Constantine: Christian or Politician?

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36

The Emperor Constantine, being informed of Maxentius’ tyranny, set himself to free the Romans from their slavery under him, and began immediately to consider by what means he might overthrow the tyrant. Now, while his mind was full of this great objective, he debated within himself what god’s help he should invoke in the conduct of the war. He had reached the conclusion that Diocletian’s party had not profited at all from the pagan deities whom they had sought to propitiate, but that his own father Constantius, who had, renounced the various religions of the Greeks, had passed through life far more prosperously than they. In this state of uncertainty, as he was marching at the head of his troops, a vision transcending all description appeared to him. He saw a pillar of light in the form of a cross on which was inscribed, ‘in this conquer’. The appearance of the sign struck him with amazement, and doubting his own eyes, he asked those around him if they could see what he did, and, as they unanimously declared that they could, the emperor’s mind was strengthened by this divine and miraculous apparition. On the following night, while he slept, he saw Christ, who directed him to make a standard according to the pattern he had been shown, and to use it against his enemies as a guarantee of victory. Obedient to the divine command, he had a standard made in the form of a cross, which is preserved in the palace until this day.1

Thus recorded fifth century historian Socrates concerning the conversion of Constantine to Christianity the night before the battle at Milvian Bridge. Eusebius, bishop under Constantine and author of “The Life of Constantine”, claimed that Constantine himself swore to the validity of his vision under oath and that Christ did indeed appear to the emperor in a dream. It is curious, however, that a vision as blatant as that of Paul in Acts 9, should not have the same impact upon the receiver of that vision as it did for Paul in the New Testament. Paul, after all, renounced all his past ambitions and became a great missionary for Christ. Constantine, on the other hand, continued to pursue the title of Emperor and did not once represent himself as a servant of Christ.

Although it was said that Eusebius would never lie, except to promote the glory of God, those who wrote his biography claim he knew no bounds of exaggeration in praise of Constantine.2 The familiar miracle which he and his followers recorded as actually happening to Constantine is very open to skeptical speculation. Even if Eusebius recorded it exactly as Constantine had related the vision to him under oath, it would still leave open the validity of Constantine’s oath. Further historical events proved Constantine’s oaths to be frivolous in that, among other things, he had his own brother-in-law murdered despite assurances given to the contrary under oath.

Puzzling also is the number of variations of the vision. Nazarius described an army of divine warriors who fell from heaven coming to assist Constantine. Described by him are their beauty, their spirit, their gigantic forms, and the stream of light which beamed from their celestial armor. Others claim the vision came at night, or that it was seen only by Constantine. Perhaps the latter was added because, if truly witnessed by Constantine’s 40,000 men, the true miracle would have been their unbroken silence afterwards. Paul spoke of his vision and dramatic conversion often and was consistent when speaking of the revelation. Constantine only mentions it for Eusebius to record twenty-six years later. By that time the legend could have grown so much that even Constantine believed it to be true.

Interesting, also, is that up until the battle at Milvian Bridge,Constantine had been making his presence felt in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire claiming Apollo-Sol as his god, and himself as “The Unconquered: Sol Invictus.”Apollo-Sol was the only god ever to be named on any of Constantine’s coinage. Instead of having Christ on the Arc of Constantine in Rome, sculpted into the Arc are Mars, Jupiter, and Hercules, with sacrifices being given to the sun-god.

Confusion arises as to whether that sun-god was Apollo or Christ. Both Christ and Apollo were claimed to be the source of all light. Constantine never took the trouble to mention which of the two gods he worshipped, referring only to his god as “He”. Both pagans and Christians could be content that Constantine’s “He” was the same god they worshipped. Conspicuously missing from the Arc is the sign of the cross which Constantine demanded his soldiers wear prior to engaging in battle.

Eusebius also wrote that, at the time of his vision in 312 AD, Constantine had no idea what the cross meant but had to have it explained to him in a vision that night by Christ. This cannot be true. Already one year earlier, in 311, Constantine had stopped the persecution of Christians by permitting them to worship freely. In addition, he had watched the Great Persecution grow out of the allegation that the sign of the cross had been used as a magic sign to eradicate omens.

The purpose of Constantine’s sudden conversion has provided material for controversy and debate both in ancient and modern times. He has been viewed as a conscious and deliberate hypocrite by some and a political saint by others. But Constantine’s “choice” for Christian liberty was not as sudden as Eusebius had lead his readers to believe.

The Edict of Toleration

Even while still devoted to Apollo, Constantine, exercising limited sovereignty over Gaul, protected the rights of his Christian subjects. In 311, Constantine, with two more of the four Augusti, signed the Edict of Toleration. This could well have been a political move, putting Maximiam, the legitimate ruler in Rome, who did not agree with the edict, on the defensive side. After the edict was signed, Constantine could not have helped but notice the moral nature of the Christians:

The Christian community undertook everything. Not only did they provide for the expenses of their cult and the payment of its ministers, but they undertook the assistance of widows, of orphans, of sick, the aged, and the unemployed, and those who had been condemned for the cause of God. They took upon themselves the task of buying back the prisoners carried off by the Barbarians; they founded churches, took care of slaves, and buried the poor; they gave hospitality to their co-religionaries from abroad and collected subventions for poor or menaced communities.”3

In the Christians, Constantine recognized a cohesive force with which nothing else in the empire could compare. As a man whose desire was unity and peace, Constantine could well have understood that Christians, not the deteriorating pagan beliefs or customs, would enhance his future empire.

The Battle at Milvian Bridge

Just prior to the battle at Milvian Bridge, Constantine said, “I believe our actions are noblest and best when, before attempting, anything we provide as far as possible for a secure result.”4 Already Constantine had many spies in Rome reporting to him. These spies reported the great number of Christians in the capital and how Maxentius could not control them even while increasing their persecution. Constantine added these reports to his knowledge that the pagans had tired of the persecution.

It would have been a great political move and a superb military strategy for Constantine to take up the sign of the cross. His own men would be more willing to enter battle knowing their leader had received an oracle assuring victory. In addition, the Christians on the opposing force would turn on their Pagan comrades opting for Constantine’s victory and Christian freedom rather than Maxentius’ victory and even more persecution. Already having been assured victory by Apollo, nothing could keep this charismatic leader from invoking assistance from the God of the Christians, for whom he had some respect, and claiming that victory had been assured him by their invisible God.

The ease of the victory at Milvian Bridge led Constantine to believe the God of the Christians was indeed one of great power. Within five months he united with Licinius to construct the Edict of Milan. This edict served the Christians well, returning property, building temples, and halting all persecution. Constantine hoped that the loyalty the Christians had to the church could be guided to become loyalty to the Empire as well. He did not, however, make Christianity the religion of the Empire, nor did he confess his own belief in it. During a visit to Autun, for example, the emperor consulted the oracle at Apollo’s temple and left magnificent offerings for the god. Constantine openly worshipped Apollo and by 326 AD he insulted other pagan cults by refusing to partake in their rites.

Constantine’s desire to worship Apollo is understandable to a certain degree. Having once claimed to be guided by Apollo, he would, according to custom, become deified as those in the Imperial office before him had been deified. In hopes of establishing a sacred society, Diocletian, Constantine’s predecessor, had reaffirmed that those in Imperial office were gods already. By being gods, emperors could enjoy privileges which would have been absurd if they were but mere men.

Constantine did show great interest in the struggles of Christianity. Once Christianity became legal, it grew in leaps and bounds. What Constantine saw in Christianity was a display of virtue through which Rome would be assured of material prosperity such as official paganism had failed to give.

The Bishop’s Bishop

Once Constantine became single emperor of the Roman Empire, he announced universal favor towards the Christians claiming it to be for the welfare of the whole world and the advantage of all humanity. Assured that the elevation of Constantine was due to divine providence, warm and active loyalty was exercised in Constantine’s favor by the Christians.

Constantine was welcomed by bishops to enjoy most of the privileges of Christian communion without making any of the obligations required of a Christian.

Even without being baptized, Constantine was permitted to partake in the holy Eucharist. Constantine’s Christian advisors and the Roman church were so dazzled by his friendship, and, perhaps, so afraid of his losing patience with them, that they often looked the other way.5

His involvement in the Christian church yielded Constantine the title as the bishop’s bishop, the head of the church. He was declared the Viceroy of God. As far as the Christians were concerned these were not only acceptable titles for the emperor, but credible as well. Constantine had, after all, seen a vision and spoken to their Messiah.

The Arian Controversy

Many theologians have expressed surprise at Constantine’s insight concerning the Arian controversy in Nicaea in 324 AD. One must take into account, however, that Hosius, the Special Vicarius in Ecclesiastical Affairs, did all of Constantine’s religious leg work. He and Eusebius wrote most of Constantine’s religious prayers and edicts. Both of them were very much in opposition to Arius. Even though he may have understood nothing of the details concerning the quarrel, in 324 Constantine declared Arius incorrect and accused him of being a heretic.

Later, when Arius received an audience with Constantine as a favor to Constantine’s sister, the doctrine was explained. Guglielmo Ferro writes: In separating Christ from God and making Him merely one of God’s emanations or manifestations, Arianism tacitly admitted that other emanations and manifestations might follow. Even as God had raised the Christ out of nothing and adopted Him, He might at His own will, raise up other redeemers out of nothing and adopt them.6

Upon hearing this, Constantine must have regretted his earlier decision of 324. Long ago Constantine had considered himself born to rule. Had he accepted Arian’s teaching, he could also become deified as the adopted Christ was. Throughout his life Constantine would often change his mind concerning Arius, depending on his moods. Not until fifty years later, under Theodosius I, would Arianism be abolished completely

Constantinople

Christians of the fourth century believed that when Constantine built Constantinople, only after he claimed to have been told to do so in a vision, he was building a true Christian city. He made no such claim then, nor while destroying pagan temples to finance the city.

Citizens of the Empire had become accustomed through the centuries to the shows of splendor and spoils carried by conquering armies. As the unchallenged emperor, Constantine had little desire to expand his empire and even less desire to ransack cities in his own empire. To continue the shows of splendor, and to supply the treasury with more money, Constantine chose to ransack the wealthy temples of the gods he believed would not seek revenge.

A statue that was erected in the middle of Constantinople had the body of Apollo and the head of Constantine. The city maintained temples for Christ, Apollo, and Constantine.

Not until just before his death, while ill, was Constantine reported to have received the Sacrament of Baptism from a bishop. While the account from Eusebius may be highly suspect as to accuracy, it is the only record available. Constantine is reported to have said:

The moment I have been waiting for so long, earnestly desiring and praying that in it I might receive the salvation of God, has come at last. Now I too may have the blessing of that seal which confers immortality: now I may receive it in the waters of the River Jordan, where our Savior is said to have been baptized as an example to us. But it pleases God-who knows what is best for us—that I should receive it.7 Constantine was then baptized. Even if Eusebius’ record was correct, Constantine’s motives may still have been somewhat political. In baptism the Church removed all sins which were committed prior to the emersion. By delaying his baptism, which could not be repeated, Constantine could freely indulge in his passions of the secular world while still retaining a means of sure and easy absolution.

Once baptized Constantine discarded his purple robes and on May 22, 337 AD, in the white clothes of an initiate of the church, he died. It could well have been that Constantine chose to be baptized because he had accepted Christ as his Savior. He also could have known he was dying and longed for the Christians to pray for him more incessantly just as Galerius, a former rival to Constantine, had halted persecuting Christians so they would pray for his healing.

Another reason may have been that as Emperor, he hoped his baptism would unite the empire towards Christianity, bringing peace. Christianity was also the only religion that could absolve past murders and oath-breaking; something not even Apollo could tolerate. It was Constantine’s only hope for immortality.

There will always be doubt as to whether Constantine’ adopted the cross merely for expediency’s sake, or, at least partly, because he believed in the power of Christ to help him overcome his enemies. One can be certain, however, that, Christianity itself benefited greatly from his rule. Constantine introduced a new ideology by making worship safe for Christianity. While he may not have been able to save the Roman Empire from eventual destruction, his great reforms introduced the foundation of the Middle Ages, bringing new hope to a people seeking an escape from moral decadence. God’s use of the pagan ruler brought belief in Him throughout all the known world; and, while the quality of Constantine and the Christianity of his followers may be questioned, the justice of God and the glory of His kingdom continued to develop under their reign.

Notes

1. John Holland Smith, Constantine the Great (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971).

2. For more on this read Edward Gibbon’s book History of Christianity (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1972)

3. Guglielmo Ferro, The Ruin of Ancient Civilization and the Triumph of Christianity, trans. The Hon. Lady Whitehead (New York: G. R. Putmans & Sons, 1921), p. 72. One cannot help but think of the impact Christianity would have today if we would better reflect the activities of the early church.

4. Constantine the Great (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.), p. 110.

5. John Holland Smith writes that the church leaders often looked the other way when Constantine would behead or poison Christian colleagues that disagreed with him.

6. The Ruin of Ancient Civilization and the Triumph of Christianity, p. 166.

7. Constantine the Great (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.), p. 292.

 

Rev. Wybren Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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