Constantine: The First Christian Emperor?


Constantine has remained an enigma and controversial figure to historians. This is due to the fact that analyses of him and his policies as emperor commonly intermingle two different questions: that of politics and that of theology. When this happens the result is a conclusion that tries to have it both ways. This is precisely the assumption that is employed in the Da Vinci Code and by various scholars of the early Church who see the heavy-handed imprimatur of Constantine on the council of Nicea as well as the formation of the canon of the New Testament. Contrary to the suggestion of Dan Brown, Constantine had no clear theological agenda. In fact, the emperor hardly seemed interested in the finer points of doctrine at all. Like the Roman emperors before him, Constantine saw religion as the glue that held his empire together. As long as unity was the outcome, he didn’t care which side won the theological battles. It is strange to twenty-first century Christians that, Constantine continued to feature the pagan deity the Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”) on coins after his conversion to Christianity. And he apparently rebuffed the pronouncement of Nicea by inviting the defeated Arians back into the fold and banishing the Nicene hero Athanasius. Constantine was and remained a layman who was not skilled in theological nuances. He was also a pragmatic emperor/politician who lacked the power that revisionists historians ascribe to him.

The Historical Setting:

Background Pagan Monotheism in the Third Century

Recent scholarship has called into question the view that there existed an implacability between paganism and Christianity during the fourth century. Paganism was not a static entity that had reached a fixed state of development. While fourth century paganism was indeed healthy, it was in a state of development. There was increased interest among pagans in a personal relationship with a single supreme deity. In other words there was an emerging “pagan monotheism.” Aspuleius’s The Golden Ass is put forth as one example of such change in religious sensibilities apart from Christianity. The pantheons were being replaced by a single high god who was known by various names. This was also in accord with the philosophers who pointed to a single unifying power to which the ascription god was not inappropriate.

Isis’s appearance to Lucius in The Golden Ass provides a vivid example of this phenomenon. She reveals herself as,

. . .  the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity, the queen of those in hell, the first among those in heaven, the uniform manifestation of all the gods and goddesses – I, who govern by my nod the crests of light in the sky, the purifying wafts of the ocean, and the lamentable silences of hell – I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names. [1]

Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus is recognized as a worshiper of Sol Invictus and seems himself to have been a “pagan monotheist” who believed in a supreme creator God who was known by many names and worshipped in different manifestations, in one place as the sky god, in another as the sun god. Constantine appears to have followed in his father’s footsteps in this matter until he saw his famous vision in the night sky. [2]

This movement toward monotheism helps make more sense of the developments during Constantine’s reign and to explain how Christianity which was also monotheistic and worshiped a creator god (who had also become incarnate to provide salvation) could take its place in the religious pluralism of the empire without causing mass disruption over religion in the body politic.

The Decian Persecution

From the late first century when Christianity lost its protective umbrella of legality because of its separation from Judaism, its status in the Roman Empire was that of a religio illicta, an illegal religion. As such, its adherents were subject to persecution. During the first two centuries the persecutions experienced by Christians were often severe. During the lifetime of the apostles the emperor Nero, in his persecution of Christians, covered them with pitch, bound then to poles and set them on fire to light his garden parties. In the early second century Ignatius, bishop of Antioch was arrested and transported to Rome where he was thrown to the lions in the Arena. About two decades later Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna was burned at the stake for his refusal to denounce Christ. Shortly after A.D. 200 there was a severe persecution in Lyons in southern Gaul (modern France), which claimed the life of Irenaeus, the great apologist and bishop of Lyons. During that persecution records tell of Christians being roasted alive on iron chairs. As gruesome as are these accounts, all these persecutions were local. Rome as a matter of public policy did not officially sanction persecution until the reign of Decius (emperor from 249-251). A devotee of the old Roman traditions, he required that all within the empire sacrifice to the emperor based upon his belief that the restoration of state cults was essential to the preservation of the empire. While Decius did not force Christians to renounce Christ, the Christian insistence that only Christ was to be worshiped brought the wrath of Rome down upon the Christians. The persecution became the most severe persecution that Christians had to date faced, and resulted in thousands of martyrdoms.

The Decian persecution was followed by fifty years of relative peace during which Christianity entered into an era of relative peace and prosperity. During this time churches were built, the numbers of adherents to the faith increased and many Christians were to be found in civil service employment of the government.

Diocletian and the Tetrarchy

During the period of the late empire Diocletian (c 243-316) changed the empire’s administrative structure from that of having a single emperor over the whole empire. He divided the empire into four parts each of which was ruled by a Caesar. Constantine’s father was Augustus over northern Europe and England. It is this administrative arrangement that sets the scene for Constantine’s rise to power.

Diocletian is often called the second founder of the empire. Like the first emperor Octavian Augustus Caesar, Diocletian was a problem solver whose goal was to bring stability after a time of civil war and to give legitimacy to his new position. While Augustus had looked to the Senate for his legitimacy Diocletian’s powerbase was the army, but the military as a legitimizing force for power was abhorrent to the Roman populace. As in the days of the late republic before Augustus was declared emperor, Diocletian looked to culture (including religion) to provide that legitimation. [3] As had been said of old, the responsibilities of the “good king” included military command, dispensation of justice and the cult of the gods.” [4] As an administrator he reorganized the imperial structure; changed the rules of succession; changed the relationship between the senate and the emperor; he exalted the emperor far above the traditional role as “first citizen.” Under Diocletian the standard form of address to the Emperor became “Lord.” [5] His reputation for the first 18 years of his rule was considered beneficent.

When Diocletian’s western counterpart Constantius Chlorus died at York in 306, his son Constantine was proclaimed emperor (Augustus) by his father’s troops. [6] From York Constantine moved his army southward to secure his position as Augustus against his western rival Maxentius.

Persecution of Christianity

Late during his reign Diocletian abruptly changed in his policy toward Christianity (and the newer Manicheanism, a dualistic Persian faith with strong ascetic tendencies) from one of tolerance to persecution. This change of policy has puzzled historians. It has been suggested that it was in fact the Manicheans’ aggressive proselytizing that may have been the basis for the persecution. Of them it was said “They commit many crimes. . . , disturb quiet populations and even work the greatest harm to whole cities. [7] The edict opens with the fundamental statement of belief that “established religion ought not to be criticized by a new one.” It further states: “It is indeed highly criminal to discuss doctrines once and for all settled and defined by our forefathers, and which have their recognized place and course in our system. Wherefore we are resolutely determined to punish the stubborn depravity of these worthless people.” [8] Other edicts of Diocletian reveal a belief that all opposition to imperial policy was treason.

Apparently in this situation there was a conspiracy hatched among both key Neoplatonic philosophers and the elites of the city of Miletus, enemies of Christianity, to instigate a persecution against the Christians as well. The means adopted was a false prophecy given to Diocletian by the oracle of Apollos at Miletus. As applied to the Christians Diocletian’s edict required that churches be demolished, Scriptures seized, clergy tortured, and Christian civil servants deprived of their citizenship and executed if they remained unrepentant of their “crimes.” While Manicheans were at this point a tiny but very vocal minority of the population, Christians represented more than ten percent of the total population of the empire. [9]

Enforcement of the persecution was not universal. Constantine’s father, Caesar Constantius Chlorus, Diocletian’s counterpart in the west failed to implement the persecution in the northern territories and only halfheartedly implemented it in the remainder of his territory. In the east there was widespread civil disobedience that overwhelmed the court system to the extent that there was no room for criminals. While Christians did indeed suffer horribly under this persecution the authorities ultimately recognized that the policy was a failure.

It was into this religious situation that Constantine stepped as he assumed his father’s position.

Constantine and Christianity His conversion: “In this sign conquer”Our knowledge of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity comes from two sources. Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote the emperor’s biography and includes an account recalled by Constantine related decades later, and Lactantius, who wrote a narrative of the event within three years of the event.

Constantine’s father had been a lifelong monotheist and devotee of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, indeed there had been growing a movement among many Romans that may be termed “pagan monotheism.” These Romans rejected the polytheism of the old paganism and recoiled against the blood sacrifice. While not recognizing the legitimacy of Christianity, they worshiped the “one Supreme God.” Indeed, it may be that this tendency toward pagan monotheism accounts for Christianity’s improved standing and growth in the latter half of the third century.

Eusebius relates that Constantine had resolved to follow his father’s god, “Accordingly he called on Him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties.” [10] In short, Constantine sought for a personal revelation. The result of this prayer was his famous vision of the cross. Even after this vision Constantine remained puzzled “and while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heaven, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.” [11] Yet Constantine was still puzzled and sent for “those who were acquainted with the mysteries of His doctrines.” At that point Constantine “first learned the significance of the cross to Christian belief and began a course in religious instruction.” [12]

Two things need to be observed here. First, the initial vision in the sky may have appeared as late as the night preceding the battle with Constantine’s rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge as is commonly thought. Or he may have seen the vision while he was still in Britain and the subsequent dream may have come as late as the night before the battle. The timing of the details of the story is impossible to ascertain, but there is a consistency from the two sources as to the essential data of the account. Second, while evangelicals see conversion as a single momentary event, e.g. “When did you receive Jesus as your savior?” Conversion has not been so viewed through a majority of the history of the Church. Salvation has been viewed more as a process than event, beginning with a lengthy process of instruction and discipline to make sure they cognitively understood the faith and that their conduct was in accord with their profession. When they had demonstrated the sincerity of their faith to their bishop the convert was then baptized into the faith. In the eyes of the Christians of the day one was not a counted as a Christian until one had undergone the rite of baptism. With this background it becomes easier to understand the descriptions of the events.

Constantine’s initial “conversion” reported by Lactanius and Eusebius may have amounted to little more than a primitive “battle of the gods.” Latourette suggests that Maxentius’ reputation for relying on pagan magic may have been part of Constantine’s motivation to find a more powerful deity to call upon to defeat his rival. [13] Whatever the initial motivation as subsequent events bear out, it was a conversion.

Despite his lack of official status in the Church and the fact that he never placed himself under Church discipline or tutelage, Constantine surrounded himself with Christian advisors, and various bishops formed part of his entourage. So much did he consider himself a Christian that he felt free to involve himself in the life of the Church as “bishop of bishops.”

Baptized late in life

Another issue that is frequently brought up by those who question the legitimacy of Constantine’s conversion, is the fact that he was not baptized until his deathbed. And that in his weakened condition that he was forced to accept baptism by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had been the leading Arian spokesman at the council of Nicea.

Constantine died on May 22, A.D. 337. Contemporary reports inform us that weeks before his death the emperor complained of a “slight bodily indisposition.” Around Easter his health took a turn for the worse. Unable to find a cure in Constantinople he crossed the Hellespont and went to Helenopolis (Drepanum) which was famous for its hot springs with their healing properties and was also the location of the grave of Lucian of Antioch whose relics were reputed to be spiritually powerful. There Constantine exhausted himself in prayer and supplication. Recognizing that he was dying he put back to sea but his health had so deteriorated he was forced to put to shore in Nicomedia. While on the outskirts of the city he summoned the bishops and requested the rite of baptism. While Constantine had professed Christianity and devotion to the Christian God for about twenty-five years he was still technically a pagan since he had never received Christian baptism. [14] “At the conclusion of the ceremony he arrayed himself in shining imperial vestments, brilliant as the light, and reclined on a couch of the purest white, refusing to clothe himself with the purple any more.” [15] “He then lifted his voice and poured forth a strain of thanksgiving to God; after which he added these words. “Now I know that I am truly blessed: now I feel assured that I am accounted worthy of immortality, and am made a partaker of Divine light.” [16] He died five weeks later.

While the question of baptism on one’s deathbed seems strange to contemporary Protestant ears, this was not an uncommon practice during this period. At this time it was already common practice to baptize infants to wash away the stain of original sin. But the situation with adult converts was different. The common belief of the Church was that baptism washed away all sins previously committed. Sins committed after baptism required penance. The churches enforced strict discipline upon their members who committed serious sins after baptism. It was not uncommon for the Church to allow only one post-baptismal repentance for mortal sin. With this strict requirement many adult converts postponed baptism until late in life so they could have the assurance that they would die with all their sins washed away.

In the case of an emperor as a political leader of a great empire Constantine often exercised his power in a way that could be deemed sinful as he administered his empire and sought to maintain peace and unity. Add to this court intrigues which included plots on the emperor’s life and were met with swift execution of the plotters. Particularly scandalous in the case of Constantine was his order of the death of his son Crispus whom he was grooming as his heir and of Fausta his second wife with whom his son was rumored to be having an affair.

This brings up the issue of the evaluation of historical figures and their actions. We tend to evaluate the actions of historical figures on the basis of our standards, which are of course the “right” ones. In fact, any event must be understood within its original context and the morality of the times. This standard is not employed to “give a pass” to behavior, activities and attitudes that we might find abhorrent, or to relativize the standards of God. Rather it recognizes that we all perceive reality from our own context, and that before we pass judgment on another, particularly another who lives in a very different culture than our own we must “walk a mile in their moccasins.” God judges by the heart intention and takes into account all the mitigating factors in his judgment. We do not have access to heart motivations, but we can at least attempt to take into account mitigating factors in our evaluations.

Constantine and the Canon?

Despite the bold charge made by the A&E documentary and repeated in a sensationalized form in the Da Vinci Code concerning Constantine and the formation of the canon there is no evidence that he had influence on the canon.  The four canonical gospels were already well ensconced by the mid-second century and that by the time of Constantine the only books that were still debated were those on the “fringe” of the canon, i.e. those books that were not widely circulated. The first canonical list that contains all and only the twenty-seven New Testament books dates from A.D. 367 thirty years after Constantine’s death. Official councilior pronouncements date from a decade later.

The only evidence that Constantine had anything to do with the production of the Bible is a letter written from the emperor to Eusebius of Caesarea commissioning the production of 50 copies of the text of scripture for use in the Church.

Victor Constantinus, Maximus Augustus, to Eusebius.

It happens, through the favoring providence of God our Savior, that great numbers have united themselves to the most holy church in the city which is called by my name. It seems, therefore, highly requisite, since that city is rapidly advancing in prosperity in all other respects, that the number of churches should also be increased. Do you, therefore, receive with all readiness my determination on this behalf. I have thought it expedient to instruct your Prudence to order fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures, the provision and use of which you know to be most needful for the instruction of the Church, to be written on prepared parchment in a legible manner, and in a convenient, portable form, by professional transcribers thoroughly practiced in their art. The catholicus of the diocese has also received instructions by letter from our Clemency to be careful to furnish all things necessary for the preparation of such copies; and it will be for you to take special care that they be completed with as little delay as possible. You have authority also, in virtue of this letter, to use two of the public carriages for their conveyance, by which arrangement the copies when fairly written will most easily be forwarded for my personal inspection; and one of the deacons of your church may be intrusted (sic) with this service, who, on his arrival here, shall experience my liberality. God preserve you, beloved brother! [17]

Eusebius continues telling of the fulfillment of the commission.

Such were the emperor’s commands, which were followed by the immediate execution of the work itself, which we sent him in magnificent and elaborately bound volumes of a threefold and fourfold form. This fact is attested by another letter, which the emperor wrote in acknowledgment, in which, having heard that the city Constantia in our country, the inhabitants of which had been more than commonly devoted to superstition, had been impelled by a sense of religion to abandon their past idolatry, he testified his joy, and approval of their conduct. [18]

Beyond this testimony there is no evidence to or any involvement by Constantine in the development of the canon or in the production of texts. The evidence we have from later in Constantine’s reign suggests that he did not have the power to control the Church in the fashion suggested, even had he wanted to.

Constantine, Christianity and Politics

While the evidence gleaned from Constantine’s actions point in the direction of a sincere belief in Christ, the fact that he was not baptized meant that he was not technically a Christian. This put him in an ambiguous religious situation. This technicality may well be evidence of the calculation of a shrewd politician who by virtue of the fact that he ruled over an empire whose population was still about 90% pagan was as emperor required to fulfill obligations that a baptized Christian could not participate in. The bishops while looking askance at Constantine’s religious and moral deviations as the unfortunate actions of one who was inclined to become a Christian but was not under their direction, they interpreted his policies and edicts as the actions of one who was friendly or even inclined to become a Christian. [19]

Over time Constantine’s favor toward Christianity became more and more obvious. Historians have debated whether this favor arose from political expediency or devout belief. The way the issue is framed reveals a modern western assumption of separation of Church and state as well as a correlate assumption that faith and politics are mutually exclusive. The idea of the separation of Church and state is a thoroughly modern concept. Before the founding of the United States in A.D. 1789 the concept was unheard of. Religion and politics have always been inexorably intertwined.

Constantine’s favor toward the Church can be seen in the fact that he granted the clergy exemption from all contributions to the state, a privilege previously granted to all other officially recognized religions. Wills in favor of the Church were permitted. Sunday, recognized as the Christian day of worship since the late first century was granted the same status as pagan feast days. [20] Feast days in honor of the martyrs as well as festivals were to be honored by provincial governors. Manumission of slaves in the presence of bishops or clergy was legalized. Litigation brought in the courts of the bishops was recognized as legally binding before the secular authorities. As he moved his capital to Constantinople he built many churches while prohibiting the repair of ruined pagan temples and shrines as well as the erecting of any new images of the pagan gods. He also outlawed any attempt to force Christians to participate in pagan worship. [21]

These changes in policy did not happen overnight. He pursued a policy of gradualism, a slow but constant move toward a public policy that favored Christianity but did not alienate the pagan majority of the populace. It appears that he was both a political realist and one whose theological understanding was maturing. His first act was to put an end to the persecution and thereafter declare Christianity a legal religion. Shortly thereafter he showed favor to the Church by giving bishops traveling to the Synod of Arles in A.D. 314 public conveyance to and from their destination. Yet while visibly shifting his allegiance he was careful not to antagonize the followers of the pagan religions whose political power base in the Senate was especially strong. [22]

Ultimately Constantine challenged his eastern counterpart Licinius whom he defeated in A.D. 324. After he consolidated his power Constantine appointed numerous Christians to high government positions. His move to establish his powerbase in the East rather than continue with the capital in Rome was due in no small measure to the fact that the Christian presence in the East was much stronger and paganism was reasserting itself in the West especially in the Senate. The “New Rome” diminished the powerbase of the mostly pagan Senate. Likewise he dealt another blow to paganism by raiding their temples for the statues of the pagan gods and employing them as objects of art in Constantinople. In so doing he deprived the pagans of their ancient objects of worship at their shrines. At the same time he built beautiful churches for the Christians. [23]

Legalization of Christianity

While it is common to assert that Constantine was the first individual responsible for legalizing Christianity in the empire, the facts are a bit more complicated. The general public did not meet Christianity with the hostility of Diocletian. The public sympathies lay with the Christians. [24] Christians rightly attributed their victory to the martyrs, but we must recognize the sympathy of the pagan public for the injustice being done to them. It is significant that on his deathbed Galerius, Diocletian’s successor, issued an edict of toleration acknowledging the failure of the policy of persecution. [25] However Galerius’s subordinates often ignored the emperor’s edict and continued to harass and persecute Christians.

It is true that Constantine ended the persecution of the Christians as soon as he came to power, but so did his rival Maxentius. Maxentius had even intervened in internal Church disagreements in Rome in order to keep the peace. Eusebius reports that while Maxentius had had a history of cruel persecution of Christians, late in his struggle with Constantine he “feigned Christianity” in order to win the support of the people of Rome. Proof of this charade is a secret treaty between the now supposedly “Christian” Maxentius and the Church’s most ardent persecutor Maximin Daza discovered in Maxentius’s papers in Rome after his defeat at the hands of Constantine. This treaty is cited as the reason that the Christians forsook support of Maxentius and rallied to Constantine. What began as a battle for the throne of the empire was quickly transformed into a religious battle with Constantine emerging as the champion of Christianity while Maxentius was relegated to the role of a deceptive pretender who has not without reason been demonized by later historians. Schaff has called him “the heathen tyrant” and “the cruel pagan” “cruel, dissolute tyrant, hated by heathens and Christians alike” [26]

In ancient pagan religions the gods dealt with communities, not individuals. In this way Christianity cut against the grain of society at its most basic level. Judgment was not something reserved for the last days. If offended the gods would express their wrath not with moral judgment and eternal condemnation by physical ruin via natural disaster. Earthquakes, plagues, drought, floods, and famines were all signs of the gods’ displeasure. When such events occurred the citizens would seek to learn how they had angered the gods. [27] The responsibility of the community was to give the gods their proper worship to assure the continued blessing of the gods expressed in fecundity, bountiful harvests, peace and/or victory over enemies.

The Roman state was organized around pagan gods and rituals. For this reason public events which contemporary Christians would not hesitate to participate in were off limits to ancient Christians. Even in the law courts justice was administered in the name of the gods. (This may in fact be one reason that Christians are confronted by the apostle for their recourse to the courts.) Even the meat bought at the butcher’s shop had likely been sacrificed to idols. Because of this intertwining of the state and religion, Christians generally refused to participate in the culture. The authorities viewed this refusal seditious and a danger to the community and empire. With the significant number of Christians in the empire the problem was more acute.

In the pre-Constantinian period the Roman priesthood was the same group that held public office and were of the same social class that characterized any who held position in society. There was no priestly caste. The state was a ultimately a religious institution that existed to please the gods. This became the primary reason for public official. The conceptual vocabulary for the concept of a distinction between Church and state did not even exist. The emperor himself held the highest priestly office in the community—pontifex maximus, head of the Roman state religion. (see below)

At the time Constantine ascended the throne, the Church was not a monolithic structure. Those who read the later medieval hierarchical structure back into the early Church seriously misunderstand and misrepresent the reality. The power of the Church lay not in an established hierarchy but in the bishops as the virtual monarchs of their local communities. The bishop maintained his local community and also represented his community to other communities. The rise and consolidation of the authority of the bishop was tied directly to the persecution the early Church suffered. This focused their role as guardians of their flock in a new way. In the Roman world, pagan priests were chosen for priestly office because of “personal worth,” i.e. station in life, birth or both. While Christian bishops and priests could be well educated and wealthy, their position was not due to either. More basic were personal qualifications of faith and piety of character. [28] Because of their unique position the bishops were the glue that held Christianity together.

By the late third century the Church had become a potential political threat to the Roman civil structure. As opposed to pagan priesthood which stood at the emperor’s beck and call. The Roman political establishment had no say in selecting the leadership in the Church, which meant that the Church was potentially a rival power structure.

The failure of the persecutions made Christianity a force to be reckoned with. Thanks to the apologists it had engaged the dominant culture. Thanks to the martyrs it had maintained its identity, and its message had not been compromised. The Church developed strong internal ties to maintain its communal identity while developing a flexibility that allowed it to attract converts. [29]

Constantine as a shrewd politician as well as one who became convinced of the truth of Christianity purposefully involved Christianity in the political hierarchy of maintaining the civil structure of the empire and thus successfully integrated this powerful social group into the larger body politic.

Did not persecute other religionsConstantine is often seen as the source of Christian intolerance that ultimately led to the persecution of paganism and other religions, but the story is much more complicated. He saw himself as one who would bring unity to the empire. This involved bringing both halves of the empire under a single ruler, but it also involved bringing Christians together in the public square, and finally establishing peace. [30] He publicly announced that he sought “a common harmony of sentiment” [31] that would be concurrent “with desires of them all.” [32] This was a risky agenda politically but Constantine proved himself to be a skillful politician in successfully pursing this agenda.

The emperor himself held a view toward belief that is strangely modern. He in his edicts explicitly recognize that it is impossible to compel belief by force, and ordered both Christians and pagans to refrain from the use of force and to pursue interaction that consciously avoided all confrontation. More pointedly he says in the context of personally rejecting pagan rituals “. . . it is one thing voluntarily to undertake the conflict for immortality, another to compel others to do so from the fear of punishment.” [33] H.A. Drake notes that Constatine’s political theology involved a “sophisticated religious policy of pluralism and toleration.” [34]

As a Christian politician as well as in his relationship with the Church, Constantine was a centrist. He recognized the militant wing within the Church and the strength of belief that produced the martyrs. Christianity was not a unified movement but one that was composed of several constituencies, some of whom needed to be reigned in. Constantine’s great political and rhetorical skill was used within the context of the Church to neutralize the extremists by employing rhetoric anchored in the core teaching of Jesus that marginalized those who would use force to compel faith. [35]

Sol Invictus, Pontificus Maximus

Historians often point to the image of Constantine on coins minted a few years after his victory over Maxentius, picturing him with Apollo in the Roman coinage. This some contend reveals the political expediency of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. While there are many ways that this issue could be approached, one often ignored is the way that Christian apologists of the second and third century contended with the pagan opponents of Christianity in order to make their case.

In his work Against the Christians, Jeffery Hargis has argued that the winning strategy adopted by these apologists revolved around the question that asked “Who owns the intellectual furniture of the dominant culture?” [36] The pagans argued against the Christians contending that their own culture was older and had a great and proud history. Beginning in the second century with the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr, Christian apologists studied the pagan thought and philosophy in order to see similarities in order to find a way to frame the message of Christianity that the pagans would understand (contextualizing the message [37] ).

While this strategy was formerly adopted in the second century, we find the roots of it in scripture. The apostle in John 1:1 presents the preincarnate Christ as the logos, a philosophical concept well known and used in Greek philosophical circles as the rational faculty that bridged the gap between God and man. While the gospel writer does not develop this thought, this is precisely the bridge that the early apologists exploit in their argument with the philosophers. Drake observes that the logos “principle had long ago become personified into the Logos, a philosophical intermediary between the infinite perfection and the limited senses of humans. Christian apologists speaking in this medium could readily identify Jesus with this philosophical Logos.” [38] The Logos became the common ground adopted by the apologists to answer pagan objections while remaining true to the gospel.

Likewise the apologists drew parallels between the sun god Sol or Helios and the “Sun of Righteousness” and the “Sun of Salvation” in the OT. This parallel was also particularly effective since the OT was more ancient than any of the Greek philosophers. As a result of this process there arose “a large vocabulary of shared symbolism” [39] Drake observes that “unless their origins in a common context are remembered, words like Logos and Supreme God, or even Father and Savior, can signal more to the modern reader than their ancient author ever intended.” [40]

In this context of contextualization and shared symbolism it becomes easier to understand the pre-Constantinian mosaic that has been called “Christus-Helios” by art historians. The mosaic depicts Christ in the place of the sun god driving the solar chariot with the rays of the sun radiating in the shape of the cross. [41] The idea of a sacred kingship was shared by both Christians and pagans and in the late imperial period the divine connection was a key to the legitimacy of the emperor’s power. It should be noted that even in the Old Testament we find numerous examples of pagan imagery which do not imply an endorsement of the theology behind the imagery. [42]

The early coins of Constantine’s era recalled the Sol-Invictus symbol which had been a symbol of Emperors power depicted on the imperial coinage. Shortly he shed this symbolism in favor of the older images designed to evoke the memory of Augustus and Trajan.

Pontifex maximus: leader to of the state worship cult
Any examination of Constantine must take into account the fact that as emperor he inherited the title Pontifex maximus and responsibilities of presiding over the Roman state worship cult. Constantine maintained his status as Pontifex maximus until his baptism five weeks before his death.

The main responsibility of the Pontifex maximus was to maintain the pax deorum, the “peace with the gods.” The chief public duty of Pontifex maximus was to preside at state ceremonies. Other duties included the oversight of the calendar and the choice of the vestal virgins, as well as some members of the various priesthoods over whom, he also possessed powers of discipline. [43] He was also responsible to write down heavenly signs and portents and other omens as well as chronicle the events that followed the portents to enable future generations to better determine the will of the gods. [44]

These duties would seem to place any Christian in an impossible situation. Seventy-five years before Constantine, the great North African theologian-apologist, Tertullian, had flatly declared that no man could become emperor and remain a Christian. Yet the imperial office was so bound up with imperial religion that had Constantine abolished the office he would have stripped himself of a vast degree of prestige and authority, while to have transferred this authority to another would have been a virtual abdication of his imperial powers. [45] Indeed for the next six decades the succession of Christian Emperors retained and exercised the supreme headship of the Pagan Cults.

As Pontifex Maximus, Constantine instituted numerous reforms— secret divination henceforth was forbidden, as were certain abuses in magical rites. Early in his reign, he was as emperor religiously impartial in both language and actions. After his defeat of his pagan western rival, and as the power and influence of the Church grew in society, he was free to express his personal sentiments. And as the years progressed his hostility to paganism is more pronounced in his public proclamations as well as in his actions. While in A.D. 313 he gives no hint of criticism of paganism a decade later he feels free to speak of Pagan “obstinacy,” of their “misguided rites and ceremonies,” of their “temples of lying” which contrast so strikingly with “the splendours of the home of truth.” [46] He likewise tells the bishops of the East that he believes that he takes up the government of his new State “full of faith in the grace which has confided to me this holy duty.” [47] Even after his victory over Lactinius the Latin speaking west remained predominantly pagan for nearly another century. However his new capital city Constantinople was founded as a Christian city and pagans were even forbidden from repairing their temples. Nevertheless even as Constantine expresses his contempt for paganism he still carefully distributed political offices to both Christians and pagans and scrupulously maintained the equality of both religions before the law. [48]

The Council of Nicea
The Church had convened numerous councils in the three centuries prior to Nicea. Nicea marked a turning point in the development of the Church and the position of councils. Heretofore the only “universal” council of the Church was convened in Jerusalem during the lifetime of the apostles (recorded in Acts 15) and dealt with the question of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. From that time forward all the councils had been local and their decisions were not binding on the whole Church.

Authority of councils
Twenty-first century individuals who look at the early Church with its bishops and councils often make the anachronistic error of reading back into history the later hierarchical structure of authority developed in the medieval era. Drake observes that the Church of this era bore little structural resemblance to the later medieval hierarchy with its top down authority structure headed by the pope.

“The bishops, not ‘Christianity,’ an ideology; not ‘the church,’ an abstract monolith, but a collection of local leaders with local power based over the course of three centuries had developed mechanisms for working with and against one another to promote mutual concerns and to present a collective authority that usually was capable of controlling the peculiarly volatile and anarchistic potential of their movement.”[49]

The power of the Church lay in the bishops (plural) not in a hierarchical structure. This structure arises after Constantine and in part in reaction to it.

The missionary strategy employed first by the apostle Paul and followed by his successors was one that planted churches and then turned over the leadership of those newly established churches/communities. We might think of each individual church as a “franchise” that was locally controlled but which looked to the wisdom of those older in the faith for guidance. When members moved to new areas and established churches, in succeeding generations the new churches kept close contact with the original communities. For example when the church of Lyons was undergoing severe persecution during the late second century they wrote to Smyrna in Asia Minor about their suffering rather than to the (relatively) local church at Marseilles or even Rome. In short, the early Church was constructed on a vast interconnected network of communities rather than having a hierarchical power structure. Within this structure the bishop was appointed by the community and attained the role of virtual monarch with a power base that civic officials could not easily approach. But two factors, the rise of persecution and of heresy turned the bishops into the guardians of the Church. [50] The rise of heresy is of special importance here because the New Testament itself focuses attention on the belief in core truths, e.g. the humanity of Christ, his resurrection from the dead, his special relationship to the Father, that identify one as being in the faith or not. Heresy threatened not only the well being of the community but also the ultimate salvation of its members. Apologetic concern for the purity of the apostolic faith increasingly demanded specialist tools such as a mastery of classical philosophy as well as gathering with bishops of other locations where they would participate in debate. It was out of these gatherings that the hierarchy evolved. Synods and councils were generally held in the capital city of a province. This in turn gave the bishop of the capital cities more prominence.

The Occasion of the Council
In A.D. 325, the twentieth year of his reign, Constantine found himself confronted by Arianism, the controversy surrounding which was so serious that it threatened to rend the Church’s unity. In an earlier controversy with the Donatists [51] he had ordered mediation. He had expected that the same strategy would prevail in this instance. To that end he dispatched his advisor in ecclesiastical matters, Bishop Hosius (Ossius) of Cordova to mediate a settlement. However much to Constantine’s dismay Hosius reported that mediation would not be possible in this instance. At this point he decided to follow a plan he had been considering for some time. He resolved to convene an assembly of the bishops of the empire. There were matters of procedural disagreement among churches throughout the empire that had convinced Constantine of the need for standardization of policies and practices. The question of Arianism made a universal council imperative. Originally proposed for Ancrya, when Constantine suspected that there might be political maneuvering afoot to leverage the location of the council to the advantage of Alexander and his party he promptly changed the venue to Nicea a more neutral location in order to “level the playing field.” [52] To this end he summoned the bishops of the empire by a letter of invitation, to a council to be held at Nicea, a town about twenty miles from the imperial residence of Nicomedia. He went so far as to foot the bill for the attendees and their officially invited entourage of two presbyters and three servants. Many bishops saw this as an occasion to bring their private disputes before the emperor. These were disappointed because Constantine responded to these appeals by having the documents documenting the grievances burned without reading them and exhorted the parties to adopt a posture of reconciliation and harmony. [53] More than 300 bishops, one sixth of the total number in the entire empire attended. Most were victims of the persecutions and many were physically maimed due to the tortures to which they had been subjected. To meet under imperial summons and protection was for them nothing short of a miracle.

Constantine’s role in the council
The agenda: unity
Although Constantine was as yet unbaptized and technically not a Christian, he considered himself Bishop of all the bishops” [54] Constantine was a layman and unskilled in theology. As a policy he was a consensus builder and looked for those who would be “team players.” In his opening address to the council Constantine both identifies with the bishops and puts his agenda on the table.

“It was once my chief desire, dearest friends, to enjoy the spectacle of your united presence; and now that this desire is fulfilled, I feel myself bound to render thanks to God the universal King, because, in addition to all his other benefits, he has granted me a blessing higher than all the rest, in permitting me to see you not only all assembled together, but all united in a common harmony of sentiment. [55]

The theological issue of Arianism was one which the majority of the bishops did not understand. This group tended to be centrist and interested in the peace of the Church. It was particularly to this group that Constantine appealed,

Delay not, then, dear friends: delay not, ye ministers of God, and faithful servants of him who is our common Lord and Savior: begin from this moment to discard the causes of that disunion which has existed among you, and remove the perplexities of controversy by embracing the principles of peace. For by such conduct you will at the same time be acting in a manner most pleasing to the supreme God, and you will confer an exceeding favor on me who am your fellow-servant . [56]

Constantine’s appeal for moderation set the tone of the council and held in check those bishops who were thirsty for blood.

Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea had earlier been indicted on a charge of heresy by a local council in Antioch. Eusebius appealed to the emperor producing the creed of his native Caesarea and as a result was declared to be orthodox by Constantine. After this prelude the real business of the council began.

There was a request for a reading of the position of Arius so the bishops could better understand the issues under debate. Eusebius of Nicomedia, the unofficial leader of the Arian contingent of 28 bishops, sensed no strong support for the position espoused by Alexander, and evidently falling victim to thinking “if they are not with him they will be with me” he read a statement of the Arian position in its most extreme form. He blatantly and unequivocally denied the deity of the Son, insisting that he was a creature unequal with the Father in any sense. The bishops were scandalized. Some held their hands over their ears. Others shouted that the blasphemies be stopped. One bishop near Eusebius tore the manuscript out of his hand and stomped it on the floor. In short a riot broke out among the bishops that was quelled by the emperor’s guards.

While there was still little sympathy for Alexander’s position there was nearly unanimous agreement that the Arian position was indeed heresy. The issue became finding an adequate solution. After debate the solution adopted was a compulsory creed. The emperor, whose concern was unity more than fine points of theology, agreed. The emperor’s chaplain Hosius began work in constructing such a creed. The Arians argued that only scriptural terminology should be used, but this demand was rejected because it would leave room for the Arians to interpret the words of scripture to their advantage. The point was to write a creed that was explicitly anti-Arian, clearly spelling out the eternal unity of the Son with the Father. The record shows that it was Constantine himself that proposed the term homoousios (consubstantial, one substance, one being) [57] although it may have been Hosius that suggested it to him.

This raises the question as to why the emperor as one whose chief interest was unity would introduce a term that was intended to divide by isolating the Arians. The result of the council may itself give the answer. When all was said and done only three bishops failed to sign the Nicean Creed. On the surface it would seem that peace was achieved. Apparently only a few stubborn die-hards were unsatisfied and forced into exile. The subsequent history however reveals that beneath the surface the real story was quite different.

Beyond NiceaThe sequence of events that unfolds during the next decade is almost unfathomable when viewed through the lens of theology. Using this lens Constantine’s interaction with Christianity over the next decade must be seen as Machiavellian or inept. [58]

Constantine appeared to emerge from Nicea the with a victory for his agenda—a unified Church from which the few troublemakers had been removed. But this unity began to unravel within months. Two bishops including the host bishop of Nicea (Theoginis) and bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, the city of the imperial residence, were both exiled for their willingness to communicate with the exiled Arius and his followers. Over the next two years the Arian party proved themselves to be consummate politicians. In a letter to Constantine that sidestepped the underlying theological issue even Arius signaled that he could accept the Nicene solution. Eusebius whose crime was not theological, but communicating with Arius whom he did not believe was guilty of the crimes for which he had been exiled was allowed to return since Arius had now been adjudged to be orthodox by the emperor.

Once he was restored to his see in Nicomedia Eusebius organized with his supporters to have two of the chief defenders of the Nicean creed deposed along with their supporters. In the midst of this political move against the supporters of the Nicean creed, bishop Alexander of Alexandria, whose excommunication of Arius had touched off the controversy that led to Nicea, died. His assistant Athanasius was chosen in his stead. Athanasius was a man as unbending as was Arius. Despite orders from the emperor he refused to submit to readmitting a schismatic sect of Alexandria back into the church. This gave Eusebius the excuse to accuse Athanasius before the emperor. Athanasius won the initial skirmish and Constantine again turned against Arius. Two years later Athanasius was charged with murder of Arsenius, a priest and called to Constantinople to answer the charges. Constantine dismissed the charges when the priest showed up alive with both arms intact (it was charged that Athanasius had ordered his arms cut off). But in A.D. 334 Constantine ordered Athanasius to stand trial in Caesarea. Athanasius went into self-imposed exile in Upper Egypt to avoid the trial. Constantine was outraged and ordered Athanasius to Tyre the following year to stand before a council, with the warning that should he not appear exile would follow.

Constantine when evaluated by theological standards appears vacillating. Supporting first the Niceans (in the person of Athanasius) and then the Arians (Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia). However the apparent inconsistency in Constantine’s behavior disappears if Constantine was following his own agenda and not one that involved promoting orthodoxy and suppressing heresy. Eusebius of Caesarea himself hints that Constantine’s agenda as one of establishing “one faith, and one understanding among you, one united judgment in reference to God.” [59] To put it another way, Constantine recognized that the key term homoousias was capable of more than one interpretation. He was not interested in what to him were the finer points of theology, but in harmony and unity. His agenda was consensus politics. The winners are players who are willing to compromise. The losers are players, like Arius on one side and Athanasius on the other who are inflexible and unwilling to compromise for the team. Constantine wanted team players. He was not interested in then “secret custody of [their]” own minds and thoughts. Lip service was sufficient. [60]

Eusebius of Nicomedia, the consummate politician figured out Constantine’s game once he had run afoul of the Emperor. He would not allow himself to make the same mistake twice. He marshaled his considerable skills to maneuver Athanasius into a situation whereby he would be viewed in Constantine’s eyes as an obstructionist rather than a team player and thus neutralize him. Constantine’s threshold definition of Christianity was too low for the partisans on either side of the debate to accept. The fact that Athanasius dug his heels and kept the attention on himself allowed Eusebius to position himself as one who cooperated with the emperor’s agenda. [61]

The result: imperial involvement in Church PoliticsFor the Church the interest that Constantine took in the Church was not an unmixed blessing. His convening of the Council of Nicea and his active role in its course set a dangerous precedent whose consequences would haunt the Church for centuries. What was established was de facto caesaropapism, Caesar is the pope. [62] From this point forward until the emperors ceased to hold sway in the East (A.D. 1451) the Church could and did appeal to imperial power to arbitrate theological disputes and enforce councilor decrees with political and military force. In the west the situation was somewhat muted since the fall of the western empire placed the western church outside the purview of the emperor’s political power.

The premature appeal to imperial power to settle disputes robbed the Church of full discussion of issues that needed to be resolved theologically rather than trumped by political power.

Bishops seize the agenda late in Constantine’s reign
Constantine emerged from the Council of Nicea firmly in control of the agenda for the Church. Unity was to be the watchword. The bishops, too, bought into the necessity of unity. However their understanding of “unity” was far different than that of the emperor. For Constantine unity involved not just unity in the Church but also the wider politics of empire. He evidently hoped that the unity of the Church as the true kingdom of God would lead the way, at least by example, whereby both pagan and Christian would embrace some concept of a Supreme God and be united religiously in some vague overarching sense. We might liken Constantine’s larger civil/political agenda to American civil religion which recognizes a supreme creator deity whose presence and blessing is invoked at public events like the Indianapolis 500. Such overarching unity would contribute to the common identity of larger body politic. The bishops’ idea of unity was far more circumscribed—the unity of the body of Christ and focused purity of belief. It focused on the limits of the faith and the bishop’s commitment to monotheism involved raising the bar to eliminate even alternate forms of Christianity (in this case Arianism) which compromised the received understanding.

Constantine’s goal involved the traditional imperial goal of peace and unity through divine favor. His was an inclusive unity. The bishops did not see inclusiveness as an ends but a means for the promotion of the divine kingdom of the saints. They understood divine favor as rooted in right belief rather than numerical growth. Belief, uncoerced belief, as such involved an exclusive element. While the goals were closely matched they did not mesh perfectly. This mismatch in goals became a cause of friction between the emperor and the bishops. [63]

Constantine clearly expressed his agenda for the Church: that there be “one faith and one understanding among you, one united judgment in reference to God.” [64] Beyond this the bishops were to work out the details. Drake observes that at this point he “forgot a cardinal rule of politics: the power to define is the power to redefine.” [65] In turning over this power he allowed the bishops to advance their agenda even at the expense of his own.

Why did Christians turn to coercion?
Many popular works glibly state the “fact” that Constantine made Christianity the official Roman state religion and undertook a policy of suppression and persecution of a similar type that the Christians had endured. As we have seen, this is patently false. It is true that Constantine personally supported Christianity and early in his reign put it on an equal footing with other religions. As his reign progressed he publicly favored Christianity giving Christian clergy status under the law that was not enjoyed by pagan priests. He also built churches while letting pagan temples fall into ruin. In short, while Christianity achieved a favored status under Constantine, it did not triumph over paganism and become the persecuting religion in one fell swoop.

As a result of Constantine’s policies Christianity’s place in society changed. As a religion Christianity was a mass social movement. Such movements must find a way to maintain their identity (what sets the Christian apart from the non-christian), while allowing differences on non-central issue. At the same time it must have enough in common with the dominant culture to attract new members. The community must have boundaries that are rigid enough to identify its members but porous enough for growth. [66] In Constantine’s day there was not need for suppression of pagans and no need for persecution. “The Constantinian consensus, with its emphasis on patience and nonc-oercion, remained a legitimate and defensible Christian position long after coercive measures first began to be taken against non-Christian belief.” [67]

Christianity did not become the official state religion until almost half a century after Constantine’s death. However, we do see the momentum gaining steam shortly after Constantius II came to the throne. In A.D. 341 he ordered the abolition of the “madness of sacrifice.” [68] Shortly thereafter Constantius and his brother Constans went on the offensive against paganism proclaiming “the law of the Supreme Deity enjoins on you that your severity should be visited in every way on the crime of idolatry.” [69] About twenty-five years later the Emperor Gratian (367-383) ordered Augustus’s Altar of Victory torn down setting off a decade long struggle with the Senate. He also renounced the title of pontifex maximus, which all his prior Christian successors had employed. In 392 an Imperial edict forbade all public forms of sacrifice and divination, even in the temples as well as the veneration of household idols. [70]

What was the reason for the movement toward intolerance and coercion? The answer is sociological not theological. An exclusive community can be less inclined to persecute because it removes the opportunity for intermingling out of which persecution arises. Exclusivism is characteristic of monotheistic belief as opposed to polytheism while intolerance can be characteristic of either group. Drake has suggested that the militancy that polarized pagans and Christians during the late fourth century and later arose from two sides. On the Christian side there was an influx of new members into the Church as well as increasing internal conflicts (often theological) that destabilized the movement. From the pagan side the rabidly anti-Christian agenda of Constantine’s nephew the emperor Julian the Apostate rekindled the fear of state-sponsored persecution that polarized the opinions in new and dangerous ways. [71]

Constantine, the Church and Christianity: an evaluation
Eusebius hails Constantine in his iconic biography as the model of a Christian emperor and an example for his successors to follow. Others have seen him as a shrewd calculating politician who used the Church for his own political ends, particularly to consolidate his political power. Evangelical theologian Roger Olson evaluates Constantine saying, “Constantine lived as a pagan and died as an Arian. Hardly an admirable curriculum vitae for “the first Christian emperor.” [72]

I am less skeptical than Olson . Although he accepted the pagan priestly title “pontifex maximus,” he did not offer sacrifice, and as long as he lived he did not permit himself to be regarded as a god, as his recent predecessors had done. He did have episcopal advisers. And delaying baptism was a fairly common practice. Moreover, he went out of his way to support the Church and its bishops. Most radically, he gave ecclesiastical courts jurisdiction in civil litigation.

Constantine’s Christian credentials while not unmixed are impressive. He brought a humanity to the criminal justice system in the empire which had heretofore been harsh and cruel. He abolished the centuries old practice of crucifixion. He also brought to an end the practice of branding criminals on the face. Prisoners who had heretofore been kept in dark holes were permitted to come out of their cells at least one time per day to allow them to see the sun.

He built churches while he let pagan shrines and temples fall to ruin. He gave the clergy a favored status and even allowed them tax exemptions. He made Sunday, the Christian day of worship since the first century, a public holiday. Both courts and markets were closed on this day. He outlawed any attempt to force Christians to participate in pagan worship. As his reign progressed he progressively shed pagan symbolism surrounding the emperor. As noted he changed the coinage that pictured him with the Sol Invictus symbolism.

He personally believed that faith could not be forced and so he exercised tolerance where possible. This freedom of conscience is a remarkably enlightened perspective. This may also explain his leniency toward paganism. While he clearly supported Christians he enacted no laws against the pagans.

That he had a political agenda that stood alongside his Christian belief is unquestionable. But as noted, the idea of separation of Church and state is a peculiarly modern notion. While clearly a Christian in belief and in perspective (although unbaptized) he was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. When one looks beneath the apparent inconsistency of supporting variously Athanasius on one occasion and Athanasius’ the sworn theological enemies Eusebius and Arius on other occasions, we find that he is utterly consistent in his actions following a principle of consensus. He was working to establish and maintain a Church that was inclusive and flexible. A Church that by design would be like the Elizabeth I’s Anglican Church a via media. He envisioned a broad umbrella organization that would include any who were willing to play by the rules and not ask too many questions. [73]

It is a supremely ironic twist of history that following his death his three Christian sons who succeeded him did not thwart the move in the Roman Senate to have Constantine declared a god. Constantine who had actively worked to weaken paganism and strengthen Christianity became a god in Rome’s pagan pantheon.

[1] Apuleius, The Golden Ass (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960), 237. Drake gives his own translation of this passage as follows: “Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are…. Though I am worshiped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.” Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 137.

[2] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 189.

[3] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 63.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 54.

[6] K.S. Latourette, The History of Christianity I (revised edition) (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), 93.

[7] Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, 143.

[8] Ibid., 143.

[9] Ibid., 73. This population numbered more than six million people.

[10] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1.26.

[11] Ibid.1.29.

[12] Ibid.1.32.

[13] K.S. Latourette, The History of Christianity I (revised edition) (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), 91.

[14] The evidence from Constantine’s life suggests that while he did participate in pagan ceremonies in his capacity of Pontifex Maximus, he also worked diligently to break the power of paganism. He removed idols from their temples and used them as artwork to adorn his new capital in Constantinople. The very creation of Constantinople as the “New Rome” struck a blow at paganism.

[15] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book 4, Ch 62, Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers – Nicene/Post Nicene Part 2, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999.

[16] Ibid., 4:63.

[17] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.36, Early Church Fathers – Nicene/Post Nicene Part 2, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999. (Italics added.) Bruce Metzger develops Eusebius’ report further with data known about our ancient NT Greek Texts:

The Greek text of the concluding clause ( en poleutelwj hskhmenoij teucesin trissa kai tetrassa diapemyqntwn hmwn ) is difficult to interpret, and the words, trissa kai tetrassa, have been taken in widely different senses. Thus it has been suggested that the words refer to codices which were composed of quires of three or four double leaves; that they were polyglot Bibles in three or four languages; that they were harmonies of three or four Gospels; that copies were sent off to Constantine three or four at a time; that each Bible was in three or four parts; or that the pages had three or four columns of script. Each of these interpretations involves more or less serious difficulties; perhaps the least unsatisfactory interpretation is the one mentioned last. For discussions of the problems involved, see Kirsopp Lake, ‘The Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts and the Copies sent by Eusebius to Constantinople’, Harvard Theological Review, xi (1918), PP. 32‑35; J. H. Ropes, The Text of Acts (= The Beginnings of Christianity, part I, vol. iii; London, 1926), pp. xxxvi ff.; Carl Wendel, ‘Der Bibel‑Auftrag Kaiser Konstantins’, Zentralblatt far Bibliothekswesen, Ivi (1939), pp. 165‑75and T. C. Skeat, ‘The Use of Dictation in Ancient Book­Production’, Proceedings of the British Academy, x1ii (1956), pp. 196 f.

Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 7.

[18] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.37, Early Church Fathers – Nicene/Post Nicene Part 2, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999.

[19] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 121.

[20] While it is true that Sunday was also the day of Sol Invictus, it had never been accorded the status of a holy day. In A.D. 324 Constantine issued an edict ordering all soldiers to worship the Supreme God on the first day of the week, the day of Christian worship. But it was also the day of the Unconquered Sun, and therefore pagans saw no reason to oppose such an edict. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 123.

[21] K.S. Latourette, The History of Christianity I (revised edition) (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999), 91-93.

[22] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 123.

[23] Ibid, 123.

[24] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 151.

[25] When finally our order was published that they should betake themselves to the practices of the ancients, many were subjected to danger, many too were struck down. Very many, however, persisted in their determination and we saw that these same people were neither offering worship and due religious observance to the gods nor practising the worship of the god of the Christians. Bearing in mind therefore our own most gentle clemency and our perpetual habit of showing indulgent pardon to all men, we have taken the view that in the case of these people too we should extend our speediest indulgence, so that once more they may be Christians and put together their meeting places, provided they do nothing to disturb good order…. Consequently, in accordance with this indulgence of ours, it will be their duty to pray to their god for our safety and for that of the state and themselves, so that from every side the state may be kept unharmed and they may be able to live free of care in their own homes. (Lact. Deaths of the Persecutors 34, 3-5.)

[26] Philip Schaff,, History of the Christian Church, 3.1.2 (Garland Tx: Galaxie Software)

[27] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 92.

[28] Ibid., 107.

[29] Ibid., 107., 110.

[30] Ibid., 107. 286.

[31] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2.65,.

[32] Ibid.2.65.

[33] Ibid., , 2.60.

[34] Drake 298. See Drake’s discussion 298-305.

[35] Drake 306.

[36] Jeffery W. Hargis, Against The Christians (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 5.

[37] For a fuller discussion of the concept of contextualization see M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) chapter 2.

[38] Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, 96.

[39] Ibid., 97.

[40] Ibid.,

[41] Ibid.,, 132.

[42] Bruce K. Waltke, Creation & Chaos (Portland:Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974) 13-15.




[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Drake, 30.

[50] Ibid., 106.

[51] onatism was a schismatic movement which broke out in North Africa c. 313 and named for Donatus, whom the schismatics elected as Bishop of Carthage in 313.

The root cause of the controversy was religious and theological. The Donatists opposed the “lax” policy

[54] Roger Olson, The Story of Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 238.

[55] Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.12.

[56] Ibid.

[57] The term is close in meaning to Tertullian’s Latin phrase una substantia put forth over a century earlier to describe the relation between the Father and the Son.

[58] Drake, 258.

[59] Ibid., 264.

[60] Ibid., 266.

[61] Ibid., 267.

[62] Roger Olson, The Story of Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), 238.

[63] Drake, 320.

[64] Eusebius, VC 2.71.

[65] Drake, 351.

[66] Nearly two centuries before this time the epistle to Diognetus had described these very conditions of central belief and porousness of boundaries that existed in the immediate post-apostolic church.

The Manners Of The Christians

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers – Ante-Nicene, (Garland, TX: Galaxie Software) 1999.

[67] Drake,408.

[68] H. A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 403

[69] Firmacus Maternus The Error of the Pagan Religions (New York: Ancient Christian Writers, 1970), 29.1 quoted by Drake, 403.

[70] Drake, 403-04.

[71] Ibid., 408.

[72] Roger Olson, The Story of Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999) 164.

[73] Drake, 271.