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 Defenders of the Faith

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Last week, a news article on “e-cigs” or “vaping” was posted on the GMA News Facebook® page. It warned of the possible dangers of same, even mentioning that there was a certain study conducted on e-cigarettes or personal vaporizers published in a German publication. According to the news article, e-cigs contain formaldehyde among other harmful chemicals; so much so that even inhaling second-hand smoke or better yet, vapor, is dangerous. A similar warning was likewise issued by the Department of Health. However, there was one thing those warnings had in common: they failed to adequately cite any conclusive scientific study regarding their claims. Surely, mere mention that a certain study was conducted is not and will not be enough. As with all cultures and ages, the fear of the unknown haunts us.

A similar predicament was Christianity under during its early centuries. Although, according to Dr. Justo Gonzalez, there was no systematic persecution of Christians, it was nevertheless illegal to be a Christian. It was very easy though to cause any Christian to be arrested and punished; all it took was to present an accusation, no matter how frivolous or fantastic it is. Among those false accusations against Christians were insubordination, anti-patriotism, treason, sexual orgies, incest, human sacrifice, and worst of all, cannibalism. However, these accusations were not totally without reason. Christians services during that time were also called “love feasts”, much like “The Feast” gatherings of Bro. Bo Sanchez of the Light of Jesus Family, and they also called each other “brother” or “sister”. To make things worse, other people thought that Christians were eating infants during their gatherings because the former heard that the latter eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ! Since all of these things were done in private and only Christian initiates were admitted, there was really no way for the pagans to verify the rumors that they have been hearing.

Thus, a new breed of Christians, called “apologists” or “defenders” arose to address and dispel these misunderstandings. Among them were Quadranus, Aristides, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Origen, Mincious Felix, Tertullian and Tatian. But the most famous of the early apologists was Justin, whose martyrdom earned him the moniker “Martyr”, such did he come to be known, St. Justin Martyr. Only two of his works still exist: The Apologies (consisting of two parts) and a Dialogue with Trypho, a Jewish rabbi.

It was during those turbulent times that some of the most remarkable theological works of Christianity were produced. According to Dr. Gonzalez, it is by reading and studying these ancient works that we can know the main objections pagans raised against Christianity, as well as the manner in which the most cultured members of the Church responded to them, and how Christian theology developed in the very act of responding to pagan objections.

The Purge

In its early years, Christianity suffered enormous setbacks. The early Christians suffered persecution under various Roman emperors. At first, the Roman Empire saw Christianity as just one new sect of Judaism. This is significant because the Romans had a policy of leaving the Jews alone in their religion since they were very inwardly focused and hence, generally did not bother other people. In fact, even the first Christians, being Jews themselves, did not even believe that they were following a new religion. The only difference between them and the other Jews was that they were convinced that the Messiah that they have all been waiting for had already come. Thus caused serious rifts with the ruling Jews because of their varying ideas on what the Messiah would be like. Most Jews, including Jesus’ apostles at first, believed that the Messiah would be a sort of military leader who would liberate them from Roman rule and restore the glory Israel had during the reign of Kings David and Solomon. Unfortunately for them, they saw that the man Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the Messiah, was killed by crucifixion by the Roman authorities. They thought that Jesus could not be the Messiah for he had failed in his mission miserably. Nevertheless, the early Christians did not see it that way. They saw the death and resurrection of Jesus as a victory and not as a defeat. As a result, Jesus was recognized as the Messiah or in Greek, the Christ.

As the distinction between Judaism and Christianity became clear, along with the Christians’ observance of Jesus’ commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize and teach, and as more and more Gentiles were converted, the Roman authorities quickly took notice of this new growing sect. It did not help at all that rumors of cannibalism and other horrific practices were being spread about Christianity. Due to the riots and disorder that this new sect has been causing among the Jews, the Roman authorities decided to expel and prevent them from teaching in the name of Christ, just as Peter and John experienced in Acts 4 under the Jewfish temple authorities.

As problems caused by Christians increased, including their stubborn refusal to burn incense to and worship the pagan gods and the emperor, not to mention their abstinence from participating in pagan festivities, the persecution against the followers of the Way increased all the more. First was under Emperor Nero, then under Domitian, the Pliny, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Decius, Diocletian and Maximius. It was during this time when a lot of Christians suffered horrific tortures and death. Thus, the rise of the martyrs. Simply put, a martyr is a witness. Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that his disciples shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon and that they will be witnesses to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth! And this, they, the Christian martyrs such as Stephen, Ignatius, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicitas, Thelica and Justin, among others, fulfilled without shame or ambivalence.

Fortunately however, these persecutions later on came to a decisive end during the reign of Emperor Constantine, the first so-called “Christian” Emperor.