Constantine The Great: Roman Emperor, Christian Saint, History's Turning Point


by Robert Arakaki

"Tell me the history of Christianity and I can tell you your theology." This is especially true with a controversial figure like Constantine. Where Roman Catholics present him as laying the foundation for the Papacy, Protestants see him as the one responsible for leading the early Church away from the simplicity of the pure gospel and turning it into an institutional Church. However, blaming Constantine for the fall of the Church is a double-edged sword that cuts in both directions. If Protestants accuse Constantine of tampering with the Church, how do they know that Constantine did not tamper with the Bible? The problem with the "fall of the Church" argument is that it opens the possibility of a radical discontinuity between present-day Christianity and the early Church.

This danger can be seen in one of today's most popular bestsellers, The DaVinci Code. In the middle of the book (Chapter 55) Sir Leigh Teabing gives Sophie Neveu a brief synopsis of the "history" of Christianity. In it he makes the following points about Constantine:

  • Constantine was a lifelong pagan who was baptized against his will on his deathbed.
  • Constantine made Christianity the official Roman religion solely for political gain.
  • Christianity is a hybrid religion, the result of Constantine's fusing the pagan cult of Sol Invictus with Christianity.
  • This blending can be seen in Constantine's changing the Christian day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.
  • Under Constantine's influence, the Council of Nicea, by a small majority, turned a mortal prophet into the divine Son of God.
  • Constantine ordered the making of the Bible that would reinforce the Council's decision to make Jesus the divine Son of God, and at the same time ordered the destruction of opposing documents.

Personally, I thought the book was a lot of fun to read, but as church history it was laughable. This is not a criticism of the author, as his bestseller is a work of fiction. The problem comes when people confuse fiction and nonfiction.

It is imperative that Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, have a firm grasp of their faith and of church history. Faith and history go together. We cannot separate church history from what we believe. The Orthodox understanding of truth is grounded in the Incarnation, the Son of God taking on human nature. Because the Son of God entered into human history, truth consists of more than a set of logically consistent concepts. Our faith is grounded in the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, who asserted: I am the Truth. When Orthodoxy claims that the Christian Faith is the true faith, it is asserting that it is a real faith, based on historical events that actually happened. Because Christianity is grounded in reality, our salvation in Christ is a real salvation that has an impact on both the spiritual and physical realities.

Constantine the Great

Constantine was born at Naissus on February 27, 272 or 273, to Flavius Constantius and his wife Helena. Flavius Constantius was an army officer, and in 289 he divorced Constantine's mother to marry Theodora, the daughter of his commanding officer. Constantine embarked on his own military career, which took him all over the Roman Empire, from Palestine and Asia Minor to Britain, Spain, and Gaul. While crossing the Alps with his army, Constantine had a vision (or dream) of a cross of light shining in front of the sun and the words: In this sign conquer. Shortly after that vision, Constantine defeated his rival, Maxentius, captured Rome, and was acclaimed the next emperor.

History often turns upon certain pivotal events or individuals. Early Christianity faced two significant perils: one external—violent persecution by the Roman government, and one internal—the Arian heresy, which denied Christ's divinity. In a providential twist of events, God raised up an emperor who would play a key role in confronting each of these perils, becoming one of Christianity's greatest defenders. Constantine's rule precipitated an avalanche of events that radically altered the course of the history of Christianity.

External Danger—Persecution

Prior to Constantine's becoming emperor, the early Church was going through one of the fiercest and bloodiest of the persecutions by the Roman government, the Diocletian persecution. During this wave of persecution thousands of Christians lost their lives, churches were destroyed, and scriptures were burned. Then in 313, the situation reversed itself. Constantine (with his co-emperor Licinus) issued the famous Edict of Milan, declaring Christianity to be a legal religion. Christianity was not yet the official religion of the Empire—this would not happen until 380 under Emperor Theodosius. And Constantine's edict of toleration was not the first—Galerius had issued a similar edict in 311. But it marked a major turning point for the Roman government. With the Edict of Milan, the three-centuries-long era of persecution came to an end.

Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not rescue Christianity from extinction. Even if he had not adopted the Christian cause, the majority of the Roman population was well on its way to becoming Christian. What Constantine did do was hasten the process of evangelizing the Roman Empire. Constantine's conversion marked the climax of a centuries-long process of evangelization that began in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. For the first time, the entire structure of Roman civilization, from the emperor down to the lowliest slave, shared the Christian faith.

Internal Danger—Heresy

In the early fourth century, a theological controversy broke out that threatened to derail the Christian faith. Arius taught that the Son of God had a beginning and was a created being. The controversy threatened deeply to divide the Christian Church, and in so doing to imperil the unity of the Roman Empire. Concerned for the unity of the empire, Constantine wrote letters to Bishop Alexander and to Arius, urging them to make up their differences and forgive each other. When that failed, he convened an ecumenical council of the entire Church. Previously there had been regional and local synods, but this was the first worldwide gathering of bishops. Constantine aided this historic gathering by covering the travel expenses of bishops coming from the far-flung corners of the empire.

In order to repudiate the Arian heresy, the bishops inserted the word homoousios ("of the same essence") into the baptismal creed. By asserting that Christ was of the same essence as God the Father, the Council decisively affirmed the divinity of Christ. This was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Council (only three persons—including Arius—out of three hundred disagreed). Although Constantine may have suggested that homoousios be inserted into the creed, the word was not invented by him. Even Arius made use of it, albeit in his arguments against the divinity of Christ.

Although he presided over the council, it is an exaggeration to claim that Constantine controlled the direction of the Council of Nicea, as many Protestants argue. Many of the bishops present at the council were survivors of the Diocletian persecution and would have been more than willing to put their lives on the line for the gospel of Christ once more. Another weakness of the Protestant stereotype of Constantine is that it gives short shrift to the theological genius of Athanasius. Anyone who reads Athanasius' theological classic Against the Arians will see that it was Athanasius, not Constantine, who turned the tide against the Arian heresy. Also, the limitations of Constantine's ability to coerce the Church into doing his will can be seen in his earlier failure to resolve the Donatist controversy in 320. As W. H. C. Frend notes in The Rise of Christianity, "The lesson, however, had been learned. Never again did he seek to beat into submission a movement within the church."

Equal-to-the-Apostles

Constantine's legacy can be seen in Christianity's transformation from a private sect into a public church that encompassed the whole of society. He put it on an institutional footing, which enabled the Church to be the leading cultural force in the ancient world. The Christianization of Roman society can be seen as a partial fulfillment of Revelation 21:24: "The nations . . . shall walk in its [New Jerusalem] light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it." The Church is the New Jerusalem—replacing the Jerusalem of the Old Testament—which brings spiritual enlightenment to the pagan nations throughout the Roman Empire. However, a balanced assessment of the historical evidence shows that, as much as Constantine may have contributed to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, he did not originate Holy Tradition as many Protestants believe.

Sunday as the day of worship. Although Sunday was made a public holiday, there is no evidence that it was Constantine who changed the Christians' day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. Two first-century documents—Didache 14.1 and Ignatius' Letter to the Magnesians 9.1—document the fact that Christians worshiped on a different day from the Jewish Sabbath. As emperor, Constantine transformed what was once the private practice of an illegal sect into a public holiday for all Romans.

Constantinople—the New Rome. With his decision to turn the sleepy village of Byzantinum into the Roman Empire's new capital city, Constantine laid the groundwork of what would become a major spiritual center, the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As the New Rome, Constantinople was intended to signal the Roman Empire's break with its pagan past and its embracing of Christianity. Under Constantine's orders, no pagan ceremonies were allowed in this city. While the original Rome and the Latin West entered into the Dark Ages, Constantinople thrived as a spiritual and political capital through the time of Columbus' voyage to America. Constantinople was also the springboard from which the missionary outreach to Russia would take place.

The Council of Nicea and the biblical canon. While Constantine played an important role at the First Ecumenical Council, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with deciding which books would go into the Bible. The Muratorian Canon (from the year 200) provides a list of New Testament documents that closely resembles the list found in today's Bible. Similar lists can be found in the writings of Origen (250) and Eusebius of Caesarea (300). It is true that Constantine ordered the burning of books by Arius, the anti-Christian philosopher Porphyry, the Novatians, the Marcionites, and others. But the fact remains that by the time Constantine became emperor, much of today's biblical canon was already in place.

Constantine a Saint?

Constantine died in 337. Shortly before his death, he was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia. Following his baptism, Constantine refused to wear the imperial purple and died wearing the white baptismal robe. He was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles just days after he had dedicated it. The day of his death—May 21—is commemorated in the Orthodox Church as a major feast day.

Skepticism about the sincerity of Constantine's Christianity stems from a number of factors. Constantine did not openly repudiate the pagan gods, but tolerated pagan belief even as he began favoring the Christians. Another source lies in his execution of his son, Crispus, and his wife, Fausta, in 326, a year after the Council of Nicea. A third factor was Constantine's delaying of his baptism until just a few days before his death.

On closer examination, however, the basis for this skeptical attitude becomes problematic. Constantine's participation in the pagan rites most likely stemmed from his obligations as military and political leader. Regarding his execution of his son and wife, it is not clear what the reasons were. Unless the reasons for this drastic action are known, it is not fair to condemn Constantine. Also, modern evangelicalism may frown on deathbed conversions, but in the early Church such delaying of one’s baptism was not uncommon.

Constantine's conversion follows more closely the Orthodox understanding of salvation than the Protestant understanding. Where Protestants, especially evangelicals, tend to see salvation in terms of a one-time conversion experience, Orthodoxy sees salvation as a mystery and as a process that unfolds over time. While Constantine's personal faith may be a matter of debate, his historical contributions to the Church under his reign are undeniable. Frend writes, "The 'Age of the Fathers' would have been impossible without Constantine's conversion. The church's councils under the emperor's guidance became assemblies where the new, binding relationship with the Christian God, on which the safety of the empire depended, was established."

The Orthodox Church sees Constantine as the emperor who assisted the early Church in evangelizing the Roman Empire. For this reason it honors him as Saint Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles.

Constantine and the Church

For Orthodoxy, Constantine represents an important link to the past. The persecuted underground Church and the official state Church are the same Church. Constantine played a key role in the historic transition from the former to the latter. For Orthodox Christianity, there is no "fall of the Church." The Orthodox Church believes that it stands in unbroken continuity with the Church of the first century.

There is a popular belief among evangelicals that the true Church was the underground Church, which refused to compromise with the worldly state Church, and that this true Church remained in hiding over the following centuries, leaving few records of its existence until it was rediscovered by the Protestants in the sixteenth century. The main problem with this belief is not only the absence of supporting evidence, but the presence of contrary evidence. Eusebius, in Books IV and V of his History of the Church, provides a chronological listing of bishops that goes back to the original apostles. Present-day Orthodox bishops and patriarchs are able to trace their spiritual and historical lineage back to the original apostles, something that Protestants cannot do.

Symphonia—The Harmony of Faith and Politics

Constantine's support for the early Church laid the foundation for the doctrine of symphonia—the ideal of political and religious leaders working in harmony to realize God's will here on earth. This ideal is rooted in the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Symphonia avoids two extremes: the separation of Church from State on the one hand, and the fusion of Church and State on the other. Despite his active participation in the Ecumenical Council, Constantine did not view himself as one of the bishops, but rather as "bishop of those outside." This ideal found concrete expression in the Byzantine Empire, which lasted for a thousand years. Under Constantine's rule began the transformation of Roman culture. Execution by crucifixion ceased, gladiatorial battles as punishment ended.

Symphonia has a number of important implications for Orthodox Christians. One is that the Church is called to pray for those in power, even if they are not Christians. For Orthodoxy, symphonia is the ideal situation, but not the only one. Christianity is not tied to any one particular political structure. Another implication is that there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual (belief in dualism is an early heresy). Orthodoxy is both a personal and a public faith. The Orthodox Church encourages good citizenship, public service along with philanthropy. Its preference for lay involvement in politics helps avoid the dangers of theocratic rule. It is expected that Orthodox Christians will bring the values of the Church into the political and social realms.

Venerating a Great Saint Today

The Orthodox Church today honors the memory of Constantine in several ways. Many Orthodox parishes are named after him. I attend Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific. On Sunday mornings, soon after I enter the church, I see the icon of Christ sitting on the throne. I also see the icon of Constantine and his mother, Helen. Inside the church up in front I see Constantine and Helen on the icon screen. They are now part of the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on to finish the spiritual race (Hebrews 12). During the Sunday Liturgy, just before the scripture readings, the following troparion (hymn) is sung:

Your servant Constantine, O Lord and only Lover of Man,
Beheld the figure of the Cross in the heavens,
And like Paul, not having received his call from men,
But as an apostle among rulers set by Your hand over the royal city,
He preserved lasting peace through the prayers of the Theotokos.

The troparion celebrates God's sovereignty in human history: how God selected a pagan Roman soldier, converted him through a miraculous vision of the Cross, and made him emperor and one of the greatest evangelists in the history of Christianity.

Robert Arakaki has an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He recently earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

 

Originally published by AGAIN Magazine
Conciliar Press Ministries Inc.
A Department of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America