CH101 - The Fourth Century

The Church Established, 303 - 400 A.D.

Politics of the Roman Empire
The Church Continues to Grow
Persecution under Diocletian
Constantine comes to Power
Donatism and Arianism
The Conflict with the Donatists
Constantine and Faith
Council of Nicea - 325 AD
The Nicean Creed
Beginnings of Monasticism

Constantine and Faith
It is important to realize that Constantine always pushed for peace and unity in the church. He was not as concerned with the theological or doctrinal issues as he was to push for unity. We will see later in the discussion on the Council of Nicea that Constantine's goal was unity in the church.

Constantine, Faith and the Sun God
Many critics of Constantine maintain that his actions towards the Church were motivated by his political aspirations. It is commonly asserted that his Christian profession was not genuine, and that he continued to worship the Sun.

I am currently reading and taking extensive notes from Constantine and the Christian Empire, by Charles Odahl, Professor Emeritus at Boise State University. Odahl's work is considered by some to be the most thorough biography of the life of Constantine. Odahl spends the first several pages covering the primary documents: Eusebius, Lactantius, official letters written by Constantine, The Lineage of the Emperor Constantine (written between 340-390AD, the author is unknown, but the contents give us details not recorded in any other source), several speeches given by pagans in honor of Constantine, and two histories written by pagans in the late 4th and mid-5th centuries (Euapius and Zosimus).
All notations on the remainder of this page are to Odahl's work.

The story derived from all of these records actually show that Constantine seemed to act in genuine Christian charity. Odahl shows through an extensive survey of the documentary evidence and coins minted that Constantine never worships the Sun or any pagan god after his conversion in 312AD.

Sol Invictus was displayed on the Arch of Constantine which had been commissioned by the Senate. They had sensed that the Emperor was not forbidding symbols of Sun worship, thus they included it. Indeed Constantine seems to have learned that Christians had been co-opting the Sun symbol for more than 100 years. The coins the Emperor minted for the 10th anniversary of his reign depicted him with a helmet adorned with the Christogram cross (Chi Rho symbol). p.143,44
Even the Senate and pagan authors complain that he stops worshipping with them while taking every opportunity to worship with the Christians. During these celebrations, Constantine declined to participate in the pagan worship, yet joined in Christian worship. Some scholars believe this may have been the beginning of Constantine losing the support of the Senate. p.338n40

It must also be remembered that prior to Constantine early Christians co-opted aspects of Sun worship. Clement of Alexandria portrays Christ, like the Sun-god, racing his chariot across the sky. Many pagans accused the Christians of Sun worship because they met on Sunday mornings - the early Christians did this to celebrate "the Lord's Day" as opposed to the Jewish Sabbath. Early in the fourth century the birthday of the Sun-god was co-opted as the day to celebrate the nativity of Jesus - there is no clear record of who started this tradition.

Considering these facts, perhaps it is less striking that Constantine continued to use the Sun on his coins and other imperial emblems. It was very clear, however, from his various letters that he considered himself a Christian and the imperial leader of the Church. It is true that Constantine was not baptized until he lay on his death bed, but this was not uncommon due to the issues of second repentance.

The Christian writers (Eusebius and Lactantius) of the day believed Constantine was a genuine Christian, pagan writers attacked him for neglecting pagan worship and we have several of his letters that clearly speak and sound like a person of genuine faith. Could he have been playing the hypocrite? Yes, but if you study his family and his entire life, it is more likely that he is a genuine, yet flawed Christian.

Constantine and the Christian Empire, by Charles Odahl - represents 31 years of research, retracing the steps of Constantine across Europe and the Eastern Empire. This is possibly the most exhaustive work on Constantine ever published.

Numerous CH101 readers have written to me with questions and critical comments about what I have written regarding Emperor Constantine. There is a significant percentage of conservative Protestants who believe Christianity suffered greatly under Constantine. As a young man I was taught that the Catholic Church started with Constantine and was the beginning of Christianity losing its way.
One reader expressed it very close to how I learned it as a young man:

"Paul said that the 'mystery of iniquity' was already at work in the church even during his day (2 Thes. 2:7). How much more in the years following the death of Paul and the other Apostles would the 'mystery of iniquity' be working."
While there are some valid points to be made for Christianity losing its zeal and spiritual power, Constantine gets a bad rap in MY opinion. If you are interested in learning more about Constantine I would highly recommend the text by Charles Odahl (to the right) to better decide if Constantine was a Christian or just a political opportunist. My articles will be edited using Odahl's excellent research:
Emperor Constantine comes to Power
Emperor Constantine and Christian Faith
Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea
Emperor Constantine and Worship of the Sun (Sol Invictus)
Emperor Constantine and Christians in the Military
Emperor Constantine Against the Donatists