In 313, Constantine came to power and recognized the rights of Christians. Despite persecutions, Christians of the 3rd century understood the Empire as a place to embrace Christianity, a setting to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. An ambiguous era begins, from which we are only just emerging, where political power and ecclesiastical authorities form alliances to regulate religious life, although the relationship is not always easy, and the balance of power has often shifted.

Constantine granted extensive support to the Church, which facilitated the spread of Christianity, albeit under his responsibility and control. He took on the title of sovereign pontiff, directly derived from paganism. Under the influence of central power, the Church strengthened its institutions, some of which had gradually been established in preceding centuries. The three orders of ministry structured themselves, bishops received powers of command over their followers in religious matters and in ecclesiastical organization.

Reactions to this intrusion of imperial power into Church affairs varied. For some (such as Eusebius of Caesarea), the good sovereign should be the spiritual guide of his subjects. But others asserted that while the very existence of imperial authority is in accordance with divine order, it is up to the 60 bishops to define the faith. Indeed, this is an era when there are many questions on this subject.

Doctrinal unification, the century of the Great Councils: In the 4th century, the Church collected and formalized the work of previous centuries: the biblical canon was more or less completed, and the main symbols of faith were formulated. Indeed, the Church was debating major doctrinal questions at this time, particularly concerning the nature of Christ. The Church Fathers witnessed the intellectual ferment on this point.

Discussions on the nature of Christ, on the Church using concepts from classical Greek thought. Today, we would speak of the inculturation of the Christian faith, originally from the Semitic world, into the Greco-Roman world: Greek thought and Latin legalism. The great ecumenical councils were convened by the emperor, who needed doctrinal unity in Christianity to maintain public order. All of them took place in the East, hence in Greek. The Bishop of Rome was represented there at best by legates.

Document: The first 7 ecumenical councils

  1. The Council of Nicaea (325) which condemned Arius and defined the Son of God incarnate as “consubstantial” with the Father.
  2. The Council of Constantinople (381) which provided a solution to the aftermath of the Arian crisis; sources from the following century also attribute to this council the adoption of the “symbol,” known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: our Creed.
  3. The Council of Ephesus (431) which condemned the heresy of Nestorius, declaring that there was not, in Christ, a juxtaposition of two persons…

This text is an excerpt from the book “CHRISTIANITY AND ITS CHALLENGES” written by Jérémie TCHINDEBE.

We invite you to read the following article “The Churches in Nation-States“.

Christian Empire, Christian Empire.

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