Hamblin & Peterson: Constantine's influence can scarcely be measured

By William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson, For the Deseret News

Published: Sat, July 26, 2014, 5:00 a.m. MDT

 The Arch of Constantine celebrates victory.

The Arch of Constantine celebrates victory.

(William Hamblin)

Relatively unknown to many, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. A.D. 306-337) is arguably one of the most influential people in Christian history. A great conqueror and skilled administrator, he was also a pious Christian visionary who attributed his military victories to divine intervention. In practical terms, he was the head of the Christian church within the Roman Empire for three decades, but he waited to be baptized until his deathbed so that the numerous sins and crimes he had committed as emperor could be forgiven.

Although his mother, Helena, was Christian, Constantine was raised a pagan. His famous conversion occurred on the eve of a battle with Maxentius, his rival for the imperial throne. Constantine saw a sign in the heavens bearing the Greek words “touto nika” (“through this, conquer”).

The sign he saw was not the cross; it had not yet become the symbol of Christianity. The Greek chi-rho monogram (often called the “labarum”) consists of the superimposed Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P), forming the first two letters of the Greek title “Christos,” or “Christ.” Constantine attributed his subsequent victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (A.D. 312) to the divine intervention of Christ, who thereby became the patron deity of the Roman Empire.

Constantine thus raised Christianity from a minority faith to a world religion. Previous emperors had sponsored the worship of particular patron gods, so such things weren’t new. However, although Constantine didn’t persecute the pagan religions of his day, he undercut both their authority and their financial foundations by removing state sponsorship from pagan temples and devoting all state religious revenues to Christian clergy and churches. He transformed the nature of Christianity by creating a state-sponsored “Imperial Church.”

Constantine also built three new Christian cities: Jerusalem, Constantinople (“the City of Constantine”) and Rome. Although Constantinople was eventually conquered by the Turks in 1453 and is now the Muslim city of Istanbul in Turkey, it remained the most important center of Christian thought and culture for a thousand years. And Jerusalem and Rome are arguably the two most important Christian cities and pilgrimage destinations today.

Constantine was also indirectly instrumental in creating Christian art, architecture and symbolism. There had been a few Christian symbols associated with believers’ burials, but before Constantine there was no formal Christian art or architecture. When he ordered construction of a number of monumental churches, such as the original St. Peter’s in Rome and the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, he borrowed imperial Roman artistic and architectural forms (e.g., mosaics, statues and basilicas) for his new buildings. Constantine created Christian art forms that persist even today.

Many popular Christian beliefs and practices were institutionalized under Constantine’s supervision. Most important was the cult of the martyrs — the belief that sacred power resided in the tombs and relics of those who had died for the faith.

Though such beliefs had existed among Christians in various forms for over two centuries, by building grand shrines for the veneration of martyrs, Constantine created an official following with pilgrimage and liturgy. Thus, the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, the martyr shrine at the tomb of Jesus, became and remains the greatest pilgrimage site for Christianity, closely followed by the monumental basilicas built by Constantine on the ancient tombs of Peter and Paul in Rome.

Although rebuilt in the 16th century, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was originally founded as a martyrium for the bones and relics of Peter, who was martyred there.

Doctrinally, Constantine’s impact on Christianity was equally significant. Although not a theologian of any sort himself, he was an efficient manager and politician who wanted his new state religion properly organized. Thus, he made bishops into state employees and church buildings into state property.

He also realized that theological unity was an important part of political unity and control. Accordingly, he ordered all the bishops of the Empire to convene an assembly at Nicaea (near his new capital at Constantinople) in order to resolve numerous outstanding theological disputes. The result was the ambiguous compromise between Hellenistic philosophy and scripture known as the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), which has remained a fundamental part of mainstream Christian theology and liturgy ever since.

Constantine facilitated the faith’s transformation into a world religion while, in the process, radically altering its fundamental form and characteristics.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.

1. Cats
Somewhere in Time, UT,
July 26, 2014

After the Council of Nicea, the Great Apostasy was complete. Christianity had substantially deserted the Church that Christ established here on earth.

2. brokenclay
Tempe, AZ,
July 26, 2014

Two issues.

1) It is important to note that, yes, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, but that it was performed by an Arian, Eusebius of Nicomedia. The LDS world thinks that 4th century Christianity was dominated by orthodoxy. The plain history is that most of that century was dominated by Arian emperors (who were more like Mormons in their theology). Orthodoxy survived in spite of the empire, not because of it.

2) Constantine did convene the council at Nicaea. However, the confession that came out of that council was not in any way shaped by Constantine. He did not establish Christian doctrine by fiat. You will note in the article that Dr. Peterson says nothing about Constantine designing the Nicaean creed. It was the bishops who did so. This also is not to say that teachings like Trinitarianism had their beginning in 325. This is demonstrably false. The council did not develop doctrine; it was an explication and organization of already existing doctrine. If Mormons want to debate the biblicality of the creed, they must do so on a Scriptural basis, not an historical basis.

3. BrentBot
Salt Lake City, UT,
July 26, 2014

While Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity in 312, he wasn't baptized until on his deathbed 25 years later. In the intervening years he had his wife and eldest son murdered, and from all appearances he continued as a worshipper of the sun god. Long after his supposed conversion he had coins minted with a portrait of himself on one side and a depiction of his "companion, the unconquered Sol [sun]" on the other.

The "Christianity" Constantine endorsed was already considerably different from that practiced by Jesus Christ and the apostles. The emperor accelerated the change by his own hatred of Jews and religious practices he considered Jewish. For example, at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), church authorities essentially replaced the biblical Passover with Easter, a popular holiday rooted in ancient springtime fertility celebrations.

Constantine's affection for sun worship had earlier led him to endorse Sunday, the first day of the week and a day dedicated to honoring the sun, as a weekly day of rest in the Roman empire .

4. Sneaky Jimmy
Bay Area, CA,
July 26, 2014

The council at Nicea was in many ways similar to the LDS correlation program. The bishops wanted the same thing preached throughout the world.

5. sharrona
layton, UT,
July 26, 2014

RE: Cats, before the Council of Nicea,

“one in substance”. Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person=(substance,5287).Hebrews 1:3.

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD), used the term Trinity (Latin, trinitas), giving the oldest extant formal exposition of a Trinitarian theology. Other Latin formulations that first appear in his work are "three Persons, one Substance" as the Latin "tres Personae, una Substantia".

After Nicea,Martin Luther disagreed with 95 points of Roman Catholic teaching. The Trinity was not a subject of concern to him. The Lutheran Church with the universal Christian Church: The three persons of the Trinity are coequal and coeternal, one God.

C.S Lewis,” If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we would make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions[JS]. How could we? We are dealing with fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about." The three personal God “Mere Christianity. Lewis gives some other analogies of the Tri(3) Unity.