Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, September 22, 2006

Nato comments:

Christianity, like many other faiths, grew throughout the fairly tolerant Roman Empire until it (unlike the others) supplanted the original Roman pantheon by fiat. Declared, of course, by temporal authority.

At the risk of splitting hairs, this is a bit misleading.

It is true that the Roman Empire was fairly tolerant towards faiths other than Christianity (and to some extent Judaism), but its habit of feeding Christians to the lions makes seriously mars its record of "tolerance."

To say that Christianity supplanted the Roman pantheon "by fiat" is also a bit strange. First, it sounds like it was the "fiat" of the Christians that brought about the change, whereas actually the "fiat" came from Constantine, who was probably sincere (there's a touching conversion story, anyway) but in part probably wanted to instrumentalize this powerful institution, the Christian Church, in order to shore up a waning Roman Empire.

Second, ancient Greco-Roman paganism had been in decline for centuries; reading the Dialogues of Plato one can easily see that even in the fifth century B.C. its hold on people's convictions was rather tenuous. One emperor-- Constantine-- converted to Christianity, and Roman paganism thereby ceased to be the state religion. But pagans (and Jews) were not forced to convert to Christianity. To suggest that government fiat, rather than various kinds of persuasion, explains the rise of Christianity vis-a-vis paganism, is not really accurate. (Bear in mind that at that time Christianity's competitors were less convincing than its competitors today. Does any modern feel the need to consider the question: Were the pagans right?)

One might think, reading Nato's comment, that the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity resulted in a diminution of religious tolerance. In fact, the opposite is probably the case. The privileges which Christianity acquired did not include forced conversion of non-Christians. A bit later, there was some violent suppression of a Christian heresy called Donatism in North Africa. One would have to compare the scale of this to the scale of the persecutions against Christians before Constantine, but I think a careful study would show that the conversion of Constantine led to an increase in religious tolerance in the Roman Empire.


  • I didn't mean to imply that Constantine's edicts ended the previous environment of tolerance. What I meant to say was that the Roman Empire was generally more tolerant than other empires of antiquity. As for its intolerance of Christianity - this came later, as the Empire weakened and the Church as a state-within-a-state strengthened. Even Nero wasn't as dead set against Christians as it might seem - ref. Acts 28:17, wherein Paul appeals to Nero for protection from the charges of his own people. Add to that the quantity of persecution records written by Christian historians and it seems to me that the persecution of the Christians by the Romans is not so extraordinary (though still awful by modern standards).

    On pretty mcuh every other point, we're in agreement. In particular, my point about Constantine changing the religious stance of the Roman Empire by fiat was intended to be one more example of secular authority taking the actions that, if undertaken by a combined religious-state authority, could have been regarded as an act of religious aggression. (Though of course, it was Theodosius that made Christianity the official state religion, not Constantine. The huge support Constantine gave the Church, however, is easy to read as state favor whatever the official religion.)

    By Blogger Nato, at 12:23 PM  

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