It is not my aim in this essay to bore the reader with needless historical details nor to overwhelm with an abundance of names and dates. Instead, it is my goal to show Constantine the Great as an individual personality in a particular, specific culture and to discuss the significance of his “conversion” as it relates to early Christianity.
First, however, we must understand the story of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge. Briefly then, we enter the scene as Constantine and Maxentius, two powerful sons of former emperors of the weakening Roman Empire prepare to engage in a decisive battle just to the west of Rome near the Milvian Bridge. Constantine had soundly defeated Maxentius at two previous encounters and now entered this battle confidently expecting a third victory.
Constantine’s optimistic hope of victory sprang from the fact that he had been sent a vision from God just the day before. The vision had appeared high in the sky before him and consisted of a cross of light and the words “conquer by this.” Many of the men in Constantine’s army also witnessed this amazing apparition. During the night, Christ Himself appeared to Constantine in a dream and instructed him to make a replica of the cross-shaped figure he had seen in the vision and to use it as protection against his enemies. The very next morning Constantine instructed artisans within his camp to exercise their skill and now his troops marched forward proudly carrying replicas of the visionary figure and bearing shields freshly decorated with the mysterious cross-like emblem.
During the course of the ensuing battle Constantine began to gain the upper hand and Maxentius and his army began to retreat. As the retreating troops fled across the Milvian Bridge the entire structure suddenly gave way beneath them and the shocked soldiers found themselves struggling for their lives in the powerful river. That river was the last enemy Maxentius ever fought, he died while trying to swim to safety. The victory was Constantine’s.
As the river carried away the body of Maxentius, so the river of History carried in an era of tolerance to Christianity such that the world had not known before. Constantine was convinced that his victory over Maxentius was due to the power of God and reflected an attitude of Divine favor toward himself. Constantine, therefore, considered himself a Christian for the rest of his life, becoming the first Roman Emperor who was a professed Christian. From his seat of almost absolute power, Constantine was able to favor Christianity politically in a way no Christian had done before. Constantine’s rule marked a turning point in History in which Christianity gradually increased in popularity and acceptance.
Having said all this, it would be easy to over-simplify the situation and assume that the Church now entered into a trouble-free period of idealistic peace and to view Constantine as a Christian Hero and Warrior of the Church. However, both of these assumptions could be disputed.
First of all, Constantine was not a model of ideal Christian behavior. The list of victims that were murdered by him is a long one. One of the names on the list was Sopater who was a good friend and advisor of Constantine but was killed by the emperor because it was believed he had practiced magic and changed the direction of the wind. Far worse than the murder of Sopater is the glaring fact that Constantine executed his own eldest son, Crispus. In the same year that he executed his son, he also killed his wife, Fausta. Constantine was not a hero in his roles as friend, father or husband.
Further investigating the image of Constantine as hero, we turn to his attitude of tolerance. It is a well- known fact that in the year 313 A.D. Constantine passed the Edict of Milan proclaiming a tolerant attitude toward all religions and a restoration of confiscated property to Christians. Less known is that there had been several other edicts of toleration to Christians passed by previous rulers. In fact, such an edict had been passed only two years earlier by a ruler who had previously persecuted Christians. Constantine was not unique in tolerating Christianity politically.
Finally, we need to examine Constantine’s “vision” on the day before the Battle of Milvian Bridge. For one thing, this was not the only vision Constantine claimed to have had in his lifetime. His life both before and after the Milvian incident contained a series of visions. Also, we must remember that this was a historical time period very familiar with visions. They were a common experience for both leaders and commoners alike and it was even expected that great leaders would have visions on a somewhat regular basis. Also keep in mind that the full story of the Milvian vision complete with written message in the sky and nigh-time dream did not come out until considerably later in Constantine’s life. In addition, none of the men who were reputed to have shared in the sighting of the vision left any written record of their experience. At the least, Constantine’s vision experience seems dubious.
Despite these considerations, Constantine’s favorable attitude toward Christianity did bear fruit in many positive ways. The previously mentioned Edict of Milan allowed Christians to openly practice their religion without interference from their pagan neighbors. Constantine also appointed many Christians to positions of political power (although he never relinquished his own position of absolute power over both Church and State). He decreed that Church lands were not subject to tax and he supplied labor and materials for church building. He even donated free gifts of food and money to the clergy and needy Christians. In fact, Constantine was so generous that the subsequent ruler cut his allowances to the clergy by two-thirds.
Constantine’s political and financial backing of the Christian religion caused many opportunists to seek church membership. This led to problems both then and in the future. Philip Schaff writes in his History of the Christian Church, “From the time of Constantine church discipline declines; the whole Roman world having become nominally Christian, and the host of hypocritical professors multiplying beyond all control” (Vol. Ill, p. 5).
Constantine’s rule did much to benefit the Christian Church. However, the good he did was marred both by the poor example he gave through his own personal life and by the infiltration of the church by those who were merely seeking advantage and opportunity.
Because he was the first Christian ruler of the empire, the legends about Constantine are many. It should be our objective not to perpetuate the legends and make him a hero but instead to realize that the spread of Christianity throughout Europe was inevitable and Constantine was only a man used by God to achieve this end.
“The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water; he turneth it whithersoever He will” (Proverbs 21:1). The hearts of kings and the mighty river of History are both as easily and completely directed by our omnipotent Lord. He alone is King!
David is a member or First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.