Don’t Blame Constantine

Don’t Blame Constantine June 10, 2009

It’s quite common for people to look back to the age of St Constantine, and view his contributions to Christianity to be entirely negative. Without a doubt, the Donation of Constantine, even though known by all to be a forgery, has had a great amount of influence in our reading of Constantine and his activities. We read Constantine as if he were a dictator, uniting church and states, messing up both in the process. While it is clear he took an active interest in his Christian faith, too much is read into it, and in reality, it is much later that we see the problems of “imperial Christianity.” In the end, we find two forms of this, Eastern (Justinian) and Western (Charlemagne), and it is without a doubt, if Constantine hadn’t converted to Christianity, imperial Christianity might not have happened. But to make it as if this is what Constantine was after, or he is to blame for what developed after his death, is equivalent of placing blame for the Holocaust to Hitler’s mother: while if she never gave birth to Hitler, his reign wouldn’t have happened, most people would find it incredulous to suggest she is the source of the Holocaust.

Looking to what Constantine achieved, it is clear he did play a role in church history, but his role is more of a catalyst than being one of its primary actors. Unlike later imperial Christianity, Constantine sought for a kind of religious liberty – different from what we would expect in the modern age, but quite progressive for his time. He wanted Rome to remain, and he wanted the people to be free to worship as they believed, as long as their worship didn’t cause scandal or harm to Rome. He believed Christians should be free to practice their faith, but he also wanted to make sure it was Christianity that was given this freedom – and not some subversive, rebellious groups who took on the mantle of Christianity but were not recognized as Christians by anyone but themselves. Constantine didn’t think he was the one who should decide this, but rather, he asked for the advice of his Christian counselors – and he followed through with their advice. Early on, this meant he followed what Ossius of Cordova suggested, later, it would be the advice of Eusebius which meant the most to him. What is important here is that his actions towards the Christian faith must not be seen as primarily his; he was merely following the suggestions of others. And they used traditional means (such as church councils) as ways to address the problems of the Christian faith of Constantine’s time. What is seen as the primary example of Constantine’s interference with Christianity, the Council of Nicea, really wasn’t his idea. He had sent Ossius of Cordova (a confessor and well respected bishop) to Egypt to understand the Arian conflict (and to work for peace). When Ossius was there, he came to side with St Alexander of Alexandria, and began the conciliar process to condemn Arianism. Constantine, hearing of the work, only took what Ossius had started and suggested it should be more universal. Ossius agreed, and took the lead to call for a council, Nicea, at which he would preside (he is also the one who is said to have authored the creed).

While Constantine addressed the council, he did not do so to influence the outcome, but to help encourage them to act and find a solution to the various problems which beset the church. Some people have asked why he would even do this, and suggest that this is the first stage of imperial Christianity. Why did Christians need to come to some sort of common agreement? But again, if one studied what happened before Constantine, one would see Christians were already engaging this kind of activity. Ossius had, much earlier in life, presided over a council in Spain. Christians had already come to realize that confusion existed within the domains of the church, and they needed to know what extent differences could exist within the church (liturgical practices), what kinds of differences should be overcome through mutual agreement (such as the date of Easter), and what kinds of differences were not allowed (dogmatic errors). Constantine’s act was just to encourage Christians to continue what they were doing, and to make sure they did so faster, quicker, than they would have done if he hadn’t prompted them to come together in his lifetime.

Beyond Nicea, Constantine, and his mother Helen, did bring imperial support to the creation of churches and pilgrimage sites. Once again, it is clear that this is not indicative of Constantine creating the sites, but recognizing them, and that his action was merely the continuation of his policies towards Christianity, which was to make restitution to the Christians for what they suffered during the age of the martyrs. Here we really can see how “modern” Constantine really was. Not only did he engage religious toleration, but he engaged public restitution for previous injustices. The second might be the only real Christian policy enforced by Constantine. It is probable that pagans in Constantine’s day would have said, “Well, we didn’t persecute the Christians, so why they get our money?” But the Christian notion of justice would have demanded it. The same is true in modern times. Even though many who encourage restitution for past grievances (such as those shown to African Americans, Native Americans, or Japanese Americans) might not be Christian, the sense of justice which they use to justify these demands comes from the Christian heritage of the West. And it is a kind of justice which one doesn’t need to be Christian to accept and understand, though it is only through Christianity that the West could have come to such a sense of justice. So there you have it. While later forms of church-state relations would take on a form of imperial Christendom, the most we see of this in Constantine’s time is a transformation of the notion of justice. The rest of the complaints which people put to Constantine just don’t fit. It’s really later, after Julian the Apostate, that you get Theodosius, Justinian, or Charlemagne, and the empire takes on a different notion of church-state relations, the kind of which need to be examined and determined as to whether or not they are fully compatible with Christ’s intent for the church.

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  • Josh Brockway


    At the North American Patristics Society last year, a lecture was delivered called “Remembering Constantine.” It was a really fascinating look at the evolution of Constantine’s recollection of his vision at the Milvian Bridge (through his own texts, not the Donation, as well as some of Eusebius’) and some material culture things. Great stuff! In the lecture it was striking the role played by Eusebius and his confessor is understanding the event.

    I think you are right to point at the changes and development of what I would call Constantinianism. Clearly the Carolingian vision is distinct from the shifts of the 4th century. Yet, the recation of Julian should give some pause. I think there are two historical perspectives to take here: The Church in the late 3rd century is rising in social standing and acceptability which Constantine recognizes. Or the Peace is the beginning of the rise in the social location of the Church. Either way, there is a clear sense of transition in the 4th century, or even a kind of angst, which regardless of the perspective (Carolingian, or Protestant, or following Gibbon).

    The point to my rambling though is rather simple. The 4th-6th century radically changes the social location of the Church (at least in the West). It is in part Constantine’s legal recognition, part the vision of bishops, and in part the clear crumbling of the Hellenistic model.

    Good Stuff Henry and a nice shift from some of the more heated debates of late. Thanks

  • Josh

    I think we agree in general (I know we will have specific points of disagreement)– which is why I think the role of Constantine as “catalyst” helps better than, say, Constantine as instigator. You are right that Julian was reacting to something, but I think it was to what happened after Constantine’s death, where we see rival claims to authority were combined to rival forms of Christianity. So we do get a sense of pre-imperial Christianity after Constantine.

    And yes, I think Eusebius, more than any other, with his “cult” form of Constantine, helped provide the form in which later imperial Christianity would also develop. But I think Constantine saw Eusebius differently (imperial propaganda) than what we see him as (ecclesial propaganda), and it is, in some ways, when both forms (and readings) were combined we get.. Christian Caesar.

  • Josh Brockway

    Yes….and Yes…

    I also think the kind of rise of asceticism at the time is fascinating. In some ways the Holy Man as Brown calls them or ascetic authority and the wrangling with bishops reveals something about the tensions of the day.

    I like catalyst, and its in part why I talk in terms of Constantinianism rather than say “blaming” Constantine the historical man. What might be really fruitful in terms of scholarship would be a closer study of Julian. Gibbon and Dodds really lay a heavy blame on him for the fall of the Empire with his emphasis on myth and theurgy. In the back of my mind I wonder if he is building on ritually based paganism in response to the Church.

    I think you are right we are say in the same ball park, but on different bases. Probably a nuance which a blog can’t capture.

    • Julian seemed to try to take what he saw was the strength of Christianity, its cohesive nature and its ability to attract converts, and bring it back into paganism. He was right in some ways to look to theurgy. I like the work of Iamblichus myself. However, it also shows, imo, he already was “perverted” by Christ, and his paganism wasn’t authentic, but a copy, a bad copy, of Christianity, that his paganism couldn’t survive. But then, I think, this would also have influence on Christians.

      Asceticism is certainly its own concern. Some of it clearly was the issue of urbanization and domestication of Christianity. But I also think sometimes that too much is made of that, and the other, the “pagan” side of asceticism is often forgotten. Until modern times, we have often forgotten that the predecessors to the monks were pagan ascetics (certainly, Alexandria had its Buddhists). Indeed, I often wonder if one of the monastic groups St Anthony learned from were Buddhists. But there is something else going on. I’m not sure we have really “discovered” it yet in our scholarship. I am not sure what it is, but there just seems to be something missing in all studies I read.

  • Isn’t it a very common error to claim that Constantine made Christianity the empire’s official religion? Credit (or blame, perhaps) for that actually belongs to Theodosius, yes?

  • Henry Karlson


    Well, it is complicated. I would mostly agree with you. And indeed, when I wrote this, I was wanting to write a poem entitled, “Blame Theodosius.” So yes, for the most part.

    However, there is a side “but.” We are talking about the ancient world. What the emperor is, the empire is. And in this way, by being Christian, Rome became Christian. But only in a sense.

  • Josh Brockway

    I would add a simple, historical distinction. Constantine did not “make” Christianity THE religion of the empire. He did, however, issue edicts which placed Christianity among the licit religions of the Roman Empire. Except for the policies of the Julian, Christianity by 312 no longer was persecuted.

  • Henry Karlson


    That is why I said, he didn’t, save for the “but.” For, as we know, in the ancient world, what the emperor was, the Empire was in some way seen to be. So when Constantine was Christian, while he didn’t make it legally the official religion, in a sense, he did hand it over to the empire (because of who he was).

  • Liam

    What is commonly laid at the feet of Constantine is premature by 2 centuries in the East, and even more in the West.

  • The Paganism/Constantinianism issue came up recently in evangelicalism via pollster Ga. Barna’s book: Pagan Christianity. It more than implies that virtually everything about the modern church is paganized – about as thoroughly as white on rice.

    Even the Pagans themselves are gloating over it:

    Your thoughts?