May 20, 2012

Constantine And Christianity

Daniel Larison
February 1st, 2010

Comment: You could argue, in fact, that Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as a state religion was an original sin from which Christianity has still not recovered.

You could argue this, but it would have no basis in fact. This may seem a minor point, but the misunderstanding of Constantine’s relationship to Christianity is a common and very frustrating one. Regardless of what one thinks Constantine’s reasons for becoming first a patron of Christianity and then a convert may have been, it is very important to understand what his patronage and involvement did not entail. First of all, Christianity did not become a state religion under Constantine. Christianity became the emperor’s favored religion, and this meant a diversion of wealth away from pagan cults and towards the Church, but the religion did not achieve a distinct and higher legal status until considerably later.

The establishment of Christianity (and a particular form of Christianity at that) as the official, state religion occurred later closer to the end of the century under Theodosios I, when it first became illegal to engage in public pagan religious practices. Even after this, especially in the eastern empire, secular law and ecclesiastical canons remained largely distinct and separate until fairly late in Byzantine history, and the involvement of the emperor in the Church was mostly limited to adjudicating intra-Christian doctrinal disputes. Non-Christians and heretics were under legal disadvantages because of their beliefs, but in most cases they were left in peace.

What more than a few historians and theologians have dubbed "Constantinianism" had nothing to do with Constantine. For that matter, it had very little to do with Byzantium later on. Like the equally mythical concept of Caesaropapism, the picture of a church intertwined with and directed by the imperial government is the product of modern historiography reacting against church-state relations that prevailed in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The phenomenon of state churches in which the secular power ruled over the Church directly began with Henry VIII and repeated itself throughout northern Europe. This particular fusion of politics and religion was a decidedly modern phenomenon, and had little to do with ancient or medieval practices in Byzantium.


Comment: Christianity was "set on the road" towards becoming a state religion under Constantine.

No, Christianity was not “set on the road” towards becoming a state religion under Constantine. That is the worst kind of teleological, anachronistic historical interpretation. At the time that he was emperor, he was providing patronage to one of a number of religious cults that still flourished in the empire. One of his successors could and did abandon Christianity and promoted traditional pagan cults. The break with past Roman practice was not nearly as decisive or momentous as everyone seems to assume. He provided the Church with legal protections and endowed it with significant property. The Church did not become an “active political entity.” In the east, it is debatable whether we can say that it became such an entity during most of the Byzantine period. Bishops acquired secular authority in those places where imperial authority was lacking, not where it was present.

Comment: Previous to Constantine, the primary symbols of Christianity were not the cross, but the fish, and other life-giving signs.

This is nonsense. Eusebius included cross imagery in his Life of Constantine to establish Constantine’s reputation as a Christian. Constantine was not the one who made the Cross into a major symbol of Christianity. Besides, the Resurrection remained the overriding symbol and idea of Eastern Christianity before and after Constantine. The special attention to Christ’s death was something that developed in western Europe for entirely different reasons. Constantine did not make Christianity into a militant religion. His Christianity did not emphasize violence. Indeed, if you read his letters during the Donatist and Arian controversies, he stressed the importance of concord and peace as ideals. Decades after Constantine, soldiers were still required to abstain from communion for three years if they had shed blood.

Most of the things that are laid at Constantine’s feet came about decades or centuries after him and had little or no connection to anything in his career.