THE CHURCH CHRIST FOUNDED – Christianity in the Fourth Century

【圖片說明】The baptism of Constantine

– Joni Cheng

The fourth century is one of the most pivotal of centuries for the Church.  Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, which was also called the Constantinian turning point, set in motion many developments in Christianity and the Church that were hindered under Christian persecution in the second and the third century.  Not only were the Romans now tolerating Christianity and the Church, it was dramatically turned from being persecuted to privileged, having positive support by the Roman government. Christianity enjoyed freedom in practicing religion publicly, the freedom to write, explore and settle controversies and different issues. 

All these created a favorable setting for the flourishing of the monastic life – one of the major developments in Church history during the fourth century.  The development of religious life in this period is often referred to as the Golden Age of the Religious Life.  During this time, there were some great personages, i.e. St Anthony the Hermit, the father and most illustrious representative of early monasticism; Pachomius, the great founder of cenobitic monasticism; St Basil, a great founder of religious houses and congregations, author of the monastic rule.   Much of religious life took shape in the fourth century.  The rule of Saint Benedict that came later in the next century also owed a great deal to these fourth century ascetics who were pioneers in the religious life.

However, there was also a downside to Constantine’s turning point. It actually made becoming Christian advantageous from a secular perspective.  Hence, there were many ordinary people becoming Christians for the wrong reasons, i.e. seeking advancement in the church as priests and bishops for worldly reasons, such as escape from serving in the military, or having the exercise of authority that comes with the episcopacy, or even tax breaks, financial advantages, or cultural advantages. This created other related problems such as corruption among the clergy.  All these disadvantages to Constantine’s conversion led to the profound secularization of the Church that caused a lukewarmness among many of the laity who were still half pagan, converted for cultural reasons or for the wrong reasons. 

It was no accident that in the history of the Church, the times of corruption and mediocrity turned into occasions for growth and outstanding holiness.  Though the Church was suffering all kinds of problems at the time, the Catholic counter reform witnessed an explosion in personal holiness and in religious life which served as the fundamental foundation of new orders.

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