Anniversary Post: Edict of Thessalonica

St Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius (van Dyck) - Edict of ThessalonicaOn this day in 380 CE, the Edict of Thessalonica was released in the Roman Empire. It was issued by emperors Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II. And it basically said that all Roman citizens should convert to Christianity. It was the result of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312. As I discussed before, this was when Christianity died, “No religion ever survives this kind of power.” And the Edict of Thessalonica shows that ultimately, religion is about power. If religion is about God, you don’t need governments stepping in and telling people what they must believe.

What the people were told they must believe was specifically Nicene Christianity. And anyone who was ever forced to go to Sunday school or catechism can tell you what that is. “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.” Given that God made all things, you would think he could just tell the people himself. This is why it is so funny in Small Gods that the Great God Om comes down to Discworld and only manages to be a tortoise. He has a grand total of one believer. Most people don’t think through their religious beliefs very well. That’s why we are so blessed to have minds as brilliant as Terry Pratchett to do it for us. Unfortunately, people insist upon reading things like the Bible rather than Small Gods.

Edict of Thessalonica: Not Just Any Christianity

Of course, it couldn’t be just any old Christianity either. The Edict of Thessalonica chose a side in an ongoing religious war. People have this odd idea that Christians mostly got along except for big events. We know the Orthodox split from the Catholics. We know the Protestant split from the Catholics. And we know the Spanish Inquisition. But the truth is that the religion has been fighting within itself from the beginning. Things are actually more placid now than they ever have been. There are zillions of different kinds of Christianity (including Mormonism). But they don’t seem to care enough (or believe strongly enough) to do much fighting. Still, it could all fly apart again. After all, no one expected the Spanish Inquisition.

So what was the effect of the Edict of Thessalonica? Well, just what you would expect. According to Wikpedia, “After the edict, Theodosius spent a great deal of energy suppressing all non-Nicene forms of Christianity, especially Arianism, and in establishing Nicene orthodoxy throughout his realm.” This was because he believed in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible — who was nonetheless dependent on petty dictators to make sure that the people worshiped the right god in the right way. Otherwise, without the Edict of Thessalonica, people might have worshiped a god that didn’t need so much care and upkeep. And then imagine what would have happened: people would have been oppressed in the name of the wrong god!


Stewart Lee on problems in the creation myth:

6 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Edict of Thessalonica

  1. You’re not the only one pointing out the West doesn’t really believe anymore; here’s Gary Brecher after some time teaching in Saudi Arabia:

    “That’s really the best way to understand the Saudis: what if Jed Clampitt was for real? Backwoods Baptist norms, religion, culture imposed on the world by any means necessary. We have a weak version of that – it’s called ‘Texas.’ But the most surprising thing I learned in Saudi is that even our Baptists are weak in their belief. Only in Saudi did I see real religious belief, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.” – Gary Brecher, The Saudi Dirty Dozen and Jihadi as Risk Disposal, 10 Sep 2013

    • Not sure Jed Clampitt works for that analogy, either as the written character or the person he is meant to be. Christianity was so dominant in the culture then that they didn’t need to be so militant. Structural norms in society did the coercion for them. And, as such, they could be more individually tolerant of differences. The Klan doesn’t show up until reconstruction. And the Klan always shows up for reconstruction.

    • I don’t think being willing to apply dogma with great viciousness is necessarily real belief. I have known a lot of true religious seekers, and every time they get involved in an established religion, they find that they are ostracized. Religion shouldn’t be dogma, but that’s all it is to most people. And when you consider that people work backwards, it’s terrifying. You decide you don’t like someone, so you use your dogma to justify harming them.

    • I don’t think it is just Christians. I think humans have a general desire for hierarchy. Paleolithic societies were egalitarian. Most Neolithic societies became more hierarchical. And it has only gotten worse over time. The change of the Christian religion from a vibrant one with much discussion to an ossified system of control is part of that. On the other side of things, look at how New Atheism so quickly became hierarchical and (in my opinion) irrelevant.

      Christians like to say that their religion is true because it is so popular. But that isn’t due to Jesus; it’s due to Constantine.

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