Looking over my notes today from my early church history course, I noticed something interesting. It’s nothing new or profound, but it caught my attention anyway. The church’s response to the fall of Rome was weird, in many ways.
I think it’s necessary to lay some background before we move on.
From the founding of Christianity (Pentecost somewhere around 33AD) to 64AD the Christian church enjoyed religious protection, since it was seen by Rome as a Jewish sect. When Rome burnt in 64AD, however, Nero needed someone to blame and so he blamed the Christians.
Nero’s actions set the precedent for persecution of Christians that would last the next few hundred years. Rome was ruled by pagans who hated Christians. From the heart of Rome all the way up to places like Gaul (southern France) Christians were persecuted.
It is important to note that throughout this time period, Christians saw the hand of Satan at work in the Roman Empire, as both he and they sought to destroy Christ’s church.
Skipping ahead a few centuries, we find that in 312AD a Roman Emperor (Constantine) becomes a Christian. This is part of a monumental shift for the way Christianity and Rome came to relate. Though (contrary to popular belief) Constantine did not legislate Christianity, he did legally protect Christians from persecution.
As Christianity gained favour with the upper segments of society (it’s popular to like what the emperor likes), Rome grew in favour with the Christians as well.
Within a few generations, it seems, Christians had forgotten that Rome had for so long killed and persecuted their forefathers in the faith. Now Rome was a friend to them, and they could see it as nothing else.
This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Jerome’s reaction to the fall of Rome. In his writings, he laments the fall of the Roman empire, citing Scriptures originally speaking of Jerusalem, and now using them in reference to Rome! Christians like him wept and lamented that this ‘Christian’ empire could fall.
This is a far cry from the view of Christians who had lived only a few generations before him, who saw Satan at work through the Roman empire.
How could this shift have happened?
It happened because Christians like Jerome were so consumed with what they could see in their own time, that they lost sight of what the scriptures truly do say about kingdoms, empires, and earthly regimes.
Just as a side note, in closing, it must be noted that my personal hero, Augustine, did not fall prey to such a short view. In response to Jerome, Augustine would write letters to him, admonishing him to look past Rome to the City that will never fall. Likewise, against the pagans who said that the fall of Rome meant the fall (and failure!) of Christianity, Augustine wrote the City of God which functions as a theodicy and an apologetic to the philosophers of his day.
What does all this have to do with us and how we view history today, as it unfolds? That’s for another post.