Constantine the Great—A Champion of Christianity?
Roman Emperor Constantine is among the few men whose name history has embellished with the term “Great.” Christendom has added the expressions “saint,” “thirteenth apostle,” “holy equal of the apostles,” and ‘chosen by God’s Providence to accomplish the greatest turnabout in the whole world.’ At the other end of the spectrum, some describe Constantine as “bloodstained, stigmatized by countless enormities and full of deceit, . . . a hideous tyrant, guilty of horrid crimes.”
MANY professing Christians have been taught that Constantine the Great was one of Christianity’s most prominent benefactors. They credit him with delivering Christians from the misery of Roman persecution and giving them religious freedom. Moreover, it is widely held that he was a faithful footstep follower of Jesus Christ with a strong desire to advance the Christian cause. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church have declared both Constantine and his mother, Helena, “saints.” Their festival is celebrated on June 3 or according to the church calendar, on May 21.
Who really was Constantine the Great? What was his role in the development of postapostolic Christianity? It is very enlightening to let history and scholars answer these questions.
The Historical Constantine
Constantine, the son of Constantius Chlorus, was born in Naissus in Serbia about the year 275 C.E. When his father became emperor of Rome’s western provinces in 293 C.E., he was fighting on the Danube under orders from Emperor Galerius. Constantine returned to his dying father’s side in Britain in the year 306 C.E. Soon after his father’s death, Constantine was raised to the status of an emperor by the army.
At that time, five other individuals claimed that they were Augusti. The period between 306 and 324 C.E., after which Constantine became sole imperator, was a time of unremitting civil war. Victory in two sets of campaigns guaranteed Constantine a place in Roman history and made him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
In 312 C.E., Constantine defeated his opponent Maxentius in the battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. Christian apologists claimed that during that campaign, there appeared under the sun a flaming cross bearing the Latin words In hoc signo vinces, meaning “In this sign conquer.” It is also held that in a dream, Constantine was told to paint the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek on the shields of his troops. However, this story suffers from many anachronisms. The book A History of Christianity states: “There is a conflict of evidence about the exact time, place and details of this vision.” Welcoming Constantine in Rome, a pagan Senate declared him chief Augustus and Pontifex Maximus, that is, high priest of the pagan religion of the empire.
In 313 C.E., Constantine arranged a partnership with Emperor Licinius, ruler of the eastern provinces. By means of the Edict of Milan, together they granted freedom of worship and equal rights to all religious groups. Many historians, however, downplay the significance of this document, saying that it was just a routine official letter and not a major imperial document signaling a change of policy toward Christianity.
Within the next ten years, Constantine defeated his last remaining rival, Licinius, and became the undisputed ruler of the Roman world. In 325 C.E., as yet unbaptized, he presided over the first great ecumenical council of the “Christian” church, which condemned Arianism and drew up a statement of essential beliefs called the Nicene Creed.
Constantine fell terminally ill in the year 337 C.E. At that late hour of his life, he was baptized, and then he died. After his death the Senate placed him among the Roman gods.
Religion in Constantine’s Strategy
With reference to the general attitude that Roman emperors of the third and fourth centuries had toward religion, the book Istoria tou Ellinikou Ethnous (History of the Greek Nation) says: “Even when those who occupied the imperial throne did not have such profoundly religious dispositions, surrendering to the mood of the era, they found it necessary to give religion precedence within the framework of their political schemes, to lend at least a religious flavor to their actions.”
Certainly, Constantine was a man of his era. At the beginning of his career, he needed some “divine” patronage, and this could not be provided by the fading Roman gods. The empire, including its religion and other institutions, was in decline, and something new and invigorating was needed to reconsolidate it. The encyclopedia Hidria says: “Constantine was especially interested in Christianity because it backed up not only his victory but also the reorganization of his empire. The Christian churches that existed everywhere became his political support. . . . He surrounded himself with the great prelates of the times . . . , and he requested that they keep their unity intact.”
Constantine sensed that the “Christian” religion—albeit apostate and deeply corrupted by then—could be effectively utilized as a revitalizing and uniting force to serve his grand scheme for imperial domination. Adopting the foundations of apostate Christianity to gain support in furthering his own political ends, he decided to unify the people under one “catholic,” or universal, religion. Pagan customs and celebrations were given “Christian” names. And “Christian” clergymen were given the status, salary, and influential clout of pagan priests.
Seeking religious harmony for political reasons, Constantine quickly crushed any dissenting voices, not on the grounds of doctrinal truth, but on the basis of majority acceptance. The profound dogmatic differences within the badly divided “Christian” church gave him the opportunity to intervene as a “God-sent” mediator. Through his dealings with the Donatists in North Africa and the followers of Arius in the eastern portion of the empire, he quickly discovered that persuasion was not enough to forge a solid, unified faith.* It was in an attempt to resolve the Arian controversy that he convened the first ecumenical council in the history of the church.—See box “Constantine and the Council of Nicaea.”
Concerning Constantine, historian Paul Johnson states: “One of his main reasons for tolerating Christianity may have been that it gave himself and the State the opportunity to control the Church’s policy on orthodoxy and the treatment of heterodoxy.”
Did He Ever Become a Christian?
Johnson notes: “Constantine never abandoned sun-worship and kept the sun on his coins.” The Catholic Encyclopedia observes: “Constantine showed equal favour to both religions. As pontifex maximus he watched over the heathen worship and protected its rights.” “Constantine never became a Christian,” states the encyclopedia Hidria, adding: “Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote his biography, says that he became a Christian in the last moments of his life. This doesn’t hold water, as the day before, [Constantine] had made a sacrifice to Zeus because he also had the title Pontifex Maximus.”
Down to the day of his death in 337 C.E., Constantine bore the pagan title of Pontifex Maximus, the supreme head of religious matters. Regarding his baptism, it is reasonable to ask, Was it preceded by genuine repentance and a turning around, as required in the Scriptures? (Acts 2:38, 40, 41) Was it a complete water immersion as a symbol of Constantine’s dedication to Jehovah God?—Compare Acts 8:36-39.
The Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Constantine was entitled to be called Great in virtue rather of what he did than what he was. Tested by character, indeed, he stands among the lowest of all those to whom the epithet [Great] has in ancient or modern times been applied.” And the book A History of Christianity informs us: “There were early reports of his violent temper and his cruelty in anger. . . . He had no respect for human life . . . His private life became monstrous as he aged.”
Evidently Constantine had serious personality problems. A history researcher states that “his temperamental character was often the reason for his committing crimes.” (See the box “Dynastic Murders.”) Constantine was not “a Christian character,” contends historian H. Fisher in his History of Europe. The facts do not characterize him as a true Christian who had put on “the new personality” and in whom there could be found the fruitage of God’s holy spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, and self-control.—Colossians 3:9, 10; Galatians 5:22, 23.
The Consequences of His Efforts
As the pagan Pontifex Maximus—and therefore the religious head of the Roman Empire—Constantine tried to win over the bishops of the apostate church. He offered them positions of power, prominence, and wealth as officers of the Roman State religion. The Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “Some bishops, blinded by the splendour of the court, even went so far as to laud the emperor as an angel of God, as a sacred being, and to prophesy that he would, like the Son of God, reign in heaven.”
As apostate Christianity came into favor with the political government, it became more and more a part of this world, of this secular system, and drifted away from the teachings of Jesus Christ. (John 15:19; 17:14, 16; Revelation 17:1, 2) As a result, there was a fusion of “Christianity” with false doctrines and practices—the Trinity, immortality of the soul, hellfire, purgatory, prayers for the dead, use of rosaries, icons, images, and the like.—Compare 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
From Constantine, the church also inherited the tendency to be authoritarian. Scholars Henderson and Buck say: “The simplicity of the Gospel was corrupted, pompous rites and ceremonies were introduced, worldly honours and emoluments were conferred on the teachers of Christianity, and the Kingdom of Christ in good measure converted into a kingdom of this world.”
Where Is True Christianity?
Historical facts reveal the truth behind the “greatness” of Constantine. Instead of being founded by Jesus Christ, the Head of the true Christian congregation, Christendom is partly the result of the political expediency and the crafty maneuvers of a pagan emperor. Very aptly, historian Paul Johnson asks: “Did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?”
All those who really want to adhere to pure Christianity can be helped to recognize and associate with the true Christian congregation today. Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide are more than willing to help honesthearted people to identify true Christianity and to worship God in the way acceptable to him.—John 4:23, 24.
Donatism was a “Christian” sect of the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. Its adherents claimed that the validity of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister and that the church must exclude from its membership people guilty of serious sin. Arianism was a “Christian” movement of the fourth century that denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Arius taught that God is unbegotten and without a beginning. The Son, because he is begotten, cannot be God in the same sense that the Father is. The Son did not exist from all eternity but was created and exists by the will of the Father.
[Box on page 28]
Constantine and the Council of Nicaea
What role did the unbaptized Emperor Constantine play at the Council of Nicaea? The Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Constantine himself presided, actively guiding the discussions . . . Overawed by the emperor, the bishops, with two exceptions only, signed the creed, many of them much against their inclination.”
After two months of furious religious debate, this pagan politician intervened and decided in favor of those who said that Jesus was God. But why? “Constantine had basically no understanding whatsoever of the questions that were being asked in Greek theology,” says A Short History of Christian Doctrine. What he did understand was that religious division was a threat to his empire, and he was determined to solidify his empire.
Regarding the final document that was drafted in Nicaea under Constantine’s auspices, Istoria tou Ellinikou Ethnous (History of the Greek Nation) observes: “It shows [Constantine’s] indifference to doctrinal matters, . . . his stubborn insistence in trying to restore unity within the church at any cost, and finally his conviction that as ‘bishop of those outside the church’ he had the final say about any religious matter.” Could God’s spirit possibly have been behind the decisions made at that council?—Compare Acts 15:28, 29.
[Box on page 29]
Under this heading, the work Istoria tou Ellinikou Ethnous (History of the Greek Nation) describes what it calls “disgusting domestic crimes that Constantine committed.” Soon after founding his dynasty, he forgot how to enjoy unexpected achievement and became aware of the dangers surrounding him. Being a suspicious person and perhaps egged on by sycophants, he first grew suspicious of his nephew Licinianus—the son of a co-Augustus he had already executed—as a possible rival. His murder was followed by the execution of Constantine’s own firstborn son, Crispus, who was dealt with by his stepmother Fausta because he seemed to be an obstruction to her own offspring’s total power.
This action of Fausta was finally the reason for her own dramatic death. It appears that Augusta Helena, who had influence over her son Constantine until the end, was involved in this murder. The illogical emotions that often controlled Constantine also contributed to the spate of executions of many of his friends and associates. The book History of the Middle Ages concludes: “The execution—not to say murder—of his own son and his wife indicates that he was untouched by any spiritual influence in Christianity.”
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This arch in Rome has been used to glorify Constantine
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Musée du Louvre, Paris