ORB Masthead with site navigation toolbar; see bottom 
of page for text version of toolbar

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME


Yuri Koszarycz


The new freedom that came with the proclamation of the Edict of Milan (313 AD) in no way brought about a sense of unity and community into the Church. On the contrary, as the Christian groups no longer had to concern themselves with self-protection from persecution, they had more time to occupy themselves with the meanings and interpretations of the Christian message. This period of time, which on the whole meant peace on the political plane, inaugurated a difficult era of tensions in faith stances from various Christian groups.

A central preoccupation of the age was with the mystery of the integration of the human and divine realities within Christ. Philosophy began to intrude on theological interpretations, as deeper clarity was sought into the meaning of Jesus' life, words and actions. What did it mean when Jesus said, "The Father is greater than I" (Jn. 14:28)? How was Jesus' own knowledge and equality perceived in relation to his incarnate divinity and the Trinity when he admits that he is not privy to information that only the Father knows (Mk. 13:32)? What were the meanings behind Jesus' cry of isolation and abandonment on the cross - "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me!" (Mk. 15:34; Mt. 27:46)? Was Jesus only a man? Was he really the only begotten incarnate son of God? How can the unity between "true man and true God" be reconciled in Christ? Had the incarnate son of God only one will - i.e. a divine will and nature? How did the man Jesus understand his own divinity and godliness?

These were among the questions that caused division and dissent within Constantinian christendom. Opposing answers, responses and thesies were promoted so that unity could not be a reality. It seemed that the Christian community which had survived two centuries of bitter persecution would be rendered apart and destroyed through these theological confrontations.

It is fascinating to note how this inner-Church conflict was resolved. The early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea praises the vigor with which Emperor Constantine quickly realized that a semblance of order and stability was paramount in the Church if his political control was to be maintained. As protector of the Church Constantine was instrumental in convening the Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD.

In the next 125 years four important councils were to be convened which determined resolutions to christological problems. They must be seen as imperative in promoting a sense of Christian unity in faith, as well as aiding the political stability of a vastly expanding empire.

You may wish to explore these councils more fully in your own private readings. You will find that Constantine, and later his successors, enforced and defended Christianity even to the point of persecuting those forces that stood against it. Through the resolution of these politico-religious conflicts the bond between Church and State was inextricably drawn together. Constantine had realised that the unity of the Empire was best protected by protecting and promoting a common religion throughout that empire.

Let us briefly look at the Arian conflict. Arius was presented as teaching that Jesus came from the Father as a creation of God, and he was strongly refuted by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. Although Arius believed that Christ was the Word of God, incarnate in human form, and divine, nevertheless Christ was subordinate to God the Father; he denied that the Son had the same nature and substance as God. The bishop of Alexandria however insisted that Christ was of the same nature and substance as God. The bitter theological struggle threatened to destroy the delicate balance within the Church until Constantine intervened and commanded the collected bishops at Nicaea to repudiate this teaching as a heresy. The Council of Nicaea finally resolved that

    We believe in....one Lord Jesus Christ, The only begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all Ages Light of Light, true God of true God, Begotten not made of one substance with the Father...

Later within the fourth century, three men - Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, had a paramount influence on determining what was to be considered "orthodox teaching" in the Church, particularly in relation to teachings on the trinitarian nature of the Christian God. Basil strongly asserted the divinity of the Holy Spirit; Gregory of Nyssa taught that true knowledge of the Trinity comes through scripture and tradition. Finally at the Council of Constantinople in 381 the Spirit was described as "the Lord, the giver of life, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified."

It is important to note that the first seven ecumenical councils of the Church took place in the predominantly Greek-speaking world. Byzantine thought and philosophy permeated the conceptual framework within which Christian theology was developed. The mysteries of faith became objects of philosophical debate, investigation and interpretation. A systematization of faith into precise dogmas, teachings, rules, and beliefs which would be accepted and defended by the universal Church was inevitable. Still, lest my comments give the impression that the theology of this era quickly became theoretical, abstract, and isolated, may I hasten to add that the greatest incentive was a pastoral one. Most of the influential theologians of the 4th and 5th century were bishops who placed heavy accent on the caring of their dioceses. Theological resolutions were seen not in abstract, but as an aid to strengthen the faith-stance of the general Christian community. It was in this light that John Chrysostom in the late 5th century placed emphasis on the Church as a Mystical Communion and stated that the eucharistic bread and wine actually constituted the body and blood of Christ slain at the altar. John Chrysostom (c.347 - 407 AD) was one of the greatest eastern theologians. As bishop of Antioch for sixteen years, he was renowned as an eloquent speaker and proclaimer of the Gospel.

In 451 a further council in Chalcedon "resolved" the controversies surrounding the definition of the "person of Christ". In the final edict we read : "We confess one and the same, our lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly god and truly man, the same of a rational soul and body..."(Wiles, 1981: 79). Later in the western Church, Augustine and Ambrose were to define the Trinity in the same manner as the Cappadocian Fathers. Both of these early Fathers of the Church made an outstanding contribution to the development of Christian theology and exerted a commanding influence on all the theological questions of their age.

Next | Index |

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.