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V. Rev. Fr. Thaddaeus Hardenbrook
History & Principles of the Orthodox Church 101 Fr. Martin Swanson, PhD. January 22, 2009
Emperor Constantine the Great (306 – 337) The Importance of His Faith in the History of the Church
St. Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles, First Christian Emperor of Rome, builder of Constantinople and founder the Byzantine Empire. He is a military victor, effective ruler and glorified saint. There is no doubt that his contribution to world history and that of the Orthodox Church is indeed spectacular. Eusebius describes him as “such an emperor as all history records not”1 and Ware places him “at a watershed in the history of the Church.”2 As Meyendorff asserts, “No single human being in history has contributed…to the conversion of so many to the Christian faith.”3 Norwich reiterates this opinion on a global scales stating that “No ruler in all of history…has ever more fully merited his title of ‘the Great’….[Constantine has] serious claim to be considered…the most influential man in all of history.4 Among Constantine’s most significant acts and initiatives of importance in church history are his legal initiation of freedom for Christianity with the Edict of Milan (313), his calling of the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325), and moving the capital of the empire from pagan encrusted Rome to Constantinople (330). However, popular and academic loyalty regarding his status as ‘first Christian emperor’ and ‘saint of the Church’ has wavered over time. Dominant opinions have ebbed and flowed in their evaluation of Constantine’s role specifically as a Christian. A religious role of importance that, as Schmemann describes it, no one denies but the evaluators of which are “diametrically opposed.”5 On the one hand, hagiography and hymnography of the Orthodox Church guilelessly distills down the historical perspective on Constantine to that of a great saint
Eusebius. 1994. Life of Constantine. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc: 484. 2 Ware, Timothy. 1964. Byzantium I. In The Orthodox Church. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books: 26. 3 Meyendorff, John. 1989. Church and Empire. In Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 7. 4 Norwich, John Julius. 1996. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf: 32. 5 Schmemann, Alexander. 1977. The Triumph of Christianity. In Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 62.
called explicitly to an apostleship directly by God. “Like Paul, he received a call not from men,”6 reads the troparion for his feast. Eusebius, who personally associated with Constantine, insists that he was “adorned with every virtue of religion.”7 In the Prologue of Ochrid, compiled by the newly glorified St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Constantine conquers Maxentius having followed an iron processional cross (rather than the Chi-Rho symbol on shields) and is immediately afterward, rather than on his death-bed, catechized and baptized by a Bishop Sylvester prior even to the Council of Nicaea! 8 Confident that his role in Church history is divinely inspired and pleasing to God, the Orthodox Church, with Christ-blessed childlike faith glorifies Constantine and joyfully overlooks all personal weaknesses he may have had. He is our brother in Christ and, knowing our own sinfulness and spiritual sloth; we gladly disregard his faults and remember his virtue in hope of the same merciful treatment. On the other hand, Constantine has been attacked consistently by those considering his personal flaws as proof of his manipulation of Christianity for personal and political gain. We see this occurring as early as 498 with the publication of that “implacable enemy of the Christian name”9 Zosimus’ Historia Nova and continuing until today. “For a long time scholars interpreted [the panegyrist of 310] to mean that Constantine had professed some sort of Apolline faith…the strongest indication that Constantine was pagan….”10 Many Christian historians and authors themselves seem to approach Constantine’s conversion with such uncertainty that he is either glossed over quickly, as do Ware (five paragraphs),11 Meyendorff (beginning only with the Edict of Milan),12 and Chadwick (“It was a military matter.”)13 Of contemporary Orthodox authors, Schmemann appears to make the greatest effort to synthesize the ambiguities of
Troparion for Constantine the Great. In The Menaion. May 21. Eusebius. 1964. Ecclesiastical History. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books.438 8 Velomirovic, Nikolai. 1999. St. Constantine, Equal to the Apostles. In The Prologue of Ochrid. Serbian Orthodox Church Diocese of Western America: May 21. 9 Gilles, Pierre. 1988. Antiquities of Constantinople. New York, NY: Italica Press: 12. 10 Elliott, Thomas G. 1990. The Language of Constantine's Propaganda. In Transactions of the American Philological Association. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press: 349. 11 Ware, Timothy. 1964. The Beginnings. In The Orthodox Church. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books: 24 – 27. 12 Meyendorff: 7. 13 Chadwick, Henry. 1993. Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. In The Early Church. New York, NY: Penguin Books: 125.
Constantine’s conversion. Without an accurate context, many of Constantine’s words and actions are easily criticized. Yet careful study of forth-century Roman culture and the fledgling socio-cultural structure of persecution-era Christianity suggests otherwise. Constantine was forced by circumstance to balance the complexities between a newly legalized Christianity, that he adamantly supported, and the well-established, pagan expectations of the imperial throne that were in direct conflict with Christian moral ideology. Schmemann concludes, “However many mistakes and perhaps even crimes there may have been in his life…it is hard to doubt that this man had striven unwaveringly toward God.”14 However, Meyendorff almost flippantly labels him as “an adept of solar monotheism” probably having “some sort of conversion experience” and changing “practically nothing” but rather ordered the execution of his own son, Crispus, and wife, Fausta15, while sponsoring the council of Nicaea. He goes on to conclude that “it is perhaps misleading to call Constantine ‘the first Christian emperor’”.16 Chadwick concurs, stating, as if it were a well-documented fact, that Constantine “was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in the Unconquered Sun.”17 A Defense of His Faith In presenting the importance of Constantine’s role in the history of the Orthodox Christian Church, it appears most essential to defend that aspect of Constantine’s role in Christian history that is most vulnerable to criticism; his faith. The great historic events of his life and reign are relatively indisputable. Yet a defense of the virtue of his character must be renewed for the preservation of his rightful place as neither a theoria-dwelling saint of the highest degree of holiness, nor a politically manipulative dictator, but as a servant of Christ, clay in the hands of the Master, willing to be formed according to His will; a man “under the protection of the Cross and in direct dependence upon Christ.”18
Schmemann: 80. This is the slander of Julian the Apostate propagated by Zosimus. 16 Meyendorff: 6. 17 Chadwick: 126. 18 Schmemann: 66.
Therefore, the focus of this study regarding the context of Constantine’s life and faith remains on his relation to the Church as catechumen and his primary spiritual obligation being the perseverance of faith against demonic attack. We now take up the topic of his personal faith, recalling that “one must treat with caution the contradictory evaluations of the age of Constantine, indiscriminate condemnation as well as unconditional justification.”19 Conversion: The Milvian Bridge or Before? Historically, Constantine’s battle with Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge marks the beginning of a reunified Roman empire and the end of an era fraught with much political division and competition between numerous Augustuses and Caesars. The event, for both Christians and pagans, was filled with divine symbolism and content. “Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge seemed a signal manifestation of celestial favor.”20 The Roman senate erected a commemorative arch with a depiction of the battle and the inscription, “by the prompting of the deity”.21 Pagans believed this deity to be the Unconquered Sun, while Christians believed it to be Christ, the Son. Most scholars of Christian history today, especially that of Klaus M. Girardet, agree that Constantine had converted to Christianity by this time (312). For the Chi-Rho inscription was already on the shields of his soldiers (it would appear on his coins as well in 315) and, most dramatically, he did not follow the established tradition of traveling the via sacra to the Capitol in order to make pagan sacrifice to Jupiter. For the next two and a half months, Constantine would “generously subsidize from his private purse twenty-five already existing titular churches and established several new ones; he also instructed his provincial governors to do likewise throughout his dominions.”22 Girardet documents that, “No Roman Emperor before Constantine had ever done this. Eusebius of Caesarea was to see in Constantine the first emperor who was
Schmemann: 62. Chadwick: 125. 21 Ibid. 22 Norwich: 40.
a "friend of God" and thus chosen to proclaim his message to the world. Girardet sees no reason to contradict Constantine's historian.”23 There is not doubt that from 312 onwards that Constantine “saw himself as supreme guardian of the Christian Church.”24 But, as has been suggested from the time of Lactantius (240 – 320), Constantine’s conversion may have taken place even earlier. A conservative estimation is that of at least a year earlier (311) when, as reported by Eusebius, he first saw the Chi-Rho in the sky inscribed with the phrase “By this [sign] conquer.”25 However, given that his mother was of Britain and may have converted to Christianity before her son, exposure to Christianity, its influences, and perhaps even his own conversion, began in Constantine’s youth. This is not documentable, but certainly probable. The oral tradition of Great Britain claims that Helena was a daughter of the King of Britain, Cole of Camulodunum, who allied with Constantius to avoid more war between the Britons and Rome.26 Her image in the form of a stature atop a very tall column stands in the center of Colchester to this day. “Constantine, the flower of Britain,” writes Huntingdon, “of British stock and origin, whose equal Britain has not produced before or since.”27 It is known for certain that Britain was missionized by the time of Helen and Constantine. The first British martyr, Alban, may have suffered as early as 208. Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Jerome all infer that there were indeed Christians in Roman Britain, perhaps as early as 200.28 Others however, such as Sozomen, do not claim that Helen was British, but do assert that Constantine embraced Christianity while ruling there and in Western Europe. “[Constantine’s] dispute with Maxentius, the governor of Italy, had created so much dissension in the Roman dominions, that it was then no easy matter to dwell in Gaul, in Britain, or in the neighboring countries, in which it is universally admitted Constantine embraced the
Shlosser, Franziska E. 2006. Klaus M. Girardet: Die Konstantinische Wende. In Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Bryn Mawr, PA. Bryn Mawr Press: 2. 24 Norwich: 42. 25 Eusebius. Life of Constantine: 490. 26 Huntingdon, Henry. 1996. Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 61. 27 Ibid. 28 Hayes, Alan L. 2008. Early Christianity (to A.D. 843). Toronto, CA: Toronto School of Theology: 19.
religion of the Christians, previous to his war with Maxentius, and prior to his return to Rome and Italy: and this is evidenced by the dates of the laws which he enacted in favor of religion.”29 All of this evidence weighs in favor of the opinion that Constantine was exposed to Christianity early in life, that he was tolerant of Christianity, if not promoting it, in his early rule. And that his apparent ‘delay’ in making Christianity the imperial religion, and postponement of baptism, are not evidence that he was a pagan with mere affections for Christianity. Conversely, they are evidence that he was deeply convinced of the truth of Christ from early on and worked diligently for its assertion within the empire, step by step, as allowed by the providence of God. Schmemann similarly asserts confidence in Constantine’s personal faith, stating, “One point is beyond question: the sign he saw and under which he won his decisive victory was in his own mind a Christian symbol, and from that time on he counted himself a Christian.”30 Then, in consistency with the complexity of this topic, he simultaneously opens an avenue for doubt, speculating, “Did he actually become one? Not until his deathbed, twenty-five years after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, did he receive baptism, the only symbol the Church accepts of becoming a Christian. (It had been his dream to be baptized in the Jordan, perhaps a reason for his long postponement). Then what had he been before?”31 Yet how can he have ‘counted himself a Christian’ and yet not be one ‘until his deathbed’? A ‘Christian’ is one who believes in and follows Christ. It is the thoroughly Orthodox point of view that even those joined to heretical bodies of heterodox are not stripped of their title as Christians, even though they have not received Orthodox baptism and are not members of the Apostolic Church; the only repository of the fullness of grace. Though they may far from Christ and His Church, they are not necessarily rejecting the truth of Christ but are pursuing Him from within the circumstances in which they find
Sozomen. 1994. Historia Ecclesiastica. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.2. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc: 243. 30 Schmemann: 65. 31 Ibid: 65 - 66.
themselves.32 Neither is salvation, by extreme economia, restricted to only those who received the actual rite of baptism. This is demonstrated clearly by the many lives of martyred saints who were baptized, not in the Orthodox rite, but in their own blood. An example of this is found in the account of the holy martyr Polyeuctus (January 9) who experienced wonders as a catechumen but never baptized. Constantine was indeed a “Christian emperor”, as Schmemann cannot avoid eventually titling him.33 But Schmemann seems to have overlooked the actual spiritual and official state of Constantine’s relationship to the Church. He concludes brilliantly that, “All the difficulties and distinctive qualities of Byzantium, all the ambiguity of the ‘age of Constantine’ in Church history, result from the primary, initial paradox that the first Christian emperor was a Christian outside the Church, and the Church silently but with full sincerity and faith accepted and recognized him. In the person of the emperor, the empire became Christian without passing through the crisis of the baptismal trial.”34 True, a full member of the Orthodox Church is one who has been baptized. And baptism had not been received by Constantine, nor the empire as a whole, an imperial example that would not be followed by Vladimir and the Slavs. But as to Schmemann’s assertion that Constantine is a Christian ‘outside the Church,’ and his unanswered question of ‘what had he been before?’, the spiritual, if not technical, answer is certainly ‘a catechumen’. The validity of this statement we will explore shortly. Apostle Among Kings Constantine’s role in church history is three-fold: historical, political, and spiritual. And in many ways, his role parallels both the three-fold process of ‘spiritual status’ in Church membership: catechumens, baptized member, and glorified saint, and the three-fold process of deification: purification, illumination, perfection. All speculative criticism of his personal faith and relationship with the Church are reduced to ‘slander
Drozdov, Metropolitan Philaret. 1984. Will the Non-Orthodox Be Saved? In Orthodox Life, Vol. 34, No. 6: Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery Press: 2. 33 Schmemann: 70. 34 Ibid: 65 – 66.
and propaganda’35 once the observer has submitted to the accurate historical, political and spiritual context of Constantine’s life. Even the ‘executions’ of his son and wife have an authentic context. The context cannot dispel the sorrow of the events, but it does mitigate their often-embellished horror. In 326, Constantine ordered a trial at the local court of Pola in Istria, where his son Crispus was condemned to death and executed. Soon after, Constantine reportedly had his wife Fausta, daughter of Maximian and sister of Maxentius, killed by suffocation in an over-heated bath. In addition, there is general agreement that efforts were made at the time to obscure details. Critiques of Constantine’s character often cite these deaths as proof of his utter depravity. However, recent scholarship, such Alessio Torino’s The Cripus Tragedy, has returned decisively to the opinion that the degree of intrigue culminating in the deaths of Crispus and Fausta was of such offense that an obscuring effort is to be expected. In hindsight, Zosimus himself, an outright enemy of Constantine’s faith, and the Byzantine historian Ioannes Zonaras, provide the most compelling account36. Fausta, wife and daughter of Constantine’s enemies, apparently viewed her stepson Crispus with extreme jealousy since he competed with her sons for imperial favor. Conspiring against Crispus only a month after Constantine had decreed adultery punishable by death37, Fausta feigned impassioned love for her stepson and the idea of an illicit relationship. Crispus, like Joseph tempted by the Egyptian woman, denied her. Fausta retaliated by reporting to Constantine that Crispus had disgraced him in an attempt to rape her. Trusting the false testimony of Fausta, and being personally shamed so soon after his decree against such things, Constantine gave his beloved son over to trial and execution. Shortly afterwards, Constantine discovered the terrible truth and Fausta dies; perhaps by the will of Constantine, perhaps in suicide, neither is known with certainty. Constantine’s personal grief and shame over the deceit-ridden tragedy puts an immediate end to any chronicling of the events.
Schmemann, Alexander. 1994. The Church Year. In Celebration of Faith. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 50. 36 Drijvers, Jan Willem. 1992. Helena Augusta. Boston, MA: Brill Publishers: 61. 37 Metallinos, Fr. George. 2008. Constantine the Great & Historical Truth (Audio transcription). Athens, Greece. University of Athens School of Theology: 8.
Although without doubt horrific, an objective view of the historical context admits that these events are not outside the sphere of an emperor’s experiences and duties; let alone an emperor who is burdened practically and spiritually with the complete transformation of a pagan empire. Historically, Constantine is a great military conqueror with all the violence and heavy-handed domination that is absolutely inherent to ancient Roman roles and society. Politically he is an ‘apostle among kings’38 and in submission to all the realities of developing and defending an Orthodox social world-view (which itself was relatively undeveloped at the time) within the precarious context of Roman imperial government. Spiritually, he was a catechumen: one devoted to the Christ and whose primary spiritual focus is that of demonic warfare for the preservation of faith. Historical, Political & Spiritual Context Detailed research and authorship has been developed regarding Constantine’s role in history and politics. Objective reading quickly establishes that one’s willingness to practice a wide variety of actions that are far from the Christian ideal is an inescapable reality of the culture and society of Constantine’s era. Examples of such historicalpolitical circumstances can be readily found in the lives of such great saints as Alexander Nevsky, Stephan, first Christian king of Serbia, Vladimir, enlightener of Russia, and many others who, in their god-given conviction to bring a people to Christ, found violence and political manipulation to be essential, necessary evils given the context of their lives: that is, “the time, the place, and the persons involved”. Orthodox Christians must not shy away from the ability of God’s will being done, even amidst such unchristian circumstances. Consider, if only for a moment, the martyrdom of Nestor (October 27), who asked a blessing from spiritual guide, St. Demetrios, to slay another man, and was granted it. To deny the possibility of God’s hand in the midst of violence and political machination is to prefer historical tidiness and a blind eye to fallen human nature over the power of God in Trinity, and to disregard that “the kingdom of God
Holy Transfiguration Monastery. 1997. Constantine, Equal to the Apostles (May 21). In The Great Horologion. Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery Press: 489.
suffers violence and the violent take it by force.” This is a difficult reality for a weak and fearful generation. However, the Orthodox student of history must come to peace with the reality that Constantine was both a God-appointed apostle to the Roman empire, and, more difficult to grasp, a convert to Christianity at a time when there was no Christian culture or nation. His seeming defiance of Christian morality in such actions as the execution of Licentius, and that of his son Crispus and wife Fausta, are in fact actions that are arguably not only acceptable within the society and culture that formed Constantine as a person, but are dutiful actions in defense of the pagan, imperial throne which he inherited and is trying to sanctify. Both the apostolic and persecution eras of the Church had included the growth and development of Christian community. But the coexistence of Christianity within Judaism of the first era, and its subjugation to the catacombs of the second, rendered the development of distinct Christian society and culture unessential and impossible respectively. Therefore, Constantine’s burden from the moment of his conquest over Maxentius, and for which there is no precedent for him to follow, is to discover a way of infusing Roman culture and society with Christianity, without rioting the pagan majority, and without compromising the dogmas of Orthodox society and culture as it existed in its undeveloped state. “He was anxious not to alarm those of this subjects who still clung to the old gods. But he certainly did not hesitate refusing to take part in the traditional sacrifice to Jupiter.”39 This is the context for interpreting such actions as his continuing to use the Unconquered Sun on his coinage, the inclusion of pagan symbolism and art, even in Constantinople (although he places the pagan goddess Cybeles in a posture of Christian prayer and infuriates her devotees40). These points of potential criticism, when combined with his unending use of the Chi-Rho on the shields of his soldiers, his immediate, personal, financial support of the churches, and his constant increasing of Christian rights from the expansion of religious tolerance to the eventual extreme of persecuting Christian heretics, all collaborate as a whole to demonstrate his methodical conversion of Roman culture and society from paganism to Orthodoxy. His is the era of
Norwich: 42 – 43. Chadwick: 127.
emerging, not established, Christian society and culture. And like all births, it is violence and blood for the sake of new life. Constantine: The Catechumen Schmemann assertion that Constantine is a Christian ‘outside the Church,’ is understandable but unnecessary. It also reflects the fact that, historically, the awareness of the catechumenate as a specifically defined membership to the Church degenerated, in general (as did the deaconate as a specific and permanent priestly calling), with the thorough institutionalization of the Church that occurred with its successful enculturalization (and later nationalization) after the era of Constantine. “During the first centuries of Christianity those who wished to become members of the Church were first subjected to a long preparation….Later on, the class of Catechumens dropped out owing to the prevailing custom of infant baptism.”41 And yet what history demonstrates is that the entire empire itself, along with Constantine as a person, will be effectively catechized, baptized, and established as it follows the same steps of conversion as does each person. In the Age of Martyrs (100 – 312), the catechumenate had already developed beyond its simple form of the Apostolic era. “In the ages of persecution it became necessary to exercise great caution in admitting persons to membership in the Church. The danger of falling away, or even of betrayal, must be guarded against by a careful doctrinal and moral training. Hence the institution of the catechumenate and the Discipline of the Secret. The work of the Apologists had been to remove prejudices against Christianity, and to set forth its doctrines and practices in such a way as to appeal to the fair-minded pagan. If anyone was moved to embrace the true religion, he was not at once admitted, as in the days of the Apostles. At first he was treated as an inquirer, and only the fundamental doctrines were communicated to him. As soon as he had given proof of his knowledge and fitness he was admitted to the catechumenate proper, and was further instructed. After some years spent in this stage he was promoted to the ranks of the Competentes, i.e. those ready for baptism. As might be expected, he was now
Callinicos, Constantine. 1960. The Greek Orthodox Catechism. New York, NY: Greek Archdiocese of North and South America: 3.
instructed more especially in the rites for this purpose. Even when he had been initiated, his instruction was not yet at an end. During the week after Easter, while the grace of first fervor was still upon him, the various rites and mysteries in which he had just participated were more fully explained to him.”42 By the second ecumenical council (Constantinople, 381), the existing office and protocol of the catechumenate was canonically recognized. “On the first day we make the Christians; on the second, catechumens; on the third, we exorcise them by breathing thrice in their face and ears; and thus we instruct them and oblige them to spend time in the Church, and to hear the Scriptures; and then we baptize them.” (Canon viii)43 Vlachos points out with enthusiasm that “the fact that they were first called Christians and then Catechumens is quite remarkable.”44 He goes on to document that the purpose of being made a Christian, made a Catechumen, and then baptized is to struggle against the devil and the passions, begin spiritual therapy, and be illumined respectively.45 One’s purpose as a catechumen was “to overcome the final assaults of the demons, while catechumens, and to be pried little by little from their iron grip.”46 In some local traditions, the names of un-enrolled initiates and catechumen were inscribed in a special book listing those membered to the Church “That is why they were regarded as Christians, though they had not yet received baptism.”47 Within a hundred years of Constantine’s death, the catechumenate would clearly depict two methods of approaching baptism: 1) those who, tracing their practice directly to Constantine, postponed baptism until late in life or the deathbed, and 2) those ‘preparing for holy illumination’ by baptism at Pascha.48 Constantine clearly belongs to the first group. While establishing the Church by the power and influence of the imperial throne, he is himself being ‘pride from the demons iron grip’ as he moves toward
Scannell, T. 1909. Christian Doctrine. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 43 Vlachos, Hierotheos. 2004. Catechism in the Tradition of the Church. In Entering the Orthodox Church. Levadia, Greece: Apostolic Diakonia: 20. 44 Ibid: 21. 45 Ibid: 22. 46 Field, Anne. 1978.The Meaning of the Exorcisms. In From Darkness to Light. Ann Arbor, MI. Servant Publications: 78. 47 Kucharek, Casimir. 1976. The Sacramental Mysteries: A Byzantine Approach. Allendale, NJ: Alleluia Press: 92. 48 Meyendorff: 71.
baptism. Given the nature of Roman law, the common practice of capital punishment, and the brutality of hereto un-Christianized Roman culture which was the indisputable context of Constantine’s struggle, combined with his open support of the Church, it is most probable that he put off baptism, not for a lack of faith, but as it was discerned to be good by him and his Christian counselors, and as it was common “to postpone baptism especially if one’s official duties included the torture and execution of criminals.”49 The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c. 215) states clearly, “If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease [his occupation] or he shall be rejected [from Baptism].”50 Historians consistently interpret this postponement of baptism as a sign of weak faith, but does not the mind of the Church interpret it as a sign of reverence? Inspired to victory by mystical Christian signs, and presiding over the hundreds of holy bishops at an ecumenical council, would not even the simplest of men have learned to approach baptism and the faith of the martyrs with fear and trembling? Baptism was to be a complete transformation of one’s life unto sinlessness and the practice of paenitentia una permitted “only one penance and pardon in a lifetime.”51 This early rigorism created a spiritual atmosphere within which “many deferred baptism until their deathbed, since baptism bestowed pardon of all sins and eternal life.”52 Would Constantine be considered a greater saint if he had received baptism earlier in life and then continued to fulfill the imperial duties that were in conflict with the developing Christian social morality of his era, perhaps ending his days in excommunication? The only satisfactory explanation for his prolonged catechumenate is that his understanding of Christianity was thorough, hence his delay, and that he was profoundly aware that the establishment of holy Orthodoxy demanded that he fulfill the duties of a hereto pagan throne with all its dark complexities and compromises. His goal was not spiritual self-satisfaction or even purification (hesychia, stillness, and the idea of withdrawal from the world had not yet even developed), it was the conversion of a pagan, multi-national empire.
Chadwick: 127. Hippolytus: 16: 10. 51 Kucharek: 235. 52 Ibid.: 247.
Schmemann excels in synthesizing the historical and personal dynamics of Constantine’s conversion, saying, “In Constantine’s mind the Christian faith, or rather, faith in Christ, had not come to him through the Church, but had been bestowed personally and directly for his victory over the enemy — in other words, as he was fulfilling his imperial duty. Consequently the victory he had won with the help of the Christian God had placed the emperor — and thereby the empire as well — under the protection of the Cross and in direct dependence upon Christ. This also meant, however, that Constantine was converted, not as a man, but as an emperor. Christ Himself had sanctioned his power and made him His intended representative, and through Constantine’s person He bound the empire to Himself by special bonds. Here lies the explanation of the striking fact that the conversion of Constantine was not followed by any review or re-evaluation of the theocratic conception of empire, but on the contrary convinced Christians and the Church itself of the emperor’s divine election and obliged them to regard the empire itself as a consecrated kingdom, chosen by God.53 What Do We Know For Certain? John Julius Norwich, throughout his trilogy Byzantium, sets a splendid example of checking historical inquiries with rhetorical safeguards such as “But what actually happened?” or “What do we know for certain?” We must ask ourselves the same. As Orthodox Christian students of history, what do we know for certain in regards to Constantine’s faith? We know for certain that Constantine was exposed to monotheism and religious tolerance from an early age by way of his father, Constantius, whom he emulated in many ways. Constantius was a strict adherent to Sun-God worship and Constantine, having considered the systematic failure of those who practiced polytheism, “felt it incumbent on him to honor his father’s God alone”.54 And according to Lactantius, Constantine consistently followed his father’s use of tolerant policy towards Christianity from his proclamation as Augustus.
Schmemann: 65 – 66. Eusebius. Life of Constantine: 490.
We know for certain that Constantine had the opportunity to encounter Christianity early in life while in Britain, Western Europe and the Middle East where he met Eusebius of Caesarea. We know for certain that he accounted himself, at the absolute minimum, obligated to Christ, if not fully converted, from before his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (312). We know for certain that he avoided pagan rites and supported the Church financially and legally immediately upon his taking the imperial throne. We know for certain that by 325 he was personally presiding over the First Ecumenical Council, hearing the greatest minds and souls of Orthodoxy defend the faith and sacrifice for truth. We know for certain that by 330 he had moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople and required participants in government to be Christian. We know for certain that Constantine liberated and established the Church completely, even erring in the extreme by persecuting heretics and pagans. We know for certain that one does not have to be baptized in the Orthodox Church to be referred to as a Christian. But this fact is overlooked in most historical commentary whether it is an Orthodox, heterodox or secular source. We know for certain that in making a complete conversion to Christ there can be a significant duration of time between first identifying with being a Christian and the culminating act of receiving holy baptism. Examples of this are seen in the lives of Martin of Tours (who had a vision of Christ as a catechumen), Augustine of Hippo, and the much more recent conversion of Seraphim Rose. We know for certain that during Constantine’s era it was common to defer baptism due to the rigors of full membership’s purity and that the mystery of repentance was available only once in a lifetime. We also know for certain that, having spent thirty years (half his life) as a functional, if not literal, catechumen he received baptism immediately upon believing that his opportunity to do so was at its end. “He was baptized…he now longer put on imperial robes…and the joyous certainty of the nearness of Christ and His eternal light never again left him….And the greatest earthly hope of the Church, and the dream of the triumph of Christ in the world, became associated with his name.”55 We know that he was blessed to repose on Pentecost, May 22, 337. What better day, than the birthday of the Church in this world, to receive a man into the bosom of Abraham who have given
birth to the Church in civilization? And lastly, we know for certain that no compilation of facts, historical criticism, or faithless speculation has ever reversed his acceptance in Christ’s holy Church as the highly venerated Constantine, the Great, Equal to the Apostles. Poorly documented events and persons in history are common targets of both dreamily legendary or manipulatively hostile speculation. Yet viewed objectively, great confidence may be taken in titling Constantine the ‘first Christian emperor.’ Epilogue Imagine how difficult would it be for a soul seeking salvation to also rule Byzantium? Could our weak souls even endure a visit there? One day St. Anthony received a letter from the Emperor Constantius, asking him to come to Constantinople, and he wondered whether he ought to go or not. So he said to St. Paul, his disciple, “Ought I to go?” The other replied, “If you go, you will be called Anthony, but if you stay here, you will be called Saint Anthony.”56 If such is the challenge to a monk visiting the capitol, how much greater would be the spiritual pitfalls for the empire’s ruler? If the United States was converted to Orthodoxy in only 18 years, would anyone consider that ‘slow’ or ‘timid’ product of Christian leadership? God’s call to Constantine was great, as was the man.
Ward, Benedicta. 1975. The Desert Christian. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing: 8.
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Gilles, Pierre. 1988. Antiquities of Constantinople. New York, NY: Italica Press. Hayes, Alan L. 2008. Early Christianity (to A.D. 843). Toronto, CAN: Toronto School of Theology. Holy Transfiguration Monastery. 1997. Constantine, Equal to the Apostles (May 21). In The Great Horologion. Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery Press. Huntingdon, Henry. 1996. Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kucharek, Casimir. 1976. The Sacramental Mysteries: A Byzantine Approach. Allendale, NJ: Alleluia Press. Metallinos, Fr. George. 2008. Constantine the Great & Historical Truth (Audio transcription). Athens, Greece. University of Athens School of Theology. Meyendorff, John. 1989. Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Norwich, John Julius. 1996. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Schmemann, Alexander. 1977. Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. — 1994. The Church Year. In Celebration of Faith. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Shlosser, Franziska E. 2006. Klaus M. Girardet: Die Konstantinische Wende. In Bryn Mawr Classical Review. Bryn Mawr, PA. Bryn Mawr Press.
Sozomen. 1994. Historia Ecclesiastica. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.2. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Inc. Staniloae, Dumitru. 2002. Orthodox Spirituality. South Canaan, PA. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press. Torino, Alessio. 2008. The Crispus Tragedy. Rome, Italy: National Academy. Vlachos, Hierotheos. 2004. Catechism in the Tradition of the Church. In Entering the Orthodox Church. Levadia, Greece: Apostolic Diakonia. Ward, Benedicta. 1975. The Desert Christian. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing. Ware, Timothy. 1964. The Orthodox Church. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books. Zosimus 1814. New History (Four Vols.) London, England: Green & Chaplin.
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