Genesis Of A Church

October 15, 2020 Category: History, Religion


We now turn to the relationship between the presbyters of Rome and the Roman Emperors during the 67-years between the Edict of Milan in 313 and the Edict of Thessalonika in 380.  The former marks the point at which Pauline Christianity was given the imprimatur of the Roman Imperium; though with the Arian treatment of Christology prevailing.  The latter marks the point at which the Roman Catholicism was established as the Empire’s official religion; and thus mandated for the masses.  One might also think of this as the period between:

  • The Council of Nicaea in 325: when an official canon was first designated (sans the Book of Revelation) {17}
  • The Council of Constantinople in 381: when the approval of the full canon was firmly established (replete with the Book Of Revelation)

During the intervening time, the salient feud was between:

  • Conventional Trinitarianism: most notably propounded by Athanasius of Alexandria
  • Arianism: first formally articulated by Arius of Alexandria {16}

Thus to be pro-Athanasius was to be anti-Arian; to be pro-Arian was to be anti-Athanasius.  These two positions would characterize the primary camps vying for doctrinal supremacy during this fraught period.

The former (in concert with Athanasius) was advocated by such figures as Ambrose of Milan, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Ankyra, Marcellus of Ankyra, Eustathius of Antioch, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Alexandria.

The latter was advocated by such figures as Auxentius of Milan, Eusebius of Nikomedia, Lucian of Antioch, Acacius of Caesarea, Demophilus of Constantinople, George of Laodicea, Aëtius of Antioch, Eudoxius of Antioch, and Eunomius of Cyzicus. Later, it was embraced by the Visigoth King, Alaric; and by the Ostrogoth King, Theodoric The Great.

Discord between the Magisterium and the Imperium would mostly occur during this period: the time between the death of Pope Sylvester (who had Arian sympathies) and the ascension of Emperor Theodosius (who had Athanasian sympathies).

As Athanasius’ version of Christianity championed the primacy of the Roman bishopric, it was inevitable that it would–eventually–curry favor with the Imperium.  The Arian theology was not conducive to the consolidation of power.  It held that JoN was subordinate to (rather than the embodiment of) the Abrahamic deity.  Ironically, this was a view that was clearly MORE in keeping with what JoN actually says in the Gospels (canonical and non-).  The problem with this was that it mitigated the deification of JoN–thereby compromising the power of the Church (qua political institution).  Consequently, the Arian “take” undermined the ability of the Roman Church to wield power DIRECTLY on behalf of God.  After all, if JoN was “only” a proxy, and not ONE WITH the godhead, then the Church had less rational for its hidebound sacerdotalism

In order to appreciate the misalignment between church and state that existed following  the Constantine-Sylvester regime, it is necessary to understand the Athanasian agenda.  During most of this critical period, the feud between the Roman presbyters and the presiding Emperors was severe enough that–after having been exiled by Emperor Constantine–Athanasius was exiled four more times: twice by Emperor Constantius II (for a total of almost 14 years between 339 and 362), then by Emperor Julian, then by Emperor Valens (the last Arian Emperor).  Effectively, until 375, “Nicene” Christianity was de-facto Arianism. (!)

Going into the Council of Nicaea, selection of the canonical texts was heavily influenced by the Metropolitan “See” of Palestine (and Bishop of Caesarea from 314-339), Eusebius of Nikomedia, who was Arian.  (Tellingly, Eusebius was the bishop who baptized Emperor Constantine.)  But by the time Roman Catholicism was made the Empire’s official religion in 380, Arianism had been expunged.

Though Athanasius’ preferred version of the creed would prevail (thereby defining the Roman Catholic theology forever more), the irony is that Emperor Constantine’s and Pope Sylvester’s sympathies had been with the Arian version of Christianity (and decidedly against Athanasius).  This fact poses a problem for Catholic apologists.  For what is now the Roman Catholic Church–essentially (if not officially) initiated as it was by Constantine–embraces the version of which Constantine-Sylvester did not approve.

In fact, after the Council of Nicaea, Constantine banished Athanasius to Trier (from 335-337) while embracing the Nicene verdict.  Notably, the canon designated at Nicaea OMITTED “The Book Of Revelation”…to Athanasius’ chagrin.  And Athanasius even became persona non grata during this time, being deposed and excommunicated in 335, pursuant to the first Synod of Tyre.

Of course, Athanasius would have the last laugh.  Let’s review:

First, the pontiffs:  The Arian pope, Sylvester died on the last day of 335–with less than 17 months remaining in Emperor Constantine’s reign.  Following Sylvester, there were three major pontificates:

  • Julius (337-352)
  • Liberius (352-366)
  • Damasus (366-384)

(After Sylvester’s death, Marcus’ pontificate lasted for only 9 months, in 336; and was inconsequential.)

It is important to note that all three of these pontiffs were pro-Athanasius / anti-Arian (unlike Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester).  That is to say: Their position did not align with the (Arian) sympathies of the Emperors who reigned during the 38 years following Constantine.

During the co-rule of Constans in the West and Constantius II in the East, Pope Julius convened the Council of Serdica (Dacia) in an attempt to resolve the issue; but to no avail.  The synod yielded a stalemate even though it was presided over by the pro-Athanasian Bishop of Cordoba, [h]Osius.

Pope Liberius’ sympathies for Athanasius did not sit well with the abiding Arian sympathies of the Roman Imperium.  Liberius’ position greatly displeased Constantius II, eventually entailing–among other things–the installment of anti-pope Felix…and, later, the rise of anti-pope Ursicinus.

In his so-called “Easter Letter” of 367, Athanasius began his crusade to get the ramblings of John of Patmos (“The Book Of Revelation”) into the official canon.  With the Edict of Thessalonika having been issued in 380, the stage was set for Athanasius’ vision to be fully realized.  In retrospect, the motives for making “Christianity” the official State religion–at that particular time–are obvious.  Also obvious are the motives a ruler would have for choosing the particular creed that was chosen.

Though he died in 373, Athanasius’ crusade would prove successful at the first Council of Constantinople–convened by Theodosius in 381.  Athanasius’ machinations (posthumously) yielded yet more fruit at the Council of Rome (convened by Pope Damasus in 382), then at the Synod of Hippo Regius in 393…by which time the ramblings of John of Patmos were afforded the full esteem of holy scripture.

Another of the primary anti-Arian power-brokers was Ambrose of Milan (an ascetic who’s magnum opus was entitled “The Goodness of Death”).  Ambrose ascended to the bishopric of Milan after Pope Damasus excommunicated Auxentius of Milan for being pro-Arian.  (Auxentius had played a big role in the pro-Arian Council of Rimini.)  Ambrose is known for having stated: “To discuss the nature and position of the earth does not help us in our hopes for a life to come.”  Tertullian responded to this in a letter: “For us, curiosity is no longer necessary.”  It comes as no surprise, then, that in 391, the Library of Alexandria (a center of intellectual pursuit and free / critical inquiry) was razed by Christian zealots.

It was Ambrose whom Theodosius appointed to preside over the Council at Aquileia in 381, thereby vanquishing most elements of Arianism from the Empire’s episcopates (most notably: Palladius of Ratiara and Secundianus of Singidunum.)  As could be expected, since Emperor Valentinian II (the last of the Arian emperors) was anti-Athanasius, there was chronic dispute between him and Ambrose.  As it so happened, that dispute would represent the last of the discord between Imperium and Magisterium.  Thereafter, the interests of the political and religious rulers would be brought into alignment so as to unify worldly authority.  No greater betrayal of JoN could have been conceived.  But that was okay; because it was never really about JoN.

Pursuant to the events that took place in the late 370’s and early 380’s, the theological disjuncture between the Imperium and Magisterium would be ameliorated.  By the time Siricius became pope (in late 384), the conventionally Trinitarian (non-Arian) version of the catechism was fully established; its proponents firmly installed in the halls of power.  Siricius’ pontificate would endure for the last sixteen years of the 4th century.  

As it turns out, Siricius primary agenda was ensuring that the church was seen as the necessary intermediary between god and the laity.  He thus put sacerdotalism into overdrive.  It comes as no surprise, then, that he was the first pope to issue “decretals” (a.k.a. “bulls”), as he fashioned himself VICAR of the Christ.  He was also the first pope to adamantly assert the Bishop of Rome’s identity as the Pontifex Maximus–thereby paving the way for Roman Catholic dominion across Europe.  The institutionalization of intercession-ism was complete.

Now, the emperors:  After Constantine died in 337, the Imperium was ruled as follows.  The triad of Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II initially divided sovereignty.  However, the first would die by 340 and the second by 350, leaving pro-Arian Constantius II the sole ruler until he died 361.  Just as Constantine had been, Constantius II was antagonistic to Athanasius, putting him at logger-heads with the (pro-Athanasius) Roman bishopric.

In 355, Emperor Constantius II convened the Synod of Milan, in which the feud between the pro-Arian Imperium and the pro-Athanasius presbyters (notably: Dionysius of Milan, Eusebius of Vercelli, and Lucifer of Cagliari) came to the fore.  In 357-359, the three Councils of Sirmium promoted pro-Arian doctrine (at the pleasure of Constantius II).

After Constantius II, the pro-Arian Emperor Julian ruled for two years.  That was followed by Jovian (for one year), Valentinian (for one month), and then Valens (364-378).  Valens was the last Arian Emperor who’s Arian sympathies would go unchallenged. {21}  When he was killed in a devastating loss to the Goths in a battle at Hadrian-opolis in Thrace c. 378, he was replaced by Theodosius.

Theodosius was, it might be argued, the last Roman emperor to hold the entire empire together.  By the time Theodosius ascended to the throne, it was clear that the Imperium could most benefit from Athanasius’ version of Christianity.  It is no wonder that Theodosius’ sympathies lay with Athanasius; and he was determined to ensure that THAT version of Christianity would be cast in stone.

The rest, as they say, was history.

To understand the environment in which Nicene Christianity gestated, it is important to appreciate how contentious–and protracted–this doctrinal feud was.  As is often the case when religion intersects with politics, ideologues were jockeying for position in the halls of power.  The entire process was a crucible of influence-peddling, and–it is safe to surmise–had little to do with any concern for Truth.

The disputation became so heated that clerics working on behalf of the (Nicene) establishment undertook aggressive smear campaigns–replete with laughably over-the-top invective–against heterodox thinkers.  In the early 370’s, Epiphanius of Salamis composed the “Panarion”, which leveled scurrilous accusations at any denomination that was not Nicene (orthodox).  He used lurid descriptions of heterodox thinkers that were so outlandish as to elicit a chuckle from modern readers.  (They eat fetuses and drink semen for the Eucharist; others drink menstrual blood after having wild orgies!)  Clearly, such tracts are not to be taken as impartial descriptions.  Yet they are instructive in that they show us how vituperative such partisanship was at the time.

Other squabbles seem to have been over minor doctrinal matters–as was the case with the “Meletian” schism.  (For more on the ramification of Christianity into divergent sects over the centuries, see Appendix 3.)

378 was a pivotal year, as a new imperial triad came to power: Gratian (until 383) and his brother, Valentinian II (until 392)…along with Theodosius (until 395; the last 3 years as sole ruler of the Empire).  Would-be usurpers like Magnus Maximus tried yet failed to challenge their authority.  This triad is the regime that would decisively end the Arian influence once and for all–thereby solidifying Athanasius’ vision, which remains to the present day. {5}

These last developments would (finally) align the Imperium with the Magisterium; but not in the manner envisioned by those who’d initially endorsed Christianity.  Indeed, in the late 4th century, the “powers that be” ruled in favor of a version of Nicene Christianity of which Constantine and Sylvester would NOT have approved.  That is the version that endures…even as it had been eschewed during the Council of Nicaea.  This irony is lost on Roman Catholics today. {19}

But who was Athanasius?  He is best described as an conniving, self-serving, religious fanatic…who happened to be obsessed with promoting “The Book Of Revelation” and the “Letter To The Hebrews”.  After having participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325 (where his agenda was foiled), he served as the bishop of Alexandria for 45 years (328-373).  It was in Alexandria that he earned his infamous reputation as a no-holds-barred, scheming prelate.  In his so-called “Easter Letter” of 367, Athanasius began his campaign to get the phantasmagorical ramblings of John of Patmos into the official canon.  With the Edict of Thessalonika in 380, Athanasius’ vision would be fully (posthumously) realized.

Though he died in 373, Athanasius’ crusade would prove successful at the first Council of Constantinople; which was convened by (Athanasian) Emperor Theodosius in 381.  Athanasius’ machinations further yielded fruit at the Council of Rome; which was convened by Pope Damasus in 382…and then at the Synod of Hippo Regius in 393…by which time the Book of Revelation (originally a tract of anti-Roman propaganda) was afforded the full esteem of holy scripture. {18}  This is yet another irony lost on Roman Catholics today.

In 380, the Imperial triad (Emperor Theodosius in conjunction with brothers Gratian and Valentinian II) issued the “Cunctos Populos” (a.k.a. the “Edict of Thessalonika”).  The edict ordered all subjects of the Roman Empire to become adherents of the Nicene version of Christianity–thereby rendering “Roman Catholicism” the official State religion of the Empire.  This measure outlawed Arianism, Gnosticism, and any other version of Christianity.

Pursuant to the Edict of Thessalonika (which effectively rendered the Roman Empire a totalitarian theocracy), the authorities strictly enforced the anointed CNV–often by undertaking draconian measures.  All the while, they took great care to eliminate all competing narratives from history (most notably, Arianism and Gnosticism).  After the chosen Christian narrative had been appropriated by the Empire, the Pauline story was rendered THEIR story.

Also in 380, the second ecumenical council was held.  The “Council of Constantinople” was convened under the long-reigning Pope Damasus during a period of intense division and institutional feuds.  This further entrenched what was deemed the “approved” canon of texts…which, it became increasingly clear, were to be used by the authorities as context for wielding power over the hoi polloi.  

Ergo the eventual inclusion of (and emphasis on) preposterous tracts like “The Book of Revelation”–added to the official canon at the insistence of the notoriously mendacious Athanasius of Alexandria…in spite of the fact that it had been originally been penned as ANTI-Roman propaganda.  The metaphor could be taken as a literal prognostication of Judgement Day; and so came in handy for crowd-control.  (The fire and brimstone proffered by a literal reading of the “Book of Revelation” reminds us that totalitarian regimes control people with FEAR.)

The decision to unequivocally include “The Book of Revelation” in the official canon was later validated at the first Council of Carthage in 397 (under the guidance of another fanatic, Augustine of Hippo).  The result of all this: The modern-day “New Testament”.

We might recall that JoN purportedly stated that the Kingdom of God “is not of this world” (John 18:36).  What he did NOT say was “The Roman Empire will soon embrace my vision. And the authorities will be justified in enforcing it with draconian measures.”  Clearly, neither the Imperium nor the Magisterium embraced JoN’s vision (as articulated in the Gospel accounts).  That the Church now pretends that it did is risible.  What the powers-that-be DID do was concoct their own creed to suit their own purposes; and did so by coopting extant folklore about a Jewish carpenter from Galilee.

When referring to Faith vis a vis the Roman Emperor, JoN is said to have stated unequivocally: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s” (Mark 12:17 and Matthew 22:21).  If he’d meant to notify everyone that the Imperium was to become Christian, then he would not have said what he said. {20}

As we’ve seen, the Empire became Christian in the 4th century.  To suppose that such a development realized the aspirations of “The Way” is nothing short of absurd.  Surely, if Nicene Christianity is what JoN had had in mind, he would have declared that the Emperor would eventually adopt his teachings.  What he did say was markedly different from this.

By the end of the 4th century, the pro-Athanasius camp was retroactively christened the “Nicene” camp…as if that had been the only approved version all along.  Effectively, Christianity had been appropriated to render the Roman Empire a totalitarian theocracy, a precedent that would carry over in fragmented form during the millennium-long “Holy Roman Empire”.  “The Way” was transformed from a humble, communal movement into a theocratic leviathan–replete with top-down authority and the merging of Faith and politics…in direct contradiction to the enjoinders found in the Gospel account.  JoN’s legacy had been appropriated to serve power.

Thereafter, the stifling of independent / critical thinking was standard operating procedure for the Church.  The religion labeled “Christianity” had become despotic through and through.  Ecclesiastical activity was all about keeping ORDER.  “Faith” had come to mean nothing more than acquiescence to the dictates of the Magisterium, with the military might of the Imperium to back it up.  Consequently, the Church would make concerted efforts to quash any/all democratic tendencies and ideas.  It was the perfect recipe for ushering in the Dark Ages. (For more on this point, see Catherine Nixey’s “The Darkening Age”.)

And what of the revisionism that transpired? The archeological record provides us with some clues. In 330, Constantine erected a massive column (originally, with a statue of himself on top, which depicted him in the manner of Apollo–replete with sun crown), decorated with pagan symbols.  It became the center of the Forum of Constantine in Byzantium-cum-Constantinople (what is now Cemberlitas Square in Istanbul).  It was modified by Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Komnenos in the 12th century.  Why?  Because it was too overtly pagan; and so contradicted the contrived historiography of Constantine’s conversion.  The statue of Constantine was replaced by a giant crucifix.  (Even that was short-lived, as Frankish Crusaders destroyed the structure in 1203.)

Other renovations attest to the abrupt transformation of iconography.  In 393, Theodosius revamped Constantine’s Forum Tauri [Forum of the Bull] (what is now Beyazit Square in Istanbul), modifying it to accord with the (newly designated) official religion.  (That was later transplanted by a statue of Anastasius Dicorus c. 506, in the lead-up to the hyper-theocratic Justinian era.)

In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Vatican’s modus operandi was unapologetically antithetical to fostering anything that remotely resembled deliberative / participatory democracy.  Notions of Res Publica and social justice were inimical to the Vatican’s agenda…just as it was inimical to the Roman Emperors.  The symbiosis between church and state was complete…and would endure for the next 14 centuries.

As with the Imperium, the Magisterium’s mantra was: Keep the rabble in line; maintain order.  The primary directive of each pontiff was straight-forward: Ensure everyone accepts whatever is (authoritatively) decreed by the Church: the catechism, the doctrine, the approved texts, etc.  The imposition of authority (i.e. orthodoxy enforced from above) was driven by the chronic suspicion of (and contempt for) science.  Scientific inquiry, scientific argument, scientific method: all such things had to be eradicated at all costs.  The religious establishment was thus compelled to crush all forms of reasoned thinking (read: independent thought) in the name of piety.  Ergo the inauguration of the Dark Ages.

With the chief presbyter in Rome re-conceptualized as THE apostolic Father, the Roman Emperor could then simply delegate (outsource?) the role of “representative of God on Earth” to the new-fangled pontiff…as needed.  He could thereby placate Christian subjects without compromising his own power.  Of course, upon the demise of the “old” Roman Empire in the 5th century, this arrangement would back-fire.  Devolving into a dogmatic quagmire, the empire sunk into the Dark Ages…and eventually disintegrated, leaving behind only the Byzantine Empire in the East.

As Tim Ferris put it: “The old institutions of learning and philosophy, most them already in decline, collapsed under the rising winds of change.” 

In 415, Hypatia, daughter of the last known associate of the library of Alexandria, was murdered by a Christian mob.  An eyewitness reported: “They stripped her stark naked.  They razed the skin and rent the flesh of her body with sharp shell, until the breath departed from her body.  They quartered her body.  They brought her quarters unto a place called Cinaron and burned them to ashes.”  All for what?  For having the audacity to engage in free inquiry.  

It’s safe to say that by this point, Christianity had COMPLETELY departed from the teachings of JoN.  The lesson of not casting the first stone had been successfully excised from the doctrine by the powers that be.  The sine qua non of fealty was compliance and conformity.  Compassion had been rendered anathema.  That the Church’s agenda is remotely in keeping with the salient moral messages of–nor the intentions of–JoN is belied by its the historical record.

Even in the 5th century, the Church continued to experience heated disagreements about the proper Christology–as exemplified by the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon twenty years later.  This continued through the 6th century (with the SECOND Council of Constantinople) and the 7th century (with the THIRD Council of  Constantinople) and the 8th century (with the SECOND Council of Nicaea).

Plato’s Academy in Athens was closed by Emperor Justinian in 529.  Why?  Any thinking conducted outside the church’s strict parameters was forbidden. Christian dominion had become a totalitarian theocracy, whereby the aggressive prosecution of heresy was pursued, and compassion / forbearance (“judge not lest you be judged”) was rendered anathema.

By the time the Holy Roman Empire emerged c. 800, western Europe was simply a conglomerate of kingdoms, the monarchs of which were–to varying degrees and in varying ways–beholden to the Bishop of Rome (a.k.a. the “Papa” of the Church).  The tale was now wagging the dog. A movement that had begun as a socialist commune had now mutated into a fascistic regime. And, irony of all ironies, a movement that had originally championed a Palestinian Jew was now hostile to Beth Israel.  In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued a bull entitled “Cum Nimis Absurdum” which proclaimed: “God has condemned [the Jews] to eternal slavery because of their guilt. [The Jews] show such ingratitude to the Christians as to render them insult for their grace and presume to mastery instead of subjection which beseems them.”  It comes as now surprise, then, that in 1942, when the Nazis issued the Wannsee declaration, it had the imprimatur of the Catholic Church…which continued to commemorate Hitler’s birthday until the end of the Second World War.

The primacy of the Vatican had been established, usurping local political powers as the ultimate basis for sovereignty.  In the advent of the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, such ecclesiastic supremacy would last a millennium…until the Enlightenment inaugurated a new epoch, and bold revolutionaries introduced the world to democracy.

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