A historic turn
One day this past October marked 1,700 years since an event took place that led to developments that still have resonance. On Oct. 28, 312 A.D., a general named Flavius Valerius Constantinus, now generally called Constantine, was approaching a rival army outside Rome. Constantine was one of several military figures vying for dominance in the Roman Empire.
Whether he saw a sign in the sky, as was afterwards claimed, or whether he decided there was an advantage in playing to a growing popular movement, Constantine said, as the battle neared, that he would authorize the toleration of Christianity if the battle went in his favor.
He did win the battle, and the rival general was killed. A year later, from his temporary headquarters in Milan, Constantine issued an edict that declared: “No one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observation of the Christian religion.” All religions were to have the same privileges, he said, and over time he appointed Christians to important posts, though he tolerated all other faiths.
Constantine’s own religion had been worship of the invincible sun, which had an official birthday of Dec. 25. That became the birthday of someone else, and Constantine’s own feeling toward the God of the Christians seems to have been one of brightness, and power — invincible.
But two centuries before Constantine’s time, an envoy of the emperor Trajan had written to Trajan about people who worshiped a certain “Christus.” So by Constantine’s time the question had arisen as to the relationship of God to this Christ whose name was embedded in the name of their religion. Was it a divine relationship? Was it mortal? Or was it somehow a combination of both? There were various answers, depending on the personalities of those who pondered the issue and their geographical locations.
The city of Alexandria in Egypt was a major commercial and cultural center. So was the city of Antioch in what is now part of Syria. Church leaders in those communities had definite ideas about the future of their religion and did not necessarily take kindly to ideas from other centers that differed from their own. That was true of religious figures in many other communities.
There was a further complication in Constantine’s time. Severe persecution of Christians was very much in the recent past. During those times some prominent Christian leaders had accepted paganism in order to avoid penalty. When toleration came about, such people resumed their positions as Christian leaders of their communities. But those who had remained true during the persecution often felt it was wrong for backsliders to have authority over them. They did not want to serve under a bishop, say, who had accepted paganism in a time of trouble.
Constantine himself seems to have been baffled by such differences of opinion. To him, Christianity was a simple faith, like faith in the sun. Besides, he had to try to administer an empire containing several faiths that still stretched on both sides of the Mediterranean from Britain to the Tigris-Euphrates valleys.
He called several conference and was mystified when they didn’t settle the issues completely. But those issues, and others of a similar nature, at various times and with varying degrees of intensity, have remained with us for 1,700 years.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.