This is the 7th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantine and the Christian Bishops (2). This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books: Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.
Constantine elevated the status of the Christian bishops in society making them recognizable authorities, capable of dealing with some legal disputes between people. He also declared that the public in general should come to respect the decisions of bishops since their decisions on issues were thought to represent the ideas of God. Constantine soon came to realize there were warring factions within the church, and the granting of religious tolerance gave the Christians a legal status in the empire which led to the Christians making legal appeals to the state to help settle property disputes. This quickly became a means to ask the state to intervene in disputes in which there were disputing candidates each claiming to be the legitimate bishop in a city; thus the state was being asked to legitimize the bishop rather than it be purely a church decision . Both Stephenson and Leithart see Constantine’s default attitude in these disputes to be one of trying to find reconciliation in order to maintain church unity.
“Letters written soon after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge demonstrate the emperor’s desire to end factionalism within the Christian community, lest this bring down divine wrath upon the emperor. The sentiment is as authentic as the letters, for it reflects Constantine’s conception of the summus deus as a grantor of victory, which might be rescinded as surely as it was given. Constantine’s concern for Christians was founded in a practical desire to ensure divine favour for his own enterprises, and this facilitated the emperor’s conversion from veneration of a summus deus that he portrayed in the traditional iconography of Sun worshippers, to his public recognition of the god of the Christians as the true ‘greatest god.’” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 169)
Stephenson as is consistent with his presentation of Constantine sees his actions as being self-serving: Constantine wants to please the God who brought him to power and interprets church divisions not as efforts to seek the truth but as threats to the empire’s receiving divine favor from the God who had brought him to power. Constantine is the pragmatist and Christianity serves his utilitarian motivation. However, Stephenson does acknowledge that Constantine’s concern is still authentic – there was no separation of church and state in the 4th Century Roman Empire; thus, part of Constantine’s role in defending the interests of the state is to assure that the gods or THE God is appeased through right worship.
Leithart like Stephenson acknowledges Constantine’s political interests and motivations, yet Leithart sees Constantine being more inclined to support religious truth in his political decisions. Constantine is a believer in the power of God, and understands that right worship and doctrine are essential for serving this one true God, and for securing God’s favor for the empire. To this extent, Constantine is a believer in the Christian God and desires to serve this God who has blessed him.
“Constantine was a very skilled politician, and he had definite preferences, strategies, goals. … his understanding of Christianity was inherently political, structurally similar to Diocletian’s Tetrarchic political theology: right worship of the Christian God would ensure the prosperity and peace of Rome, and right worship demanded the unity of the church.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 152)
Constantine never loses sight of his role as emperor even though he is coming to better understand Christianity and its implication for all aspects of life in the Empire. Constantine embraces the monotheism of Christianity as it serves his purpose well for uniting the empire under one emperor, namely himself. Constantine’s vision includes: one empire, one emperor, one God, one religion for everyone in the Empire. The appeal of the Gospel to unity and oneness is appealing to Constantine’s own vision of the Roman Empire. Polytheism could not unite all the diverse elements of the empire, but Christianity welcomed women, men, slaves, rulers, Latins, Greeks, Arabs, Africans and all humans to serve the one God of the universe. Thus the Church does serve his political agenda, and yet the evidence also indicates that Constantine embraced the goals and agenda of the Church to bring the Gospel to all, and to help make things “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Constantine believes the one supreme God has desired the unity of his empire, and comes to understand his god-given role as to help bring about this unity.