The Imperial Church — From Persecution to Dominance, Part 1

The History of Christianity #86

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Acts 17:23 which reads: “For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Constantine. He said: “I am most certainly persuaded that I myself owe my life, my every breath, in short, my very inmost and secret thoughts, entirely to the favor of the Supreme God.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Imperial Church — From Persecution to Dominance” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Although Constantine was certainly an important turning point in the life of the church — to the extent that one may properly speak of a “Constantinian era” stretching from his time until the early twentieth century — he did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. Constantine himself remained a pagan priest, as befitted his role as emperor, and was not baptized until he was about to die. His sons Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans were baptized, and certainly several of their edicts favored Christianity. But their rule was marked by dissension as the church was bitterly divided over the issue of Arianism (a view of Christ and the Godhead) and imperial religious policies focused on that dispute. In 356 AD, Constantius, by then sole emperor, declared the worship of images to be a capital crime; but the law was generally ignored. Then Constantine’s nephew Julian — who had been baptized — led a pagan reaction, and is therefore commonly known as “the Apostate.” After Julian’s reign, Jovian and Valentinian II continued the earlier policy of supporting Christianity — most often in its Arian version — while not taking stern measures against paganism. Christianity and paganism were generally on an equal footing before the state, both allowed and both supported by it. It was in the last years of the reign of Emperor Gratian (375 AD-383 AD), who had called on Theodosius (379 AD-395 AD) to share his rule, that decisive measures were taken to place paganism at a disadvantage. In 382 AD, Gratian decreed an end to governmental financial support for paganism and its priests, and he also ordered that the altar to the goddess Victory be removed from the Senate-House. In 391 AD, Theodosius outlawed pagan sacrifices and ordered the templates closed or devoted to public use. In 392 AD, all pagan worship — private as well as public — was forbidden.

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