promotes the view that the Roman Emperor Constantine was not
a Christian at all, remained a pagan all his life, got baptised
when he was “on his deathbed, too weak to protest”
and was politically astute enough (“a very good businessman”)
to hitch his political wagon to the soon-to-be dominant world
religion: Christianity. Christians had apparently grown “exponentially”
by Constantine’s time, and he was a shrewd politician
who used that faith to cement the social and religious fabric
of Rome and reject paganism in the process.
of the great debates in Roman history is how genuine
Constantine’s faith in Jesus was."
This is terribly
simplistic. One of the great debates in Roman history is how
genuine Constantine’s faith in Jesus was. The critics
who say he was not a Christian repeat some of Brown’s
comments and add other reasons:
• As a “Christian Emperor” he had people
put to death who might oppose his power;
• He did not make his children get baptised (and those
children did not intervene to stop the Senate declaring Constantine
to be a god, after Constantine’s death);
• He kept a pagan title - Pontifex Maximus - as one
of his many titles as Emperor;
• During the early years of his leadership, he carried
out the duties of Pontifex Maximus of the traditional pagan
cult and restored pagan temples;
• He used pagan as well as Christian rites when dedicating
• He used pagan magic formulas to protect crops and
• He did not change pagan symbols on coins for over
a decade or more in power; and,
• When finally baptised, he was baptised by an Arian
priest (not an orthodox one).
Brown could have used lots more arguments than he did, but
it does not surprise me that he limited his argument to the
most commonly repeated criticisms. Brown is a lecturer in
english and creative writing, after all, not history or archaeology.
(That is significant, by the way. His credentials are not
in either area that he speculates with and leans so heavily
But there is more to Constantine than this short list of negatives.
Great God-fearing leaders in the Bible like King David killed
off threats to his throne and recommended that his successor
Solomon do the same. All Christian leaders do some very non-Christian
things at time: they are not perfect examples of Jesus! (None
of us are.) Being the wise leader of a multicultural and multi-religious
empire will require that leader to accommodate all persons
and not show partiality in affairs of state - even while that
person holds personal convictions about one of the state’s
many religions. Tony Blair and John Howard face that same
challenge in our day. Does it make them non-Christians because
they honour and respect Muslims publicly? Or that they don’t
pull down Muslim mosques and Hindu temples? Or that tax concessions
can go the way of all religions and not just Christianity?
Of course not.
time, it was also expected that after baptism you would not
sin again, and so, as a leader of the Roman Empire, it is
quite natural for him to put off baptism until his deathbed.
Being baptised by an Arian was also no big deal then: half
the bishops of the empire were Arians and they were not weeded
out until a long time after Constantine. The Arian bishop
Eusebius of Nicomedia (not Eusebius the historian) was a personal
friend of Constantine and had his ear theologically at various
times during his life. It is no surprise that this bishop
baptised the Emperor.
embraced the 'religion of the cross' because of various
factors, but it seems unlikely that one was because
the numbers of Christians was large, or because it
was politically clever to do so."
It is also important
to consider that there were not vast number of Christians
at the time Constantine become one. They did not make up the
majority of the Roman Empire but, more likely, about 10 per
cent of the empire's population. And most of that 10 per cent
were not upper class people. They were more from the lower
end of society’s spectrum. There had been massive persecution
just before Constantine came to power. It had been the worst
persecution ever (under Diocleatian and Galarius, the co-emperors
before Constantine). Constantine’s mother was a Christian,
and that must have had some influence on him. He felt, for
example, that his success in the final military battle that
won him power was due to the God of his mother - the God of
Constantine embraced the “religion
of the cross” because of various factors, but it seems
unlikely that one was because the numbers of Christians was
large, or because it was politically clever to do so. It was
actually politically dangerous to be in the minority, particularly
a minority made up mostly of powerless or uninfluential people.
As one commentator writes: “some of his staunchest opponents
of this policy (Christianising the Empire) were in Rome, particularly
in the Senate, where the old aristocracy bemoaned the eclipse
of their ancient gods and privileges.”
Was Constantine a Christian or a political opportunist? Probably
both to varying degrees. I see him as a relatively immature
Christian with a lot of secular power. Not the greatest combination,
and in many ways it did hurt the church. But that seems to
have been the nature of his situation.
Jim Reiher (BA
(double major in history), BA in Theology, Dip Ed. MA in Theology
(Hons)) is a full time lecturer for Tabor College Victoria,
lecturing in church history and New Testament; and also has
speciality interest areas in women’s ministry, creative
ministry, and the New Age movement. His views are not necessarily
those of other Tabor faculty members or of Tabor College.