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.