In October of 312, Emperor Constantine, ruler of the Western Roman Empire was preparing to battle Maxenthus, who disputed Constantine’s sovereignty of the West. On the eve of battle Constantine witnessed a cross of light with the words “in this you shall conquer.”[i] He ordered his men to place on their shields and standards, the chi-rho, the first two letters of the name, “Christ”. Inspired by a leader who received a vision from a deity, the troops defeated Maxenthus larger forces. Constantine entered Rome bearing the Chi-Rho and declaring that the Christian god had led him to victory and undisputed ruler of the West.
The veracity of this story will always be in dispute and even Constantine’s true conversion to Christianity may be questioned. However with his ascension, the brutal persecution of Christian was ended and followers of Christ could openly worship. Constantine did not declare the Roman Empire a Christian realm. Instead, by the Edict of Milan in AD 313, Christianity was decriminalized. “Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. “[ii]
It’s important to note that the edict also protected the belief and practice of all other forms of religion in the both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, “When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made we that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.[iii]
In signing the Edict of Milan, both Constantine and Licinius, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, desired to curtail any problems rising from religious concerns early in their realm. Constantine would eventually defeat Licinius and become sole ruler of the empire. He successfully defended the land from barbarians and began a massive building process throughout his empire. Meanwhile Christian, freed from external threats, began to openly explore ideas and theology. This would give rise to disputes and controversies which Constantine would wrestle with as both a ruler and a Christian.
One controversy came from a senior official named Arius, in the church of Alexandria, Egypt who challenged the concept that God and Jesus were the same, or of one substance (homoousios). Somewhere around 318, “Arius tried to clarify these issues and, in so doing split the Christian community. Christ, he said, is divine but not actually God-a lesser kind of divinity.”[iv] He and his followers asserted that Christ was homoiousios—of similar nature or substance or anomoios—dissimilar in nature or substance.
In direct opposition to Arius was Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria. The debate came down essentially to two arguments; “Arius, on the one hand, argued that what Alexander proposed was a denial of Christian monotheism— for, according to the bishop of Alexandria, there were two who were divine, and thus there were two gods. Alexander retorted that Arius’ position denied the divinity of the Word, and therefore also the divinity of Jesus. From its very beginning, the church had worshiped Jesus Christ, and Arius’ proposal would now force it either to cease such worship, or to declare that it was worshiping a creature.”[v]
The ideas of Arianism became popular, especially within the Eastern Empire. Church leaders, centered on Rome, held the view of God and Christ being of the same substance or elements. Many in the Western church felt it was only an issue in the East and “… had only a secondary interest in the debate, which appeared to them as a controversy among eastern followers of Origen. For them, it was sufficient to declare that in God there were, as Tertullian had said long before, “three persons and one substance.”[vi]
It is more difficult to determine what Constantine’s feelings were. We can’t be sure what truly motivated him to resolve this issue. Did he act as a new Christian seeking to understand God and the promise of a Christ enlightened life. Or did he act on behalf of his realm, attempting to resolve a divisive issue which could undermine the mighty Roman Empire. “Constantine was now the emperor of both the Eastern and Western empires. Whereas he had hoped that one faith would help reconcile the difference between the Roman West and the essentially Greek East, Arianism threatened to tear the two empires apart.”[vii]
In 325 Constantine organized the First Ecumenical Council, known as the Council of Nicaea, and gathered approximately 250 to 318 Bishop, the majority of which were from the East and inclined toward arianism. Though he had no vote, Constantine presided over the council to resolve the question of Christ relationship to God as well as other issues which needed to be attended to.
The Emperor sent a letter to Arius in which he “… stated his opinion that the dispute was fostered only by excessive leisure and academic contention, that the point at issue was trivial and could be resolved without difficulty.” [viii] Clearly he underestimated the commitment of Arius and his followers as well as the extent which Arianism had grown in the Eastern Church.
Despite the challenges, he managed to get the bishops to denounce Arianism and have Arius excommunicated. In addition the council wrote the Nicene Creed, dealt with the separation of Easter from Jewish Passover and many other issues from; ordination of a bishop, prevention of the removal of priests, recognition of the honorary rights of the See of Jerusalem, prohibition of the presence in the house of a cleric of a younger woman, banning of kneeling during the liturgy on Sundays and in the fifty days of Eastertide and prohibition of self-castration. [ix]
It’s likely that Constantine was a devoted Christian who envisioned Christianity as a force to solidify and strengthen the empire. He also saw himself as chosen by God to rule. His conversion to Christianity was genuine. He was the ruler of a vast empire which encompassed multiply cultures and nations. Paganism was still the central religion of the ruling Roman authorities and Constantine had to placate and honor those beliefs as well as his own. A man of great intellect, he was also intensely focused on achieving goals for himself and the Empire. He was not inclined to be a theologian and waste time contemplating ideas and concepts. His ideas of faith and government were basic, clear-cut and direct. “It is likely that this process responded both to the demands of political realities and to Constantine’s own inner development, as he progressively left behind the ancient religion and gained a better understanding of the new one.”[x]
Previous Roman leaders may have supported or persecuted religious groups, but rarely attempted to influence their theology.With Constantine things began to change. An opportunity to become the dominate faith in the Roman world had been given to the Christian church through the Emperor. Now Constantine and his successors wielded unprecedented power in the theological development of the church. “Now it was possible to invoke the authority of the state to settle a theological question. The Empire had a vested interest in the unity of the church, which Constantine hoped would become the “cement of the Empire.” Thus, the state soon began to use its power to force theological agreement on Christians.”[xi] Constantine chose to assist the church’s message but also to minimize the damage of heretical theology. Impatient to allow the church to work things out he intervened with swift and decisive authority. “Many of the dissident views that were thus crushed may indeed have threatened the very core of the Christian message. Had it not been for imperial intervention, the issues would probably have been settled, as in earlier times, through long debate, and a consensus would eventually have been reached.” [xii] Constantine firmly established that the early church would be led by a central autocratic leader who could take swift and decisive action. “But there were many rulers who did not wish to see such prolonged and indecisive controversies in the church, and who therefore simply decided, on imperial authority, who was right and who should be silenced.”[xiii] This would lay the framework for a central indisputable authority such as the Holy Roman Emperor or the Pope. “As a result, many of those involved in controversy, rather than seeking to convince their opponents or the rest of the church, sought to convince the emperors. Eventually, theological debate was eclipsed by political intrigue.”[xiv]
Constantine must have felt that once Arianisn was denounced at the Council of Nicaea it would quickly die out and no longer threatened the empire he had preserved and strengthened. Arianisn would not die but persisted for another 56 years till the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381. Would it have vanished if Constantine did nothing? Or would it be a central precept of our faith today? Constantine may have felt that theologians were prone to argue these issues and never reach resolution. By his forceful nature, the emperor made the Bishops deal directly with this issue concerning the nature of Christ and laid the political and administrative groundwork which would guide the church into the present day.
[ii]http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/milan.stm. Translated in University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]), Vol 4: 1, pp. 28-30. http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/milan.stm
[iii] . http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/milan.stm. Translated in University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]), Vol 4: 1, pp. 28-30. http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/bible/milan.stm
[iv] Placher, William C. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol 1, The Westminister Press, pg 48
[v] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 3323-3326). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition
[vii] Smith, Carol and Smith, Roddy. Quicknotes Christian History Guidebook, 2001 Barbour Publishing Co, pg 138-139
[x] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 2642-2643). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
[xi] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 3269-3277). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.
[xiii] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 3269-3277). Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.[xiv] Gonzalez, Justo L. Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Reformation (Kindle Locations 3269-3277). Harper Collins, Inc… Kindle Edition.