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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 6: “The Imperial Church (300 – 451)”

Chapter 6: “The Imperial Church (300 – 451)”




“Power corrupts”


When the church got a taste of power it lost control.  View is quite different from the top and it seems the leadership got quite giddy from the high altitude.  From a humble brotherhood it was transformed to mimic the imperial court and developed various levels or circles of access or as I like to refer to as cliques.  The very nature of an exclusive ring required exclusion like a tacky nightclub that needs to brag how great it is by deliberately keeping a large number of people outside waiting to get in.  This also marked the beginning persecutions of other Christians by other Christians.  How telling it was for Caesar Julian who abandoned Christianity and employed the devastatingly effective strategy against Christianity by simply stepping back and let the Christians tear themselves apart.


It is amazing how over a very important, but highly nuanced concept the church can tear itself apart.  The identity and relationship of Jesus and the Father are very important, but also very mysterious as is the nature of God.  We may not fully understand it in this mortal world.  Instead of humbly admitting that we don’t fully understand and believe that a particular explanation honors God the best, we attack those that think differently.  Outsiders and even some insiders don’t really see much of a difference in the specific beliefs.  As we struggle to understand the divine and human nature of Christ, we should not forget his message of loving God and one another, especially the sinner.




It was very interesting and eye-opening, to say the least, to read in this chapter as to how politics and power came to shape Christian belief for centuries (if not several millennia) to come – in particular, the theology of who Christ was in terms of his relationship with his Father, and his human and divine natures.  For instance, MacCulloch writes, “Because of the death of the Eastern Emperor, Valens, around 378, the western Roman emperor, Gratian, sent the newly elected emperor Theodosius I to take his place.  He had no sympathies for the Arians and convened the Council at Constantinople in 381 and the Nicaean (misleadingly known as Nicene) Creed would be definitively vindicated and become the standard model more or less.” (loc. 4350)  Therefore, it may be safe to presume that had an emperor been on the throne who was sympathetic towards the Arians or some other Christology, our entire theology today would have been affected drastically.  This is definitely an eye-opener for me in that, oftentimes you grow up with the common naive sense that the central tenets of the Christian doctrine have always been set in stone, that theologians throughout the centuries knew what they were doing, being “guided by the Holy Spirit”, with the Holy Bible in tote, and that somehow, someway God “orchestrated” all the fine points so that “orthodoxy” would prevail.  History (or at the very least from MacCulloch’s P.O.V) seems to tell us otherwise, and that our cherished Christian doctrines came about in a sometimes, rather, arbitrary and “messy” sort of way.


It seems as if the major councils were power-plays of which bishop or dominant church wanted to stay in power.  For instance, “The Council of Constantinople not only outlawed Arianism from the imperial church, but also blocked two other directions in which the doctrine of the Trinity might have been led.”  (loc. 4358)  Also, “The Council of Constantinople thus radically narrowed the boundaries of acceptable belief in the Church, creating a single imperial Christianity backed up by military force.” (loc. 4378)  Thus, this consolidating of power was necessary to control (and manipulate) what was acceptable or unacceptable to believe for the masses.  You would believe an alternate doctrine at the risk of your own life if the dominant church that was at power at the time deemed it as heresy.


Also, we Christians, being so ignorant of our own history, are unaware of how the Church violently persecuted others.  We harp constantly about how the early church was persecuted, how many people were fed to lions, lit on fire, etc., but rarely do we talk about mobs of Christians (monks in particular) who went about and hunted down non-Christians when Christianity became the dominant belief system of the empire.  (The brutal lynching and murder of the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia being an example.)  Was it an act of revenge for all those years of persecution?


It seems as if the emperors used Christianity, like any other religion of the past, as a tool for power; as MacCulloch writes, “Emperors had no choice but to steer the Church to preserve their own rule,…” (loc. 4414).  This isn’t much different from today where we have politicians manipulating people’s beliefs for their own personal gains and ends.  You cannot dismiss the powerful influence politics has over shaping our belief systems, ever since civilization began.


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