Constantine awoke from his dream. Christ had appeared to him bearing the sign of a bent over cross. Earlier, Constantine had seen the same cross in a vision, with the inscription, “In this sign conquer”. Could this be the sign of victory he had been waiting for?
So the story goes…. it was the year 312, and this young Roman general was approaching the most pivotal battle in his life. Maxentius, a challenger to the imperial throne, had amassed an army to defeat Constantine. Constantine forged an alliance with another general, Licinius. But was this going to be enough to defeat Maxentius? Perhaps this sign from one of the gods was what he needed. Constantine ordered his troops to paint the sign of the cross on their shields. From there, Constantine won the Battle of Milvian Bridge, and the history of the world, along with the Christian faith, was forever changed.
The following year, the new emperor Constantine “the Great” issued the Edict of Milan, effectively granting toleration for Christianity throughout the Roman empire. Property confiscated by earlier Roman persecutions were returned to the Christians. Throughout Constantine’s reign, he supported his Christian mother, Helen, in her efforts to establish sacred sites in the Holy Land, including the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the exact spot where the crucifixion of Jesus was reported to have happened. Many half-converted pagans applied for Christian baptism under the shadow of the emperor. By the end of his reign, Constantine was ordering the destruction of pagan Roman temples and the building of numerous Christian church buildings. Constantine had transformed the Christian faith along the path from a growing yet persecuted sect to eventually becoming the established church a few generations later under emperor Theodosius in 380 AD.
Constantine’s personal legacy regarding his own Christian faith remains disputed. As historian Susan Wise Bauer notes in her sweeping The History of the Medieval World, Constantine’s relationship to the Christian movement had as much to do with the intricacies of heavy-handed power politics as anything else. The ambitious emperor sought to consolidate his own power, eventually defeating his one-time colleague, Licinius, and having him killed, along with other contestants to the imperial throne. Constantine retained the title of Pontifex Maximus throughout his reign, acknowledging him as the head of the Roman pagan imperial cult. He also refused to partake in Christian baptism himself until just before his own death.
Gregory Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, is among those who believe that Constantine’s legacy caused more harm than good regarding the advance of the Gospel. Boyd argues that Christianity’s accommodation to “Caesar” through Constantine has perverted the mission of the church. Boyd may or may not be agreeable to you, but he fills out some of the important details of church history:
Constantine and the Great Council of Nicea
One of the perhaps most influential events in church history was Constantine’s calling of the Council of Nicea. A controversy had embroiled the church in Constantine’s day. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, had been teaching that even though Jesus indeed was the “Son of God”, the Son was not divine in the same sense that God the Father was divine. The Son was divine in the sense of being “like” God, but the Son was actually a creature, and therefore not fully God, since God the Father in His divine nature was uncreated. This created a rift in the church, some supporting and mostly others resisting the teachings of Arius. Constantine called on all of the bishops throughout the empire to come together to the city of Nicea, located in modern-day Turkey. He presided over the meeting, tasking the bishops to find a solution to the crisis.
Some critics of Constantine today go to a radical extreme and claim that the emperor used his political maneuvering skills to somehow invent the doctrine of the deity of Christ to serve his insatiable ambitions. However, this goes much too far. The historical evidence lends absolutely no weight to such a claim. Historians have debated and speculated as to Constantine’s views on the question: did he support Arius and deny the full divinity of Christ, or did he support the opposing orthodox party? It is not entirely clear. However, it is clear that Constantine needed a unified church if he was to maintain a unified rule over the Roman empire with a rapidly growing Christian movement. More than anything else, Constantine wanted a consensus, one way or the other. For Constantine, like many political leaders before and since then, he depended upon uniformity of religious belief as a means of providing the glue to hold his empire together.
Constantine’s legacy indeed is tarnished. However, the idea that he and a group of bishops sat in the back of some smoke-filled room to engineer a proclamation of the divinity of Jesus is simply without foundation. Arius lost the theological battle, but even he accepted at least a “divine-like” understanding of who Jesus was. The Council of Nicea concluded that Arius’ position was inconsistent with the historical understanding of Jesus’ full divine status as taught in the New Testament. Jesus was not merely an elevated “creature”. He was uncreated, or simply “not made“, and therefore,”very God of very God“. Constantine honored the decision of the council and supported the position advanced by this Nicene Creed, which became the basis for the most important summary belief statement that unites all historically orthodox believing Christians to this present day. The emperor in 325 AD, thankful that the crisis was resolved, at least temporarily, could then focus on other matters related to leading and unifying the most powerful empire in the known world at that time.
In this clip from the John Ankerberg show, Dallas Theological Seminary scholars Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace address the claim that Constantine somehow “invented” the divinity of Jesus.
Constantine, in some of his enigmatic ways, reminds the student of the Bible of Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who ended the Babylonian Exile and encouraged the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple, in the 6th century before Christ. The prophet Isaiah extols the righteous virtues of Cyrus such that it makes you wonder if this otherwise pagan king had indeed become a believer in the God of the Jews:
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name”. (Isaiah 45:1-3)
Was Constantine truly a believer? If he was, his pattern of discipleship for much of his life leaves something to be desired. But like Cyrus, he was surely a pivotal figure that God providentially used in the history of God’s people.
Gregory Boyd’s assessment of Constantine is not shared universally among scholars of church history. After all, there are some Christians, notably the Eastern Orthodox, who revere Constantine as a saint. In a future Veracity post, we will explore an alternative, more favorable view of Constantine.
The BBC produced this gritty documentary about Constantine the Great. I will warn you that some of the content is difficult (parental guidance perhaps), but this one hour program paints a vivid and complex historical portrait: