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Constantine's Faith



This is not basketball related. TMiss and I were talking about Constantine's faith so I am posting this paper I wrote when I was in high school. The college running w/ Twolves (and scissors) realizes that Eusebius of Nicomedia did sign to Nicene Creed. Enjoy the read if you would like and forgive the younger running w/ Twolves (and scissors) for only using a few sources.

By Paul Mueller

For Mr. Pennington’s Western Civilization class
Constantine: Faith or Propaganda?

That’s the question everyone from The da Vinci Code readers to honest Christians to historians is asking. Was Constantine a believer of Christ? And if so, was it his whole life? Or was it on his deathbed? Was he Arian or Orthodox? Was he even a Christian at all?

This essay will examine the viewpoints of four historians and how they fit into history. Justo Gonzalez, author of The Story of Christianity, he is a noted historian on church history. Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, blamed Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire. Paul Maier, translator of Eusebius the Church History, is the leading Lutheran Church Missouri Synod ancient history scholar. He includes commentary along with the text. Also Eusebius, the writer of The Church History, Eusebius is Constantine’s most ardent supporter. I was surprised to see that all the authors except Eusebius (who immediately flatters Constantine with praise) talked about a gradual transition into Christianity. This essay is intended to show Constantine’s gradual transition to Christianity.

The dates of the following events come from Hans A. Pohlsander on roman-emperors.org. Constantine was born to an army officer, Constantius and his possible concubine Helena around the year 272 in modern day Serbia. Constantius rose to power and became a Caesar in the First Tetrachy organized by Diocletian (The Empire had two Augustus with two Caesars serving under them). When Constantius rose to become an Augustus, he only reigned for little over one year. He died in July of 306 in England. Constantius’ soldiers soon heralded Constantine as Augustus. However, Constantine was not the only one who claimed to rule the Western Half of the Empire. The Senate and the Praetorian Guard in Rome had proclaimed Maxentius the Augustus.

Eusebius referred to Maxentius as a tyrant whenever he talked about him. Maxentius was a pagan and supported persecution. At this time Constantine was probably also a pagan, but he supported freedom to worship any religion. This set the stage for the important Battle of Milvian Bridge outside Rome in 312. Before the battle Constantine saw a vision or had a dream (depending on the chronicler) where he received the message, “In this you shall conquer.” The sign given was placed on the Constantine’s labarum and his soldiers shields. Most sources say the sign was a chi rho. Whatever the sign, Constantine trusted in the Christian God in this victory. Eusebius tells of Constantine even singing Psalms of praise after the battle. It seems that Constantine indeed did trust and fear the power of the Christian God. However, he did not cease his worship of the Unconquered Son. This also shows that Constantine was not pretending to be a Christian for political reasons. Rome had a vast pagan majority so it would be idiotic of Constantine to pretend to be a Christian as he marched into the city unless he did trust in God.

After Constantine’s military victory he met with Licinius (the Augustus in the East) at Milan and issued the famous Edict of Milan in 313. Eusebius was kind enough to include the edict in his book. The edict states that the main reason is, “To grant the Christians and all others the freedom to follow whatever form of worship they pleased, so that all the divine and heavenly powers that exist might be favorable to us and all those living under out authority” (Eusebius, 360). It seems that Constantine and Licinius acknowledged the Christian God’s power, but wanted to get plenty of power from all the other gods as well.

After Constantine unsuccessfully settled the Donatist Controversy he celebrated his tenth year as the ruler and dedicated an arch to the occasion. “There were all manner of festivities, but Constantine pointedly omitted traditional sacrifices to the pagan gods” (Pohlsnader). Constantine also dictated letters to church leaders at this time. According to Eusebius he closes letter with “May God Almighty keep you in good health for many years” (365). Constantine also calls Christianity a “most holy religion” (364). It was in this period that I believe Constantine’s faith grew very much.

The Edict of Milan did not stop all persecution. Soon, Licinius was back to persecuting Christians in the Eastern half of the Empire. Tensions grew until war broke out in 316 and again in 324. After Constantine finally won he let Licinius live at the request of Constantia (Constantine’s sister and Licuinius’ wife). However, soon Licinius and his son were executed for suspicions of rebellion.

In 325 Constantine dealt with a new heresy called Arianism. The Arians believed that Jesus was a created being, thus not coeternal with the Father. To deal with this new heresy, he called the Council of Nicea which he led. Gonzalez tells that there were roughly 300 bishops in attendance mostly from the east half of the Empire. Eusebius of Nicomedia (a different Eusebius) led the argument for Arianism because Arius was not a bishop. After his speech the council which began in the gray area was now convinced that Arianism was wrong. They formulated the Nicean Creed where Constantine actively participated in the discussion for the wording. Several of the Bishops including Eusebius of Nicomedia refused to sign the new creed. Constantine had them banished to keep the peace. However, this was the first instance where secular punishment was enforced in a doctrinal dispute. This would lead to later confusion in church/state issues. I think that Constantine shows his growing faith and understanding in his participation here. It seems that his faith continues in its steady progression.

326 had plenty of family tragedy for Constantine. His son Crispus was accused by Constantine’s wife Fausta of attempting to seduce her. Constantine had Crispus killed, but Helena (Constantine’s mother) said that Fausta lied about the incident so she was also executed. This is an instance where some historians claim that it shows Constantine was not an acting Christian. However, it gives even a better example of the Christian influence in his life. Helena began to travel to the Holy Land possibly seeking reconciliation for her son’s sins. Constantine showed favor to his Christian mother and built many churches in the Holy Land on account of her including the Church of the Nativity and the Church of Eleona on Jerusalem’s Mont of Olives. Constantine also built the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Building these churches shows the commitment that Constantine has to Christianity. None of the sources talk about building new temples but all of them talk about his new grand churches.

In May 330, Constantine dedicated his new capital city Constantinople. The city had previously been named Byzantium. Constantine showed his devotion even more in building his new capital. He stripped many pagan temples of their statures to become mere ornaments in his new city. Constantine also continued his church building with his most famous church, the Hagia Sophia. By this point Constantine is definitely a Christian emperor. He is the first monarch ever to have a Christian capital.

During the year 337 around Easter Constantine became ill. As Constantine prepared for death he prayed to the Christian God. He also had his recalled religious advisor, the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, baptize him on his deathbed. Because he waited so long to be baptized, some historians show this as a stubbornness to convert. However, Maier points out, “Delaying one’s baptism until the end of life in order to purge all previous sins was a convention at that time, however mistaken theologically” (374). He died on Pentecost of that year. Being baptized by an Arian would give strong evidence that Constantine was not a completely Orthodox Christian. However, throughout his life he proved to be a very independent individual. Knowing this I would not say that without a doubt he was Arian. It was very fitting for someone who helped spread Christianity as much as Constantine to die on Pentecost.

There still remains a large gap between what historians believe about Constantine’s conversion. The pagan historian Zosimus claimed that the conversion was all politics. Chambers states in The Western Experience, “As to Constantine himself, his conversion had certain political reasons, for there were now so many Christians that he naturally wanted to include them within the state. But his own letters and actions show a serious personal commitment to Christianity” (147). Of course Eusebius felt Constantine was truly a genuine Christian and gift from God.

Justo Gonzalez supports a theory that at one time (especially early in his rule) Constantine believed there were many gods. He definitely felt that the Christian God was powerful. “When Constantine enacted laws in favor of Christianity, and when he had churches build, what he sought was not the goodwill of Christians, but rather the goodwill of their God…which reveal a sincere man whose understanding of the Christian message was meager…Thus on occasion, he would consult the oracle of Apollo, accept the title of High Priest that had traditionally been the prerogative of emperors and partake of all sorts of pagan ceremonies without thinking that he was thus betraying of abandoning the God who had given him victory and power” (Gonzalez 122).

Edward Gibbon agrees with that theory. He writes, “The mind of Constantine might fluctuate between the Pagan and the Christian religions. According to the loose and complying notions of Polytheism, he might acknowledge the God of the Christians as one of the many deities who compose the hierarchy of heaven” (313). Gibbon also defends Constantine’s genuine faith. “He sued the altars of the church as a convenient footstool to the throne of the empire. A conclusion so harsh and so absolute is not, however, warranted by our knowledge of human nature, of Constantine, or of Christianity” (323).

Instead of a panel of gods that he believed in Paul Maier gives Constantine the benefit of the doubt. “Constantine felt that he had to be emperor of all Roman citizens including the pagan majority, and he put no stock in his role as high priest…That Constantine’s personal and domestic life did no always reflect Christian ideals is obvious, but not more so than we might expect from a ruler involved in a transition from paganism to Christianity…If pagan polytheism was failing the Roman state–and it surely was, in view of the civil upheavals and decline of the empire–Christian monotheism became a superior religious substitute for many Romans in the fourth century, not only for Constantine” (374).

Personally I believe Constantine’s faith was genuine. It started as a promise of power in a vision. As he grew in faith he was not a normal catechumen, but he surrounded himself with Christians, especially bishops. As his faith matured, he started to distance himself from polytheism and towards Christianity. He passed laws and built churches. Constantine put the exclamation point of his faith with baptism. He delayed his baptism and was baptized by an Arian showing that his faith may not be doctrinally sound but it was by all means genuine.

Bibliography

Chambers, Mortimer, Barbara Hanawalt, Theodore Rabb, Isser Woloch, Ramond Grew, and Lisa Tiersten. The Western Experience. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2007.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume II. London: The Folio Society, 1984.

Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity.

New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1984.

Maier, Paul. Eusebius, The Church History.

Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1999.

(This source is a translation with commentary. The translation is cited as Eusebius and the commentary is Maier)

Pohlsander, Hans. “Constantine.” http:/www.roman-emperors.org/conniei.html

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