September 1, 2012

Constantine-True Conversion or Political Opportunist: Part I

The Arch of Constantine
Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)
Oil on Canvas
There are many figures in church history that have moved the faith forward and some that have moved it backward. One of the people that seemed to have moved it forward is Constantine. He has a lot to do with why a emerging Christian faith went from a second-rate middle-eastern religion to a dominate one worldwide. As important as he was to the Christian faith and irrespective of the abundance of texts written about him, there are still things that are enigmatic about Constantine. One particular issue that comes to the forefront is the nature of his conversion. The question is often raised: Was his conversion legitimate? There seems to be evidences, like the ways he acted after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge to point to both sides of this argument. Did Constantine have a legitimate conversion at “the sign of the cross” or was Constantine’s conversion a ploy of political expediency? Did he really have a supernatural experience that led him to the God if Christianity or was this a contrived attempt to manipulate an empire? I’ll be presenting the evidences of why he did or did not have a true conversion and then present an informed conclusion.

To see if Constantine’s conversion was valid we must first describe and understand it. Due to its pivotal historical significance to the Christian faith, many of my resources point directly to the conversion of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge. Constantine was fighting against a rival named Maxentius (Davidson, “Birth of the Church” 339; Hurlbut 53; Nicholson 330; Shelly 91). It is written by Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea that for Christians, Constantine’s victory in the Tiber was the equivalent to Pharaoh’s in the Red Sea. Eusebuis viewed it as “inspired by the Godhead” and marked a turning point in history (Shelley 91).

The fact that something this momentous would’ve happened to an otherwise persecuted backwater religion seems nearly unprecedented outside the Bible. Within the Bible this is status quo and seems unique to the Judeo –Christian belief system. It is the story of God picking the underdog or the most unlikely of candidates through which he will enact his plans (a la David, Nebuchadnezzar, etc.). It seems as if God actually reached into history to affect Constantine and move empires just as He had done in the Bible. With these events we see the shift from the early Catholic Church to the Imperial Church and the combination of Church and State (Shelley 91).

Until the time of Constantine, Christianity had been victimized, at times systematically and mercilessly (Hurlbut 53). Previous to Constantine we had Diocletian who was one of the worst persecutors of Christians who eventually abdicated his throne (Shelly 95). We also saw Galerius who had mercilessly persecuted Christians but finally realized that attempts to eradicate Christianity were pointless and issued an edict of toleration on his deathbed (Shelly 96). It is here we already begin to see a turn away from the bloodshed of Christians even before Constantine’s ascension to the throne. This eventually led to the fight between Constantine and Maxentius for the right to control the empire. On one side it was Constantine who was friendly to the Christians and on the other Maxentius who was affable to the pagan constituents (Hurlbut 59). As history shows us in October 28 312 A.D., Maxentius marched out into the open with a superior force numerically and is surprisingly defeated. It is here that we are told that, previous to the battle, Constantine experiences a powerful vision of Christ before the battle and it is claimed that he and his soldiers fought under “the sign of the cross” (Davidson-Birth of the Church 339). Maxentius forced backwards ultimately drowns in the Tiber River (Hulbut 59).

Immediately after this victory Constantine issues orders thaChristians are to not be persecuted in all areas of empire. This is nearly an immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Virtually no time elapses between the two events (Davidson-Birth of the Church 340). Here we see an abrupt action that has positive long-lasting effects for Christians. Within a few months of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, we will see Constantine and Licinius issue the Edict of Milan in February 313 (Davidson-Birth of the Church 341). At least this is the way Christian history portrays this episode. The truth is that there does not appear to have ever been a formal edict until the action of Licinius which makes this event even more intriguing (Davidson-Birth of the Church 341). It seems that even though Licinius did issue an edict, there had already been clear favoritism towards Christian by Constantine as early as 306 A.D. Although this friendliness had advantageous political implications against his political opponents, it appears this attitude of Constantine had been in place for years. This thereby shows a pattern of behavior favorable to Christians (Davidson-Birth of the Church 342). It is quite possible that the Battle of the Milvian Bridge may not have been the point of Constantine’s conversion. It should be noted that even Eusebius and Lactantius give no indication that it was his Milvian Bridge experience which made Constantine into a Christian (Nicholson 312). Regardless, it is clear that Constantine and Licinius cooperated and agreed to the welcoming attitude towards Christians.

We do not know Constantine’s motives for these amicable attitudes towards Christians but the speed at which they are implemented as startling; they are done within months after the defeat of Maxentius. It is here we begin to see possible sincere motives of Constantine.

Another element that should be examined closer is the intimate actions and reactions by Constantine to aid the promulgation of Christianity. The trick here is to separate the man from the myth that has been built up around him. The Milvian Bridge aside there are many things about Constantine that bode well for believing he was indeed a true Christian. Although history is fond of showing Constantine’s open public attachment to Christianity in the battle against Maxentius, as stated, he had already made connects to it earlier. After the Edict of Milan, Constantine broadened his political reach until he was ruler of the entire Roman world. During this time he continued to grant privileges to Christians. Christianity went from persecuted religion to a recognized public religious entity and its leaders were afforded rights including an exemption from tax and other public obligations. We see churches destroyed under persecution rebuilt much more elaborately. Churches were also given sizeable financial largesse (Davidson, Birth of the Church 344). It was possible to legally free slaves before the church in the presence of a bishop and bishops were even appointed as military chaplains (Davidson, Public Faith 20). All these actions took place under Constantine. We must keep in mind that by this time Constantine was firmly in control of empire. It is not as if he needed the power of supporters that he would’ve gleaned from the contingent of Christians under his rule - a contingent that would’ve been significant but not overwhelming in size.

It is as at this point we see Constantine even conceive of (supposedly by divine inspiration) a new Christian city in the East to be built in the place of Byzantium and it will be called Constantinople (Cairns 120, Shelly 95-96). By 330 it is complete and has been dedicated. The new senate was brought to the city and told to worship the God of Victory each Sunday and to listen to Constantine on religious and moral/ethical matters (Davidson-Birth of the Church 345). The "Day of the Sun" or Sundays were made the day worship. (Cairns 119)

Although many of this events and actions argue strongly for a man that appears to have indeed converted to Christian faith, within or in-between these often times superficial evidences we see quite a few inconstancies that do not seem to argue strongly for behaviors that are becoming of a Christian convert.

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