Theology Thursday: Constantine

by Max Andrews

Theologian: Constantine (AD 227-337)

General summary of Constantine and his theology: *I’m aware that Constantine isn’t a theologian per se but does have a huge impact on early church history and theology, which is worth noting.* From the time that his father died (306) until Constantine challenged Maxentius at Milvian bridge (312), he was consolidating his position of power in Gaul and Britain.  Even at this early date he showed the same military and political acumen that he would later exhibit as emperor:  He strengthened his defenses against the barbarians along the Rhine, winning the gratitude of his French subjects.  He did not impose onerous taxes on the people, and entertained the bloodthirsty among them with frequent shows in the circuses  He was deft in diplomacy and military strategy. Above all, he was a patient man, not playing his hand until the time was right.

At the Battle of Milan (312) Constantine prepared for his invasion of Italy by making sure that Licinius could not take advantage of it by seizing Maxentius’s territories to the East.  To that end, he offered Licinius his half-sister Constance in marriage, and waited until Licinius was militarily engaged with Maximinus Daia before launching his own campaign.  He committed only ¼ of his troops to the battle – the rest remaining in Gaul to ward off barbarian advances. Upon winning the battle and gaining control of the western half of the empire, Constantine moved to consolidate his power, entering into an alliance with Licinius in 313 (the “Edict of Milan”). During their meeting at Milan in 313, Maximinus Daia invaded Licinius’s territory, taking the city of Byzantium.  Licinius moved quickly to repel him, in the process gaining sole possession of the East.  The following year (314) Licinius plotted the murder of Constantine, who responded by invading his brother-in-law’s territory. By a deft maneuver, he seized the city of Byzantium, cutting Licinius off from the bulk of his forces, which were in Asia.  Licinius had to sue for peace, giving up most of the territory between Italy and Byzantium.  Though Constantine could have pressed his offensive further and gained sole possession of the empire at this time, he again chose to bide his time, consolidating his power.

The truce between the two brothers-in-law held until 322, at which time hostilities broke out, partly due to Licinius’s renewal of persecution of Christians in his territories.  By successive victories at Adrianople (on the western side of the Bosporus) and Chrysopolis (on the eastern side), Constantine gained possession of the entire empire in 324.  From then until his death in 337, peace and prosperity reigned. Constantine established his capital city on the site of Byzantium, officially dedicating the city of Constantinople (“city of Constantine”) in May of 330.  As the nexus of sea trade traversing the Black and Mediterranean Seas, and land trade between Asia Minor and Europe, it was strategically located.

Constantine’s father was a Neoplatonist and devotee of the Unconquered Sun, while his mother, Helena, was a Christian. Constantine himself appears to have been a sun worshipper, or devotee of Mithraism, as were many senior military officers. His triumphal arch, built in Rome after his conversion to Christianity in 312, was to the Unconquered Sun. Moreover the image of Sol Invictus remained on Constantine’s coins (along with the Christian cross) for the next decade.  As late as 330, Constantine set up a statue of the Sun god in the forum of Constantinople (albeit, bearing his own features). He retained the title Pontifex Maximus, or “Chief Priest” of the state cult until his death in 337. Ironically, at that time “the man who had done so much to the detriment of paganism became one of the pagan gods.”

Was Constantine’s ostensible sun worship consistent with Christianity?  It so happens that many Christians did not draw a clear distinction between the Sun god and the Son of God:  They referred to Christ driving his chariot across the sky.  They held their services on “Sun day.” They knelt toward the East and had their feast for the birth of Christ on December 25, the birthday of the sun at the winter solstice.  Because of this confusion, at the time of the revival of paganism under Julian the Apostate (361-63), many Christians found it easy to apostasize.

Constantine’s relationship to paganism was ambiguous at best.  Part of the reason for his creation of a new capital city in AD 330 was his discomfort with the paganism of the Roman Senate.  This would explain his retention of the Sun on his coins for the first decade of his reign, along with the title Pontifex Maximus. Both measures were designed to placate Roman aristocrats.  Other of Constantine’s actions were calculated not to offend pagans:  The prayer he composed for his army was religiously neutral between pagan and Christian monotheism.  His law making Sunday a legal holiday gave Christians a day of rest in order to worship, yet was worded as if it were an honor given the Sun.  Despite these efforts, Constantine did offend the Roman senators during a trip to Rome in 326 by refusing to participate in a pagan procession. He cut the trip short, never to return.

In contrast to his tepid support of paganism, Constantine accorded Christianity unique favors. He extended privileges previously enjoyed only by pagan priests to Christian ministers:

  • His closest advisors were bishops such as Lactantius, Hosius, and Eusebius of Caesarea, and he appointed Christians to high positions in government in the East.
  • Christian ministers were given immunity from taxes.
  • They were accorded monetary support from the state.
  • Bishops were authorized to adjudicate disputes when the parties referred their cases to them. Their decisions were as binding as those of any civil court.
  • Constantine also undertook a massive building program that erected churches all over the empire and was achieved, in part, by looting pagan temples.

All emperors celebrated their reigns with grand building projects. The difference was that, in addition to building a fabulous, new capital city for himself, Constantine built equally fabulous churches:

  • The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
  • The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
  • The Eleona on the Mount of Olives
  • St. Peter’s in Rome
  • St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, in Rome
  • The Lateran Basilica (now St. John’s) in Rome
  • The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople
  • The Church of the Apostles in Constantinople

It was in the latter church that Constantine had himself buried, flanked by monuments to the apostles on each side, symbolizing his conviction that he was their successor – the “thirteenth apostle” – having devoted himself to the spread of Christianity.

From Eusebius of Caesarea and Lactantius, we know that Constantine believed that he had a special, personal relationship with God, having been chosen by Providence to favor Christianity and assist its expansion.  Hence his self-description: the “thirteenth apostle.”  Hence also his self-depiction as “bishop of those (or those things) without.” His son, Constantius, would go even further, calling himself “bishop of bishops.”  Of course, it was only natural that the Roman Pontifex Maximus of the gods – now a Christian – should consider himself “Supreme Bishop” of the Church. In keeping with this self-conception, Constantine called and presided over the first universal church council, held at Nicaea in 325.

Constantine’s role as Bishop set the precedent for future emperors.  From it evolved the system known as “Caesaropapism,” by which monarchs claimed supreme control of the church in their domains, exercising power in matters normally reserved to ecclesiastical authorities (e.g., the determination of doctrine and appointment of bishops).  This would be an unfailing source of conflict between future popes and kings.  Constantine’s intent to make Christianity the state religion, and to transform bishops into civil servants, laid the foundation for a powerful church with an ecclesiastical administration that would very soon become the “alter ego” of the empire.  Hence, while himself claiming the prerogative of “Supreme Bishop” for himself, Constantine unwittingly created among Christendom’s bishops a whole new class of temporal lords.

As early as 366, the pagan historian Ammianus writes of Rome’s bishops that they

are free from money worries, enriched by offerings from married women, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, feasting luxuriantly – their banquets are better than imperial ones.

Constantine’s subsidization of clergy had the effect of so increasing the material value of clerical status that the rich and well-connected in Roman society soon sought church office.

Thus, St. Ambrose (339-397), son of a Praetorian Prefect, and lawyer and governor in Milan, while still a catechumen was baptized, went through the clerical ranks and was consecrated bishop of Milan in eight days! (In his defense, he did not do so for money or status, but was effectively drafted to prevent the installation of an Arian bishop.  Ambrose’s case was not so far out of the ordinary. Jerome (342-420) writes: “One who was yesterday a catechumen is today a bishop; another moves overnight from the amphitheater to the church; a man who spent the evening in the circus stands next morning at the altar, and another who was recently a patron of the stage is now the dedicator of virgins.”  Many of those of whom Jerome speaks gained their office by outright bribery. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, uncovered six cases of simony in 401. The men confessed it themselves: “We have given bribes – the thing is admitted – so we would be made bishops and exempt from civil duties.”

Within forty years of Constantine’s AD 321 edict removing legal restrictions on Christianity, the Church had become very wealthy.  Almost from the outset, it became common for wealthy people to leave up to 1/3 of their property to the church, so that by the 360s laws were passed (some by Julian the Apostate, some by his Christian successors) to bring the church’s acquisition of wealth under control.  E.g., in 360 clerical land was subjected to taxation and clerics’ private income was declared nonexempt from taxation. In 366 churchmen were forbidden to solicit, or even benefit from, legacies made by widows.

The magnificent basilicas of Constantine and greatly ceremonialized worship within their walls (replete with art, incense, vestments, and processions) had become metaphors for the opulence of the Church and the high-living of its scions.  It is not surprising, then, that many from Constantine’s day down to our own have questioned whether, in him, the Church triumphed over the Empire, or whether it triumphed over the Church.


2 Responses to “Theology Thursday: Constantine”

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