The history of religion continues to play an important role in defining why certain aspects of religion are the way they are today. Understanding religion’s history can also help one appreciate the importance, value, and determination that certain individuals went through in order for that particular religion to gain freedom and acceptance in society.
Throughout history, Christianity has shown exactly this. By learning about its history, one can gain an understanding of how it emerged into being one of the most popular religions in the world. Furthermore, better understanding of the religion, both historically and contemporarily, can help dispel any negative preconceived notions about Christianity.
In the first three centuries after Christ, Christianity continued to develop and gain general acceptance in areas outside of Mesopotamia, such as the Roman society. In fact, it’s influence and popularity had become so strong that it was deemed necessary to bring forth a change in the overall religious thought of the Empire. Emperor Constantine the Great had ushered this specific change in. He was solely responsible for uniting the formerly pagan Roman Empire into Christian Empire by emerging Christianity into part of the state. Constantine’s determination to bringing an end to the persecutions of Christians was something that can be greatly appreciated.
Furthermore, this is highlighted by his figurative canonization by the followers of Christianity. By emerging the state with Christianity, however, a number of long-term problems had arisen from his hasty actions. Furthermore, many of these specific issues lasted centuries, with a select few still in existence today.
Things such as religious wars, the crusades, political feuds, and the separations of Christian denominations to form new ones are examples of these problems. It is certainly impossible to argue against the fact that most cultural tension, or political strife was not caused by religious tension.
Although Constantine was very influential in bringing forth Christianity, the ramifications of him championing these religious ideology as part of the State was detrimental to the ongoing feuds involving Christianity. In order to better understand the changes that came during Constantine’s rule, it is very important to provide a brief background on the state of Christianity in the Roman Empire prior to his reign.
Throughout Roman history, the persecution of Christians was prevalent. This was because of the Christian’s refusal to worship the Roman emperor or certain Roman Gods. The massive change in Christianity began in 284 AD, when Diocletian took the throne. He was the most widespread of persecutors, as he ordered all buildings, homes, and books of Christians to be destroyed.
Christians were arrested and continuously tortured under his rule. By 300 AD, issues arose which caused the Empire to gradually decline. Many wars throughout the east and other troubles in the north caused a division in religious ideologies, which ultimately weakened rule within the empire. In regards to religion, paganism continued to rise in power, while the persecution of Christians continued. From this, paganism was able to generate further interest and momentum in their direction.
It was clear that the two conflicting powers could not continue without some sort of change brought to society. In 305 AD, once Diocletian lost power, the opposing religions became so strong that it was difficult for rulers to avoid any issues. When Constantine became Emperor in 306 AD, these religious conflicts during Diocletian’s rule began to change.
It was the episode at Milvian Bridge in which marked one of the most important turning points in religious history. Constantine, who believed to be the most rightful emperor, prepared for an invasion of the south under Maxentius’ rule in October 312. As Constantine advanced to the south, he continued to destroy Maxentian armies. Many citizens in that area began to gain favor of Constantine due to his military success, thus causing an expansion in his army to a near 100,000 people.
Constantine’s strong army defeated Maxentius, which lead to the end of the battle. Constantine could now enter Rome in triumph and success. Constantine’s success at the Milvian Bridge was definitely a battle that deserves praise because of his great military operation. Nevertheless, his motivation for fighting was something that must be taking into consideration.
It is commonly stated and believed that on the evening of October 27th, while preparing for battle, Constantine had a vision, which let him fight under the protection of the Christian God. Eusebius stated, “About the tie of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light…which said, “By the conquer.” …use this as a protection against the attacks of the enemy.”
The vision, however, differs between the sources reporting it. Lactantius stated that Constantine did not have a direct vision in the sky, rather he simply had a dream. Needless to say, whatever story of the vision may or may not be true, this battle had shown his confidence in mens divina (divine mind), because it was there that Constantine became a supporter of Christianity.
In 313, Constantine declared that Christians should be able to have the freedom and worship whomever they desire in peace. This was stated in The Edict of Milan, signed by Constantine and Licinius, which proclaimed the religious toleration and acceptance in the Roman Empire (SOURCE).
Christian’s confiscated property was then restored, thus they were able to worship and meet in churches freely with no further prosecution. This conversion, being perhaps the most important changes in Roman history, has continued to be a controversial issue in regards to what Constantine’s motivation may be. Alexander Flick states: “Whatever the theories may be, the fact remained that for some reason Constantine invoked the aid of the Christians’ God and embraced Christianity as part of the state.”
Nevertheless, it has been concluded by various historians that his motives were ambiguous and perhaps they could be a mixture of political thought and overall sincerity on his part. However, as this essay will prove, perhaps his conversion was initially sincere - by eventually making Christianity part of the state - it leads to the conclusion that it became merely political due to the future problems.
As it will be further discussed, his political motivations resulted in the manipulation and control of the church. The Edit of Milan’s initial goal was to simply accept Christianity as a religion. It was, however, followed by favoritism as the years went on. For example, in 313, a conflict in regards to the unity and acceptance of Christians surfaced by the Donatist faction.
As the issue continued to persist, and matters could not be solved, Constantine got involved to help solve the issue. It was concluded that his verdict favored the Christians in solving the conflict. In the same years, the clergy were exempted from paying taxes and taking part in municipal and military duties. By 321, Constantine had legalized the right of the church to receive certain legacies and estates. Churches became extremely wealthy and full of extravagance.
The church and clergy was now not only known for their religious contribution, but also as an example of how to live with great resources through their fine style of living. In 323, customs and symbols considered offensive to Christians was abolished. By 324, Constantine began to actively promote Christianity and form his policies through the church councils.
It can be seen here, that problems were already establishing in regards to emerging religion and the state. The church continued to gain more power and leaders were thus introduced to the political sector. Religious leaders were given more power and more favor in their opinions. As Christianity continued to grow and appeared to be favored among the state, other religious feuds manifested. Such an example is the Arianism disagreement in the eastern empire, which could not agree on the nature of God.
To briefly summarize its foundation, Arianism believed that Jesus Christ was subordinate to God the Father. However, many disagreed with this belief. Concerns in regards to the relationship between the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) caused many to believe that the Trinity was all part of the same “essence.” This caused problems for the Christian orthodox theology, as this belief was frowned upon many bishops and clergy.
This controversy eventually became the primary issue among Christianity, thus causing divisions within the church. It was in the Council of Nicaea, in 325, which helped put an end to this dispute. As over 2000 Christian and church leaders gathered to attend this council, also having the entire Empire represent in this meeting. What needs to be noted is that the political significance and emergence of Christianity within the state lied in Constantine’s influence and support of this religious meeting.
MacMullen noted that, “Constantine bore the chief burden of controlling the sessions by attending them.” His support greatly allowed government control over the church by supporting these religious issues. Therefore, this provided an allowance of teaching religion as being part of the state. Furthermore, Constantine’s influence over the outcomes of the Council should garner some notoriety. Constantine laid out a new definition of the Trinity that all Christians must follow.
Moreover, the Nicene Creed (the declaration and summary of Christianity) was proclaimed as law. Leaders disapproved anything that did now follow the Nicene Creed, and nothing but a universal, united church would please them. As the church became more integrated and involved in politics, the emperors gained more authority over it. Christianity was now legislated throughout the Empire, causing it and the state to be one.
This produced a massive burden throughout the years to come. It is obvious that the emergence of the conversion of the Empire caused an increase in power within the church. For the people, obeying the law meant to embrace Christianity as their religion. This causes not only a lack of freedom of religion, but it also caused people to not truly understand what they believe and why they believe it – they just knew they had to because it was part of government and the law.
The people had no control over what they were allowed to believe. Some people may not have even been sincere Christians, however, they felt they needed to promote this religion for their well-being and safety. The dangers of emerging religion and government into one caused both groups to rely on each other – as Williston perfectly stated, “as the church-state relationship progressed, the church would rely on the government to validate its doctrines, and the government would rely on the pulpit to peach its politics.”
Centuries later, issues between religion and the state only continued to worsen. Christianity and Catholicism emerged from Rome, spreading to the rest of Europe. In fact, the Church played a very crucial role in the development and growth of European civilization. The setting aside of Sunday also began as early as 321 with Constantine. By the 400s, many activities were prohibited on this day. The Justinian Code (created by Emperor Justinian in 529) contained a great amount of Christian law, became an inspiration for centuries in lawmaking.
One of those laws being that those who are not Christians cannot be part of the state. The Carolingian Empire, under the rule of Charlemagne, came to control much of the west and central Europe was governed based on Christian principles. Also, the emergence of the Pope in Rome caused him to have ultimate authority over the state.
Monarchs ruled by divine right, also allowing the king to rule both the Crown and Church. Since religion was a primary influence in the government of Europe, many disagreements in regards to how religion and law should be integrated established many problems. Individuals such as John Wyclif (1328-1384) were not afraid to voice out their concerns in regards to the corruption of law and religion.
As corruption in the Church continued, more and more people began to voice their concern to reform. Individuals began to question religious expression and certainty of salvation. It was until Martin Luther loudly voiced his concern with religion being part of the state and the authenticity of Christianity that religious wars began to take toll in the sixteenth century.
Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth century, continuous wars were fought in regards to disagreements on religious denominations. The Thirty years war (1618-1648) was a prime example of this. One historian described these wars as a “basically meaningless conflict”. Nevertheless, the “divine right of Kings” continued to be present in Europe until the nineteenth century.
What has been shown is how Constantine’s reign dramatically changed Christianity over the development of religion throughout Europe. Through the merging of religion with the state, this led to a dilution of what Christianity really meant. It lead to the view that whatever the Pope said and enforced must be correct.
Christianity also became a matter of fashion. Constantine’s influence today is still felt within the Christian world. Despite Christianity not being part of government and the state in the Western world, the foundations and corrupted rules of what is means and does not mean to be a Christian still exists, just like in the written rules of the Nicean Creed.
Historian Paul Johnson explained exactly this - how Constantine’s approach produced a corrupted Christianity that connected paganism with the bible. Constantine’s initial goal in 312 (when the Edict of Milan was produced) was a huge step in providing freedom and acceptance of religion, and legalizing Christianity.
However, it appeared that Constantine abused Christianity in the sense of making it a state religion. His legacy will forever be remembered as accepting Christianity. Nevertheless, it is seen throughout history that his influence had more negative aspects, which corrupted religion as well as government, and thus causing conflicts and wars that could have been avoided.
As Abram Herbert Lewis states, “Constantine corrupted and perverted Christianity more than he aided it. He was an ambitious and superstitious Emperor while promoting Christianity…he used it as a political tool to solidify his Empire.” This is, however, a tactic firmly deployed by politicians in contemporary politics. Religion, for some reason or another, will always have a place in politics.
Jones, A.H.M. Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.
Flick, Alexander C. The Rise of the Mediaeval Church New York: Burt Franklin, 1909.
Lewis, Abram The Control of Christianity by the State Under Constantine and his Successors, Kessinger Publishing
MacMullen, Ramsey, Constantine New York: The Dial Press, 1969
Odahl, Charles Matson, Constantine and the Christian Empire. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Potter, David, Ancient Rome: A New History New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009.
Roldanus, Johanns ,Church in the Age of Constantine: The Theological Challenge. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Spielvogel, Jackson J, Western Civilization Belmont: Thomison, 2009
Walker, Williston, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959.