In the summer of 313, Carthage was a city on the edge.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
In 258, the city’s most celebrated bishop, Cyprian, was executed. He had confirmed that which he had taught – a “peculiarly militant” understanding of the faith. Purity was everything, no compromise with evil was acceptable.
So, in 303, when an edict came down for Christians to turn over all of their books of scripture or face death, Africa was at the forefront of resistance. The edict was expanded: make sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who refused were dragged in chains and executed. The time was, perhaps, the most brutal persecution the church in Carthage had endured.
The failure of the authorities to uproot the Church only served to increase the prestige of the Christian leaders who resisted. I think about the handful of examples of such Christian leaders today – those who have resisted the evils of the last two years. A small number, but enough for a remnant.
A question pertinent to our day (albeit, we are not yet facing the same physical persecution…yet):
How, in the wake of a concentrated effort to wipe the Church from the face of Africa, were Christians best to defend the sanctity of their faith?
Into this tempest stepped a new bishop, Donatus. The year was 313. Donatus and his followers could not stand the betrayal by some Christians to turn over their scriptures. These would be known as traditores, surrenderers – those who handed over. They had saved their skins and cost their souls.
Donatus was not the only man, however, who claimed the title as bishop of Carthage. There was also Caecilian, who won the bishopric two years earlier; but his election was contested. He was rumored to have not only turned over scriptures, but to have colluded in the persecution of those who had not.
In the meantime, a civil war in Italy. Constantine and the Milvian Bridge; the vision of the cross in the sky. He won a decisive victory. In 313, he would issue a proclamation giving legal standing to Christianity, yet avoided naming ‘the divinity who sits in heaven.’ Could be the Christian God, could be Apollo. By blurring divisions, he hoped to sow some level of peace.
Constantine would write favorably toward the Church in Carthage, specifically assuring Caecilian of his sympathies for ‘the most holy Catholic Church.’ For this, Donatus was not pleased. A man not interested in compromise, he would write to Constantine, who would offer a hearing in front of bishops in Rome. They found against him, and he lost again upon appeal. For Donatus and his followers, this did not settle the matter.
Constantine grew weary of this division among Christians, exaggerated further when Donatus slipped the guards placed to watch him. These episodes only served to throw the support of Constantine further behind Caecilian.
“What business has the emperor with the church?”, Donatus would write. Constantine, on the other hand, demonstrated that as long as the bishops assented to a unified church, they could rely on his backing. But, as was now clear, there was no formal means by which such unity could be maintained.
Instead, to Constantine’s intense frustration, they insisted in squabbling over issues that seemed better suited to philosophers.
In 324, this frustration would boil over, being alerted to constant debates about the precise nature of Christ:
‘When all this subtle wrangling of yours is over questions of little or no significance, why worry about harmonizing your views? Why not instead consign your differences to the secret custody of your own minds and thoughts?’
Constantine was learning that his questions were, perhaps, naïve. The questions of who Christ had truly been, how He might have been both divine and human, and how to best understand and define the Trinity. How could God be properly worshipped if there was not some agreement on His very nature?
In 325, Constantine would summon the bishops from across the empire – and even beyond. The purpose was to settle on a creed, a statement of belief, proper behaviors for the faithful. The council would be held in Nicaea.
A month of debate ensued. A creed was settled, and twenty canons drawn up. The handful of delegates who dissented were formally banished. But the scope of the event could not be diminished; a declaration of belief that was proclaimed universal:
The sheer number of delegates, drawn from locations ranging from Mesopotamia to Britain, gave to their deliberations a weight that no single bishop or theologian could hope to rival.
Even Origen’s own formula on the nature of the Trinity would be deemed heretical. One man against a council. Yet, this was, as we know, not the end of the matter….
The Donatists were not satisfied. They would strip a Catholic bishop naked and fling him from the top of a tower onto a pile of excrement. They would tie a necklace of dead dogs around another. Or pull the tongue out of a third and cut off his right hand.
“What business has the emperor with the church?” Recall this from Donatus. Decades on from the deaths of both Donatus and Caecilian, the killings would continue and the divisions widen. The sense of moral certitude grew ever more entrenched on both sides.
Throughout Christian history, the yearning to reject a corrupt and contaminated world, to refuse any compromise with it, to aspire to a condition of untainted purity, would repeatedly manifest itself.
Yet, still, a pattern was set in motion. By establishing such a council – not the first, as the Council of Jerusalem around 50 AD is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles – Constantine would take a major step toward the establishment of a universal Church and an institutional practice by which to maintain it.
Which, as we know with the benefit of 1700 years of hindsight and despite the tremendously valuable outcomes of the various subsequent councils, also would bring its own baggage.