The Greatness of Constantine
Constantine was born in 280 and died in 337 A. D. He was the son of a Roman Caesar during the tetrarchy, and he became Emperor and united Rome once again during his life. Constantine was a great warrior, fighter, general, and leader of men. He was full of courage and possessed the skills and ability to match that courage. He never lost a war, and only few skirmishes. He fought at the front, at the head of his men in battle, risking his own life, personally defending his people. He was a military genius, not a mere brute warrior. He was a man of great virtue and restraint, living a morally pure life – sexually and in terms of food and drink. Yet, he was known for spouts of anger and was not foreign to taking a man’s life. His drive and motivation were high, as displayed in his uniting of Rome, yet he was a man who cared for the poor and lowly in his empire. A man who often went too far with his power as Emperor, yet at the same time enacted laws that more closely reflected biblical justice and restraint than ever before in the empire. His life and impact cannot really be understated in terms of the effect he had during his time and the ripples he caused throughout history. He was called Constantine the Great, and true to any great man who is praised for his virtues, he also had his vices. He was a man full of convictions and conflictions, which is often the case for any man who so greatly affects world history. He is a man worth remembering for both inspiration, and for lessons of caution. But even more so, he is worth remembering for the great providence of God which he was used for in the history of the Church.
Much time is often spent by Christians fixating over whether the man was truly a Christian or not. And while we will consider some things that may lend to that conversation, we ultimately cannot know the man’s heart – it is hard enough to understand someone’s actions or words from nearly 17 centuries ago. But that is what we have – his actions, and we will seek to understand them as best as we can.
Some of the great historic feats of Constantine include the re-uniting of the Roman Empire and the establishing of a new capital city that would last for centuries – Constantinople. Not to be dismissed, which we will not spend time on today is the architectural accomplishments of Constantine. A capital city built, many churches constructed, and other architectural accomplishments that stand today are worth appreciating. It is worth noting, that no pagan temples or gladiator games were introduced into the new capital, Constantinople, reflecting the thought, desires, and future vision of Constantine.
The State of Rome and the Church
Let’s consider for a moment the state of Rome and the state of the Church during this time.
In the time leading up to Constantine the Roman Empire was divided into four regions, called the tetrarchy. Constantine, the son of a Roman Caesar was raised and groomed for royalty, living for a time under the eastern emperor, Diocletian, who greatly persecuted the Christians. As Constantine grew as a young man, he went back to the western empire and fought with the soldiers and led them in battle, becoming a great general, and earning loyalty from the military.
In 306 the military made Constantine Caesar of the Western portion of the Empire after the death of his father, Constantius. It would’ve been the areas of Britain, France, and Spain. Constantine made an Alliance with Licinius who was another Caesar. In 312, the battle at Milvian Bridge, Constantine defeated Maxentius who ruled the part of the Empire that was Northwest Africa and Italy. Thus, Constantine consolidates the entire Western Empire under his rule. Meanwhile Licinius consolidated all of the East under himself, thus making the empire back to two regions. Constantine and Licinius made an agreement, a proclamation, that Christians would not be persecuted. In 320 Licinius began persecuting Christians. So, in 324 war broke out and Constantine saw himself as rescuing the persecuted Christians from Licinius who went back on the agreement. Constantine defeated Licinius, thus becoming the Empire over the whole Roman Empire, the empire being united once again.
So for the Church, they were greatly persecuted leading up to the time of Constantine, particularly under Diocletian. Now, as you can imagine, one of the strategies of the persecution was to target the bishops – the leaders of the church – and put them to death first. This of course was done in seeking to weaken the Christians by taking out some of their best men. So the fact is that many, not all, many of the bishops that remained alive by the time Constantine stopped the persecution were the bishops who recanted the faith or compromised or were cowardly under persecution. So the Christians were worn out, and some of the best men were gone when Constantine came to power. And those two factors are things to keep in mind as we look at the things Constantine did.
Obviously one of the most momentous events in the life of Constantine was his conversion to Christianity. And by conversion, I simply mean, his outward change of allegiance. Was he truly regenerate? I have no idea. Many of you have probably heard the story of his conversion. He was raised a pagan, who worshiped the sun.
War broke out in 312 between Constantine and the other Caesar, Maxentius, who ruled in Italy and Northwest Africa. So Constantine marches to battle against Maxentius, and meets him at the Milvian Bridge, outside of Rome.
The story goes that the night before battle, Constantine had a dream or a vision in which the first two letters of the name of Christ, Chi and Rho, were laid over each other forming a cross, and he saw the words, or heard the words, “by this sign you will conquer.” Constantine believed this was indeed a vision from the Christian God, revealing Himself to Constantine. The next day, this sign was painted on the shields of his troops. Constantine led his troops to battle and personally led the first attack from the left flank. They crushed Maxentius that day, Maxentius died in battle. Constantine believed the Christian God gave him this victory, and so he favored and protected Christianity from that day forward.
Nick Needham says this, “After his victory at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine entered Rome and broke with tradition by refusing to offer thanks to the gods for his triumph. Instead, he had a statue of himself holding a cross erected in the center of Rome, with the inscription: ‘I saved your city and set it free from the tyrant’s yoke by this sign of salvation, the true proof of heroic virtue.’”
Stopped Christian Persecution
One of the immediate effects of Constantine’s conversion was that he put a stop to the persecution of Christians. Now you can imagine, that if you were someone living through a time of vicious persecution and a political leader comes along and stops the persecution you are facing, you are going to be overjoyed and incredibly grateful to this person. And many Christians were. Eusebius the 4th century church historian absolutely loved Constantine. He was probably a bit over the top in his love for Constantine that he only spoke favorably of him in his historical work, which is not supposed to be how you do a historical work. But we can understand why. So I believe at the least, we should also be grateful to God for relieving our 4th century brothers and sisters from persecution through Constantine.
He also did this, as I mentioned, by defeating Licinius in 324 when Licinius broke his agreement to not persecute Christians in the East.
Constantine gave Christianity full legal status for the first time in the Empire. In fact, he had a policy of freedom for all religions. Constantine was concerned not only for his own empire, but for Christians everywhere in the world, he wanted to see them protected as well.
At one point in his life, Constantine wrote a letter to the king of Persia, a formidable foe, urging him not to persecute Christians, and that God would judge him if he did. He told him that the same Christian faith that brought him success could bring it to Persia as well.
Despite this, Constantine is a very controversial historical figure, even amongst Christians. Some Christians today love him, others really don’t like him much at all. That is because he was indeed a man of great convictions and conflictions. So allow me to highlight just a few of the events which were controversial.
The Death of His Son Crispus and Wife Faustus
I believe it was in 326, on his way to celebrate his 20 year anniversary as Emperor, he refused to participate in a pagan parade ritual, upsetting many of the Roman Pagan citizens. So that’s pretty cool, but also during this same time is when Constantine had his son and wife put to death. Constantine had four sons in line for the throne, and he had his first in line, Crispus put to death, as well as Crispus’ step-mother Faustus put to death in boiling hot water. There is very little historical documentation as to how and why this happened and several prominent theories. One is that Faustus told Constantine Crispus was conspiring to overthrow his father, and then when Constantine found out that wasn’t true, he then put Faustus to death for lying about this to him. The other main theory is that Crispus and Faustus were committing adultery together. Whatever the case, we don’t know what all the facts are, and certainly there are things to criticize and understand about this event.
Constantine and the Donatists
Another event, that I had a very hard time finding any actual facts on, was Constantine and the Donatists, who were a group of African Christians that were considered a heretical group by other Christians. The short of it is that Constantine persecuted them for a time.
The Council of Nicea
Another major event is the council of Nicea. Brandon will talk more about the Council of Nicea next time. But this council was called by Constantine himself. The reason for this is that Constantine, in wanting to protect and promote catholic Christianity, needed to have agreement among the Christians, because many of them were fighting over the nature of Christ. So Constantine called this council, I believe, because he wanted genuine agreement and answers to these theological issues, so that he would know what true Christianity he was to protect. Some accusations are that he presided over the council and forced his hand in and things of that nature. But I don’t see any evidence that this is actually the case. Orthodox Christianity won, yet the Arians remained dominant for decades after Constantine’s life.
Constantine accepted the decision of the council of Nicea and in fact spoke things against the Arians. Certainly we could have debates about the organization of a church council like that. But, I wont’ say anymore about the council of Nicea because Brandon will talk about that next week, and then I’ll have Athanasius after that.
So let me run through a few more fast facts about Constantine, things he said or did, the good, bad, and ugly, rapid-fire style.
- At times, Constantine would still participate in pagan rituals, even after his conversion, yet he did not believe that he was betraying the Christian God in doing so, because of the syncretism that seems to be apparent in Constantine’s life.
- The conflict of Constantine can be summed up in this: after he died, the Pagan Roman senate declared Constantine a god. But he is also a saint in the Eastern Church.
- Contrary to popular belief, Constantine actually did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire – it remained paganism. His sons did years later.
- Baptized late in life, by an Arian.
- After his conversion he regularly attended Christian worship, listened to long sermons, and observed Easter.
- He made speeches to his court in which he condemned pagan idolatry and praised Christianity.
- He created a position in his court for a bishop to be a special advisor on Christian affairs.
- He passed a law making Sunday an official day of rest, because of Christian worship.
- He constructed church buildings at his own expense.
- He gave gifts of money to individual congregations.
- He introduced grants for the poor for raising children, which helped discourage the Roman practice of killing unwanted babies.
- He outlawed crucifixions.
- He banned the practice of branding criminals on the forehead, “because the human face, created to reflect heavenly beauty, should never be disfigured.”
- He tried to outlaw the gladiators, but failed in doing so. He did not like them.
- Witchcraft was banned.
- He prohibited images of himself in temples.
How do we deal with historical figures like this?
We cannot know what was going on in Constantine’s heart, but we can see his actions. And we should seek to understand his actions according to his time. If we compare Constantine to our perfectly developed ideals of how Christian rulers should be, he certainly falls quite short. But Constantine was a man, a former pagan, a Roman Emperor, who lived in the 3rd and 4th century. Expecting him to act like a 21st century reformed baptist is not realistic, or fair to how we understand historical figures. We can’t do history that way, or no one is good until us. This does not mean we excuse or justify his faults and sins. We learn from them, like we would do from anyone else.
One of the important aspects of Constantine that we have to deal with is the issue of Constantinianism. I have heard and read the term Constantinianism used interchangeably with sacralism, which views the church and state as tied together, and not separate spheres of authority. And it also views citizens of a particular region, all to be members of the church there. And without hesitation, we reject sacralism. However, I would argue that it is not fair to conflate sacralism with Constatine, and to use his name to describe sacralism. Conflating church and state and making all citizens of a region also all members of the church, is not what Constantine did. Certainly there were jurisdictional lines crossed in terms of state authority. Absolutely he crossed jurisdictional lines and wielded too much power, in terms of what is biblically right. But, one, he was simply being an emperor, and two, that does not mean you have sacralism.
After all the things Constantine did for Christianity, Paganism remained the majority of the Empire’s religion, and Constantine did not force anyone to become a Christian, and as pagans, they were not considered part of the church because they lived in a certain locale.
Constantine had a general policy of toleration and religious liberty toward all religions. Some would attribute this to his form of paganism. Others would make the case that it comes from a theologian named Lactantian who had proximity and influence to Constantine, who had developed a theory of “religious liberty” or “toleration.” Knowing the great conflict that is Constantine, I imagine it could’ve been a bit of both.
Constantine continued to keep pagans in his court, as well as placing Christians there.
Yet, despite this religious “toleration” policy, it is clear that Constantine sought to persuade pagans of becoming Christians. He would often speak of the virtues of Christianity in his laws and decrees. Yet, he never forced anyone to convert to Christianity – which is often called Constantinianism, but he did not do that. So we shouldn’t call that Constantinianism in my opinion.
Constantine made decrees prohibiting pagan sacrifice yet did not enforce those prohibitions because he wanted to leave every man to his conscience, and it was up to the local governors to enforce the decrees, and they would not enforce a decree like this. It was more or less, an attempt at persuasion.
Constantine was really such a conflicted mixed bag, because it is also true that Christian heresy was condemned as illegal in 324. Yet, it was not strictly enforced, though there were some heretics that were exiled. Constantine believed the One True Christian God gave him victory and blessing and that heretics were a danger to losing that favor from God. Things like this are examples of why the term Constantiniasm is thrown around, but I think they draw too much from it all things considered.
Certainly it can be said that many actions of Constantine laid a foundation for the imperializing of the church, which I repudiate, which then quickly can turn into sacralism. But the bad foundation was not the conversion of the Emperor who then tried to protect Christianity as the Emperor. The bad foundation was simply too much state authority in general and jurisdictional lines of authority that were not clear.
I believe blame for sacralism lies more accurately at the feet of other later rules, even Constantine’s sons, and also at the feet of the bishops and churches, who failed to faithfully disciple their leaders against this error, and joined in the grab for power and the improper use of the sword. They, of all people, should know better. Instead of just blaming converted Roman emperors, we should learn the lesson as the church, to not be taken in by the allurement of power and access to power, but always remember our duty to disciple our leaders, and have the courage to tell them “no” and “thus saith the Lord.” If the Church refused to participate and go along with sacralism, things would’ve been different.
For all of Constantine’s faults, I believe Constantine had right impulses. He wanted to promote and protect catholic Christianity, and that is a good thing. That is something we should want in our government rulers. Though he went too far, though his execution wasn’t ideal or right in many circumstances, the principle of seeking to be a Christian Emperor, or Christian magistrate is the right impulse.
Peter Leithart has a book on Constantine, and there are many things I disagree with Leithart on theologically, and disagreements in his vision of political theory, but the book is very good as a historical work, and I agree with what he says here, “Constantine had many faults and committed many wrongs, but he apparently knew this much: neither society nor social space, neither public life nor the space in which it takes place, can be religiously neutral.” That is something we can take away from Constantine. Though he failed at times, he sought to have every area of life, every place that he had authority and places he didn’t, to be submitted to Christ, to be Christian.
In understanding his faults, we have to remember that Constantine was an Emperor and a Roman warrior and was so as a new convert. He was not a seasoned theologian who grew up in the church. And so we have to account for the fact that if you are converted as a Roman Emperor, you just might be a little rough around the edges. And he was.
I think the most critical fault of Constantine is that though he had bishops around him, he never fully placed himself in a local church under bishops directly. Even after his conversion, he would, at times, participate in pagan rituals. He needed pastors to disciple, teach, and instruct him with authority, how Christians are to live, and how they are to govern. Without church discipline, we all will go astray.
In understanding Constantine we have to understand his times. How did Christians of his time view him? Well, some loved him, some did not like him. Which really sums up the convictions and conflictions of Constantine.
Some Christians at the time did not view him as a Christian because he was not baptized. He waited until the end of his life to be baptized, which actually was a common practice at the time. But these same Christians saw him as a friend to the church, yet not part of it. So a number of Christians who did not believe Constantine was a Christian, saw him as a friend to the Church. And honestly, that might be where I land on the issue. It depends what time of day you ask me.
In his book on Constantine, Leithart says this, “Eusebius exaggerated Constantine’s virtues and ignored his vices, but his attitude toward a Christian empire makes more sense once we realize that he had personally witnessed some of the horrors of persecution. These early Christians had survived through the gulag, and they were profoundly grateful to the skilled ruler who led them out.”
Constantine was not the ideal Christian Emperor. But Constantine is not a theoretical idea. He was a man who was born and lived in a certain time and place. And if we do our best to understand Constantine in his time, he was progress, he was better than previous emperors. He was God’s grace to relieve persecuted Christians. Though filled with errors, how can we not say that he was better than the traditional paganism of the Roman Empire? In short, Constantine was neither the ideal Christian ruler modern Presbyterians make him out to be, nor is he the devil some Baptists think he is. A true brother? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.