It is true that the western world’s attitude toward the conversion of Constantine and its consequences has generally been more ambivalent than the eastern. In the West there has been more consideration given to his negatives as well as his benefits to the church.
And when the church gets its taste of political authority, her leaders will be far from immune to the well-know corrupting influence of power.
We will encounter, during this era, the following:
- The emergence of world-wide ecclesiastics
- The emergence (as if to balance) of extreme practices of asceticism
- Christianity-professing nationalities waging brutal war upon one another
- Deadly intolerance toward non-Christians and Christians with different doctrine
- Unreasonable insistence on uniformity in nonessential matters, such as the date of Easter
Recap of the state of the empire as the fourth century began
Near the end of Diocletian’s reign (284-305), persecution suddenly reappeared in 303. It was mainly due to his son Galerius, who was Diocletian’s junior colleague in the eastern province (recall the empire had been spilt, east and west, with a senior and junior ruler for each region.)
Galerius viewed the rapid growth of Christianity as ominous. He and other conservatives decided that if action wasn’t taken against Christianity, it would soon be too late. The first action in 303 was an edict ordering the destruction of church buildings and scripture. After several fires in the imperial palace were falsely blamed on Christians, a second edict was issued ordering the arrest of all clergy. In 304, an edict was issued that all Christians should sacrifice to the state gods, on pain of death. Diocletian’s Christian wife and daughter (who was Galerius’s wife) recanted. The tendency among the populace was to protect their Christian neighbors. As crowds lined up to pay tribute to the gods, officials often turned a blind eye to Christians who just walked by without taking the prescribed action.
The severity of this persecution varied with local circumstances. In Gaul, Britain, and Spain, which Constantius ruled as the western Caesar, there was hardly any. He did not go beyond destroying some churches. No one was executed. When he died on July 25, 306, the soldiers proclaimed his son Constantine as Emperor.
In Egypt and Palestine, the persecution was fierce, especially after Diocletian’s abdication in 305, when Galerius was elevated to the eastern Augustus, and his like-minded nephew Maximian became his eastern Caesar.
Constantine, like his father, worshiped the pagan sun god of the Sol Invictus (Invincible or Unconquered Sun) cult. This cult appeared in the Roman world around the middle of the second century and had been supported by the Emperor Aurelian (AD 270-275 A.D).
Constantine regarded the Unconquered Sun as his patron deity, but there was already Christian influence in his household (he had a half-sister named Anastasia, which means “resurrection”).
While Constantine’s understanding of Christian doctrine is somewhat shrouded in mystery, it is certain that he attributed his most significant military victory to the intervention of the Christian God. In A.D. 312, with an inferior force, he attacked Italy and his rival Maxentius in Rome. Inexplicably forfeiting the advantage offered by Aurelian’s walls (6 m high, 3.5 m thick), Maxentius came out to meet Constantine and was defeated at the Milvian Bridge, an outcome so surprising that it was easy for many to accept that Constantine had indeed been the recipient of divine favor. The Roman Senate erected an arch in Constantine’s honor that still stands by the Coliseum, depicting the drowning of Maxentius’ troops and with the inscription describing Constantine’s victory ‘by the prompting of the deity’. The deity to whom they referred was the Unconquered Sun. But the Christians believed the one god whom they worshipped had given Constantine victory.
Before marching into battle, Constantine, by his own testimony, and that of Eusebius: "a most incredible sign appeared to [Constantine] from heaven" had a vision of a cross in the sky. On the night before the battle at the Milvian Bridge, he was commanded to mark his soldier’s shields and his standards with the monogram of Christ, using an overlay of the two first (Greek) letters from Christ’s name, chi and rho as a talisman. The coinage under Constantine also includes the symbol. Everything about Constantine’s vision and dream has been embellished through the ages, but there is no doubt whatsoever that, from that point on, Constantine viewed himself, if not necessarily a Christian, as having receiving special favor from the God of Christianity.
So Constantine is the first to engage in battle and, in effect, claim that his army would prevail because “God is on our side.” This is a troubling line of reasoning given passages such as:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matt. 26:52)
Nevertheless, it has continued to this day, and to present-day conflicts.
To the modern Christian, it is no doubt surprising that neither Constantine nor many others of his era thought there was any tension or mutual-exclusiveness between Christianity and the pagan worship of the Unconquered Sun. The transition from solar monotheism, the most popular form of paganism of Constantine’s time, to Christianity was not difficult. Consider the following (as enumerated by Chadwick, The Early Church, Penguin, 1967).
- In Old Testament prophecy, Christ was not only the “son” but also the "sun" of righteousness
But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. (Mal. 4:2)
- Clement of Alexandria speaks of Christ driving his chariot across the sky like the sun god.
- The mosaic in a tomb, recently found at Rome, probably made early in the fourth century, depicts Christ as the sun god mounting the heavens with his chariot.
- Tertulian says that many pagans imagined the Christians worshiped the sun because they met on Sundays and prayed towards the east.
- Moreover in the fourth century, there began in the West the celebration of December 25, the birthday of the sun god at the winter solstice as the date for the nativity of Christ.
Chadwick also writes:
How easy it was for Christianity and the solar religion to become entangled at the popular level is strikingly illustrated by a fifth century sermon of Pope Leo the Great rebuking his over-cautious flock for paying reverence to the sun on the steps of St. Peter’s before turning their back on it to worship inside the westward-facing basilica. Conversely under Julian (the Apostate), some found it easy to revert from Christianity to solar monotheism. The Bishop of Troy apostatized without fear for his integrity for even as a bishop he had secretly continued to pray to the sun. (Chadwick, The Early Church)
So pagan sun worshippers found it easy to become “nominal” Christians, and add pieces of Christianity to their cult. Likewise, under Julian the Apostate’s reign (361-363) when Christianity’s favor would be briefly suspended, these nominal Christians found it easy to return to full-fledged solar monotheism.
Following the victory, Constantine and Licinius , his counterpart emperor from the east, announced the settlement of Milan. This agreement promised tolerance for all religions throughout the empire, and the restoration of all property confiscated from Christians during the persecutions. The Milan settlement did not establish Christianity as the state religion (as is sometimes asserted) nor did it include a statement of Christian faith by Constantine.
For the next twelve years, Licinius remained the eastern Augustus. However, in spite of the agreement, there were numerous skirmishes between Constantine and Licinius. Constantine’s domain moved eastward. Licinius began persecuting Christians—suspecting them (for good reason) of harboring sympathies for Constantine. In 324, after victory in two major land battles and one naval battle, Constantine gained control of the entire empire.
F.F. Bruce writes (some paraphrasing):
Constantine went well beyond “tolerating” Christianity. He acknowledged his debt to the Christian God, and long before he committed himself to the Christian faith he showed in a variety of ways that Christians enjoyed his special favor. Christianity thus became fashionable, which was not really a good thing. It meant a considerable ingress of Christianized pagans into the church—pagans who had learned the rudiments of Christian doctrine and had been baptized, but who remained largely pagan in their thoughts and ways. The mob in great cities such as Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria became Christian in name, but in fact it remained an unruly mob. There was a great temptation for ambitious ecclesiastical statesmen to use the mob for their own ends.
Bruce also discusses the “good side” of the Christian ascendancy to the mainstream within the empire:
Christian humanitarianism began to have an effect on imperial legislation. The doctrine of man as the image of God let to the restriction of branding in an edict of 316; it must not be performed on the face. An attempt was made to discourage the practice of exposing (abandoning) unwanted children by making family allowances from the imperial treasury—and by the less Christian device of legalizing the sale of children by their parents. Laws were passed to safeguard the sanctity of marriage, and greater protection was extended to slaves.
Church and State
The Catholic Church and the state became entangled, to the detriment of both, at least in many instances. As one French Catholic historian J. R. Palanque put it:
It was a fatal mistake, and the two powers were destined to suffer long from its unfortunate consequences. Thus the church was scarcely freed from the oppression of its persecutors when it had to encounter a trial more terrible perhaps than that of hostility: the embarrassing and onerous protection of the state.
This problem was evident throughout the reign of Constantine. He had a noble lifelong cause: unity in the church, but he often sought this unity through councils over which he was the “bishop of bishops”, even though he had little (it appears) understanding of the theological causes of the disunity. The Church, grateful for his patronage, was not in a position to call his authority or his acumen into question. The net result is, while going after the honey, the Church mortgaged her liberty.
Interestingly, the idea of the emperor as a divinely appointed sacred personage, survived for many centuries in the east, essentially until 1917 and the fall of czarist Russia.
The interference that the Church granted Constantine, in deference to his generosity, is apparent in two schisms with which he felt obligated to intervene. The second and more important of these, the Arian controversy, will be discussed next time. The first, The Donatist schism, we’ll take up now.
In order to trace the origin of the schism we have to go back to the persecution under Diocletian. The first edict of that emperor against Christians, in February of 303, ordered their churches destroyed, and their Sacred Books to be delivered up and burned, while they themselves were outlawed. Severer measures followed in 304, when the fourth edict ordered all to offer incense to the idols under pain of death.
When Constantine ordered that property should be returned to the church, he ran into a problem in northern Africa, where two bodies claimed to represent the Catholic Church and therefore the rightful recipient of returned land and largesse. Constantine obliged himself to settle the dispute.
Hosius, Constantine’s spiritual advisor and the Bishop of Cordova, advised him to place his trust in Caecilian, Bishop of Carthage. On this matter, he faced opposition by the party of the Donatists.
The Donatists adopted a position which we have heard before: one that was unforgiving to those who showed weakness during the Diocletian persecution. (Some of this mindset can be traced back to Tertullian who, a hundred years earlier and in the same region, taught that flight from persecution was not permissible.) The Donatists were particular incensed at any leniency shown to those who turned over the sacred writings for destruction.
In fact, they objected to the consecration of Caecilian because the bishop who consecrated him was one of the “traitors” who had succumbed and turned over sacred writings during the terror. (Said bishop, in his own defense, argued that he had himself taken the Sacred Books of the Church to his own house, and had substituted a number of heretical writings, which the prosecutors had seized without asking for more) The Donatists appealed to Constantine, and he appointed a commission to investigate. The commission consisted of three bishops from Gaul and was chaired by the bishop of Rome (who promptly co-opted 15 more Italian bishops to serve on the commission.) This commission found in favor of Caecilian.
The Donatists appealed once more to Constantine. This time he held a council at Arles (Gaul) in August 314. One noteworthy factoid: this council included three bishops from Britain. The council acquitted Caecilian of all charges.
The Donatists withdrew from communion with Caecilian, and, in 315, consecrated their leader Donatus as anti-bishop of Carthage. He remained as schismatic bishop for forty years. They held that they were the true church, and excommunicated not only Caecilian, but anyone who was in communion with him. That would be all other Christians, everywhere, since Caecilian’s office was sanctioned by the Catholic Church. After they appealed yet again to Constantine, in 316, he formally and imperially declared Caecilian innocent and instituted sanctions against those who did not accept his decree, which only served to further enrage the Donatists.
Indeed, far from “solving” the schism, the state’s meddling prolonged it, for it fueled African nationalism against Roman imperialism. The schism lasted for over a hundred years. Amazingly, from 318 to 411 there was even a Donatist bishop in Rome to attend to a tiny group of adherents living there!
The Donatists acquired a motto Quid imperatori cum ecclesia? –what has the emperor to do with the church?—which is a bit haughty given the number of occasions on which they appealed to the emperor for their cause.
They had a paramilitary wing of armed (with clubs) militant nationalists called the circumcelliones who essential scoured the countryside terrorizing Catholics. This could not be tolerated—as so it invited more secular government intervention. (According the Donatists it led to accounts of severe persecution and massacre at the hands of state police.)
Under Constantine, various economic concessions were made to the clergy. For example, in 315, their lands were declared exempt from taxation, and they were spared various municipal obligations.
At the same time, preventative measures were taken against the possibility of massive ordinations (for the purpose of exploiting the benefits.) The numbers of clergy were limited by statute and the imperial government made it clear that the clergy should be drawn from the ranks of the poor, for the rich had their duty to the state. The Church, not wanting to risk losing the underlying generous benefit, calmly accepted the “reasonable” restrictions.
Other carrots included that slaves could be emancipated in the presence of a cleric. Civil suits could be transferred to the jurisdiction of a bishop. In 321, Sunday was declared a public holiday. An inscription found near Zagreb records that Constantine changed the old custom of working for seven days and holding a market day every eighth day, directing farmers to hold their market day each Sunday. This is the earliest evidence for the process by which Sunday became not merely the day on which Christians met for worship, but also a day of rest. The courts were ordered closed on Sunday, except for the purposes of freeing slaves. It should be noted that, in this matter, it is not clear whether Constantine’s intent was to honor the sun or the Son.
The copying of scriptures and the building of churches also received imperial financial backing. Some of the most beautiful and elaborate Bibles were created at this time, at great expense.
Constantine assigned a fixed portion of provisional revenues to church charity. This amount was so large that later, when it was restored to only a third of its previous amount after suspension during Julian the Apostate’s brief resurrection of paganism, it was still considered generous.
Among the churches built at Constantine’s direction we find, of course, the Basilica of St. Peter at Rome on Vatican Hill. Also built under Constantine was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. St. Peter’s was built on the sight where Peter’s “trophy” had been located, and the side of Vatican Hill was excavated for its foundation at great effort and expense.
Constantine’s Last Visit to Rome
In 326, Constantine went to Rome for the last time. It was a visit with disturbing consequences for his family. His son Crispus was put to death due to suspicions of disloyalty. Then the empress Fausta was executed, possibly at the request of Constantine’s mother Helena, for having fueled the suspicions that led to Crispus’ death. Constantine left Rome, and gave Fausta’s palace to the bishop of Rome for an official residence. It continued in that use until 1308.
From 330 to 334 Constantine was engaged in building a new capital at Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, and now known as Istanbul. Rome was demoted, in a secular sense, to secondary importance. His mixing of sun and Son worship is still evident: He placed in the forum a statue of the sun god bearing his own likeness, and also a statue of the mother goddess Cybele, although she was represented in attitude of prayer, which caused an uproar among the pagan populace. (You just can’t win.)
Even this, the relocation of the imperial capital, had unintended ecclesiastical consequences—for the power, in some sense—never really left Rome. However, the emperor’s absence created a power vacuum. The Bishop of Rome (the pope) became regarded as the most important person of the city.
Constantine was baptized in 337. He wore the white robes of a neophyte until his death later that year. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his faith. It was common, at the time, to delay baptism until the end, so as to forestall the awesome responsibilities that it was thought to incur, including, among some (as we discussed) the belief that post-baptismal sin could not be forgiven. It was considered especially prudent to delay baptism if one’s duties, and was certainly the case for Constantine, included authorizing or participating in state torture and state executions.
Next we will examine the first great church council, the council of Nicaea, called to address the Arian heresy.