Christianity did not become Rome's state religion under Constantine. While Constantine held Christian convictions he remained titular head of all Roman religion.
How did Christianity ultimately become the Empire's official religion? Such recognition can not be divorced from the clergy's rising power. When Christianity grew, the "cream of the crop" rose to the top. These men set the climate for development for many years. Their leadership certainly set the tone for the fifth century. This page looks at just three of these important leaders.
I. Ambrose (340?-398)
Ambrose was born in Trier, Gaul, to a Prefect or high magistrate (the title had taken on a new caste). Trained as a politician, Ambrose became provincial governor of northern Italy stationed in Milan.
In 374, the only western Arian bishop died in Milan. Most Christians desired an orthodox man to replace him but Arian believers refused to give up power easily. Fights broke out which developed into full-blown riots. At least 130 people died in the rioting. Ambrose sent in troops to restore order. Much to Ambrose's surprise, someone suggested he become Bishop of Milan and the church elected him even though he was not even a Christian. Both factions recognized Ambrose as a good man and their decision reflected a willingness to accept his leadership. Church leaders immersed Ambrose the next Sunday and he immediately went through all the church offices--christening, ordination to the diaconate, ordination to the priesthood and then ordination as Bishop.
Ambrose filled the office with dignity and demonstrated excellent statesmanship. He adopted a simple lifestyle and avoided all the trappings usually associated with the office of Bishop. In fact, he gave all his money to the poor.
During Ambrose's ministry we identify two important rulers: Valentinian II and Theodosius. After Constantine's death, Constantine's two sons divided up the Empire. The Empire remained divided up to Theodosius except for a brief period under Julian the Apostate. Milan, Ambrose's town, served as western imperial headquarters most of that time. Ambrose remained a powerful leader. Several events illustrate his power and authority.
Valentinian II ruled as a figurehead for Justina, the real power behind the throne. Justina held to Arian Christianity along with a significant number of Gothic soldiers. Ambrose, however, enforced a strict Nicene theology. Justina quickly grew tired of Nicene sermons and tried to acquire a small nearby chapel for Arian services. She sent soldiers to secure the chapel bit when they arrived they discovered Ambrose and a "sit-in." Justina tried starving them out, but other orthodox believers smuggled in food. To while away the time, Ambrose organized the demonstrators into an antiphonal choir and they sang Nicene songs, much to Justina's consternation. Ultimately Justina backed down. Her surrender resulted in a corresponding increase in the clergy's prestige and power.
Ten years later the Roman Senate requested that Valentinian II restore their "Altar of Victory." Valentinian considered fulfilling the request until Ambrose appeared. Ambrose pointed out that it would be inconsistent for a Christian ruler to return a pagan altar. Valentinian agreed and refused the altar. Again Ambrose's prestige rose substantially.
In 388, during Theodosius's reign, a Christian mob in the Empire's eastern half burned down a synagogue. Outraged, the provincial governor ordered the church's bishop to rebuild the synagogue. The bishop appealed to Theodosius. Ambrose told Theodosius that if he upheld the governor's demand he would be refused communion. Theodosius prudently sided with the bishop. Ambrose's prestige climbed again.
In 390, mob violence broke out in Thessalonica. Theodosius, sought to teach the mob a lesson, over reacted and sent troops to squash the disturbances. Once the troops were on the way Theodosius realized the troops would incite even greater violence and he countermanded his orders. Before the new orders reached the army's officers 3,000 citizens died. At church Ambrose stopped the services; he told Theodosius they would not continue until he repented for killing Thessalonian Christians. Theodosius stormed out of the service in anger and Ambrose continued the services. Theodosius, virtually excommunicated, held out for eight months before he appeared on the church's steps begging Ambrose's forgiveness. Here we see, for the first time, an Emperor kneeling before religious authority. With Theodosius's humbling, Ambrose's power came to its apex. In February, 391 Theodosius prohibited all pagan worship. This act essentially recognized Christianity as Rome's state religion.
II. Augustine (354-430)
While Ambrose increased the clergy's prestige and power politically, Augustine increased it intellectually and theologically. Historians generally agree that Augustine is the most theologically influential churchman during the Middle Ages.
Augustine was born November 13, 354 in Tagaste, Algeria to Monica and Patricius. Catholicism considers Monica, a highly devoted Christian, a saint. She was a somewhat superstitious Christian. She venerated relics and other "holy" items. A heathen, Patricius became a catecheumen during Augustine's teen years and submitted to clinical baptism prior to his death.
The family sacrificed to send Augustine off to Madura and Carthage for education. While in Carthage Augustine, who was 17-years-old, faced tremendous temptations. At the time Carthage was a moral cesspool and Augustine fit right in. He took a mistress who bore him a son, Adeodatus. This woman remained with him 14 years.
As often happened, Augustine rebelled against his mother's brand of Christianity and looked for something new and different. After studying two years in Carthage, Augustine became a Manichean dualist spending nine years in that sect. Throughout the remainder of his life Manichean patterns marked his thinking.
After leaving the university, Augustine taught at Tagaste and in Carthage. Augustine found Carthaginian students undisciplined and determined to go to Rome where he heard students were more disciplined. Monica objected, but Augustine went to Rome anyway. Roman students proved more disciplined but they had other problems. In those days students paid their professors directly for courses taken. When payments came due the students simply changed teachers. Augustine then moved on to Milan where he hoped to find paying disciplined students.
Monica followed her son to Italy and caught up to him in Milan. During her stay with Augustine, she became infatuated with Ambrose's teaching. She begged Augustine to go hear Ambrose. Augustine finally did so, then returned again and again finding answers to his religious questions. Monica also hoped see Augustine marry. She arranged a betrothal to a 10-year-old (he was 32 at this time) and Augustine agreed to marry her when she turned 12. He sent his mistress back to Africa where she entered a nunnery. After a week or two of continence Augustine took another mistress saying, "Give me chastity, but not yet!"
One day, while in a garden with a friend, Augustine hears the words, "Take up and read; take up and read." He opened to Romans 13:13-14 and what he read profoundly affected him. Ambrose subsequently immersed Augustine and Adeodatus on Easter, 387.
Following his conversion, Augustine returned to Africa. Monica died during the return trip and Adeodatus died just two years later. During a stopover in Hippo, the church's bishop persuaded Augustine to remain as his assistant. Augustine became a presbyter in 391 and assistant Bishop in 395. In 396, the Bishop died and Augustine moved up. Augustine's reputation suited him for a much larger see, maybe even the see of Carthage. It is important to note, however, that at this time, the church still held to the concept of one lifetime bishopric.
During Augustine's life he confronted two major controversies. He wrote boldly against Donatism. In one of his presentations he uses the term "one, holy, apostolic church" referring to orthodox Christianity. He argued that Donatists are not apostolic, not Catholic because they do not exist outside of North Africa and they are certainly no holier than Catholics.
The second controversy raged around Pelagius, a British Monk who rejected Augustine's theological views. Augustine held that man was totally depraved and that it was "not possible not to sin" (non posse, non pecare). Augustine's own life influenced his thinking here. Augustine believed himself to be so "lost," darkened in sin that, apart from God's divine illumination and effort, he would be damned.
Pelagius took the opposite view. He said man was born sinless and can remain sinless. In fact, he argued, some actually have. The church branded Pelagius a heretic and the Council of Orange (529) officially accepted a form of the Augustinian position. The council accepted Augustine's doctrine of the predestination of the elect but rejected his concept of the predestination of the damned.
III. Jerome (c. 340-420)
Ambrose was the politician, Augustine the theologian and Jerome the biblical scholar.
Jerome was born about 340 in Dalmatia, what is now Yugoslavia, and educated at Trier and Rome in the classics. Contemporaries personify Jerome as a "passionate Christian" who founded an ascetic brotherhood. Some who knew him well said he possessed a sour personality. He spent some time in an Antiochene monastery where he was ordained a priest. By 382 he was in Rome serving as the Roman Bishop's secretary.
Jerome adopted rather strict ascetic practices in reaction to the moral conditions around him. Shocked by the practice of concubinage among Christians, even the clergy, he came to believe that Christian monks were the only true Christians. As a result, he boldly attacked the secular clergy for their lusty living, luxurious property and pride. To get away from it all, he retired to a private cell where he spent 34 years in study. During this period Jerome translated the Bible from the Greek to Latin producing the Vulgate version, Roman Catholicism's standard version. Other translations, including the King James Version, owe much to that work.
Christianity continued to grow unabated. It is now the state religion. Influential men rose to the top. These men shaped society politically, theologically and intellectually. The church has "come into its own."
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