The Establishment of the Imperial Church
In 312 an event occurred which utterly transformed the outward situation of the Church. As he was riding through France with his army, the Emperor Constantine looked up into the sky and saw a cross of light in front of the sun. With the cross there was an inscription: In this sign conquer. As a result of this vision, Constantine became the first Roman Emperor to embrace the Christian faith. On that day in France a train of events was set in motion which brought the first main period of Church history to an end, and which led to the creation of the Christian Empire of Byzantium.
Constantine stands at a watershed in the history of the Church. With his conversion, the age of the martyrs and the persecutions drew to an end, and the Church of the Catacombs became the Church of the Empire. The first great effect of Constantine’s vision was the so-called ‘Edict’ of Milan, which he and his fellow Emperor Licinius issued in 313 proclaiming the official toleration of the Christian faith. And though at first Constantine granted no more than toleration, he soon made it clear that he intended to favour Christianity above all the other tolerated religions in the Roman Empire. Theodosius, within fifty years of Constantine’s death, had carried this policy through to its conclusion: by his legislation he made Christianity not merely the most highly favoured but the only recognized religion of the Empire. The Church was now established. ‘You are not allowed to exist,’ the Roman authorities had once said to the Christians. Now it was the turn of paganism to be suppressed.
Constantine’s vision of the Cross led also, in his lifetime, to two further consequences, equally momentous for the later development of Christendom. First, in 324 he decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire eastward from Italy to the shores of the Bosphorus. Here, on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium, he built a new capital, which he named after himself, ‘Constantinoupolis’. The motives for this move were in part economic and political, but they were also religious: the Old Rome was too deeply stained with pagan associations to form the centre of the Christian Empire which he had in mind. In the New Rome things were to be different: after the solemn inauguration of the city in 330, he laid down that at Constantinople no pagan rites should ever be performed. Constantine’s new capital has exercised a decisive influence upon the development of Orthodox history.
Secondly, Constantine summoned the first General or Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church at Nicaea in 323. If the Roman Empire was to be a Christian Empire, then Constantine wished to see it firmly based upon the one Orthodox faith. It was the duty of the Nicene Council to elaborate the content of that faith. Nothing could have symbolized more clearly the new relation between Church and State than the outward circumstances of the gathering at Nicaea. The Emperor himself presided, ‘like some heavenly messenger of God’, as one of those present, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, expressed it. At the conclusion of the council the bishops dined with the Emperor. ‘The circumstances of the banquet,’ wrote Eusebius (who was inclined to be impressed by such things), ‘were splendid beyond description. Detachments of the bodyguard and other troops surrounded the entrance of the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of these the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the imperial apartments. Some were the Emperor’s own companions at table, others reclined on couches ranged on either side. One might have thought it was a picture of Christ’s kingdom, and a dream rather than reality.” Matters had certainly changed since the time when Nero employed Christians as living torches to illuminate his gardens at night. Nicaea was the first of seven general councils; and these, like the city of Constantine, occupy a central position in the history of Orthodoxy.
The three events – the Edict of Milan, the foundation of Constantinople and the Council of Nicaea – mark the Church’s coming of age.