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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 3

Relations between Church and State.

After Constantine’s conversion came the so-called Edict of Milan in 313, defining the principles of his religious policies. It solemnly proclaimed freedom “for Christians and all others to follow whatever religion they wished,” and the properties confiscated from Christian churches during the persecutions were returned to them.

The decision of Milan has been sharply disputed by historians. What did this religious freedom mean? If Constantine, in proclaiming it, had been inspired by the Christian idea that one’s religious convictions should be independent of the state, then why was it enforced for so short a time and then replaced by the unlimited and obligatory monopoly of Christianity, which destroyed all religious freedom?

This ambiguity was apparent almost immediately in the schism of the Donatists in Africa. At the time of Constantine’s conversion, rebellion had spread in the African Church. After the waves of persecution the atmosphere had become poisoned by suspicion, accusations of deception, and defections. A party of Carthaginian Christians refused to recognize the new bishop, Caecilian, because a certain Bishop Felix, accused of betrayal in surrendering copies of the Scriptures to the police, had taken part in his ordination. This group, supported by many neighboring bishops, had chosen as their bishop first Majorinus and later Donatus, from whom the sect received its name.

Just at this time Constantine was sending generous grants to the Christian communities which had suffered under the persecutions. In Africa his aid naturally went to the “catholics” led by Caecilian. This aroused the Donatists to appeal to the emperor to transfer their case to the judgment of the Gallic bishops, who had not undergone persecution and therefore could not be accused of being compromised. Constantine valued nothing higher than peace, and what attracted him most of all in Christianity was, perhaps, its catholicity, the universal unity of the Church.
Wishing to pacify the African Church, he agreed to the request of the Donatists. The chief bishops of Gaul gathered in Rome under the presidency of Pope Miltiades, listened to both sides, and solemnly confirmed the verdict of the synod of Carthage.

The matter had apparently been settled in accordance with all Church rules, as the Donatists themselves had wished. But they appealed again to the emperor, and Constantine then took an irrevocable step, inaugurating the tragic misunderstanding between the theocratic empire and the Church, which was to last for many centuries. Instead of simply referring to the decision of the Church, which had been taken independently of him, the unbaptized emperor fulfilled the request of the Donatists and ordered a new investigation.

This was the first blow to the independence of the Church, and the distinction between it and the state became obscured. Later developments in the Donatist rebellion resulted solely from this first fatal mistake. There was a new condemnation of the schism by the Great Synod at Aries, then a new appeal to the emperor. Constantine grew angry — ”What madness to plead for judgment from a man who himself awaits the judgment of Christ!” — but again yielded. When he was finally convinced, after so many investigations, that the Donatists were in the wrong, he let loose the full blast of state persecution upon them — the last and most terrible of his errors in the matter.
Persecution, which transformed the schismatics into martyrs, only strengthened them. Fire raged throughout Africa and nothing could extinguish it. The Donatist schism, even more than the invasion of the Vandals, was the beginning of the end for the great and glorious African Church.


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