{5}           Constantine & monasticism

ERA 2 << Early Church (2): Stability (AD 300–600) >> SESSION 1

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 13-15

5.1  End of Persecutions to State Religion

        5.1.1  Constantine’s success

·         Constantinople founded: Constantine issued the Edict of Milan [313] to grant Christianity a status of equality with other religions. He founded Constantinople [330] after being sole emperor.

        5.1.2  Constantine’s support for Christianity

·         Lack of understanding: Constantine, though became a Christian, was not instructed of the faith. His behaviour was unlike a Christian. He even took part in pagan rites but he was probably a sincere believer.

·         Measures in favour of Christians: Constantine ordered that confiscated Christian properties to be returned. He granted the clergy exemption from public obligations. He sacked the old temples and built new churches.

        5.1.3  Julian the Apostate

·         Reversal: His reign was short [361–363] but he sought to restore the lost glory of paganism. He organized massive pagan sacrifices. Julian never decreed persecutions against Christians, but he passed laws forbidding Christians to teach classical literature, thus keeping them from spreading the faith.

        5.1.4  State religion

·         Emperor Theodosius I: He issued edicts [381] that made Christianity the exclusive religion of the state. Anyone who held to any other form of worship would suffer punishment from the state.

·         Impact: Christianity did raise the moral tone of the society. Roman legislation became more just. But when the church became rich and powerful, corruption crept in.

5.2  Effects on the Imperial Church

        5.2.1  Impact of Constantine

·         No more persecution: The cessation of persecutions was immediate.

·         Official theology: Some Christians were overwhelmed by the favour that the emperor was pouring on them so they developed an “official theology” which tried to show that Constantine was chosen by God.

·         Monasticism: As pagans were flocking to the church, including many nominal believers, some withdrew to the desert to lead a life of meditation and asceticism.

        5.2.2  Practices in the imperial church

·         Sacraments: The number of sacraments was unofficially expanded from 2 to 7 by the end of 6th-c.

·         Veneration of saints: Saints were venerated for their virtue. Now, the saints and martyrs were made to replace the old pagan gods. Later, they even became intercessory for prayers to God.

·         Veneration of Mary: Mary was venerated as the mother of God and head of the saints. Speculations made her sinless and a perpetual virgin and possessing intercessory powers with Christ.

        5.2.3  Liturgical Developments

·         Christian worship: The original simple democratic worship was changed to a more aristocratic, colourful form of liturgy with a sharp distinction between the clergy and the laity.

·         Paganization: Because many pagans joining the church, pagan practices crept into the custom of the church as the church tried to make these pagan converts feel at home, such as allowing images and icons.

        5.2.4  Official theology

·         Official theology: The beliefs and emphases of the church were accommodated to fit the new situation.

o        Riches came to be seen as signs of divine favour. The church became a church of the powerful.

o        There was a new development of a clerical aristocracy far above the common people.

o        There was a tendency to set aside or to postpone the hope of the future kingdom.

        5.2.5  Monarchical bishop

·         Factors: The need of leadership in meeting the problems of persecution and heresy was an urgent need that dictated the expansion of the bishop’s power. The development of the doctrine of apostolic succession and the increasing exaltation of the communion were important factors in the rise of the bishop’s power. The sacraments came to seen as effectual only if they were performed by an accredited minister.

·         Bishop of Rome: The extra prestige given to the bishop of Rome was supported by a few factors.

o        Petrine Theory: The primary argument was that Christ gave authority to Peter, including keys to the kingdom.

o        Church Fathers: Cyprian and Jerome said that Christ gave Peter a special rank as the first bishop of Rome.

o        Apostolic traditions: Rome was linked with many apostolic traditions. Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome.

        5.3.1  Origin of monasticism

·         Escapism: In times of worldliness and institutionalism, many Christians have renounced society and retired into solitude to achieve personal holiness by contemplation and asceticism apart from the society.

·         Unwelcomed changes: [1] With increasing power came moral deterioration of the church. [2] Pagans brought semi-pagan practices. [3] Growing formalism in worship led some to seek individual approach to God.

·         Teachings: [1] Paul’s preference towards celibacy inspired monasticism. [2] Gnosticism’s denial of the body still influenced the church. [3] Classical philosophy encouraged the subjugation of bodily passions.

        5.3.2  Stages of development of monasticism

·         Ascetism. Solitary monasticism: anchorites or hermits. Communal monasticism: monastery.

        5.3.3  Solitary monasticism

·         Monks: The early monks searched for solitude because society was seen as a temptation. The desert, in particularly in Egypt, was attractive for its inaccessibility. Anthony (251–357) was the first famous monk.

·         Growth: By the time of Constantine, many thousands lived in the desert. People who wanted to learn from the monks built churches nearby.

        5.3.4  Communal monasticism

·         Pachomius (286–348)—He built a new community of monks [c.320]. He demanded that anyone who wished to join the community must give up all their goods, and promise absolute obedience to their superiors.

·         Benedictine Order: The greatest leader of Western monasticism was Benedict of Nursia (480–547). He lived as a hermit east of Rome [500], and then founded the Monte Cassino monastery [529].

        5.3.5  Spread of monasticism

·         Factors: In 4th-c, monasticism spread from Egypt to Syria, Asia Minor, and Italy.

·         Impact: Monasticism would become an instrument for the charitable and missionary work of the church.

        5.3.6  Evaluation of monasticism

·         No Biblical support: Monasticism is not taught in the Scripture (Mark 16:15).

·         Keeping the culture: Monasteries helped to keep scholarship and education alive during the Middle Ages.

·         Missions: Monks became missionaries and won over tribes to Christianity.

·         Leaders: Some of the best leaders of the medieval church came from monasteries.

·         Drawbacks: Monasticism could lead to spiritual pride. Corruption crept in when monasteries became wealthy.

·         Centralization of power: Monasticism also aided the concentration of power of the papacy.


[1] treasure our heritage

Ancient traditions, if not unbiblical, should be respected.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

Constantine’s victory and Julian’s short reign showed God’s plan.

[3] avoid past errors

Paganization to today’s worship should be avoided.

[4] apply our knowledge

Arguments against the absolute power of the pope are important.

[5] follow past saints

Monks’ commitment to live the whole life for God is commendable.