apologetics, Historical Christianity, The Church, theology

Constantine’s Faith and the Myth of “Constantine’s Takeover”

Constantine-1There is a narrative within some branches of Christianity (and some… “offshoots”) regarding church history. It is a narrative in which Constantine is seen as the great evil (whether intentionally or not) which corrupted Christianity. The narrative basically goes like this: Constantine rose to power, then everything went wrong in Christianity. He made Christianity the state religion, which introduced scores of nominal Christians into the church. He made service in the church a well-paying position, which corrupted the office of the ministry. He himself was probably not even a Christian!

So the story goes. Is it accurate?

From Narrative to History

The question of Constantine is one of history. Too often, people have subjected Constantine to psychoanalysis, analyzing an ancient historical figure’s mental state to determine his motives. Historical study may indeed speculate about such things, but to suggest, as some do, that one may uncover some nefarious ancient plot to take over Christianity and lead it into heresy is to engage in writing historical fiction. So what may we actually learn from the historical accounts? Peter Leithart’s work, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom directly addresses this question to pursue the “real” Constantine.

Leithart notes that it seems clear that Constantine actually paid much deference to Christianity (Leithart, 93; 121ff; 128-129; 326-328, etc., cite below). He was keen to prevent major divisions within the Church which could have resulted, for example, from the Arian controversy. Hence, he called a council at Nicaea which would define Christian orthodoxy for centuries to come. Constantine himself likely favored the view of Arius, but when the Nicene Council ultimately came against Arianism, Constantine submitted to the defining of orthodoxy.

Constantine’s life appears to be one not of a plot to take Christianity over for political gain, but rather as a life lived struggling with newfound faith and attempting to integrate that faith into public policy. Alister McGrath notes that Constantine’s faith led him to legalize Christianity and sanction it, with some interesting and perhaps unforeseen side-effects:

The new imperial status of Christianity meant that its unity and polity were now matters of significance to the state. (McGrath, 139, cited below)

The much-discussed question of why, if Constatine’s faith were genuine, he would have waited until his deathbed to get baptized is easily answered by his belief that he should wait until the last possible moment to gain the purifying from sins which baptism would provide (Leithart, 299-300).

Frankly, the more one reads about Constantine, the more difficult it becomes to imagine him as someone whose faith was not genuine. Like any Christian, he had his faults–he was a sinner-saint–but he also worked through his position to try to spread and unite Christianity. Leithart notes that many of Constantine’s laws were “more often Christian in effect than in intent” (304). What he means by this is that many laws he made spring from a Christian worldview, though not being explicitly Christian themselves. For example, he outlawed gladiator shows–hardly something which can be said to be explicitly Christian–and this demonstrated Constantine’s genuine concern for human life and the “image of God” in humanity which was noted in yet another law he made (303-304).

In another work, a collection of essays on  Apologetics in the Roman EmpireMark Edwards, having traced various lines of thought in Oration to the Saints (and arguing that it was a work by Constantine), notes:

[The work] reveals an emperor who was able to give more substance to his faith than many clerics, and an apologist whose breadth of view and fertile innovations make it possible to mark him with the more eminent theologians of his age (275).

It’s time to set aside the notion that Constantine was somehow “faking it.”

dc-leithartConstantine’s Takeover?

The “narrative” of Constantine has, unfortunately, often dipped into the notion that he was indeed a Pagan who overthrew traditional Christianity and condemned Christianity to political power-plays for centuries after his death. This notion simply does not line up with historical reality. Although Constantine’s enriching of the church’s coffers did lead to church positions becoming a political gain, it also provided a counter-balance to Imperial authority (Leithart, 304).

Moreover, Leithart argues that the notion that Constantine himself brought about so many wrongs to the church is historically fictitious: “[T]here was a brief, ambiguous ‘Constantinian moment’ in the early fourth century, and there have been many tragic ‘Constantinian moments’ since. There was no permanent, epochal ‘Constantinian shift'” (287). Indeed, the notion of church and state was something found seeded in Augustine’s writings (286) and although Constantine did bring about some monumental changes, the effects they had could only take place over vast amounts of time. It would be impossible to argue that the Catholic Church of the Medieval Period was directly the same or even the exact result of Constantine’s policy.

Finally, Constantine’s policies and actions “Baptized Rome” (Leithart, 301ff). He built churches, empowered bishops, called for unity, and deferred to church teaching. His laws, as noted above, were rooted in a genuinely Christian worldview and sprung from faith.


Conclusion: Defending Constantine

Was Constantine a perfect human? Obviously not. But was Constantine a Pagan who dramatically undermined Christianity; was he a usurper of the Church’s authority who did incalculable damage to Christianity? It does not seem so. Whatever your views on the matters, one must contend with strong historical evidence for the genuineness of Constantine’s faith.  His policies indeed may have (and at points certainly did) damage the church, but was that his intent? Again, psychoanalysis of ancient figures is dubious, but the actions Constantine took were those of someone with genuine concern for the stability of Christianity. Most telling, perhaps, were his actions that were not explicitly stamped with Christianity but reflective of his background beliefs: by seeking to end violence, help alleviate poverty, and the like, he demonstrated his faith.

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Sources

Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom

Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

Mark Edwards, Martin Goodman, and Simon Price, eds., Apologetics in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford, 1999).

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “Constantine’s Faith and the Myth of “Constantine’s Takeover”

  1. Dr. Leithart’s observations are mostly historically accurate. Thank you for bringing his book to our attention. Nevertheless, it is obvious that he has not lived in constantinian Europe or he would not draw the conclusions he does. Again, where one starts from has a great deal to do with where one ends up!

    Posted by portdb | October 6, 2014, 12:36 PM
  2. Yes his faith was so geniuine that at the grand opening of Constantiople he made traditional pagan sacrifices to the Greco-Roman gods. Also on his victory monument he had pictures of Hercules and Diana, not only that he took many pagan momuments and used them to decorate his capital. And no Constantine didnt make Christianity the offical religon, it was Theodosisus that did in 392, also Gladiator shows kept on going for at least another 100 years after Constantine died

    Posted by Tony Jiang | October 7, 2014, 10:46 AM
    • First, I would note that like many who make the claim of Constantine’s lack of faith, the focus is upon mustering as many negatives as possible. It is as if a Christian does something unChristian they are automatically outside the faith. This is a remarkable standard, and it also demonstrates a tendency to try to condemn others rather than practice charity.

      Second, Constantine did not build an arena in Constantinople, he worked to end gladiatorial combat (not something which could happen instantly; this was not the 21st century wherein a law could be instantly spread and implemented across the entire land [not to mention corruption/disobedience in other places]).

      Third, one cannot deny the impact of Constantine’s faith on the laws he implemented. Were they perfect? Absolutely not. But they did show that they sprung from a worldview that was decidedly un-Pagan.

      Fourth, sarcasm is unbecoming. Again, this relates to the first point: too often people look at Constantine and just look for the bad, arguing that clearly this means he was no Christian. To do so accompanied by sarcasm? That’s wholly unjustified.

      Fifth, the argument in this post has not been dealt with. All that has been done is to raise some points of contention that allegedly show that he was no Christian. In particular, Constantine’s own writing demonstrates that he was a man of faith.

      Thank you for catching the error related to my quote of McGrath. I meant to point out the common assumption is that Constantine did all of these things (see narrative in the early section of the post), but McGrath’s point has to do with the sanctioning of the religion by the state; not the declaration as official state religion, something I knew but mistyped.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 7, 2014, 11:34 AM
      • So then when did you believe Constantine became a Christian right after the battle of the bridge in 312? before? and wasnt he a Catholic too? (i mean even most protestants believe that the catholic church emerged around this time)

        Posted by Tony Jiang | October 7, 2014, 1:46 PM
      • The time of conversion doesn’t really matter and would certainly be hard to pin down for someone who lived so long ago. I’m not really sure what you mean about being a “Catholic.’ There was only one church, and Constantine, Eusebius, Athanasius, Augustine, Basil, Ambrose, Jerome, etc. each belonged to it. Again, this seems to be reading a modern distinction (Catholic and Protestant) into a context in which it didn’t exist.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 7, 2014, 3:11 PM
      • by catholic i mean Roman Catholic, and i mean his religous beliefs would have more resembled the modern day roman church then anything else

        Posted by Tony Jiang | October 7, 2014, 3:28 PM
      • By all means, you may feel free to demonstrate that claim from credible sources.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 7, 2014, 3:34 PM
      • you do realize that late as the 330s there were still many pagans writers who supported him, including those that claimed it was the owl of Minerva (not a cross in the sky) that inspired Constantine to victory at the battle of Milian Bridge in 312, it doesnt sound like someone who made laws from an unpagan worldview would have. And how does putting up a statue of yourself as the god Apollo in the centre forum of Constantiople show that he was a man of the Christian faith exactly?

        As for Christianity in the 300s there were many popluar bishops by then like Cyprian and Lactius that claimed apolistlic succesion and that giving away alms can get rid of sins… (now what does that sound like?)

        Posted by Tony Jiang | October 16, 2014, 9:20 PM
      • Once again, your comment is anachronistic. You take 21st century categories, terms, and frankly ad hominems and read them back onto the fourth century. Moreover, you insist that every single aspect of his life and activity must somehow line up with what would be expected of a Christian. Given this standard, none would pass the test. Thankfully, our Lord is a bit more gracious. I’ve presented my case; you’ve presented your anachronistic (and uncharitable) reading of the past. Thanks for the interaction.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 17, 2014, 4:26 PM
  3. I need to read Peter Leithart’s book. Even when I disagree with him there’s much fuel for thought.

    Posted by SLIMJIM | October 7, 2014, 1:09 PM
  4. THank you for pointing, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, one more book to my reading list!

    Posted by intrepidmuses | October 7, 2014, 7:02 PM
  5. Thanks. A very interesting article.

    Posted by Jason | May 23, 2015, 4:00 AM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg - October 7, 2014

  2. Pingback: Constantine the Puppet | Lamb's Harbinger - October 17, 2014

  3. Pingback: Constantine’s Faith and the Myth of “Constantine’s Takeover” | A disciple's study - June 8, 2015

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