Constantine the Great (Church History Vignette 3)

Caius Flavius Valerius Auerlius Claudius Constantinus Magnus (phew!) was born in February of approximately 272 A.D. Constantine I, later known as Constantine the Great, contributed much to the Christian Church, but his contributions are in the form of performed deeds and not active life for God. Schaff says that “his greatness… is to be measured more by what he did than by what he was.” The first, great, Christian Emperor may not have been a Christian at all.

Christianity has traditionally looked back upon Constantine with rose-colored glasses. This is due in large part to the fact that the oldest significant, intentional, historical study of Constantine’s life is the eulogistic, beatific treatment of Eusebius. While the Church owes much to Eusebius in terms of historical data, his treatment of Constantine is in large part a disservice to the church. Even after the supposed miraculous appearance of Christ (more on that later) to Constantine, he continued to commit such atrocities as the murder of children, close family members, and others who were completely unthreatening  for the sake of political dominance. His committment to Christianity was definitely not complete until his deathbed (and likely not even then). Though some reports indicate the he was sexually pure (very unusual for a man of any position but especially of his position in that age), other accounts indicate the opposite and indicate as well an excessive gluttony. However, we are more interested in what he accomplished than how he lived. Constantine’s father was sympathetic to the plight of Christians under the persecution of Diocletian and did what he could to protect them in the lands under his control. Constantine observed his father’s success contrasted to the utter ruin of the heathen rulers who persecuted Christians and proclaimed: “My father revered the Christian God and uniformly prospered, while the emperors who worshipped the heathen gods, died a miserable death; therefore, that I may enjoy a happy life and reign, I will imitate the example of my father and join myself to the cause of the Christians, who are growing daily, while the heathen are diminishing.” The public support of Christianity was very welcome after centuries of persecution at multiple levels. The pragmatic reasoning behind Constantine’s decision, though, would motivate his religious leanings for the rest of his life.

Conflicting accounts of the “miraculous” event before Constantine’s final battle against Maximus make it extremely difficult to ascertain what Constantine himself believed to happen, much less what actually happened. The most common tale is that Constantine had a vision the night before the final battle in which Christ Himself appeared with the sign of a blazing cross and ordered Constantine to emblazen the sign of the cross and the name of Christ on the shields of his men before going into battle. Other accounts indicate the Constantine (and possibly thousands of his men) also saw a blazing cross in the sky the day before in plain daylight. Still other accounts claim that an angel, not Christ, appeared to Constantine. Certainty about what actually occurred is unfortunately not possible, but it seems most likely that Constantine did, in fact, have a dream in which a messenger told him to use the sign of the cross as his war banner. Because that message would not have been the one delivered to Constantine by Christ or His angels, the vision could not have been from God. Because the outcome of the vision and subsequent battle so favored Christians, it seems unlikely that the vision could have been from Satan. Other unlikely possibilities include some kind of natural phenomenon in the sky or an outright lie by Constantine. Most likely, Constantine sincerely (but inaccurately) interpreted his odd dream as a vision from God.

Constantine won the battle and reunited the Roman Empire under his rule. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan which granted religious freedom to every Roman citizen. This toleration was more limited than the religious freedoms enjoyed and enjoined by modern Protestants, but it was far more than Christians had known recently. Furthermore, Constantine began to favor Christianity over the pagan religion and even began to encourage (though without persecution) that pagans become Christians.

Constantine also called the first Ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, in 325 A.D. While an entire article could (and probably will) be written about the theological importance and significance of the Council of Nicea, the principal subject matter was the dispute over the teachings of Arianism. This heresy taught that Christ was not fully God, but was a created being, or demi-god. The council ultimately decided in favor of an orthodox understanding of Christ’s deity and resulted in the exile of all the heretic Arians who would not endorse the Nicean Creed. Constantine likely did not understand the theological significance of this debate (as evidenced by the fact that he later welcomed the Arians back into the Empire) and was largely concerned with unity in the Church rather than proper doctrine.

Constantine was baptized on his deathbed by the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia. He had never been willing to be baptized before because he was not willing to shed the heathen title Pontifex Maximus nor to take a chance that he would alienate the pagans of the Empire. While it is impossible to know the heart of another man, and even more difficult to attempt to do so shrouded by the space of 1700 years, it is difficult to imagine that Constantine could have spent his entire life constantly confronted with the truth of the gospel, never willing to commit to the Lordship of Christ, and still have become a genuine believer on his deathbed. Regardless of whether Constantine ever became a believer, his life is certainly not one we would wish to emulate. We should be, however, extremely grateful for all that was accomplished for Christ during the Church’s peace while Constantine reigned.

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