After Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, many of the later Roman emperors, including Constantine, saw Christianity as an ally instead of an enemy. In 313, when the only other emperor was Licinius, Constantine arranged an agreement between the two of them so that Christianity was no longer an illegal religion. This was known as the Edict of Milan. Later, in 323 when Constantine defeated Licinius to become the sole emperor, he made Christianity the preferred religion (which means he still allowed other religions, including emperor worship).
Constantine was not a theologically strong Christian, even waiting to be baptized on his deathbed with the belief that more sins would be covered, but he still had a large impact on the Christian movement. In the short term, the initial permissiveness toward the movement under cooperation with Licinius and the later preference allowed Christians to more openly profess their faith without fears of persecution. Chrisitianity was formerly in the public square in the form of executions, but now it was in the public square in the form of legal discourse.
In the long term, the effects were not so good. Constantine not only allowed Christianity, but he also wanted to govern it and proclaimed himself the bishop of bishops. This led to many decisions regarding the direction Christianity was to legally move in being made by someone who did not know much about Christianity. As an example, in the debate between Arius and Athanasius, Constantine changed his mind multiple times, always siding for the person he felt would bring the most peace among the people. He did not care about orthodox theology as much as he cared about politics and securing his own power. The good part of this incident, though, were the decisions that came out of the Council of Nicea which Constantine organized, regarding the divinity of Christ.
Although there was a bishop in Rome, where Constantine first lived, the idea that someone in Rome was to control the church was born with Constantine’s rule as head bishop. The bishop of Rome, though, was the bishop that was the most geographically close to Constantine so his opinion became elevated amongst the bishops due to this influence upon the emperor. The bishop’s influence became so elevated that when Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople, the Roman bishop was in the position to assume control over all of the other bishops. As the lectures indicate, there were many other factors that led to this and the eventual creation of the papacy, but this one cannot be forgotten.
Contrary to the ease and delight I found in reading Athanasius, I found St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ On God and Christ to be very difficult to get through and had to put the book down numerous times in order to take mental breaks. Although it has been said that Gregory is a prose artist in the original Greek, the English translation loses this appeal and thrusts the work into the realm of virtual incomprehensibility.
The startling discovery was that a reader must read Gregory with the same care that an explosives technician puts into following his recipe for destruction. Just as one wrong combination of ingredients leads to the death of the bomb maker, a normal-paced reading of Gregory leads the reader to intellectual complacency. Without extreme care, the reader finds himself in a vicious circle back where he started having no further understanding of the subject matter than he did before the reading, having only the passage of time to show for the experience.
Even when our mind correctly interprets the puzzle of Gregory’s words, our understanding of the material is still hindered by its contextual ontology. We are faced with the sorry realization that the concepts in Gregory’s time are not the same as concepts in our time and what may seem heretical by our standards were just ways of expressing correct theological interpretations based upon a pre-psychological epistemology. So, even when we finally fully understand Gregory, we don’t. Correct understanding of Gregory seems as simple as trying to swim across a lake of molasses with your hands and feet bound and your waist strapped to either a Yugo or a John Deere tractor, depending on your pre-existent familiarity with early church history.
With all of that being said, I understand that Gregory had a wonderful impact on Christian history and that his writings are works of art in the original language and are difficult to translate for this reason. I believe there is much value in reading Gregory in the translated form however difficult it may be. People do all sorts of bizarre things.
Reading St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation was my first experience with any of the early church fathers. I found this exercise both fun and interesting. As a Christian, and as any “-an” for that matter, it is important to know the history of the faith (or the history of the United States, if one is an Americ”-an”). Through understanding the history of the early church, we can not only gain a better theological understanding but also, as apologetics students, an understanding of the various heresies these founders were confronting and how they overcame them. Responses to early heresies should be on every apologist’s bookshelf as the same heresies keep coming back in different forms. For example, today’s Jehovah’s Witness heresy is a form of Arianism. Early responses to the Arian heresy by church fathers such as Athanasius are critical tools for confronting this cult today.
I found Athanasius’s style very accessible yet convincing. Many classic translated texts seem to be very difficult to comprehend and sometimes much time is needed to find even the key points. I did not have this problem with Athanasius. Key points are repeated many times to further the reader’s understanding. The text is inviting and addicting. I found it difficult to put down.
Throughout the book, Athanasius masterfully illustrates his ideas by presenting many examples and analogies to further simplify the topics for his readers. This provides a useful method to strengthen understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation which, if not explained correctly, could develop into either prose that is too difficult to comprehend or, when oversimplified, could develop into a heresy such as Arianism which Athanasius himself devoted most of his life to refuting. Athanasius walks across this tightrope of presentation like a skilled artist and the reader is left with an exhilarating new understanding of the Incarnation.
Since I am currently interested in learning about the different views regarding the noetic effects of sin and the general struggle of good vs. evil in the world, I enjoyed many of Athanasius’s quotes on the topic. These include §5 “Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits…”, and §11 “How could men be reasonable beings…”. I also enjoyed the example of the painter and the portrait which, although not pertaining to the topics just listed, presents a great illustration of the Incarnation, the main theme of this work.