Setting the Facts Straight About Constantine
The emperor's real role in Christian history and what he didn’t do at the Council of Nicaea.
John StonestreetGlenn Sunshine
On this day in A.D. 337, Emperor Constantine died. Many Christians think that Constantine was perhaps the worst thing to happen to the Church. They believe he made Christianity the imperial religion, thus leading the Church to compromise with pagan culture, marrying it to state power, and derailing the spread of the Gospel. The Church, they argue, was better off as a persecuted minority. After all, didn’t the Church father Tertullian tell us that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church?
This argument is wrong on almost all counts. For example, under Diocletian, the emperor a little before Constantine, the Church suffered the worst sustained burst of persecution in the Roman era. Christians were tortured and killed at a horrifying rate. And Muslim persecution virtually annihilated the Christain community that once thrived across Central Asia. And in our day, the Church has been nearly driven out of its ancient homeland of Iraq.
Persecution simply does not guarantee a healthy or growing Church. To be consistent, if the blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church, anyone who argues that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity was bad for the Church should also cheer the persecution of Christians around the world today.
Tertullian himself did not wish for persecution to continue. His words about the blood of the martyrs were a way to argue the futility of persecution, not an endorsement of martyrdom as necessary for church growth. In fact, Tertullian is the first person in history to use the phrase “freedom of religion” and the first to argue for it based on Christian doctrine of the image of God. Worship, argued Tertullian, must be voluntary to be acceptable. Coercion in religion must end and be replaced by religious liberty.
There is also misunderstanding about what Constantine did. A long exposure to Christianity led the emperor to look on it favorably even when a pagan. For example, he appointed Lactantius, a Berber Christian convert, as his son’s tutor in 309. Lactantius wrote The Divine Institutes, and like other early Christian writers, he argued for religious liberty on the grounds that worship of God was only acceptable if offered freely.
In 312, when fighting Maxentius, a rival for the title of Emperor, Constantine is reported to have seen a vision of a cross with the words “In this sign, conquer.” He had his soldiers paint a cross on their shields and then defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. As a result, he converted to Christianity (though there is dispute about whether his conversion was genuine). The following year, he issued the Edict of Milan using wording and reasoning taken directly from Lactantius’ Divine Institutes. The edict established religious liberty in Rome, effectively making Christianity legal and ending religious persecution.
This is where arguments against Constantine often go wrong. The claim that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, thereby undermining the distinction between church and state and setting the stage for the entanglement between them, is a fundamental misunderstanding of Constantine and the Edict of Milan. Although Constantine legalized Christianity, he did not make it Rome’s state religion. That would occur later, in A.D. 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica issued by Theodosius I. Even after that edict, pagans were allowed to worship within the Empire. Far from making Christianity the state religion, the Edict of Milan legalized all religions, not just Christianity.
It is also claimed that Constantine determined the canon of Scripture and key Christian doctrine when he oversaw the Council of Nicaea. Both charges are nonsense. The canon of Scripture had been under discussion since the second century. The 27 books of the New Testament were first listed in the canon by Athanasius, a man with a history of defying Roman emperors. The reasons for their inclusion are well documented.
It is also notable that many of the bishops who assembled at Nicaea had wounds from being tortured for their faith. Men like that would not allow Constantine to dictate theology they did not embrace. History also records the reasons behind the conclusions they reached, which had nothing to do with imperial pressure.
Finally, the Church had grown and expanded without government recognition for nearly three centuries. In fact, Christianity is the only major world religion to begin and to spread without government support. Constantine’s actions did not change the precedent already set, that Church and state are separate institutions, and that the Church can exist and function in the face of state opposition.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Glenn Sunshine. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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