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[A.D. 272 – 337.] Many Christian scholars have given Roman Emperor Constantine the expressions “saint,” “thirteenth apostle,” “holy equal of the apostles”; while others describe Constantine as “bloodstained, stigmatized by countless enormities and full of deceit, . . . a hideous tyrant, guilty of horrid crimes.”
Numerous confessing Christians have long thought of Constantine the Great as the supreme advocate, who, in essence, was the savior of Christianity. It is to this man that most of today’s Christian body attributes the delivery of Christianity from Roman persecution, releasing them from the bondage of being the outlaw religion, bringing them freedom from oppression.
Additionally, it is commonly thought that he was faithful and followed a life course as a follower of Jesus Christ with a resilient desire to spread the Christian cause. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church have avowed both Constantine and Helena, his mother, “saints.”
Who was Constantine the Great? What role did he play in the growth of post-apostolic Christianity? We will allow history and historians to answer these questions.
In short, the reader will find that there is some truth and some untruth when it comes to Constantine the Great. It is true that he was a consummate benefactor of Christianity, but it is also untrue that he was a Christian. It is true that he was a zealous defender of Christianity, but it is also untrue that his life course was anything near reflective of being Christlike. We will allow the historical evidence and common sense to be the advocates of what is true, and what is untrue.
The Constantine of History
In Naissus, in Serbia about the year 275 C.E., there was a son born to Constantius Chlorus, whose name would be infamously known the world over as Constantine the Great. His father would become emperor of the western provinces of Rome in 293 C.E., at which time; Constantine was fighting on the Danube under the order of Emperor Galerius. In the year of 306 C.E., Constantine would have to return to his father’s dying side in Britain, at which time the army raised him to the status of the emperor.
At that point, there were five others laying hold of the title Agusti (Agustus singular). Between 306 and 324 C.E., subsequently, Constantine became lone imperator, which was a time of incessant civil war. Constantine would have two substantial victories in two sets of campaigns, placing himself in world history, making him the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.
In 312 C.E., Constantine conquered his adversary Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. The Christian apologist asserts that throughout that battle, there appeared under the sun a flaming cross carrying the Latin words In hoc signo vinces, meaning “In this sign conquer.” Some also argue that in a dream, Constantine was commanded to paint the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek on the troop’s shields. However, the story suffers from numerous chronological errors. The book A History of Christianity states: “There is a conflict of evidence about the exact time, place and details of this vision.” (Johnson 1976, 167) Back in Rome, the pagan Senate, received Constantine openheartedly, who declared him, chief Augustus and Pontifex Maximus, that is, high priest of the pagan religion of the Roman Empire.
Constantine organized a relationship with Emperor Licinius, ruler of the eastern provinces, in 313 C.E. By way of the Edict of Milan, the two allowed all groups to worship freely, each having equal rights. However, numerous historians soften the meaning of this document, suggesting that it was no imperial document indicating a modification of procedure toward Christianity; rather, it was simply a routine official letter.
By 323 C.E., Constantine crushed his final lingering opponent, Licinius, and became the unquestionable ruler of the Roman world. Still unbaptized, in 325 C.E., he was the head of the first great ecumenical council of the “Christian” church, which judged Arianism as heresy and penned a statement of crucial beliefs called the Nicene Creed.
In the spring of 337 C.E., Constantine fell sick. It is at this point that he chose to be baptized, and then he died that 22nd of May. The Senate placed him among the Roman gods after his death.
Constantine’s Strategic use of Religion
There was a distinct attitude of the third and fourth century Roman Emperors. These ones may not have held the same position as the religion of the day, but they were politician enough to surrender to the mood of the times. Many times, they would bow to the religious movement ahead of their own agenda, giving the impression, regardless of how small, that they too were religious. Moreover, there is no doubt that Constantine was a man of his day. At the start of making his mark, he needed some divine support, which would not come from the Roman gods, who were on their way out, as an influential agent.
The Roman Empire was on the brink of full deterioration. What it needed was a new breath of life, and what better than Christianity, which gave credence to his victory, but to a new empire that was just ahead. The Christian churches throughout the empire were now what held the empire together, looking to the bishops, requesting they keep the unity.
Constantine recognized Christianity for its worth, albeit divided amongst themselves, if he could effectively solve their differences, the empire could be revitalized and united into a new force, for his will and purposes. He decided to unite the people under one “Catholic,” or universal, religion. Pagan customs and festivals were given “Christian” names. In addition, “Christian” religious leaders were given position, salary, and dominant influence of pagan priests. (Durant 1980, 616)
Looking for a religious accord for political motives, Constantine rapidly stamped out any nonconforming expressions, not based on Biblical truth, but based on majority agreement. The deep religious differences within the seriously divided Christian church afforded him the occasion to arbitrate as a God-sent negotiator.
By way of his relations with the Donatists in North Africa and the supporters of Arius in the eastern portion of the empire, he swiftly learned that persuading was not sufficient to establish a firm, unified reliance. The first ecumenical council in the history of the church came about by his attempt to resolve the Arian controversy.
Historian Paul Johnson has this to say concerning Constantine, “One of his main reasons for tolerating Christianity may have been that it gave himself and the State the opportunity to control the Church’s policy on orthodoxy and the treatment of heterodoxy.” (Johnson 1976, 87)
The Council of Nicaea and Constantine
The question is, what part did the unbaptized Constantine have at the Council of Nicaea? The Later Roman Empire states: “Constantine himself presided, actively guiding the discussions . . . Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.” (Jones 1986, 87) For two months the religious debates went on before this pagan emperor stepped in and determined that those who favored Homoousion (of one substance). Why? “Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology,” says A Short History of Christian Doctrine. (Lohse 1978, 51)
A Case for Hope states, “Constantine, who was not a member of the church, presided at the council and said in effect, ‘I really don’t care what you decide, but decide you will, and then I will make certain that the decision is enforced.’” (Kerby 2001, 73) Obviously, Constantine did understand that a religiously divided empire was a threat to the solidarity he was searching for, unity. “What religion he had, many argue, was at best a blend of paganism and Christianity for purely political purposes.” (Galli and Olsen 2000, 306)
Constantine Became a Christian?
Johnson notes: “Constantine never abandoned sun-worship and kept the sun on his coins.” (Johnson 1976, 87) Forgery in Christianity observes, “Constantine showed equal favor to both religions. As pontifex maximus, he watched over the heathen worship and protected its rights.” (Wheless 2007, 30) “First, Constantine never became a Christian himself until he was baptized on his death bed. Furthermore, his behavior as emperor was the antithesis of Christian principles.” (Kerby 2001, 72) In fact, the day before his death, his being the Pontifex Maximus, Constantine made a sacrifice to Zeus. Therefore, it is only fair to ask concerning his baptism, ‘was it preceded by sincere repentance and a turning around from his former way, as is required by Scripture. —Acts 2:38, 40, 41.
Under Constantine, Crispus and Fausta heading, Michael Grant describes what one could call repulsive domestic crimes committed by Constantine:
Eutropius declared that Constantine was responsible for many murders of his ‘friends.’ And this was unmistakably true. There was a long list of victims. . . . Constantine’s behavior is inexcusable by any standards and casts a blot on his reputation. Being an absolute autocrat, he believed that he could kill anyone. (Grant 2009, 109)
Not long after Constantine’s dynasty was underway, he lost the ability to enjoy his accomplishments, as he was soon all too aware of the dangers that surrounded him. He was suspicious to start with, coupled further by those seeking to curry favor with him, nothing but disaster lay ahead. The suspicion came over his nephew Licinianus first. He had already executed Licinianus’ father, who had been the co-Augustus. After Licinianus’ murder, Constantine actually had his own firstborn son murdered, Crispus. It was Crispus’ stepmother, who executed him because he seemed to be in the way of her own offspring.
Fausta’s plot was short-lived, as this act sealed her own fate. Constantine’s mother, Augusta Helena, murdered Fausta or at least was involved in it. The irrational feelings that often exacted Constantine likewise contributed to the flood of executions of numerous friends and associates. The book An Introduction to Medieval Europe concludes: “The execution—not to say murder—of his own son and his wife indicates that he was untouched by any spiritual influence in Christianity.” (Thompson and Johnson 1965, 32)
Philip Schaff states: “Constantine was entitled to be called Great in virtue rather of what he did than what he was. Tested by character, indeed, he stands among the lowest of all those to whom the epithet [Great] has in ancient or modern times been applied.” (Schaff 1997, 18) And the book A History of Christianity informs us: “There were early reports of his violent temper and his cruelty in anger. . . . He had no respect for human life . . . His private life became monstrous as he aged.” (Johnson 1976, 47)
Obviously, Constantine had grave disposition problems. His unpredictable personality was frequently the cause of his committing crimes. Constantine certainly was not a Christian by nature. The evidence does not portray him as a real Christian who had put on “the new person” and who demonstrated that he had the fruitage of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”—Colossians 3:9, 10; Galatians 5:22, 23.
The Consequences of His Efforts
As Pontifex Maximus—and consequently, the religious head of the Roman Empire—Constantine attempted to persuade the bishops of a church that had now fallen away. Christianity was now entering the realms of position, power, and wealth for its leaders, by means of Constantine. While they were not the state religion at this point, it was certainly heading in that direction. Soon the church was ready to bestow titles on the man that had rained splendor down on them, the angel of God, a sacred being, and looking to him as the Son of God, who would reign in heaven.
This Christianity was not the Christianity of the first and second century of our common era. It had chosen to become a part of the world, to such an extent, there was no difference. It had left the love it had at first, the teachings of Christ. (John 15:19; 17:14, 16; Revelation 17:1, 2) As a result, Christianity was fused with the world of government and paganism, as well as Neoplatonist.—Compare 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
The church too would become authoritarian, by way of Constantine’s early influence. The gospel was set aside for arrogant rites, and ceremonies presented, with worldly honors and monetary payments for every priestly function. Moreover, the Kingdom of Christ was moved into becoming a kingdom of this world.
While many would argue that the birth of the Catholic Church can be pinpointed at 325 C.E., when Constantine the Great legalized Christianity, which gave the Christians the freedom, out in the open, to compare manuscripts. Nevertheless, After Constantine, Emperor Julian (361-363 C.E.) made an effort to attack and oppose Christianity, seeking to restore paganism. However, he failed miserably, and some 20 years later, Emperor Theodosius I outlawed paganism and made “Christianity” the State religion of the Roman Empire. Moreover, it was not until after the year 440 C.E. that the bishop of the Roman seat of authority, Leo I, became, in reality, the first pope. He was the first Roman bishop, who held the undisputed power over the other three seats of authority into which the Christian world was divided at that time, that is, the Constantinopolitan, the Antiochian and the Alexandrian. Leo I presumptuously stated,
I will revive government once more upon this earth; not by bringing back the Caesars, but by declaring a new theocracy, by making myself the vicegerent of Christ, by virtue of the promise made to Peter, whose successor I am, in order to restore law, punish crime, head off heresy, encourage genius, conserve peace, heal dissensions, protect learning; appealing to love, but ruling by fear. Who but the Church can do this? A theocracy will create a new civilization. Not a diadem, but a tiara will I wear, a symbol of universal sovereignty, before which barbarism shall flee away.—Beacon Lights of History, Vol. III, pages 244, 245.
 W. Hall Harris, III, The Lexham English Bible (Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), Ga 5:21–23
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