The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism, Part 5 (The History of Christianity #110)


Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is 1 Peter 2:5 which reads: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Clement of Alexandria. He said: “If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 6)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Around the year 340, there appeared among the Donatists a group called the circumcellions – a name of debatable origin, which probably means that they had their headquarters in martyrs’ shrines. They were mostly Numidian and Mauritanian Donatist peasants who resorted to violence. Although sometimes they have been depicted as no more than bandits masquerading as people driven by religious motives, the truth is that they were religious to the point of fanaticism. They were convinced that there was no death more glorious than that of the martyrs, and that now that persecution in the old style had ended, those who died in battle against the perverters of the faith were also martyrs. In some cases, this quest for martyrdom rose to such a pitch that people committed mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. This may well be fanaticism; but it is not opportunistic hypocrisy.

The circumcellions became an important factor in the schism. Sometimes the Donatist leaders in the towns tried to disassociate themselves from this radical party. But at other times, when they needed activist troops, they appealed to the circumcellions. The time came when many villas and land holdings in secluded places had to be abandoned. The rich and those who represented the empire did not dare travel though the countryside without heavy escort. More than once, the circumcellions appeared at the very gates of fortified towns. Credit suffered, and trade almost came to a standstill.

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The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism, Part 4 (The History of Christianity #109)


Our History of Christianity Scripture passage today is Daniel 2:20-22 which reads: “Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his: And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding: He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Cyril of Alexandria. He said: “We, who are children of earth and slaves and subject by the law of nature to him who created us, call him who is in heaven ‘Father.’ Most fittingly, he enables those who pray to understand this also. Since we call God ‘Father’ and have been counted worthy of such a distinguished honor, we must lead holy and thoroughly blameless lives. We must behave as is pleasing to our Father.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism (Part 4)” from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

It is a fact that the two parties, Donatists and Caecilians, soon separated along social and geographical lines. In Carthage and its immediate surroundings — Proconsular Africa — Caecilian and his followers were strong. But further west, in Numidia and Mauritania, the Donatists were very popular. Numidia and Mauritania were agricultural areas. A great deal of their produce was exported to Italy through Carthage. The net result was that as middle-men the Carthaginians, with less labor and risk, made more money from the crops than those who actually raised them. Furthermore, Numidia and Mauritania were much less Romanized than Carthage and the area around it. Many in the less Romanized areas retained their ancestral language and customs, and saw Rome and everything connected with it as a foreign and oppressive force. In Carthage, on the other hand, there was a strongly Latinized class of landowners, merchants, and military officers, and it was this class that reaped most of the benefits of trade and other contacts with Italy. For these people, good relations with Rome as well as with the rest of the empire were of paramount importance. But in Carthage itself, as well as in its outlying districts, there were numerous people among the lower classes whose feelings were similar to those of the Numidians and Mauritanians.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Schismatic Reaction: Donatism.

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.

The Imperial Church — From the Unconquered Sun to Jesus Christ, Part 3

The History of Christianity #85

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is 2 Corinthians 5:17 which reads: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from G. K. Chesterton. He said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Imperial Church – From the Unconquered Sun to Jesus Christ” (Part 3) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Given these circumstances, Constantine’s religious policy followed a slow but constant process. It is likely that this process responded both to the demands of political realities and to Constantine’s own inner development, as he progressively left behind the ancient religion and gained a better understanding of the new. At first, he simply put an end to persecution and ordered that confiscated Christian property be returned. Shortly thereafter he gave new signs of favoring Christianity, such as donating to the church the Lateran palace in Rome, which had belonged to his wife, or putting the imperial posts at the service of bishops traveling to attend the Synod of Arles in 314 AD. At the same time, he sought to keep good relations with those who followed the ancient religions, and most especially with the Roman Senate. The official religion of the empire was paganism. As head of that empire Constantine took the title of Supreme Pontiff or High Priest, and performed the functions pertaining to that title. On coins minted as late as 320 AD one finds the names and symbols of the ancient gods, as well as the monogram for the name of Christ — the Chi-Rho that Constantine had used for the first time at the Milvian bridge.

The campaign against Licinius gave Constantine occasion to appear as the champion of Christianity. He was now moving into the territories where for quite a time the church had counted the greatest number of adherents. After defeating Licinius, Constantine appointed a number of Christians to high positions in government. Since his tensions with the Roman Senate were growing, and that body was promoting a resurgence of paganism, Constantine felt increasingly inclined to favor Christianity.

The Imperial Church — From the Unconquered Sun to Jesus Christ, Part 2

The History of Christianity #84

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Psalm 113:3 which reads: “From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same the Lord’s name is to be praised.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from C. S. Lewis. He said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Imperial Church – From the Unconquered Sun to Jesus Christ” (Part 2) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

There are several reasons why Constantine should not be seen as a mere opportunist who declared himself in favor of Christianity in order to court the support of Christians. First of all, such a view is rather anachronistic, for it tends to see Constantine as a forerunner of modern politicians. At that time, even the most incredulous did not approach religious matters with such a calculating attitude. Secondly, if Constantine had been such an opportunist, he chose a poor time to seek the support of Christians. When he put the Chi-Rho on his labarum, he was preparing to go to battle for the city of Rome, center of pagan traditions, where his main supporters were the members of the old aristocracy who considered themselves oppressed by Maxentius. Christians were stronger, not in the West, where the battle was to be fought, but in the East, to which Constantine would lay claim only years later.

Finally, it should be pointed out that whatever support Christians could give Constantine was of doubtful value. Given the ambivalence of the church toward military service, the number of Christian soldiers in the army, particularly in the West, was relatively small. Among the civilian population, most Christians belonged to the lower classes, and thus had scarce economic resources to put at the disposal of Constantine. After almost three centuries of tension with the empire, it was impossible to predict what would be the attitude of Christians before such an unexpected thing as a Christian emperor.

The Imperial Church — Constantine, Part 2

The History of Christianity #81

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Romans 13:1 which reads: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Eusebius. He said: “Constantine saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing this inscription: conquer by this. At the sight, he himself was struck with amazement and his whole army also.”

Last time, in the History of Christianity, we looked at “The Imperial Church – Constantine” (Part 1).

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Imperial Church – Constantine” (Part 2) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The truce lasted until 322 AD, although there was an ever-increasing tension between the two emperors. The main reason for conflict was still the ambition of both men, which found expression in the question of what titles and honors were to be given to their sons. But by the time war finally broke out, the question of religious policy had also become a bone of contention.

Licinius’ religious policy needs to be clarified, for after Constantine’s victory some Christian writers, in order to justify his actions against Licinius, made the latter appear in a bad light. For a number of years after the Edict of Milan, Licinius took no measures against Christians. Actually, a contemporary Christian writer, in telling the story of Licinius’ victory over Maximinus Daia, makes it sound very similar to Constantine’s victory over Maxentius – including a vision. But Christianity in Licinius’ territories was divided over a number of issues, and such divisions led to public disorders. When Licinius used his imperial powers to assure peace, there were groups of Christians that considered themselves wronged, and who began thinking of Constantine as the defender of the true faith, and as “the emperor whom God loved.” Licinius was not a Christian, but there are indications that he feared the power of the Christian God; and therefore, when he learned that his subjects were praying for his rival, he felt that this was high treason. It was then that he took measures against some Christians, and this in turn gave Constantine the opportunity to present himself as the defender of Christianity against Licinius, the persecutor.

In 322 AD, Constantine invaded Licinius’ territories, using the pretext that he was in pursuit of a band of barbarians who had crossed the Danube. Licinius interpreted this, rightly or wrongly, as an intentional provocation, and prepared for war by gathering his troops at Adrianople, where he awaited Constantine’s somewhat smaller armies.

Contemporary chroniclers affirm that Licinius feared the magical power of Constantine’s labarum, and that he ordered his soldiers to avoid looking at the Christian emblem, and not to direct a frontal attack against it. If this is true, it must have demoralized his troops. In any case, after a long and bloody battle, Constantine’s smaller army won the day and Licinius fled to Byzantium. His wife Constance — probably accompanied by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who will have an important role to play as our story unfolds — went in his name to her brother Constantine, who promised to spare Licinius’ life in exchange for his abdication. Shortly thereafter, Licinius was murdered. Constantine was now sole master of the empire.

Constantine would reign for the next thirteen years, until his death in 337 AD. Compared with the previous civil wars, this was a period of rebuilding and prosperity. But there was always political uneasiness, and quite a few people were condemned to death for real or supposed conspiracies against the emperor — among them his oldest son, Crispus, who had commanded his father’s fleet in the war against Licinius, and whom Constantine ordered executed.

Constantine had not sought absolute power for the mere pleasure of it. He also dreamed, like Decius and Diocletian before him, of restoring the ancient glory of the empire. The main difference was that, whereas Decius and Diocletian had sought that end through a restoration of paganism, Constantine believed that it could best be achieved on the basis of Christianity. Some of the staunchest opponents of this policy were in Rome, particularly in its Senate, where the members of the old aristocracy bemoaned the eclipse of their ancient gods and privileges. Several years before his final struggle with Licinius, Constantine had clashed with the interests of the Roman Senate. Now, as absolute master of the empire, he set out on a bold course: he would build a “New Rome,” an impregnable and monumental city, which would be called Constantinople – that is, “City of Constantine.”

Next time, we will continue looking at The Imperial Church – Constantine.

The Imperial Church — Constantine, Part 1

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is James 1:17 which reads: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Constantine. He said: “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation…This I have seen in others as well as in myself.”

Last time, in the History of Christianity, we looked at “The Great Persecution and the Final Victory.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Imperial Church – Constantine” (Part 1) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

We left Constantine at the moment when, after defeating Maxentius at the Milvian bridge, he joined Licinius in ordering the end of persecution. Although we have already indicated that eventually he became sole ruler of the Roman Empire, it now remains to outline the process by which he achieved that goal. The question of the nature and sincerity of his conversion must also be discussed. But what is of paramount importance for the story of Christianity is not so much how sincere Constantine was, or how he understood the Christian faith, as the impact of his conversion and his rule both during his lifetime and thereafter. That impact was such that it has even been suggested that throughout most of its history the church has lived in its Constantinian era, and that even now, in the twenty-first century, we are going through crises connected with the end of that long era. Whether or not this is true is a question to be discussed when our narrative comes to the present day. In any case, Constantine’s religious policies had such enormous effect on the course of Christianity that this section may be seen as a series of reactions and adjustments in response to those policies.

From Rome to Constantinople

Long before the battle at the Milvian bridge, Constantine had been preparing to extend the territories under his rule. To that end, he took great care to develop a strong base of operations in Gaul and Great Britain. He spent over five years strengthening the borders along the Rhine, where the barbarians were a constant threat, and courting the favor of his subjects by his just and wise government. This did not make him an ideal ruler. His love of luxury and pomp was such that he built a grandiose and ornate palace in his capital city – Trier – while neglecting public works to such an extent that the drainage system of the nearby fields failed, and the vineyards that were the backbone of the local economy were flooded. Yet, he seems to have had that rare gift of rulers who know just how far they can tax their subjects without losing their loyalty. By securing the borders against barbarian incursions, Constantine won the gratitude of many in Gaul. Frequent and extravagant shows in the circus gained the support of those who preferred violence and blood – the barbarian captives thus sacrificed were so many that a chronicler of the times affirms that the shows lost some of their interest because the beasts grew tired of killing.

As astute statesman, Constantine challenged his rivals one at a time, always protecting his flanks before making his next move. Thus, although his campaign against Maxentius seemed sudden, he had been preparing for it, both militarily and politically, for many years. His military preparations were such that in his campaign against Maxentius he committed only one-fourth of his resources, thus making sure that during his absence there would not be a major barbarian invasions, or a revolt in his own territories. In the field of diplomacy, he had to make sure that Licinius, who was Maxentius’ neighbor to the east, would not take advantage of Constantine’s campaign to invade and lay claim to some of Maxentius’ territories. In order to preclude that possibility, Constantine offered his half-sister Constance in marriage to Licinius, and he may also have made a secret agreement with his future brother-in-law. This would seem to cover his flank. But even then, he waited until Licinius was involved in a conflict with Maximinus Daia before launching his own invasion of Italy.

The victory at the Milvian bridge gave Constantine control of the Western half of the empire, while the East was still partitioned, split between Licinius and Maximinus Daia. His meeting with Licinius in Milan seemed to strengthen their alliance, and forced Licinius to direct his efforts against their common rival, Maximinus Daia. Licinius moved rapidly. Maximinus was still near Byzantium – later Constantinople, and now Istanbul — when his enemy appeared before him with a smaller army and defeated him. Maximinus was forced to flee, and died shortly thereafter.

The empire was then divided between Licinius, who ruled over the entire area east of Italy, including Egypt, and Constantine, who controlled Italy as well as Western Europe and the western portion of North Africa. Since the two emperors were related by marriage, there was hope that the civil wars had come to an end. But the truth was that both Licinius and Constantine sought to rule the whole empire, which, in spite of its vastness, was too small for the two of them. For a while, each of the two rivals devoted himself to consolidate his power and to prepare for the inevitable conflict.

Finally, hostilities broke out. A conspiracy to murder Constantine was discovered, and the ensuing investigation implicated a relative of Licinius who had fled to his kinsman’s territories. Licinius refused to send his relative to Constantine to be executed, and eventually declared war on Constantine. Although Christian historians have usually laid all the blame for this conflict on Licinius, the truth is that Constantine wished to go to war with his brother-in-law, but was able to make his rival appear as the aggressor. Finding himself militarily outmaneuvered by Constantine, Licinius had to sue for peace. Once again, Constantine showed that he was an able statesman and a patient man, and was content with taking most of Licinius’ European territories.

A period of peace followed. Once again, Constantine used the time to consolidate his power in the newly conquered territories. Instead of residing in the West, he established his headquarters first in Sirmium and later in Sardica (now Sofia). Both cities were located in recently conquered territories, and thus Constantine was able to keep an eye on Licinius and to strengthen his rule over the area.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Imperial Church – Constantine.