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§ 25. The Edicts of Toleration. a.d. 311–313.
See Lit. in § 24, especially Keim, and Mason (Persecution of Diocletian, pp. 299 and 326 sqq.)
This persecution was the last desperate struggle of Roman heathenism for its life. It was the crisis of utter extinction or absolute supremacy for each of the two religions. At the close of the contest the old Roman state religion was exhausted. Diocletian retired into private life in 305, under the curse of the Christians; he found greater pleasure in planting cabbages at Salona in his native Dalmatia, than in governing a vast empire, but his peace was disturbed by the tragical misfortunes of his wife and daughter, and in 313, when all the achievements of his reign were destroyed, he destroyed himself.
Galerius, the real author of the persecution, brought to reflection by a terrible disease, put an end to the slaughter shortly before his death, by a remarkable edict of toleration, which he issued from Nicomedia in 311, in connexion with Constantine and Licinius. In that document he declared, that the purpose of reclaiming the Christians from their wilful innovation and the multitude of their sects to the laws and discipline of the, Roman state, was not accomplished; and that he would now grant them permission to hold their religious assemblies provided they disturbed not the order of the state. To this he added in conclusion the significant instruction that the Christians, "after this manifestation of grace, should pray to their God for the welfare of the emperors, of the state, and of themselves, that the state might prosper in every respect, and that they might live quietly in their homes."5656 M. de Broglie (L’Église et l’Empire, I. 182) well characterizes this manifesto: "Singulier document, moitié insolent, moitié suppliant, qui commence par insulter chrétiens et finit par leur demander de prier leur maÎ tre pour lui." Mason (1. c. p. 299): "The dying emperor shows no penitence, makes no confession, except his impotence. He wishes to dupe and outwit the angry Christ, by pretending to be not a persecutor but a reformer. With a curse, he dashes his edict of toleration in the church’s face, and hopes superstitiously that it will win him indemnity."5
This edict virtually closes the period of persecution in the Roman empire.
For a short time Maximin, whom Eusebius calls "the chief of tyrants," continued in every way to oppress and vex the church in the East, and the cruel pagan Maxentius (a son of Maximian and son-in-law of Galerius) did the same in Italy.
But the young Constantine, who hailed from the far West, had already, in 306, become emperor of Gaul, Spain, and Britain. He had been brought up at the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia (like Moses at the court of Pharaoh) and destined for his successor, but fled from the intrigues of Galerius to Britain, and was appointed by his father and proclaimed by the army as his successor. He crossed the Alps, and under the banner of the cross, he conquered Maxentius at the Milvian bridge near Rome, and the heathen tyrant perished with his army of veterans in the waters of the Tiber, Oct. 27, 312. A few months afterwards Constantine met at Milan with his co-regent and brother-in-law, Licinius, and issued a new edict of toleration (313), to which Maximin also, shortly before his suicide (313), was compelled to give his consent at Nicomedia.5757 It is usually stated (also by Keim, l.c., Gieseler, Baur, vol. I.. 454 sqq.), that Constantine and Licinius issued two edicts of toleration, one in the year 312, and one from Milan in 313, since the last refers to a previous edict, but the reference seems to be to directions now lost for officials which accompanied the edict of Galerius (311), of which Constantine was a co-signatory. There is no edict of 312. See Zahn and especially Mason (p. 328 sq.), also Uhlhorn (Conflict, etc., p. 497, Engl. translation).6 The second edict went beyond the first of 311; it was a decisive step from hostile neutrality to friendly neutrality and protection, and prepared the way for the legal recognition of Christianity, as the religion of the empire. It ordered the full restoration of all confiscated church property to the Corpus Christianorum, at the expense of the imperial treasury, and directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy, so that peace may be fully established and the continuance of the Divine favor secured to the emperors and their subjects.
This was the first proclamation of the great principle that every man had a right to choose his religion according to the dictates of his own conscience and honest conviction, without compulsion and interference from the government.5858 "Ut daremus et Christianis et omnibus liberam potestatem sequendi religionem, quam quiscunque voluisset." See Euseb. H. X. 5; Lactant. De Mort. Pers. c. 48. Mason (p. 327) says of the Edict of Milan: "It is the very first announcement of that doctrine which is now regarded as the mark and principle of civilization, the foundation of solid liberty, the characteristic of modern politics. In vigorous and trenchant sentences it sets forth perfect freedom of conscience, the unfettered choice of religion."7 Religion is worth nothing except as an act of freedom. A forced religion is no religion at all. Unfortunately, the successors of Constantine from the time of Theodosius the Great (383–395) enforced the Christian religion to the exclusion of every other; and not only so, but they enforced orthodoxy to the exclusion of every form of dissent, which was punished as a crime against the state.
Paganism made another spasmodic effort. Licinius fell out with Constantine and renewed the persecution for a short time in the East, but he was defeated in 323, and Constantine became sole ruler of the empire. He openly protected and favored the church, without forbidding idolatry, and upon the whole remained true to his policy of protective toleration till his death (337). This was enough for the success of the church, which had all the vitality and energy of a victorious power; while heathenism was fast decaying at its root.
With Constantine, therefore, the last of the heathen, the first of the Christian, emperors, a new period begins. The church ascends the throne of the Caesars under the banner of the once despised, now honored and triumphant cross, and gives new vigor and lustre to the hoary empire of Rome. This sudden political and social revolution seems marvellous; and yet it was only the legitimate result of the intellectual and moral revolution which Christianity, since the second century, had silently and imperceptibly wrought in public opinion. The very violence of the Diocletian persecution betrayed the inner weakness of heathenism. The Christian minority with its ideas already controlled the deeper current of history. Constantine, as a sagacious statesman, saw the signs of the times and followed them. The motto of his policy is well symbolized in his military standard with the inscription: "Hoc signo vinces."5959 For a fuller account of Constantine and his relation to the Church. see the next volume.8
What a contrast between Nero, the first imperial persecutor, riding in a chariot among Christian martyrs as burning torches in his gardens, and Constantine, seated in the Council of Nicaea among three hundred and eighteen bishops (some of whom—as the blinded Confessor Paphnutius, Paul of Neocaesarea, and the ascetics from Upper Egypt clothed in wild raiment—wore the insignia of torture on their maimed and crippled bodies), and giving the highest sanction of civil authority to the decree of the eternal deity of the once crucified Jesus of Nazareth! Such a revolution the world has never seen before or since, except the silent, spiritual, and moral reformation wrought by Christianity itself at its introduction in the first, and at its revival in the sixteenth century.
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