Thursday, February 18, 2010

Enter Stage Left?

Few people have been as lauded and criticized as Emperor Constantine the Great. He has been regarded as a hero for ending the Roman persecution of Christians, but also as doing great harm to Christianity by making it official. He has also been charged by many with originating all the things they dislike about Christianity. But will this hold water historically?

Some claim Constantine originated the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea. However, Scripture teaches Jesus Christ is God (Hebrews 1:6-12; John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11) and the Holy Spirit is God (2 Corinthians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 3:16; Acts 5:3,4). The early pagan observers claimed Christians worshiped Jesus as a god. The term "Trinity" was from Tertullian in his essay "Against Praxeas" about 208 A.D. (Constantine's vision endorsing Christianity was in 312 A.D.) The Council of Nicaea was simply affirming traditional Christian belief. Constantine, though he accepted the verdict of Nicaea, was indifferent and wanted everyone to just forget the whole thing and get along. His son Constantius denied the Trinity and tried to use political force to impose this on the Empire. But he failed, and the Trinity was reaffirmed as the teaching of the church because it was the logical conclusion of what Christians had always believed.

Constantine has also been blamed for changing the contents of the New Testament by rewriting it or deciding what books went into it. The problem with this is we possess many copies of the New Testament from before or near the time of Constantine. It is simply not possible for Constantine to have changed the contents of the Bible without our knowing it. As for deciding what books went into the Bible, Constantine had nothing to do with this issue. The New Testament writers refer to other parts of the New Testament as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18; 2 Peter 3:15,16). Those who wrote immediately after the New Testament continually quote it as authoritative. Irenaeus (died 202 A.D.) said there were four gospels and affirmed many of the other books as Scripture. While there were a few books in doubt, the basic content of the New Testament was well established early on. Now, there was a council after the time of Constantine that made a final ruling on the books that were arguable, but the whole New Testament was not up for grabs. If the decision is questioned today, it needs to be over the few books in doubt.

While Constantine is an ambiguous individual (he seemed to have been more interested in monotheism with strict moral principles than the work of Christ), his real achievement was starting Christianity on its way to becoming the official religion of the Empire. One of the most difficult questions for the Christian church has been how to be in the world and not of the world (John 17:14-16). I would agree Constantine did not come up with the correct answer, but I do not think we have either.

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