Can we speak of orthodoxy without speaking of Constantine?

If you have been part of the missional conversation for any length of time then you’ve no doubt you’ve seen Christendom – that ancient notion of a Christian nation – being fairly heavily critiqued. But, have you ever spotted the elephant in the room? The fact that the first Christian empiror, the author of Christendom, was also the sponsor of the Council of Nicea, where that premier document of orthodoxy, the Nicean Creed, was first crafted. So,

Can we deconstruct Christendom without deconstructing orthodoxy?

Do we risk heresy by challenging Constantine?

Having given this some consideration, I say no. For to make such a suggestion is to imply that everything which came before Constantine was heretical, which would make Constantine our Messiah, not Christ. Moreover, church leaders were distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic Christianity way before Constantine, even within the New Testament itself. Nicea did not create orthodoxy, it merely clarified it, as clarifications became more necessary.

To get down to brass tacks, the teaching of the Trinity did not emerge out of nowhere at Nicea. More than a century before, Tertullian was using the words “Trinity”, “person” and “substance” to explain that the Father, Son and Spirit were “one in essence – not one in person”. In fact, the word Trinity was being used as early at 170 AD, by Theophilus of Antioch.

And of course, their teaching was itself rooted in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19 and the blessing of 2 Corinthians 13:14 and other teachings from the New Testament. It was not a burst of imagination and invention, it was the end product of a long process of clarification and contextualization. Imagination was the strength of the gnostics; memory was the strength of the traditionalists; and Nicea drew on memory.
So, the essense of my position is this, if it is possible to speak of Christian orthodoxy prior to Christendom, if it is possible to speak of Christian orthodoxy post-Christendom.

4 thoughts on “Can we speak of orthodoxy without speaking of Constantine?

  1. To me, it seems like the issue is not so much orthodoxy, but the approach to and attitude about orthodoxy. The Christendom-sponsored approach and attitude strikes me as rather authoritarian. The creeds say such and such, so that’s what we must believe. End of story. End of discussion.
    The pre-Christendom approach and attitude seems to be one of dialogue, discussion, and exploration. There was discussion and exploration of the concepts that were later formally expressed in the creeds. There was a sense of explaining where those ideas came from and why they matter. (In this latter, I’d point back to the comments I made on your post about propositional statements of belief.) Instead of being a list of statements that one must believe or be deemed a heretic, orthodoxy becomes a living, vital part of a life of faith.

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  2. Steve, I tend to take the view that Constantine’s legacy was mixed, not that it had no positives. But point taken, we Protestants do tend to use the hrase “Constantinianism” as shorthand for state Christianity in general, whether or not its sins can be directly attributable to Constantine. More problematic in my mind was the slightly later edict of Theodosius I in 391, which prohibited all cults save Christianity. We’re still recovering from it.

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  3. Jared, yes, with such rapid growth and rapid multiculturalization in the early years it was easy for the good news to get lost in translation. Speculative teachings proliferated. This prompted Christian leaders to more clearly articulate first-order issues, which is understandable. But as political influence grew they grew more forceful. And I feel that this led to a betrayal of another kind, a loss of love in practice. I feel that if our truth is about love, we are undone if our truth ever becomes separated from love, or visa versa. So authentic evangelism involves not only preaching love, but doing so in loving ways. This has direct implications for how we approach issues of power and influence.

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