On May 21 the Eastern Church celebrates the memory of my nominee for “Most Influential Christian”: Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337)
Why, you may ask, is the Roman Emperor venerated as a saint?
- This guy who had the audacity to move the capital away from Rome, humbly renaming the city after himself?
- This guy who set the pattern of the state meddling in the Church’s business?
Maybe you can measure the magnitude of his impact by the fact that people still argue about whether his influence was for good or for ill.
There are several answers to why he’s St. Constantine. They have to do with lasting major impact, not perfection or lack of unforeseen consequences. I’m going to talk about three.
In one way or another they all come back to that picture up there. That’s a snapshot of the Holy Fathers at the end of the Council of Nicaea (325) — the first “Ecumenical Council” where representative bishops from across the world gathered to solve big problems and bring unity.
They all have halos of course. These are the people through whom the Holy Spirit worked to define the faith.
But notice that the guy in the middle also has a crown. That’s Constantine. When you are Emperor you get center stage.
1. Theological Influence
Their most famous product is the document they are holding on the banner: The Nicene Creed. It took its current form later, when another council added to it. But the 325 version expresses the heart of the faith as it has been proclaimed East and West ever since.
Notice that Constantine is pointing down to the text. If icons had speech bubbles he would be saying
I put that word in there!”
When the bishops were debating how to express the relationship between the Father and the Son Jesus Christ, Constantine provided the word that solved the problem:
of the same being” or “substance” or “nature”
as the Father. The Son is just as much God as the Father is God — always has been, always will be.
It might take more than a blog post to convince you, but that is a very big deal.
With that word the Emperor provided the theological vocabulary to define Trinitarian theology — and that means, he helped make sure we still understand Christ as the one capable of bringing salvation.
2. Creation of Unity
Okay, so Constantine gave us the word that defined core Christian theology. Still not convinced?
Constantine also called the Council of Nicaea. That means he used his civil authority to create a structure to help the Church. There were six more such Councils, the last in 787 — and they are the only such Councils to have authority in both the East and the West.
This system of governance through Church Councils of representative bishops created the most remarkable period of organic unity that Christianity has ever seen.
Imagine there being, basically (i.e., not counting a small number of offshoot regional bodies) one Church, in functional unity of teaching and practice.
In the Protestant world, with our thousands of denominations, we know nothing like it.
It might again take more than a blog post to convince you that this is a big deal. But Jesus put a lot of weight on organic unity. He prayed our unity would mirror the very life of the Trinity:
I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23 NRSV)
Constantine helped that unity happen in a thoroughgoing way that lasted for a longer period than Protestantism has existed — it was intact globally until the year 1054 when Orthodox East and Catholic West divided. And granting that one division, the Orthodox East and Catholic West have each still maintained that unity remarkably. (I’m just sayin’.)
3. Structural Legal Change
Constantine is best known, though, for a change he made before calling the Council. It was a change that made the Council possible: Constantine made Christianity legal.
He didn’t make it the required religion — that was later. But with Constantine’s “Edict of Milan” in 313, Christians were no longer subject to persecution.
That’s a change.
Christians had not been constantly running from the authorities or living in hiding up to that point. But many did suffer torture and death in regional and national waves of persecution. And the lack of legal acceptability probably kept some from joining the movement.
With Constantine’s edict, the tenor of existence changed for the Church. You find prominent people getting on board. You find great church buildings growing.
Though he didn’t make Christianity a requirement, lifting the lid on the Church’s legal status set the direction for the Church to gain a great deal of social authority. It became, in many ways, the universal faith for vast regions — even if we might quibble about the Christian zeal of the average medieval citizen.
Constantine set in place advantages for the Church that only within recent decades have begun to dissolve. (It depends on which advantage, or which part of the world you think of. Some are quite gone; others are in place but crumbling.)
Our Post-Constantinian Era
So here’s to St. Constantine, my nominee for Most Influential Christian.
Welcome to the Post-Constantinian era. There is no more an assumption of universal Christian faith. It is a desert out there in terms of basic knowledge of the Christian faith, no matter how stridently confident the Christian voices in the media.
I’m okay with that — not that it would change if I objected. We still have the faith in the Triune God, the faith in a Christ who can save us, which Constantine helped define. We can still learn from the rich heritage of those who lived and wrote and sang and prayed and served in the stronger Church he helped and buttressed.
And if we are wise we’ll build on those gains, even without cultural advantages.
The point is not that we can’t be Christian without the culture’s help.
The point is faithful Christian discipleship. We need a truly Christian life in a complicated world that couldn’t care less.
That is how the Church grew and thrived before Constantine made it seem easy.