September 2, 2012

Constantine-True Conversion or Political Opportunist: Part II

Constantine Depicting Sol Invictus or Apollo

When we look specifically at Constantine, we see things that appear the antithesis of Christian behavior. At times Constantine seems a walking contradiction. The first is the story of the “sign of the cross” mentioned by early Christian author Lactantius. This cross used by Constantine and his troops appears to have been a hybrid adaption of an existing Roman cavalry standard that was more associated to Zeus, not Jesus or the God of the Bible. It is also mentioned that the vision he saw was not the Cross but that of the Sun god Sol. Therefore his supposed miraculous conversion to Christianity and generosity towards Christians did not prevent him from supporting other aspects of pagan religions. Constantine also retained his title Pontifex Maximus which was pagan. He did virtually nothing to stop the imperial cult. We saw the execution of men that made power grabs or claims to his throne which is clearly not a fruit of the Spirit. Coins minted during the early portions of his reign kept images of the Sol Invitcus or unconquered sun along with images/symbols of other pagan beliefs (Cairns 120, Davidson-Birth of the Church 345, Davidson-Public Faith 19). 

If there is truth to be believed when it comes to Constantine’s conversion it must be tempered with the thought that the Sun god was his personal protective pagan deity and this may have influenced his thought processes. It is not a far stretch to connect Malachi 4:2’s “the sun of righteousness” and the pagan Sun god in a new converts mind (ESV Minister's Bible 735). In defense of Constantine, it should be noted that the idea of “a sign spreading out in the heavens” also has Christian origins too, it is found in the Didache more commonly known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Nicholson 313). Even more fascinating is we see that these ideas contained in the Didache find corroboration in documents like the Apocalypse of Elijah and the Apocalypse of Elijah. This thereby possibly requires that we observe Constantine’s vision and subsequent behavior though an apocalyptic lens because it would entail ideas of an ushering in of the Kingdom in an eschatological manner as is the case in Christian eschatological thought (Nicholson 313). Did Constantine view the need of this victory at the Milvian Bridge in an eschatological manner? As a believer, did he believe that he was helping usher in the Kingdom of God? In light of this, more questions arise: Did God orchestrate this in a divine manner to perpetuate the actual expanding of the Kingdom through true Christendom? Is this the manipulative work of a leader that wished to capitalize on apocalyptic fervor or God actually sovereignly intervening - or is it both/neither? Having had some exposure to the Christian faith previous to the Milvian Bridge it is quite possible Constantine saw this episode in an apocalyptic light.

One last issue that should be mentioned is that Constantine didn’t receive a Baptism until his dying days. This though is not surprising or that far out of step with practices of the time which was to postpone baptism until one was sure another was in the faith with was evidenced in the catechumen. Since Christian dogma does not seem to have solidified on this matter by the time of his death it is not surprising to see Constantine portrayed as a catechumen in Eusebius’ narrative of him (Davidson, Public Faith 42). Constantine after his late baptism refused to wear the imperial purple and for the remainder of his life dressed in his white baptismal robes (Shelly 95).

Due to some of these extenuating factors it is easy to see why some believe Constantine’s conversion was dubious at best or a product of political expediency (Cairns 119). Although these shortcomings show Constantine in a poor light, it is clear Constantine was not a political novice or incompetent ruler. He seemed intelligent and has past history to draw off of to help gauge his decisions. He would’ve been able to see the foolishness of enforcing unpopular and impactful mandates. History had shown that unreasonable or impetuous Roman emperors usually ended up dead or assassinated. Constantine having a track record of prudent decision making appears to have eased the Christian faith into the empire through a series of carefully arranged declarations. He didn’t so much command as much as he convinced people through subtle involvement that incorporated Christianity and the secular via councils, creeds and canon. Is this not the call of a true Christian leader? Teaching patiently with a gentleness of spirit? Constantine may have been hostile with usurpers but within the context of the Church he was gentle if not benevolent. This demanded of him a consistency of character though time towards the Church. This perhaps is another evidence of a lasting change favorable to Christian conversion. In light of this profound impact, by the time of Theodosius I in 380 (50 years after Constantine’s death) we see Christianity instituted as the state religion (Cairns 120; Shelly 96).

The truth is, it’s impossible for a man to judge another man’s heart. We can only rely on their actions and words to gauge whether or not a person truly has the Spirit of Christ in them as this is the only gauge for us to match people up against Scripture. Herein lie the premise for my conclusion.

In the end, Constantine’s inner faith, just like everyone else’s remains unknowable except to God. It is clear that regardless of his motives, Christianity benefited thereafter enormously. Although it is not fully evident what happened at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber River, what is clear is that something took place that literally changed the course of history. A leader clearly outnumbered succeeds in defeating a superior foe and Christianity benefited because of it.

At least momentarily there was a conviction great enough for Constantine to believe that he could defy odds and gain a victory through or because of something directly related to Christ or Christianity. It is a remarkable fact that the underling impetus for a massive swing of history stemmed from cuneiform or Christian-like origins, regardless of whether Constantine premeditated it or not (Nicholson 323). This brought at least some glory to God through the mostly unmolested spread of the Christian faith directly afterwards (at least for a while). To me this is a striking parallel to the story of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel. Whether by volitional action of the participant or involuntary action we see history move forward to the ends that God determines. I believe this is one of the keys to seeing the truth of Constantine’s conversion. I suppose what we see in Constantine is probably a true Christian man with a great deal of power and wealth…and also a large amount of human foibles and entrenched sin like Solomon. I believe Constantine may very well have accepted the Lord but did not allow the Holy Spirit to transform his walk the way it could have. To me the question isn’t so much: Did he convert? The question I believe is more properly framed: How much or to what degree? The scope of this paper can only superficially skim the surface of many of the complex issues presented to us about the conversion of Constantine. We see that he did certain things that could potentially be construed as fruits of the Spirit and signs of an inward conversion. There are also things that show a lack of faith and do not reflect the Spirit of Christ very well, if at all. This I believe is the dividing line between whether a genuine conversion did or did not take place. Having said this it leaves us as humans to decide from what we can observe empirically whether or not Constantine had a true conversion or pretended to have one for political ends.

Having researched and observed the evidences available, I need to conclude Constantine’s conversion was legitimate. It is likely that Constantine had the power of a Sovereign God in his life directing his paths and assisting him but like Biblical kings we see evidences of his sinful nature coming out and causing him to stumble at different point in his life. This is the inevitable nature of man that does not walk closely with God after conversion. Sanctification is a joint process between God and man. If man drifts away from God, this sanctification process can stall or even regress. I believe this is some of what we see with Constantine’s poor or glaring unchristian behavior(s). Regardless of motive, it is clear Constantine helped move the Christian faith into prominence in the following centuries. The linchpin of all these events is Constantine’s conversion. Whether this took place at the Milvian Bridge or before it is irrelevant. It is God working through people that is the issue here. We know as Christians that a sovereign God will make all things the way He wants them anyway. In the long-view, Constantine’s conversion and subsequent edicts and mandates affected history so profoundly that we still feel their effects today. Some effects were negative but many were quite positive. It is my hope that Constantine did convert and find glorification in Christ. This is the same wish I have for all humanity. To me every soul matters, even those of antiquity as they all bring glory to the timeless Sovereign God that I believe in now. Besides, I look forward to the chance to speak with him (among many others) when I reach glory myself.

Cairns, Earle Edwin. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub., 1996. 150-155. Print.

Davidson, Ivor J. A Public Faith: From Constantine to the Medieval World, A.D. 312-600. Ed. John D. Woodbridge & David F. Wright. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2005. Print.

Davidson, Ivor J. The Birth of The Church: From Jesus to Constantine A.D. 30-312. Ed. John D. Woodbridge & David F. Wright. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2005. Print.

Hurlbut, Jesse Lyman. The Story of the Christian Church. Latest rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1970. Print.

Leithart, Peter J.. Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.

Nicholson, Oliver. "Constantine's Vision of the Cross." Vigiliae Christianae 54.3 (2000): 309-323. JSTOR. Web. 9 June 2012.

Malachi. ESV Minister's Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009. Print.
Shelley, Bruce L.. Church History in Plain Language. Updated 3rd ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2008. Print.

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