CONCERNS FOR THE UNITY OF FAITH
The new freedom that came with the proclamation of the Edict of Milan
(313 AD) in no way brought about a sense of unity and community into the
Church. On the contrary, as the Christian groups no longer had to concern
themselves with self-protection from persecution, they had more time to
occupy themselves with the meanings and interpretations of the Christian
message. This period of time, which on the whole meant peace on the political
plane, inaugurated a difficult era of tensions in faith stances from various
A central preoccupation of the age was with the mystery of the integration
of the human and divine realities within Christ. Philosophy began to intrude
on theological interpretations, as deeper clarity was sought into the meaning
of Jesus' life, words and actions. What did it mean when Jesus said, "The
Father is greater than I" (Jn. 14:28)? How was Jesus' own knowledge
and equality perceived in relation to his incarnate divinity and the Trinity
when he admits that he is not privy to information that only the Father
knows (Mk. 13:32)? What were the meanings behind Jesus' cry of isolation
and abandonment on the cross - "My God, my God, why have you abandoned
me!" (Mk. 15:34; Mt. 27:46)? Was Jesus only a man? Was he really the
only begotten incarnate son of God? How can the unity between "true
man and true God" be reconciled in Christ? Had the incarnate son of
God only one will - i.e. a divine will and nature? How did the man Jesus
understand his own divinity and godliness?
These were among the questions that caused division and dissent within
Constantinian christendom. Opposing answers, responses and thesies were
promoted so that unity could not be a reality. It seemed that the Christian
community which had survived two centuries of bitter persecution would be
rendered apart and destroyed through these theological confrontations.
It is fascinating to note how this inner-Church conflict was resolved.
The early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea praises the vigor with which
Emperor Constantine quickly realized that a semblance of order and stability
was paramount in the Church if his political control was to be maintained.
As protector of the Church Constantine was instrumental in convening the
Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD.
In the next 125 years four important councils were to be convened
which determined resolutions to christological problems. They must be seen
as imperative in promoting a sense of Christian unity in faith, as well
as aiding the political stability of a vastly expanding empire.
You may wish to explore these councils more fully in your own private
readings. You will find that Constantine, and later his successors, enforced
and defended Christianity even to the point of persecuting those forces
that stood against it. Through the resolution of these politico-religious
conflicts the bond between Church and State was inextricably drawn together.
Constantine had realised that the unity of the Empire was best protected
by protecting and promoting a common religion throughout that empire.
Let us briefly look at the Arian conflict. Arius was presented as
teaching that Jesus came from the Father as a creation of God, and he was
strongly refuted by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. Although Arius
believed that Christ was the Word of God, incarnate in human form, and divine,
nevertheless Christ was subordinate to God the Father; he denied that the
Son had the same nature and substance as God. The bishop of Alexandria however
insisted that Christ was of the same nature and substance as God. The bitter
theological struggle threatened to destroy the delicate balance within the
Church until Constantine intervened and commanded the collected bishops
at Nicaea to repudiate this teaching as a heresy. The Council of Nicaea
finally resolved that
We believe in....one Lord Jesus Christ, The only begotten Son
of God, Begotten of the Father before all Ages Light of Light, true God
of true God, Begotten not made of one substance with the Father...
Later within the fourth century, three men - Basil, his brother Gregory
of Nyssa and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus, had a paramount influence
on determining what was to be considered "orthodox teaching" in
the Church, particularly in relation to teachings on the trinitarian nature
of the Christian God. Basil strongly asserted the divinity of the Holy Spirit;
Gregory of Nyssa taught that true knowledge of the Trinity comes through
scripture and tradition. Finally at the Council of Constantinople in 381
the Spirit was described as "the Lord, the giver of life, who with
the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified."
It is important to note that the first seven ecumenical councils of
the Church took place in the predominantly Greek-speaking world. Byzantine
thought and philosophy permeated the conceptual framework within which Christian
theology was developed. The mysteries of faith became objects of philosophical
debate, investigation and interpretation. A systematization of faith into
precise dogmas, teachings, rules, and beliefs which would be accepted and
defended by the universal Church was inevitable. Still, lest my comments
give the impression that the theology of this era quickly became theoretical,
abstract, and isolated, may I hasten to add that the greatest incentive
was a pastoral one. Most of the influential theologians of the 4th and 5th
century were bishops who placed heavy accent on the caring of their dioceses.
Theological resolutions were seen not in abstract, but as an aid to strengthen
the faith-stance of the general Christian community. It was in this light
that John Chrysostom in the late 5th century placed emphasis on the Church
as a Mystical Communion and stated that the eucharistic bread and wine actually
constituted the body and blood of Christ slain at the altar. John Chrysostom
(c.347 - 407 AD) was one of the greatest eastern theologians. As bishop
of Antioch for sixteen years, he was renowned as an eloquent speaker and
proclaimer of the Gospel.
In 451 a further council in Chalcedon "resolved" the controversies
surrounding the definition of the "person of Christ". In the final
edict we read : "We confess one and the same, our lord Jesus Christ,
the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly god and
truly man, the same of a rational soul and body..."(Wiles, 1981: 79).
Later in the western Church, Augustine and Ambrose were to define the Trinity
in the same manner as the Cappadocian Fathers. Both of these early Fathers
of the Church made an outstanding contribution to the development of Christian
theology and exerted a commanding influence on all the theological questions
of their age.