How Christendom Became a Part of This World
IN TIME the Roman Empire, in which early Christianity began, collapsed. Many historians claim that that collapse was also the time of the final victory of Christianity over paganism. Expressing a different viewpoint, Anglican bishop E. W. Barnes wrote: “As classical civilization collapsed, Christianity ceased to be the noble faith of Jesus the Christ: it became a religion useful as the social cement of a world in dissolution.”—The Rise of Christianity.
Before that collapse, during the second, third, and fourth centuries C.E., history records that in many ways those who claimed to follow Jesus kept themselves separate from the Roman world. But it also reveals the development of apostasy in doctrine, conduct, and organization, just as Jesus and his apostles had foretold. (Matthew 13:36-43; Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Peter 2:1-3, 10-22) Eventually compromises came to be made with the Greco-Roman world, and some who claimed to be Christian adopted the world’s paganism (such as its festivals and its worship of a mother-goddess and a triune god), its philosophy (such as belief in an immortal soul), and its administrative organization (seen in the appearance of a clergy class). It was this corrupted version of Christianity that attracted the pagan masses and became a force that the Roman emperors first tried to stamp out but later came to terms with and endeavored to use to their own ends.
Conquered by the World
Church historian Augustus Neander showed the risks involved in this new relationship between “Christianity” and the world. If Christians sacrificed their separateness from the world, “the consequence would be a confusion of the church with the world . . . whereby the church would forfeit her purity, and, while seeming to conquer, would herself be conquered,” he wrote.—General History of the Christian Religion and Church, Volume 2, page 161.
This is what happened. In the early fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine tried to use the “Christian” religion of his day to cement his disintegrating empire. To this end, he granted professed Christians religious freedom and transferred some of the privileges of the pagan priesthood to their clergy class. The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Constantine brought the church out of its withdrawal from the world to accept social responsibility and helped pagan society to be won for the church.”
After Constantine, Emperor Julian (361-363 C.E.) made an attempt to oppose Christianity and restore paganism. But he failed, and some 20 years later, Emperor Theodosius I banned paganism and imposed Trinitarian “Christianity” as the State religion of the Roman Empire. With adroit precision, French historian Henri Marrou wrote: “By the end of the reign of Theodosius, Christianity, or to be more precise, orthodox Catholicism, became the official religion of the entire Roman world.” Orthodox Catholicism had replaced true Christianity and had become a “part of the world.” This State religion was vastly different from the religion of Jesus’ early followers, to whom he said: “You are no part of the world.”—John 15:19.
French historian and philosopher Louis Rougier wrote: “As it spread, Christianity underwent strange mutations to the point of becoming unrecognizable. . . . The primitive church of the poor, which lived by charity, became a triumphalist church that came to terms with the powers that be when it was unable to dominate them.”
In the early fifth century C.E., Roman Catholic “Saint” Augustine wrote his major work The City of God. In it he described two cities, “that of God and that of the world.” Did this work accentuate the separation between Catholics and the world? Not really. Professor Latourette states: “Augustine frankly recognized [that] the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, are intermingled.” Augustine taught that “the Kingdom of God has already begun in this world with the institution of the [Catholic] church.” (The New Encyclopædia Britannica, Macropædia, Volume 4, page 506) Thus, whatever Augustine’s original purpose may have been, his theories had the effect of involving the Catholic Church more deeply in the political affairs of this world.
A Divided Empire
In 395 C.E., when Theodosius I died, the Roman Empire was officially divided in two. The Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire had its capital at Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul), and the Western Empire had its capital (after 402 C.E.) at Ravenna, Italy. As a result, Christendom became divided politically and also religiously. With regard to relations between Church and State, the church in the Eastern Empire followed the theory of Eusebius of Caesarea (a contemporary of Constantine the Great). Ignoring the Christian principle of separateness from the world, Eusebius reasoned that if the emperor and the empire became Christian, Church and State would become a single Christian society, with the emperor acting as God’s representative on earth. By and large, this relationship between Church and State has been followed over the centuries by the Eastern Orthodox churches. In his book The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware, an Orthodox bishop, showed the result: “Nationalism has been the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries.”
In the West the last Roman emperor was deposed in 476 C.E. by invading Germanic tribes. This marked the end of the Western Roman Empire. Of the political vacuum that ensued, The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “A new power was formed: the Roman Church, the church of the bishop of Rome. This church understood itself as the successor of the extinct Roman Empire.” This encyclopedia goes on to say: “The Roman popes . . . extended the secular claim of government of the church beyond the borders of the church-state and developed the so-called theory of the two swords, stating that Christ gave the pope not only spiritual power over the church but also secular power over the worldly kingdoms.”
National Protestant Churches
Throughout the Middle Ages, both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic religions continued to be heavily involved in politics, worldly intrigues, and wars. Did the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century mark a return to true Christianity, separate from the world?
No. We read in The New Encyclopædia Britannica: “The Protestant Reformers of the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican traditions . . . remained firmly attached to the views of Augustine, for whose theology they felt a particular affinity. . . . Each of the three main Protestant traditions of 16th-century Europe . . . found support from the secular authorities in Saxony [central Germany], Switzerland, and England and remained in the same position vis-à-vis the state as had the medieval church.”
Rather than bring about a return to genuine Christianity, the Reformation brought forth a host of national or territorial churches that have curried favor with the political states and actively supported them in their wars. In fact, both the Catholic and the Protestant churches have fomented religious wars. In his book An Historian’s Approach to Religion, Arnold Toynbee wrote concerning such wars: “They exhibited Catholics and Protestants in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Ireland, and rival sects of Protestants in England and Scotland, in the brutal act of trying to suppress one another by force of arms.” The present-day conflicts that are dividing Ireland and the former Yugoslavia show that the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches are still deeply involved in the affairs of this world.
Does all of this mean that true Christianity, separate from the world, no longer exists on earth? The following article will answer that question.
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HOW “CHRISTIANITY” BECAME A STATE RELIGION
CHRISTIANITY was never meant to be a part of this world. (Matthew 24:3, 9; John 17:16) Yet, history books tell us that in the fourth century C.E., “Christianity” became the official State religion of the Roman Empire. How did this come about?
From Nero (54-68 C.E.) well into the third century C.E., all Roman emperors either actively persecuted Christians or permitted the persecution of them. Gallienus (253-268 C.E.) was the first Roman emperor to issue a declaration of tolerance for them. Even then, Christianity was a proscribed religion throughout the empire. After Gallienus, the persecution continued, and under Diocletian (284-305 C.E.) and his immediate successors, it even intensified.
The turning point came early in the fourth century with the so-called conversion to Christianity of Emperor Constantine I. Concerning this “conversion,” the French work Théo—Nouvelle encyclopédie catholique (Théo—New Catholic Encyclopedia) states: “Constantine claimed to be a Christian emperor. In reality, he was baptized only on his deathbed.” Nevertheless, in 313 C.E., Constantine and his coemperor, Licinius, issued an edict that granted religious freedom to Christians and pagans alike. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Constantine’s extension of freedom of worship to Christians, which signified that Christianity was recognized officially as a religio licita [lawful religion] beside paganism, was a revolutionary act.”
However, The New Encyclopædia Britannica declares: “He [Constantine] did not make Christianity the religion of the empire.” French historian Jean-Rémy Palanque, member of the Institute of France, writes: “The Roman State . . . remained, however, officially pagan. And Constantine, when adhering to the religion of Christ, did not put an end to that situation.” In the work The Legacy of Rome, Professor Ernest Barker stated: “[Constantine’s victory] did not result in the immediate establishment of Christianity as the religion of the State. Constantine was content to recognize Christianity as one of the public worships of the empire. For the next seventy years the old pagan rites were officially performed in Rome.”
So at this point “Christianity” was a legal religion in the Roman Empire. When did it become, in the fullest sense of the expression, the official State religion? We read in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: “[Constantine’s] policy was continued by his successors with the exception of Julian [361-363 C.E.], whose persecution of Christianity was brought to an abrupt end by his death. Finally, in the last quarter of the 4th century, Theodosius the Great [379-395 C.E.] made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and suppressed public pagan worship.”
Confirming this and revealing just what this new State religion was, Bible scholar and historian F. J. Foakes Jackson wrote: “Under Constantine Christianity and the Roman empire were allied. Under Theodosius they were united. . . . From henceforward the title of Catholic was to be reserved for those who adored the Father, Son and Holy Ghost with equal reverence. The entire religious policy of this emperor was directed to this end, and resulted in the Catholic Faith becoming the one legal religion of the Romans.”
Jean-Rémy Palanque wrote: “Theodosius, while combating paganism, also came out in favor of the orthodox [Catholic] Church; his edict of 380 C.E. ordered all his subjects to profess the faith of Pope Damasus and the [Trinitarian] bishop of Alexandria and deprived dissidents of freedom of worship. The great Council of Constantinople (381) again condemned all heresies, and the emperor saw to it that no bishop would support them. Nicene [Trinitarian] Christianity had well and truly become the State religion . . . The Church was closely united with the State and enjoyed its exclusive support.”
Thus, it was not the unadulterated Christianity of the apostles’ days that became the State religion of the Roman Empire. It was fourth-century Trinitarian Catholicism, imposed by force by Emperor Theodosius I and practiced by the Roman Catholic Church, which was then as it is now, truly a part of this world.
Emperor Theodosius I: Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid (Foto Oronoz)
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Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.