BMCR 2007.06.30

The Church in the Age of Constantine: The Theological Challenges

, The church in the age of Constantine : the theological challenges. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. London: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (xii, 227 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 0203968336. $100.00.

This book examines the theological and religious arguments of the newly-accepted Christian religion during and immediately after the reign of Constantine in the fourth century, using the concept of ‘contextualisation.’ According to the author (p. 3), this concept originated in the early 1970’s in theological discussions, centering on three major areas related to ecumenical and missiological interests: 1) the translation of the Christian message; 2) the adaptation of expressions of faith and church life to the actual situation; and 3) the liberation from inherited, dominant models that confuse the issue of the community’s own questions and challenges. An implied fourth area centers around unity (not uniformity) that may underlie or transcend such decontrolled differentiation. Examination of each of these four areas, in relation to the standardization of orthodox Christianity during the fourth century, should, the author claims, assist in providing an unprejudiced view of the events of that period in relation to theology and doctrine.

The first issue related to contextualisation is the examination of the rise of organized Christianity soon after its official recognition. Who can be regarded as an objective and unbiased observer and recorder of the events and people involved? Roldanus mentions that, before the fourth century, individuals such as Justin (c.100 – c.165), Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), Tertullian (c.160 – c.225), Clement (c.150 – c.215) and Origen (c.185 – 254) fulfilled this role, most of whom were freelance teachers and theologians. With the fourth century and the establishment of the ecumenical synod as a means to unify Church practice and doctrine, the decisive influence of freelance and wandering religious thinkers was at an end. In fact, monasticism arose as a kind of resistance to the new, “privileged” religion, standing up against the comfortable worldliness of the Church’s increasing power and influence.

The first chapter discusses this earlier contextualisation, focusing on paganism’s role, specifically where the relationship between Christians and the Roman Empire before the fourth century is concerned.. The author examines how Christianity related to the Roman Empire, what repercussions and persecutions took place and how these affected growth and morality in the Church. He deals with some of the philosophical influences on the development of the early Church and explains how the topic of salvation responded to the religious needs and feelings of the Roman world just prior to the fourth century. Because Christianity was able to respond to contemporary questions and needs, was universal in its appeal and social structure, had a strong organization, and accepted many different peoples and situations under its umbrella, it was well situated to become the majority religion quickly and politically.

The next chapter, then, provides some context related to the rise of Christianity as the official state religion, focused in large part on the failed reform efforts of the last pagan emperors prior to Constantine from 292-312. The author describes how religion and politics developed during the reign of Constantine (306-337) and how public life became Christianized from 312-324. Roldanus presents one of the most concise and well-written sections I have ever read on the relationships of the pagan Roman emperors and their deity associations, how persecution and/or tolerance of the Christians played a role in Constantine’s eventual acceptance and official state recognition of it, and Constantine’s discovery that the Christian Church was not as unified and united in its beliefs and organization as he originally thought. Constantine did not persecute or try to wipe out pagan religious worship: he merely deprived pagans of their status and funding from the State. He also established a number of privileges for the new Church, helped to enact legislation related to ethics, and moved forward the process towards the idea of a Christian monarch.

The first two chapters provide the ‘contextualisation’ for Chapter 3, where the writings and reactions of three contemporary Christians to Constantine’s official sanction and recognition of the Christian religion are given. The three authors are: Lactantius, an African who was professor of Latin Literature and Rhetoric in Nicomedia under Emperor Diocletian before his persecution and who then witnessed the eventual tolerance of Christians and the Edict of Milan in 313; Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, imprisoned in the last persecution of Christians by Maximinus Daia from 311-313; and Athanasius, an Egyptian who became bishop of Alexandria in 328 and until his death in 373 was head of the Egyptian Church and was instrumental in dealing with many of the fourth-century doctrinal controversies. Roldanus does an excellent job of detailing the background of each of these fourth-century theologians, describing their unique and varied perspectives on the contemporary situation happening to and around them. Lactantius, for example, as the oldest of the three witnesses, brought a philosophical viewpoint to the transition, as well as an interesting view of the historical and social context. Eusebius, on the other hand, who physically suffered from the last persecution, saw Constantine’s conversion as evidence of the superiority of Christianity over both the pagan and Jewish religions, and also relates Constantine to the Logos of Christ. Athanasius, as the youngest of the three, dealt primarily with the doctrinal and internal differences that the young Church had to confront with its new status, especially related to the Egyptian Church and the doctrines of Arius, an Alexandrian priest, which eventually led to the Arian dispute.

In Chapter 4, Roldanus deals with the post-Constantine era, from the rule of Constantine’s sons over a divided Roman Empire (337-61), and Julian (361-363). Two tracks of investigation are followed: 1) the intervention by rulers in the doctrinal affairs of the Church, and 2) the resultant attitude within the Church, especially in the case of those who did not win imperial support, of the eventual separation of the Church from the State. The author takes a closer look at the theological situation that developed in the eastern part of the empire, and he provides a brief summary of the major doctrinal controversies, including Sabellianism, dynamism, and docetism. The Arius controversy in northern Africa is also examined. Convening the Council of Nicea in 324 was Constantine’s method of dealing with all of these disputes, providing the first time that the universal Christian Church was able to gather and decide major theological and doctrinal positions. Roldanus examines the major decisions of the Nicean Council, especially the theological opinion of Athanasius and what effect they had on imperial decrees and proclamations regarding the results of the Council of Nicea. Constantius’ strong church policy was resisted by Hilary of Poitiers (c.315 – 367), and Roldanus provides a retrospective contextualisation of this period in Church history at the end of the chapter.

The period of time from Jovian (363-364) to Theodosius I (392-395) is the subject matter of Chapter 5. The Church can be said to have matured during this time period, as Nicene theology stabilized and became orthodox. The Arian controversy continued until 382, through the two synods of Constantinople in 381 and 382, but with the establishment of the Nicene Church theology as catholic and state-supported, this doctrine slowly faded away. The contributions of Basil of Caesarea (c.330 – 379), Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330 – 390) and Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – 395), as well as Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 352 – 428), introduced a pronounced Hellenistic influence into the state-sponsored religion. The career of Ambrose in Milan (c. 339 – 397), probably the most important religious leader in the west at the end of the fourth century, is examined in a number of sections, including his many confrontations with the emperors of his time.

In Chapter 6, the author looks beyond the Roman borders into how Christianity was accepted and developed in other countries. Ethiopia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia, and the Goths and Visigoths are all examined. Roldanus also provides a short history of ascetic and monastic life in the fourth century, the development of liturgical life, and two protest movements (Donatism and Priscillianism). In the epilogue, the author does not reiterate or hypothesize; rather, he invites readers to draw their own conclusions related to the content of the book. He again describes the concept of contextualisation, its meanings in the book, and from this concept draws out historical and contextual evidence related to the Church and its position in society in the fourth century.

The contextualization approach, as described and used by the author, is an interesting and insightful way to reexamine and reanalyze the events, decisions, people, and challenges that confronted the Christian Church in the fourth century, as it attempted to come to terms with its political status, as well as threats and events to its position and authority in the Constantinian era. Chapter 3, with its thought-provoking look at three contemporaries and their writings related to this period of time, allows readers to come to their own conclusions regarding this eventful century in the Church’s existence. The fact that the Nicene Council and its documents were the result of political interests, theological conscience, and cultural influences, as presented by the author, provides a much more balanced and accurate reflection of the early Church’s attempts to establish orthodoxy when essentially there was no one universally-held belief regarding the oneness of the three agents of salvation. In the end, the author reminds the reader how important rethinking and reworking conditioned expressions of Christian faith and doctrine are for freshness and perspective in today’s society.