The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Post-Nicene Reversal on Prophetic Interpretation

I. Elevation of Church Produces Fundamental Changes

When the mighty Constantinian revolution had established itself, accompanied by the emperor’s profession of Christianity, and his legal recognition of the church, as well as paganism, as protected by the state-and, in fact, soon to be given preference by the state—there was suggested a wholly new method of understanding the Scripture prophecies concerning the kingdom and reign of Christ, which could scarcely have been conceived before. Just when Constantine was “converted,” or whether indeed he was ever converted, is not the point of present concern. Our interest lies in the effect upon prophetic interpretation of this revolution that turned the stream of human affairs out of all previous channels. PFF1 373.1

This extraordinary situation—the reversal of attitude on the part of the Roman Empire toward the church—was bound to influence profoundly the interpretation of prophecy concerning the advent. So the idea developed that this earth in its present state—not as renovated after Christ’s advent, with its accompanying destruction and purification—is the territory of the prophesied kingdom; that the present dispensation is the time of its realization; and that the establishment of the earthly church by human hands is the mode of fulfillment. Thus it came to be held that the hierarchal rule of the church was actually the predicted kingdom of Christ on earth. PFF1 373.2


With the revolutionary politico-religious triumph of Constantine in the fourth century, and the temporal victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire over paganism, its deadly rival, we enter a distinctly new epoch. 1 This change, occurring during the fourth and fifth centuries, has a definite bearing on the doctrine of the second advent. The Christians, whose number at the beginning of the fourth century Schaff estimates at ten million, constituted one tenth to one twelfth of the empire’s subjects. 2 The scene still centered, geographically, in the Graeco-Roman world, that is, the countries bordering the Mediterranean, but gradually extended to touch the Germanic barbarians. 3 PFF1 374.1

The elevation of the church to prominence and power, with its social and political prestige, produced a fundamental and permanent change, fraught with gravest peril, as the pre-Constantinian martyr church emerged from the catacombs and became the post-Constantinian imperial church. 4 The chastening persecutions which the church had suffered from the pagan world had retarded the prophesied “falling away.” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-8.) But when Constantine, professing conversion, elevated Christianity to the position of the most favored religion of the empire, all the worldly and pagan influences that had already been seeping into the church for more than a century began to burst forth like the pent-up waters of a flood when the restraining barriers give way. PFF1 374.2

For a thousand years an official paganism had flourished in Rome. Its temples were innumerable. The state cult and priesthood were established and endowed by the Roman Government. But in the fourth century this system received its death stroke under Constantine. Christianity, newly liberated from persecution, strangely became first the religion of the emperor and then, about forty years after his death—by the time of Theodosius II-the only recognized religion of the empire. The emperors, however, continued to exercise supreme jurisdiction over the new ecclesiastical order. The official suppression of paganism followed steadily until, within the fourth century, governmental paganism had practically disappeared, and wholly so within the compass of the fifth and sixth centuries. 5 Gibbon says, “The temples of the Roman world were subverted, about sixty years after the conversion of Constantine.” 6 PFF1 374.3


At the beginning of the fourth century the empire had been ruled by four sovereigns-two Augusti (Diocletian and Maximian) and their subordinate Caesars (Constantius Chlorus and Galerius). Galerius, deadly foe of Christianity, influenced Diocletian to issue his dread edicts against the Christians. This brought about the terrible persecution which continued with varying severity from 303 until 313, when Constantine brought toleration. 7 And the subsequent advancement of the Christian church to favor and power constitutes one of the most remarkable political and social revolutions the world has ever seen. 8 PFF1 375.1

The early events in this Constantinian revolution moved swiftly after Diocletian’s abdication in 305 and the death of Constantius, Constantine’s father, in 306. Diocletian’s four-part division of the administration broke down in the scramble for the empire, in which there were at one time as many as six contenders. Constantine ruled the Prefecture of Gaul, including Britain and Spain, after his father’s death, and won sole control of the whole West in 312 by his defeat of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, a victory which he attributed to the aid of the Christian God, whom he had invoked after a supposed vision of a cross in the sky. Then in 313 he issued, jointly with his eastern colleague Licinius, what is commonly called the Edict of Milan, granting liberty of religion to all, but particularly mentioning the Christians. Henceforth he gave preference and prestige to Christianity without, however, renouncing or persecuting paganism. Thus the West enjoyed complete toleration, although Licinius renewed the persecution, in parts of the East, which ended only when Constantine defeated him finally and became the sole emperor in 323 or 324. By this time Constantine personally espoused and openly patronized Christianity, and the sun god and other pagan symbols disappeared from his coinage; yet he was never baptized until just before his death in 337. And he never made Christianity the official religion of the state, although toward the end of his life he showed a tendency toward repressing paganism. 9 PFF1 375.2

Constantine’s legislation early began to favor the Christians. He exempted the clergy from civil duties in 313, abolished various customs and ordinances offensive to the Christians in 315, and about the same time facilitated the emancipation of Christian slaves. In 321 he legalized bequests to Catholic-churches, and issued his famous Sunday law, although the Christian character of this last is rendered rather doubtful by the use of the term “Day of the Sun,” and not Lord’s day, and by the fact that a contemporary ordinance provided for the regular consultation of the pagan haruspex, or soothsayer. A climax was reached, of course, in the imperial authorization of the Council of Nicaea in 325, and the civil enforcement of its creed. 10 Later legislation further regulated and enhanced the power of the church in the state. PFF1 376.1


Pagan Rome had reduced to the yoke of one empire every independent state within reach of its legions, but it never incorporated them into one religion. Despite a multiplicity of local deities, a central bond was lacking through the absence of a common object of worship. Then emperor worship came in from the East. The emperor being the supreme figure of the empire, it was not unnatural for his image to be associated with his genius, or guardian spirit, which came to be worshiped as a mark of patriotism. So temples had been built and sacrifices offered to Caesar for his worship-the only common prop to which the various idolatries could cling. 11 In the beginning of the Christian Era the whole Mediterranean world was under the spell of Chaldean astrology, and various gods were being transformed into manifestations of the sun. In such forms as Mithraism the Oriental pantheistic sun worship spread in the Roman Empire, and in the third century the worship of Sol Invictus as the supreme divinity was set up as the official cult, with the emperor as the personification of the “invincible sun.” 12 PFF1 376.2

Meanwhile the historic life of Jesus and the subsequent spread of Christianity had begun to replace the failing pagan oracles and Oriental mystery cults, and to supply the conscious need of the human heart. To this sublime faith the eyes of man turned wistfully. The greatest obstacle to its progress was not the pagan deities but Caesar. The old idolatries were dying, but Caesar’s altar consummated the system of paganism through political union of the discordant superstitions. By refusing to burn incense to Caesar, Christianity drew the line between the things of God and the things of Caesar. ‘Hence, the emperors, who had tolerated other forms of religion, had no mercy for Christianity. PFF1 377.1

But now, after the worst persecution of all, Constantine had outwardly espoused Christianity and changed the whole scene. He had perceived that Christianity could be the one unifying bond that might hold together an otherwise disintegrating structure. He therefore seized upon it with avidity, and pressed it into service. PFF1 377.2

Constantine, originally a devotee of the sun god Apollo, adopted, as emperor, the dynastic deity Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun.” He may well have thought that a monotheistic sun worship had affinities for monotheistic Christianity. 13 In any case, long after his initial connection with Christianity he retained on his coins, sometimes even in combination with Christian symbols, his figure of the sun god, his invincible guide and protector. 14 PFF1 377.3


We see the same Christian-pagan combination in his famous law of 321 enjoining the observance of the “venerable day of the Sun,” a phrase as applicable and free from offense to pagan worshipers of Apollo and Mithras as to his compromising Christians. 15 PFF1 378.1

“Desiring unity in his troubled empire, Constantine evidently saw in Sunday observance an institution which he could make a point of unification. The Christians were already keeping Sunday. It was being observed by the Mithraists. Constantine met the practices of both popular cults. His law mentions no god, but only ‘heavenly providence.’” 16 PFF1 378.2

Thus Sunday is set apart as the seal of this new union of Christians and pagans. PFF1 378.3

“The same tenacious adherence to the ancient God of light has left its trace, even to our own time, on one of the most sacred and universal of Christian institutions. The retention of the old Pagan name of ‘Dies Soils,’ or ‘Sunday,’ for the weekly Christian festival, is, in great measure, owing to the union of Pagan and Christian sentiment with which the first day of the week was recommended by Constantine to his subjects Pagan and Christian alike, as the ‘venerable day of the Sun.’ His decree, regulating its observance, has been justly called ‘a new era in the history of the Lord’s day.’ It was his mode of harmonizing the discordant religions of the Empire under one common institution.” 17 PFF1 378.4

Possessing no Scriptural basis, and therefore dependent upon the arm of flesh to maintain its authority and to secure its united support, this law needed the combined force of civil and ecclesiastical legislation to ensure its enforcement through the years. PFF1 378.5


Originally, of course, the Christian church existed and operated in complete separation from the state, but it united with the state when the government became friendly. PFF1 379.1

“Separation of the church from the state was the prevailing condition in the early years of the Christian church, both from principle and from necessity. The government was hostile. The church sought to fulfill, in spite of an inimical society, what it considered a divine mission. PFF1 379.2

“Not until the time of Constantine did church and state become united; for the most part they have continued so for sixteen centuries. A union of church and state has been considered the normal relationship in most of Christendom and by the great majority of peoples.” 18 PFF1 379.3

Constantine was, says Flick, “the first representative of that theoretical Christian theocracy which makes the Church and state two sides of God’s government on earth,” 19 an idea worked out by his successors. Of the enforcement of the creed at the Council of Nicaea, Schaff says: PFF1 379.4

“This is the first example of the civil punishment of heresy; and it is the beginning of a long succession of civil persecutions for all departures from the Catholic faith. Before the union of church and state ecclesiastical excommunication was the extreme penalty. Now banishment and afterwards even death were added, because all offences against the church were regarded as at the same time crimes against the state and civil society.” 20 PFF1 379.5

“The State was becoming a kind of Church, and the Church a kind of State. The Emperor preached and summoned councils, called himself, though half in jest, ‘a bishop,` and the bishops had become State officials, who, like the high dignitaries of the Empire, traveled by the imperial courier—service, and frequented the ante-chambers of the palaces in Constantinople. The power of the State was used to the full in order to furnish a Propaganda for the Church, and in return the Church was drawn into the service of the State. Even at this time we find decrees of councils which threaten civil offences with ecclesiastical penalties, and, on the other hand, the bishops were invested with a considerable part of the administration of civil justice.” 21 PFF1 379.6

This period of the church’s history became increasingly marked by the codification of dogma; it was the era of the early great church councils. The lines of “orthodoxy” began to be sharply drawn, freedom of inquiry restricted, and offshoots visited with civil punishment under the “Christian” state-church union. 22 Eusebius’ comparison of Constantine with Moses may have strengthened the already established idea of a Christian theocracy, in imitation of the Mosaic theocracy, based on the government of the church by a human bishopric, with the co-operation of the emperor in civil affairs. 23 Eusebius says in his eulogy of Constantine: PFF1 379.7

“Invested as he is with a semblance of heavenly sovereignty, he directs his gaze above, and frames his earthly government according to the pattern of that Divine original, feeling strength in its conformity to the monarchy of God.” 24 PFF1 380.1

Under the patronage of Constantine and succeeding Christian emperors, new and ornate church buildings were erected, patterned somewhat after a Mosaic type, with an outer court for the uninitiated, the temple proper for the laymen, and the railed-off chancel, with the altar, for the priests only. Eusebius (c. 315) described the new basilica at Tyre as a temple, calling the cloisters the outer court, and the altar the holy of holies. 25 In the West the basilica, or hall of justice, as consecrated for Christian worship, became the rival of the pagan temple. And magnificent churches were erected in many cities. 26 PFF1 380.2


The nature and extent of Constantine’s personal Christianity are matters of dispute, but certain facts may be observed: He did not espouse Christianity because of its teachings. His first step had been the adoption of a quasi-magic symbol from a dream, the monogram of Christ, to which he attributed his victory over Maxentius. He doubtless assumed that his championing of the Christian cause was rewarded by his defeat of Licinius some years later, which gave him control over the whole empire. In that superstitious age such an attitude was quite natural; all men were seeking charms to ensure their happiness in the hereafter, and even the Christians, as we learn from Lactantius, considered the cross a magic sign before which demons fled. 27 PFF1 380.3

Probably, says Coleman, Constantine’s chief idea of Christianity was always that of “a cult whose prayers and whose emblems insured the help of a supreme heavenly power in military conflicts and political crises, and whose rites guaranteed eternal blessedness. Of the inner experiences of Christianity, and of the doctrines of that religion, other than the broadest monotheism, he seems to have had little conception.” 28 Constantine’s attitude made it easy, yes, fashionable, for pagans whose monotheistic leanings led them in the same general direction, to adopt the outward form of Christianity that was promoted by the imperial court. PFF1 381.1

Some examples of this hybrid Christianity are furnished by descriptions of the pagan elements incorporated into the ceremonies at the dedication of Constantine’s new capital, Constantinople, and the statue of Apollo erected in that city, which was said to have been surmounted by the head of Constantine instead of that of the god, with a crown of rays which were nails from the true cross. 29 This statue is an apt symbol of the way in which multitudes could synthesize their supreme being with the Christian’s God, and could easily regard Jesus and Sol Invictus as equivalent symbols of the Deity. 30 PFF1 381.2


When Constantine made the church fashionable, the result was a lowering of standards in proportion to the increase in membership. Schaff says: PFF1 381.3

“The elevation of Christianity as the religion of the state presents also an opposite aspect to our contemplation. It involved great risk of degeneracy to the church.... The christianizing of the state amounted therefore in great measure to a paganizing and secularizing of the church. ... The mass of the Roman empire was baptized only with water, not with the Spirit and fire of the gospel, and it smuggled heathen manners and practices into the sanctuary under a new name.” 31 PFF1 381.4

Cardinal Newman tells us that Constantine introduced many things admittedly of pagan origin. PFF1 382.1

“We are told in various ways by Eusebius, that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own. It is not necessary to go into a subject which the diligence of Protestant writers has made familiar to most of us. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holydays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church.” 32 PFF1 382.2

Unfortunately, this process of adopting pagan elements, which had already begun before Constantine’s “conversion” accelerated it, was to continue long afterward. Christianity gradually became perverted into a strange mixture in which the original gospel elements changed to the point of being virtually unrecognizable in the medieval church. Repentance in time became penance; baptism was transformed into a regenerating rite, sprinkling being substituted for immersion. The Lord’s supper was gradually changed into an atoning sacrifice, offered continually through the mass by an earthly priest, with mediatorial value claimed for both living and dead. The sign of the cross, prayers for the dead, and the veneration of martyrs, 33 all admittedly unscriptural, developed further into the crucifix, purgatory, and saint and image worship. PFF1 382.3