June 27, 2012

God Sets Up Kings and Deposes Them

The Conversion of Constantine

Without a doubt, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity changed the Western Civilization as well as Church history. He set the stage for making a minority, persecuted, religious sect into the most powerful institution in the Western world. But at a cost, for the State reserved to itself the right to intervene and control church affairs. So the question one would ask is: Is it possible that the Church would have been as powerful as it was in the Middle Ages had a policy of separation of church and state defined their relationship from the very beginning? 

I suppose what is really being asked here is whether or not the Church could survive its infancy and transition to adulthood without the “power of empire” to bolster or look over it. In this mismatched marriage of opposites: State and the Church was there a beneficial end result for the nascent Christianity. My answer is simple and succinct. Yes, I believe that the symbiotic relationship between Christianity and the State was beneficial to the survival and propagation of the Church (universal) that allowed it to grow to the magnitude it did.  By the time of Charlemagne we will virtually see a Christendom or what amounted to a Christian Kingdom in the consolidation of power in Charlemagne.

The fact that Christianity had the power base of something as large as the Roman Empire (at least in the beginning) boded well for its immediate growth and eventual survival. It grew from an anaemic sect that appeared to have broken from Judaism into an institutional Goliath. Although Christianity ran a risk of being assimilated by the State until it was unrecognizable…this seemed improbable. The resources of the empire being at Christianity’s disposal is similar to and comparable to the United States involvement in World War II. When separation and isolationism is no longer possible and the power of empire is turned to a focused cause, the empire and its State sanctioned religion become a juggernaut. The protection afforded by Rome allowed a relatively defenseless infant Faith to grow and strengthen. We see this in the councils, dogmas, creeds, formation of doctrine and combating of heresies throughout the period 313-451 A.D. [Nicene, Athanasian, etc.] (Cairns 125-133; Davidson 32)

Constantine seems to have initially used Christianity for political expediency. This is alluded to in our text (p.119). Interestingly I believe we are seeing an image here with Constantine and Christianity that’s similar to Nebuchadnezzar / Daniel and Artaxerxes / Nehemiah. Although Nebuchadnezzar, Artaxerexes and Constantine may have done things for selfish or political reasons, so too we saw David, Solomon and even Abraham do the same that pushed history and kingdom forward. God is sovereign over history and kings.

Daniel 2:21~He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding;

In the long run, a sovereign God’s will, shall be done and we see this in the symbiotic relationship of the Church and State at strategic points in history. If God had done this in the Old Testament, why would He not do it in the New Testament age? Had Christianity not been assimilated into the dominate power of the time and given its resources, it may have never exceeded “backwater” status and survived the barbarian incursions. It seems as if it was a marriage of necessity (or sovereignty). So instead of a dead extinct Faith we at least have a somewhat healthy church to survive the barbarian onslaught and to some extent had the resources to even begin to be missionaries to meet the warlike barbarian masses [Gregory of Tours, Clovis, etc.] (Cairns 123)

Because of Missionary work like that of Patrick of Ireland, there were bastions of culture in the Dark Ages in places like Ireland that was a home to monks and monasteries (Cairns 124). Because of the work of people like Augustine in the City of God, we have a philosophy that allowed believers to look towards the end goal of history, that is beyond history and in the hands of an eternal God (Cairns 142). This in turn helped sustain a church through coming hard times.

Interestingly, we see the partial “paganization” of Christianity that was due to successful missionary efforts, mass conversions and a massive influx of pagans. I suppose this is not unlike the syncretism of Israel in the Old Testament. Although there was syncretistic blending, in the end God purified his church and purged the unwanted elements. Although things crept into the Faith that shouldn’t have God will eventually rectify and set His people straight. We will eventually see some rectification of the Church and their abuses after the Medieval and Dark Ages in the form of the Reformation.

I guess in the end we see things have happened again in God’s world for a reason. History unfolds as God plans because it is His-story. In the crucible of persecution we see the formulation of Canon and Creeds, dogma and doctrines. This strengthens the faithful in courage to actually go out as apologists and polemicists further winning more adherents. Adherents as a power base is political power whether it is realized or not by the adherents. Those in power and stature like Constantine took note of this and find it politically expedient to cater to this “power in numbers” thereby granting religious freedom that will positively affect these growing Christian ranks [Edict of Milan]. Subsequently, Theodosius I made Christianity the official State religion. (Cairns 120) Even at this point Constantine realizes that he might as well take on Christianity as an ally to preserve classical culture. This is nearly prophetic in its insight as it will probably be the power and might of Rome even in a diminished form that allows the Faith to survive the coming barrage of pagans in the form of barbarians. The freedom granted by Constantine and Theodosuis allows the building of the Church and therefore churches (Cairns 154). An edifice is only as strong as the cornerstone it is laid upon. The Church being laid upon Christ assured its survival. The Church being helped by the power of empire behind it (even with some of the errors) aided it and pushed it along.

[I'll be elaborating more on this in later posts.]

Cairns, Earle Edwin. "Chapter 11: The Church Faces the Empire and Barbarians." Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1996. 118-124. Print.
Cairns, Earle Edwin. "Chapter 12: Conciliar Controversy and Creedal Development." Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1996. 125-133. Print.

Davidson, Ivor J.. "Chapter 1: Constantine and the Pagan Religions." The Baker History of the Church from Constantine to the Medieval World, 312-600. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2005. 19-46. Print.

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