The Church in History: Constantine's Christian Faith

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles examining the Church in history. For my opening essay we will look at the conversion and rule of Constantine, easily one of the watershed moments in human history, in addition to one of the most controversial. On October 28 in the year 312, Constantine (full name: Flavius Valerius Constantinus – by any standard Latin names are incredibly awesome) ensured his rise to emperorship by defeating his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, just outside Rome. Much ink has been spilled in examining his ensuing rule. Did Constantine really see a sign from God before the battle? Was his conversion sincere or a calculated political move? Did he pervert Christianity and rule over both the secular and theological? Did he make Christianity the state religion or simply decriminalize it? Did he actually wage war on the pagans as depicted in The Da Vinci Code? According to the historian Eusebius, the day before Constantine commenced his attack on Maxentius, "[A]bout noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS."[1] Historically, Eusebius' account has been the most popular depiction of what Constantine witnessed and experienced. Here's what we know: Constantine was deeply religious prior to his Christian conversion. We know his parents had similar inclinations to religion and are likely the source of this devotion. We also know Constantine's father (for simplicity, referred to here as Constantius), while pagan, nonetheless held Christian sympathies and was never one to enforce persecution with any degree of gusto (however, he was responsible for the destruction of some churches in the Western empire after the decree of persecution in 303). Some scholars have gone so far as to claim Constantius' family was secretly Christian, although this is highly unlikely and doesn't fit with events if this were indeed accurate. Now, it is probable that Constantine's mother, Helena, was a Christian (she allowed the local bishop to use her house as a church, for instance, which would be inexplicable were she not Christian), but, Constantine took after his father: pagan, with Christian sympathies.[2] Eusebius draws this familial background to the forefront, as Constantine is concerned about Maxentius' incantations and deployment of magic. Because of his spiritual nature, Constantine wondered which god he could turn to in order to ward off Maxentius' supernatural attacks. Reflecting on his father's Christian sympathies, vigorous life, and peaceful death (palace intrigue being what it was in the Empire, peaceful deaths were infrequent for someone of Constantius' station), Constantine decided this god of the Christians must indeed be a powerful one. According to Eusebius when Constantine "called on [the Christian god] with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties... a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by another person."[3] Unsure of what he witnessed, after his vision, “while [Constantine] continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.”[4] Is this account credible and historically accurate? What, if anything, happened on the eve of the Battle of Milvian Bridge? We know that Constantine saw something. He swore an oath that what he recounted to Eusebius was truthful and accurate. Even if one argues swearing an oath means nothing, or that Eusebius either lied or distorted what Constantine told him, there are two problems. One, Constantine told the same story throughout his life, without any discrepancies, to more than Eusebius alone. Second, there's the thorny issue of Constantine's army; this was a public vision. No single individual, no matter how powerful and influential, could refute the testimony of an entire army. Thus, if Constantine lied, it stands to reason his soldiers would have spoken against him. An army is greater than an individual, even an emperor, so to refute Emperor Constantine, as an army, carried little risk.[5] Yet, not a single soldier disputed Constantine's account. There are also no indications of bribery; besides, how could an entire army be bribed? Logic and reason, then, both demonstrate that something did indeed occur. Remember too that Constantine was deeply spiritual and religious and to change gods whimsically goes against this devout nature. His soldiers shared that nature. To summarize Peter Leithart, it must be recognized that at this time, battle standards were venerated as holy objects and credited with talismanic powers. Typically these standards reflected a particular deity. To change standards as Constantine ordered, on the eve of battle, was unthinkable without some powerful justification. In the ancient world armies won by divine intervention, and the victory of an army was a victory by that army's god - it would be folly to abandon the gods at the very moment of engagement.[6] It is also historical fact that after 312 Constantine increasingly moved from paganism toward Christianity, and fervently so. This fervor is unfathomable if it was nothing more than political strategy. True, Constantine was who he was: a man of his historical time, with all the pitfalls of that period. Yet, only the most ardent cynic can examine the historical record and question Constantine's piety to Christianity. The situation, then, was thus: prior to 312, Constantine's coinage and military standard honored pagan gods, particularly Sol. After 312 he adopted a Christian standard and military insignia and put Christian symbols on his coins, gradually replacing pagan signs. We know he was a spiritual individual, we know he and his army witnessed something, we know he was victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, we know that after 312 he wrote and spoke at great length on Jesus, Christianity, and the saints. We know he called the Council of Nicaea (more on that in a bit).... What happened? Stay tuned for part 2! ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1] Eusebius, Life of Constantine: [2] This scenario does seem entirely plausible and would readily explain historical facts, including Constantius' sympathetic attitude toward Christians and Helena's prolific activity, both before and after her son's conversion, which led to her recognition by the Catholic Church as a saint. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] For example, this explains why Stalin purged the army before any other institution, including the Party itself, as well as why seemingly all domestic assassination plots against Hitler had their origins in the German army. [6] Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, pp. 72-74 [if !supportLineBreakNewLine] [endif]