Theology Thursday - Emperor Constantine on "Vain" & "Unimportant Matters"

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On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful (and drab) characters and institutions. We hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” (Jude 3).

The Emperor Constantine being grieved at the Disturbance of the Churches, sends Hosius the Spaniard to Alexandria, exhorting the Bishop and Arius to Reconciliation and Unity.

WHEN the emperor was made acquainted with these disorders, he was very deeply grieved; and regarding the matter as a personal misfortune, immediately exerted himself to extinguish the conflagration which had been kindled, and sent a letter to Alexander and Arius by a trustworthy person named Hosius, who was bishop of Cordova, in Spain.

The emperor greatly loved this man and held him in the highest estimation. It will not be out of place to introduce here a portion of this letter, the whole of which is given in the life of Constantine by Eusebius.

Victor Constantine Maximum Augustus to Alexander and Arius

I am informed that your present controversy originated thus:

  • When you, Alexander, inquired of your presbyters what each thought on a certain inexplicable passage of the written Word, rather on a subject improper for discussion;
  • and you, Arius, rashly gave expression to a view of the matter such as ought either never to have been conceived, or when suggested to your mind, it became you to bury it in silence.

This dispute having thus been excited among you, communion has been denied; and the most holy people being rent into two factions, have departed from the harmony of the common body.

Wherefore let each one of you, showing consideration for the other, listen to the impartial exhortation of your fellow-servant. And what counsel does he offer? It was neither prudent at first to agitate such a question, nor to reply to such a question when proposed: for the claim of no law demands the investigation of such subjects, but the idle useless talk of leisure occasions them.

And even if they should exist for the sake of exercising our natural faculties, yet we ought to confine them to our own consideration, and not incautiously bring them forth in public assemblies, nor thoughtlessly confide them to the ears of everybody. Indeed how few are capable either of adequately expounding, or even accurately understanding the import of matters so vast and profound!

And even if any one should be considered able to satisfactorily accomplish this, how large a portion of the people would he succeed in convincing? Or who can grapple with the subtleties of such investigations without danger of lapsing into error?

It becomes us therefore on such topics to check loquacity, lest either on account of the weakness of our nature we should be incompetent to explain the subject proposed; or the dull understanding of the audience should make them unable to apprehend clearly what is attempted to be taught: and in the case of one or the other of these failures, the people must be necessarily involved either in blasphemy or schism.

Wherefore let an unguarded question, and an inconsiderate answer, on the part of each of you, procure equal forgiveness from one another. No cause of difference has been started by you bearing on any important precept contained in the Law; nor has any new heresy been introduced by you in connection with the worship of God; but ye both hold one and the same judgment on these points, which is the Creed.

Moreover, while you thus pertinaciously contend with one another about matters of small or scarcely the least importance, it is unsuitable for you to have charge of so many people of God, because you are divided in opinion: and not only is it unbecoming, but it is also believed to be altogether unlawful.

In order to remind you of your duty by an example of an inferior kind, I may say: you are well aware that even the philosophers themselves are united under one sect. Yet they often differ from each other on some parts of their theories: but although they may differ on the very highest branches of science, in order to maintain the unity of their body, they still agree to coalesce.

Now, if this is done amongst them, how much more equitable will it be for you, who have been constituted ministers of the Most High God, to become unanimous with one another in such a religious profession. But let us examine with closer consideration, and deeper attention, what has been already stated.

Is it right on account of insignificant and vain contentions between you about words, that brethren should be set in opposition against brethren; and that the honorable communion should be distracted by unhallowed dissension, through our striving with one another respecting things so unimportant, and by no means essential? These quarrels are vulgar and rather consistent with puerile thoughtlessness, than suitable to the intelligence of priests and prudent men.

We should spontaneously turn aside from the temptations of the devil. The great God and Saviour of us all has extended to all the common light. Under his providence, allow me, his servant, to bring this effort of mine to a successful issue; that by my exhortation, ministry, and earnest admonition, I may lead you, his people, back to unity of communion. For since, as I have said, there is but one faith among you, and one sentiment respecting religion, and since the precept of the law, in all its parts, combines all in one purpose of soul, let not this diversity of opinion, which has excited dissension among you, by any means cause discord and schism, inasmuch as it does not affect the force of the law as a whole.

Now, I say these things, not as compelling you all to see exactly alike on this very insignificant subject of controversy, whatever it may be; since the dignity of the communion may be preserved unaffected, and the same fellowship with all be retained, even though there should exist among you some dissimilarity of sentiment on unimportant matters. For, of course, we do not all desire the same thing in every respect; nor is there one unvarying nature, or standard of judgment in us.

Therefore, in regard to divine providence, let there be one faith, one sentiment, and one covenant of the Godhead: but those minute investigations which ye enter into among yourselves with so much nicety, even if ye should not concur in one judgment in regard to them, should remain within the sphere of your own reflection, kept in the secret recesses of the mind. Let then an ineffable and select bond of general friendship, with faith in the truth, reverence for God, and a devout observance of his law, remain unshaken among you.

Resume mutual friendship and grace; restore to the whole people their accustomed familiar embraces; and do ye yourselves, on the strength of having purified your own souls, again recognize one another. For friendship often becomes sweeter after the removal of animosity. Thus restore to me tranquil days, and nights free from care; that to me also some pleasure in the pure light may be preserved, and a cheerful serenity during the rest of my life: otherwise, I must necessarily groan, and be wholly suffused with tears; neither will the remaining period of my earthly existence be peacefully sustained.

For while the people of God (I speak of my fellow-servants) are severed from one another by so unworthy and injurious a contest, how is it possible for me to maintain my usual equanimity? But in order that you may have some idea of my excessive grief on account of this unhappy difference, listen to what I am about to state.

On my recent arrival at the city of Nicomedia, it was my intention immediately after to proceed into the East: but while I was hastening toward you, and had advanced a considerable distance on my way, intelligence of this affair altogether reversed my purpose, lest I should be obliged to see with my own eyes a condition of things such as I could scarcely bear the report of.

Open to me therefore by your reconciliation henceforth, the way into the East, which ye have obstructed by your contentions against one another: and permit me speedily to behold both you and all the rest of the people rejoicing together; and to express my due thanks to the Divine Being, because of the general harmony and liberty of all parties, accompanied by the cordial utterance of your praise.1

Notes

1 Socrates Scholasticus, “Eccesiastical History,” Book 1, Chapter 7, in NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. A. C. Zenos (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 2:6–7. 

Gospel Centered - ca. 324 A.D.

I find it hilarious that Constantine's initial response to this kerfluffle in Alexandria was to basically say, "Come on, guys! This is complicated stuff; too much for the simple people. This is ivory tower tripe. Get a life and get along why dontcha!?"

He wrote:

Indeed how few are capable either of adequately expounding, or even accurately understanding the import of matters so vast and profound!

And even if any one should be considered able to satisfactorily accomplish this, how large a portion of the people would he succeed in convincing? Or who can grapple with the subtleties of such investigations without danger of lapsing into error?

Constantine even trotted out that most meaningless of statements, "Your agreements outweigh your differences! You guys have so much in common!"

No cause of difference has been started by you bearing on any important precept contained in the Law; nor has any new heresy been introduced by you in connection with the worship of God; but ye both hold one and the same judgment on these points, which is the Creed.

This "very insignificant subject" should be a matter for private reflection. How often have we heard preachers say or write something like this? Too much doctrine will might confuse the people (gasp)!

. . . but those minute investigations which ye enter into among yourselves with so much nicety, even if ye should not concur in one judgment in regard to them, should remain within the sphere of your own reflection, kept in the secret recesses of the mind.

However, Constantine saved his most crushing point for last. He basically said, "This whole thing has made me sad."

For while the people of God (I speak of my fellow-servants) are severed from one another by so unworthy and injurious a contest, how is it possible for me to maintain my usual equanimity?

Interesting stuff.

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.

Very glad....

...that the Council of Nicea didn't become "Elephant Room 0", needless to say....and I can almost excuse Constantine's waffling on the basis of how lethal Roman politics could be.  About what one would expect from a gentleman who got baptized on his deathbed, thinking it would reduce his time in purgatory.  

Although he was an emperor,

Although he was an emperor, he was still a politician.  As his own words reveal, the loyalties of Constantine were not driven by Scripture and the pursuit of truth.  This confirms that politicians are among the worst theologians…and have been for a very long time. 

Good article. Thank you.

 

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8


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