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A Key To The Knowledge Of Church History by John Henry Blunt

CHAPTER VI The Church under the Roman Empire


[Sidenote: Persecution arrested by conversion of Constantine.]

[Sidenote: Outward triumph of the Church.]

The conversion of the Emperor Constantine to the Faith worked a great change in the condition of the Christian Church. Even so early as the year 312, when the appearance to him of the luminous Cross in the sky was followed by victory over his enemies, Constantine began to issue edicts of toleration in favour of the Christians; and from the time of his sole supremacy, A.D.324, Christianity and not Paganism became the acknowledged religion of the Roman empire.

Section 1. The altered Outward Circumstances of the Church.

[Sidenote: Consequent change in discipline and ritual.]

Such a change in the outward circumstances of the Church could not but produce a corresponding alteration in its discipline and mode of worship. The Kingdom of God on earth became a great power visible to the eyes of men, no longer hid like the leaven, but overshadowing the earth like the mustard-tree; and the power and influence of Imperial Rome were employed {67} in spreading the Faith instead of seeking to exterminate it. Christians were not now forced to shun the notice of their fellow-men; banished Priests and Bishops came back to their flocks; heathen temples were converted into Churches, and new Churches were built with great splendour. The vast resources of Roman wealth and refinement were employed to render the Worship of Almighty God costly and magnificent, and the ritual of the Church was probably more fully developed and brought more into harmony with the prophetic vision of St. John than circumstances had ever before allowed.

[Sidenote: The first Christian city.]

In Constantinople, built by the Emperor Constantine on the ruins of Byzantium, we have the first instance of a city which, from the time of its foundation, was entirely Christian.

[Sidenote: Endowment of the Church.]

The Church was now no longer dependent on the alms of private Christians; the revenues which had formerly been devoted by the state to the maintenance of the heathen temples and their ministers, were transferred to the support of Christian Churches and their Clergy, and to the relief of the poor. Christian schools were also founded and endowed by the emperors; and learning, as well as wealth, was thus brought in contact with the Faith.

[Sidenote: Church honoured by the world.]

Christian Rome soon became a great instrument in God's hands for extending the influence of the Church even amongst little-known and uncivilized nations; and as persecution ceased to try the earnestness of those who embraced the religion of Christ, and the name of Christian came to be treated with respect instead of with scorn, the Church began to assume a position somewhat like that which she holds in our own day. [Sidenote: Discipline relaxed.] The profession of {68} Christianity under these circumstances was naturally more of a matter of course with many of those who had grown up under its shadow, than when, in earlier times, such a profession was likely to involve loss and suffering, and even death itself, and discipline was gradually and necessarily relaxed from the severity needful in the days of persecution.

Section 2. Internal Trials of the Church.

[Sidenote: Heresy gathers strength in prosperity,]

The Church being thus firmly settled and delivered from outer enemies, was now to find troubles within. Even from the days of St. John the Divine heresies respecting the Person of our Blessed Lord had been rife; but these open denials of the Divinity of the Great Head of the Church had been successfully opposed without their leaving behind them any very lasting trace. [Sidenote: and is of a more dangerous nature.] Errors of a more subtle class followed, amounting in reality to unbelief in our Saviour's Godhead, but expressing that unbelief by assailing the teaching of the Church respecting His nature as Very God or as Very Man.

[Sidenote: Arianism.]

This species of error culminated in the heresy of Arius, who denied that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was co-equal, co-eternal, and of One Substance with the Father, and whose false teaching was more widely listened to and followed than that of any of his predecessors in misbelief. Arianism, and various forms of error consequent upon it, long afflicted the Church, especially in the East, and the Emperor Constantine himself seems at one time to have had a leaning towards the theories of Arius.


Section 3. The General Councils.

[Sidenote: The remedy provided for heresy.]

The full tide of the Arian heresy was, however, not suffered to come upon the Church without a barrier being raised up by God to stem the torrent. The Emperor Constantine was providentially guided to call together a Council of Bishops from every part of the world, to decide what was and always had been the Faith of the Church respecting the Nature of our Blessed Lord. This is the first instance of what are known by the name of General Councils of the Church. Other councils, called provincial synods, had indeed been frequently held from the earliest times; but they were of a much more limited and partial character, and their decrees were binding only on the province in which they were held, and not on the Church at large.

[Sidenote: Nature of General Councils.]

General Councils were called together by the Christian emperors, and, from the nature of their constitution, were not possible until all or nearly all the Christian world was governed by a ruler professing the Faith of Christ; nor has such a general synod been held since the breaking up of the universal empire of Rome helped to overthrow the external unity of the Church. [Sidenote: Their number.] Four General Councils are officially {70} acknowledged by the Church of England as binding on her members, and to these are commonly added two, held somewhat later at Constantinople.

[Sidenote: I. Council.]

I. The First General Council was called together by Constantine the Great, A.D.325. It was held at Nicaea in Bithynia, and was attended by 318 Bishops. The great work of this Council was the positive and explicit assertion of what the Church had always implicitly believed concerning the Nature of our Divine Lord, and His Oneness with the Father. It was at this Nicene Council that the great St. Athanasius, then only a deacon, first distinguished himself by his opposition to the heresies of Arius. The teaching of the Council was embodied in the creed which is known to us as the Nicene Creed, and which was signed by all the assembled Bishops with only two exceptions, these being probably personal friends of Arius. Besides the condemnation of Arius, the Council settled the time of keeping Easter, and passed twenty Canons which were confirmed by the Emperor.

[Sidenote: II. Council.]

II. The Second General Council was held at Constantinople, A.D.381, in the reign of Theodosius the Great. It was summoned principally to condemn the heresy of Macedonius, who had been Patriarch of Constantinople, and who had added to the Arian heresy a denial of the Divinity of God the Holy Ghost. At this Council 150 Bishops were present, and it is especially remarkable for having completed the Creed of Nicaea, which is hence also called the Creed of Constantinople.


[Sidenote: III. Council.]

III. The Third General Council was summoned by the Emperor Theodosius the Younger, A.D.431, and met at Ephesus. It was held to consider the heresy of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who taught that the Blessed Virgin was the Mother of our Lord's Human Nature only, and that, therefore, the title of Theotokos, or |Mother of God,| ought not to be given her. This assertion was, in fact, only a refinement of Arianism, implying as it did that our Saviour had not always been God as well as Man, and it was accordingly condemned by the Council, Nestorius being at the same time deposed from his see.

[Sidenote: IV. Council.]

IV. The Fourth General Council met at Chalcedon during the reign of the Emperor Marcian, A.D.451. Six hundred and thirty Bishops assembled at it and condemned the false teaching of Eutyches, who asserted that our Blessed Lord was God only, and not Man also.

[Sidenote: V. Council.]

V. The Fifth General Council was summoned at Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian, A.D.533, and was attended by 165 Bishops. In it the decisions of the Four First Councils were confirmed, especially against the Nestorians.

[Sidenote: VI. Council.]

VI. The Sixth General Council was also held at Constantinople, A.D.680, by command of the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus, and condemned a development of Eutychianism.


Table of Councils.

Where held. Date. Emperor. Object.

I. Nicaea 325 Constantine Against the Arians. the Great

II. Constantinople 38l Theodosius Against the the Great Macedonians.

III. Ephesus 431 Theodosius Against the the Younger Nestorians.

IV. Chalcedon 451 Marcian Against the Eutychians.

V. Constantinople 553 Justinian Against a development of

VI. Constantinople 680 Constantine Against a Pogonatus development
of Eutychianism.

Section 4. Intellectual Development in the Church.

[Sidenote: Christian learning developed in peace.]

This portion of the History of the Church, comprising as it does the first period in which the master-minds within her fold were left free by the cessation of outward persecution to resist the increasing attacks of heresy, may be looked upon as offering to our view the greatest intellectual development which the Church has experienced since the times of the Apostles. [Sidenote: The Fathers.] Learned and eloquent men abounded, |mighty in the Scriptures| and |steadfast in the Faith,| and their commentaries and sermons have come down to us as an abiding heritage and a continual witness to the teaching of the Church in early times. St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Chrysostom, and St. Augustine, are but a few out of many whose writings are still held in honour by our own as well as by every other branch of the Catholic Church.

A General Council is the highest possible way in which the voice of the Church can be heard. But its authority is much increased by the fact that to become really a general Council its decrees must be generally received by the Christian world. This was the case with the first six General Councils, but has not been entirely so with any similar gatherings of later ages.

That part of the Creed which follows the words, |I believe in the Holy Ghost,| was added later.

The subsequent addition in the clause, |Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son,| will be noticed later.


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