II Political Rise, Theological Consolidation
Constantine is one of the most important figures in Christianity because he gave the young religion the form it would hold for fifteen hundred years. First, he contributed to certain basic Christian doctrines; second, he transformed Christianity from the faith of peace and love into a religion of conquerors; third, he introduced Christianity to wealth and power.
Constantine was born in 280 at Nassus (modern Nis, Yugoslavia), the son of Constantius I and the concubine Helena (later St. Helena)....Roman rule at the time was in the form of a tetrarchy, a junior (caesar) and senior (augustus) emperor for each of the two halves of the empire. The division of the empire and the system for ruling it was inaugurated by Diocletian (293) in the interests of imperial stability. Constantius I became caesar of the West under the system, advancing to augustus in 305, and with his death a year later Constantine began what would be a seven-year campaign to win rule over the West. His efforts culminated in the invasion of Italy in 312 and a climactic attack on the Roman leader Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge near Rome. During the battle, according to Christian legend, Constantine saw a cross in the sky emblazoned with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces ("In this sign you will conquer"). His troops' shields were quickly inscribed with the divine call to arms, Constantine succeeded in taking Rome, and the victory is said to have been hailed as a Christian defeat of paganism. IHS -- a symbol of Roman military combat -- would
come to be second only to the cross (ironically, an emblem of oppression) as the most widely used symbol of Christianity down to present day. IHS is stitched on the vestments worn by all Catholic priests when they say mass.
Despite the general acceptance of this tale by today's Catholic faithful, it is likely that Constantine's vision was not Christian at all. He
appears to have had some sort of vision, or numinous experience, in the precincts of a pagan temple to the Gallic Apollo, either in the Vosges or near Autun. According to a witness accompanying Constantine's army at the time, the vision was of the sun god-the deity worshipped by certain cults under the name of "Sol lnvictus," the ‘Invincible Sun." There is evidence that Constantine, just before his vision, had been initiated into a Sol Invictus cult. ... The state religion of Rome under Constantine was, in fact, pagan sun worship; and Constantine, all his life, acted as its chief priest. Indeed his reign was called a “sun emperorship,” and Sol Invictus figured everywhere -- including the imperial banners and the coinage of the realm. [1, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, Holy Grail (London: 1982) at 386.]
Constantine’s role in the elevation of Christianity to state power would be great, but it was expedience and chance which determined it, not faith. Constantine hoped to unite the three principal religions of the empire: -- Sol Invictus, Mithraism and Christianity -- into a single institution that would serve to support the state rather than undermine it. [2, Id., at 387.] Like Diocletian, Constantine had long-term stability of rule uppermost in his mind. ...
He had promising material to work with. All three religions were essentially monotheistic. Mithraism shared sun worship with Sol Invictus, but it also shared important elements of the Christian faith -- immortality of the soul, a future judgement and the resurrection of the dead. Constantine accordingly attempted to establish beliefs and practices that would progressively blur the distinctions between the three religions. Thus, for example, Constantine was interested in consolidating Jesus' position as a god rather than a mortal prophet, and for this and other purposes he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Jesus was confirmed as divine on a vote of 218 to 2, no abstentions. “As a god Jesus could be associated conveniently with Sol Invictus. As a mortal prophet he would have been more difficult to accommodate. In short, Christian orthodoxy lent itself to a politically desirable fusion with the official state religion; and in so far as it did so, Constantine conferred his support on Christian orthodoxy.” [3, Id., at 388.]
To further harmonize the relationships between the three religions, and
distance Christianity from its Judaic origins, Constantine undertook to change the traditional birth date of Jesus. It had been, until the fourth century celebrated on January 6. [NOTE: This was the day to celebrate the nativity - birth - of Christ in the east, especially Egypt and Asia Minor. After the rise of Christmas on December 25th, the day January 6th was recategorized to celebrate the Epiphany - the appearance of the Magi at Bethlehem. See Bible Archealogy article at this link.]
However, by an official edict Constantine made it December 25, the birthday of Mithra and the festival of Natalis Invictus, the birth (or rebirth) of the sun, when the days began to grow longer. [4 Id., at 387.] This change served the purpose of combining the holiest celebration of all three religions into one. In 321 Constantine issued an edict ordering the law courts closed on “the venerable day of the sun,” making “Sun the sacred day of the week for worship, rather than the traditional Sabbath inherited from Judaism, dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday.
At the Council of Nicaea Constantine altered the day of the resurrection of Christ, the “Christian passover,” from the Sabbath to Sunday, and its name was changed to “Easter,” from east, its Latin equivalent meaning “the direction of the sun.” To simplify the chore of codifying the new canons, Constantine ordered the destruction of pagan and Christian writings about Christianity that he considered heretical. Then, in 331, he commissioned new copies of the Bible, facilitating the task of the new guardians of orthodoxy -- instant scriptural support for recently prescribed tenets of faith. “The importance of Constantine's commission must not be underestimated. Of the five thousand extant early manuscript versions of the New Testament, not one pre-dates the fourth century.” [5, Id., at 389.]
A more defined structure of belief engineered to political specifications naturally required a financial and organizational structure that could uphold and extend it. The authority of bishops was expanded, and the process of concentrating ecclesiastical power accelerated. Constantine arranged for a fixed income to be allocated to the church and installed the bishop of Rome in the Lateran Palace.
Constantine had an inestimable effect on doctrine; he is referred to in history as “the thirteenth Apostle.” Although he helped formulate some of
the basic doctrine of the church, he did so while still a pagan. Perhaps to mitigate the fact of a heathen's tremendous influence on its most important theological principles, church tradition holds that Constantine was converted to Christianity on his deathbed. This fiction was spread throughout Christendom in a romanticized version of the life of Pope Sylvester, The Acts of St. Sylvester, and repeated in a document attributed to Constantine that transferred temporal authority over the whole of the Western Empire to the bishop of Rome. The "Donation of Constantine," as it is called, of course a forgery. [7, J. N.D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), at 28.]
Although Constantine claimed to have received many inspiration directly from God, the most practical one regarded Byzantium, the city on the Bosporus, founded by the Greeks nearly a thousand years earlier. The location was far more magnificent than Rome in most respects. One day Constantine announced that he had received a direct instruction from God to rebuild the city. [8, Edward Gibbon, Roman Empire (New York: Random House), Vol. I at page 511.]
Its name, he decreed modestly, would be changed to Constantinople. Constantine's desire for the scenic beauty of his new capital would eventually be purchased at the expense of the unity of the Roman Empire, which would not survive the construction of a second capital. The move to Constantinople (330) ultimately engendered the Hellenization, even the Orientalization, of the empire. This would eventually lead to political strife between the bishop of Rome (by now called the "pope") and the patriarch of Constantinople, whose power gradually rose as the locus of ecclesiastical authority shifted to the east along with secular power. Centuries later the final outcome would be a complete schism between the Eastern and Western Christians, which lasts to this day.
Constantine's enormous political power impelled both secular and church leaders to seek his guidance in their affairs. Constantine's role at the Council of Nicaea was typical. He called what has since been recognized as the first of the church's sweeping ecumenical councils, which define essential elements of faith. (There have been less than two dozen in Roman Catholic history; the most recent was the Second Vatican Council, held in 1962.) Constantine's particular concern was the rise of Arianism as a significant Christian movement. Arius, a cultivated priest in Alexandria, maintained that Christ, the Son, was not equal to the Father, but was created by him -- that is, Jesus was not divine. This creed came to be called "Arianism," and could be called an early attempt to define the relation between God and Christ according to natural reason. A synod of bishops excommunicated Arius in 321, but his doctrines continued to gain influence, posing problems for Constantine's master plan to unite the religions of the empire. Thus the chief item of business at the Council of Nicaea in 325 was the repudiation of Arianism.
Probably on the advice of his counselor, the Spanish bishop Hosius,
Constantine opposed to Arian doctrine the concept of "consubstantiality," which simply means that Christ "shares the substance" of the Father and is equal to him. He must have been convincing. Arianism was summarily defined as heresy by the Council of Nicaea and the notion of consubstantiality was inserted into what came to be known as the Nicene Creed. With some modification, the Nicene Creed forms the basis for all of of Christian belief today, summarizing the basic tenets of the Christian religion. It does not seem to bother Christian believers that Constantine oversaw the writing of this essential doctrine while still a convinced pagan and for decidedly secular purposes.
After a few years of reflection, Constantine apparently had some second thoughts about the doctrine he had just formulated for all of Christianity. After all, what did he, a pagan, know about theology? ln 331 Constantine decided to receive Arius to discuss it, eventually ordering Athanasius, champion of orthodoxy at Nicaea, to receive Arius back into the church. Athanasius refused, was deposed by the Synod of Tyre (335) and exiled to Gaul. Constantine then commanded the bishop of Constantinople to restore Arius to communion. [9, Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 2, 297.] Arius died on the day of ceremony. The Nicene Creed remained.
The third person of the Blessed Trinity was left in a logical limbo by the Council of Nicaea. No one seems to know much about the Holy Spirit, except that Christ made periodic reference to it. It was postulated, therefore that there was another component to the divine godhead; so the notion of “three persons in one god” developed. Even though Christian teaching states that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, we are assured that he is not the son of the Holy Spirit. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas hastens to point out that the existence of the Holy Spirit cannot be deduced from reason alone. No one would doubt him on that point. In fact, in Acts 19:2 Paul asks some disciples if they have been baptized into the Holy Spirit. They answer, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Church leaders apparently needed the Holy Spirit to hold the theology together. To settle the issue the church called the Holy Spirit a "mystery" of the faith and made belief in it mandatory. Thus was born one of the basic doctrines of Christianity. Arcane though it is, the matter would be of great moment. The Eastern and Western church would split in the eleventh century over the relationship between the three persons in the Blessed Trinity.
In line with his plan for merging the three dominant strands of Roman religious belief, Constantine did not wish to convert to Christianity. Instead, he bestowed the bulk of ecclesiastical power on Pope Sylvester I, and with it a good measure of secular authority and wealth. This marked the begining of the church's role as more than mere handmaiden of the ruling class and, as a necessary corollary, the beginning of the church's growing proclivity to corruption. As Dante wrote, “Alas! Constantine, how much fortune you caused, not by becoming Christian, but by the dowry which the first rich father accepted from you." When Constantine moved to Constantinople, leaving Sylvester in charge of most ecclesiastical affairs in Rome, the church gained power by virtue of increased independence. Eventually the papacy claimed, based on a fabricated document, that Constantine had granted it Rome and the Western Empire.