Two Christianities (and Islam)

Constantine the Great

From The Edict of Milan (February 313 AD): “Perceiving long ago that religious liberty ought not to be denied, but that it ought to be granted to the judgment and desire of each individual to perform his religious duties according to his own choice, we had given orders that every man, Christians as well as others, should preserve the faith of his own sect and religion.

“When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, came under favorable auspices to Milan and took under consideration everything which pertained to the common good and prosperity, we resolved among other things, or rather first of all, to make such decrees as seemed in many respects for the benefit of every one; namely, such as should preserve reverence and piety toward the deity. We resolved, that is, to grant both to the Christians and to all men freedom to follow the religion which they choose, that whatever heavenly divinity exists may be propitious to us and to all that live under our government.

“We have, therefore, determined, with sound and upright purpose, that liberty is to be denied to no one, to choose and to follow the religious observances of the Christians, but that to each one freedom is to be given to devote his mind to that religion which he may think adapted to himself, in order that the Deity may exhibit to us in all things his accustomed care and favor.

“It was fitting that we should write that this is our pleasure, that those conditions being entirely left out which were contained in our former letter concerning the Christians which was sent to your devotedness, everything that seemed very severe and foreign to our mildness may be annulled, and that now everyone who has the same desire to observe the religion of the Christians may do so without molestation.

“We have resolved to communicate this most fully to your care, in order that you may know that we have granted to these same Christians freedom and full liberty to observe their religion.”  (Translation by Arthur Cushman McGiffert)

Theodosius

From the Codex Theodosianus (March 439 AD): “It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity… The rest, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative.

“No one shall consult a soothsayer, astrologer or diviner.  The perverse pronouncements of augurs and seers must fall silent. … The universal curiosity about divination must be silent forever.  Whosoever refuses obedience to this command shall suffer the penalty of death and be laid low by the avenging sword.

“It is decreed that in all places and all cities the [pagan] temples should be closed at once, and after a general warning, the opportunity of sinning be taken from the wicked. We decree also that we shall cease from making sacrifices. And if anyone has committed such a crime, let him be stricken with the avenging sword. And we decree that the property of the one executed shall be claimed by the city, and that rulers of the provinces be punished in the same way, if they neglect to punish such crimes.”

31 thoughts on “Two Christianities (and Islam)

  1. Pingback: Two Christianities (and Islam) | Alt-Right View

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    • As the Church has long taught: “error has no rights.” The Catholic Faith, being itself of divine nature and foundation, is the earthly locus of all Right and Authority, and always has full rights of free action.

      Thus, the Church has the right to full liberty even when the state is not Catholic. And then again, when the state is Catholic, it has the obligation to defend the Church and to refuse to accord any rights to error.

      This does not mean that there can be no toleration for error; only that error cannot claim toleration by right. Toleration can be shown to error only as a matter of prudential judgment in a given set of circumstances. But the Church must always be given free action by divine right.

      So: it would be hypocritical for the Church to ask for liberty while out of power, and to not show similar tolerance to others while in power, only if the Church claimed that toleration and liberty were absolute goods in and of themselves. She does not make such a claim. The Church claims that She Herself is an absolute good, of divine foundation and authority, and this is why she always has the right to full liberty, while other errors do not have such a right.

      • Error has no rights because error is nothing, and nothing can have no rights. Constantine, not speaking for the Church, but as a conciliatory victor, addressed faith, enjoining zealous pagans in positions of power from abusing those whose convictions differed, slightly, from their own, and mainly in the form of abjurations, such as refusing to participate in the ceremonies of the imperial cult. Christians otherwise adhered to the same fundamental morality as Stoics, Platonists, and Epicureans. When we come to Theodosius at the end of the Fourth Century, we need only alter the statement to say that Stoics, Platonists, and Epicureans (if there were any of the latter remaining – Epicureans seem to have been early converts to Christianity, which best explains their disappearance) adhered to the same fundamental morality as Christians. That would have been partly because they belonged to the same nations as the Christians. They were Greeks, in Justinian’s Eastern domain, and Italians under the governorship of the highly Romanized Goths.

        Constantine seems to me to have had insight into the dignity of the human creature, an insight that I find lacking in Theodosius. Constantine therefore strikes me as much more in the character of a Christian monarch than Theodosius.

        In the same way, Saint Basil of Caesarea, who argued that “pagan letters” should be retained in the curriculum of Christian education, strikes me as more Christian than Docetus, a zealous bishop who argued for the total obliteration of “pagan letters.” Cassiodorus later made the same argument as Basil. Thank God he prevailed. I see a type of Proto-Islam in Theodosius and Justinian and I see this again in Docetus.

  3. Constantine was indeed in power, having defeated his rival in a civil war, hence his reference to the recent Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine attributed his victory to the Christian God, as well as to his German troops, who were largely Christian although of the Arian sect. In that moment of his life, Constantine might be described as a Christianizing, late-Imperial Summodeist. By contrast, Theodosius, his immediate successor Theodosius II, and Justinian simply replicate the persecutorial style of the anti-Christian emperors, like Diocletian, given which it is difficult to think of them as meaningful representatives of Christianity. Paul was a persecutor, and a zealous one, whose conversion entailed his disavowal of persecution, but he did not suddenly begin to harass Jews or Pagans although he sought their conversion.

    Justinian is particularly troubling. His wars all had a religious component, but his religiosity is hard to pin down. He seems originally to have had strong Monophysite leanings, as did his wife Theodora inveterately, but he switched his allegiance to Trinitarian Orthodoxy, possibly for political reasons. Monophysitism, which was prevalent if not dominant in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and most likely in the Arabian Peninsula, and which tended to puritan militancy, has been cited in recent scholarship as the matrix of Islam. Whether or not Justinian was a secret Monophysite by doctrine, his style was Monophysite. I am beginning to see in Justianian’s wars in North Africa, Spain, and Italy – wars which were as devastating as the subsequent Islamic jihad – the prototype of the jihad.

    Theodosius’ rhetoric, with its references to the avenging sword, anticipates the rhetoric of the Koran and of Islamic legal commentary.

    BTW, the earliest mosques are uniformly oriented not to Mecca, but to Palmyra, the seat of the Nabataean or Arab Empire, whose state religion was Monophysite Christianity.

  4. Religions have functionally different modes when they are in diaspora (i.e – having no institutional power, and their followers good health is in the hands of unbelievers), and when they themselves hold institutional power. This is not some gotcha contradiction, but just a general brute fact about religions. It is how Liberals in fundamentally illiberal countries like Brunei can call for freedom of speech, while their more fortunate cousins in the UK can ban freedom of speech altogether.

    Religion underlines the entire worldview upon which a society stands. When this is threatened, the religion acts with hostility towards such aggression, and yes, states emphatic unbelief is always a kind of agression as it is contageous, sowing the seeds of discord among peoples. Religious freedom (understood not merely as a practice of government, but in fact indicative of an entire culture’s attitudes and mores) is possible in empires, but never in nations, for the nation is the society and the society must have a unifying locus, a principle, a common guide on all manner of human interaction and exchange, unspoiled by external influences.

    Christianity has mandate to enforce itself upon the nations it is the locus of, and incorporate belief and religious practice into the functions of the state. What Christianity does not have, which Islam does, is a mandate to spread this dominion to other peoples by the sword with explicit justification through the godhead. This can never be covered by a Christian theory of just war.

    • Mark, will you clarify this, please: “When this is threatened, the religion acts with hostility towards such aggression, and yes, states emphatic unbelief is always a kind of agression as it is contagious, sowing the seeds of discord among peoples.”

  5. Thank you, Mark. The Codex Theodosianus, as I read it,clearly goes after what you call “private unbelief.” I am not so happy with that term, however. The Fourth-Century pagans against whose professions Theodosius legislated were believers in various cults, some of them having a character of extraordinary philosophical refinement, not unbelievers. I have no objection to a law against rites that entail the public slaughter of animals, which would be to me as offensive as it was to a Christian supporter of Theodosius. I agree with you that the state has the prerogative to regulate religion, even to the point of proscribing a religion, but to do so there must be a moral case. It is by no means clear that Fourth-Century pagan practices, such as petitioning Hera to be made fertile on the eve of marriage or making a donation to the orphan fund, which were woven deeply into the fabric-of-life of the Hellenic and Italian nations, should be described as “aggressive.” They were not immoral; they were all-but-Christian. I remain deeply uncertain that Christian morality sanctions the kind of regulation undertaken by Theodosius and later, in the early Sixth Century, by Justinian.

    If the pagans of Theodosius’ reign had been regularly committing massacres in the streets of Constantinople by igniting pots of Greek Fire in restaurants and public squares, then the situation would have been different, and harsh reprisals would have been fully justified. But nothing like this, as far as I can discern, was the case.

    PS. At the Saint Paul’s Parish Annual Festival in Oswego yesterday, the animals were all slaughtered elsewhere before being brought to the parking lot to be grilled. I ate some of them and contributed to the orphan fund.

    • This is slightly different, as here we observe a transition period between two faiths, one an older and incomplete faith, and the other the completed version which comes as a wave into a cove. One could take issue with any small detail of the Christianization of Europe, but these would largely be to take issue with the personal tastes and decisions of long-dead rulers themselves who made judgment calls, rather than more important questions such as what does the Bible teach. Would the same result have been achieved without some of the actions of Theodosius? In all likelihood yes, but it is hard to know for sure.

      As I said, this was a rather unique period in religious history. My comment was more geared towards the situation such as the rise of atheism or even conversions of Occidentals to Islam in the current climate.

      Let me put more of an unbiased sheen to it. I understand fully and completely why Christianity is supressed and harried in Western society. I understand the actions of the Liberal cult which rules over countries such as France where the Church once stood. They are behaving as any religion does when threatened. Christianity threatens Liberalism in all but its most pacified and warped form. My disagreement with Liberalism is not in its supression of Christianity as an operational directive, but the fact that in doing so, it is evil that is supressing virtue, and so different from paganism supressing Christianity. The supression is not the problem, the evil is. Paganism is a far cry from Liberalism, and so we must take each religion case by case. There are few methods I would not endorse to supress Liberalism, to eradicate it. Freedom of religion allows for Liberalism. This cannot be tolerated.

      Religion is to be mandated by the society, taught to children from day 1. The quality of the religion will determine the quality of the child. I contend the best religion is that of the Holy Risen Lord, because it is the full truth.

      • Agreed. Tolerance will never be a virtue. Whatever is good and true in paganism is compatible with the Church, since she’s the ultimate guardian of goodness and truth. To argue otherwise is religious indifferentism. The only problem is sorting out which pre-Christian elements are errors and which aren’t.

  6. Mark writes: “Christianity has mandate to enforce itself upon the nations.”

    Is that so? Can there be, as Theodosius must have believed, a morally valid mandate to impose Christianity? (Assuredly, let me say, there is a morally valid mandate to preach it.) For Constantine, Christianity was a matter of conversion, which was in turn a matter of conscience, or what he calls in the Edict “religious liberty.” Such liberty is always, of course, within limits. I doubt whether Constantine would have sanctioned the Carthaginian Moloch Cult.

    I would say, modifying Mark’s assertion, that, Christianity has a mandate to preach itself to the nations.

    From the Second Century to the Fourth Century, Christianity grew almost entirely by persuasion. A few individuals in the upper echelons of society – emperors like Diocletian and court philosophers like Celsus and Porphyry – castigated Christians and urged or orchestrated their harassment and persecution, but people in general could not have had that mentality. The proof is that, one at a time, over three centuries, they converted, always a voluntary act. Converts raised their children as Christians, but it would be reprehensible to forget that they also raised them as Italians and Hellenes, ethnic dispensations that were (and are) Pre-Christian and, therefore, pagan.

    PS. I’m restating a comment (actually, a question) from earlier in the thread (one or two items back) in order to facilitate replies: Does the best require the eradication of the good? Also, in reference to Jim’s remark, I would like to pose the question – supposing, as Jim says, that “tolerance will never be a virtue” – whether it would follow that intolerance will equally never be a vice? If intolerance were never a vice, what would be the objection to Islam or to Liberalism? Isn’t intolerance an element in their evil?

    I’m especially soliciting Mark: Does the best require the eradication of the good? We live, after all, in an imperfect world.

      • Thank you, Jim. Both liberalism and Islam, which resemble one another in numerous ways, are deliberate, perverse movements away from truth; but Late-Antique Paganism was a sincere movement towards the truth, as St. Augustine testifies in his Confessions, when he describes his initiation in the Neo-Platonic mysteries as the halfway-house on his way to Christian conversion.

        I also reject liberalism and Islam for being untrue, but not solely for being untrue; I reject them in part for being obnoxious, and their intolerance is part of their obnoxiousness. By contrast, Theosophy is untrue, but Theosophists tend to mind their own business, and they are therefore not obnoxious. Ditto for the henotheists who go by the name of Mormons – their scripture is a bad science fiction story but they are model citizens.

        Where do you stand on the question that I posed earlier, whether the institution of the best requires the eradication of the good? Constantine, it seems to me, replies no. Theodosius, without any seeming, replies yes. I’m still with Constantine.

      • Honestly, I pretty much agree with you. “The virtues of the pagans are vices” never made much sense to me. I think much of the culture of the Middle Ages was a flowering of the best of natural paganism under the light of Christianity. One of the Church’s jobs is to preserve the best in cultures. The most most famous modern Sanskrit poem, for a contemporary example, was written by an Indian Catholic.

        And I’d probably rather live next door to Mormons than Muslims, even though Islam is much closer to Christianity. But honestly I’d much rather live in an organic Catholic community. In these days when “Inquisition” is synonymous with “evil” in most peoples minds, I don’t think there’s much danger of sliding into excessive authoritarianism. Calls for more tolerance are usually simply calls for inaction.

    • Mark writes: “Christianity has mandate to enforce itself upon the nations.”

      Actually, he qualified that with the phrase “that it is the locus of, ” going on to further write that Christianity, unlike Islam, has no mandate to enforce itself on nations which do not fall into that category. So he seems to be largely in agreement with what you wrote in reply, Dr. Bertonneau.

      Now, I’m not sure (I think I know, but not sure) how Mark would determine which nations and which not have as their “locus” Christianity. I would be interested to read his answer to that.

      Very interesting discussion, by the way.

  7. First, I think we should separate Church doctrine and even Church political action from the actions of both Constantine and Theodosius, who were individual men; emperors yes, Popes or even bishops no. Constantine or Theodosius making a decree is not the Church making a decree, even if a bishop of the Church signs on. (The Church can accept something without necessarily affirming it.)

    Second, it is my understanding (though I may easily be wrong) that while the Church owes a great debt to Constantine, the business of the orthodoxy of his faith is a little ticklish. He comes off more as a political opportunist than a zealous man. Thus, for example, the Council of Nicea, being called together by the Emperor with the purpose of coming to a working compromise between orthodoxy and Arianism.

    Third, I think it’s clear that the Catholic Church holds herself historically very much in the position described by Aurelius Moner. Quanta Cura and the Summa’s recommendations on the treatment of heretics come to mind. Specifically, in Quanta Cura, Pope Pius IX condemns by name the doctrine of religious liberty:

    ‘For you well know, venerable brethren, that at this time men are found not a few who, applying to civil society the impious and absurd principle of “naturalism,” as they call it, dare to teach that “the best constitution of public society and (also) civil progress altogether require that human society be conducted and governed without regard being had to religion any more than if it did not exist; or, at least, without any distinction being made between the true religion and false ones.” And, against the doctrine of Scripture, of the Church, and of the Holy Fathers, they do not hesitate to assert that “that is the best condition of civil society, in which no duty is recognized, as attached to the civil power, of restraining by enacted penalties, offenders against the Catholic religion, except so far as public peace may require.” From which totally false idea of social government they do not fear to foster that erroneous opinion, most fatal in its effects on the Catholic Church and the salvation of souls, called by Our Predecessor, Gregory XVI, an “insanity,”2 viz., that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed and asserted in every rightly constituted society; and that a right resides in the citizens to an absolute liberty, which should be restrained by no authority whether ecclesiastical or civil, whereby they may be able openly and publicly to manifest and declare any of their ideas whatever, either by word of mouth, by the press, or in any other way.” But, while they rashly affirm this, they do not think and consider that they are preaching “liberty of perdition;”3 and that “if human arguments are always allowed free room for discussion, there will never be wanting men who will dare to resist truth, and to trust in the flowing speech of human wisdom; whereas we know, from the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, how carefully Christian faith and wisdom should avoid this most injurious babbling.” ‘

    Therefore, I think, I come down more on the side of Theodosius than Constantine.

    Further, I am unconvinced (though willing to be convinced) that those pagans practicing at the time of either Constantine or Theodosius were ‘all-but-Christian’. Practicing pagan rites, even in the household rather than the street, even as a sort of superstition, is specifically un-Christian. I see this as a different case from, for example, the Christmas tree, wherein a formerly-pagan tradition is intentionally subordinated to Christ. For one thing, the paganism of their ancestors is too recent.

    Not that I’m convinced Theodosius or Justinian necessarily did the right thing either. There are practical concerns of conversion to consider, for one thing. But I’m not going to rule it out.

  8. “Practicing pagan rites, even in the household rather than the street, even as a sort of superstition, is specifically un-Christian.”

    Just hypothetically, if you will: Supposing that the rites in question involve no gross acts but consist only of pious prayers to whomever the deity is by name, prayers that might be uttered by a Christian with a change of the divine name, and accompanied by the burning of incense before a shrine and the pouring of wine over the same shrine (details that may be found in a multitude of books about Late-Antique Paganism): supposing then that it was only that, would you call it immoral, as well as un-Christian, and would you suppress it in the manner of Theodosius?

    If the house next door to mine went vacant and was resold, and I learned that people with the attitude of Theodosius were moving in, I’d be alarmed, not least because such people would probably be Muslims – or Hillary-type liberals; but if I learned that a family associated with the Orphic cult, whose paterfamilias was a teacher of Neo-Platonism, was moving in, I would be greatly relieved because such people would likely be all-but-Christian.

    Two questions: Is everything that is non-Christian also un-Christian? Is everything that is non-Christian immoral?

  9. To Jim: My sense was also that we were closer in our thinking than the rhetoric of our exchange might have suggested.

  10. Thomas,

    Are you suggesting that Constantine’s approach to religious liberty is more just than that of Theodosius?

    Or are you merely suggesting that Constantine’s approach to religious liberty is more prudent than that of Theodosius?

    • Possibly both, possibly neither, but whether one or the other, that’s not the gist of my argument. I judge the position of Constantine to be more Christian than that of Theodosius. You will have noticed that I began without making an argument. I simply posted what struck me as essential quotations from Constantine’s Edict and essential quotations from the Codex Theodosianus. In an added comment I suggested that what really interested me was the proto-Koranic character of the Codex, but I was open to discussion, and discussion went in another direction, where I was happy to follow.

      • Thanks Thomas,

        Yes, I was asking due to your comment about Constantine’s position seeming to be more Christian. I’m curious in what way you see it as more Christian: in its justice, in its prudence, or in some other capacity?

        My first impression, based on how the combox discussion has gone, is that your position was more along the lines of, “Constantine’s approach to religious liberty is inherently more just than that of Theodosius, thus it is the more Christian approach.” But you hadn’t said that explicitly so that’s why I ask.

        Whether Theodosius’s approach is proto-Koranic is an interesting debate to have, but I think this question is of secondary importance to the question of whether Theodosius’s approach is wrong, which is what you seem to be suggesting by saying it is the less Christian approach.

        What I want to know is why you think Theodosius’s approach is the less Christian one?

  11. It must be a remarkable thing to have a better Christianity than that believed by all the saints and popes between 400 and 1960AD.

    I admit that I also have warmer feelings toward idolatry than did the Old Testament prophets and the Church Fathers. Is that because I’m more broad-minded than they, or because I have a less vivid sense of God’s holiness? It would be rash of me to assume too quickly the former.

    • Bonald: I’m unsure of the rhetorical timbre of your first sentence. Concerning the sentences of the second paragraph, however, Thank you. The Venn diagram of your mentality and mine shows significant overlap. There is even something to respect, and to respect mightily, in idolatry. The idolator feels the necessity of directing his worship to something bigger than he is. In that he is not in error. Aeneas’ penates were idols, but they were also symbols, and to have desecrated them, as presumably Theodosius would have done, would constitute a cultural enormity – a truly wicked act, like dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas. You might well feel the same way about such a possibility, as I do.

  12. Donnie, you write: “What I want to know is why you think Theodosius’s approach is the less Christian one?”

    Constantine’s “religious liberty” is more Christian than Theodosius’ “avenging sword” because the former is more in comportment with the Gospel than the latter, which, in my reading, is not in comportment with the Gospel at all. In Constantine’s dispensation, it remains possible to be addressed by the Paraclete and to respond to the appeal with both volition and commitment. In Theodosius’ dispensation, the motive to respond will be fear of the political power, which threatens one’s life. In that case, the “conversion” will be false, and the sword-wielder, not the one who vocalizes his submission, will be the author of the falsehood. Theodosius pretends to be shocked by the offering of animal-victims on the ancient altars, but he is prepared to victimize whole classes of people, bloodily and lethally. Again, it is Proto-Mohammedan.

  13. Did St. Ambrose have any influence on the Codex I wonder?

    One imperial statement places the state necessarily above all churches… to preserve the ordering toward what is really good of course. The other links kirk and etat as two facets of one social being. Hmmmm…. Quite awful.

    With Belloc I wonder if it would be okay for me to choose my state, instead of my church?

    • Englishmen and Welshmen have recently chosen their state. They might have set a precedent. It will all happen swiftly, before anyone predicts the results, as did the break-up of the Soviet Empire. We look forward to the break-up of the American Empire and the Canadian Empire and the Mexican Empire.

      The Chronology of the Codex fits Ambrose, but in answer to your question, candidly, I know not.

  14. “It is Our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, […]

    What the emperor birthed sanction to here was the doctrine of Apostolic succession. Notice they choose Peter, not Christ, as the foundation of succession of authority. Why? Christ taught plainly against succession. He taught that faith in him is the source. He was the firstborn of an endless priesthood, “without father or mother, without DESCENT…” as it is written in the gospels.

    A homile disproving the doctrine of Apostolic succession is here:

    http://biblezone.net/apostolic-apostasy-the-diversity-of-apostolic-succession-and-orthodoxy-as-a-cover-for-heresy/

    The Apostles tried to force their authority on others who did not follow them. Christ rebuked His Disciples in stark terms. This is why “successionists” never refer to the Lord Himself in trying to promote their “authority.” His priesthood is “without DESCENT…”

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