Emperor Constantine, who ruled over the Roman Empire from 306 to 337 A.D., still matters for two essential reasons: (1) He revolutionized the relationship between the Church and the State, creating a dynamic where the former was fashioned to serve the political ends of the latter, and (2) He helped to permanently establish religious dates and doctrines that we still honor in the third millennia.
In creating a personal theology, there are basically two channels of flow: formation (inflow), or those factors that shape and mold the theology itself, and application (outflow), or how one uses said theology in ministering to the world and to engage people. Preachers and teachers, for example, practice a lot of outflow in relaying messages to others, while academics and theologians tend to gather and synthesize tremendous amounts of inflow. For those of us in 2014, nothing Constantine has done will necessarily influence our theological application, but once we realize how influential the former Emperor was in molding the modern Christian walk, it forces one to stop and think that our contemporary “religious” world was at least partially molded by a secular politician seeking power and control. To either ignore or reject this reality would be to tacitly disregard the peculiarities of formation.
First, before becoming emperor, Constantine was poised to take politically advantageous maneuvers in order to foster unity and cooperation amongst his subjects, since the Roman Empire had already begun its decline. Bureaucracy consumed empire matters and the threat of theft of Roman wealth from foreign invaders was a perpetual problem. As Irvin and Sunquist note in History of the World Christian Movement, Christianity was the ideal means to unify the empire because at the start of the 4th century, churches provided the most extensive social network throughout the Roman world.
Subsequently, in 312, in an attempt to consolidate power, Constantine led a military campaign against Maxentius. Outside of Rome is where he saw the miraculous vision of the chi-rho in the sky, with a voice that said, “In this, conquer.” With this allegedly divine sign and inspiration, Constantine led his army into victory, defeated Maxentius, and united the entire Western region of the empire under his rule.
Second, in alliance with the Eastern emperor, Licinius, Constantine in 313 issued the Edict of Milan that allowed religious freedom (for all faiths) in Roman territory and compensated those Christian victims of prior persecutions. Members of the Christian clergy also started to receive financial benefits directly from the Roman treasury. Yet in spite of this edict, before 324 Constantine was notorious for engaging in syncretistic behavior; he was known to pledge allegiance to the Roman Invincible Sun God, for example, a popular deity with emperors. Hence, when he declared in 321 that Sun-day be set apart as a special day of worship, it remained ambiguous whether he intended to honor Christ or the pagan deity. The fact remains that Sunday is the standard day of worship for the Christian community more than 1600 years later. Subsequent to Constantine, in 381 (via the Edict of Thessalonica), Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
Third, one of the most important events that locates Constantine in history is his calling of the Council of Nicaea. For the first time in Christian history, church bishops came together and agreed on a common doctrinal statement that not only unified the church itself, but also defined the officially sanctioned doctrine Christian believers should subscribe to. Notably, the Council was not formed by the impetus of spiritual leaders, but Constantine himself, who organized the event in order to prevent political fractiousness and not necessarily encourage spiritual harmony. This council produced the Nicene Creed, the idea of homoousios (the Greek word for “same substance”) to describe the relationship between Son and Father, the canon of the New Testament, the date of Easter, and set uniform rules for the exercise of episcopal authority. These prescriptions not only set the tone for Christianity in Constantine’s time but also would serve as a point of formation for the generations that followed. Constantine consequently heavily influenced the number of people subscribing to the faith and this influence persisted into the reign of his son. Irvin and Sunquist note “[A]t the beginning of the fourth century fewer than one in twenty persons in the Roman world was a Christian, but by the end of Constantinius’s reign almost one in two was a member of the church.”
Fourth, other effects of Constantine’s reign include: Christianity was identified as the favored imperial faith, clergy were exempt from taxes, the army bore the Christian symbol on their shields, the emperor’s coins bore the image of Christ, the day of the Eucharist became a legal holiday, imperial funds were used to build churches (as opposed to Christian worshipping in their homes), December 25th was formalized to be the celebrated birthday of Christ, temples used for worship of other deities were now being adapted for Christian worship, public edifices were adorned with Christian symbols, public welfare programs were started in service to the needy, poor, hungry, and orphans, Christians were promoted to political office, and liberal spending was started in order to develop church infrastructure. All modern readers should remain very aware that just like Sunday, December 25th also bears significance to paganism—it corresponds to the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birth of the sun god.
Fifth, a very significant negative effect of Constantine’s reign was the inversion of the Christian identity. In years past, Christians identified themselves as a counter-cultural cohort, subject to persecution and death for their beliefs. With Constantine’s initiatives, Christians now found themselves to be in the midst of imperial society and not outside it. Resultantly, this transition involved a severance with prior modes of life in order to embrace the influences around them that came with increased visibility. Also, the new imperial embrace of Christianity burdened those members of the faith community who had to answer to a new authority—with imperial funding came imperial scrutiny and new political responsibilities to support the hand that fed the church. For example, a 4th century church bishop, Eusebius, wrote Life of Constantine, a generous argument in favor of the divine right of Constantine, ordained to do God’s will, as God’s representative on Earth. It also tacitly gave Constantine carte blanche to do as he pleased without question. After all, who would dare revolt against an emperor put there by God?
Eusebius draws a corollary between Constantine’s liberation of Rome from tyranny to Moses delivering his people from bondage and also draws a connection between Constantine’s imperial prerogatives and the authority of God: “Thus the emperor in all his actions honored God, the Controller of all things, and exercised and unwearied oversight over His churches. And God requited him, by subduing all barbarous nations under his feet, so that he was able everywhere to raise trophies over his enemies: and He proclaimed him as conqueror to all humankind” (italics mine). The text develops this perverse, imperial ideology of empire and conquest that cannot be found within the canon of the New Testament. Further evidence of this can be read when Eusebius refers to Constantine as a “destroyer” but simultaneously inclined “to piety and life acceptable to God,” having “divinely imparted wisdom,” while “[regarding] the entire world as one immense body, and perceived that the head of it all, the royal city of the Roman empire.”
In summary, Constantine made the once nation less, landless Christians a people with an official homeland. Constantine harmonized secular government with Christianity, and in doing so, he inverted the historical relationship between imperial power and the faith. What once was a group fighting against the power now faced the daunting question of how to accommodate themselves to that power. Perhaps there was always a primary political impetus for the emperor to catalyze this embrace, and we must be very prudent in modern times to recognize this fact, because if we were to begin using imperial power to enforce religious mandates then we would have resorted back to the same tactics used by Rome in its persecution of Christians in the first three hundred years after Christ’s death. Submission by coercion is always a dangerous entity, and just because our “righteous” cause now stands behind the coercion, that still does not grant it any greater moral legitimacy. In fact, it is this same philosophy that drives extremist groups in the Middle East today to slaughter the innocent, persuaded by an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam.
I believe the most important lesson that Constantine provides for the contemporary church is that the pure mission of the gospels is diametrically opposed to secular authority. And, as Constantine has shown us, even when the latter seems to behave in pious ways, a concealed, massive secondary gain lies in the background. The church has become accustomed to a certain way of doing things, but in fact, historically, that way of doing things has been set by non-Christian powers—namely the day of the traditional Christian Sabbath (Sunday), the day of Easter, and when we celebrate the birth of the Messiah (Christmas). The lesson to be learned, especially in the case of Christmas, is that nefarious agendas (like worship of the Sun God) can be concealed under the banner of religion to serve pagan ends. Cognizant of this dynamic, secular authority can help to further the Christian cause and it can help to fuel the promulgation of the gospel. However, as Constantine has revealed to us, taking this path is not without cost and sacrifice: the blending of church and state will invariably require earthly submission to the latter. The contemporary church must therefore always remain aware of political self-interest even in the cases where “faith-based” initiatives seem to serve a spiritual end. That is to say, just like Constantine, the same institutions that can serve the needy in the name of God can also declare war on the innocent in the name of God. The question then becomes how far shall we go and how much shall we sacrifice in order to blend in, or is it preferable to remain a counter-cultural fringe group kept alive, fervent, and “pure” by imperial persecution? It is a very perplexing question to ask but a valid one. Would Christianity, without Constantine and his initiation of imperial support, have survived and grown as it did? It would be challenging to argue a case against the emperor.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal