. One of the great changes is that, whereas in the first three centuries, to be a Christian bishop, only those who were really convinced of the Christian faith would become a bishop, because they entered into it only for difficulty, trouble, persecution, and even martyrdom. Virtually all of the active Christian bishops of the first three centuries did die as martyrs: Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus of Rome, Justin the Philosopher. How many died as martyrs, bishop-martyrs! There’s so many bishop-martyrs of the early Church. There were no human perqs. No one became a bishop because of pride or vanity or popularity or wanting to have power or wanting to have possessions or property or anything human, anything belonging to this world. There was no reason whatsoever to be a bishop. However, after Constantine, all that changed; all that radically changed.
There are many books about how this change took place and how difficult it is to unravel, how difficult it is to explain very often. I would just mention a few books here. Again, I know it’s hard on the radio to catch these names, but I would just like to mention several names. There is a book by a man, H.A. Drake, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in the year 2000, [by] H.A. Drake; it’s called Constantine and the Bishops.
Then there’s also a book published by the same Johns Hopkins University Press, two huge volumes, and Professor Drake’s book is also, like, 500 pages long; here you have two books of four to five hundred pages long, by A.H.M. Jones: The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey. That’s Jones, The Later Roman Empire.
Then you have The Rise of Western Christendom by the famous, famous scholar, Peter Brown, who writes a lot about this particular period in Roman imperial history and Christian history. His book is called The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, and Peter Brown’s book was first published in 1996.
Then you have a couple of others. There’s an old book by Jacob Burckhardt called The Age of Constantine the Great. There’s a more popular type of book, easy to read, by Michael Grant, called Constantine the Great. There’s a book by Professor Barnes called Constantine and Eusebius, published by Harvard University Press; that’s by Timothy D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, and it meant the Eusebius of Caesarea, the one who wrote the History of the Church and the Life of Constantine, not Eusebius of Nicomedia, the bishop who baptized Constantine on his deathbed 12 days before he died. So there’s two Eusebiuses. There’s a lot of [books]. You have to unravel a lot of this.
But in any case there’s these wonderful books, and what we want to see right now is just a very simple thing: what happened to the bishops just after Constantine; what happened to the bishops during Constantine’s life; what did he do with Church structure; how was he really convinced that this Church structure was very useful; and, of course, it was useful not only because he believed that it was true and that Christ was the King and Lord and that the God of Jesus, the one, true, and living God, God the Father Almighty, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, were the one, true, and living God, and he was baptized in the name of the Trinity even if by a semi-Arian, but he believed that, but he also believed that the Christians were absolutely a power to be reckoned with and that he really could not organize and have the protection of God and have the peace and the harmony and the unity and the protection of God and the security that he wanted for the one, true God if he opposed the Christians.
He had to support the Christians. He had also to keep supporting the pagans and to try to work that all out, but he also had to support the Christians, and that meant that he had to support the Christian churches and the Christian clergy, and that’s exactly what he did. He did it right from the very beginning of the time when he was converted to Christ in the first decade of the fourth century. Constantine came to believe in Jesus. He had the labarum, that Chi-rho sign of Christ, put on the shields and the uniforms of his soldiers. He entreated the intercession of the God of the Christians. He swore at the end of his life that he had had a vision of the Cross that said, “In this Sign you will conquer,” and the story then started that went on for centuries after about Roman emperors and emperors in general and their relationship to the Christian Church through history, that lasted right through to the 20th century, and even had a big impact on the Church when the Roman empire was taken over by the Turks in the 15th century. We’ll get to that later.
But what we want to see is that not even a year after the Milvian Bridge experience, where he had this conversion experience and had the vision and won the battle and went on to become the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, it says in the book by Jones, we find Constantine not only restoring the Christian Church properties in northern Africa, but in all the provinces of the empire, and we find him making huge donations to them from the imperial treasury. We find him “granting to the Christian clergy immunity from curial duties. The reason which he assigned for these measures is very significant.” In a letter that we have that he wrote to the pagan proconsul of Africa, he said he is doing that so that the clergy “may not be diverted by any sacrilegious error or slip from the service which is owed to the Divinity”—that’s what he calls God: “the divinity”—“but rather may without disturbance serve their own law”—that’s the Christian law—“since their conduct of the greatest worship to the Divinity will in my opinion bring innumerable benefits to the Commonwealth.”
So he needed the Christians to bring “innumerable benefits to the commonwealth,” and that will be something that will run through Christian history just to the present day. You become a Christian or a state adopts Christianity, whether it’s even a state like America that is not an empire—America was founded to be against bishops and emperors and princes and kings, but still America thought that it was a Christian country that has to bring innumerable benefits to the commonwealth of the United States of America by doing things right under the Christian God, “one nation under God,” and that God was the God of Christians.
That began way back with Constantine the Great, and before him, the Christians never believed that the one God was the protector of any particular Christian state, and you didn’t believe in the God so that he would protect your commonwealth. In fact, your commonwealth was in heaven, until the fourth century. You were not of this world, and Christ was the King of the kings and the Lord of all the lords and all the kings of the entire earth, and he wasn’t the particular protector of simply one against another or one over another, which will then happen after Constantine, and continues to the present day.
So we find this in Jones’ book, and then later on Constantine just does all these things. Besides giving all these perks and privileges and powers to the clergy, he builds churches, he builds orphanages, he builds hospitals, he gives money for the poor, he gives the bishops the rights to distribute grain and food to the poor and the needy. He gives them the right to exercise laws, to be appealed to in cases of court. All kinds of powers were given to the Christian bishops. So Jones writes this:
The clergy gained not only in wealth but in prestige and status. They became honored guests at the [imperial] court. They were freely granted warrants to travel by the public post to the comitatus or to ecclesiastical assemblies [and synods].
In other words, the bishops who used to meet in synods and had to go by themselves now travel by government accommodations. They have the chariots of the emperor to ride on. They don’t have to pay. They’re wined and they’re dined when they meet at their meetings, and Constantine will call many such meetings in their lifetime, only one of which is considered an Ecumenical Council, Nicaea in 325, but there were plenty of other ones which are forgotten and whose decrees were not remembered and were not considered right, that even Constantine himself supported. And then he built buildings, beautiful buildings with mosaic floors and tiles and all kinds of marvelous buildings, in Rome, in Milan, in Jerusalem, in Constantinople.
Then he gave also to the clergy, the bishops, legal authority. In the year 321, bishops were authorized to liberate slaves in church with full validity. They had the privilege which previously was given only to provincial governors, was now given to Christian bishops. Later, Constantine even gave more extraordinary privileges to the bishops, ruling that in any lawsuit at all, any party, Christian or pagan, might at any stage before final judgment transfer the case to the local bishop’s jurisdiction, and that the bishop’s judgment should be unappealable—in other words, you couldn’t appeal it; no appeals could be made—and had to be executed by the civil authorities, the imperial authorities.
In the year 333, four years before Constantine died, one of his great co-workers, the Praetorian prefect who was a Christian also, named Ablabius, ventured to ask the emperor: did he really want to do this? was this really his intention, to give so much power and authority and place and privilege to bishops? And it’s written that Constantine confirmed: yes, indeed, the law should be this way, and he did so in the most explicit terms.
Now, you find the same thing being testified to by Peter Brown in his book, The Rise of Western Christendom. Peter Brown deals mostly with the West rather than the East, but the same thing was the same throughout the entire empire, and this is what Peter Brown writes, after saying that he became convinced that Constantine was just very, very impressed by the structures of the Christian population of the empire, which was only then about ten percent of the population, although in his time there were probably about two thousand bishops, 1800 in the East and about 800 in the West, maybe 2500, 2600 bishops that took place.
It was a rather small Church, but the Christian Church was no longer a low-profile constellation, as he calls it, of tiny groups. Before Constantine, Peter Brown points out, that under Diocletian that persecution of Christians was not very popular. People liked the Christians; they were spread out through the empire. They were very helpful to people. They were law-abiding and so on. Brown says the Church had already become a universal Church, claiming the loyalty of all believers, at just the same time as the Roman Empire had become a true empire, with ideological claims on all its subjects.
Of course, Eusebius and other Church historians, like Sozomen, they said it was divine providence that Constantine came along exactly at the time he did. It was divine providence that the Christ was born in Bethlehem and lived on earth and saved the world on the Cross at the time he did. The Pax Romana was the best time for the spread of Christianity, because there really was a peace, there was a sole emperor, even at the earliest time of the New Testament. There were troubles among these leaders, but basically the empire was in pretty good shape, and it was very, very user-friendly to Christians as long as they didn’t get out of control. When they got out of control by refusing to sacrifice to the gods, then they were killed, but basically they were left alone. A lot of times the emperors didn’t want to kill them. Then by the time you get to Diocletian, the people didn’t want them to be killed.
What you have is that when Diocletian was so bad and did such a horrible persecution and destroyed Christian churches and killed so many Christians, this was definitely not very well received by the population of the empire. Constantine knew that, and, of course, Constantine hated Diocletian as well and [he came] really to respect the Christian people. What happened was that you might say Constantine saw not only pragmatically, humanly, that he had to co-opt the Christian presence, but that he was, it seems, legitimately inspired to do so by real conviction in Christ and in the God of the Christians.
This is what we find Brown writing. He said, beside all of the buildings and properties and money and grain and all the privileges that were given to the bishops, we also find that the bishops and the clergy received immunities from taxes, and they became the only group which was expanding rapidly in the empire,
at a time when the strain of empire had brought other civic associations to a standstill. Bound by an oath to “their” bishop, whole hierarchies of presbyters and deacons and minor clergy and Christian laypeople formed an ordo in miniature, as subtly graded as any town council, and as tenaciously attached to its privileges.
In other words, Christianity became a collegium that somehow patterned and mirrored what the pagan collegiums were but were no longer very well doing, and they patterned what the entire empire was supposed to be: one God, one empire, one people, brought together with sacrifices, and one religion that would then serve the purposes of the prosperity and the peace and the well-being and the security of the empire. We still hear politicians speaking that way in this secular 20th century, even though they may be more pluralistic and inclusive and so on, because it’s the 21st century and not the fourth century. But at that time, we see how the emperor realized how he could use Christianity, and believed that he had to and even was called by God to do so, because Constantine really believed he was called by God to do what he was doing.
So it says—I’m reading now again from Brown:
Constantine expected that the bishop would act as exclusive judge and arbiter in cases between Christians, and even between Christians and non-Christians. Normal civil litigation had become prohibitively expensive. As a result, the bishop, already regarded as the God-like judge of sin among believers, rapidly became the ombudsman (or you might call them the arbitrator, like an arbitration) of an entire local community.
In other words, the bishop became a persona, a privileged person, a powerful person in the society and in the government structure, not simply inside the Church.
Besides this (Brown writes), imperial supplies of food and clothing, granted to the clergy to distribute to the poor, turned the ferociously inward-looking care of (communion-believers,) [fellowship]-believers for each other, which had characterized the Christian churches at an earlier age…
In other words, he’s saying that at the earlier age, the Christians were very ingrown, their communities were secret, they took care of one another, they helped the people outside, they had to be well-thought-of by people outside, but basically they were interested in their own interest, in the Church itself. He says this no longer accrues, this no longer applies. He says, it was changed
...into something like a public welfare system, designed to alleviate, and to control, the urban poor as a whole (non-Christians and Christians alike).
Then we continue to read:
As the fourth century progressed, it became increasingly plain that the Christian bishops, by conquering the cities from the bottom up, (so to speak,) were in a position to determine the policies of the emperor (himself). They and their clergy were the local group with whom it was most advisable to remain on good terms.
In other words, the Christians got to the point where they were a leading power in the empire, and it was to the emperor’s greatest advantage not to be on bad terms with the Christians. Then Brown writes,
The tail began to wag the dog.
In other words, instead of the emperor persecuting or destroying Christians, or trying to co-opt and use Christians, the Christians ended up using the emperor and using the imperial power for [their] own purposes. So Brown writes: Still, “Christianity did remain a grassroots movement.”
Stunning though the vast basilicas founded by the emperors at Rome—and, a little later, at Trier, Milan, Jerusalem—might be (Constantinople), they were dwarfed by the sheer number of churches, of more moderate size, that reflected the ability of the local clergy (local bishops, local presbyters, local deacons) to mobilize local loyalties and to appeal to local pride. As far apart as northern Italy and Syria…
And then he speaks about Great Britain and Jerusalem and all through the West, what is now Western Europe, we call it. You had churches and Christian communities being supported, protected, and financed by the imperial government, giving chalices and all kinds of things to the people. So it says that this is what happened.
But what also happened was that the Christian bishops were not simply going to become the tools of the state, that they were going to use the state when they could—the government, the empire, when they could—but they were not going to roll over and lie dead, whatever the emperor told them. When you see, even in the fourth century itself, the greatest of the Christian bishops, those who are canonized saints, like Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary of Poitier, Ambrose of Milan, they were all antagonistic to the emperor very often when they thought the emperor was doing wrong, either was theologically wrong or morally wrong.
They stood up to him, and that was a very great surprise to Constantine and his successors in the fourth century. They never expected that. In fact, when one of the government officials threatened the life of Basil the Great with a knife, Basil said to him, “Cut out my liver. It’s okay; it hurts me anyway,” and the governor or the imperial representative said to Basil—his name was Modestus—he said to Basil, “No one ever spoke to the emperor’s man in that way!” And Basil said, “Perhaps no one has ever met a Christian bishop before.”
Well, as Brown writes, he said:
[The Christian bishops were] not the sort of decorous grandees to whom the emperors had once been content to delegate control of the cities in the first and second centuries.
He meant pagan leaders. The Christian bishops showed this only too clearly, and the first and the greatest to show this was Athanasius of Alexandria, whom the Christians call “the Great.”
Athanasius (Brown says) was a portent of a new age (and a time to come).
So the Christian bishops became a power, and they used the power of the state, and the state used their power, thinking that they all belonged together. And they believed that, the same way that Constantine himself believed that he was a tool in the hands of God for the upbuilding of a humanity and the good of people and certainly of the Christian faith ultimately, so did the Christian bishops. Eusebius of Caesarea’s Life of Constantine and his Church History show this clearly.
St. Augustine, in his writings later in the next century will speak about the City of God and so on. Everyone at that time believed that God’s providence was over everything, over the emperor and over the Church, that the conversion of Constantine was the will of God for the sake of the Church, and that bishops could appeal to him, that they could use him, that they could use him against their enemies, they could use him against their enemies who were enemies against each other. Orthodox could use them against heretics. Heretics could try to use them against the Orthodox whom they thought were heretical.
Constantine was very unhappy about the great divisions between the Christians and what was going on with them. That’s even one of the reasons he called the First Ecumenical Council. First of all, he wanted a date of Easter—there was a calendar problem—that they could all have Easter on the same day throughout the whole empire. That was one of the main reasons for the Council. The second was that they could decide on a creed, a baptismal statement of faith that they could all agree upon and use in their worship services. He was a failure—that never happened in his lifetime. He died and everybody was still debating and fighting over and killing each other over the Nicene Creed. In fact, his children, the successors, supported the Arian party, not the Orthodox party.
Very often, in Church history, the emperors, the most Christian emperors, were supporting the heretical, schismatic, and immoral party. It was the emperors who did, I don’t know what, who exiled John Chrysostom and who cut out St. Maximus’ tongue and cut off his arm. So it’s very wrong to say that Christianity survived only because it was supported by the Roman emperors. In fact, most of the time it was not supported. They were persecuted. The Christian bishops were persecuted by the emperors for not going along with [their] policies.
And then, of course, the clergy themselves became decadent. You had a lot of ambitious people entering in, money-hungry, people who wanted power, people who wanted popularity, people who wanted prestige, people who wanted to sit on thrones, people who wanted to be the entourage of the emperor and the governors. You had many disreputable people entering into the clergy. The canons of the fourth century of the councils, as well as the writings of the holy Fathers on the priesthood, very particularly Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, and Ambrose of Milan, and, of course, Basil the Great in his letters, show how decadent and how dangerous and how poisonous so many of the bishops of that particular period were.
And the heretics were all bishops or presbyters, and so were the immoral bishops, who were selling sacraments and transferring sees and trying to get properties and all that kind of stuff that just exploded in the fourth century when this interaction and interrelation and entanglement took place between the imperial powers and the Christian Church and the Christian bishops.
So we’re going to speak about that the next time. What I’m going to do the next time is I’m simply going to tell you what the great Fathers, the saints Fathers, the holy bishops of the fourth century had to say about their brother bishops and about Church structure generally, and to try to tell you a little bit, at least, of what the councils of the Church, the accepted councils of the Church of the fourth century, had to say about the clergy, because, as a matter of fact, the great majority of the canons of the Church councils of the fourth century, beginning with the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, have to do with the behavior and the misbehavior of the bishops, the presbyters, and the deacons, and the clergy of the Church. And that will be our topic for next time.
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