Thursday, September 25, 2014

Constantine - The Watershed

There are occasions when history hits a watershed that fundamentally changes things. Often this takes on a life of its own and goes beyond the influence of the people who started it. One such event was the adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine. This led to its being tolerated and advocated and, in the long run, becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine, as the architect of this, has been both greatly lauded and greatly vilified. But what was his real contribution?

There are those who claim he helped decide the contents of the New Testament. But those contents were repeatedly referred to and copied before Constantine. There was some doubt around the edges, but the basic substance was not in doubt. Nor does it seem credible that the Christian faith would have existed for 200 years with no concept of what its foundational writings were. Now there was a council after Constantine's time that made the list official and ruled on the questionable books in the margins, but it was not working in a vacuum. Nor did Constantine originate the idea that Jesus was God. This comes from earlier times and was a belief of Christianity noted even by the pagan observers. In the controversy over this, Constantine seemed indifferent and just wanted both sides to get along. His son Constantius was totally hostile to the idea and tried unsuccessfully to stamp it out. 

It is hard to be dogmatic about what Constantine himself believed, because what we have from him was passed down through others. But there is a sermon of his recorded by Eusebius that is instructive. It  emphasizes belief in one God and a strong ethical standard. He does speak of Christ: His life,  His death and resurrection, but my perception is that this is not the main point. I am convinced that the conversion of the Roman Empire was very much of a foxhole conversion. Constantine was looking for something to hold the then deteriorating Roman cultural fabric together and decided on Christianity. I do not believe the decision was arbitrary, but was probably rooted in the stability of Christianity even under persecution. However, it did not necessarily represent a deep understanding of Christian teaching. The main thing Constantine contributed was to make the transition. But this had a considerable effect on the Christian church and society. Christianity became identified with the Roman authority and became respectable. This enabled it to have a period of peace to spread its message and work out its theology. But it was at the price of entanglement with the world and of acquiring members who joined because it was the respectable thing to do or in order to please the emperor. This resulted in a more worldly church, though there were many who fought against this. It also resulted in a nominally Christian society that used Christianity for its political purposes. And Constantine was the catalyst for bringing this about. But his direct personal contribution to it was more minor.  

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