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It was a remarkable century. What began as the “Era of the Martyrs” under Diocletian ended with the emergence of Christianity as the religion within the empire. The fortunes of the church quickly passed from the realm of the marginalized and persecuted to the victorious, from no legal status to religious hegemony. Thus began fourteen centuries of the dominance of the Christian faith in the Western world.

The Triumph of Christianity

Believing that the empire was decaying, Diocletian set about reforming the state. History has shown that dictators often come in the clothes of the liberator appealing to the felt-needs of the masses; this was the case here. Diocletian created an absolute monarchy by sublimating the senate and declaring himself a semi-divine ruler. His organizational talents proved beneficial as the empire was geographically extended and secured. However, in 303, he unleashed a vicious persecution of Christians for failing to sacrifice to the gods. He persecuted them by burning churches and destroying Christian books. This enveloped the clergy in 305 bringing imprisonment, torture, and death.

Constantine attempted to bring the church and state together; the church was conceived as an institution of public usefulness. Reparation was made for the destruction of Christian property during the persecutions; clergy were given tax concessions and judicial authority to decide private litigation. Emperor worship ceased, gods disappeared from coins, and officials were forbidden from presiding over pagan rites. Constantine destroyed pagan temples, rewarded cities that suppressed cult worship, and banned the gladiatorial games. A Christian calendar was adopted making Sunday a holy day.

The Explanation of Christianity

In the new era of church domination through state support, powerful bishops emerged. Many of the organizational advances of Diocletian, such as the division of the empire into twelve dioceses, were brought into the church adding complexity and efficiency to its governmental structure. Powerful bishops emerged in the century such as Ambrose of Milan (340–97) who was known for his rhetorical abilities deeply influencing Augustine, music in the church, and the monastic ideal. Ambrose also condemned the persecution of pagans by Theodosius I at Thessalonica (390) and excommunicated him. Jerome (340–420) was a superb biblical scholar and monastic (he founded a monastery in Bethlehem). He is best known for his translation of the Bible from the original languages under the direction of Bishop Damascus of Rome — the Latin Vulgate, the Bible of the Middle Ages. John Chrysostom (345–407), one-time patriarch of Constantinople, was an eloquent preacher and moral reformer; he has been called the greatest Christian expositor of his age. Eusebius (ca. 263–340), bishop of Caesarea, though tainted by his moderately Arian views, was a scholar and churchman. His Ecclesiastical History, the principle source of our knowledge of the church in the first several centuries, has earned him the title “Historian of the Church.” Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315–86) was an eminent pastor, writer, and catechist.

One of the most important benefits of the church’s new prominence in the empire was that theological issues could be discussed on a more extensive basis than in previous centuries. In fact, the emperors played a role in resolving issues that threatened the tranquility of the empire. Bishops across the empire could assemble to discuss and formulate answers to perplexing questions. Scholars speak of the “ecumenical era,” the period of several worldwide gatherings of bishops to untangle issues and formulate creeds. As a result, churchmen helped to define the orthodox faith. They did not invent the faith; they were able to explain it in a way received by all the churches.

With peace having come to the churches, the Emperor became deeply interested in the welfare of Christianity; religious issues became matters of state concern. The issue that dominated the century, the deity of Jesus Christ, is at the heart of the Christian faith. Churchmen had endeavored for some time to explain the relationship of the Father to the Son. How could the church credibly proclaim that Jesus Christ is God and yet announce that “God is one God” (Deut. 6:4)? In extending deity to the Savior, monotheism seemed to be threatened.

When, in the fourth century, a certain presbyter sought to explain the relationship of the Father to the Son by denying their absolute equality, the stage was prepared for a resolution. Arius (ca. 250–336) of Alexandria clashed with his bishop. He was condemned at a local council in 321, but his view divided the bishops and threatened the harmony of Constantine’s world. Accordingly, Constantine called the first ecumenical, or worldwide, council of the bishops of the church at Nicaea (a summer home near the yet-to-be-completed new capital, Constantinople). The Emperor favored the view of bishop Athanasius (ca. 296–373), the recent successor of Alexander. This helped to determine the conclusions of the council. Arius denied the equality of the Father and Son to avoid Modalism (the position he thought Athanasius held); Athanasius denied the inequality of the Father to the Son (the position he charged Arius with advocating). Over three hundred bishops assembled and condemned the teachings of Arius. Athanasius and Constantine, among others, felt that the phrase “of one substance with the Father” expressed the co-equality of the Father and Son.

In part, the ongoing tensions were a result of linguistic differences. The Latin West distinguished the term “person” and “substance.” They could speak, as Tertullian the century before did, of two persons and one substance. The Greek East viewed the terms as synonyms and accused the West of supporting Modalism. Support surged for Arius’ adoptionistic view (a view that affirmed the deity of the Savior at the expense of His eternality).

The monumental work of the three Cappadocian bishops (Basil of Caesarea [ca. 330–97]; Gregory of Nazianzus [ca. 329–89]; and Gregory of Nyssa [ca. 330–95]), in untangling the linguistic confusion, led the way to a second ecumenical council. Called by Theodosius I at Constantinople (381), this council affirmed and expanded the Nicene Creed. The terms “substance” and “persons” were distinguished. The former refers to the attributes of God being equally shared by the Father and Son; the latter refers to functions highlighting distinctions not in kind but in function. The distinctions within the Godhead relate to the redemption of the creation.

A corollary to the discussion of the relationship between the Father and Son was insight into the Holy Spirit. The controlling question for Athanasius’ insistence that Jesus is God was: “How could a less than absolutely divine being provide for us divine redemption, the life of God in the soul?” The question concerning the Holy Spirit was “how could a lesser being than God bring us to the holiness of God?” At Constantinople, the church was able to articulate the doctrine of the tri-unity of God. To speak of the Trinity properly is to speak of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the great three-in-one. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity would go without challenge in the Christian churches for more than a millennium. This was the crowning achievement of the fourth- century church. The bishops did not invent the doctrine of the equality of the Father and Son; they gave us a salient explanation of what the church always confessed. God is one and Jesus Christ is God.

The council also addressed an issue that would be resolved in the fifth century at the Council of Chalcedon (451). At Nicaea and Constantinople, the church struggled to
explain the pre-incarnate relationship of the Son to the Father. An issue related to it was this: What is the relationship of Christ’s deity and humanity in the one Christ when He became incarnate? The struggle to explain these things began here, but final explanation came later.

Apollinarius (ca. 310–90), bishop of Laodicea, affirmed that Christ was forever fully God, but he was willing to denigrate His humanity to preserve the oneness of Christ. Christ, he argued, did not possess a human mind or soul; in its absence dwelt deity. Christ was truly God but not truly man. His view of Christ was condemned; it was understood to be as destructive as Arius’ view.

Timelessness and Change

What can we learn from the fourth century as citizens of the twenty-first? For saints enduring the frightening purges of Diocletian, it is important to be mindful that God is as sovereign over the darkest moments as He is in our most pleasant ones. He is working His great unalterable plan even when we cannot see how good can come from tragedy. Who could have imagined that Diocletian’s wrath was the dying gasp of paganism and that the church was poised for an entirely new era? It is good to know that the appearances may not be the reality.

There is a constant factor, however, in the fourth century that provides continuity for all Christians. The commonality is a passion of the church to define and defend the doctrines of the apostles. When the persecutions ended and the church found itself in a favorable environment, it immediately set out to explain the wonders of its proclamation: the absolute deity of Jesus Christ, the beauty of the incarnate Savior. Why? At the heart of Christian faith is the good news of redemption from sin through one who would stand in the sinner’s place bearing his guilt and satisfying the debt of God’s eternal just wrath. Only God could do this; the great Judge of mankind was judged for us. However, only a human being should stand in the place of humans; yet he had to be perfect himself. Who could do that? One who is God and yet, at the same time, perfect man, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The centrality, or preoccupation, of the church must always be with Christ and His mercies. We are indebted to the men and women, clergy and laity, of this marvelous century for modeling that for us. Our prayer is that He will become the preoccupation of the church in the twenty-first century.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Not One Iota

Keep Reading A Defining Era: The History of the Church in the Fourth Century

From the August 2004 Issue
Aug 2004 Issue