Defending Constantine— Part Two

Constantine was a military man through and through.  Long before he was an Emperor, he was a rising star in the Roman army.  He was not a philosopher nor a theologian, and those who have tried to suggest that Constantine somehow created Christian orthodoxy by meddling in church councils such as the one at Nicaea  in 325  honestly do not know what they are talking about.   Constantine was a facilitator and promoter of church councils, working hard for unity in a divided group of clerics and types of Christianity in the east and west,   but an inventor of Christian orthodoxy—- not so much.

Though we know Constantine as a Roman Emperor, we need to bear in mind he spent the vast majority of his life in the Eastern part of the Empire, and thus it is no surprise that he established his own capital in Turkey, at present day Istanbul  (a name derived from the name Constantinople).   In fact, Constantine never visited Spain, Africa, southern Italy, Sicily, Greece, Palestine, or Egypt.   He should not be thought of as some sort of world conqueror like Alexander or the first Augustus.   Constantine had followed his father Constantius in the military, and in fact he had been born near the Danube in a military barracks where his father was on another campaign, and moved around with his father thereafter.  He was in short a military brat, as we would call him.  It appears that Constantine was the product of a tryst with a commoner that Constantius had because Helena, his mother did not have a full-endowed marriage.   It was on a military campaign in Britain in A.D. 306 that Constantius,  who had quelled another British revolt, fell ill and died in York in the northeast of England. The story goes that with his dying breath he named Constantine his successor.   What we need to bear in mind about all this is that Constantius lived at a time when there were in effect four emperors at once, and naming his son as his successor did not mean he would immediately, or even soon,  rule the entire Roman Empire.

Constantine had plenty of military savvy and ambition and soon after the death of his father he sent Galerius, the Eastern Augustus an image of himself crowned with laurels and Galerius accepted Constantine as a legitimate member of the imperial college, as a ruler of a part of the Empire.   Constantine’s  right to rule a part of the Empire was contested by Maxentius, and there were bloody conflicts.  One of the ways Constantine stood out from other Emperors of the day was that as soon as he assumed power he made an edict putting an end to the persecution of Christians in the regions he controlled, and thus immediately had the sympathies of Christians everywhere.  Now if only Galerius and others would follow his lead.  Maxentius made the mistake of not building such a power base.

Most of us know the famous story of the battle of Milvan Bridge in the summer of 312 between the forces of Constantine and Maxentius.  This was a battle at the Tiber river—- yes two Roman commanders fighting over Italy itself, not some far flung province.   Constantine won this battle and was awarded a triumph in Rome, which was supposed to climax with a sacrifice in the Temple of Jupiter.  Constantine however refused.   As Leithart says “As soon as he defeated Maxentius, Constantine made it clear that a new political theology was coming to be, a poltical theology without sacrifice. It was a signal of the opposition to sacrifice that he would hold to consistently for the rest of his life.”  (p. 67).

What in the world could have caused a person raised at the bosom of Roman thought and politics and military life to renounce pagan sacrifice altogether?     The answer is,   Constantine’s conversion to Christianity at or before the battle of Milvan Bridge and we will examine it and the famous Edict of tolerance set up by Constantine in 312, in our next post.    For now what needs to be said is that one of the reasons folks like John Howard Yoder object so strongly to Constantine, his ideology,  his practices, his rule,  is because  Constantine claimed that it was  a vision of  Christ’s cross with the words ‘in this sign conquer’  that led to his conversion, his military victory, and his sole rule of the Empire.  The idea that Christ’s cross might become an ensign or even an instigator of military victory is something deeply repugnant to pacifists.  And Yoder badly wants to be able to argue that Christians were overwhelmingly pacifistic prior to Constantine, and that Constantine caused the fall from that stance of primordial grace which he identifies with the teachings of Jesus.

As we shall see, history is messy.   While I think Yoder is right about the teachings of Jesus (and Paul)  and is also right that there was a strong pacifistic tradition in the early centuries of the church, especially before Constantine,  what history does not prove is that all Christians were pacifists before Constantine.  There were undoubtedly some Christians like Constantine who had other views.    And whatever we make of the vision of Constantine,  even if we want to say he misinterpreted the vision,  there can be little doubt it changed Constantine’s life in a more Christian direction,  led to the end of persecutions of Christians and the legitimizing of Christianity as a legal religion, and frankly, all of those things need to be seen as good things.

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  • James

    Christianity is not the only thing that could have made Constantine decide to downplay sacrifices. There were plenty of non-Christian philosophers (esp. of the very influential pre-Iamblichus neo-platonism) that rejected sacrifices. I look forward to your next post.

  • Watchman

    It is my understanding that Constantine didn’t fully dismiss pagan worship. In fact, many scholars believe he integrated paganism with Christianity in order to appease all citizens of Rome, including the Senate, many of which still remained pagan in their worship. Furthermore, not only were 1st-3rd century Christians universally pacifist, there was never a single uprising against the Christian persecutions. This is why the catacombs of Rome attest to the many Christians who were killed by the sword of Romans legions all throughout the empire. With rare exception, early Christians simply “turned the other cheek”. There is no historical evidence of any Christian rebellion/uprising prior to the 4th century AD.

  • Karl Udy

    The pacifist question is not simple because there are two issues in there. One is the issue of bearing arms in the name of Christ. Another is the issue of a Christian bearing arms for their state.

  • ben witherington

    Watchman it is a historical myth that early Christianity was universally pacifistic. There were in fact Christians in Constantine’s army before he converted, and he retained them on staff. History is messy, and doesn’t fit our ideological preferences. See the subsequent posts on this.
    It you want to say that Christianity appears to have been mainly or primarily pacifistic before Constantine, I think that case can be made. But the more global claim cannot.


  • RickC

    Since there is another individual posting as Rick C. as well I’ll be posting henceforth as RickC.

    Any claims to a total pacifistic stance by the early church, i.e. third century and earlier, by any historian certainly can’t be substantiated. The Theban Legion proves that by a long shot. Now, what part if any Constantine may have had in their tragic demise I can’t say simply because I don’t know that history in depth. But still, killing of ones own troops whether or not they are Christian is at best the act of an insane and despotic leader without Christian values or upholdings. That is the worst!! Roman didn’t need exestential enemies it had them within and some were pretty vile particularly a few of the Emperors! I can not imagine the horrors of serving as a Roman legionaire and simultaneously being a devout Christian living for Him in such a pagan formation and required to give/participate in pagan sacrifice. Secondly I could not nor would I ever participate in some of the ways in which the Legions torture/killed some of there enemies, nothing humane whatsoever. Not that killing is humane to begin with but with the Legions it was at times quite vile. The Romans knew how to kill successfully.

  • Watchman


    It should be noted that the Theban Legion account has been dismissed as a literary anachronism and not a factual or literal event. There is no historical evidence to support a literal event. In fact, the practice of decimation hadn’t even been put into practice for nearly a century after the Theban Legion existed.



  • Anthony

    To some degree, how we understand the significance of Constantine’s conversion and consequently its affects upon the nature of Christian faith is influenced by our sense of the relationship between Christ and culture, regarding which Richard Niebuhr provides a nice typology: is Christ against, above, of, in paradox with, or transforming culture? The challenge is that this relationship is itself a matter of theological debate, which is played out both directly in biblical hermeneutics, and indirectly in how we understand God moving through history.

  • David

    I read here that to be a Christian one can be a militaristic person like Constantine. This certainly redefines “being a Christian” for me. Thanks.

  • Brenda Thomas

    This was a great article, I love history and so it was very interesting to read, thanks for the effort and easy read.

    God bless you