The History of Christianity: Constantine to Augustine
Emperor Constantine the Great
Constantine the Great (b. 272) was a Roman general from Serbia, who became the first Emperor (306-337) of Rome that was a Christian.
His father, Constantius, had been Western Emperor, and had refused direct orders to murder innocent Christians solely because of their Faith, which was customary at the time. Constantine had an epiphany in 312 leading to his conversion to Christianity, a religion that had experienced enormous growth since the death of Jesus Christ about A.D. 30—despite incredible persecution by the Romans for over 250 years—from a few thousand Believers to more than a million.
I would like to state here what Constantine did not do: He did not "invent" Christianity; didn't write the Bible; didn't influence what books are in the New Testament; didn't tell Church Councils what to do; did not make Sunday the day of worship for Christians; did not make Christianity the "official" religion of the Roman Empire.
What he did do was end centuries of persecution and cruel execution of Christians; printed Bibles to make up for the thousands of them his predecessors confiscated and destroyed; built churches to replace the hundreds of them that previous Caesars had burned down; proclaimed religious freedom for all religions including Christianity and Paganism; banned gladiatorial games, the facial branding of slaves, child slavery, infanticide; and made sweeping prison reforms.
He did make Sunday an official day of rest—not worship—for all Romans. 99% of the Christians worshiped on Sunday by then, and Pagans worshiped the Sun on this day of the week; so it seemed practical for everybody—except for Jews; and Christians who preferred to worship on the Sabbath.
The Nicene Creed
The 4th Century is a fascinating time in the history of Christianity, as it proved to be a big adjustment from being an outlawed religion at the beginning of the century to becoming a favored religion by its end.
The first big controversy was between the followers of Arius and those of Athanasius. This was not merely a debate among theologians or the clergy. Regular citizens of the day were more knowledgeable about religious doctrines than today, and this dispute engaged people of all walks of life around the Roman Empire.
Arius (253-336) was a popular pastor from Alexandria. His belief was that Jesus was subordinate and separate from God the Father. Arius said, "God has not always been a Father. Once God was alone."
His novel teachings were that Jesus had attained his title Son of Go" by his own virtue during his life on Earth. That he could have failed, in other words—but didn't.
Athanasius (295-373) was the bishop of Alexandria, and he opposed these teachings of Arius.
Constantine was worried about the church splitting in half (keeping in mind that Jesus commanded unity among Believers) and so summoned the first worldwide council of bishops to Nicea in 325, to resolve the dispute. 300 bishops came from Gaul to Persia, many of whom were disfigured from torture suffered in persecutions.
Constantine politely asked to sit in on the proceedings, but was not allowed to vote since he was not clergy. The council voted nearly unanimously—there were 2 nays—to depose Arius and declare his doctrine heretical. Their official pronouncement became known as the Nicene Creed.
"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father. By whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven. From thence he shall come to judge both the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit."
Eusebius (263-339) was present at the Council of Nicea, and later became known as the Father of Church History, for his books chronicling the early history of Christianity, in particular the succession of bishops from the Apostles. He established by verifiable historical facts, the unbroken line from the church of 300 AD directly back to Jesus and His Apostles.
An important development in the history of Christianity is Monasticism. It developed first in Egypt.
St. Anthony (251-356) is considered the Father of All Monks. He was a rich man who gave all of his possessions to the poor and went to live alone in the Sahara Desert, devoting his life to prayer. He lived 105 years.
Many others followed his example, though eventually monasteries were built where monks and nuns could live a life of celibacy, poverty, study of the Word, and prayer, to show God their complete and utter surrender of this life to Him. Soon, monasteries began farming for self-sufficiency and to feed the poor; while many provided hospitals as well. This may sound unappealing to moderns, but studies of these people show that they lived in communities of love, joy, peace and spiritual growth.
Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) was Bishop of Constantinople. He was a classically trained philosopher, the first Christian poet, and the first man to be called a theologian. Gregory was one of three monastic bishops who became known as the Cappadocian Fathers.
They were influential in the development of Trinitarian doctrine. Gregory taught that heology is not science, and the understanding of Scripture is influenced by one's spiritual health. Divine Truth will not be understood by "they who make it a matter of pleasant gossip, idle jests and petty contradictions about these subjects are part of their amusement. They delight in profane babblings and enjoy strife about the Word that tend to no profit."
Speaking of the Holy Spirit, "He gradually came to dwell in the disciples, measuring himself out to them according to their capacity to receive him. Now the Spirit himself dwells among us."
Basil the Great
Basil the Great (330-379) studied for six years in Athens, majoring in the art of rhetoric, There he became friends with the aforementioned Gregory. Basil became a bishop (in modern day Turkey) and developed into a strong leader; a fine theologian; he established monastic communities; and was well known for his emphasis on hospitals and charity for the poor.
He wrote that "created existence is not conceived by chance and without reason." It is a "school where reasonable souls exercise themselves, the training ground where they learn to know God."
Basil taught that the Holy Spirit was God because he does what only God can do, and therefore must be divine.
Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) was the younger brother of Basil, and also a bishop in Cappadocia. He taught that Jesus' crucifixion was a sacrifice—an atonement—for us; and that Jesus' resurrection to immortality was a promise of salvation for Believers. Gregory also explicated the infiniteness of God.
Regarding the Trinity, he explained, "The Father is the source of power, the Son is the power of the Father, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of power."
John Chrysostom (348-407) was Archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom means "golden mouth."
After receiving an excellent education, he chose to live in utterly harsh conditions for six years as a hermit in the mountains. In 381, Chrysostom returned the city of his birth, Antioch (Syria) and became a deacon, then a priest; and founded a number of hospitals to care for the poor.
In his teachings, he compared Christian pastors to physicians, providing medicine—and surgery, if necessary—for the soul.
Chrysostom taught the necessity of living right and having solid doctrines. He wrote of the Apostle Paul, "For his writings cast down imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God. Those wonderful Epistles, so full of divine wisdom, are useful for the refutation of false doctrine and the establishment of the true."
Regarding the New Testament books, he said, "Swim in them. Keep them constantly in your mind. The cause of all evil is the failure to know the Scriptures well."
He also had an interesting take on the Crucifixion. Whereas the crowd mocks Jesus and refuses to believe who He is based on what their physical eyes see—a man dying on a cross; the thief crucified with Jesus perceives Him with the "eyes of his heart," and thus accepts Him as the Savior.
In 356, a Pagan, Julian, ascended to the throne of Rome. Immediately he restored Paganism as the public religion of the Empire; removed Christians from military and government offices; forbade them to teach school; and instituted heavy taxation specifically on Christians.
When he died, eight years later, a Christian general named Jovian was crowned emperor.
The final victory over Paganism was led by Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Theodosius.
The last pagan Emperor of the Western Empire was Eugenius, who rode out of Rome in 394 to attack Theodosius in the name of the Roman gods. In what many considered to be a miracle at the time, the Christian army won, and the Pagans were vanquished.
Ambrose (338-397) was the bishop of Milan and mentor to St. Augustine. He was born into a wealthy, distinguished Roman family; grew up in Rome; knew Virgil and Cicero by heart.
He moved to Milan after his appointment as governor, and he established an impeccable reputation as a godly Christian statesman. Ambrose was unexpectedly named bishop and he reluctantly accepted, first donating his great wealth to charity. He became widely known for his understanding of the Bible and powerful preaching.
No lackey for imperial power, Ambrose famously said, "The emperor is in the church, not above it."
His theology established that Christ lived a sinless life because He was born to a virgin. Ambrose: "Even though he assumed the natural substance of this very flesh, he was not conceived of the will of a man, but of the Holy Spirit."
Jerome (347-420) was gifted intellectually and spiritually; and fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He is eminent today for his translation of the Bible into Latin known as the Vulgate (common translation), which is still used today by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vulgate differs from the Protestant Bible in that Jerome included 14 Jewish religious books (in a separate section) he called the Apocrypha, which means he did not accept them as part of the God-inspired Canon.
Jerome pronounced, "Grace, which is not a payment due to merit, but has been granted as a gift, whereby we have been reconciled to God, having as propitiator the Lord Jesus, who forgave us our sins and expunged what was the handwriting of death against us, nailing it to the cross."
Augustine of Hippo
St. Augustine (354-430) will be our last subject in this article. His spiritual autobiography Confessions has long been considered a must-read for Christians, addressing as it does culture, love, lust, sin, evil, suffering, and how to understand the Bible.
Augustine was a rebel in his youth, attempting to satisfy his soul through sex. He says, "So I polluted the stream of friendship with the filth of lust. . . Bodily desire . . . obscured my heart." Later, he realized he had not found satisfaction and sought it with a Persian gnostic cult, the Manichees, who revered Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and their cult leader Mani. This cult justified his immorality since they taught as long as you are a "good person" it doesn't matter.
Eventually, the triteness, superficiality, and half-baked mumbo-jumbo of the Manichees caused him to leave them and seek success in the world. Augustine moved to Rome; studied philosophy and science; became a public speaker, official orator, and professor of rhetoric. Even this did not make him happy, as he felt anxious and guilty over the sinful life he was leading.
Although very familiar with the Bible, it was not until he met St. Ambrose that his mind was illuminated as to what it really meant. His intellectual pride and carnal appetites had been more important to him than the high standards of holiness required for disciples of Jesus.
Augustine says he used to pray, "Grant me chastity and continence—but not yet." He wrote that he was afraid God would heal him of the disease of lust too soon, which he preferred to hang on to a while longer. The clincher seems to have been when he saw Ambrose baptizing new Christians—and this world famous bishop would then kneel down and wash their feet as a humble servant.
Augustine did not want to be a pastor, but he was called to be the bishop of Hippo, a prominent city on the Mediterranean, and went on to serve there for nearly 40 years. He fought against legalism and pride, calling the church a "hospital for sinners." His main theme was the Love of God.
Augustine was a proponent of infant baptism because of the doctrine he developed, Original Sin. He also taught Predestination saying, "God proposed to save by faith alone those about whom he foreknew that they would believe." It was to the church, he wrote, that one should look for grace, and guidance, since the church had apostolic authority. Augustine taught that the one sin that threatened the church was schism, because of the need for Christian unity of "one baptism and one church, just as there is one faith."
Augustine firmly believed that Jesus existed with His Father before he came to Earth, and that His Incarnation had to have been a hypostatic union of the divine and the human, in order to redeem humankind through a New Covenant. He taught that grace is God's unmerited love and favor, that draws a person's soul to repentance and faith; and transforms the human will to do good; relieves anxiety by forgiveness and the gift of hope; and establishes Christian humility by abolishing pride.