Let’s Go to Theology Class: Constantine and the Church

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Engage the perennial question: Was Constantine good or bad for the church of Jesus Christ? In making your case, note (and cite from Gonzalez, and other sources, if you would like) the ways in which Constantine affected the church’s doctrine and practice. Answer these questions as parts of your overarching answer:

  • Which effects were good, and which were bad?
  • What have been the long-term results—good and bad— of those effective changes?

Just when I thought I was already having enough fun studying theology, we were given another fascinating assignment. Beginning with the conversion of Constantine, Christianity began to move from persecution to dominance. In AD 392, the emperor Theodosius I outlawed pagan worship—Christianity effectively became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine said, “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation… This I have seen in others as well as myself” (in Gonzalez, 2010, 131). At first blush, this statement rings like a true profession of faith in the One True God, but is it? We’re asked to consider whether Constantine was good or bad for Christianity. In part, this must include consideration of whether the above statement equates to public profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. It is interesting to note that Constantine did not refer to Christ as the only god. Accordingly, the veritas of Constantine’s confession has been the subject of many discussions. Some believed it was merely a shrewd political maneuver. Constantine referred to the Christian God as “the greatest god,” the summa deus (Stephenson, 2009,169), yet he adorned the city with pagan statues from around the empire. Ravi Zacharias (2007, 10) said some scholars believe Constantine wanted to assert control over his “chosen religion” to the benefit of his empire and so insisted on the convening of a group of men to determine the content of the Bible (Council of Nicaea, AD 325). However, this was not the purpose of the Council.

Gonzalez believes it is important to determine the impact Constantine’s conversion and rule had on the Church. He states, “The truth is probably that Constantine was a sincere believer in the power of Christ” (139). He failed to place himself under the instruction of church leaders, yet he felt authorized to intervene in ecclesiastical matters. Gonzalez said Constantine considered himself “bishop of bishops” (138). Christian leaders thought that although inclined to become a believer, Constantine was not “one of the faithful” (139). Constantine was a sincere man, but he held a meager grasp of the Christian faith. For example, he thought the Christian God and the god “Unconquered Sun” were compatible. In his mind, there was room for serving other gods. He frequently took part in numerous pagan ceremonies without a thought that he was betraying the Christian God. Regardless of whether his conversion was genuine, Constantine’s beliefs and practices had a definite impact on Christianity.

Bad Effects

Paganism was still considered the “official” religion of the empire. As head of the empire, Constantine took the title of Supreme Pontiff or High Priest of that belief system. Gonzalez notes, “[A]lmost to his dying day, Constantine continued functioning as the High Priest of paganism” (141). His influence caused a drop in catechism prior to baptism. Because the ancient gods were still a part of everyday life, Constantine’s desire to “serve two masters” perpetuated pagan worship in the empire. Gonzalez states despite having done much to the detriment of paganism, Constantine “became one of the pagan gods… the Eastern church considers him a saint, thus resulting in a saint who is also a pagan god” (141). Spiritual ambiguity caused persistent violence against pagans by Christians, resulting in their rejection of Christianity. Power and prestige among church leaders caused increased arrogance and corruption in the church. Gonzalez notes that Lucius “bought” his position as bishop of Alexandria—a practice eventually known as simony. Moreover, as bishops were permitted increasing judicial powers, bribery became an issue. Perhaps this was a secular foreshadowing of priests selling “indulgences” for sins in the Catholic Church.

The laity began to see conversion as less critical or dramatic. Syncretism and superstition were on the increase as a result of merging Christianity and paganism. Many believers were buried with both Christian and pagan artifacts and symbols. Constantine’s conversion led to imperial impact on Christian worship. Incense, which was initially used to venerate emperors, began to be used in Christian services. We can see the influence of this today in Catholic, Episcopal, United Methodist, Orthodox Christian, and some Lutheran services. Ministers started wearing fancy or luxurious garments when officiating, and the church started calling ministers “priests” as in paganism. Kneeling seems to have originated with bowing before the emperor.

Ancient artifacts and bodies of martyrs were dug up, relocated, or venerated—perhaps a form of idolatry? As church membership grew exponentially, limitation on time and space led to many “new converts” not being baptized. Additionally, pre-baptismal instruction was shortened or eliminated. This is something the early church would have deemed unacceptable. Churches, worship services, and other aspects grew complex in contrast to a simpler and humbler time. An “official theology” developed, likely as a means for paying homage to Constantine for outlawing persecution of the faithful. Many believed Constantine was “chosen” by God to facilitate the merging of church and empire. This was something Christ vehemently discouraged (No doubt the congregations became inundated with “so-called” Christians. Gonzalez notes an exodus from “the imperial church” which many believed had become sinful and apostate.

Good Effects

The conversion of Constantine had several positive effects on the Christian church. Prior to this, Christians lived under the unpredictable threat of persecution. Stephenson notes that Constantine may not have been a Christian at this point (AD 312), but he began showing sympathy and concern for its followers (169). Accordingly, he forbade persecution of the Christian faith. Constantine also wanted to end factionalism within the community of Christian believers (Stephenson, 169). Under Constantine, Lactantius wrote an early apologetic titled On the Deaths of the Persecutors wherein he stated that monotheism was Rome’s “original religion, and the idea of many gods was introduced in error.” Monotheism was said to be superior to polytheism, and Christianity was expressed as the only means through which wisdom was attainable (Stephenson, 170). It is interesting to note the likely origin for celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. Sol Invictus (the personification of the Sun) was worshiped as the “greatest god” that was acceptable to all (177). Initially, December 25 was the “Day of the Sun.” According to Stephenson, on December 25, 323 Constantine declared the date as the dies natalis of Christ and exempted all Christians from having to participate in the veneration of Sol (178).

Constantine used imperial edicts to establish privileges for churches and their leadership. For example, churches were allowed tax exempt status for properties and their ministers. Further, members and others were permitted the legal right to pass property on to the church. We see this practice in operation today, allowing some denominations to amass a vast amount of assets. According to Church and State, the Roman Catholic Church is likely the wealthiest non-business entity in the world, with assets ranging from $10 billion to $15 billion and an operation budget of approximately $170 billion in the United States alone (Network for Church Monitoring, 2020). Of course, whenever accumulation of wealth become more important than seeking God’s kingdom and storing up treasures in heaven, such developments can be detrimental for Christianity

IN CONCLUSION, clearly Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is in question. First, although he made a public profession of faith, he did not undergo water baptism until on his deathbed in 337. Moreover, many of his attitudes and actions seemed to belie true dedication to Christ. He continued to participate in pagan ceremonies at times and functioned as its high priest. Constantine’s serving two masters caused the prolonging of pagan worship. Negative effects included ongoing violence against pagans by Christians, ecclesiastical and judicial corruption, early practices that mimic the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, syncretism, a lack of catechism teachings before water baptism, and at least a temporary diluting of Christianity. Constantine did, however, outlaw persecution of Christians, helped to cause a slow increase in observing monotheism over polytheism, and establishment of December 25 as Christmas Day.

I am impressed by the impact of Christian ecclesiastical history on grasping the many nuances of the Christian faith.

References

Church and State (London, England: Network for Church Monitoring), 2020.

Gonzalez, J.L., The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2010.

Stephenson, P. Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor (New York, NY: The Overlook Press), 2010.

Zacharias, R., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith we Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 2007.

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