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The Next Faithful Step

Constantine, Monks, and Imperial Christianity


Toward the beginning of the fourth century, the Church that had spent the first centuries of its life under the specter of persecution found itself in a startling new position. Almost immediately following the Great Persecution under Domitian, Christianity suddenly found itself favored by the Empire’s next ruler, Constantine. Church and Empire would never be the same.

The Empire changed radically under Constantine, beyond simply the new (secure) place that Christianity now held. The new Emperor moved the capitol of the Empire east. It sounds strange, but the capitol of the Roman Empire was no longer Rome. Constantine appears to have had no deep emotional ties to the city and even experienced some tension there, as the ruling class did not look favorably on the Emperor’s Christian leanings. And so Constantine moved the capitol of the Empire east to Byzantium, renaming it… big surprise… Constantinople.

Byzantium had not been an especially large city, and so Constantine went to work expanding it. It’s walls were moved to quadruple the size of the new capitol and, in order to populate it, a decree went out that citizens of the city would enjoy tax exemptions, be released from obligatory military service, and would get free stuff—oil, wheat, and wine. But it was with the new capitol’s décor that things really began to change for the Empire. Statues of the gods were brought in from throughout the Empire to decorate the city. Famously, the huge statue of Apollo was brought to Constantinople from Egypt, placed on a 25 foot pedestal to make it even more imposing, and given a new head… fashioned in the likeness of Constantine himself. What is significant about this move is the way in which it dramatically shows forth the new status of the ancient gods. Formerly the centerpiece of Roman life—the cultural glue of society—and objects of reverence and devotion, the gods had now been reduced to mere decorative pieces, trinkets for gussying up the capitol.

And Constantine was quick to begin pouring out his favor upon the Church. Basilicas modeled after the halls of the ruling class were commissioned to be built, transitioning the Church from more humble places of worship that had generally been homes renovated for worship purposes to larger, dedicated buildings allowing for an increased grandness to Christian worship. The Emperor also commissioned 50 bibles to be copied and donated to the Church. (The famous Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus so prized by New Testament scholars come from this collection). The project was lavish. It is estimated that the skins of around 5,000 cows would have been required to provide the needed manuscript materials.

There appear to have been two popular options for the Church in light of these changes. The first was monasticism. The fourth century was witness to a flood of Christians fleeing the cities and entering the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to live lives as disciplined ascetics. But they were not fleeing persecution. These Christians did not escape out to the desert to save their lives, but to find a new way to lose them.

Persecution of Christians by the Roman emperors created a special class within the Church—the martyrs. Those who gave their lives holding fast to their confession of faith in Christ gained an increasingly revered and legendary place within the consciousness of the Church in its early centuries. Individuals such as St. Ignatius of Antioch set a new standard of Christian faithfulness as they willingly (and even joyfully) went to their deaths—losing their lives for the One who had given His for them. Christians would often use the burial sites of martyrs as places for worship and martyrdom was increasingly understood as a particular remedy covering and cancelling out sins.

With the coming of Constantine and the new place of Christianity in the Empire, martyrdom was no longer an option. And with the Empire no longer taking the lives of the faithful, those zealous for radical confession sought out new ways to lose their lives. Desert monasticism was an answer. If the Empire would not give them the opportunity to hand their bodies over, they would instead suffer the discipline of the desert.

And suffer they did. Many lived harsh lives of solitude (or at least attempted solitude—the desert monks also became very popular attractions for spectators and would-be disciples who would often chase them farther and farther out into the wilderness). Food was sparse and prayer abundant. St. Mary of Egypt left for the desert after a dramatic conversion in the Holy City, taking with her only three loaves of bread and spending the remaining decades of her life in solitude eating only what she could find in the desert.

The desert monks of Syria were especially committed to losing themselves to physical discipline. Perhaps the most famous of these new martyrs was Simeon Stylitus. St. Simeon spent his decades of desert life at the top of a high pillar on a small three-foot by three-foot platform. He had his food hoisted up to him in a basket and lowered down in a basket what he did not want or need to keep up with him (use your imagination). Simeon started a desert tradition of “pillar dwellers” that would last for centuries and a portion of his pillar can still be visited today—although in much smaller form as it has been chipped away by faithful pilgrims to the site for centuries. And so it was individuals such as Mary and Simeon who embodied one type of response to the new place of Christianity in the Empire: an attempt to continue the martyrdom tradition.

While desert monasticism was one powerful and popular response to the new and favored position of Christianity in the Empire in the early fourth century, it was by no means the only response option. While the desert monks appear to have worked from a fundamental skepticism concerning the allegiance of Christianity and the Empire, there was another option: acceptance and celebration. Most famous among these celebrators is Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius is most famous for writing his immensely important Ecclesiastical History in the fourth century. And it is precisely this work that clearly reflects his enthusiasm for Constantine and the new direction of the Roman Empire, along with the Church’s newfound place in it. Eusebius provides a new view of history in his work. His telling of Church history is an apology—a defense—for the view that the Church is the goal of human history. In this understanding, the conversion of Constantine acts as the key. Gone is the sense of antagonism between world powers and the Church as is found in the Book of Revelation. Now the Church has taken its rightful place as the centerpiece of not only the history of things spiritual, but of earthly things as well.

What is the place of the Church in the world? It is a question we have largely stopped asking, as the answer seems obvious to us who are inheritors of the Church as a social force. But the desert monks and Eusebius remind us that whatever our theology is concerning the relation of the Church and the world, it can’t help but be a brazen theological decision. (the pillar dwellers and Eusebius are nothing if not brazen.) Do we understand the Church as a divinely appointed institution and social force doing the will and work of God in the world? That’s bold. Do we understand Christianity as essentially otherworldly and counter-cultural? That’s bold. We may or may not be completely comfortable with Eusebius’ understanding of Church and Empire (Augustine certainly was not—he saw the world divided between two cities, the City of God and the City of humanity). And we may shake our heads in disbelief at the desert monks. But at the very least, these traditional responses to the new status of Christianity in the Roman Empire remind us that wherever we come down, we come down boldly. I doubt the Church is at all helped when we forget how radical theology really is. Eusebius and the monks continue to give a gift to the Church by exposing how tepid theology and practice can become when we forget how brazen and bold beliefs really are.