Constantine’s Legacy to the Church

Full Essay Title: Evaluate Constantine’s Legacy to the Church (6000 words).

Introduction

Few men, if any, have impacted the Church as significantly as has the emperor Constantine. The Edict of Milan, which made the Christian religion legal, was issued by Constantine and his co-ruler Licinius, and followed the year after his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, at which time Constantine became emperor of the western Roman empire.  This was a watershed in the life of the Church, and virtually overnight it was transformed; it went from a persecuted minority and illegal movement to the religion favoured by the Emperor, and in less than a hundred years, because of the foundation laid by Constantine, to the official religion of the Empire, and which it was compulsory to join.

So great and sudden was the change that while multitudes clamoured to join the Church, multitudes were also withdrawing from it because of the influx of Christianized pagans. For many, this “was not a blessing, but a great apostasy’,  and thousands flocked to the deserts of Syria and Egypt to wage spiritual warfare as hermits, monks and nuns now that the opportunities for martyrdom were no longer available” (Gonzales 1984, 124).  Thus, the effects of Constantine’s conversion on Empire and Church were hugely significant; but his reforms, however nobly intended and well meant, often carried unintended and unforeseen evil.

Therefore, in this essay, we will consider the effects of Constantine’s policies as he restructured the empire around the Christian religion.  Each section will be a statement of what he did followed by the positive and negative legacy left to the Church by these reforms.  But before attempting this, it is important to consider his conversion and his Christianity, because a right understanding of them will shape our evaluation of his reforms.

Constantine’s Conversion 

Accounts of his conversion

The debate over Constantine’s conversion has given rise to various opinions as to its genuineness; but the accounts of his contemporary biographers, Eusebius (1995, 490-491) and Lactantius (1995, 318), agree that conversion did occur, and on the day and night prior to the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Eusebius (1995, 490) says Constantine gave him the account and confirmed it with an oath.  And it is not unreasonable to conclude that Lactantius had also heard the account from Constantine himself as he had been Constantine’s advisor.  Further, Eusebius (1995, 491) tells us that as a result of Constantine’s vision prior to the battle, a cross shining in the sky above the sun with the words ‘conquer by this’, he resolved ‘to worship no other God save Him who had appeared to him’, and sent for Christian ministers to explain who this God was who had appeared to him.  On hearing the gospel ‘he determined thenceforth to devote himself to the reading of the Inspired writings’, made the Christian priests his counselors, and honoured God ‘with all devotion’.

Socrates Scholasticus (1995, 1-2), who lived 380-450 AD, also dates Constantine’s conversion from this time.  But Sozomen (1995, 241-243), who wrote his history of the Church in about 440 AD, is confused in his account of Constantine’s conversion.  In chap. 3 he says that Constantine was converted when he received the vision of the cross; but in chap. 5 he says ‘it is universally admitted’ that Constantine embraced Christianity well before the battle, and is evidenced by the dates of the laws he enacted in favour of Christianity’.

His conversion doubted

Because of his wrongly perceived ongoing loyalty to Sol Invictus, the reality of Constantine’s conversion has also been doubted.  Jones (1965, 96-97) suggests that Constantine saw Christ as a ‘manifestation of the Unconquered Sun, or that the Sun was the symbol of the Heavenly Power whom the Christians worshipped’, and therefore ‘it was manifest that Christ, the Lord of the Cross, was to be his champion and protector’.

Frend (1985, 484) says ‘until his preparations for his final campaign by 323, he did not abandon his allegiance to the Sun god, even though he regarded himself as a servant of the Christian God’.

Bruce (1992, 294-295) says of Constantine’s Milan policy that it did not ‘involve a public confession of Christianity by Constantine’ – still less by Licinius.  Indeed, the wording of the Milan Edict suggests that Constantine had not yet determined in his own mind that Christ alone was God.  It reads, in part, “We resolved, that is, to grant both to the Christians and to all men freedom to follow the religion which they choose, that whatever heavenly divinity exists may be propitious to us…..”  (Eusebius 1995, 379)  (italics mine).

But it should be recognized by Constantine’s critics that the Edict was ‘a political act, and as such is conditioned by the circumstances of the moment….  Constantine himself could have no policy which went beyond the maintenance of a balance between the two religions….  It is an arrangement prepared by Constantine which his colleague accepts, and which is expressed in tactfully neutral language’ (Hughes 1949, 176).  So it was not an expression of his faith but of his role as co-ruler of an empire of many nations and religions – a political expression which he made use of to restore the Catholic Church.

Although initially Constantine may not have had a clear understanding of the exclusive nature of Christ’s claims (John 14:6), his understanding grew, until just before his death he was baptized.  End-of-life baptisms were popular at this period, owing to the belief that baptism washes away all previous sin, so Constantine’s delay was not unusual (ccel website).  Once baptized he was overcome with joy and longed for death so that he could go to God.  Eusebius describes the event, saying “thus gifted with the Divine seal of baptism, he rejoiced in spirit, was renewed, and filled with heavenly light; his soul was gladdened by reason of the fervency of his faith, and astonished at the manifestation of the power of God” (Eusebius 1995, 556).

The change in Constantine was so radical at this time that Kreider (2001, 3) dates his conversion from the time of his baptism. But the evidence from Constantine’s own letters and speeches demonstrate that he considered himself a Christian from the battle at the Milvian Bridge, the time that he said he was converted.

Further, as indication that Constantine saw a distinction between Christ and Sol Invicta, Eusebius (1995, 512-514), tells us he attributed the persecution of Christians to Apollo who spoke ‘through the medium of no human voice’, and who also lamented that he could not give oracles because of ‘the righteous men on earth’, interpreted by Diocletian’s pagan priests as Christians. Constantine recognized Apollo as ‘the Pythian oracle who exercised a delusive power over them’ (i.e. the pagan priests).  As Apollo had become identified with Helios/Sol Invictus (Stapleton 1992, 124), it must be concluded that Constantine did not regard him as God.

In fact, ‘he determined to purge the city which was to be distinguished by his own name from idolatry of every kind’ (Eusebius 1995, 532); he gave instructions that whenever his picture was made, such as on coins, gates of cities, etc., that he be shown in an attitude of prayer and supplication to God; and ‘forbade, by an express enactment, the setting up of any resemblance of himself in any idol temple’ (Eusebius 1995, 544). Judging by the setting of this passage amongst his early reforms, it would have been prior to 321 AD.

Change of Sabbath to Sunday an evidence of his Christian faith

The Seventh Day Adventists blame Constantine and Eusebius, saying they had ‘advanced the claim that Christ had transferred the Sabbath to Sunday’ without any scriptural proof’ (White, 1946, 574). However, the Church had always met on the first day of the week for worship and the breaking of bread (Acts 20:7).  In the 1st century, Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians (1994, 62) and The Epistle of Barnabas (1994, 147) and 2nd century Justin Martyr (1994, 186) confirm that Sunday was the Christian day of worship. All Constantine did was to legislate it as a day of rest so that all Christians would be free to attend the worship services, and place the Christians’ day of worship in the same position as the pagan holidays (Eusebius 1995, 544-545).  He did it, says Eusebius (1995, 544), because it was ‘his earnest desire gradually to lead all mankind to the worship of God’.

But Chadwick (1967, 128) says that Constantine’s stated motive in both law and inscription was respect for the sun; and Frend (1985, 488) says ‘he called it “the day celebrated by the veneration of the Sun” and not “the day of the Lord”’.

In reality however, the Christians already called the 1st day of the week ‘the day of the Sun’ (Bettenson 1965, 95 – quoting Justin Martyr c.150); and Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) describes Christ as ‘the Sun of Righteousness’ (see Mal 4:2), who drives his chariot over all, pervades equally all humanity, like ‘His Father, who makes His sun to rise on all men’, and distils on them the dew of the truth”(Clement 1995, 203).  These references show that Constantine was simply using existing Christian thought and terminology concerning Christ and Sunday when he framed the Sunday law.  Nevertheless, the fact that Mithra, a god popular with the army on the eastern frontiers of the empire, was also celebrated on Sunday would not have been lost on Constantine.

His Christianity

In between his vision of the cross in the sky and his baptism, Constantine’s Christian life was unusual.  Following his vision, although he resolved to follow Christ, he didn’t seek baptism and the catechumenate.  He included Lactantius and Bishop Hosius of Cordova as part of his entourage, and it is likely that Hosius was behind many of Constantine’s reforms (Livingstone 2006, 280).  Yet he submitted himself to no clergyman, regarding himself as ‘bishop of bishops’.  His religion seemed to be personal as he didn’t attend the Eucharist, preferring instead to withdraw to pray and read the scriptures by himself (Dorries 1972, 132).  His involvement with pagan practices drew no criticism from the bishops because, not having been baptized, he was technically not a Christian.  Any favours he granted the Church, which were great and many, were seen simply as from someone who was friendly to the Church (Gonzales 1984, 121).  No doubt, out of gratitude to Constantine for these gracious concessions, and not wanting to jeopardize them, the Church was understandably unwilling to resist him.

A Child of his Time

It is also essential to a right assessment of Constantine’s achievements that we understand that much of the evil fruit in the Church which has been attributed to Constantine was not directly his doing.  Seeds of error which had been planted prior to his reign now flourished and bore fruit; Constantine, as a part and product of the Church of his time, merely facilitated that growth.

Some of the fruit of these seeds was

  • the elevation of the priesthood, as part of episcopacy, which was a departure from the New Testament ideal of independent churches presided over by elders. This had already begun with Clement of Rome (30-100 AD), developing through to Cyprian in the 3rd century. This development resulted in a sacrificing priesthood and consequent two-tiered structure of clergy and laity, the latter being reduced to mere spectators in the worship services of the Church.
  • the bishops of Rome and the Roman church were, almost from the beginning, regarded as the first among equals due to Peter and Paul being the church’s supposed founders, and it’s being located in the capital of the empire. They gained power in the West by default when Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople, and then continually built on it.
  • superstitious practices such as veneration of relics and pilgrimages to the graves of the martyrs were well established

Also, and not necessarily seeds of error, church buildings already existed; Christmas Day was introduced into the Church by the Church, replacing the honouring of the birth of Apollo with the birth of Christ – a monument of the victory of Christ over the Sun (Dorries 1972, 181).

So at least some of the problems for the Church arising from Constantine’s reign come from developments already underway, independent of Constantine, and are related mainly to episcopacy.

Reform Under Constantine

End of persecution….

As soon as Constantine was in control of the Western Empire, he and Licinius issued The Edict of Milan, in 313 AD, which ended the State persecution of Christianity and gave it the right to exist – this was the first and greatest benefit to the Church.  ‘The emperors hoped by taking these measures to obtain ‘the eternal perpetuation of the divine grace which had been experienced in the great events of the most recent past’ (Lietzmann 1969, 77).

Eusebius (1995, 494) describes some of the Edict’s effects, saying that people whose estates had been confiscated received them back; exiles were brought home; people unjustly imprisoned were freed; the poor, the orphans and widows were provided for liberally; and in general, all those who had suffered under the tyranny of Maxentius, ‘as far as the limits of the western ocean’ rejoiced; while particular care was taken for Christian ministers.

However this process didn’t happen overnight. Jones (1965, 99-102) tells us that the change took place over the following decade.  And then, following Constantine’s victory over Licinius in 324, Eusebius (1995, 505) writes ‘Moreover, the emperor’s edicts, permeated with his humane spirit, were published among us also (i.e. the East), as they had been among the inhabitants of the other division of the empire’.  As Constantine’s reforms were designed to bring the empire under the lordship of Christ and his laws (Eusebius 1995, 534-536), there was a natural flow-on effect which benefited the whole population.

For example, in 314, he abolished executions by crucifixion; 318, civil suits could be removed to the jurisdiction of a bishop; 320, repealed the disabilities which Augustus had imposed on celibates and married childless persons; 321, bequests to the Church were legalized; manumission of slaves in church before a bishop were legally valid, and the slaves thus freed becoming Roman citizens; law courts and workshops to be closed on Sundays (Jones 1965, 99-100).

Sozomen (1995, 244-246) specifies, as happening after Constantine’s victory over Licinius (324 AD), abolition of gladiatorial combat; abolition of the Phoenicians’ custom of prostituting their virgins before marriage; all acts and judgments passed by the persecutors of the Church against Christianity be revoked; all those who had been condemned to labour in the mines, public works, harems, and linen factories, or had been enrolled as public functionaries should be restored to liberty. Socrates (1995, 22) lists similar benefits.

….benefits the Church

He also decreed that the right of inheritance of a martyr’s property, if there was no family, belonged to the nearest local church (Eusebius 1995, 505, 509), and likewise the tombs and cemeteries of martyrs would also belong to the church (1995, 510). The Edict of Milan (Eusebius 1995, 379) similarly specifically stated that ‘not only those places in which they (the Christians) were accustomed to assemble, but also other places’ were to be returned to them and their losses made up, even, if necessary, from the royal treasury.  A further decree included ‘gardens or buildings or whatever they may be’ (Eusebius 1995, 380).  And when Constantine moved to his new capital, Constantinople, he gave the Lateran palace, which had belonged to his wife Fausta, to the Roman bishops as an ecclesiastical residence.

The positive legacy for the Church was that Christians were now allowed to worship God without fear; Christians who had been exiled, imprisoned or enslaved were set free; in short, any penalties Christians had suffered for their faith were now rescinded. And the Church was not only allowed, but encouraged, by the State, to grow.

A negative legacy was that the Church was about to lose its independence and become a tool of the State – this will be looked at in a later section.

Constantine’s church building policy

In 303 AD, Diocletian commenced the ‘Great Persecution’ in which ‘he enjoined the demolition of churches’ as part of the persecution (Livingstone 2006, 172). Constantine promptly had them rebuilt during his establishing Christianity in the empire.  In a letter to Eusebius (1995, 511) he directed that new churches should be built and existing ones should be repaired and enlarged, all at public expense.  McGiffert (1995, 494) says ‘The number of buildings which Constantine is claimed to have erected in Rome alone is prodigious’.

Again, Eusebius says of Constantine he gave from his own private resources costly benefactions to the churches of God, both enlarging and heightening the sacred edifices (oratories or chapels), and embellishing their august sanctuaries of the church with abundant offerings’ (Eusebius 1995, 494).

It is clear that Constantine embarked on this project motivated by sincere piety.  Eusebius (1995, 528-530) and Theodoret (1995, 54) for example, display a letter from Constantine to Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, in which he gives instructions for the building of a church over the site of Jesus’ ‘most holy sufferings’; it was to ‘surpass all others’ and be ‘incomparably superior to the most beautiful structures in every city throughout the world’ – expense was to be no object.

The need for more and larger buildings, and the opportunity for more elaborate buildings, under an Episcopalian system were inevitable as the numbers of Christians exploded and money from the State poured into the church’s coffers. Pohlsander says Constantine’s architects, in both the West and the East, created the first monumental Christian buildings, as distinguished from the modest domus ecclesiae which had served as Christian meeting places before Constantinian times.  They employed both longitudinal and central designs, the former to meet liturgical needs, the latter to serve memorial purposes.  They wrote the first chapter in ecclesiastical architecture’ (Pohlsander 1996, 67).  And Frend (1985, 487) says that as a result of liberal benefactions, churches thus entered the ranks of the empire’s institutional architecture.

The positive legacy here was that Christianity, now favoured by the Emperor, was free to develop and grow. Episcopacy, being the form of Christianity then practiced (which, as mentioned earlier, was a departure from New Testament ecclesiology), expressed itself in magnificent buildings designed for liturgical worship, draw the attention to God in awe and wonder, and to replace pagan temples which were perhaps equally imposing.

But this positive legacy was also negative in that it served to draw attention away from God to the beauty of the building itself; and money which could have been put to more practical and important use such as feeding ‘the poor who are always with you’ (Matt 26:11), or for evangelism, became tied up in earthly splendour. God was moved from the body of believers to be housed in an earthly temple where the body and blood of Christ was repeatedly offered, contrary to 1 Cor 3:16 and Heb 10:12.  The priest’s role as a sacrificing priest had already reached its culmination under Cyprian (200-258 AD), (Lightfoot 1883, 258-259), and buildings set apart for worship and Eucharist were also established prior to Constantine; for example the recently discovered church building at Dura-Europos, a Roman city in Mesopotamia destroyed by the Sassanids in 256 AD.

Abolition of pagan religion

Lietzmann (1960, 150) tells us that inscriptions in stone and Constantine’s own letters attest ‘that although he did much to spare the traditional pagan customs, nevertheless he gave official expression….to his disapproval of these outworn religions’.  And Pohlsander (1995, 22) says ‘But Constantine went beyond benevolent sponsorship of the Christian cause; he actively suppressed paganism, at least in some specific instances’.  For example, Socrates (1995, 22) says that after Constantine moved to his new capital, he began to act against paganism by abolishing some immoral religious practices and destroying the temples where they occurred.  He also ensured the ruin and destruction of pagan temples and idols by enforced neglect, removal of temple doors and roofs, and ransacking the temples of their furniture, precious metals and anything else of value (Eusebius 1995, 534 -536).  Money from taxes and imperial provision which had previously gone to the pagan religions in the empire was now being diverted to Christian churches.  Lietzmann (1960, 149) says ‘as soon as state aid was no longer available, collapse followed immediately and of its own accord’.

MacMullen (1984, 54) points out that depriving the pagan temples of their financial resources had a negative effect on the population surrounding them because they were fed from the sacrifices made to the gods, and benefited from the wealth previously directed to the temples which provided more food, and festivals.

Schaff (undated, vol. 3 p15) says ‘Nevertheless he continued in his later years true upon the whole to the toleration principles of the edict of 313, protected the pagan priests and temples in their privileges, and wisely abstained from all violent measures against heathenism, in the persuasion that it would in time die out’.

But Constantine’s goal was for the empire to be built on Christianity and he actively worked towards it.  While the Edict of Milan ensured freedom of religion, his policy in the East was more forceful.  Sozomen says ‘As soon as the sole government of the Roman empire was vested in Constantine, he issued a public decree commanding all his subjects in the East to honour the Christian religion, carefully to worship the Divine Being, and to recognize that only as Divine which is essentially so….. ‘ (Sozomen 1995, 244).

The positive legacy in this for the Church was that it now commanded respect and was to be taken seriously. Another was the suppression of the threat of its deadly rival.  Now that persecution against the Church was lifted and began to be turned against paganism, people who were dissatisfied with paganism but would not consider Christianity for fear of reprisal would be more inclined to consider its claims.

But it also had a negative effect because many others began turning to the Church as they saw Constantine favouring it.  Shelley observes ‘Now many came who were politically ambitious, religiously disinterested, and still half-rooted in paganism.  This threatened to produce not only shallowness and permeation by superstitions but also the secularization and misuse of religion for political purposes’ (Shelley 1995, 96).

Veneration of relics

By the 2nd century it was customary to commemorate the martyrs on the anniversary of their death in prayer and by celebrating the Eucharist at their burial site (Martyrdom of Polycarp 1995, 43; Martyrdom of Ignatius 1995, 131); and by Constantine’s time the relics of the martyrs were attributed with miraculous healing powers.  The mass entry of Christianized pagans into the Church meant the clergy were unable to give adequate instruction to them, consequently the minds of these new ‘Christians’ fresh from heathenism, were fertile soil for superstitious practices.  For them, healing at shrines such as that of the god Asclepius, was familiar.  And so it was a small step from praying for the martyrs, to praying to them as intercessors to God. Walker says of this development ‘There arose thus a popular Christianity of the second rank….. The martyrs, for the masses, took the place of the old gods and heroes.  To the martyrs, popular feeling added distinguished ascetics, church leaders, and opponents of heresy….They were guardians of cities, patrons of trades, curers of disease.  They are omnipresent’ (Walker 1922, 170).

As a result of the veneration of the martyrs and their relics, and the subsequent healing miracles, churches were built on these burial sites, as they were seen as particularly sacred, and the practice of placing body parts of martyrs under the altars of the churches became standard practice. Constantine himself built churches in honour of Peter, the Holy Apostles, the Archangel Michael, etc.; and his mother made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she discovered the ‘true cross’.

There is little in terms of a positive nature that can be said about this practice, except for one thing. The tombs of the martyrs were recognized as places of healing; and people were getting healed there.  Likewise, relics were also known for their healing powers.  Augustine (1995, 484-492), in ‘The City of God’, completed in 426 AD, tells of miracles ‘which were wrought formerly’ and ‘even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints’, and recounts miracles of healing at the tombs of certain martyrs, which he had either observed himself or which had been reported to him by reliable witnesses.

The negative legacy however is immense. Walker (1922, 172) says ‘Closely connected with this reverence for relics was the valuation placed on pilgrimages to places where they were preserved, and above all to the Holy Land, or to Rome’. And then, summing up, he says ‘It [second rank Christianity] undoubtedly made the way from heathenism to Christianity easier for thousands, but it largely heathenized the Church itself’.

No doubt many of those who looked to the martyrs to deliver them, looked to Christ as the originator of their powers; but multitudes didn’t, and so martyrs and departed saints became mediators between the believer and the true Mediator, Jesus himself. And a sophisticated hierarchy of saints in heaven has evolved over succeeding centuries, to whom we are to pray and ask for help.

Clergy supported by the State

A letter (Eusebius 1995, 382) from Constantine to Caecilianus, bishop of Carthage (311-345), ‘furnishes the first instance which we have of financial support furnished the clergy by the state’ (McGiffert 1995, 382).  The emperor wanted to ‘defray the expenses’ of the Catholic clergy in North Africa so he advised Caecilianus that he had written to his finance minister ‘to  pay to thy firmness three thousand folles’, and if any more money was required, to request it from Constantine’s treasurer who had already been briefed.

Sozomen also tells of Constantine’s provision for the clergy: ‘He enacted that part of the funds levied from tributary countries should be forwarded by the various cities to the bishops and clergy, wherever they might be domiciled, and commanded that the law enjoining this gift should be a statute forever’ (Sozomen 1995, 244).

There was a positive legacy in making this provision; Constantine was simply giving the Church the same rights that the official Roman pagan religion had enjoyed.  And, of course, it meant a guaranteed income for the clergy.

But it also had immediate negative results for the Church. McGiffert observes ‘From this time on the old system of voluntary contributions fell more and more into disuse, and the clergy gained their support from the income upon the church property, which accumulated rapidly, in consequence of special grants by the state and voluntary gifts and legacies by pious Christians, or from imperial bounties, as in the present case’ (McGiffert 1995, 382).  And the New Testament responsibility of the congregational members supporting their own pastor (1 Cor 9:14) was forgotten.

Another nasty negative legacy flowing from this was that the clergy were now dependent on the State; if their benefices were taken away, they had no means of support. This placed them in a situation where they would be reluctant to speak against the State for fear of losing their financial support – until, that is, Ambrose of Milan discovered the power of excommunication, which he used with great effect in his dispute with Theodosius (Shelley 1995, 97-98).

Secular power of the clergy

In his concern and care for the Christian clergy, Constantine unwittingly took the Church on a path away from New Testament practice, and gave them power and responsibility they were never meant to carry.  In a letter to Anulinus, proconsul of North Africa (Eusebius 1995, 383), Constantine commanded that all clergy be exempted from all political duties ‘that they may not by any error or sacrilegious negligence be drawn away from the service due to the Deity….’ (This was in 319, according to Walker 1918, 112). McGiffert (1995, 383) comments that public office was a great burden to those who held it because it entailed heavy expenses, effectively a heavy tax, which had to be met by the officeholder.

So unless a man was very wealthy, and his desire for distinction was very great, he was glad to be exempted from holding public office – an office which he was not at liberty to refuse. Consequently the exemption of any class of persons aroused opposition from those not exempted, because the fewer to choose from, the fewer were left to take the burden.  The direct result, McGiffert continues, was that many wealthy people joined the ranks of the clergy in order to obtain the same immunity.  This practice increased so rapidly that within a few years the emperor had to restrict the immunity. Constantine’s solution, according to Bruce (1992, 298), was that ‘the numbers of the clergy were limited by statute’, and that they should only be recruited from the poorer classes.

And yet Constantine allowed bishops to work as magistrates, thus giving them power of life and death over those who came before them, and greatly increasing their status; their power and authority now extended into the secular realm as well. Sozomen (1995, 244) says ‘Christians were thus placed in almost all the principal posts of the Roman government’.

Frend says that Constantine further increased the importance of the bishops through the Church councils.  He shows how the Western bishops gained ‘an importance they had previously lacked’ because of the Council of Arles in 314 (see next heading); and that the Council of Nicaea ‘established the Christian episcopate as a force on a world scale’.  ‘Henceforth bishops became men of power and influence in political as well as religious life….The Church’s councils under the emperor’s guidance became assemblies where the new, binding relationship with the Christian God, on which the safety of the empire depended, was established’ (Frend 1985, 505).

Granting these privileges to the clergy was a positive legacy because it was yet another area in which the Church gained the same privilege the pagan priesthood and some professions enjoyed. Clergy in positions of influence were able to bring Christian ethics and principles to bear as they dealt with those under their authority and care.

But it also left a lethal negative legacy because the ranks of the clergy became flooded with baptized pagans seeking power and wealth, which resulted in the gradual (rapid in some instances) paganisation of Christianity, and the introduction of unbiblical practices. Shelley (1997, 198) tells of a pagan Roman senator named Praetextatus who said ‘Make me a bishop of Rome and I will become a Christian tomorrow’.

Confusion of Church and State

Eusebius (1995, 546) reports a conversation between Constantine and a company of bishops, in which Constantine said ‘You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church; I also am a bishop, ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church’.  His handling of the Donatists demonstrates how he acted in accordance with this view. In response to their request for his intervention in 313 AD in their dispute with Caecilian, Constantine willingly intervened.  But ultimately he was defeated by the Donatists.  They defied him and despite his comforting language to the Catholics, it was well-known that he regarded his church policy as a failure (Lietzmann 1969, 92).

However, immediately following his victory over Licinius, he faced a much more serious threat in the East, a split in the Church which ran through every province, affected the leading bishops, and was combined with provincial rivalries – the dispute between Arius and Alexander.

Constantine’s response to the dispute was to call together a great synod. The Council of Nicaea is significant not only because of the heresy that it was convened to deal with, and the famous creed which resulted, but also because the emperor claimed and assumed authority to convene an ecumenical Church council.  ‘On this occasion, however, he did so with greater authority and effect than in Africa, and in such a way that the consequences following upon his action may be traced to the present day’ (Lietzmann 1960, 94).  But it was successful.

He had other successes as well. Sozomen (1995, 280-281) tells how all Christians regularly met together as a church except those of heterodox belief. Constantine ‘enacted a law that their own (heretics’) houses of prayer should be abolished; that they should meet in the churches, and not hold meetings in private houses or in public places…. By means of this law, almost all the heresies, I believe, disappeared’.

The idea of the secular head of state having such power over the Church was eventually resisted by Rome and the West, and contributed to the dispute between them and the East as to who should be head over the Church, because in the East it was always accepted – and still is.  Bruce says ‘The eastern conception of the emperor as a sacred personage, vested with spiritual authority, not only survived until the fall of the eastern empire in 1453, but enjoyed a new and lengthy lease of life in Tsarist Russia down to 1917.  It can be traced directly back to the veneration paid to the Roman emperors from Constantine onwards’ (Bruce 1992, 298).

The abolition of heretical groups must be considered a positive legacy. For example, sects such as the Marcionites which were abolished, posed a serious threat to Christianity by  their radical reinterpretation of orthodox doctrine and truncated scriptures (Gonzales 1984, 62).  Now that threat was largely removed.

Of negative legacies there are several. The development of a state-controlled Church has had the most negative and harmful effect of all, and it is ‘a problem which has continually occasioned political disturbances right up to the most recent times’ (Lietzmann 1960, 82).  And Bruce says ‘The Christian leaders were so grateful to Constantine for his favour that they allowed him to have more say in internal church affairs than was his due.  By this course they unwittingly but effectively mortgaged the future of Christian liberty’ (Bruce 1992, 296).

Another major problematic result from Constantine’s assuming control over the Church, according to Walker (1922, 119) in his closing comments on Nicaea, was that ‘doctrinal discussions that earlier would have run their course, were now political questions of the first magnitude, and the Emperor had assumed a power in ecclesiastical affairs which was ominous for the future of the church’.

Christian warfare

Bruce says ‘When Constantine overthrew his rival Maxentius…..the change which this portended in the fortunes of the church was such that it came to be looked upon as a Christian victory’ (Bruce 1992, 294).  From the battle at Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, Constantine was convinced that ‘he was under the tutelage of the God of Christianity’ (Bruce 1992, 294).  The sanction of war was a new concept for Christianity; until now they had suffered at the hands of the State bearing the sword against them; now they were to wield the sword for the State against its enemies, which had automatically become their enemies.  As they took up the sword, they invoked the name of Christ, who said ‘all who take the sword will perish by the sword’.

Eusebius describes Constantine’s war with the Scythians (Goths), in which he used the sign of Christ as his standard.  ‘Accordingly, with full confidence in his Saviour’s aid, he raised his conquering standard against these enemies also, and soon reduced them all to obedience; co-ercing by military force those who fiercely resisted his authority ….’ (Eusebius 1995, 542).

And so Christ, who said ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36), now led the armies of Rome against its enemies; and the Church, whose ‘struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh’ (Eph 6:12), and whose ‘weapons of war are not merely human’ (2 Cor 10:4), took up arms against an earthly foe.  The New Testament Church now lived as the Old Testament theocracy.

Conclusion

Constantine’s reforms gave the Church freedom to develop in a way it never could have whilst still an illegal and persecuted religion. Once it went from a persecuted minority to the religion of the Empire, it gained every earthly advantage and power.  The path of Episcopacy on which it traveled prior to Constantine, blossomed under his protection.  That stream of the Church which later became Catholicism and Orthodoxy was able, through the State, to crush or excommunicate all those who differed from it, and freedom of religion was a reality only to the Church recognized by the emperor.

But by being so closely tied to the State, the Church lost its independence – this was Constantine’s most significant legacy to the Church.  Up to 312 AD, the Church, although persecuted, was independent.  But now the Emperor ‘used the Church as an instrument of imperial policy and imposed upon it his imperial ideology’, and the church ‘became part of the apparatus of government’ (Pohlsander 1996, 27-28).

In the West the Church struggled with this issue on and off until Pope Gregory VII set the Catholic Church free from secular control in his own time, and established principles on which it eventually gained the self-rule it enjoys today; whilst most of the Reformation Churches reverted to State control for protection and expansion. But in the East the Church has always regarded Church and State as one, the emperor being a sacred personage vested with spiritual authority.

The lifting of persecution and legalizing of Christianity was the Church’s greatest blessing and worst enemy. As has already been said, the rapid influx of paganized Christians meant that the world had entered the Church.  Shelley observes ‘Whatever Constantine’s motives for adopting the Christian faith, the result was a decline in Christian commitment.  The stalwart believers whom Diocletian killed were replaced by a mixed multitude of half-converted pagans.  Once Christians had laid down their lives for the truth; now they slaughtered each other to secure the prizes of the church’ (Shelley 1995, 118).

Constantine had not foreseen these results of his providing State support for the Church and her bishops. What he intended for good turned out to be for evil.  The sudden wealth and power proved too much for the clergy, and they succumbed in large numbers to seeking these things for their own sake.   

The history of the Church is, in part, the story of people trying to restore the Church to more pristine times, before Constantine’s reforms, though good in many ways, diverted it from its mission of proclaiming the gospel to a fallen world.  The phenomenal growth of Pentecostal and other independent churches in the last few decades indicates that many Christians are once again searching for a purer form of Christianity where they are more able to contribute (1 Cor 14:26), rather than a spectator sport. Constantine’s reforms simply enabled an episcopal church to burgeon along already established lines; his piety and sense of being called to be ruler and protector of the Church caused him to do everything in his power to facilitate this.  But in the end, all he did was to exchange the position of the pagan religion in the empire for the Christian.  Episcopacy was well suited for this role, especially as its system of bishops and dioceses was based on the Roman system of government.

But Constantine’s reforms did lay the foundation for the West to develop along Christian principles, and provide, finally, freedom of religion.  For this we owe him thanks.

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