Lesson 11B Preview: Constantine’s Letter to Alexander and Arius; BBC Video “Constantine the Great The Critical Moment”; Rev. Marcelo Souza Audio Lecture “The Christological Controversies”; John Ankerberg on Emperor Constantine

Chapter LXIV.—Constantine’s Letter to Alexander the Bishop, and Arius the Presbyter.

“Victor Constantinus, Maximus Augustus, to Alexander and Arius.

“I call that God to witness, as well I may, who is the helper of my endeavors, and the Preserver of all men, that I had a twofold reason for undertaking that duty which I have now performed.

My design then was, first, to bring the diverse judgments formed by all nations respecting the Deity to a condition, as it were, of settled uniformity; and, secondly, to restore to health the system of the world, then suffering under the malignant power of a grievous distemper. Keeping these objects in view, I sought to accomplish the one by the secret eye of thought, while the other I tried to rectify by the power of military authority. For I was aware that, if I should succeed in establishing, according to my hopes, a common harmony of sentiment among all the servants of God, the general course of affairs would also experience a change correspondent to the pious desires of them all.

Finding, then, that the whole of Africa was pervaded by an intolerable spirit of mad folly, through the influence of those who with heedless frivolity had presumed to rend the religion of the people into diverse sects; I was anxious to check this disorder, and could discover no other remedy equal to the occasion, except in sending some of yourselves to aid in restoring mutual harmony among the disputants, after I had removed that common enemy  [The disputes here mentioned are those between the Catholic Christians and the Donatists, a very violent sect which sprung up in Africa after the persecution by Diocletian.] of mankind who had interposed his lawless sentence for the prohibition of your holy synods.

For since the power of Divine light, and the law of sacred worship, which, proceeding in the first instance, through the favor of God, from the bosom, as it were, of the East, have illumined the world, by their sacred radiance, I naturally believed that you would be the first to promote the salvation of other nations, and resolved with all energy of thought and diligence of enquiry to seek your aid. As soon, therefore, as I had secured my decisive victory and unquestionable triumph over my enemies, my first enquiry was concerning that object which I felt to be of paramount interest and importance.

But, O glorious Providence of God! how deep a wound did not my ears only, but my very heart receive in the report that divisions existed among yourselves more grievous still than those which continued in that country!   [Africa: alluding to the schism of the Donatists] so that you, through whose aid I had hoped to procure a remedy for the errors of others, are in a state which needs healing even more than theirs. And yet, having made a careful enquiry into the origin and foundation of these differences, I find the cause to be of a truly insignificant character, and quite unworthy of such fierce contention. Feeling myself, therefore, compelled to address you in this letter, and to appeal at the same time to your unanimity and sagacity, I call on Divine Providence to assist me in the task, while I interrupt your dissension in the character of a minister of peace. And with reason: for if I might expect, with the help of a higher Power, to be able without difficulty, by a judicious appeal to the pious feelings of those who heard me, to recall them to a better spirit, even though the occasion of the disagreement were a greater one, how can I refrain from promising myself a far easier and more speedy adjustment of this difference, when the cause which hinders general harmony of sentiment is intrinsically trifling and of little moment?

I understand, then, that the origin of the present controversy is this. When you, Alexander, demanded of the presbyters what opinion they severally maintained respecting a certain passage in the Divine law, or rather, I should say, that you asked them something connected with an unprofitable question, then you, Arius, inconsiderately insisted on what ought never to have been conceived at all, or if conceived, should have been buried in profound silence. Hence it was that a dissension arose between you, fellowship was withdrawn, and the holy people, rent into diverse parties, no longer preserved the unity of the one body. Now, therefore, do ye both exhibit an equal degree of forbearance, and receive the advice which your fellow-servant righteously gives. What then is this advice? It was wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded. For those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly intrusted to the general ear. For how very few are there able either accurately to comprehend, or adequately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature? Or, granting that one were fully competent for this, how many people will he convince? Or, who, again, in dealing with questions of such subtle nicety as these, can secure himself against a dangerous declension from the truth? It is incumbent therefore on us in these cases to be sparing of our words, lest, in case we ourselves are unable, through the feebleness of our natural faculties, to give a clear explanation of the subject before us, or, on the other hand, in case the slowness of our hearers’ understandings disables them from arriving at an accurate apprehension of what we say, from one or other of these causes the people be reduced to the alternative either of blasphemy or schism.

Let therefore both the unguarded question and the inconsiderate answer receive your mutual forgiveness. For the cause of your difference has not been any of the leading doctrines or precepts of the Divine law, nor has any new heresy respecting the worship of God arisen among you. You are in truth of one and the same judgment:  you may therefore well join in communion and fellowship.

[“The emperor seems at this time to have had a very imperfect knowledge of the errors of the Arian heresy. After the Council of Nicaea, at which he heard them fully explained, he wrote of them in terms of decisive condemnation in his letter to the Alexandrian church. Neither at this time nor at any time does Constantine seem to have entered very fully into an appreciation of doctrinal niceties. Later he was more than tolerant of semi-Arianism. He seems to have depended a good deal on the “explanations” of others, and to have been led in a somewhat devious path in trying to follow all.”] (Editor and translator is Phillip Schaff, 1819 – 1893)

The video below presents the first of six episodes in the BBC production Constantine the Great The Critical Moment. In this episode we see the event that had a profound impact on Constantine’s religious beliefs and his eventual conversion:

Interested in viewing more of Constantine the Great?

Another Marcelo Souza bonus: click for his audio lecture “The Christological Controversies”

Though this may sound far-fetched, we have contemporaries (think Dan Brown of the Da Vinci Code) who argue that Emperor Constantine “invented” the deity of Christ. John Ankerberg and his guests address this question:

Bible Verses for Reflection: 1 Co 12: 8-11; Matthew 16:21-28; Matthew 17: 1-5

A Quote for Your Consideration: “Thus the term [repentance] denotes: a) contrition, or the knowledge of sin wrought by the Law… this is the meaning of the word in all those passages in which repentance is distinguished from remission of sins… b) contrition and faith, or the entire conversion of man… In the latter sense the term repentance is a synonym of conversion. (John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics, 365).

Questions for discussion:

1. As a Sunday School teacher you have been asked by a participant to address the issue of Constantine “inventing” the deity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea. The participant mentions, ” I have been talking to a Jehovah’s Witness one-on-one. She has argued against the Trinity and used this claim. What should I do to persuade her that 1- Constantine did not do this, and 2- that the Trinity doctrine is true?” Your response?

2. What is Constantine up to when he writes (see above letter), “My design then was, first, to bring the diverse judgments formed by all nations respecting the Deity to a condition, as it were, of settled uniformity; and, secondly, to restore to health the system of the world…”?  Does he have, as we say in modern parlance, a hidden agenda? If so, what might be the public and what might be the cloaked, private motivations?

3. Constantine alludes to the Donatist schism, as the editor Phillip Schaff points out.Who were the Donatists, what did they stand for, and did they get their way? (Click on the preceding link to read a capsule summary of the schism.)

4. Phillip Schaff claims that Constantine was “more than tolerant of semi-Arianism“. What is semi-Arianism and how does it relate to binitarianism?

5. In the eighth century a document called the Donation of Constantine first appeared. In it the newly converted Constantine hands over the temporal rule of “the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy and the Western regions” to Pope Sylvester (314-35) and his successors. The document was denounced by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (980-1002) as a forgery. A 15th century philologist-priest, Lorenzo Valla, later established the document was in fact a forgery. What could the motivation have been for such a forgery? What would Otto III’s motivation be for denouncing it as such? What role did it play in the Great East-West Schism of 1054?

6. “By this sign conquer” What is the historical significance of this phrase for Christianity, according to Rev. Souza? Another question for your next trivia game: How did the first day of the week come to be named “Sunday”? What is the link between this and the issue of December 25th being selected for celebration of Jesus’ birth?

7. Souza cites Adoptionism, Sabellianism, patripassianism, monarchianism, and modalistic monarchianism. This cluster of heresies dealt with variations on similar heretical themes. Can you sort out these theological “options” and give a capsule definition of how each of these deviates from orthodox Christian theology? What was their significance and level of acceptance during the time preceding the Nicene Council? How did they influence the debates at Nicaea?

8. How were sea shanties (i.e., songs for the dock workers) used in Alexandria to erode confidence in the church’s traditional Christology? Who was responsible for this corruption of church teachings?

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