Byzantium: The Orthodox Empire
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:12–13 that he has heard about dissention in the Corinthian Church, that some were following one teaching, one faction were disciples of another teacher, some were Paul's disciples, and some were claiming to be only Jesus' followers. “Is Christ divided,” Paul inquires. Likewise, critics of the churches have been known to ask over the millennium since the split between the Latin West and the Greek East, “Is Jesus divided? Is his body split?”And with the Reformation they now ask, “Has he been splintered into not two, but now scores and hundreds of factions and pretenders to the claim of being his true body?”
Is the Catholic body his real expression? Did the Reformation recover what Jesus meant — and what he left of his body — to the world two millennia after his earthly life and sacrifice? Or has the Orthodox representation of Jesus followed the course most faithfully? Is diversity in unity the real key to Jesus? Is the church, the body of Christ, somehow mystically present in all these and more efforts to find and serve him? Such questions can only whet our appetites in this survey, but in raising them we can hope for new insights on these issues.
Byzantium has been discussed in other contexts several times earlier, but now takes center stage in an examination of its particular expression of the Jesus movement. Byzantium, from the name of the village that was built up into the city of Constantinople in the fourth century, is being used here to refer to both the Roman empire in the configuration it took almost a thousand miles east of Rome, and for the ethos of Eastern Orthodoxy, the variation of Christianity that had Greek rather than Latin as its mother tongue.
Historian Eusebius (see Chapter 7) reports that after seeing the vision of a cross in the sky before a crucial battle near Verona, northern Italy, in A.D. 312, Emperor Constantine described it to his colleagues and ordered its likeness rendered in precious metals and gems and raised, accompanied with a banner adorned by the first two letters of the Greek form of “Christ,” X and P, (chi, written as X, for “ch,” and rho, written as P, for what in the western alphabet is “r”), as well as portraits of himself and his children. Called a labarum, he had it duplicated repeatedly and appointed that it precede his armies into battle.
The symbol that Constantine ordered to lead his armies is still used in Orthodox and Roman Catholic religious processions. Called a labarum, it is also often called the chi-rho or a Christogram. Some believe Constantine's labarum was the first time a cross was used to symbolize Christianity.
Constantine the Great
Constantine's vision came in two parts, the appearance of a cross in front of the sun as he marched with his troops in daylight, and in a dream where he was told to conquer under that symbol. Eusebius also records that after his vision sank in, Constantine asked his counselors to explain the religion of the Christians to him.
Some sectarian teachers have accused Constantine of corrupting Christianity, merging church and state, or both, thus interrupting the progress of the true faith. Most historians say this claim is unsupported. And most Bible scholars (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) say such actions would have contradicted Jesus' words, “the gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church.
Another historian, Lactanius, an earlier Christian convert and writer of apologetics for his new religion, having been persecuted under Constantine's predecessor Diocletian, was taken under Constantine's wing. He became a tutor of the emperor's son, and probably was one of Constantine's teachers of Christianity. It is thought, however, that Lactanius was not well taught in Christian beliefs, as his apologetic works show little knowledge of the Bible. Later in life, it is reliably reported, the emperor preferred the company of bishops of the church, and the emperor's active role in addressing the Arian heresy controversy indicates that he was fascinated by discussions of Christian theology or doctrines.
Classical Rome, like Greece, its model, used paganism as what modern sociologists and political scientists call civil religion, the glue that holds the society together. It's possible that the pagan gods of either Greece or Rome were not taken very seriously by the people or the leaders, all considering them mythological, but there is much evidence that the leaders wanted the gods respected and to be called upon to bless their enterprises.
Lord John Julius Norwich ranks Constantine fourth in world influence after Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed. Constantine's most important decisions include making Christianity a tolerated religion of Rome, and establishing his capital at Byzantium, renamed Constantinople.
The creation of pagan gods accords with the recognition, universal among human cultures, of a spiritual dimension native to mankind: If we want god(s), then such realities must precede our very existence. Plato and Aristotle taught variations on this motif, suggesting that even before pagan people heard of Christ, they were being prepared to look for their savior.
There is some indication that Constantine consciously chose Christianity as his empire's new civil religion in part because it was growing rapidly despite the extreme measures his predecessors employed to stop it, and in part because when he understood it, regardless of the depth of his faith, it made more sense, and seemed more effective at promoting public welfare, than pagan mythology.
So Constantine was the first world ruler who had to deal with the separation and the interplay between the dominant religion and state or national life, and he was the first to endorse Christianity as his state's leading civil religion. That he may have chosen Christianity out of political motives, as some have written, is not in itself evidence of nefarious motives. Nor does it discount his sincerity, the authenticity of his vision, or his eventual choosing baptism into the church near the end of his life. When something is the right thing to do, it's usually the best choice for a variety of reasons and motivations.
Though many think Constantine intended to move to Byzantium, there's no definite reason why he moved his capital from Rome. The eastern region of the empire was the last portion he controlled, so he likely wanted more direct presence there to consolidate his political power. Historians believe he didn't mean to make “New Rome” the only capital; it became that by default.
Some claim that the fact that Constantine sponsored the Council of Nicea proves that he ran the church, but the fact that controversies like the Arian heresy raged back and forth for decades discounts such claims. The church had no dictator. Bishops at the time were equal and independent, deferential but not required to answer to a synod or the bishop of Rome, and they were scattered from Britain to the Holy Land and Africa.
Though many heresies are recorded as being held from time to time by early bishops, none of the bishops are on record as claiming to have been pressured to conform their teachings to ones Constantine may have wanted to promote. The fact that Constantine was on the side of the heretic Arius for most of the bishops' lives, and that the church still prevailed against Arius, is overwhelming evidence that Constantine did not dictate to the church, as often claimed.