Nonviolence & The Early Church (Part 3 of 3)
““If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies … whom have we to hate?”
– Tertullian, Apology. Chap. 37
Constantine & Shortly After – 306 – 380 A.D.
As written in my chapter on Romans 12 and 13, I believe that the Christian’s ultimate authority comes from God, and when that allegiance is divided, problems arise in the form of people accepting something as the truth, that is not with the Will of God. The reason why Constantine is important in this discussion is because his relationship with Christianity started in the form of a vision, and his legacy led to Christianity being named the State Religion of the Roman Empire after his death.
The story of Constantine seeing a vision which instructed him to paint crosses on his army’s shields in order to win a battle took place in the year 311, although I enjoy Mark Kurlansky’s thoughts on that story in his book Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea:
“Constantine had a dream in which Christ had appeared, commanding him to carry the sign of the cross into battle. By this time Constantine had numerous Christian soldiers in his ranks, and for the first time in history they went into battle with an emblem of Christianity, the cross, painted on their shields. Just a generation earlier, to have placed a symbol of Christianity on a weapon would have been an outrage for Romans and an unthinkable blasphemy for Christians. Before the battle, Constantine was said to have seen a flaming cross in the sky with the words “In this sign thou shalt conquer,” words that were in complete contradiction to Christianity and would have been unutterable for Jesus.” (Kindle Locations 407-412)
Kurlansky recognizes the conflict between the teachings of Jesus, as well as the early church, and the involvement of Christians and Christianity in warfare. He correctly wrote that Christ himself would have been abhorred at the sight of crosses associated with him because used as a sort of “blessing” of war. The spread of this story within the Roman Empire would lead to Christians believing that Constantine possibly had some special connection with God, and because of that, their view of God might begin to become distorted by the belief that God was on the side of the Romans, and against its enemies.
The Edict of Milan
Because Christians were seen as cultish, and, in some cases, as rebels, persecution of them was a recurring issue in the Roman Empire. There were times, and areas, where this persecution was worse than others (Colosseum, anyone?), and there were times and areas where Christianity was just not as tolerated as other religious faiths were.
The Edict of Milan was issued in 313 by the Roman Emperor of the West – Constantine, and the Roman Emperor of the East – Licinius. Its role was to put an end to less than tolerant behavior towards Christians, and those in other religions. An excerpt from this edict, as seen in Christianity Today’s article on it, shows that the interest of stopping the persecution was not purely selfless, and it certainly was not because these two emperors were Christian themselves:
“Our purpose is to grant both to the Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each person has desired, whereby whatsoever Divinity dwells in heaven may be benevolent and propitious to us, and to all who are placed under our authority. Therefore we thought it salutary and most proper to establish our purpose that no person whatever should be refused complete toleration, who has given up his mind either to the cult of the Christians or to the religion which he personally feels best suited to himself.” – excerpt from The Edict of Milan as seen in Christanitytoday.com
The Edict came to be, at least partially, because these pagan Roman Emperors were basically trying to get all the blessings they could get over their territories and conquests. Nevertheless, it was a fundamentally good thing because it caused a spread of Christianity within the empire because Christians no longer had to fear persecution by the government.
The First Council of Nicaea
The first council of Nicaea happened in 325 A.D., and it was the first eccumenical council of the Christian Church in which they met together to discuss several things, particularly the rise and problem of Arianism – which was a heresy that denied the full deity of Christ and said that He was a created being, subordinate to the Father. The council, desiring a document that established the basic truths of the faith that were agreed upon, created the first writing of what is known today as the Nicene Creed. Constantine called for this council to take place, presided over the opening of the council, and took place in the discussions, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Though Constantine did not consider himself a church leader, he still desired to be a part of the Council because he was quoted in saying:
“You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the church,” he told them. “But I also am a bishop, ordained by God to oversee those outside the church.” – Constantine, according to the article referenced before on Christianity Today.
Constantine was also very helpful in managing the event in arranging ceremonies, introductions, and in mediating the event. (Christianity Today)
This first eccumenical council improved relations within the Church, and was also a huge step in Christianity becoming more widespread.
Edict of Thessalonica
In 380 A.D., Roman Emperor Theodosius issued what is known as the Edict of Thessalonica amidst the widespread popularity of Arianism, and even Nicene Christians persecuting Arian christians.
“This edict commanded everyone to be a Christian–but not just any kind of Christian. A Catholic Christian, it said, was one who held that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Godhead and equal in majesty. This, of course, was the position of the Nicene Creed.” – Dan Graves at Christianity.com
Theodosius considered himself to be a Christian in the Nicene Tradition, and was baptized as such. However, this does not mean that his character and his works/fruit looked like a Christian’s should.
“In 387, When the city of Thessalonica rioted because a favored charioteer was imprisoned (for homosexuality), Theodosius ordered revenge: a chariot race was announced, citizens gathered in the arena, the gates were locked, and soldiers were set upon the crowd. By the end of the day, 7,000 had perished.” -Christianity Today
This is not to say that Theodosius was not a Christian, but to give perspective on how the Roman Christians must have felt in regards to Christianity and the military when they had a publicly declared Christian Emperor who made Christianity the State religion, while at the same time wielding a sword in a particularly violent manner.
In the same way that celebrities have influence over people today, and their views on faith, if they are Christian, is idolized by their fans, the same could have happened with Theodosius who married the Church with the State, and Violence with Christ.
John Howard Yoder was a renowned Mennonite theologian, author, and professor who perhaps wrote some of the heartiest works on the subject of Christian Nonviolence, and he has this to say about the curious shift from the nonviolence of the early church fathers, to the acceptance of the use of violence post-Constantine.
“The progressive decay of the primitive Christian rejection of Caesar’s wars had many causes that built up gradually, although the Constantinian transition was the weightiest. Instead of being a small band of believers, each of whom had counted the cost before making the commitment of discipleship, everyone who counted was now a Christian; it was now costly to be a pagan or a Jew. Since everyone was a Christian, Christian morality had to be tailored to the capacities and motivation level of “Everyman.” Instead of looking to their risen Lord to bring history to a triumphant conclusion in his own time and way, Christians now knew that the Roman emperor and their God were allies and that the forward movement of history was enforced by the legions.” – The War of the Lamb. Yoder, 45.
Yoder made the case here that instead of being a separated group from society, to be a Christian was now an important component of being a good Roman citizen, and so instead of theology being instructed from the church fathers, uninfluenced by the government, theology was taught by church leaders, and politicians alike. To be a Roman was to be a Christian. Thousands of pagan converts came into the faith out of following the Edict of Thessalonica, and would have outnumbered the Christians who were trying to follow the Will of God all along without the influence of the state.
The result is a Christianity that incorporates Nationalism, and Nationalism that incorporates Christianity. In order for this to work, the components of the Church which conflicted with the State had to be diminished. Nonviolence and Nationalism didn’t get along.
In the first section of this chapter, we went over several early church fathers who wrote against the Christian use of violence, and in the second section we saw how church and state began to mingle, and how that ultimately changed people’s perspectives on the issue of Christian Nonviolence.
My hope is that more and more people see the radical call of Christ for nonviolence in the Christian’s life, and if they accept it, for their allegiance to Christ to take precedence over all else.
Nonviolence is not a hippie idea implanted in theology by liberalism. Nonviolence was something that was followed out of a literal interpretation of Christ’s words by the early church. Nonviolence continues to arise in various movements within Christianity because of that same literal interpretation of the words of Christ; words that are worthy of our reflection.
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Yoder, John Howard (2009-12-01). The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (p. 45). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.