This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Christianity Before Constantine”, running in the Fall 2021 Term (September – December), and convened by Dr.Matthew Hoskin.
One of the great misconceptions in ecclesiastical history is that Constantine changed everything – either for the better, or for the worse. Constantine is alleged to have established the canon of Scripture, introduced Creeds, stamped out Gnostics, raised up bishops above other clergy, made Christian worship liturgical and introduced pagan/Jewish contaminants such as incense, given Christians their first church buildings (thereby destroying house churches), created room for religious art, made Christians abandon pacifism and become soldiers.
Outside of the pacifism question (which is still hotly debated!), all of these things were, in fact, already settled by the time of Constantine. For example let’s consider the question of the canon of Scripture. The popular notion that not only readers of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code but even many faithful Christians accept is that at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, Constantine (or the bishops) drew up a list of which books of the Bible were “in” (that is, canonical) and which were “out” (or “apocryphal”), casting the latter aside because of their own biases, hunger for power, or version of orthodoxy (although why exactly the canon was settled in its current form usually depends on the perspective of the teller).
However, we must first say that the Council of Nicaea does not talk about the canon of Scripture at all! Its main focus is the disruption in Egypt surrounding Arius, then the date of Easter, and then a variety of different regulatory/disciplinary questions (summed up in the “Canons of Nicaea”). You can read about this in the eyewitness account of Book 3.4-24 of Eusebius’ The Life of Constantine (an eye witness biography), as well as in various places in the works of another Athanasius (another eye witness at Nicea), as well as later accounts in the fifth-century church historians Socrates Scholasticus (Ecclesiastical History, Book 1.8-14) and Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History, Book 1.15-25).
Second, those bishops assembled at Nicaea were all in agreement as to which texts constituted the Bible. That said, it was not until after the council that formal lists (kanones in Greek) started to be drawn up by different bishops and local councils—these are famous lists that emerge in any discussion of the canon, such as that of Athanasius’ Festal Letter of 367 or the Council of Carthage in 397. Curiously, the canon of Pope Innocent I from the early 400s is not often cited, although other, later, western canons are. Nonetheless, the formal acceptance of the canon of Scripture occurred after Constantine—by decades—and it occurred region by region. Everyone ultimately agreed on the 27 books of the New Testament, although the canon as a whole is much larger in the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, with 81 books versus the 66 of Protestants and 77 of Roman Catholics.
So, how did the church get its canon of Scripture? It is not an entirely clear process, for no formal council decided what belonged. At one level, the challenges posed by those such as Marcion who wanted to cut it drastically caused the church to consider what was Scripture, as well as the challenges of the Gnostics who generally accepted the 27 books of the New Testament but wanted at times to supplement them (but not always—not all Gnostic Gospels seem to have been written to be read with the same status as the four that were accepted). As the church grappled with these forces, the question also arose about non-apostolic texts such as the Shepherd of Hermas or First Clement. Organically, over time, the church’s formal and informal structures of authority sifted through these texts and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, determined which were God’s word. Craig D. Allert has argued for a coinherence of authority between the inchoate canon and the rule of faith in his book A High View of Scripture? I would add a third strand to this cord, and that is the authority of local bishops.
This is just one example of the messy reality of Christianity before Constantine, an era that decided so many things that are essential to Christian identity to this day. Therefore, it seems good to study these three centuries! In the Fall 2021 Davenant Hall course “Christianity Before Constantine,” the geographical and chronological journey of the Christian faith from the apostles to the last persecution under Diocletian will be set forth and analysed. Besides looking at the topics mentioned above (the canon of Scripture, creeds, Gnostics, bishops, Christian worship, church buildings vs. house churches, Christian art, pacifism), some other major themes we’ll consider are persecution, schism, the spontaneous expansion of the church, Christology, Trinitarian theology, and ancient biblical exegesis.
Students will encounter first-hand the thoughts of ancient Christians. All readings will be from primary sources alongside the fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea. At the end of the course, students will come away having read and discussed Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, various Gnostic texts, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria, documents of church order, ancient liturgies, and ancient martyr texts.
Dispelling myths, ancient or modern, about Constantine isn’t the only, or even the best, reason to study the first three hundred years of our faith. These centuries are absolutely foundational for everything. These Christians are close in time to the Apostles; they settle the canon of Scripture; they establish norms of prayer and worship that would prevail until the sixteenth century; they work out how best to talk about God both logically and faithfully, seeking to do justice to Scripture, the tradition of the Apostles, God-given reason, and their own experience of the risen Christ at worship and in prayer. Seeing these earliest attempts at articulating Christian theology is extraordinarily useful in reading and analysing later theology as well as in doing theology ourselves.
Furthermore, we live in an age not dissimilar to the pre-Constantinian era. The government mostly does not care about us (ancient persecution was rare, intermittent, and often half-hearted). The culture around us can be socially hostile and is itself religiously and philosophically pluralistic. Moreover, within the church itself we are faced with the rise and emergence of heresies old and new. How ancient Christians lived and worshipped and talked about the things of God is thus timely and relevant.
Finally, besides the apostolic age, this is the era of church history most sought by the Protestant Reformers—an age when Christians were relying on the Holy Spirit in a world without the physical Jesus, without the apostles, and in many cases before the settling of what counted as Scripture. It was an age before the abuses and distortions that were so hot in the sixteenth century. Of course, there is no golden age, and the Reformers knew it! Nonetheless, every age of church history has something important to offer us today, and those are the riches we shall seek in “Christianity Before Constantine.”
Dr. Matthew Hoskin received his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from the University of Edinburgh in 2015. His expertise is in the field of ancient Christianity (Patristics) with a focus on Leo the Great, Christology, and canon law in the fifth century, and he has a background in Classics and research that extends across the Middle Ages. He lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with his wife and children where he is Coordinator of Liturgy and Education at The Urban Abbey (www.urbanabbey.ca) and blogs semi-regularly at http://thepocketscroll.wordpress.com.