29 June 2011

The Myth of Constantine

Today being the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, celebrated throughout the Catholic and Orthodox world, and in theory in the Anglican one too, it seems as good a day as any to start into my Protestant Myths about the Catholic Church.

Most of these myths, as I've said, are straightforward misrepresentations of doctrine and practice, but three are myths that simply fly in the face of all historical evidence.

The first myth, then, is the claim that the Catholic Church was created by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

The basic thrust of the myth is that before Constantine Christianity was a simple, pure faith, and that the semi-pagan Constantine spoiled it by adding all manner of pagan elements to it, thereby creating the corrupt institution that is the Catholic Church. If you're drawn to New Age stuff, you'll follow the variant of this you'll read and see in the likes of The Da Vinci Code, arguing that before Constantine came along Jesus wasn't even seen as divine. If you're a Protestant, you'll basically claim that Jesus had always been seen as divine -- which is true -- but that before Constantine came along the Church was just like your church, whatever that may be, with Constantine having added pretty much everything you disagree with in historical Christianity.

This is all nonsense, I'm afraid, and played no small part in why Blessed John Henry Newman conceded, following an extensive and thorough investigation of early Christian history, that 'To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.' It wasn't long, of course, before he felt that to do other than to assent to the authority of the Catholic Church would have been hypocritical.

Arian and Pagan Emperors
The first clues to the absurdity of this broad hypothesis, in whatever form, lie in what we know of the major characters of the era, with particular reference to dates. During the fourth century, there was rarely just one emperor at any given time, but nonetheless, certain figures were dominant, and it's worth thinking about them for a minute. Constantine I was on the scene between 306 and 337, and while nobody really understands Constantine's religious views, it's clear that by the end of his reign he tended more towards Arianism than Catholicism, and the fact of his moving the seat of imperial power to a Constantinople is a rather broad hint that he thought of Rome as an obsolete backwater. His son Constantius II who was around between 337 and 361 was at the very least semi-Arian. Constantine's nephew Julian ruled between 361 and 363, and persecuted the Church as part of a campaign to restore the Empire's pagan identity. His successor Jovian was an orthodox Christian but ruled for just one year, and Jovian's successors Valens and Valentinian were divided in their views, one being Arian and the other being Catholic. It was only with the accession of Theodosius I to the imperial throne in 379 that the whole empire was ruled by a Catholic.

A good barometer for judging the Catholicity, for want of a better word, of Rome's emperors during the period is to look at the life of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius was the Church's greatest champion of the orthodox view of the Incarnation, and was the first person who we know of to have identified the 27 books of the New Testament that Christians regard as canonical, listing them in his Easter Letter of 367. Over the course of his life Athanasius was exiled from his see in Alexandria by Constantine, by Constantius (twice), by Julian, and by Valens. Think about it: if the Catholic Church was really the quasi-pagan creation of the Roman emperors, would four emperors have gone to so much trouble to silence its greatest spokesman?

A Dog that Doesn't Bark
That's the first point. The second is this: we have no evidence whatsoever of a rupture in mainstream Christian belief and practice during the period, other than that Christian worship ceased to be a furtive activity; it became possible to build large churches for large congregations that could now worship in the open. Neither Ambrose nor Augustine, for instance, give any indication that the essential teachings and practices of Christianity had changed in any way under Valentinian and Theodosius.

What of under Constantine? Even despite his late Arian tendencies and his sidelining of Rome as a seat of imperial power -- in truth, it hadn't even been the nominal capital of the west since 286 -- might he not have corrupted Christian beliefs and practices in other ways, introducing Pagan Roman customs and ideas and thus in some sense creating the Catholic Church? Well, in principle this might have happened, of course, but good luck finding evidence of it: there isn't any. Now, sure, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, but given that this was an era where people would riot over disputed points of dogma, Catholics and Arians falling to blows with depressing regularity, you'd at least expect to find some traces of dissent or approval about new teachings and new forms of worship.

Same Beliefs, Same Practices, Same Faith
Perhaps most importantly, we have quite a bit of evidence for what the Church was like well before Constantine, and, putting it bluntly, it is essentially and recognisably the Church today. Think of what most people regard as the most distinctive features of Catholic Christianity:
  • Sunday as a day specially set aside for worship, with the Mass as the central act of worship, the Mass being understood as a sacrifice, and Christ being believed present in the Mass under the appearances of bread and wine.
  • An ordained priesthood, with priests serving under local bishops, each one of these bishops serving as a point of local unity and as a conduit to the universal Church, claiming a pedigree of orthodox episcopal succession going back to the Apostles.
  • The Church in Rome as having a unique primacy and authority in the Church, with the bishop of Rome claiming an episcopal succession back to St Peter, and acting as a visible point of unity for the whole Church.
  • Honour being paid to the saints, veneration of the physical remains of saints, the belief that the saints in heaven can hear our prayers and pray for us, and the usefulness of prayers for the dead.
Every single one of these practices and beliefs is attested in Christian writings from more than a century before Constantine legalised Christianity. Clement of Rome, the author of the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, the author of the Martydom of Polycarp, the author of the Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian among others collectively attest to the Church of the second century -- indeed, the Church of the late first century too -- as being in its essentials recognisably the same Church that still exists today.

That's not to say that the Church is right about what it teaches and does -- though I think it is -- just that it has neither invented what it teaches now nor abandoned what it taught in Antiquity. This is something that can be tested quite easily. Sure, the Didache and Clement's Letter to the Corinthians, almost certainly the two earliest extra-Biblical Christian texts, were only rediscovered in the nineteenth century, but I don't think this is an excuse for people pretending or acting as if Christians wrote the Bible in the first century and never wrote another word afterwards,  ignoring the Bible and doing their own thing for the next 1400 years.

Indeed, leaving aside the fact that it flies in the face of all historical evidence, the whole notion that the Church as a whole went off the rails in Antiquity or the Middle Ages is profoundly unbiblical. The Bible features Jesus saying he will be with the Church always, assuring the Apostles that who hears them hears him, and guaranteeing the Apostles that the Spirit will guide them; it shows the Apostles and the elders of the Church in Jerusalem claiming to speak with the authority of the Spirit, and it identifyies the Church with Christ himself; indeed, Paul calls the Church the pillar and bulwark of truth. 

If anyone's determined to argue -- honestly -- that the Catholic Church, which even now includes roughly half the world's Christians, was founded by Constantine and not by Christ, they need to be able to justify this both historically and theologically. Where do they think the Church described in the Bible was to be found in the centuries between John and Luther, if it was not that Church that Ignatius and Augustine called Catholic?

And if you don't believe me, go and take a look at the relevant sections in J.N.D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines, Henry Chadwick's The Early Church, and perhaps most especially the ancient Christian texts themselves in H.S. Bettenson's Documents of the Christian Church, James Stevenson's A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337, or the Penguin collection called Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers.

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