The Decrees of Constantine…

March 1, 2015

I am pulling up another past post form Red Letter Living that I wrote almost three years ago. At that time in my spiritual journey I was trying to decide where church doctrine and its creeds belonged in my faith. Needless to say this book by Harvey Cox did a lot to show me a different path on this topic and many others. When I came to realize just how much man had a hand in formalizing current Christian doctrine it convinced me that Christianity is an ever evolving process and is not to be paralyzed by some of the now outdated fourth and fifth century man-made worldviews.

I am going to start this post with an alarming story of Constantine’s involvement in the Council of Nicaea. It is from a book by Harvey Cox entitle The Future of Faith.   If this doesn’t cast out any doubt of man’s involvement in the change from faith to rigid belief nothing will:

2015-02-22_10-55-08Constantine, not Jesus, was the dominant figure at Nicaea, and it is hardly surprising that almost all the bishops, to the emperor’s satisfaction, arrived at a nearly unanimous decision in his favor. Only Arius himself and three other stubbornly independent bishops withheld their approval. Constantine promptly exiled Arius to the remote province of Illyricum. Then, in a statement that suggests he had forgotten his previous view both that this was all a matter of small significance and that all the parties should show forbearance to one another, he decreed: If any treatise composed by Arius be discovered, let it be consigned to the flames…and if anyone shall be caught concealing a book by Arius, and does not instantly bring it out and burn it, the penalty shall be death; the criminal shall suffer punishment immediately after conviction.

But the emperor’s draconian measures did not succeed. The historic Council of Nicaea, as an effort to unify the church and the empire by imposing a creed, proved a dismal failure. Within months arguments flared up again. One of the bishops who had attended the Nicaea council and had not supported the final decision, Hilary of Poitiers (d. ca. 367), found himself banished to Asia. No doubt his experience tinctured his opinion of councils and creeds, but a letter he wrote from his place of exile at the time pinpoints how little the Council of Nicaea had accomplished and what a debacle it had been. Hilary says: It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous that there are as many creeds as opinions among men, as many doctrines because we make creeds arbitrarily and explain their inclinations…arbitrarily…every year, nay every moon we make a new creed and describe invisible mysteries. We repent what we have done. We defend those who repent. We anathematize those whom we defended. We condemn either the doctrine of others in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and reciprocally tearing one another to pieces, we have been the cause of each other’s ruin.

Arius definitely caught the ire of Constantine and his brutality. Not only did he banish this noble bishop who dared to disagree with him on church matters he made even having anything written by Arius a penalty of death!! Sadly these types of stories are somewhat frequent in the years following Constantine’s mandating Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

We will be studying some more about this period in future posts but for now it is important that you realize that Christianity’s history is messy indeed. I am not saying that there are no good parts to what became the Church of Jesus Christ but only that we must be aware that much of the simple teachings of Jesus were later polluted by men seeking to consolidate personal power in earthly focused empires. Power corrupts, even inside the Christian church!

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