The principles of Christianity had disrupted the natural balance of power in Rome, which was a long time pagan culture. This resulted in the persecution of Christians by the Roman government for roughly 300 years. This makes what happened next completely unexpected. Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, attributing his military victories to the Christian God. In 313 AD, he issued the Edict of Milan which protected Christians from persecution while still permitting the exercise of other religions. In an attempt to decrease internal disputes and codify the Christian faith, he called the Council of Nicea (325 AD) which consisted of 300 bishops. The council upheld apostolic teaching with the formation of the Nicene Creed. Constantine moved the capitol of the Roman empire to Constantinople, in Byzantium to the East. He took this opportunity to build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. He also changed the symbols on his coins from images of the gods to Christian symbols. Constantine was baptized before he died in 337 AD.
Increasing instability in the Roman empire led to multiple changes in leadership. Julian (361-363 AD) was to be the last non-Christian emperor. Julian attempted to revive ancient Roman traditions, values, and pantheon of gods in attempt to save the empire from collapse. Julian’s reign was brief, however, he was fatally wounded in battle and was succeeded by Valentinian I (364-375 AD). As a committed Christian emperor, Valentinian took a firm stance against two divergent Christian groups (Donatists and Manichaeism) whose beliefs were contrary to established Nicene Christianity. He also recognized and opposed the increasing wealth and worldliness of the clergy.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.Matthew 6:24
To address this Valentinian issued an edict forbidding the grant of bequests, which was the practice clergy marrying widows and assuming their estate property and wealth.
On February 27, 380 AD, Emperor Theodisius I signed the Edict of Thessolonica, establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. On this day the Judo-Christian faith became irrevocably bound to the Greek and Roman culture. Additionally, the edict also sanctioned the persecution of pagans with equal intensity as previously experienced by Christians. This edict was in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,Matthew 5:43-44
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”John 13:34-35
These contradictions were of little consequence to Theodisius because the edict was a political decision. He could create religious unity within the fragile empire by bolstering Christianity. The attempts to persecute Jews and Christians only demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice for their faith. Persecution seemed to strengthen their cause. However, by reversing the persecution, many unwilling pagans quickly converted to Christianity. In essence, the edict was a way of saying “If you can’t beat them, join them.” These converts were not moved by love of Christ or his redemptive message. Rather, they converted to avoid imprisonment, torture, or death. A large portion of the Roman empire was still pagan, so this quick conversion created a blending of worship practices. Pagan priests were converted to Christian priests without even being baptized. Churches were built on temple sites of the gods. Statues of gods were changed to statues of Christian saints. Admiration for saints and martyrs slowly changed to hero-worship which served to replace the demi-gods. Paul and Barnabus had a similar experience.
He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.Acts 14:9-15
This hybrid paganized version of Christianity was evident in 388 AD when Christians in Callinicum attacked and burned down a synagogue at the instigation of the Bishop. In 422 AD, a mob of Christians in Alexandria murdered a female pagan philosopher, tearing her to shreds with sharp roof tiling then burning her remains. Just like with the Israelites, assimilation with pagans caused the new Christian faith to turn away from God without even realizing it. The lighting of candles for saints, veneration of relics, prayers for the dead, and veneration of icons all stem from Roman pagan practices. The acceptability of icons was a major area of contention that was settled at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD. Although icon veneration was permitted at this council, it was not a practice of the early pre-Roman church. In fact, it was expressly forbidden by scripture. This is one example of how the Roman Catholic councils prioritized its decisions and doctrines above that of the scriptures.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.Exodus 20:4
Beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or femaleDeuteronomy 4:16
In 343 AD, St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, producing the first authoritative translation of the Bible called the Vulgate. The goal of this translation made the Bible understandable to Romans who spoke Latin and served as a master copy to prevent corruption of scripture. However, in 476 AD Rome collapsed after being conquered by invading nations like the Goths. This split the empire into several provinces that no longer spoke Latin. Although Latin had become a dead language, the Roman Catholic church continued to use the Vulgate. Latin was an incredibly complex language, taught only to the rich, educated, or clergymen. These were likely the only people who would have had access to or owned a Bible because there were relatively few. This greatly limited a common person’s understanding of scripture in their Latin speaking worship services. Because only clergy could understand the Bible, it fostered religious dependency for interpretation.
This was the beginning of the “dark ages” or medieval period in Rome. It is referred to as the dark ages partially because relatively little is known about this time period. It was also a time of religious struggle viewed by Eastern Catholics as a time of corruption. When Rome collapsed in 476 AD, the pope took over temporary rule of the area. The pope was the only consistent source of authority and stability during this time. Up to this time the popes had become increasingly involved in politics, but this was the first time that the pope gained both civil and religious authority. The pope took on the title of Pontifex Maximus, a term that had only ever applied to Roman emperors. The term “papal supremacy” was first in the 6th Century referring to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire Christian Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
“the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.”Catechism of the Catholic Church
Again, this doctrine was inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. We have only one high priest. Jesus Christ, and power belongs to God alone.
In 799 AD, Pope Leo III declared his support of the Frankish King Charlemagne, and crowned him as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This cemented the relationship between political and religious power. Pope Leo III also shifted from a classic to a medieval perspective. His writing containing dramatic miracles, potent relics, demons, angels, ghosts, and depictions of Armageddon. This was also when the concept of purgatory as a physical place developed. The Eastern and Western Catholic churches split in 1054 AD due to disagreements regarding both doctrine and worship practices.
Papal supremacy was increased during the Crusades which began in 1095 AD. The First Crusade aided eastern Christians to recapture Antioch from the Muslims and to then reclaim Jerusalem. The Pope enticed people to join the Crusades by promising indulgences (a remission of sins and direct entry to heaven) for Christian warriors. The First Crusade began in 1095 AD and did not end until the Eighth Crusade in 1444. The crusades battles were far reaching being fought in Egypt, Africa, Spain, Portugal, and Northern Europe. The Northern Crusades starting in 1147 AD changed the objective of crusading to active conversion of non-Christians to Christianity. Pagan nations were brutally converted through invasion, battle, and bloodshed. It also provided the Crusaders with land and wealth acquisition. From there the Crusades had deteriorated into a quest for land and gold.
The papal pronouncement of indulgences was vague, and raised many questions among Catholics. To address these questions a system of penance was established consisting of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. The debt of forgiven sin could be paid with good works (indulgences) or suffering in purgatory. Unable to read or understand scripture, the common person was unaware of the teachings of the apostles.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.Ephesians 2:8-9
Only popes, archbishops, and bishops could grant indulgences. They measured the debt of ordinary people so they could work to cancel their remaining debt. Plenary indulgences cancelled all the existing obligation, while “partial” indulgences remitted only a portion of it. The crusades, the rise of indulgences, and papal reform paralleled an economic resurgence in Europe. Commutation permitted good works, service, obligations, or goods to be converted to a corresponding monetary value. This is the period when many elaborate cathedrals were built. From the 12th Century salvation became increasingly tied to money. This is ultimately what initiated the Protestant Reformation.
The remaing history of the Christianity beginning with the Protestant Reformation will be concluded in Part 3.