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More Notes

April 7, 2013
Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nicaea and the fourth century

I often wondered about the Nicaean Council and its Trinity doctrine, especially considering that it was there that the ground was laid for “Christian” religious wars. A theological idea turned into dogma actually transformed Christians into intolerant persecutors of their own dissenters. In the next council (Constantinople 381ad) the orthodox dogma was made into the only permissible religion and dissent became a punishable crime, even by death. There followed mass persecutions of pagans, the destruction of their temples and, of course, forced conversions, a horrible stain in the history of Christianity.

This I why I remain skeptical about about the Church Fathers’ role in that fourth and fifth century, when there was a definite corruption of Christianity. It might have been a time for more clearly defining some Christian doctrines, but it was also a time when alien ideas permeated Christianity. While the church, by that time, had overcome its Judaic moorings, it was then being drawn into a compromise with pagan philosophies and practices.


Monasticism, with its oriental roots, appeared around the same time and gained increasing influence. It carried ancient ascetic ideas with a negative view of the world, the body, women, original sin and so forth. While the Church fathers had rightly condemned the dualistic idea of two divinities, a good god who create the soul and a bad demiurge who created the body, as well as the physical world, in effect such ideas were so pervasive at the time that many succumbed to their influence nonetheless. A primary sample of this were the Desert Fathers, and monasticism in general.

Christianity had gone from suffering persecution under apocalyptic “Babylon” (for early Christians that was the roman empire), to becoming instead its official religion. Many Christians did not see this as the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven on earth, but as a lethal compromise. There were those who reacted by fleeing to the desert, seeking a purer Christianity in the ascetic tradition and monastic life. It was the refusal of a Christianity corrupted by the world’s wealth and power. Monasticism appealed to a large number of people, gained influence and brought into Christianity its particular dualism and ascetic practices. A negative view of the body and asceticism as a way out of it, to purity and salvation, became popular themes. This influence is still felt today and David wrote much about it.

From Constantine onward, theology became linked with state religion, hierarchy, authority and control. The tormented history of Christianity became the history of its warring institutions. As soon as any gained official and political clout, it became corrupt from within. In that the monastic orders were right, as they claimed that Christianity was a spiritual reality which could not mix with politics and power (my kingdom is not of this world).

Forced Christianity is no Christianity

Because paganism was made illegal, it was forced to Christianize. The result was not a greater Christianity but a new syncretism adopting pagan ceremonials, templism, imagery and superstition. There were no mass conversions with a genuine experience of the risen Saviour, but there was instead an old system dressed with a new “Christian” coat. The relative simplicity of the gospel message was also replaced by the traditionally more sophisticated and philosophical tradition of the Greeks and Romans, now turned into theology.


It wasn’t long before things were so bad that Islam came along and shook things up. In its early stages Islam was less “pagan” and more tolerant than corrupted imperial Christianity, so much so that many Christians and Christian towns freely opted to be under Islamic rule rather than Rome or Constantinople. It was a real purging and call to repentance for many who recognized how far Christianity had fallen. That’s when the famous Iconoclasm began, with people tearing down the symbols of that syncretistic, paganized Christianity, but it was too late to reverse the clock and stem the spread of Islam. It seems as if in the very places of its origin, having misunderstood grace, Christianity was now returning to the law, in the form of Islam.

The middle ages and the Reformation

Things went pretty much from bad to worse, and the worse certainly peaked in the middle ages with all the despotic popes, crusades and inquisition. The persecuted Protestants, who had bravely challenged the status quo and started a new brand of Christianity, when institutionalized, proved to be as intolerant as the Catholics. The Church Fathers’ and roman law were called upon for justification to oppress and persecute their dissenters, those who disagreed with their “new” orthodoxy.

Since the Gospels provided no justification for the violent suppression of contrary ideas, it was the judgments of Church Fathers that was invoked by the Reformation against radical reformers. Many Anabaptists were executed as heretics, by Catholics and protestants alike, on the strength of an old Roman law against the Donatist “heresy”, as defined by the Church Fathers. Zwingli, Calvin and other notable reformers openly supported such unchristian policies, all because they took for good the anti-heretical orthodoxy of patristic theology. Here is an interesting link about a lone voice who protested Calvin’s* burning of Servetus (* Although it was the Calvinist town council who sentenced Servetus, Calvin did not oppose it but tacitly consented.) : It contains insightful thoughts on the question of doctrinal dogmas and the problems related to the institutionalization of Christianity.

Protestants had fallen into the same predicament as the Catholics, all because they merely reformed the same Roman system instead of truly abandoning it. The justification for the violent suppression of competitive Christianities was in fact embedded in that Patristic theology of the fourth and fifth centuries which gave birth to the Roman system. By building on the same foundation they got the same results.

David’s view

In New Bottles (ML 251), David said: “When the church left the arena and started sitting in the grandstands in order to avoid death by braving the lions, the church died of old age in the stands!” In Quality or quantity (ML 23) he had written: “The church of today has moved out of the arena into the grandstand! – How can this happen? ..Because they’ve been willing to accept a substitute! – Watch Out when you get away from the rejected, despised persecuted few state–into the big, accepted majority! – When the early church became numerous, big, rich, and powerful, and no longer needed God, she lost him!–And was left a hollow shell, still going through the motions!”

So it was in that fourth century that Christianity went from being a persecuted minority cult, into being a majority state religion. There are those who argue in favor of such a “miracle”, hailing it as a work of God and what allowed Christianity to flourish. When the change took place, many saw it as the eschatological fulfillment of the kingdom of God on hearth. Though the view is not so popular today, and for obvious reasons, nonetheless many still consider the doctrinal and institutional developments of that period as changes for the better, as indispensable to the securing Christianity’s future.

On the other side there are those who, like David, see the period as the selling out of Christianity and the end of what Jesus intended for it. A number of churches consider it the beginning of a great apostasy. Amongst other things, they argue that Christianity caved in to the same temptations which Jesus had repeatedly resisted, like political power in the desert, kingship when he entered Jerusalem, the use force when before his accusers, when He said “my kingdom is not of this world”. Jesus repeatedly referred to a kingdom of heaven which would not come with observation but was already amongst men. In his many parables he revealed it as an inscrutable spiritual reality.

When religious authorities were intent on doing away with Jesus’ early followers, Gamaliel stood up in their council and told them to let the new heresy be, that if it was merely a human idea it would end by itself, but if it was from God there would be no use fighting it (Act 5:38). Gamaliel’s advice prevailed and his words went down into history almost as divine, for indeed they reflected the same love and tolerance that Jesus had sown. Sadly, the supposedly Christian authorities of the fourth century, did not see it this way and began to ban and persecute all opposition. There was a true reversal of roles and the new empowered Christianity, with its enforced orthodoxy, became even more dictatorial than the Judaic Sanhedrin addressed by Gamaliel. Orthodoxy had thus violated Christianity’s core principles and by so doing it had become heresy.

From → History

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