By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Christianity was closely aligned with the political projects of the Roman state and Rome’s imperial administration. Just as the empire’s basic unit of governance was the city, the city became the basic unit of ecclesiastical administration. Each major city had a bishop who supervised all the churches of his diocese.
Power of the Bishops
Bishops of the largest cities were called metropolitans and those who ruled over the oldest and most prestigious Christian communities were called patriarchs.
These patriarchal cities accordingly jockeyed for preeminence. Among the main contenders were Rome itself, which had long since been relegated to the status of a provincial capital; Alexandria, the capital of the Hellenistic world; and Constantinople, the new Roman capital founded by Constantine.
Rome’s claim was based on its symbolic imperial rights and its status as the place where both Peter and Paul had been martyred; and, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had designated Peter as his earthly representative. Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome, thus claimed to exercise the same powers.
Rome’s bishop also enjoyed some political advantages over other patriarchs; unlike the bishop of the new imperial capital, he could act with more freedom.
Arianism: A Heresy
The most divisive theological issue of this pivotal era, and thus the defining tenet of the new orthodoxy, concerned the nature of God. Jesus had taught that he was the Son of God and that, after his death, he would leave behind him the paracletos, ‘the intercessor’ or ‘comforting Spirit’, that would also be an emanation of God.
Accordingly, many early Christians theologians had taught that God composed a Trinity of equal persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But other Christians, influenced by Neoplatonism, rejected the idea that Jesus could be equal with God. Instead, they maintained that he was part of God’s creation and shared in his divine essence, but he was not equal to God, or eternal like God.
This latter school of thought was called Arianism, after the Christian teacher Arius who espoused it. According to the new, self-proclaimed proponents of orthodoxy, Arianism was a heresy—a dissident teaching punishable by anathema (ritual curses) and damnation. And yet many Christians, especially in the western Roman Empire, continued to espouse to the Arian view.
Before Christianity became a legal religion, any doctrinal disputes could only be addressed informally, by small groups of apologists meeting at local councils that had no power to enact their decisions. After the 4th century, however, these disputes had real political consequences because the Roman state was increasingly enmeshed in the governance of the Church.
Constantine began formalizing this process in 325, when he summoned Christian representatives to the first ecumenical (‘worldwide’) meeting of this catholic (‘universal’) Roman Church. This was the Council of Nicaea, where Arianism was formally condemned and ongoing arguments over the scriptural canon, the books to be included in the Christian Bible, were more or less resolved.
But Constantine’s successors carried their intervention much further. Gradually, they claimed to preside over Church councils as Christ’s representatives, which entitled them to decide what Christian doctrine should be. Some even violently suppressed Christian groups who refused to accept imperial mandates, labeled them heretical, and subjected them to ecclesiastical penalties: condemnation, excommunication from the Church, as well as criminal prosecution.
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Prohibition of Pagan Worship
Although Constantine had promoted both pagan and Christian officials to his court, his successors were also less inclined to tolerate competing faiths or unorthodox doctrines. The one exception was Constantine’s nephew, Julian the Apostate, who rejected Christianity altogether and attempted to revive traditional Roman piety and Hellenistic rituals. But Julian was killed in battle after less than three years of rule, and his pro-pagan edicts were nullified.
By 391, the emperor Theodosius had gone in the opposite direction and prohibited pagan worship of any sort within the empire. Within three generations, Christianity had gone from being a persecuted faith to a persecuting religion. Theodosius even removed the sacred altar of the goddess Victory from the Senate chamber in Rome, prompting pagan loyalists to prophesy the end of the empire.
Fifteen years later, the city of Rome fell to a barbarian army—and yet the empire’s center of gravity had already shifted decisively eastward. Although we call that eastern empire Byzantium, following the lead of 19th-century historians, it was never less than the Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople. And as the political, linguistic, and cultural divisions between East and West gradually widened, so did ideas about religious doctrine and practice. In time, the breach between the Latin West and Greek East would be reflected in their divergent theologies, the latter claiming to be the only Orthodox Church, the former the one true and universal—catholic and apostolic—Church.
The arms race for orthodoxy between these Christian authorities would be joined, on the one hand, by the Roman emperor as the champion of Orthodoxy and, on the other, by the rulers of the new barbarian kingdoms that emerged in Rome’s former western provinces. Hardening lines on doctrinal disputes would be hardened still further by the rise of Islam, which put pressure on the Empire’s eastern and southern frontiers and also gave rise to new theological challenges.
Common Questions about Christianity
Many early Christian theologians had taught that God composed a Trinity of equal persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But other Christians rejected the idea that Jesus could be equal with God. Instead, they maintained that he was part of God’s creation and shared in his divine essence, but he was not equal to God, or eternal like God. This latter school of thought was called Arianism.
Before Christianity became a legal religion, any doctrinal disputes could only be addressed informally, by small groups of apologists meeting at local councils that had no power to enact their decisions.
Constantine summoned Christian representatives to the first ecumenical (‘worldwide’) meeting of the catholic (‘universal’) Roman Church; this was the Council of Nicaea. Here, Arianism was formally condemned and ongoing arguments over the scriptural canon, the books to be included in the Christian Bible, were more or less resolved