Charlemagne and the Church


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On Christmas day in the year of our Lord 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne and revived the ancient empire, now reborn under the aegis of the church, after a 324-year hiatus due to the “barbarian” invasions. Prior to his coronation by Pope Leo, Charlemagne, formerly known plainly as Charles, was only king of France. Thereafter, almost the entire Western Christendom, with the exception of the British Isles and a small part of Spain, was under the emperor’s rule.

Charlemagne tried to extend his rule to Spain expecting the aid of some Muslim leaders, which did not materialize. His rear was ambushed on his way back—an event that gave rise to the Chanson du Roland and other like it. As emperor, Charlemagne did not observe a separation of Church and State in that he appointed bishops just as he appointed civil servants, although always seeking men of worth. He likewise enacted laws relating to worship and other religious observances, including the collection of tithes as if the same were taxes. Charlemagne was a fan of learning. Albeit not being educated himself, he advocated the establishment of schools and the revival of those already existing. From Spain, he brought Theodulf and appointed him bishop of Orleans. Theodulf then ordered that throughout his diocese, there should be a school in every church open to all. Other bishops soon followed such a policy and this greatly aided in the revival of learning as an enterprise.

This openness to learning, manuscripts were copied and theological activity flourished. The great systematic thinker of that time was John Scotus Erigena, a native of Ireland who had fallen heir to the knowledge of antiquity that had been preserved in the Irish monasteries. He was well versed in Greek. His most famous work was On the Division of Nature. A significant controversy of that time was that with the “Mozarabs.” These Christians kept their ancient pre-Islamic traditions, including their form of worship. The conflict arose, when the Mozarabic Elipandus declared that, according to his divinity, Jesus was the eternal Son of the Father, but that, according to his humanity, he was son only by adoption. This led many to call Elipandus and his followers “adoptionists,” although there was a vast difference with what Elipandus taught and that of adoptionism. The latter claims that Jesus was a mere man whom God had adopted.

The crowning of Charlemagne put the papacy in an ambiguous position, on whether or not they are to meddle in secular civil affairs of the State. This period marked the decline of the papacy, as popes would succeed one after another in rapidity due to intrigues and even assassinations through poisoning. After the Carolingian Dynasty, numerous attempts at reform were instituted by some of the monastics and popes such as the monks of Cluny, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bruno (Leo IX), Hildebrand (Gregory VII), Urban II, Paschal II, Gelasius II, and Calixtus II.

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The New World Order After the Fall of Rome

Most people in Asia and Africa tend to view Christianity as a Western religion. That is why when we try to evangelize those in countries such as China, Japan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and others, they tend to be resistant to the Gospel. They consider it as a form of Western imperialism beginning all the way back to the Roman Empire to the medieval Crusades. However, unbeknownst to them, Christianity is actually Eastern in origin as it was started in Jerusalem, Israel and spread unto Samaria, Damascus, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople, formerly known as the Byzantine Empire in present-day Turkey.

The main reason why Christianity spread to the West was of course due to its acceptance and proliferation in the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, ironically, it is likewise the fall of the Roman Empire in the West that further caused the spread of Christianity to the present-day European nations. According to Justo Gonzalez, although the so-called “barbarians” appeared to the Romans as looters with their minds set on destruction, most of them really aspired to settle within the borders of the Roman Empire, and there enjoy some of the benefits of a civilization that until then they had only known from afar. Thus, after a period of wandering, each of the major invading bodies settled in a portion of the Empire. These “barbarian” civilizations included the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, the Vandals (where we get our word “vandalism”), the Franks, the Angles and Saxons, the Burgundians, the Irish, the Scotch, and the Lombards. Among those who were instrumental in the proliferation of Christianity in these lands were St. Patrick, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, Gregory the Great and Leo the Great. As far as the institutions are concerned, it is monasticism and the papacy that were instrumental in the survival and propagation of Christianity to its pagan conquerors. Conversely, it was likewise the barbarian invasions that brought about the great upsurge in the pope’s authority. In the East, the Empire continued existing for another thousand years; but in the West, the church became the guardian of what was left of ancient civilization, as well as of order and justice. Thus, the most prestigious bishop in the West, that of Rome, became the focal point for regaining a unity that had been shattered by the invasions.

Another major cause of Christianity’s spread in the West instead of the East are the Arab conquests led by a man named Mohammed/Muhammad, an Arab merchant who had come in contact with both Judaism and the various Christian sects that existed in Arabia—some of them rather unorthodox. His message, which he claimed had been revealed to him by the angel Gabriel, was that of a single God, both just and merciful, who rules all things and requires obedience from all. Mohammed claimed that he was not preaching a new religion, but simply the culmination of what God had revealed in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus, who was a great prophet, although not divine as Christians claimed. To consider a created being equal to God was the greatest sin a person can commit against the One True God, Allah. This sin was called “shirk” and the religion was called “Islam,” which means “submission to God.”

The Arabs, under the leadership of Mohammed’s successors called the “caliphs,” invaded and conquered the Byzantine Empire including Damascus in Syria, Jerusalem in Israel, Alexandria in Egypt, North Africa, the Persian Empire, Carthage, and then all of Spain except for the extreme northern areas. The advance of the Saracen (Moslem) armies was only halted by their defeat by Charles Martel at the battle of Tours, which marked the end of the first wave of Moslem expansion. Thus, many of the ancient centers of Christianity—Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, Alexandria, and Carthage—were now under Moslem rule. In Carthage and the surrounding area, Christianity completely disappeared. In the rest of the vast Arab holdings, it was tolerated, but ceased growing, and eventually was content with holding its own.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Are You Saved

On September 15, 2013, for the first time in my life, I attended an Eastern Orthodox Church where the liturgy used is that of St. John Chrysostom. So far, it is the only Orthodox cathedral in the Philippines and Southeast Asia as it is the only stand alone church building personally consecrated by His Eminence Metropolitan Nektarios Tsilis of the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. It was a unique and wonderful experience! It was as if I was transported to Constantinople back in the fourth century A.D. Compared to the Roman Novus Ordo Mass which most of us Filipinos are used to, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is longer and more solemn as more symbolic gestures are performed. Moreover, almost the entire liturgy was sung with the exception of the homily. After the Divine Liturgy, I had a short chat with the priests, Fathers James Doronela and Gregory Latoja, about Orthodoxy and they even lent me a booklet (pictured above) about salvation, which is the one they use in basic catechism.

Unknown to a lot of Filipinos, Eastern Christianity existed just about the same time or even before the Roman church. Centuries prior to the Great Schism of East and West, there were originally five centers of Christianity which were called patriarchates. These were: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. The first four comprised the Greek Eastern churches while the last one, Rome, comprised the Latin Western church. For Christians at that time, both East and West, the church was one. Historians, however, can now see that by the early Middle Ages the two branches of the church were drifting apart, and that the final schism, which took place in 1054, was long in the making. In the West, the demise of the Empire created a vacuum that the church filled, and thus ecclesiastical leaders—particularly the pope—also came to wield political power. In the East, the Empire continued for another thousand years and its autocratic emperors kept a tight rein on ecclesiastical leaders.

Although it is obvious that every church thinks of itself as orthodox, that title has become such a hallmark of Eastern Chalcedonian Christianity that it is often called and has been known as the Orthodox Church as opposed to the Catholic Church based in Rome. After the Islamic Arab conquests, the Orthodox Church was blocked to the south and east by Islam, and thus its expansion was in a northerly and northwesterly direction. Those areas of Eastern Europe were populated mostly by Slavs, who had invaded them after the Germanic peoples. They occupied most of what is today, Poland, the Baltic countries, Russia, Czechoslovakia (Czech and Slovak Republics), Yugoslavia, and Greece. Later on, they also encompassed Bulgaria and a vast portion of the Danube basin.

Although the East and West already experienced schism during the fifth century, the final schism of 1054 occurred when the Bulgarian archbishop Leo of Ochrid, accused the West of error because it made clerical celibacy a universal rule, and because it celebrated communion with unleavened bread. When the dispute grew, Pope Leo IX sent an ambassador to Constantinople to deal with it. But his choice was most unfortunate. Cardinal Humbert, his legate, knew no Greek and did not care to learn it. To his mind, the Eastern married clergy and the authority that the Byzantine emperor had over the church were the very enemies which he had vowed to destroy. He and Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople exchanged insults. After a dramatic and politically motivated excommunication against “heretic” Patriarch Cerularius, as well as any who dared follow him, the break between East and West was finally accomplished.

The Great Doctors of the Church

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Known as the Doctors of the Church, they are among the most influential figures of the fourth century, namely: Bishops Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Jerome of Italy, and Augustine of Hippo.

St. Ambrose was the governor of the City of Milan during the episcopacy of Auxentius, an appointee by an Arian emperor. After the death of Auxentius, the election of a successor could easily turn into a riot between the Arians and the orthodox. Thus, in order to avoid a possible disorder, Ambrose decided to attend the election. Trained in the best rhetoric and popular for his efficient and fair rule, he was able to address the crowd. Suddenly, from among the crowd, a child cried, “Ambrose, bishop; Ambrose, Ambrose!” The crowd went along and Ambrose was unexpectedly made bishop of Milan. He was not yet even baptized at that time and was only a catechumen. Hence, it was expedient that he be raised through the various levels of ministerial orders and after eight days; he was consecrated bishop of Milan on December 1, 373. He then undertook the study of theology with the help of a priest and soon he was one of the best theologians in the Western church. Ambrose’s fame was such that Fritigil, queen of the Marcomanni, had asked him to write for her a brief introduction to the Christian faith. After reading it, she resolved to visit him in Milan, but on her way she learned that the wise man had died on April 4, 397.

Among the many who went to listen to Ambrose preach, there was a young teacher of rhetoric who had followed a long and tortuous spiritual pilgrimage, and who was so entranced by the bishop’s words that he returned to his mother’s faith, which he abandoned many years before. Eventually, the young man, whose name was Augustine, was baptized by Ambrose who does not seem aware of the exceptional gifts of his convert, who later on would become the most influential theologian for the West since the apostle Paul.

St. Augustine’s spiritual journey can be readily read in his autobiographical memoir entitled “The Confessions”. Born of St. Monica, an arduous and devout Christian in the year 354, in the little town of Tagaste, North Africa, his father was a pagan Roman official. Eventually, though his mother’s intercession, his father was converted to Christianity. While pursuing the best education his parents can offer in Madura and later, Carthage, Augustine’s sexual proclivity resulted in a love-child named Adeodatus, which means “given by God.” After suffering from sickness, Adeodatus died sometime later. His reading of the works of Cicero, a famous orator, lawyer and philosopher led him to Manicheism. According to its founder, Mani, the human predicament is the presence in each of us of two principles: “light,” which is spiritual, and “darkness,” which is matter. Salvation then is consists in separating the two elements and in preparing our spirit for its return to the realm of pure light, in which it will be absorbed. Later on, he became disappointed with the teachings of Manicheism and became a Neoplatonist. However, because of Monica’s insistence coupled with prayers, the young Augustine attended the church of Ambrose to check him out and listen to his sermons. As a professor of rhetoric, Augustine appreciated Ambrose’s exposition of Scripture and as time went by, became an admirer. Soon, Augustine’s major intellectual difficulties with Christianity had been solved with the help of Ambrose. After a few years, Augustine’s fame as a theologian spread and when he visited Hippo, its bishop, Valerius, took interest in him and ordained him to serve the latter at Hippo. Four years later, he was made bishop jointly with Valerius who feared that another church might steal his catch. When Bishop Valerius died later on, Augustine became the sole bishop of Hippo.

Many of Augustine’s first writings were attempts to refute the Manichees and later on, the Donatists, then against Pelagius. A significant contribution to theology was Augustine’s view of our bondage to sin and the monergism of God’s grace in predestination. That is why both Catholics and Protestants consider Augustine as their theologian par excellence. He was the last of the great leaders of the Imperial Church in the West. When he died, the Vandals were at the gates of Hippo, announcing a new age. Before we completely leave the discussion of the Imperial age however, there were St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome.

John of Constantinople, named Chrysostom (golden-mouthed) on account of his eloquence, came into the world of Christian parents in the year 344 in the City of Antioch. He studied rhetoric under the pagan Libanius, the most famous orator of the age. A lawyer by profession, he thereafter in 374, began to lead the life of an Anchorite in the mountains near Antioch but in 386 the poor state of his health forced him to return to Antioch where he was ordained a presbyter. In 398, he was elevated to the See of Constantinople and became on the greatest lights of the Church. Nevertheless, John had enemies in high places such as Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria and the powerful Empress Eudoxia who sought to bring several false accusations against him in a farce council resulting in his exile. The Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches honor him as a saint and count him among the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus. John is known chiefly as a preacher, theologian and liturgist. One of his significant contributions to the church is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Last but certainly not the least in his contributions to Christianity, was St. Jerome. Jerome is known for his translation of the Scriptures into Latin, the prevailing “international language” of that time. He made the Bible accessible to the Latin speaking West and later on, his translation, known as “the Vulgate”, became the official version of the Roman church. Jerome tried the life of a hermit but conceded that he was not made for it. Ironically, in spite of his lustful weakness to women, he found a great deal of help amidst a group of rich and devout women who lived in the place of a widow, Albina. Besides Albina, the most prominent members of the group in whom Jerome found solace were her widowed daughter Marcella, Ambrose’s sister Marcellina, and the scholarly Paula, who with her daughter Eustochium, would play a leading role in the rest of Jerome’s life.

Emperors and Theologians

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In reading church history, I came across the stories about the significant men of the fourth century, namely, Emperor Julian the Apostate; Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria; and the Great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.

Julian’s father was a half-brother of Constantine, and therefore Julian was a first cousin to the three emperors, the surviving sons of Constantine, namely: Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II. Sometime thereafter, Constantius became the sole emperor of the Empire. Because Consantius had no children who could aid him in government, he decided to call on his cousin Gallus and gave him the title of “caesar,” that is, of junior emperor as the emperor then was called “augustus.” As rumors spread that Gallus was conspiring against Constantius, the latter had the former arrested and beheaded just a few years after having made him caesar. Constantius then decided to set aside the bad experience with Gallus and called his one surviving relative to share his power and giving him the title of caesar and appointing him to rule in Gaul. Unexpectedly, Julian, who had spent his life among books and philosophers, became a great ruler but Constantius gave him little support. When Constantius suddenly died prior to marching against Julian, the latter had no difficulty in marching to Constantinople and claiming the rule of the whole empire.

Although baptized and raised a Christian, Julian sought both to restore the lost glory of paganism and to impede the progress of Christianity. This religious policy earned him the title by which history knows him: “the Apostate.” Rather than persecuting Christians, Julian followed a two-pronged policy of hindering their progress and ridiculing them. He even wrote a work Against the Galileans. Despite his animosity towards Christianity, Julian applied what he learned therefrom in reinvigorating paganism, including the adoption of the clergy hierarchy similar to that which was observed by the church at that time. As he was moving along in enforcing his anti-Christian policies, he died unexpectedly.

The next great figure of antiquity was Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius is well known because of his significant contribution during the Council of Nicea. Being so dark and short, his enemies called him “the black dwarf.” Although the time and place of his birth are not known, it is assumed that he was Coptic in ethnicity due to the language that he spoke and his complexion. Therefore, he was a member of the lower classes in Egypt. After the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, most people thought that the Arian problem has been finally dealt with. However, not long after the death of Constantine did the Arians regain supremacy due to the influence of the new emperor, Constantius II who was himself a staunch supporter of Arianism. As a convinced Arian, Emperor Constantius felt the need to rid himself of the champion of the Nicene faith. Instead of banishing Athanasius, by the use of force, Constantius ordered a synod to condemn Athanasius. Athanasius took refuge among the monks of the desert to whom he had a close relationship. Although Athanasius never saw the final victory of the cause to which he devoted his life, his writings clearly show that he was convinced that in the end Arianism would be defeated. As he approached his old age, he saw emerge around himself a new generation of theologians devoted to the same cause. Most remarkable among these were the Great Cappadocians, to whom we now turn our attention.

They are called Cappadocians because they hail from the region of Cappadocia in the southern Asia Minor, in lands now belonging to Muslim Turkey. The first two, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa were bothers. However, unknown to most people, their sister Macrina played a major role in the Christian life of Basil when due to his studies in Caesarea, he became vain and especially after their brother Naucratius had died unexpectedly. Macrina became Basil’s counselor since he was so badly shaken due to his close relationship with Naucratius. Macrina spent the rest of her life in monastic retreat in Annesi. Her fame was such that she was simply called “the Teacher.”

In Annesi, Basil and his friend, the other Cappadocian Father and later Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory of Nazianzus, founded a community of men similar to the one Macrina had founded for women. They believed that the core of monastic life is service to others; hence, the necessity of community life for one who lives alone has no one to serve. Basil also wrote rules to be followed in the monastic life.

The First Deacons

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So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4, NIV)

Traditionally, the seven men chosen by the early Christian disciples are known as “deacons”. The question for us is today is whether or not the situation presented in Acts 6 is normative for us in the 21st century church, i.e. that there should be people in the church who should devote themselves to administrative tasks only so that the ordained ministers could focus on preaching the Gospel. To answer that, let us look at the background of the historical narrative by taking into account the following observations:

First, during the time of the early church as chronicled in the Book of Acts, there were two kinds of Jews, the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. The Hebraic Jews were the ones who were left in the Promised Land (Canaan) during the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian exile or captivity of Judah. On the other hand, the Hellenistic Jews were the descendants of the ones who were exiled to Babylon, Persia and Mesopotamia. By the time of Jesus, there were sizable Jewish communities in every major city in the Roman Empire. These Jews were also known as the “Dispersion”. However, most, if not all of these Hellenistic Jews have already forgotten the Hebrew language and instead spoke Greek. Hence, it was necessary for the Hebrew Scriptures to be translated into Greek known as the “Septuagint”, which aided in the spread of the Faith throughout the mostly Greek-speaking Roman Empire. According to Dr. Justo Gonzalez, in the Diaspora, Judaism was forced to come to terms with Hellenism in a manner that could be avoided in Palestine or Canaan itself. Unfortunately, the Hebraic Jews viewed this Hellenization as a form of compromise. As a result, the Hellenistic Jews were given a somewhat different treatment by the Hebraic Jews. In this regard, it is also noteworthy to mention that when the apostles were arrested by the Sanhedrin, they were merely flogged and instructed not to teach in the name of Jesus unlike in the case of Stephen, one of the seven Hellenists, who was stoned to death by the for preaching the Gospel.

Second, we should remember that in Mark 10:5-6, the Lord Jesus instructed the Twelve to go to the lost sheep of Israel and not to the Gentiles. If we go back a few verses in Acts 5:42, after the apostles were released by the Sanhedrin, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.” Therefore, in Acts 6:1 we could see that the number of disciples was increasing.

Third, in reading the Book of Acts, it should be remembered that its main theme is the spreading of the Christian Faith in pursuant to Acts 1:8, where Jesus told his disciples “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Notice that the order of the places mentioned by Jesus moves outward: Jerusalem-Judea-Samaria-ends of the earth. The apostles were originally from Galilee and they were to begin spreading the Gospel in the capital, Jerusalem, and move farther out and wide up to the ends of the earth. This was and still is God’s plan for salvation.

Finally, due to the persecution led by Saul referred to in Acts 9, the Hellenistic Jews were dispersed to other nations bringing with them the good news of salvation and the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This dispersion was instrumental to the spreading of the Gospel to the “ends of the earth”, thus fulfilling the mandate of Acts 1:8.

This was the situation of the early church during the time of Jesus and the apostles. In Acts 6, the Hellenistic Jews were complaining that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. So the apostles instructed them to select seven men to take care of this task. If you will notice, the seven all had Greek names. Now, did these men limit themselves to administrative duties in the church? No, it was simply a matter of the Hellenistic Jews taking care of their own so that the apostles can focus on the mission Jesus gave them. In fact, on the contrary, immediately a few verses later we can see Stephen preaching and performing signs and wonders among the people while in chapter 8, Philip explained Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch and thereafter baptized him. Then he traveled about Azotus preaching the Gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

In conclusion, we can now see that the appointment of the seven “deacons” were for a specific purpose for a specific situation. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are all commissioned to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize, and teach people to obey everything Jesus had commanded. Moreover, we are also called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves by helping those in need as illustrated by Jesus in his parable of the Good Samaritan.

Christian Monasticism

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“Monks who leave their cells, or seek the company of others, lose their peace, like fish out of water loses its life.”

-St. Anthony

During the years prior to the Edict of Milan, when persecution was still rampant throughout the Roman Empire, followers of the Way were always aware of the possibility that one day they might be taken by the Roman authorities and be made to choose between death and apostasy. However, when the peace of the church seemed assured there are those who, unlike Eusebius of Caesarea, did not take Emperor Constantine’s peace positively with open arms. To them, imperial tolerance and even promotion of Christianity resulted in the widening of the narrow gate to salvation which Jesus had spoken about enabling multitudes to go right through it. Thus, people were lining up and demanding to be baptized without even fully understanding the Christian Faith. Furthermore, this situation likewise elevated the office of the bishop to one of prestige and power so much so that ministers competed against each other for the episcopate.

To this apparent dilemma, many found the answer in the monastic life. This is characterized by fleeing from human society and leaving everything behind in order to dominate the body and its passions which give way to temptation. Albeit monasticism had already been in existence before Constantine’s time, its practice only became widespread during the time of Constantine. It was the Egyptian desert that provided the most fertile soil for the growth of monasticism due to its inaccessibility. The word “monk” is derived from the Greek monachos, which means “solitary.”

Although it is impossible for us today to determine who really was the first monk or nun of the desert, the two that are usually given that honor are Paul and Anthony, about whom Jerome and Athanasius wrote respectively. Studying the lives of Paul and Anthony will enable us to learn about the earliest forms of monasticism, which is that of the “anchorite” or the solitary monk. As more and more people withdraw into the desert searching for and experienced teacher, a new form of monasticism arose and solitary monasticism gave way to a communal form of the monastic life. This form of monasticism is called “cenobitic,” a name derived from two Greek words which mean “communal life.” Despite not being its founder, Pachomius deserves credit as the organizer who most contributed to its final shape. Pachomius demanded that any who wished to join his community must give up all their goods and promise absolute obedience to their superiors. The basic rule was mutual service, so that even those in authority had to serve under them in spite of the vow of absolute obedience. The daily life of a Pachomian monk included both work and devotion, and Pachomius himself set an example by undertaking the most humble tasks. They prayed “without ceasing” as per the Apostle Paul’s instructions even while performing their respective trades. This most probably is the precursor to the Benedictine motto of “Ora et labora” or “Pray and work.”

We can now see from the discussion above how these monastic communities that are still present today came about. Knowing their history enables us to appreciate their various contributions to the Christian life. To know more, read The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez.

Eusebius of Caesarea

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“Looking westward or eastward, looking over the whole earth, and even looking at heaven, always and everywhere I see blessed Constantine leading the same Empire.” (Eusebius of Caesarea)

Eusebius of Caesarea was a Christian historian from whom we learn about half of what we know about the life of the early Christians up to the time of Constantine the Great. Although Eusebius has sometimes been depicted as a puppet of Constantine and compromiser of the Christian Faith, he is in fact one of the most learned Christians of his time. In fact, it was only after Constantine’s death in A.D. 337 that Eusebius wrote his lines of highest praise for the ruler who had brought peace to the church, thus belying any claim that Eusebius was merely a kiss-ass to the emperor.

A disciple of Pamphilius of Caesarea, who in turn studied the works of Origen while in Alexandria under Pierius, Eusebius and Pamphilius collaborated on a five volume Defense of Origen, to which Eusebius added a sixth book after his teacher’s martyrdom during the reign of Maximinus Daia.

Eusebius saw in Constantine a fulfillment of the promise of peace by Christ due to the latter’s abatement of hostilities towards the Christian religion. Eusebius met Constantine when the latter visited Palestine with Diocletian’s court. Then also at Nicea, at the time of the Council, he saw the emperor seeking the unity and well-being of the church. Since Eusebius was convinced that Constantine had been raised up by God, he did not hesitate to support the emperor. Eusebius is famous for his seminal work, Church History. This work, which he later revised, is, according to historian Justo Gonzalez, of great importance for later church historians for without it, a great deal of the story that we have been telling would have been lost.

The final draft of his Church History however did not simply seek to retell the various events in the earlier life of the church but was really an apology or defense that sought to show that Christianity was the ultimate goal of human history, particularly as seen within the context of the Roman Empire. In support of that thesis, Constantine’s conversion was the keystone. The new situation was living and convincing proof of the truth of the Gospel, to which all humanity pointed.

Constantine the Great

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Throughout history, there have been many questions regarding the genuineness and sincerity of Constantine’s so-called conversion to Christianity. However, what scholars and historians all agree about is the effect of this supposed conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine. The most widely known story is that during the battle at Milvian Bridge against Maxentius, Constantine saw a vision of the “Chi-Rho”, the first two Greek letters of the name of Christ, along with the instruction “in this sign you shall conquer”. So, as the story goes, Constantine had the shields of his troops painted with this sign and thereafter indeed won the battle. Therefore, Constantine issued the historical Edict of Milan which put an end to the Christian persecution. As a shrewd and wise statesman, Constantine knew that outright persecution of the pagan religion would earn him disfavor among the leaders of society, majority of who were still pagans. As discussed in my earlier article, the Christian population was largely limited to the lower echelons of the Roman Empire, with a few exceptions of course.

Notwithstanding this, Constantine still continued thereafter to serve and offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Moreover, as emperor, he serves as the high priest of paganism, who later on after his death was even declared a god himself. In fact, throughout his entire life, he never placed himself under the direction of Christian teachers or bishops, although Christian leaders such as Lactantius formed part of his entourage and Hosius, bishop of Cordova, became for a time his liaison with other ecclesiastical leaders.

After he became the overall ruler of the Roman Empire, he moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople, then Byzantium and now Istanbul, Turkey. Hence it was also known as the Byzantine Empire. According to Justo Gonzalez, the impact of Constantine’s reforms can still be felt up to as late as the twentieth century. One of the most significant developments during his time was the adoption of an “official theology” as best exemplified by the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, which sought to unify Christendom with a common doctrine or creed against the teachings of Arius, a presbyter, who taught that Jesus was a created being and not God co-eternal with the Father. Furthermore, the official recognition of Christianity as a valid religion also brought some changes to Christian worship in that during its early years, Christians gathered to worship in private homes. However, with the construction of elaborate houses of worship, churches, basilicas and cathedrals, Christian worship soon came to be regarded with more pomp and majesty. The same can likewise be seen from the changes in the way officiating ministers dress, who until then had worn everyday clothes. From that time on and even until today, Catholic and Orthodox priests, and Protestant ministers now wear luxurious vestments with intricate designs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, certainly deserves majestic worship.

Finally, this era also marked the beginning of official commemoration of a martyr’s death, which then extended to the saints who have passed away. Thus, the impact of Constantine.

The Early Christians

peter-preaching

“…not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth; but…God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)

We usually hear some preachers declare that today’s modern churches do not resemble the early church we can read about in the book of Acts. And they are right in saying so. However, we would also hear these same preachers instruct the modern, or should we say post-modern, church to return to its biblical roots by imitating the practices, culture, traditions, methodologies, and government systems of the church in Acts. To be sure, it is imperative to take note of what the early church was really like in order to determine whether or not we can truly become like that once more.

The pagan writer Celsus described Christians during the second century as ignorant folk whose teaching took place, not in schools or open forums, but in kitchens, shops, and tanneries. According to Dr. Justo Gonzalez, “Although the work of Christians such as Justin, Clement, and Origen would seem to belie Celsus’ words, the fact remains that, in general, Celsus was telling the truth.” Most Christians at that time belonged to the lower echelons of society. Moreover, taking into account their stage of technological advancement, indeed it seems that the world we live in and its civilization today is quite different from that of the early church.

The area of contention nowadays is the style of Christian worship. This is one area of Christian life where we can see more similarities to the 21st century church. The early Christians had the custom of gathering on the first day of the week for the breaking of bread. This is still practiced by the body of Christ today with some exceptions, particularly the Messianic Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists and Seventh-Day Baptists, who still (wrongly) cling to the Old Testament Jewish Sabbath. Interestingly, throughout most of its history, the Christian church has seen in communion or the Eucharist its highest act of worship. Only at a relatively recent date, especially with the rise of evangelicalism, has it become common practice in many Protestant churches to focus their worship on preaching rather than on communion. These two facets of Christian worship are more popularly referred to as the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, respectively. A common characteristic of these early communion services was that only baptized Christians could attend. Converts who have not yet been baptized we allowed only in the early part of the service such as the readings, sermons and prayers but were sent away at the time of the communion proper. It was only until a few decades ago, during the Second Vatican Council, that this practice was changed in that unbaptized Christians, in fact, even non-Christians, are no longer sent away during the communion portion of the Mass. However, if we are to base our worship services from the book of Acts, we would not see any prescription on whether preaching or communion should be the main focus. Personally, I think it should be both.