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Week Two: The Imperial Church

The History of the Church  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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If you’re joining us for the first time this week, we are happy to have you on board! In fact, if you are interested, I have the filled in notes sheet from last week if you’d like to see where we’ve been.
Last week, we talked about how the church has both a historical and a theological identity, and how those two should not be separated.
As a result, over the next several weeks we are taking a look at the history, the story of this group of people called the Church to help us understand who we are and what we proclaim as the church today.
I mentioned those two identities, both historical and theological, and while there is still a lot of history this week, a big central chunk of todays study is actually going to be focused on theology. That’s because the time period that we are studying the day is a time period in which some of the greatest theological works of Christianity are developed.
While the Early Church laid the foundation of the Christian identity, the Imperial church really hammers out our theological essentials.
Today, we’re going to be looking at . . .

The Imperial Church

The Christian Empire from the Edict of Milan (313) to the Fall of the Last Roman Emperor of the West (476)

The “Conversion” of Constantine

In 286 AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian divides the Empire.
Maximian appointed Emperor of the West
Neither of these emperors, nor their appointed subordinates, approved of Christianity, and actually began to confiscate property, destroy churches, and to burn Scriptures.
In the midst of this context, in steps a man named Constantine.
In 312 AD, Constantine marches against Maximian
In October of 312 AD, Constantine has a vision of the Chi Rho symbol appearing in the sky.
He hears the words “ in this , conquer .”
Constantine instructs all of his men to paint the symbol of the Chi Rho onto their shields, and prays to the Christian God asking for assistance in their upcoming battle.
The crazy part about this, is that while Constantine’s army was drastically outnumbered, they won.
With a victory at what is now known as the Battle at Milvian Bridge, Constantine wins and becomes the sole ruler of the Western Empire.
After these events, Constantine was “converted” to Christianity.
I use quotations because at this point Constantine was not baptized (he wasn’t baptized until he was on his death bed), he never joined the Church, and he continued to serve Roman gods.
While Constantine spoke of being a servant of God, he actually worshipped the invincible sun god.
In 321 AD, Constantine set apart Sunday as a day of worship to honor the Sun God (adapted from Christianity)
The reason why Christmas is December 25.
However, Constantine still spoke of the significance of the Christian God as the God who supported the Imperial Army.

The Edict of Milan

In 313 AD, Licinius (Eastern Emperor) and Constantine (Western Emperor) form an alliance through the Edict of Milan.
Emphasized freedom of religious practice throughout the Empire.
Confiscated church properties are restored
Compensation was given for any that were sold
Western clergy begin to receive benefits from the imperial treasury
This alliance didn’t last long however, as . . .
In 324 AD, a Civil War ensued between the two empires.
Licinius was defeated by Constantine and executed
Constantine declares his allegiance to Christianity
This all leads to . . .

A New Capital

After defeating Licinius, Constantine decides to make one final trip to the city of Rome in 326 to make imperial sacrifices and announce that he planned to institute a new capital in Byzantium.
Byzantium was city that bordered Europe and Asia, and was located between both the Black Sea and Agean Sea.
In the year 330 AD, the city of Constantinople is dedicated in the former city of Byzantium.
Becomes the Symbol of Imperial Power and Christianity .
This is the true birth of the Imperial Church.
In Constantinople, the Imperial Church is born:
Churches are constructed
Clergy are exempt from Imperial Taxes
Army Incorporates Christian Symbols
Coins bear the name of Christ
Sunday becomes a legal holiday
Churches are built with state money
Temples are taken over for Christian use
Public buildings have Christian symbols
In other words, the Christian identity has now become fashionable.
At this point, Rome still isn’t a “Christian” nation, but Christians aren’t being persecuted anymore, and Christianity has made its way into the mainstream, and is accepted as a totally viable religion for you to believe in, or at least one of them.
Therefore, just like Judaism in the time of Jesus, the Christian church was now free from enemies and therefore began to dispute with one another.
The first major battle within Imperial Christianity comes as a result of the Donatist Controversy.

Donatist Controversy

The Donatist Controversy was a conflict of unity vs. holiness .
The debate dealt specifically with the question of whether ministers who had lapsed during persecution still had the authority to carry forth their ministerial functions.
Recap lapsed Christianity and apostolic succession
Therefore, this was important, because if the lapsed Christians were no longer capable of performing their ministerial duties, then that means that all those who had been baptized or ordained by unworthy ministers were not truly baptized or ordained—and the ministries of those so ordained is also invalid.
One of the leaders of this group trying to split the church was called Donatus, the schismatics were given the name of “Donatists”—a name which obviously they didn’t apply to themselves.
The main opponent to the Donatists’ claims come from the theological works of Augustine of Hippo, although their claims weren’t officially deemed heretical until much, much later (Council of Trent, 1545-1563)
Augustine claimed that the authority of the sacraments comes not through those who perform them, but through God who is present within them.

The Arian Controversy

The other hot-button issue of the time, which was much more disputed, was known as the Arian Controversy.
This controversy started with a man named Arius, who was a pastor in Alexandria.
Arius (and by necessity, Arians) believe that Jesus is the first of creation, but not co-eternal with the Father.
In other words, Arians were the first challengers to the belief in the Holy Trinity .
Arius claimed that Jesus, while pre-xisting before the rest of creation, was not “God of very God,” but was rather the first of all creatures. According to him, only the “Father” is eternal, while the “Son” is not. In holding these dorctrines, Arius and his followers sought to preserve monotheism.
In response to the controversy, Constantine called a meeting of all Christian bishops. This meeting or council took place in Nicea in the year 325, and is usually known as . . .

The Council of Nicea (325)

The Council of Nicea condemned Arianism , and issued a creed that, with some variations, is still claimed in many churches as the “ Nicene Creed .”
The Lexham Bible Dictionary The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made;

Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.

In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

This did not put an end to the Arian controversy, however, as many were unhappy with the decisions made at Nicea, which seemed to equate the Father and the Son.
It was in those circumstances that theologians such as Athanasius and the Cappodocians worked seeking formulas and explanations which would serve to refute Arianism while at the same time responding to the concern that monotheism not be abandoned.
Their work was stemmed from the work of Tertullian, who we spoke of last week, who gave the church the language of One God in Three Persons.
Talk about language of nature (the Characteristics of God)
Talk about language of person (a being who speaks and acts, from Greek persona.)
The Doctrine of the Trinity
There is one God, the Father
The Son is also God, and so is the Spirit
The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father.
You can see this identified through the Creed of Nicea, which ultimately defeats the Arian claims that Jesus was the first of creation.

The Importance of the Trinity

By the end of tonight, you’re going to be so sick of hearing about the trinity, but this is the quintessential issue of this time period, and it is so, so important. Because, if we’re looking to Christian History as a means of discerning our identity as Christians today, we need to understand the importance of the Trinity as the foundational doctrine of the early church, and I would claim of Christianity today.
Our faith is centered around one central question: Is Jesus God ?
Why do you think that would be important?
To help: What did Christ accomplish on this earth? (Died for our sins)
Does Jesus have to be God in order to accomplish that? (Yes, but why?)
In order to understand why Jesus needs to be God, we need to understand what the church actually believed that Jesus accomplished:
Since the Fall, the church believed that humanity has given itself over to Satan and the forces of evil, over and over and over again.
This giving ourselves over to darkness is called sin.
Jesus lived a sinless life, and as a person who is fully human, was capable of death. He gave himself over to the powers of death in ransom for the rest of humanity so that we might not die, but have eternal life.
However, since Jesus is also fully God, Jesus cannot die. Therefore, Jesus resurrected from the dead, which means that sin and death has been defeated for good.
Because of Jesus, we now have the choice to accept what He has done, live free from sin, and live eternally with Him.
This is the Gospel.
Therefore, the Gospel requires for Jesus to be fully God and fully human .
While God is one nature in three persons, Christ is one person with two natures.
Decisively agreed upon at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Historic Creeds and Confessions The Symbol of Chalcedon

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

The decisions made at Chalcedon fought against Docetism (Gnosticism) and Arianism, claiming that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, not fully just one or the other, not partially both at the same time, but fully both.
Alright, so we’ve covered the Father, and we’ve covered the Son, but what about the Holy Spirit?
Back in 381 AD, at the Council of Constantinople , it was decided that the Holy Spirit was equal with the Father and the Son.
Scripture applies all titles of God to the Spirit, except unbegotten
The Spirit sanctifies, it does not need to be sanctified
Baptismal language of Jesus confirms the divinity of the Spirit
Even after the Council of Constantinople, this was highly debated, and so writers like Athanasius and Augustine took on the mantle of writing about it.
Athanasius described the Spirit’s relationship to the rest of the Trinity by saying that you can picture God as the fountain, Jesus as a river, and the Spirit as the water. In other words, when you receive the Holy Spirit, you also receive the Father and the Son.
Augustine, similarly, claimed that The Holy Spirit both unites God in the Trinity, and also unites us to God.
Normally, I would wait for questions until the end, but this is such an important point that I want to stop and ask for questions now before we jump any further into history.
Alright, back to the Emperor Constantine!

The Fallout of Nicea & The Death of Constantine

The Creed from the Council of Nicea is officially accepted as a statement on behalf of the church.
After the acceptance of the Nicene Creed, Arius and all of his followers are sent into exile .
In his older age, Constantine moves towards compromise and allows Arius and his followers to return, and sends Athanasius into exile instead for creating such a divisive culture within the church.
Arius is ordered to be readmitted into the community, but he dies on the way back. One of his closest followers, Eusebius , however returns and baptizes Constantine on his death bed.
Constantine was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans.
It was a time of turbulence both in the church and in politics, in which murder was repeatedly employed as a political tool by emperors who called themselves Christians and defenders of the true faith.
When Constantius, the last of Constantine’s three sons, died, he was succeeded by his cousin Julian, usually known as “the Apostate.
Almost all of Julian’s relatives had been killed by supporters of Constantius and his brothers, and therefore Julian had no love for the faith of his cousins.
Julian tried to restore paganism to it’s past glory.
He did not persecute Christians, but he withdrew all privileges that his predecessors had granted them.
He also tried to reorganize the traditional pagan religion following the model of the Christian church. His policies didn’t succeed, and after his death the reformations were abandoned.

The End of the Roman Imperial Church

This period came to an end with the invasion of the “barbarians.”
Germanic peoples who broke into the Roman Empire and settled into its territories. In the year 410, the Goths took and sacked Rome itself.
In 476, the last Roman Emperor (Romulus Augustus) was deposed.
The fall of Rome in 410 is the date usually given for the end of antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages.
The Fall of Rome, dramatic as it was, was followed by ever more alarming signs of decline. By the time that the last Roman Emperor was finally deposed, in 476, the world hardly noticed.
Repeatedly in the course of the history of the church we will see attempts to restore the Roman Empire — and even more importantly — we will also see that until very recent times church and state have continued to collaborate in ways patterned after the time of Constantine and his successors.
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