3. Imperial Christianity

Constantine

Constantine was the first “Christian emperor” of the Roman Empire who ruled from 306–337. His father Constantius Chlorus was the Western co-emperor of the Roman empire.When his father died in England in 306, Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his troops at York, and within two years five men had claimed to be emperor. In 311 Galerius, the senior co-emperor, issued an edict of toleration ending persecution of Christians Constantine’s “conversion”In 312 Constantine defeated and killed his rival Maxentius in a battle at the Milvian Bridge near Rome. Prior to battle Constantine saw a vision of the cross.

Constantine eventually became the sole emperor of the Empire. As late as 324, pagan themes were engraved on his coins and he kept the Roman title Pontifex Maximus rendered in Greek as ἀρχιερεύς (high priest) as his pagan predecessors had. Constantine’s policy was to unite the Christian Church to the secular State by the closest possible ties (ODCC, 408). Constantine was also deeply convened at the diversity of opinion which prevailed concerning the celebration of the Passover and Donatist Schism in N. Africa (Sozom., HE 1.16). He wanted to organize church councils in the west to address the issue of Donatism and Easter. A council met at Arles in 314. Augustine called it the first Ecumenical Council. The Emperor took an active part in church affairs and councils, though unbaptized, a circumstance which foreshadows the Byzantine theory of the emperors as supreme rulers of Church and State alike (OCDD, 408).

The Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy was sparked in 319 when a deacon in Alexandria named Arius, who had been born in 256 in Libya, presented a letter to Bishop Alexander arguing that if the Son of God were truly a Son, he must have had a beginning. Athanasius was a little over twenty when the controversy broke out—over forty years younger than Arius. Arius viewed the Son of God as both created and a creator (collapsing the distinction between Creator and creation). This became a unity of Will theology (Arius) versus unity of Being theology (Athanasius). Arius’ view of the Incarnation was a lessor god becoming a super human (without a human soul). Arius held the Son was granted his Sonship was a reward for His merit and that the Son was created for humanity (Athanasius held humanity was created by the Son and for the Son, Col 1:16).

A theology of ascent or decent?

Arius communicated his new teaching through worship music that he wrote, in particular his poem Thalia (i.e. abundance). “He who is without beginning made the Son a beginning of created things. He produced him as a son for himself by begetting him. He [the son] has none of the distinct characteristics of God’s own being For he is not equal to, nor is he of the same being as him.” A. T. Robertson noted, “The Arian controversy was to [Athanasius] no battle for ecclesiastical power, nor for theological triumph. It was a religious crisis involving the reality of revelation and redemption. He felt about it as he wrote to the bishops of Egypt, ‘we are contending for our all.’” In 321 a synod was convened in Alexandria, and Arius was deposed from his office and his views declared heretical. Athanasius at age twenty-three wrote the deposition for bishop Alexander. The deposition of Arius unleashed sixty years of ecclesiastical and empire-wide political conflict. Arius began to rally supporters to his cause, and his main ally was Eusebius of Nicomedia. Emperor Constantine’s Christian advisor, Hosius, tried to mediate the Arian conflict in Alexandria, but failed for both sides to reach consensus.

The Incarnation of the Word

Athanasius boldly declared Christ as “God, and very Son of God, the sole- begotten Word” (On the Incarnation § 55). If we deny Christ as the Divine Word who is of one divine nature with the Father then the cross becomes a work of creation on behalf of creation. But as Athanasius noted, Scripture declared that God purchased the Church with His own Blood (Acts 20.28), not through the work of an angel. Athanasius described Christ’s death as sacrificial (§ 20) and for our sin (§ 7, 40). He correctly viewed the cross as so much more than a creaturely effort at satisfying Divine justice. Rather the cross was God reconciling the world to Himself in the person of the Christ who had become flesh (§ 25, cf. 2 Cor 5.19).

The Council of Nicaea

Constantine feared religious division would lead to a civil war in the empire and so he called a world-wide council of the church in 325 and declared the ruling of the council to be legally binding. Approximately 318 bishops plus other non-voting members. Sylvester bishop of Rome, was unable to attend on account of extreme old age (Sozom., HE 1.17). The council published a creedal statement that repudiated the teachings of Arius, and all but two bishops signed the creed.

Bishop Athanasius

As Rowen Williams has noted, Arius proved to be a very minor character in the controversy he unleashed. He died suddenly in 336, the day before his intended reception back into the church by Constantine! Emperor Constantine began to move away from the council of Nicaea’s definition of Christ’s divinity and sought to win back supporters of Arius’s view. Arianism began to spread in Eastern Christianity with alarming ease and Constantine wanted unity irrespective of theological difference.

Exiled soon followed for Athanasius. During this time the Imperial Army pressured many bishops to condemn Athanasius and accept Arian teachings. Even Pope Liberius caved into the pressure of exile and signed an Arian creed and condemned Athanasius. Following the Arian council of Rimni in AD 358 Jerome lamented, “the whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian…the ship of the Apostles was in peril, she was driven by the wind, her sides beaten with the waves…but the Lord awoke and bade the tempest cease…[and] Egypt welcomed the triumphant Athanasius” (Altercatio Luciferiani 19).

Following several exiles Athanasius eventually returned to Egypt and remained faithful to the end. For Athanasius the struggle against Arianism was a struggle for the faith not power, “let us also [persevere], considering that this struggle is for our all, and that the choice is now before us, either to deny or to preserve the faith” (To the Bishops of Egypt 2:19, in NPNF2 4:233). John Piper has argued that in an age of theological pluralism and post-modernism Athanasius is a good reminder that “Loving Christ includes loving true propositions about Christ.” Who we believe and confess Christ to be is a central aspect of our faith and Gospel. Jesus asked his disciples who do you say that I am? This is the question that all must answer, and our Gospel must proclaim “our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).Peter Leithart notes, “Athanasius remained throughout his life mainly a Bible teacher, his most basic convictions, passions, instincts, beliefs, and views shaped not by Plotinus or Stoicism but by Scripture.”

Next: Part 4 - Augustine, the Doctor of Grace

Previous: Part 2 - Terror and Toleration - The Church until Constantine

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