This is the 3rd blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantine Comes to Power. This blog series is ruminating on Constantine the Great as presented in two books: Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.
The entire Roman Empire in the 4th Century was undergoing a religious conversion whether it realized it or not. Polytheism was increasingly being replaced by the ideas of henotheism (a belief that among the gods there is one who is supreme) and in some by monotheism. Christians, who had been at times ridiculed, at times despised and declared illegal and at times persecuted, also continued to proselytize throughout the empire. The Christians had become significant minorities in areas of the empire and in a few had actually attained a majority status. They were a force that had to be reckoned with. The policy of the toleration of Christianity may have been no more than a tacit admission that the Christians were there to stay, but at least in the case of Constantine seems to have resulted from his coming to appreciate some of the values of this upstart religion.
“From the days of his youth Constantine probably had been sympathetic to Christianity, and in 312 he experienced a religious conversion which profoundly affected his conception of himself. After 312 Constantine considered that his main duty as emperor was to inculcate virtue in his subjects and to persuade them to worship God. Constantine’s character is not wholly enigmatic; with all his faults and despite an intense ambition for personal power, he nevertheless sincerely believed that God had given him a special mission to convert the Roman Empire to Christianity.” (Timothy Barnes quoted in Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 96)
Constantine’s full embrace of Christianity, may have been a result of his own realistic assessment of the Roman Empire in relationship to Christianity. Leithart notes the attitude of Christian historian Eusebius (d. 339AD) which saw the triumph of Christianity as being obvious – for this was God’s will for the empire.
“For many Christians, such as Eusebius, the task of the hour was not to integrate the church into the empire. The empire had lost the battle with the church, and it was the empire that should make concessions. The church was not incorporated but victorious; the martyrs’ faith had been vindicated, and the task was now to integrate the emperor into the church.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 183)
Stephenson points out that Constantine’s “conversion” was not a complete and total abandonment of all things pagan. He still was the emperor of an empire that was mostly pagan, and he was astute enough as a politician to realize that. Constantine while moving in the direction of Christian faith and ethics continued to fulfill his obligations to the empire as he understood them.
“But through Constantine’s success, the god of the Christians had clearly emerged as a god of victory. … the brand of Christianity that Constantine espoused did not preclude participation in regular public rituals. Constantine notoriously remained pontifex maximus, head of the Roman colleges of priests, throughout his life, although by 315 he had refused to participate in sacrifices. … Nor was military discipline to be affected by notions of Christian charity. Punishment meted out for transgressions by officers, Christians or not, remained severe … Imperial Christianity was not a religion of peace and forgiveness.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 230)
Despite a slow and organic transition to Christianity, it does become obvious that Constantine is embracing Christian values and begins enforcing them throughout the empire. It was a gradual transition, but in areas that he actually controlled –for example forbidding the offering of animal sacrifices at public rituals – Constantine refused pagan rites and increasingly replaced them with Christian symbols. Leithart looking at the historical evidence is convinced:
“… the Constantine we are examining was a Christian. Flawed, no doubt; sometimes inconsistent with his stated ethic, certainly; an infant in faith. Yet a Christian.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 96)
Leithart emphasizes that Constantine must be measured against 4th Century Christianity in determining how Christian he had become. He cannot be evaluated in terms of 21st Century American Christian values regarding issues, for we have 1700 years of Christians wrestling with issues of morality and ethics more than Constantine had. He was setting a precedent. He did not have the advantage that we have – 1700 years to see how his decisions worked themselves out in history.