Tag Archives: Constantine

Who do you say that I am?

Suppose you ran into an old friend of yours after you hadn’t seen each other in while. As you’re catching up, he happily mentions that he has entered into a relationship with a new girl. He seems really excited about her, so you ask her name.

“Oh, it’s either Jennifer, or Jessica, or maybe Mindy. Definitely something like that.”

“Well, what’s she look like?”

“Oh, you know, she has brown or maybe blackish blonde hair. I’m almost certain she isn’t bald, at any rate.”

What would you think of this relationship?

This is how a lot of people approach their relationship with God. But a relationship where you show no interest in what the other person is like is not a true relationship at all. Keep this is mind as we study the Arian Controversy, because while it may seem like it turns on obscure points of theology, the issue of who Jesus is and who God is stands at the very heart of Christianity.

The Council of Nicea

Having just finished reuniting the Roman world, Constantine found Christianity itself divided. To resolve the controversy and unify the empire’s new religion, he called for a church council at Nicaea. Roughly 300 bishops attended.

Many, like the holy apostle, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul, bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had suffered from the frantic rage of Licinius. He had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron, by which the nerves which give motion to the muscles had been contracted and rendered dead. Some had had the right eye dug out, others had lost the right arm. In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.

To those who attended the council, Constantine manifested great kindness, addressing them with much gentleness, and presenting them with gifts. He ordered numerous couches to be prepared for their accommodation and entertained them all at one banquet. Those who were most worthy he received at his own table, distributing the rest at the others. Observing that some among them had had the right eye torn out, and learning that this mutilation had been undergone for the sake of religion, he placed his lips upon the wounds, believing that he would extract a blessing from the kiss. After the conclusion of the feast, he again presented other gifts to them.

This is known as the first ecumenical council because it pulled in bishops from all of Christendom, including outside the Roman Empire. The council accomplished several things: the construction of the Nicene Creed, settling the method for calculating the date of Easter, and the promulgation of some early canon law, which basically gave rules for how the church should be governed. By far the most important and far-reaching consequence of this was the Nicene Creed.

The Arians submitted a document with their recommended creed, signed by 18 bishops. The backlash against it was strong; bishops actually leapt to their feet and tore the document to pieces. 16 of the signers immediately recanted. The Nicene Creed was adopted instead, and along with it the following condemnation of Arius:

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

A grand total of six bishops opposed the creed. In the end, four of them gave way, with only two bishops and Arius refusing to sign the creed. They were deposed and exiled. (Eusebius of Nicomedia actually signed the creed, but refused to condemn Arius, and so he was exiled as well).

This was not the end of the story

Constantine himself did not stick to the decisions of the council for long, and soon Arian bishops were allowed back in, and even gained the upper hand politically. Over the course of his life, Athanasius was exiled five different times for his dogged defense of Trinitarian Christianity. At some points, it seemed like he alone defended Nicea against the whole world. Yet, in the end, he triumphed, and now the Nicene Creed stands as one of the most basic tests of orthodoxy.

I take some comfort in this. Trinitarianism first passed the truth test of commanding the assent of the first ecumenical church council. After this, its opponents attempted to stamp it out with their superior political power, and yet it survived and thrived, just as basic Christianity had before it. Had the defenders of Nicea retained the political power, we might wonder how much of its survival was due to superior firepower instead of truth. Had they failed to gain acceptance at the council in the first place, we might wonder how the church so badly missed the truth. Happily, it passed both tests.

So what is the Trinity?

It is easier to say what it is not:

With that out the way, the Trinity can be summed up as follows:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Holy Spirit is God
  4. The Father is not the Son
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father
  7. There is only one God

You can see the problem there; that last statement seems contradictory. On the other hand, delving into the ultimate nature of reality has landed physics in similar territory.

Not that that helps us understand it any better. As you have just seen, most analogies end up as a heresy instead.

That said, here’s some analogies, courtesy of the great St Augustine

Mind
Mind is composed of memory, understanding, and will. We understand our memory, remember understanding, will to remember, and will to understand, understand our willing, etc. Each of these are in a way distinct from each other, but at the same time they are all the same thing.
Self-love
Just about everybody loves themselves (and usually too much). However, we are in fact allowed to love ourselves, so long as we also love our neighbor similarly. In so loving, We are simultaneously the lover, loved object, and the lover’s love.

Note that these are all still just analogies, and if you take them too far, you will probably again lapse into something that has been condemned as a heresy.

So why should we believe in this Trinity thing at all?

This is one of the few doctrines agreed on by all branches of the church, over a long, stretch of time. Those which deny it quickly lose the rest of their Christianity (see, for example, Unitarians). The messy history of how it came to be accepted also gives reason to trust it. When the church came together to consider it, they nearly unanimously came down on the side of the Trinity. Then, lest we fear that this was due to Constantine’s influence, political power almost immediately turned against it, and so Trinitarianism had to prove itself in the face of political repression, just as Christianity itself had.

Documents

  • Nicene Canons – The document that the Nicene Council ultimately set forth. It is brief, and well worth your time to read, if only to debunk some of the nonsense that has been promulgated about its contents.
  • On the Incarnation – Athanasius’ explanation of the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation. If you read one book as a result of this class, make it this one.
  • Class Materials – Certainly the least important document in this list, but it does contain my chess-board visualization of the post-Nicene political wrangling, of which I am rather proud.
  • For good measure, the Nicene Creed in all its original glory:

    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 substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost.

By this sign, Conquer!

Diocletian united and stabilized the Empire, then divided it into 2 pieces with 2 emperors each. Shortly after he and his co-emperor retired in 305, the system broke down. Constantine and Maxentius succeeded their fathers in the West, and Licinius and Maximinus became emperors in the East. Very quickly, they began battling each other for supremacy, mostly with the two in the East fighting each other and the two in the West fighting each other.

The sign in the sky

Eusebius recounts the previous scene as follows, in Life of Constantine:

Accordingly he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to me, when I was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after-time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, “By this sign, conquer.” At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.

The battle of the Milvian Bridge

Again, from the Life of Constantine:

So at this time Maxentius, and the soldiers and guards with him, “went down into the depths like stone,” when, in his flight before the divinely-aided forces of Constantine, he essayed to cross the river which lay in his way, over which, making a strong bridge of boats, he had framed an engine of destruction, really against himself, but in the hope of ca-snaring thereby him who was beloved by God. For his God stood by the one to protect him, while the other, godless, proved to be the miserable contriver of these secret devices to his own ruin. So that one might well say, “He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made. The trouble he causes recoils on himself; his violence comes down on his own head. ” Thus, in the present instance, under divine direction, the machine erected on the bridge, with the ambuscade concealed therein, giving way unexpectedly before the appointed time, the bridge began to sink, and the boats with the men in them went bodily to the bottom.

The Edict of Milan

Opening text of the Edict of Milan

When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Milan, and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule. And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts, may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence. Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation.

Constantine vs. Licinius

Relationships between the two emperors quickly deteriorated, of course…