Was Constantine’s Vision Dreamt Up?

I’ve been slowly reading through Mark Allman’s new book WHO WOULD JESUS KILL?: WAR, PEACE AND THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION.    Two comments by St. Augustine which in my opinion are thought provoking:

 “For every man is in quest of peace, even in waging war, whereas no one is in quest of war when making peace.” 

War is thus never a goal, but serves only as a means to an end, whereas peace is a goal, a desired end.  It makes me think of the Patristic idea that evil has no substance, it is only a negation of the good, whereas good exists, founded in God.  Good is substantive, but also is of God’s will and energy as well.  Evil is none of these, literally!

Commenting on Matt 26:51-52, Augustine wrote:  “The Lord, indeed, had told His disciples to carry a sword; but He did not tell them to use it.”

It is a very interesting observation.   Jesus does not command the use of the sword.  St. Paul believes the sword in the hands of rulers/authority to be approved by God for its use, though he nowhere comments about a Christian being the authority to use it.    In the Koran there is command to use the sword but there is no approval for pacifism as Allah says when it comes to war humans may not want to fight, but that God knows better as He knows what humans do not know and so humans must obey Him when the call to arms comes. 

Allman’s book has brought a question to my mind:

emperorPrior to Constantine both the Roman Empire and the Christian Church forbade Christians to serve in the military.   The story of Constantine seeing a vision (“by this sign you shall conquer”) before going to battle, seems to have become a justification for Christians embracing the military – it shows God using the Roman Emperor and His military to achieve God’s will, so the use of military would be God ordained.  But if I remember my history correctly, the story of Constantine’s vision is only first reported many years after Constantine had come to power but not at the time it supposedly happened.  I thought I even remember it being attributed to Eusebius, the very pro-Constantine Church historian for whom Constantine is a hero.   I wonder if anyone has researched whether Eusebius promoted or even concocted the story to justify Christians being in the military?   After all Constantine could hardly embrace a religion that forbade military service especially since he used the military to defeat the other co-reigning emperors to become the sole emperor of the Roman empire.  And once in power, he wouldn’t be able to defend his position or the empire itself if Christianity maintained its pacifist stance.   So is it possible that Constantine’s “vision” was “dreamt” up (as it were) to justify the melding of militarism and Christianity? 

It apparently is St. Ambrose in the post-Constantine era who first writes about the Roman Empire as the instrument of God’s peace.    According to Allman Ambrose simply  “imported the Greek philosopher’s concern for social justice into the Christian understanding of war.”  Ambrose, himself a former Roman governor, assumed that political leaders receive their legitimate authority from God and thus if the emperor orders Christians to war, the Christians are to assume this is God’s will.

Augustine, following his teacher, Ambrose, accepted from the Greek philosophers a notion that order in the world is good and that government has the job of imposing order on the sinful world which otherwise tends toward evil.  Thus, according to Allman, Augustine opined that  “governmental authority and power are instruments God uses to frustrate the power of sin.” 

Christians believing in the omnipotent God accepted the notion that Constantine’s conversion was ordained by God (it did after all signal the end of Christian persecution by the Empire) and thus anything Constantine ordered must be God-ordained as well.    I wonder if there is any research already done on this.

2 thoughts on “Was Constantine’s Vision Dreamt Up?

  1. Fr. Ted

    Just a note: I received a couple of email comments on the above blog. They note two correctives:
    1) There were Christians in the Roman military long before Constantine came along. There was a tension for Christians and military service but that seems to be as much the result of the Christian refusal to worship either the gods of the empire or the emperor as god as it does any prohibition against killing. It is true however that some Christian leaders did feel military service was incompatible with Christian teaching. Those Christians in the military saw it as a chance to witness – and be martyred – because of their faith in Christ as Lord.
    2) Eusebius is not the first to report the story of Constintine’s vision. Lactantius first made mention of this story. Eusebius wrote two versions of the story which are somewhat contradictory, but the later version written long after Constantine’s death was the most elaborate and the one which worked its way into Constantine’s hagiography. But Eusebuius did not concoct the story, even if the story came to play a particular role in shaping the Christian attitude toward the state and toward war.

  2. I’m not expert on the period, but I believe that there were several soldier saints before Constantine’s time, though their hagiographies often tell how they disobeyed orders (St George & St Martin of Tours spring to mind).

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