There 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 Empire, Mark 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.”
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.
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).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
It has been remarked, with much truth, that all of us lead double lives, a life of our fancy, in a world of things as they should be, or as we should like them to be, and a life in a world of things as they really are. And this is as it should be. We can lift the level of real existence by thinking of things as we should like them to be. It is well not to walk with one’s eyes always fixed on the ground. (McKnight, cited below, Kindle location 401)
It is easy to hear the “real story” of Santa Claus, but few investigate further than looking it up to see the parallels between the Bishop of Myra’s life and that of the story of Santa Claus. There is so much more to his story–and indeed to stories in general–than that.
Saint Nicholas (270-343 AD) was a valiant man who fought prostitution, abortion, and poverty. He attended the council at Nicaea, from which we received the Nicene Creed. At that council, he defended vigorously the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He was an exemplar of Christian teaching put into practice. Not only that, but the legend which has grown up around his life has inspired and enthralled untold numbers of people through the Christian era.
It is important to note the intertwining of legend and truth in the stories about St. Nicholas, and the impact that has had upon innumerable people. George McKnight, writing in the early 1900s, explored a number of issues related to the mingling of fact and fiction in the life of St. Nicholas. The quote highlighted above touches on many of these topics.
First, there is power in narrative. A story which is told well is one which can effect change. We are impacted by fantasy in ways which cause us to reflect upon reality with new–perhaps better trained–eyes. Second, we, as spirited people in a world which we so often see only as the physical, are called to heights of reality by fiction. As McKnight noted, “It is well not to walk with one’s eyes always fixed on the ground.” Our eyes are driven upwards and outwards by the stories we hear–they cause us to interact with others in new ways, and they also cause us to think about topics which perhaps we had not even considered before.
The story of St. Nicholas is no different. Yes, legend has crept into the accounts of this godly man, but what is the purpose of that legend? Not only that, but is it possible to separate out the fiction?, McKnight also commented upon the nature of radical skeptical history being done in his time (about 100 years ago). He bemoaned the fact that nearly every facet of Nicholas’ life is thrown into question with the arrival of critical scholarship. But of course to focus merely upon what is historical fact or fiction is to miss the entire point of the life of St. Nicholas. McKnight goes on:
The story of St. Nicholas consists almost entirely of a series of beneficent deeds, of aid afforded to humanity in distress, accomplished either by St. Nicholas… or through his intervention… The conception of St. Nicholas, then, is almost that of beneficence incarnate. (Kindle Location 469-481).
That is, the story of St. Nicholas, and the legends that surround him, turn him into a type of Christ–one who is deeply concerned for humanity and showing Christian love for God and neighbor.
Yet this is not all there is to the life of the Saint. Although difficult to sift from the legends, there is a historical core to the life of St. Nicholas which is just as profoundly Christian as the legends which have grown up around him. With that said, we turn to the story of St. Nicholas, with an eye toward how his life is one of a Christian lived as well as a story told.
Nicholas is well-attested to have attended the council of Nicaea. There is a possibly apocryphal story about his attendance there wherein he confronted the heretic Arias himself and slapped him in the face. The story continues, telling of how Nicholas was initially exiled for his act but later allowed to return after Arianism had been thoroughly acknowledged as heresy. Although it is nearly impossible to know whether this story is historically accurate, there is at least some truth behind the story in that Nicholas was known to vehemently defend the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
Nicholas actively opposed prostitution. However, instead of simply condemning the practice, he also gave money to young women in need to keep them from turning to prostitution to feed themselves. Again, this truth served as the basis for a possibly historic legend in which Nicholas learned of three women who were about to turn to prostitution (or be sold into slavery, depending on the account) because they couldn’t pay their dowries in order to be wed. Nicholas is said to have thrown a bag of gold for each young woman through their window so that they could be married instead of sell their bodies. Again, this legend may not be true–but it points to the truth about Nicholas’ life–he gave to those in need and fought against the evils of prostitution. It also points beyond itself towards an ideal.
Nicholas fought against the Pagan practices, which led to his persecution and imprisonment by those angered by his preaching against false idols. Furthermore, his opposition to paganism included working against a number of practices in the pagan world, including abortion. Roman Catholics have continued to spearhead St. Nicholas’ commitment to helping children. A search for “Nicholas of Myra” turns up adoption agencies one after another. Christians have used Nicholas’ example as a call to end human trafficking and slavery. One can see throughout these historical kernels how myth and legend could grow up around this figure–fighting heresy, giving to those in need, and having utmost concern for the innocent were all aspects of St. Nicholas’ life. We don’t necessarily know the extent of his actions in these areas, but we know enough to be inspired.
Therefore, we turn to another part of McKnight’s thought-provoking quote at the beginning of this post:
…all of us lead double lives, a life of our fancy, in a world of things as they should be, or as we should like them to be, and a life in a world of things as they really are. And this is as it should be. We can lift the level of real existence by thinking of things as we should like them to be.
Take a moment to consider what McKnight is saying here: we know there is a realm of absolutes–a way that things should be. We also have a way that we should like things to be. But the way the world “really is” does not often reflect that. Yet we can enact change upon our realm of existence–we can “lift it up”–by focusing on the way that things should be, and living our lives differently because of that. St. Nicholas enacted this in his life, working towards the ideal while living in an imperfect world. The legends of St. Nicholas inspire us to do the same. We are not to focus so much on the critical challenge–which stories are true and which are “only” legends. Instead, we are to focus on St. Nicholas as a story–one which inspires us to change the world around us.
Nicholas’ life was one which fought against poverty, paganism, heresy, prostitution, and idolatry. He incorporated sound doctrine into his life and then lived it. There can hardly be a better example of a Christian life lived than that of St. Nicholas. Yet that is not all there is to the story of the “real” saint. No, his life is one of calling us to live a life for Christ as well. His life is action. It is a life incarnate with truth and the beneficence that comes from the Christian worldview. It is a call to follow Christ.
James Parker III, “My Kind of Santa Claus.”
Robert Ellsberg, “St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.”
George Harley McKnight, St. Nicholas (New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1917). This book is available legally free of charge in a number of digital formats through Open Library.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.