Keyholes into Church History, Part 4: Imperial Baptism

Late in the 3rd century, the Romans divided their immense and unwieldy empire into two portions, the West and the East, each with its own Emperor. A period of political instability and civil war followed soon afterwards, from which the Emperor Constantine emerged triumphant, the sole Emperor of both sides of the Empire.

According to history, Constantine ascribed his victory to the intervention of the Most High God of the Christians, whom he said had appeared to him in a dream before a crucial battle against his rival Maxentius, and exhorted him to inscribe the Greek letters Chi and Rho (the first two letters of the word “Christ”) on his soldiers’ shields. Following his victory, Constantine issued the famous Edict of Milan, which forbade the persecution of Christians, and restored their confiscated properties and rights. Constantine himself confessed Christianity, and the age of Christian legitimacy began.

For some, this is the period in which, despite Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18), the Church “went to hell in a hand basket.” Infected with paganism, legalism and ritualism, the Church “died” for over 1200 years until Martin Luther and the other Reformers resurrected it in the 16th century.

The reality of that period was a little more complicated. Certainly, the Church faced challenges as a result of its “coming of age.” With the known world at its feet and unprecedented freedom and power at its disposal, more than one Christian fell prey to worldly corruption.

However, Eastern Orthodox Christians also see this period as a time when the Church faced for the first time a new opportunity to fulfill the Lord’s command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matt 28:19) Confronted with the baptism of the Roman world, the Church adopted an approach that St. Justin Martyr (ca. 150 A.D.) summed up as follows: “Whatever good has been said of men belongs to us Christians.”

In this view, evangelism meant simply reinterpreting the surrounding culture so as to proclaim the Gospel message. If the pagan image of the shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders was a symbol of the ideal pastoral life, why could it not also depict Christ the Good Shepherd of his people? If the pagan feast of the birth of invincible sun was celebrated on December 25th, why could not Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on the same day, since He is the all-powerful Light of the Father, the Sun of Righteousness? If the Emperor could be depicted ruling over the world, why could Christians not portray Christ in imperial garb, as the one to whom all authority in heaven or on earth has been given?

The Christian adoption of these and other aspects of pagan Rome was not merely a syncretism—the adoption of pagan beliefs along with their own—but an immense cultural baptism in which art, music, architecture, philosophy and all aspects of society was yoked into proclaiming the Advent of Christ. The theological reasoning was simple: just as Christ had taken on and transfigured fallen human life with the life of God, so too could Christians transform human culture with the life of the Holy Spirit. Human life was not to be rejected as terminally depraved, but rather as something to be healed and filled with the power of God. As St. John of Damascus would say over four hundred years later: “Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. God has made nothing that is despicable.”

In the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church, many examples can be found of evangelism through cultural baptism. Most relevant for us is the approach taken by Russian Orthodox missionaries to North America in the 18th century. Monks and priests came to local nations and rather than rejecting their native spirituality out of hand as demonic or sinful, they sought to establish parallels between native religion and Christian teachings. The goal was to speak the uniquely Christian message in a language of native spirituality. At the same time, they translated Christian texts into native languages, even going so far as creating the first written alphabets for the Aleut and Tlingit peoples for that purpose!

Contrast this with the missionaries who started the Residential schools in 19th century Canada, with their legacy of cultural genocide, and we can begin to see the present relevance of Church’s history following Constantine’s conversion. More than anything, this great Christian “coming out” reminds us that the mandate to proclaim the Gospel is not about demonizing “others,” whoever they may be; rather, it is about baptizing them: seeing the good in other cultures, then appropriating and using those good things in such a way that they name and proclaim the ultimate Source of their goodness in Christ.


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