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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

2. The Triumph Of Christianity (27 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 26

State Religion — Second Ecumenical Council.

With the reign of the Emperor Theodosius the Great (379-95), the first cycle in the development of new relations between Church and state came to an end. An edict of 380 declared Christianity the required faith and made it finally the state religion. The freedom announced in the Edict of Milan was ended, but it had been doomed from the start. It was precluded by the very nature of the ancient state, whose basic feature, a theocratic conception of itself, was actually reinforced by the conversion of Constantine. In Constantine’s reign the persecution of paganism began. It grew in strength under his sons; in 341 the “madness of sacrifices” was forbidden by law, and in 353 all cults of idols were condemned and their temples closed. True, these laws were hardly enforced in practice; paganism still represented a considerable force, which explains the attempt to revive it under Julian.
Culture, the school, and learning would long remain almost a monopoly of pagans. Still, the conversion of the emperor doomed it to disappearance, and this process was accelerated by the extent to which the emperors drew closer to the Church.

It must be frankly admitted that the Church demanded of the state that it combat paganism and itself denied the principle of toleration. It had forgotten the words of Tertullian, addressed to the persecutors of Christianity: “Both common right and natural law require that each man bow down to the god in which he believes. It is not right for one religion to violate another.” In his work On the Confusions of Pagan Religions written for the sons of Constantine, the Christian writer Firmicus Maternus exhorted them: “Come to the aid of these unfortunates; it is better to save them in spite of themselves than to allow them to perish [emphasis supplied].” But the minds of Christians, in which the evangelical ideal of religious freedom had flared up briefly during the experience of martyrdom, were blinded for a long time by the vision of a Christian theocracy that would bring men to Christ not only by grace but by law as well. Much time passed before the pagan nature of this theocracy was recognized. State sanctions gave the Church unprecedented strength, and perhaps brought many to faith and new life, but after Theodosius the Great it was no longer only a community of believers; it was also a community of those obliged to believe.

Later, at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (381), the first chapter of the great theological disputes was completed, and Nicene orthodoxy triumphed. The council itself was far in spirit from the victorious radiance shown by the bishops when they met at Nicaea. Now wounds from many years of division had to be healed and the whole weight of the Arian rebellion was felt. Many personal questions were decided, with inevitable sacrifices and compromises. Gregory the Theologian, inexperienced and naïve in higher church politics, had stubbornly defended the truth of Nicaea in the Arian capital, but was now apparently unneeded and withdrew from the council.
The bitterness of this remained with him to the end of his life. The Church was “reconstructed” for its new official existence with no little difficulty, and not all had enough wisdom, patience, and flexibility for it. Behind the dogmatic unity we begin to sense a jealousy on the part of the ancient seats of Antioch and Alexandria of the growing significance of the Church of Constantinople. Afar off, the see of St. Peter was also alarmed at this rise of a second Rome. The spring of orthodox Byzantinism was over, and the heat and burdens of the long journey were beginning.


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