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Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great was Emperor of the Roman Empire from AD 306 until his death at about the age of 57 in AD 337. The city of Constantinople bore his name from AD 330 until AD 1930, when the Turks renamed it Istanbul.

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In 306, the Roman Emperor Constantius died while his son Constantine was in York, in Britain. Constantine’s soldiers proclaimed him Emperor, and he began the trip to to Rome. He had to do battle with a rival at the Milvian bridge, but the night before, he had a dream in which he saw the cross and was told ‘in hoc signo vincis,’ or ‘in this sign you will conquer.’ He put crosses on his soldiers’ shields before the battle. He attributed his victory to the Christian God and began to consider himself a Christian. So indeed, Constantine was indeed the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire. However, he delayed his baptism until shortly before his death, which was the custom for lay people at the time.

There were actually two emperors at a time back then, so Constantine became co-emperor with Licinius in 312. The next year, they issued the Edict of Milan, which instituted freedom of religion. This had the effect of legalizing Christianity. The Church did not become the official state religion of the Roman Empire at that time. That didn’t happen until about fifty years after his death, under the Emperor Theodosius.

Constantine was first dragged into church issues in 313, when members of the Donatist sect asked him to mediate their dispute with the Church. He referred the dispute to a group of bishops, which ruled against the Donatists. The Donatists appealed again, so he referred them to a church synod, which also ruled against them. The Donatists persisted, so this time he got involved, but all he did was confirm the previous decisions. They still didn’t give up, so he tried to repress them legally, but when it didn’t work, he gave up and decided to let God handle it. (Eventually, God did handle it. The Donatists were eventually reunited with the Church.)

In AD 324, Constantine became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire and moved the capital to Byzantium, which became Constantinople. (Constantinople is Greek for Constantine City.) It remained Constantinople until 1930, when the Turks renamed it Istanbul

When the Church developed the Arian controversy, Constantine realized that it wasn’t politically expedient to have a big dispute in the Empire, so in 325 he called the bishops together to settle it. This was the Council of Nicaea, or the First Ecumenical Council. The Church was unable to finance such an ambitious undertaking on its own, so they were delighted when he furnished the facilities and paid their expenses. He presided over the opening and closing sessions with great pomp, but he did not contribute to the theological debate, which he was probably unable to understand anyway. He did occasionally exhort the bishops to stop talking and start voting. Although he wanted them to resolve the problem, he really didn’t care what that resolution was. If he had ‘ruled the Council of Nicaea with an iron fist’ and had controlled the theological outcome, he certainly would have continued to support the winning viewpoint afterwards, but he did not consistently do that. His conduct was governed by political necessity, not systematic theology, and upon occasion he even banished prominent orthodox leaders at the behest of their enemies. In the years after the Council of Nicaea, his religious views fluctuated, depending on whoever had his ear at the time. He was a devotional Christian, but not a theological Christian. He didn’t really have any theological convictions of his own.

Constantine had a spotty legislative record. On the downside, he contributed to the erosion of democracy, but to his credit, he improved Roman criminal law and he improved conditions for debtors, slaves, and children. He also reformed the tax structure for unmarried people, who previously had been subject to extra taxes. He did not make Sunday into the Christian day of worship (since it already was), but he did make it a public holiday, thus inventing the weekend. This benefited even non-Christians, because before then, the Roman week was ten days long.

In the eighth century, someone forged a document called The Donation of Constantine, which claimed to be a decree from Constantine giving Bishop of Rome authority over the entire Church. This document wasn’t discovered to be a forgery until the 15th century; nevertheless, this forgery did damage Constantine’s reputation in some people’s minds during the Protestant Reformation. The real Constantine had stronger ties to the Eastern Church than to Rome.

Constantine’s father, the Emperor Constantius, had abandoned Constantine’s mother St Helen for political reasons. Helen was a Christian, Constantius and Constantine were pagan worshipers of the sun god. After Constantine was converted and had become emperor, he gave his mother a position of honor. His actions on behalf of the Church may have been due to her influence. Constantine donated large amounts of money for church buildings, and he financed his mother’s trip to the Holy Land to seek out and restore historical sites. Without her efforts and his support, Christian tourists to the Holy Land would have much less to see.

Constantine did not have a time machine and was therefore not involved with the Crusades, the Turks, or the Muslims. Mohammed wasn’t born until three centuries later, so there were no Muslims from which to ‘liberate’ the Holy Land with a Crusade. In Constantine’s lifetime the Arabs were still polytheistic, and the Turks had not yet finished their migration from central Asia to Asia Minor.

Constantine the Great is a saint in the Eastern Church, but not in the Western Church.