Church History, Lesson 15: Christianity’s First Decade in Freedom

Constantine2Recap and Intro

In 311 AD, Emperor Galerius rescinded his persecution and allowed Christians to rebuild churches.  His edict ended the effort to rid the Roman Empire of Christians.

From the time of Irenaeus, around 200 AD, to 1000 AD, Christianity was primarily a religion in Asia and North Africa.  Though in Italy, Gaul (France), and Spain, Christianity did rise to prominence as a religion within Roman towns.

However, monasticism did take part in the spread of Christianity (Lesson 14).  In the late 4th through 6th centuries, Christianity began to make its way into the European countryside.  In the wilder reaches of forest and mountain, Christianity spread, not from the cities, but from the monasteries—the continuing, transplanted legacy of Antony the Ascetic.  Martin of Tours (316-397 AD), gives us the first monastery in Western Europe we can date.  At first an Abbot, he later becomes the Bishop of Tours, in Gaul.  (Perhaps, we may delve into this in a later lesson.)


Constantine’s Conversion to Christianity

In 284 AD, Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire in two, trying to make it more manageable.  For a few decades, this worked.  In 312 AD, his separation of powers began to die by the legion and lance.  Instead of running one Empire, the Emperors (Augusti) Maxentius and Constantine went to war.  Maxentius all but declared war on Constantine by destroying his statues in Rome and the cities of Italy.

With about 100,000 men at his disposal, Maxentius faced a force of less than 50,000.  Though with a smaller army, Constantine marched toward Rome.  He continued to be successful, even adjusting his tactics to Maxentius’ use of armored cavalry, the clibanarii, adopted from the Persians.

Constantine later told Church historian, Eusebius, that he looked at the sky and saw a cross of light shining above the sun, with an inscription, “By this sign, you will conquer” (Latin, in hoc signo vinces).  Later that day, during a dream, Constantine again saw the same sign, with Christ commanding him to build a replica of the cross and to use it to protect himself in battle.

So, when Maxentius marched north from Rome on October 28, he encountered troops bearing strange markings on their shields.  The symbol, however, was not the cross.  Instead, he noticed “a letter ‘I’ with its head twisted around and across it a letter ‘X,’” the first two letters of “Christos” in Greek.

Maxentius then received a report of his men battling at Milvian Bridge on the Tiber River.  He rushed to their aid, and as he crossed the bridge, he was pushed over and drowned.


The Edict of Milan

To help keep the civil war contained, Constantine allied with a General, Licinius, so he could concentrate his forces against Maxentius.  Afterward, Constantine and Licinius forged a delicate balance of power.  Constantine would rule the West while Licinius, his brother-in-law, would rule the East.

In 313, he and Licinius officially issued the Edict of Milan, where they met to grant religious freedom within the Empire.  The Edict begins:

When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, met near Milan, and we pondered about the public welfare and security.  We considered, among other items, what would best serve the most people.  So, we first dealt with the regulations dealing with the reverence of God.

  • What was the motivation for the Edict?


“Our purpose,” it said, “is to grant to all Christians and all others full authority to follow whatever worship each man desires.”


Civil War Breaks Out Again

In 320, Constantine discovered that Licinius had stopped abiding by the Edict of Milan, receiving reports of persecution against Christians.  The exact extent of this is unknown, but something caused Constantine to confront Licinius about his change of attitude toward Christians.

In 321, Licinius was harassing those near the Armenian frontier who had recently become Christians.  So, Constantine went to their aid.  With the Armenians supporting him in the East, He encircled Licinius.  Superstitious, Licinius ordered his men not to look directly at Constantine’s standards, which bore a cross on them.  He suffered defeated anyway.  In September 324, Constantine became the sole Emperor of the Roman Empire.


Rome’s Policy Changes toward the Christian Church

As Emperor, Rome went from tolerating Christians to helping them.  In a letter to the Bishop of Carthage, he wrote:

In all the provinces … provide for the expenses for the earlier-mentioned servants of the lawful and most holy Catholic Church.  I have written to Ursus, the accountant of Africa, instructing him to pay your Reverence 3,000 folles.  [A soldier earned a high wage, about 1,000 folles a year.]  Make sure you distribute the money to all the people on the list, which I sent to you by [my Bishop] Hosius.  If you discover the amount of money is not enough to fulfill my wishes, ask whatever you need without hesitation.

Constantine instituted a new policy of supporting the Church from public funds.  His decrees went beyond toleration to favoring the Church.

In a letter to Anullinus, Constantine revealed his view toward the clergy and the Church.

I want those who … are commonly called “clerics” to be kept away from all public burdens of any kind.  This is to prevent them from being distracted by any sacrilegious error from the liturgy they owe to God.  Without disturbance, they should serve their own Law, since their conduct of the proper worship of God will, in my opinion, immeasurably benefit the commonwealth.

To Constantine, the worship offered to God was vital to the well-being of the Empire.  He considered Christianity, not merely as something to be tolerated, but as the form of worship acceptable to God in whose hands the destiny of his Empire lay.

Other evidence of Constantine’s support for Christianity was his rebuilding of churches, many of which were destroyed after 303 AD, following the “Edict Against the Christians.”  He provided money to build the first church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, the city which became the eastern capital.  In Rome, he paid for a basilica, St. John Lateran, and for the construction of shrines to the Roman martyrs, including a church dedicated to Peter on Vatican hill.

At one point, he commissioned 50 Bibles to be transcribed for the newly built churches in the East.  The Codex Sinaiticus, one of the bound codices surviving from antiquity, is believed to be one of them.

Constantine’s legislation during his first decade of rule reveals his religious views.

  • In 318, he decreed a civil suit could, with the consent of both parties, come under the jurisdiction of a Bishop—even if initiated in an imperial court. Further, the bishop’s verdict would be final.
  • In 316, he outlawed the branding of convicts on the face. For “the face, which is formed in the likeness of the heavenly beauty, may not be disfigured.”
  • In 321, he authorized people to will their money and property to the Church. He also approved a bishop’s actions of freeing someone from slavery in church to have full legal validity, who even became a Roman citizen.  He closed law courts “on the venerable day of the sun,” except to free slaves.  He also stopped labor on Sunday except when needed on farms.


Arius (250-336 AD)

Born in Libya, Arius was ordained, who was “tall, stooped, and curved,” and became known for his rousing sermons.  He wore the clothes of an ascetic and oversaw a large number of devoted virgins within the Alexandrian church.  He had a reputation as someone astute in reasoning and logic skills.

Influenced by Greek philosophy, Arius promoted a misunderstanding of Christ.  His line of thinking went like this.  Since God is the eternal and unknowable Oneness, the Son cannot be in the same sense, God.  So, the Son, therefore, must be created—of course, in eternity.  Further, since the Father in His being cannot be divided, He must have made His Son out of nothing.  Arius claimed that “before [the Son] was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he did not exist” (Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia).

Read John 1:1, 14

  • Where does Arius’ thinking go astray?


  • What is Arius trying to do relating to God’s nature, which makes him go too far?


Since 318, he had been publicly teaching that Jesus was not divine, that Christ and the Holy Spirit were created beings.  An eloquent preacher, Arius understood how to spread his theology to the common man.  He put his teachings into singable jingles, which many sang.  Soon riots erupted in Alexandria over this theological debate and clergy began to take sides.  This controversy became widespread, embroiling bishops of every province, from Libya and Egypt to Bithynia (Turkey) and Thrace (Greece).

Arius’ Influences

Growing up in Libya, Origen’s teachings (Lesson 12) influenced Arius’ thinking.  When it came to Christ, Origen was ambiguous.  Yes, he taught the Father eternally and timelessly generated the Son.  But he also implied the Son was secondary and, based on His nature, was subordinate to the Father.

Origen stressed the subordination of the Son to the Father, ignoring His equality.  Arius went further, denying the eternal nature of the Son.  Sometimes, what is not said is as crucial as what is said.

One God, alone Ingenerate, alone Everlasting, alone Unbegun, alone True, alone having Immortality, alone Wise, alone Good, alone Sovereign, Judge, Governor, and Providence of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good. [On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia 16]

  • By using “alone” a multitude of times when referring to God the Father, what did Arius imply about the Son and Spirit?


Arius summarized his views in a poem, known as the Thalia [to blossom].  Here, he speaks about Jesus.

The Unbegun made the Son a beginning of things originated.  By adoption, He advanced him as a son to Himself.  The son has nothing proper to God in his substance, for he is not equal or one in essence with Him.

  • What does Arius mean when he refers to Jesus as not being “proper to God in his substance”?


  • When Arius says Jesus is not “in essence with” the Father, how is this different from Jesus subordinating Himself to the Father in His humanity?


Athanasius (297-373)

Born in Alexandria, Athanasius later served as a deacon and secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.  He became one of the Church’s most profound thinkers, who debated Arius, while still a deacon.  His Arian opponents mocked him as “the Black Dwarf” because he was short and had a dark complexion.

One of the Scripture passages Athanasius used to debate Arius was Philippians 2.


14, Philippians 2.5-11


  • What does existing in the form of God and equality with God before His incarnation, tell us about Jesus?

Athanasius insisted Jesus, the Son, humbled Himself and was exalted.  With this, he challenged Arius to explain what the Son was before His incarnation.  If He was not Son before, what was He?  Was Jesus merely a man?  If the Arians believed this, they were no better than the first-century Jews who failed to recognize the deity of Jesus (Discourses against the Arians 1.38).

For Athanasius, the Gospel was not about a Son who was rewarded with godhood.  Instead, “being God, He later became a man so we may be divinized” (Discourses against the Arians 1.39).  Through Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection, and through our union with His risen flesh, we become “natural recipients of grace” (Discourses against the Arians 1.45).

The Arian “gospel” fails because it only tells us of a God who sent the highest of creatures to rescue creatures and bring them nearer to God, not unite them with Him.

John 5:39: “You [the Jews, vs. 16] pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.”

  • How can Jesus give eternal life if He is not God since eternity is the realm of God? Could something less than God save a fallen humanity into eternity?


For Athanasius, understanding the Scriptures to be about Christ was central.

  • 1 Corinthians 1:24: “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom.”
  • John 10:30: “The Father and I [Jesus] are one.”
  • John 14:10: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own.  The Father who lives in Me is doing His works.”

Athanasius used those verses as an internal measure to gauge if another was properly reading the other parts of Scripture.

He became the Bishop of Alexandria in 328 AD when he was only 29 years old.


Well-Known Phrases from Athanasius

[Jesus] was incarnate that we might be made god, and He manifested Himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father.  Jesus endured the insults of human beings that we might inherit incorruptibility.  [On the Incarnation 54]

Besides these scriptural utterances, let us also consider the tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord handed down, the Apostles preached, and the fathers guarded.  This is the foundation on which the Church is established, and the one who strays from it is not a Christian and should no longer be called so.  [The Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit 1.28]

The sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of the truth.  [Against the Pagans 1]

  • Discuss: How could Athanasius—not only see no conflict with—but hold both tradition and Scripture as affirming the same truths?


… when they hear the teaching of Christ, they turn from fighting to farming and, instead of arming their hands with swords, they stretch them out in prayer.  [On the Incarnation 52]


We’ll learn more of Athanasius in later lessons, especially on his influence of what books the Church will later officially recognized as Scripture.


Link to the next Lesson.