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).
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.