Constantine’s Pagan Influence on Christianity – A Militant View of God? (Greg Boyd)

Constantine’s Pagan Influence on Christianity – A Militant View of God? (Greg Boyd) September 15, 2011

I love what Greg Boyd says here…

What are your thoughts on Constantine and this transition in church history?

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  • That was really informative. 

  • Willhouk

    One of my professors in Bible College wrote his master’s thesis about Constantine. His thesis was that Constantine did massive harm to Christianity and he touched on some of these topics. This is a great sermon, thank you.

  • DebbieYrigollen

    WOW So Intence! Mom

  • Cdonaldson

    Thought provoking and challenging.  Enjoy his enthusiasm for his subject but could do with ‘slowing down’ a little to help some of us keep up with the accent

  • JJ

    I think the vision might have been real, but what if Constantine interpreted it wrong? I wish it would have gone like this:

    The Emperor Constantine, facing the biggest battle of his reign, looked into the setting sun at the Lilvian Bridge and saw a vision of the cross of Christ. As he gazed at the cross he heard a voice say “By this sign, conquer.”

    The next day he gave up his reign as emperor, surrendered all his many possessions, and went to live and work among the poor. And forever after he was known as one of the greatest heroes of the faith for his obedience to the voice of God.

    • Jeremy

      JJ, it is funny you said that because there is a story of Constantine appearing to St.Bishoy. St. Bishoy was a desert monk who lived just right around his time had a vision of Constantine.

      In one of those visions Emperor Constantine said, “Had I known how great is the honor of monks, I would have abandoned my kingdom and became a monk.” St. Bishoy told him, “You have banished the heathen worship and exalted Christianity, and has not Christ given you anything?” Emperor Constantine answered him, “The Lord has given me many gifts, but none of them is like the honor of the monks.”

  • Ian

    I definitely think that it was the work of the enemy. whether the vision was real or not. The temptation was given to become a powerful religious organization and I think that many pagan Romans jumped on board. There might have been some people who were Christians before the event that saw it as some kind of blessing that the persecution would be over. Probably one of the cleverest tricks the devil ever pulled. Just look at how the following centuries destroyed true faith and damaged our witness. It haunts us even to this day. The church really needs to let go of many of those world views that we’ve held on to for so long and be true witnesses of the love that Christ loved us with. I’m beginning to see the change, but we will always have room for improvement.

  • I think his point is good, in that, yes, there is a tendency to view God as a militant God–especially in America. He’s spot on about much of American Christianity being self-righteous and based on a militant God. However, to blame it all on Constantine is a stretch–and he’s playing with history a bit. Statements like, “And Christianity overnight was paganized!” is hard to prove, extreme and sensational.

    Constantine also called the Council the Nicea–without which it could be argued the churches today might be teaching that Jesus is not fully God (Arianism was quite wide-spread at that time). Not to mention that most Church fathers, even after Constantine (and there are hundreds) continue to condemn self-righteousness, violence and promote the humble, crucified God. Many of them standing up to Emperors, to their personal loss (death, exile, etc.). 

    Read the prayers of the Orthodox Church (the center of which has always been in Constantinople– from Constantine himself). The prayers and liturgy are completely humble, constantly call for repentance, decry self-righteousness and focus on the God who is crucified and risen, humble and loving and caring even to great sinners (because we are all great sinners). 

    Also, The Eastern Orthodox Church reveres Constantine and his mother Helena as saints–and the Orthodox Church is pretty pacifist doctrinally. They don’t even believe in the concept of “just war.” they see war as sometimes necessary, but never justified and something of which always to repent.
    I’m not surprised he didn’t mention Anselm’s teaching of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement as a point in the rise in thought of a military God. Anselm’s idea is so ingrained in Christian theology people don’t know that it wasn’t doctrine for the first 1,000 years of the Church. In my estimation,Anselm’s view that we need to be saved from the wrath of God paints a picture of a militant God–that He himself saves us from his own wrath doesn’t really change the picture–especially when I can easily point to ‘others’ who have not been ‘saved’ and decided self-righteously that God’s wrath still rests upon them–so violence against them is easily justified…

    Thanks, Kurt for another thought provoking post and question! 


    • I appreciate your points here, and I agree to an extent, but let’s also not forget that Eastern Orthodoxy – more than about any other Christian tradition but certain strands of Evangelicalism/Pentecostalism in America – ties its churches to the respective states in which they reside.  Fortunately, patriarchs are finally beginning to push the other way, but there’s no doubt that much of the established Eastern tradition has operated quite in league with the sword of the day, from early Byzantium on.  As you point out wrt Nicaea, that doesn’t negate some of the very good aspects of Orthodoxy that we should all treasure, but it does qualify some things.

      • Brad,
        Good point…and true. Which was why I was careful to say “doctrinally” in regards to the Orthodox Church. What the Church officially teaches and what it has done, are unfortunately different things sometimes (as with all churches, I think).

        • The question of being rescued from the wrath of God did not start with Anselm; it dates back to Old Testament Judaism, and was actually crucial to the faiths of the surrounding nations at the time of the rise of the Tribes.  Anselm just created a Christian framework for ideas that were already there.

          • Rlongman1, I was referring specifically to Christianity, as was Mr. Boyd in his video. Most religions have a view of being saved from the wrath of God. Christianity did not include this in its doctrine until after Anslem in the 11th century. I was wondering why Mr. Boyd does also attack Anselm and say things like “And after Anselm that the way we read the Bible changed radically” or “And after Anselm, Christianity was overnight paganized!”

            I’m reacting to Mr. Boyd’s sensational tone. He wants to make a point about a militaristic God and he wants to pin it all on his flimsy point about Constantine. Scholars have debated this for a long time–he wants to give one simplistic view of it from one side of the debate and then stack his argument on it… it’s poor history, poor scholarship and poor sermonizing. Unfortunately, his point is good–but it was lost for me in his trying to stack it on a straw man….

  • Just had two more thoughts… (sorry for my rambling)…

    1) Again, the Orthodox Church (which revers Constantine) has a rule that if you have ever killed a person, you cannot become a deacon, priest or bishop–even if it was during war, self-defense or in some other way “in the line of duty.”  So, though I like his point *very* much, he is playing fast and loose to blame justified violence in the Christian Tradition on Constantine.  In fact, he’s being down right misleading and obtuse (though probably not meaning to be).

    2) To take his argument literally–that true Christianity was lost or obscured after Constantine– would mean that we are free to question the New Testament canon, as it was developed by the post-Constantine Church. If the view of God is truly obscured in our Tradition after Constantine, our view of Scripture may have been obscured, too. (I am assuming that the argument of the Scriptures being self-revealing is untenable, as the early churches themselves disagreed about some of the books’ Scriptural status).

    I’ll stop blabbing now… 🙂

    • Actually, the canon was set in the third century, not the fourth.

      • Brad, 

        What date are you using for the setting of the canon?

        • Most scholars hold to the festal letter of Athanasius in something like 294.  I don’t remember the exact year.

          • Oops – I’m dead wrong here.  367 , not 294.  You’re right.  However, I’m not sure he’s saying that everything that happened in the church from Constantine on is inherently suspect.

          • His first statement in the clip is “The way we read the bible changed radically in the fourth century.”

            But the canon was jsut being set at that time. If the fourth century Christians were not cabable of correctly reading the books that were being chosen to collect into the bible, how can we trust them to have collected the correct books?

          • Rlongman1

            Misses the point. The Church was using and turning primarily to most of the books which became the New Testament long before we had a canon (two or more centuries before, actually).  They were turning to the Gospels, Acts, and to most of Paul’s letters, at the very least. (A handful of books were still in serious question. That diverts us from the most that were not.) So the question really isn’t one of canon, but **what was the relevance of these books the Church’s thinkers were turning most to, to the question of Constantine’s militarism and imperialism**?  It is more than fair to say the Jesus of those books, our Gospels, was *not* supportive of it.  The Church, instead, went with its earthly ruler, against its long-established practices and against the Jesus it was supposed to follow.  Is that treason?  Yes.  Is that the cause of our addiction to Christendom?  No; if that were all, it would have died with the Roman Empire.

          • And, just because Athanasius talked about them in a sermon does not mean they were accepted by everyone as the set canon. 

            On the other point, I’m reacting to Mr. Boyd’s sensationalist tone. When he says things like “And Christianity overnight was paganized” if he really thinks that is true, he should be suspect of everything that happened in the church from Constantine on–which is ridiculous–but that’s the point I’m making…it’s ridiculous.

            Mr. Boyd speaks with too much assurance on speculative matters. I could just as easily argue that if Christianity hadn’t become a state religion, it would have died out as an obscure religion lost to history–but that’s speculative…

  • No more Starbucks for him!

  • Anonymous

    Really enjoyed this, thanks for posting.

  • Thanks, Kurt.  A couple of things worth noting here.  First, as Yoder (upon whom Boyd draws) points out, the man Constantine is not so important for this discussion as “Constantinianism,” which names a particular problem of ecclesial orientation.  The agent of this problem is not the empire, but the church.  It’s our own actions that result in the accommodation to the violence of the powers.

    Second, returning to the historical situation, we should remember that everything didn’t change overnight.  Constantine would not have had the success he did with the church so quickly had not the church already been predisposed in certain ways to receiving such power and established favor.

  • We saw both of those images in my Doctrine of Christ course where we were to look at various images of Christ and see what perspective they came from. Boyd has some good points here. I’ve often had one of those “what if” moments of what if Christianity had never left the underground. What would it be like today?

  • This guy blames Constantine for Christianity’s problems when it was Eusebius who was the culprit. Constantine never became a Christian. He was a lifelong Pagan. The Pontifex Maximus of the Roman Empire and a devotee of Sol Invictus and Mythras. When he built Constantinople he built one Church and five pagan temples. He never claimed to be a Christian and he was never baptized. As a polytheist, he simply added Jesus to his gods to be honored which is not the same thing as Christian.

  • The idea that having God on your side can result in military victory is also found in the Old Testament. It’s not an exclusively pagan idea.

  • Jim

    In my view Greg Boyd has done more than most to highlight the complacency and incongruity of the American church’s relationship to political power—and he has done it more courageously than most.

    But I still think that some sort of victory in historical terms over the Greek-Roman world is envisioned in the New Testament; (II Thess.2:2-8,  Revelation etc) and I don’t see how we can avoid identifying this victory with the conversion of the empire and the ending of persecution. This was the vindication of those who for three centuries had proclaimed to pagan Europe that the God of Israel was the one true God.

    And yeah I think that Christendom effectively repeated the mistake of the Jews when they demanded a king who would constitute their existence as a kingdom. And in the end, empire failed ethically and spiritually in the same way that kingdom failed, only on a more spectacular scale. But the good intention was that the corrupt degrading worship of the ancient gods, which was a thoroughly public and political business, should be replaced by the thoroughly public and political worship of the holy and righteous God of Israel. 

    The point is this: I think the conversion of the empire represented a massive victory for the Christian worldview over the old unjust, immoral pagan order, and it was directly and it was attributable to the power of the cross—to the self-giving and loving way of obedience to YHWH, of a faithfulness that was willing to be subjected to imperial violence in the confident expectation of eventual vindication. In that respect, and as a matter of historical fulfilment, it conforms precisely, in my view, to the hopes associated with vindication in the New Testament.

  • Lawyatt

    Even if the ascendancy and legalization of the church is accurately interpreted as a divine victory over paganism, the church did not have to respond the way it did.  Perhaps they could have tried a “suffering servant” vision of leadership and administration rather than morphing into a new empire.  And if that failed, well, that’s perhaps confirmation that the Bible neither expects or gives guidance to God’s people for running the world.

  • its impossible 2 carry the cross with a weapon in ur hands

  • BewareOfTheAntiMessiah

    Constantine was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He made Sabbath illegal and changed the date to Sunday and honoring Sabbath on the 7th day punishable by death. He instituted pagan practices such as Christ-Mass and Easter and brought much pagan rites and rituals into the church WHILE persecuting those who honored Yahuah’s biblical Festivals and Feasts. He outlawed Passover and began the Pagan Passover we know as “Easter”. He introduced the cross into Christianity, and variations of the cross are used throughout paganism and many other religions including Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Catholocism, and so on. Anyone who would do that and call himself a man of God, is what the Word of Yahuah defines as a wolf in sheep’s clothing!