Monthly Archives: December 2016

The First Christian Emperor

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The first time I picked up a slight interest about Constantine was back in 2003, when Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code came out.

It was all the rave back then, and even as I found myself engrossed in the novel, I wondered at the real historical events that surrounded the institution of Christianity as Rome’s state religion. And I wondered at how Christianity left the West and came to our Asian shores. Because really, how did we get here?

Thirteen years later, my questions are partially answered as I study Church History (Church history is much more interesting than it sounds! I think every Christian should study Church history! But that’s another blog post for another time.)

Turns out, it had a lot to do with Constantine, the first Christian emperor.

SO HOW DID IT ALL START?

It all started when the Roman empire was collapsing. It was toward the end of the third century AD, and against all odds, Diocletian (the emperor before Constantine) took the crumbling Roman empire and succeeded in returning order to the anarchy.[1] This new emperor took numerous steps to ensure the stability and efficiency of the empire.[2]

One of these steps was to purge the empire of Christians.

WHO WAS CONSTANTINE?

In the years following AD 303, the church reeled and staggered under the force of Diocletian’s vicious persecution,[3] also now known as the last major persecution of Christians in the Roman empire.

Constantine’s Conversion

At that time, Constantine himself was already a military leader, and in 312, he advanced through the Alps against his rival Maxentius to conquer Rome. Maxentius, apparently, was militarily superior, and so Constantine’s move was a gamble.[4]

What happened next was a crucial event in history that would affect the lives of Christians in the empire and redirect the course of Christianity.

There seem to be variations to the story, but the common scenes of the story are: Constantine marching to the Milvian Bridge, Constantine praying to the god of his father, and Constantine dreaming, or having a vision, of a cross in the sky and the words “Conquer by this.”[5] And so, against all odds, Constantine wins against his militarily superior rival.

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“Vision of the Cross” by Raphael, 1520-24

Constantine himself was won to the Christian faith, or so it seemed.

The implications and consequences of this moment were vast and perhaps unprecedented, for “…to acknowledge a certain god as supreme and determine to obey him… had special consequences when an emperor was involved.”[6] Indeed, as Constantine advanced in power throughout the empire, he also advanced the promotion of Christianity.

BUT WAS CONSTANTINE REALLY CHRISTIAN?

The effect of Constantine’s conversion, however, was not immediate.

He continued to give his honors to the Sun publicly, and although he played a significant role in what we now know as the Edict of Milan in 313, the results of his edict really had little effect on status quo.[7] Some even question the sincerity of the emperor’s conversion. History tells us that he still “…conspired; he murdered, he even retained his title Pontifex Maximus as head of the state religious cult.”[8]

Just Politics?

Some interpret Constantine’s conversion as purely political, and there is no denying that just as Diocletian, Constantine too was concerned about the empire’s stability and unity. The difference in the two emperors is that while Diocletian saw Christianity as a threat, Constantine saw Christianity’s potential for unity.[9]

Constantine finds out however, perhaps to his chagrin, that internal strife had befallen the church, mostly centering on the teaching of Arius. In an effort to overcome this strife, he “inserted himself into the doctrinal debate swirling around Arius”[10] and called for the council at Nicaea. The council rulings, now known today as the Nicene Creed, established, and set precedents for Christian orthodoxy.

The Emperor’s Favors

Constantine publicly favored Christians. He built grand basilicas, endowed churches with land and exempted these lands from taxation, gave gifts of food and grain allowances to churches, besides many other things, and all these expenses were extracted from the empire’s non-Christian population, who had learned to fear the emperor, by the aggressive and violent proclamations against those who did not identify with Christianity.[11]

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A reconstruction of Basilica Ulpia, one of Constantine’s basilicas. (Image from http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities)

The emperor also raised his sons and daughters as Christians, and was later baptized in 337.[12] His sons carried on their father’s generosity, exempting Christians from taxes, and giving them many other favors.[13] He also increasingly limited non-Christians from performing their usual activities by prohibiting public sacrifice, closing temples, and conspiring with Christians in their acts of violence towards unbelievers.[14]

Most significantly, Christians “could now in safety follow their inclination to defend and actively advocate their religious views among unbelievers.”[15] Under the new freedom, Christian activity flourished and gave way to evangelical campaigns and publicity.

WHAT DO WE LEARN FROM CONSTANTINE’S LIFE?

On the one hand, Constantine gave the Christians a reprieve from the heavy storm of Diocletian’s persecution.

We can only speculate what would have happened if the persecution had not stopped – perhaps the church, after suffering so profusely, might have never recovered. The favors Constantine gave the church also allowed for the growth and expansion of the influence of Christianity.

However, we may have mixed feelings from Constantine’s methods in advancing the Christian faith. While there were no official proclamations of persecutions against the non-Christians, Constantine (and his successors) progressively imposed heavier and heavier burdens upon them. Moreover, Constantine’s colluding with Christians in violently oppressing non-Christians is not something Christians ought to be proud of.

If anything, the life of Constantine shows the impact of power and authority on the expansion, or suppression, of Christianity. To his credit, perhaps Constantine’s activities might have been done out of a sincere devotion to God, and some of his methods, although questionable, may have been done out of his interpretation to pay homage to God.

One thing is for certain – his leadership has irrevocably affected Christendom.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

As you read this, what impressions did you get about Constantine?

What else do you think we can learn from Constantine’s life?

What other events from Constantine’s life are you curious about?

SOURCES:

[1] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 98 of 541, Kindle.

[2] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 49.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 99 of 541, Kindle.

[5] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points, 50.

 [6] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (AD 100-400) (Westford, MA: Yale University, 1984), 43.

 [7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 100 of 541, Kindle.

[9] Mark A. Noll, Turning Points, 50-51.

 [10] Ibid., 51.

 [11] Ibid., 49-50

[12] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 100 of 541, Kindle.

 [13] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire (AD 100-400), 53.

 [14] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 74.

 [15] Ibid., 59.