To suggest, as some historians (and
many others with axes to grind) have done, that Constantine rescued the
Christian church from persecution is fantasy. Christians had enjoyed complete
tolerance in the Roman Empire from 260-302. More importantly, Christians were
persecuted by the regime that Constantine constructed.
What was happening to the churches
during that period is significant. As Peter Brown, one of the more reliable
ancient historians put it: "The conversion of a Roman emperor to
Christianity, of Constantine in 312, might not have happened or, if it had, it
would have taken on a totally different meaning if it had not been preceded,
for two generations, by the conversion of Christianity to the culture and ideals
of the Roman world" (Peter
Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, A.D. 150-750, London and New York,
1971, p. 82). Brown sees two generations of accommodation, compromise,
corruption, and finally conversion of the churches to their culture. But the
worldliness of the churches began much earlier, even before the deaths of the
What the Constantinian establishment
of the Catholic Church meant was that the bishops (note that the Biblical,
Presbyterian form of church government had been abandoned by the churches before
the time of Constantine) now joined the bureaucrats to form a new governing
class in the Empire. The bishops of Italy became the heirs of the Roman Senate,
and the bishop of Rome became the Emperor's successor. Throughout the Empire,
Catholic bishops used monks (communist ascetics) as terrorists to enforce their
"Bands of monastic vigilantes, led by Schenudi of Atripe (died c. 466) patrolled the towns of Upper Egypt ransacking the houses of pagan notables for idols. In North Africa, similar wandering monks, the Circumcellions, armed with cudgels called 'Israels,' stalked the great estates, their cry of 'Praise be to God' more fearful than the roaring of a mountain lion" (Brown, p. 104). [And we wonder where the Muslims got the idea for their war cry, "Allah Akbar."]
"The Christian bishop,"
Brown reports, "now ruling large congregations and backed by the violence
of the monks, had come to the fore. The Emperor Theodosius committed the
bloodbath of Thessalonica [massacring the residents of the city in 390] yet
he went down to history as Theodosius the 'Great,' the exemplary Catholic
monarch" (Brown, p. 106).
With its legal establishment, the
Catholic Church became wealthy as well as bloody:
"Wealth might be used to cover the costs of an acquittal at the Last Day . From the fifth century onwards, this rich flood welled into the Christian Church 'for the remission of sins.' The rise of the economic position of the Christian Church was sudden and dramatic: It mushroomed like a modern insurance company. By the sixth century, the income of the bishop of Ravenna was 12,000 gold pieces; the bishop of a small town drew a salary as great as that of a senatorial provincial governor" (Brown, p. 109).
The time-honored, traditional Roman
system of exploitation of inferiors by superiors, with all the hierarchy
exploiting the people, had been adopted by the Catholic Church-State. This
exploitation was possible only because the Catholic Church had already rejected
the Gospel of salvation by free grace. The Catholic Church's rejection of the
Gospel of justification by faith alone made all its subsequent errors and
atrocities not only possible, but inevitable.
Constantine did not establish
Christianity as the only lawful religion of the Empire (an act that would
have been Antichristian); he established the Catholic Church as the only lawful church
in the Empire, a different Antichristian act.
Some have argued that Constantine's
initial intention was freedom of worship for all. The Edict of Milan, issued in
313 with Emperor Licinius, read, in part:
"Since we saw that freedom of worship ought not to be denied , to each man's judgment and will the right should be given to care for sacred things according to each man's free choice."
Eusebius (263-339), bishop of Caesarea, reported a rescript of the Edict of Milan sent to a provincial governor bearing these words:
"For a long time past we have made it our aim that freedom of worship should not be denied, but that every man, according to his own inclination and wish, should be given permission to practice his religion as he chose. Every man may have permission to choose and practice whatever religion he wishes" (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Book 10, paragraph 5).
Whatever Constantine's intention to
recognize genuine freedom of religion or merely to use freedom of religion as a
transition from established paganism to established Catholicism freedom of
religion was not the result of his edicts.
In the same year in which he issued the Edict of Milan, Constantine ordered his prefect in Africa to persecute the Donatists:
"I consider it absolutely contrary to the divine law that we should overlook such quarrels and contentions, whereby the Highest Divinity may perhaps be moved to wrath, not only against the human race, but also against me myself, to whose care He has, by His celestial will, committed the government of all earthly things. For I shall really and fully be able to feel secure and always to hope for prosperity and happiness from the ready kindness of the most mighty God, only when I see all venerating the most holy God in the proper cult of the Catholic Religion with harmonious brotherhood of worship."
Constantine did not establish
Christianity because Constantine, quite frankly, did not know what Christianity
is. The legend of Constantine, which Constantine himself promoted, says that
before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he had seen a vision of a cross but pagan
Romans had seen visions for centuries. In fact, this was not the first vision
Constantine had seen; he had earlier seen Apollo, who had guaranteed his earlier
military victories. But at a feast concluding the Council of Nicaea in 325
(which he had summoned), Constantine first gave a public account 13 years
after the fact of the apparition he had experienced, and Eusebius, his
obsequious biographer, reported it for us:
"The Emperor said that about the noon hour, when the day was already beginning to wane, he saw with his own eyes in the sky above the Sun a cross composed of light, and that there was attached to it an inscription saying, 'By this conquer.' At the sight, he said, astonishment seized him and all the troops who were accompanying him on the journey and were observers of the miracle. He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he 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 [i.e., a charm] in all engagements with his enemies. At dawn of day, he arose, and communicated the marvel to his friends; and then, calling together the workers in gold and precious stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious stones. And this representation I myself have had opportunity of seeing" (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book 1, chapter 30).
If indeed Constantine saw or heard
something, it was a demonic vision and voice, not a word from God. Brown tells
us that after his "conversion," "The first Christian emperor
accepted pagan honours from the citizens of Athens. He ransacked the Aegean for
pagan classical statuary to adorn Constantinople. He treated a pagan philosopher
as a colleague. He paid the travelling expenses of a pagan priest who visited
the pagan monuments of Egypt" (Brown, p. 88). Sol Invictus, the pagan Sun
god, was honored on Constantine's coins until 321.
It was this man who is credited with
making "Christianity" the lawful religion of the Empire, but
Constantine, himself not knowing what Christianity is, turned to the Catholic
bishops, who gave him various answers. That was intolerable. And for that
reason, Constantine summoned councils in an attempt to unify the Empire
theologically, just as he had unified it militarily in 324, when he defeated
Licinius, his last rival for power. Councils assembled in response to his orders
and those of subsequent emperors; and creedal formulations from the fourth
century onward become the creedal formulations approved by the Roman Emperor.
All who disagreed were banished from the Empire, or punished in more painful
In 324, after defeating Licinius,
Constantine proclaimed himself head of the Catholic Church and summoned bishops
to Nicaea for a council in which he himself would preside. Two hundred fifty
obeyed. In another summons he wrote: "such is the regard I pay to the
lawful Catholic Church that I desire you to leave no schism or division of any
Not only would the Emperor permit no
disagreement (for there must be unity of doctrine to match the political unity
of the Empire), he also began to subsidize the Catholic Church:
"Inasmuch as I have resolved that in all provinces, namely Africa, Numidia, and Mauretania, certain named ministers of the lawful and most holy Catholic Religion should receive some contribution toward expenses, I have sent a letter to Ursus, the Eminent Finance Officer of Africa, informing him that he must arrange the transfer to Your Steadfastness [Caecilian, bishop of Carthage] of 3000 folles in cash [an enormous amount in that time]. Your task on receipt of this sum of money will be to see that it is distributed among all the persons named above according to the schedule supplied to you by Hosius [bishop of Corduba and religious adviser to Constantine]. If later you find that you still lack means to carry out my intentions in this matter in respect of them all, you must not hesitate to ask Heraclidas our treasurer for whatever you find necessary. I have given him orders in person that if Your Steadfastness should ask him for any sum, he is to arrange for its transfer to you without question" (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Book 10, chapter 6).
In 315, Constantine issued an edict
making it a crime for Jews to proselytize. His goal in all this was to ensure
that the "proper cult of the Catholic Religion" would be observed
throughout the Empire. So much for every man being permitted to practice his
religion as he chose. A century later, the penalty for Jewish proselytizing was
Fifteen centuries after the birth of
Christ, little had changed in Western Europe but the names of the gods
worshiped. The Western Europeans of the fifteenth century still lived in an
enchanted world a world of magic and miracles.
The holidays (in pre-Reformation
Germany, there were 161 days of holy fasting and abstinence each year),
processions, sacrifices, and rituals continued; the apparitions, pilgrimages,
relics, and shrines remained; the gladiatorial contests were replaced by autos
da fe at which the religious would chant the Psalms and pray the
liturgy. Laing wrote, "though there is a notable difference in the
character of the supernatural beings that in the fourth century succeeded to the
multitudinous functions of the old departmental spirits, there is little or no
change in the attitude of mind ."
The founders of the Catholic
Church-State "were keenly interested in winning the pagans to the faith,
and they succeeded. But undoubtedly one element in their success was the
inclusion in their system of the doctrine of the veneration of Saints. They seem
to have felt that in order to make any headway at all, it was necessary for them
to match the swarms of spirits available for the pagans with a multitude of
wonder-working Saints and Martyrs. How far they were prepared to go is indicated
by their favorable attitude toward the pagan veneration of Virgil that amounted
almost to deification . The Saints succeeded to the worship of the dead just
as they had succeeded to the cult of the departmental deities and to the little
gods of the Roman household . Reports of miracles wrought by human beings
were common among the ancient Romans and were accepted by the great mass of
people without question . The [Roman] Christians adapted themselves to the
pagan attitude. They matched the miracle-workers of the pagans with the
wonder-working Saints; and with their success the number of miracles increased.
The sanctity of relics, well established as it has been among the pagans,
acquired far greater vogue in [medieval] Christian times and was given a degree
of emphasis that it had never had before . Like the deified heroes and
emperors of pagan times, the Saints were honored with altars, sacred edifices,
incense, lights, hymns, ex-voto offerings, festivals with illuminations
and high hilarity, prayers, and invocations. They became intermediate divinities
." (Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion, pp. 8-9, 83,
One Roman Catholic historian
described the religion of early sixteenth-century Europe in these words:
"In 1509 when John Calvin was born, Western Christendom still shared a common religion of immanence. Heaven was never too far from Earth. The sacred was diffused in the profane, the spiritual in the material. Divine power, embodied in the [Roman] Church and its sacraments, reached down through innumerable points of contact to make itself felt: to forgive or punish, to protect against the ravages of nature, to heal, to soothe, and to work all sorts of wonders. Priests could absolve adulterers and murderers, or bless fields and cattle. During their lives, saints could prevent lightning from striking, restore sight to the blind, or preach to birds and fish. Unencumbered by the limitations of time and space, they could do even more through their images and relics after death. A pious glance at a statue of St. Christopher in the morning ensured protection from illness and death throughout the day. Burial in the habit of St. Francis improved the prospects for the afterlife. A pilgrimage to Santiago, where the body of the apostle James had been deposited by angels, or to Canterbury could make a lame man walk, or hasten a soul's release from purgatory. The map of Europe bristled with holy places; life pulsated with the expectation of the miraculous. In the popular mind and in much of the official teaching of the [Roman] Church, almost anything was possible. One could even eat the flesh of the risen Christ in a consecrated wafer.
"Much of late medieval religion was magical, and the difference between church men and magicians lay less in what they claimed they could do than in the authority on which their claims rested. This is illustrated by the crucifix that 'controlled' the weather at Tallard . Late medieval piety showed an almost irrepressible urge to localize the divine power, make it tangible, and bring it under control" (Carlos Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, Cambridge, 1986, pp. 1 & 11).