The turning point for this new religion in the Roman Empire was 313 C.E., the date of Emperor Constantine’s so-called conversion to “Christianity.” How did this conversion come about? In 306 C.E., Constantine succeeded his father and eventually, with Licinius, became coruler of the Roman Empire. He was influenced by his mother’s devotion to Christianity and his own belief in divine protection. Before he went to fight a battle near Rome at the Milvian Bridge in 312 C.E., he claimed that he was told in a dream to paint the “Christian” monogram—the Greek letters khi and rho, the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek—on his soldiers’ shields. With this ‘sacred talisman,’ Constantine’s forces defeated his enemy Maxentius.
Shortly after winning the battle, Constantine claimed that he had become a believer, although he was not baptized until just prior to his death some 24 years later. He went on to obtain the support of the professed Christians in his empire by “his adoption of the [Greek letters] Chi-Rho [Artwork—Greek characters] as his emblem . . . The Chi-Rho had, however, already been used as a ligature [joining of letters] in both pagan and Christian contexts.”—The Crucible of Christianity, edited by Arnold Toynbee.
As a result, the foundation of Christendom was laid. As British broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his book The End of Christendom: “Christendom began with the Emperor Constantine.” However, he also made the perceptive comment: “You might even say that Christ himself abolished Christendom before it began by stating that his kingdom was not of this world—one of the most far reaching and important of all his statements.” And one most widely ignored by Christendom’s religious and political rulers.—John 18:36.
With Constantine’s support, Christendom’s religion became the official State religion of Rome. Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion, explains: “Christian bishops, once targets for arrest, torture, and execution, now received tax exemptions, gifts from the imperial treasury, prestige, and even influence at court; their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence.” They had become friends of the emperor, friends of the Roman world.—James 4:4.
Constantine, Heresy, and Orthodoxy
Why was Constantine’s “conversion” so significant? Because as emperor he had a powerful influence in the affairs of the doctrinally divided “Christian” church, and he wanted unity in his empire. At that time debate was raging among the Greek- and Latin-speaking bishops about “the relation between the ‘Word’ or ‘Son’ of ‘God’ which had been incarnate in Jesus, and ‘God’ himself, now called ‘the Father’—his name, Yahweh, having been generally forgotten.” (The Columbia History of the World) Some favored the Biblically supported viewpoint that Christ, the Lo′gos, was created and therefore subordinate to the Father. (Matthew 24:36; John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28) Among these was Arius, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt. In fact, R. P. C. Hanson, a professor of divinity, states: “There is no theologian in the Eastern or the Western Church before the [fourth century] outbreak of the Arian Controversy, who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father.”—The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.
Others considered that viewpoint of Christ’s subordination to be heresy and veered more toward the worship of Jesus as “God Incarnate.” Yet, Professor Hanson states that the period under question (the fourth century) “was not a history of the defence of an agreed and settled [Trinitarian] orthodoxy against the assaults of open heresy [Arianism]. On the subject which was primarily under discussion there was not as yet any orthodox doctrine.” He continues: “All sides believed that they had the authority of Scripture in their favour. Each described the others as unorthodox, untraditional and unScriptural.” The religious ranks were thoroughly divided on this theological issue.—John 20:17.
Constantine wanted unity in his realm, and in 325 C.E. he called for a council of his bishops at Nicaea, located in the Eastern, Greek-speaking domain of his empire, across the Bosporus from the new city of Constantinople. It is said that anywhere from 250 to 318 bishops attended, only a minority of the total number, and most of those attending were from the Greek-speaking region. Even Pope Sylvester I was not present. After fierce debate, out of that unrepresentative council came the Nicene Creed with its heavy bias toward Trinitarian thought. Yet it failed to settle the doctrinal argument. It did not clarify the role of God’s holy spirit in Trinitarian theology. Debate raged for decades, and it required more councils and the authority of different emperors and the use of banishment to achieve eventual conformity. It was a victory for theology and a defeat for those who held to the Scriptures.—Romans 3:3, 4.
Over the centuries, one result of the Trinity teaching has been that the one true God Jehovah has been submerged in the quagmire of Christendom’s God-Christ theology. The next logical consequence of that theology was that if Jesus really was God Incarnate, then Jesus’ mother, Mary, was obviously the “Mother of God.” Over the years, that has led to veneration of Mary in many different forms, this in spite of the total lack of texts that speak of Mary in any role of importance except as the humble biologic mother of Jesus. (Luke 1:26-38, 46-56) Over the centuries the Mother-of-God teaching has been developed and adorned by the Roman Catholic Church, with the result that many Catholics venerate Mary far more fervently than they worship God.
Additional Reading: http://pastorrussell.blogspot.com/2009/06/how-christendom-borrows-from-plato.html
Another characteristic of apostasy is that it leads to division and fragmentation. The apostle Paul had prophesied: “I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” Paul had given clear counsel to the Corinthians when he stated: “Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.” In spite of Paul’s exhortation, apostasy and divisions soon took root.—Acts 20:29, 30; 1 Corinthians 1:10.
Within a few decades of the death of the apostles, schisms were already evident among the Christians. Will Durant states: “Celsus [second-century opponent of Christianity] himself had sarcastically observed that Christians were ‘split up into ever so many factions, each individual desiring to have his own party.’ About 187 [C.E.] Irenaeus listed twenty varieties of Christianity; about 384 [C.E.] Epiphanius counted eighty.”—The Story of Civilization: Part III—Caesar and Christ.
Constantine favored the Eastern, Greek, side of his empire by having a vast new capital city built in what is today Turkey. He named it Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The result was that over the centuries the Catholic Church became polarized and split both by language and by geography—Latin-speaking Rome in the West versus Greek-speaking Constantinople in the East.
Divisive debates about aspects of the still-developing Trinity teaching continued to cause turmoil in Christendom. Another council was held in 451 C.E. at Chalcedon to define the character of Christ’s “natures.” While the West accepted the creed issued by this council, Eastern churches disagreed, leading to the formation of the Coptic Church in Egypt and Abyssinia and the “Jacobite” churches of Syria and Armenia. The unity of the Catholic Church was constantly threatened by divisions on abstruse theological matters, especially regarding the definition of the Trinity doctrine.
Another cause for division was the veneration of images. During the eighth century, the Eastern bishops rebelled against this idolatry and entered into what is called their iconoclastic, or image-destroying, period. In time they returned to the use of icons.—Exodus 20:4-6; Isaiah 44:14-18.
A further big test came about when the Western church added the Latin word filioque (“and from the Son”) to the Nicene Creed to indicate that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. The end result of this sixth-century emendation was a rift when “in 876 a synod [of bishops] at Constantinople condemned the pope both for his political activities and because he did not correct the heresy of the filioque clause. This action was part of the East’s entire rejection of the pope’s claim of universal jurisdiction over the Church.” (Man’s Religions) In the year 1054, the pope’s representative excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, who in return put a curse on the pope. That split eventually led to the formation of the Eastern Orthodox Churches—Greek, Russian, Romanian, Polish, Bulgarian, Serbian, and other self-governing churches.
Another movement was also beginning to cause turmoil in the church. In the 12th century, Peter Waldo, from Lyons, France, “engaged some scholars to translate the Bible into the langue d’oc [a regional language] of south France. He studied the translation zealously, and concluded that Christians should live like the apostles—without individual property.” (The Age of Faith, by Will Durant) He started a preaching movement that became known as the Waldenses. These rejected the Catholic priesthood, indulgences, purgatory, transubstantiation, and other traditional Catholic practices and beliefs. They spread into other countries. The Council of Toulouse tried to check them in 1229 by banning the possession of Scriptural books. Only books of liturgy were allowed and then only in the dead language of Latin. But more religious division and persecution was yet to come.
Persecution of the Albigenses
Yet another movement got started in the 12th century in the south of France—the Albigenses (also known as Cathari), named after the town of Albi, where they had many followers. They had their own celibate clergy class, who expected to be greeted with reverence. They believed that Jesus spoke figuratively in his last supper when he said of the bread, “This is my body.” (Matthew 26:26, NAB) They rejected the doctrines of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, hellfire, and purgatory. Thus they actively put in doubt the teachings of Rome. Pope Innocent III gave instructions that the Albigenses be persecuted. “If necessary,” he said, “suppress them with the sword.”
A crusade was mounted against the “heretics,” and the Catholic crusaders massacred 20,000 men, women, and children in Béziers, France. After much bloodshed, peace came in 1229, with the Albigenses defeated. The Council of Narbonne “forbade the possession of any part of the Bible by laymen.” The root of the problem for the Catholic Church was evidently the existence of the Bible in the language of the people.
The next step that the church took was to establish the Inquisition, a tribunal set up to suppress heresy. Already a spirit of intolerance possessed the people, who were superstitious and all too willing to lynch and murder “heretics.” The conditions in the 13th century lent themselves to the abuse of power by the church. However, “heretics condemned by the Church were to be delivered to the ‘secular arm’—the local authorities—and burned to death.” (The Age of Faith) By leaving the actual executions to the secular authorities, the church would ostensibly be free of bloodguilt. The Inquisition started an era of religious persecution that resulted in abuses, false and anonymous denunciations, murder, robbery, torture, and the slow death of thousands who dared to believe differently from the church.
Additional Reading: http://pastorrussell.blogspot.com/2009/04/sign-of-cross.html
- Mankind’s Search for God - Published by the WTB&TS in 1990