This lesson explores two conflicts that occurred in the early church: Arian Christianity, which taught a taboo belief regarding the Holy Trinity, and iconoclasm, which was the destruction of religious images.
Threats to the Church
Map of the Byzantine Empire
Every powerful group faces challenges from the outside, but they also have to watch for threats from within. This is true of the early Christian Church, which took roots in the Roman Empire in 312 AD in the form of Catholicism. Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion of the region for over half a millennium, though it faced threats from within itself during that time. We're going to look at two of those threats: Arianism and iconoclasm.
The first threat to the church came in the 4th century AD. Although Catholic Christianity was growing in dominance among native Romans at the time, invading Germanic tribes, who moved into Roman territories from surrounding areas after being displaced by the Huns, brought with them a new form of Christianity called Arianism.
One of the key tenets of Catholic Christianity is the Holy Trinity - that the Father (God), the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit are three aspects of the same divine being. On the other hand, Arianism is a form of Christianity in which believers thought that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were three separate entities. The name comes from Arius, who created the Arian belief system.
A Roman coin featuring the face of Jesus
Basically, Arian Christians believed that God never changed or grew. However, Jesus was born and grew like a human. His changing nature meant that Jesus was not God and couldn't be a divine entity. Instead, God created Jesus. The belief that the Holy Trinity were separate but formed from a similar substance is known as homoiousios. The Catholic belief that all three pieces of the Holy Trinity were formed from the same substance is known as homoousios.
This conflict spread throughout the Christian nation. Arianism was officially condemned after the issuing of the Nicene Creed, which reinforced homoousion as correct. But, as Germanic tribes continued to invade the Roman Empire and converted to the Arian version of Christianity, eventually Arianism was even endorsed officially in some areas of the Empire. The conflict continued between Catholic and Arian Christianity in the Roman Empire until the popularity of Arian Christianity just died out (especially after many Germanic tribesmen reached Rome) and Catholicism became their dominant religion.
At that point, Arianism was basically all but gone in the Roman Empire. However, it continued to be popular among members of the invading Germanic tribes. This would continue to cause some problems with the native Romans up through the 5th and 6th centuries. However, tribesmen would eventually follow suit with the rest of the Romans, and those who remained in the Empire would convert to Catholicism.
Another conflict in the early church was that of iconoclasm, or the intentional destruction of a religious image. Conflicts of iconoclasm developed over concerns of how religious images were treated during worship. Some people were concerned that worship may become directed towards the image rather than the person or being that it represented. The basis of this concern is in the Ten Commandments mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. The Commandments forbid the worship of idols. Directing religious devotion to an image was interpreted by some as idol-worship.
Iconoclasm was a problem in the Byzantine Empire, the inheritors of the Roman Empire, beginning in the 8th century. Like the Romans, the Byzantines were also Christians. Some in the empire grew distressed because there had been an increasing amount of religious imagery displayed. Earlier, an emperor had even included the image of Jesus on Roman coinage. Religious icons became the blame of the loss of military battles and economic decline. Muslims also had a history of iconoclasm, and their spread into Roman territory may have influenced natives to take up this practice. Icons were destroyed while at the same time the cross became a popular image for church decoration.
Emperor Leo III led an iconoclasm movement around 730.
The first person to lead an occurrence of iconoclasm was Emperor Leo III around 730. He believed the use of icons was to blame for his military losses to the Muslims. He also blamed it for the violent eruption of a volcano on an island called Thera. He felt these things were punishment from an angry God. Leo's son, Constantine V, advocated for a council to officially support iconoclasm. Constantine's successor, Leo IV, also fought for the destruction of icons. However, his wife undid much of his work because she was supportive of the use of icons.
Another bout of iconoclasm was started by Emperor Leo V in 815. He also may have blamed icons for military defeats both while he was ruler and before. His successor, Michael II, reaffirmed the rulings of another major council held to justify the destruction of images.
Emperor Leo V believed icons caused his military defeats.
The actions of these leaders were not always supported by the pope, leading to conflict between the two leaders. Conflicts would continue between emperors and popes until the occurrence of a Great Schism between the Eastern and Western religion in 1054.
Although Christianity became a popular religion in Western Europe in the Dark Ages, it was not without conflict. The creation of Arian Christianity became the source of much debate. Arian Christians believed the Holy Trinity was made of three separate beings, while Catholics believed these beings were all formed by the same being (God). Arian Christianity's popularity spread with the help of invading Germanic tribesmen who converted to the religion. Eventually, its popularity died out, and Catholic Christianity became dominant.
Iconoclasm was another conflict that arose within the church. Icons were used to worship by many, but some began to link this action with idol worship, a practice forbidden in the Old Testament. Believing the worship made God angry, emperors took action by leading in the mass destruction of religious images in the 8th and 9th centuries.
After you've finished this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Describe two conflicts in the early Christian Church, starting in the 4th century: Arianism and iconoclasm
- Explain how Arian Christianity's view of the Holy Trinity differed from the Catholic's view
- Summarize how both Arianism and iconoclasm spread
- Identify emperors' attempts to end iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries