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St. Constantine the Great
Influential Figure in the History of the Church
by Fr. Theodore Bergenske

This paper was submitted during the Fall '05 semester as a class assignment for course “101 — History and Principles of the Orthodox Church”. Fr. Theodore Bergenske is a Stavrophore monk and iconographer who resides at St. Isaac of Syria Skete in Boscobel, Wisconsin.

The first half of the fourth century in Christendom was a turning point in the History of the Church; a time that brought freedom, acceptance, and even favoritism by the state to the previously persecuted and outwardly oppressed community of believers; this heralded the age of the Emperor Constantine the Great. From 312 to 337 A.D., St. Constantine rose as a pivotal initiator and developer of both the inward life and outward strength of the Church. Although some disagree as to the real influence of some of his actions, it cannot be denied that the name of Constantine in whom “…the dream of the triumph of Christ in the world became associated…” [1] will forever be inseparable from the formation of the early church.

In order to understand St. Constantine and his influence on Christianity we will first of all focus on his background, the development of Roman Theocracy, and Constantine’s eventual conversion to Christianity. We will then proceed to elaborate on some of the major developments in the Church in which St. Constantine played an integral role including the Edict of Milan and other laws that he passed while emperor; the creation of Constantinople; the building of Churches and the development of Jerusalem; and the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea.

At the time of Constantine, the Roman Empire was philosophically and religiously very well-prepared for the acceptance of Christianity. Philosophically, the writings of Plato and the development of Neo-Platonism by Plotinus in the third century paved the way for the introduction of a monotheistic faith that’s primary goal was salvation and deification. Although impersonal in nature, Neo-Platonism proclaimed One God, and the concept that the highest goal of man was the union of the human soul with the divine mind. In the realm of religion, the emperor Aurelian in the middle of the third century made the “Cult of the Sun” (Sol Invictus), a monotheistic movement that worshipped the Sun God, the imperial religion of Rome.

This movement of the worship of the Sun god in turn, furthered the development of a theocratic Roman empire. According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

“The Roman principality had gradually become a theocratic monarchy, the emperor being the connecting link between God and the world, while the state was the earthly reflection of divine law...the emperor in the world was the same as the sun in heaven; he was a participant in its glorious nature and its representative on earth.” [2]

Within this environment of monotheism, and philosophical salvation and deification, St. Constantine grew and developed. His father, a follower of the “One God”, had, according to the historian Eusebius, “dedicated to the One Lord his children, his wife, his servants, and his whole palace.”

It was at the time when St. Constantine was marching on Rome to unite the Western part of the Roman Empire and called on the “One God” of his father to reveal himself and help him in his endeavors, that the “Vision of the Cross” took place.

“And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven…He [St. Constantine} said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.” [3]

Eusebius goes on to relate that St. Constantine “…doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.” [4] St. Constantine, with the Sign of the Cross proceeding before him conquers Maximillian at the Bridge of Milivan, and takes control of, and unites under his rule, the entire western half of the Roman empire, thereby setting the stage for the later unification of all Rome under a single emperor sympathetic to Christianty.

It is significant that St. Constantine’s Vision of the Cross took place while he was acting as emperor, and for the benefit of a military campaign. According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “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 on Christ” [5]

The borrowed concept of an anointed empire became a double-edged sword of strength and difficulty for the early Church. Its strength lay in the ability of the chosen emperor to unite and join the Christian world into a single body of believers, and its danger lay in that the “Christian mind [would be] bewitched by the conversion of Constantine”, distracting the Church from taking a close and honest look at the “theocratic absolutism” [6] of the Roman state, and allowing the philosophy of Christian/Roman empire to become an integral part of the earliest world view of Christianity. According to the Roman view “...religion was primarily a state matter, because the state itself was a divine establishment”, accordingly “Constantine believed in the state as the 'bearer' of religion because it directly expressed the Divine Will for the world in human society...” [7]. This belief in a sacred empire would later lead to subsequent abuses by the State in the matters of Faith.

Although the East usually regards the time of St. Constantine as “… the holy initiator of the Christian World”, the West is not so favorable in their regard to this time “...often regard[ing] the era of Constantine as the beginning of an enslavement of the Church by the state....” [8] St. Constantine’s conversion was striking because it did not originally involve baptism, which was the only previously recognized form of entry into the Church. Constantine’s greatest contributions to the Church took place when he was not officially Christian. “In the person of the emperor, the empire became Christian without passing through the crisis of the baptismal trial.” [9]

The Edict of Milan was the first great law to be passed by St. Constantine in concord with Licinius (the Roman emperor of the East) in 313 AD. The edict was an improvement and codification of a previous edict of Toleration formed and signed by both Constantine and Licinius in 311 AD. It was the first official toleration of all religions including Christianity.

“Therefore...it has pleased us to remove all conditions, whatsoever...concerning the Christians...and now any of those who wishes to observe the Christian religion may do so, freely and openly, without molestation…we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, [or] of that religion which he should think best for himself..” [10]

Constantine, favoring Christianity and trying to maintain peace within the transitioning empire, alluded to the limited time of the freedom for paganism pronouncing that this freedom was “for the sake of the peace of our times.” [11] Paganism was doomed to persecution. A theocratic government ordained by a Christian God could not endure false belief for long. Although the theocratic nature of the empire has been the focus so far, it is only fair to note that in some ways through the “…Edict of Milan which affirmed religious toleration, Constantine made a formal rejection of the idea of an absolute sacred monarchy…”. [12] In addition to religious toleration, the Edict of Milan also declared that any Christian properties that were confiscated during the times of persecution should be returned. In a letter to Anulinus which is recorded by Eusebius the historian, St. Constantine states, “...if any such things belonged to the Catholic Church of the Christians, in any city or other place, but are now held by citizens or by any others, thou shalt cause them to be restored immediately to said churches”.

The Edict of Milan and the end of the persecution of Christianity, which had been so fierce immediately before St. Constantine under Diocletian also had many other indirect results, one of which was the flourishing of monasticism which would continue to increase in direct relation to the popularity and acceptance of Christianity within the Empire: “It is no coincidence that monasticism should have developed immediately after Constantine's conversion, at the very time when the persecution ceased and Christianity became fashionable.” [13] “The empire became Christian...and, yet it was precisely from this christened empire that the flight commences, the flight into the desert” [14] Another decree in 313 exempted all clergy from civic duties, granting them the rights that were previously reserved for the pagan clerics: “...it is my will that those...in the Catholic Church...who give their services to this holy religion, and who are commonly called clergymen, be entirely exempted from public duties….” As the decree continues, the concept of the Church as a spiritual provider for the welfare of the state, a remnant from the Roman view of religion, becomes apparent: “For it seems to me when they show greatest reverence for the Deity, the greatest benefits accrue the state.” [15]

In 315 St. Constantine continues to Christianize the empire by abolishing Roman customs which were offensive to Christians, including a decree forbidding the use of Gladiators for sport. Later Constantine would go on to wage war on paganism; tearing down temples and forbidding any pagan rites of public or private worship. The legalizing of Bequests to Christian churches, as well as the civil observance of Sunday as a day of rest is also declared this year. Concerning Sunday as a day of rest, there is evidence that there were still some leftover pagan trappings, and that this was done to honor the One (Sun) God, and not necessarily the Sabbath.

The ability of individuals to bequest inheritances to the Church was legalized in 321 by St. Constantine. This enduring tradition provided the Church with a future financial security, and was a statement that the conversion of Constantine and the empire was not just another temporary innovation.

The official affirmation of the conversion of Constantine and the Empire came in 324 after the defeat of Licinius. Licinius, the Augustus of the East, brother-in-law of Constantine and co-signer of the Edict of Milan, in 314, convinced Bassianus, another brother-in-law to Constantine, and the appointed Caesar for the Danubian and Italian provinces, to proceed with a revolution against St. Constantine. This was just the beginning of Licinius’ acts against Constantine, which ended with his final defeat at the “Battle of Chrysopolis” near Chalcedon in September of 324. Licinius was put under house arrest; later caught attempting to raise forces against Constantine he was executed.

Licinius during his battles with Constantine began a renewed persecution of Christians which has been cited as a reason for Constantine’s aggressive retaliation. It seems that Licinius favored syncretism and had never really left paganism. As St. Constantine progressively showed more favor to the Christians, Licinius moved more and more in favor of the pagan past of Rome, until in 320 A.D. he issued numerous decrees opressing and tyrannising the Christian population of the Eastern empire. His actions included the command that “…the soldiers in the cities should be cashiered and stripped of their rank unless they chose to sacrifice to the demons” (Eusebius, History), the destruction of Christian churches, and the murder of clergy. Eusebius the Historian believed that his motivation was more because of jealousy towards Constantine, and that “…he determined to war against God himself as the ally of Constantine, instead of against the one who was assisted by him”. Conversely, many of the decrees made by Constantine added great authority and power to the Christian episcopacy. Early in his reign “Constantine did more than merely grant equal rights to Christianity as a definite religious doctrine. The Christian clergy were given all the privileges granted to pagan priests.” [16] In strengthening the Episcopal courts he decree that “…any man had the right, if his opponent agreed, to carry a civil suit to the Episcopal court, even after proceedings in that suit had already begun in civil court” [17] Later during his rule he increased the power of the Episcopal court even more in that appeals to the civil court could be made “…even after proceedings in that suit had already begun in civil court” [18] This essentially placed the Christian court above the civil court, as we see in further detail:

“(1) the decision of a bishop had to be accepted as final in cases concerning people of any age; (2) Any civil case could be transferred to the Episcopal court at any stage in the proceedings, even if the opposing side did not agree; [and] (3) the decisions of the Episcopal courts had to be sanctioned by civil judges”. [19]

The empowering and benefits granted to the Church by the power of Constantine and the centralization of a Christian government came with a price. Constantine’s theocratic vein continued to cause the Church difficulties. One of the best examples is the interference of St. Constantine in the matter of the Donatist rebellion in Carthage.

The Donatists reacted to the apostasies and collaboration of Christians during the fierce persecutions of Christianity by the emperor Diocletian, just prior to the time of St. Constantine. They refused to accept the sacraments and authority of priests and bishops who had compromised their faith during the persecutions, and therefore appointed their own bishops, the best known of which was Donatus, who provided the name for this zealous movement. This worked itself out in Carthage in 312 A.D. as a stance against and a refusal to accept Bishop Caecilian, who was alledgedly consecrated by a bishop who had been a traditor (a traitor to the Faith) [20] and who had handed over religious texts to the pagan government.

At this time St. Constantine was providing financial assistance to all the previously persecuted Christian communities for their maintenance and rebuilding. The money he sent to Carthage naturally went to the accepted church under Caecilian.

The Donatists appealed to St Constantine and requested that there be a judgment to decide on the true Church of Carthage. They specifically requested to be judged by the Gallic bishops who had not undergone persecution. Constantine agreed to their request and summoned a council to determine the validity of the Donatist church. The Gallic bishops found in favor of Caecilian and the primary church of Carthage. The Donatists unsatisfied with this judgement proceed to appeal to St. Constantine for a new investigation into the matter. Unfortunately for the relations between Church and State, Constantine agrees. This is “…first blow to the independence of the Church.” [21]

These new investigations found in favor the previous judgement of the Gallic Bishops, but the Donatists continued to appeal to Constantine for further investigations and rulings. Constantine, after being convinced that their position is wrong, and being pushed to the limit of his patience, sends forces to destroy the schismatics. “Fire raged through Africa and nothing could extinguish it”; this was “… the beginning of the end for the great and glorious African Church” [22]. This heavy handed approach to dealing with church issues would be a temptation for the Christian Emperors throughout the history of Constantinople. Beginning with the rule of Constantine the Great, the state felt free to interfere and direct religious disputes. [23]

As God uses all things to further the salvation of man, there were benefits accrued from the initiative and force that St. Constantine provided in matters of the Faith. One of the greatest of these was the calling of the Council of Nicaea in 325. This council was the first Universal council at which Christian prelates could freely gather to discuss the issues of the Faith. It was considered “...universal…in its conception and signifigance.” [24]

According to Bishop Timothy Ware, “....Constantine wished to see [his empire] firmly based upon the on Orthodox Faith.” [25] To this end, it was necessary to formulate definite doctrines on the theology of the Church. Until then, Christianity had functioned in a local and more exclusive manner. With the formulation of doctrine, by this council the church paradoxically became more inclusive and exclusive at the same time. The faith became more inclusive in the fact that the whole Christian community was to be united under one formalized doctrine, and more formally exclusive in relation to the other religions of this world, due to specific codification of these doctrines.

This is evident with the first great heresy of Arius, an Alexandrian priest and a convinced philosophical monotheist, who used logic to create a “…rationalization of Christianity”. [26] Arianism, or the belief that Jesus was not God but a superior creature created by God disturbed the Christian world until a council could resolve the amazing contradiction to revealed belief. The Arian controversy was the beginning of the “...great theological disputes...which would persist through almost five centuries of Church History”. [27] The council condemned Arianism and set forth the doctrine that Christ is “begotten not made, of one essence with the Father”, which was included in the Nicene Creed that was formulated at this council. The council also determined numerous other matters, including the date for the celebration of Pascha, and the formal acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity. Throughout the work of the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea the emperor Constantine was a central figure. “The emperor presided at the council and sometimes even led the discussions.” [28]

The council of Nicaea and the defeat of Arianism resulted in liturgical additions to the services of the Church. “‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit’ became the appropriate doxology to express and safeguard Orthodox doctrine” [29] and ‘To You we ascribe glory, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit’, now and ever and unto the ages of ages” was from this point forward used to end liturgical prayers.

An undesirable effect of the Council at Nicaea and the following councils was that the church in defending against heretical rationalization of the faith had to reply using philosophical language which left it open to the attacks of heretical philosophy. The Church now had to respond catophatically as well as apophatically. Also in codifying the Faith “...it now became much more easy to divorce doctrine from method, and to consider the truth of the doctrine, not as something which can only be known through initiation, but as something which the human mind can know and define through its own innate logical patterns, and which is consequently, itself relationally and logically consistent.” [30]

In 324 AD Constantine moved the capitol of Rome to the recently reconstructed Byzantium, now called Constantinople. The actual seat of the Roman government was not moved to Constantinople until 330 AD. Constantinople was in some senses a Christian utopia where “religion entered into every aspect of Byzantine life.” [31] “Byzantine holidays were religious festivals; the races which [the citizens] attended in the circus began with the singing of hymns; [their] trade contacts invoked the Trinity and were marked with the sign of the cross.” [32] Constantinople would soon become “…the political, religious, economic, and cultural center of the empire” [33]; this led to a temptation to view Byzantium as an earthly heaven and to ignore the frailty to this world. In reaction to this many men and women flocked to the monastic desert. The importance of the explosion of monasticism at this time should not be understated. The monastics “formed the counterbalance to an established Christendom.” [34], and helped to maintain the words of Christ “...My Kingdom is not of this world...”

The status of the position of the Bishop of Constantinople, with the power given to him by St. Constantine became a central force in the molding of the Church; Byzantium “...became the residence of a bishop who not only claimed the authority of the apostolic see of neighboring Ephesus, but soon outshone the patriarchate of Alexandria and rivaled for centuries the papal power in Ancient Rome.” [35] Even the “the vestments which the Orthodox bishops now wear are the vestments once worn by the emperor in church.” [36]

Lastly the influence of Constantine can be physically appreciated through the many Churches that he erected from 325 to 329 AD. In Constantinople he built the Church of the Apostles, the Church of St. Irene, and laid the foundations for the magnificent Hagia Sophia; in Rome he constructed the Basilica of Laterna and the Basilica of St. Peter; and in Palestine he built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (over the tomb of Christ), and the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem. Throughout his reign he beautified the Christian empire by adorning the holy places and establishing monumental Churches.

During an in depth study of St. Constantine’s his reign it would be hard to ignore the sometimes striking duplicity that is evident, including his continued intermittant reverence for the One Sun God, his frequent tyrannical interference in Church matters, and his temptation to resort to violence to resolve political matters. He walked a fine line between Christian values and Roman dictatorship, and sometimes, as in the inner struggles of each one of us, the latter won. As he lay on his deathbed and submitted to baptism, he remarked, “…now let us cast away all duplicity.” [37]

The emperor Constantine died on Pentecost 337. Even though Constantine had made mistakes during his lifetime (including the possible murder of his son) “...it is hard to doubt that this man had striven unwaveringly toward God, had lived with a thirst for the absolute, and had wished to establish a semblance of heavenly truth and beauty on earth”. [38]


1. Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (New York, St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2003), pg. 80.

2. Schmemann, pgs. 63-64.

3. Eusebius: The Conversion of Constantine, Chapter XXVIII.

4. Eusebius: The Conversion of Constantine, Chapter XXIX.

5. Schmemann, pg. 66.

6. Ibid., pg. 69.

7. Ibid.

8. Schmemann, pg. 62.

9. Ibid., 66.

10. The History of Eusebius record of the Edict of Milan.

11. History of Eusebius.

12. Philip Sherrard, The Greek East and the Latin West: A Study in the Christian Tradition, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992), pg. 23.

13. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1964), 45.

14. George Florovsky, Christianity and Culture, volume ii in the collected works of George Florovsky, (Massachusetts, Nordland Publishing Company, 1974), pg. 124.

15. History of Eusebius

16. AA Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, Volume 1 324-1453, (Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1952), pg. 52.

17. Ibid., pg. 53.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Many church leaders had gone as far as turning in Christians to the Roman authorities and had handed over sacred religious texts to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors ("people who had handed over").

21. Schmemann, pg. 66.

22. Ibid., pg. 68.

23. Ibid., pg. 54.

24. Ibid., pg. 77.

25. Ware, pg. 27.

26. Schmemann, pg. 75.

27. Ibid., pg. 70.

28. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume iii, Nicene and Post-nicene Christianity AD 311-600, (Michigan,WM B Eerdmans Publishing Company,1994), pg. 55.

29. Hugh Wybrew, The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite, (New York, St Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 1990) pg. 28.

30. Sherrard, pg. 75.

31. Ware, pg. 43.

32. Ibid.

33. Vasiliev, pg. 60.

34. Ware, pg. 45.

35. Schaff, pg. 34.

36. Ware, pg. 49.

37. Schmemann, pg. 80

38. Ibid.


Eusebius, The Conversion of Constantine

Florovsky, George Christianity and Culture, Volume II in the Collected Works of George Florovsky. Massachusettes: Nordland Publishing Company, 1974.

Schaff, Philip History of the Christian Church, Volume III, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity AD 311-600. Michigan:WM B Eerdmans Publishing Company,1994.

Sherrard, Philip The Greek East and the Latin West: A Study in the Christian Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Schmemann, Alexander The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. New York: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2003.

Vasiliev, AA History of the Byzantine Empire, Volume 1 324-1453. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1952.

Ware, Timothy The Orthodox Church. New York: Penguin Books, 1964.

Wybrew, Hugh The Orthodox Liturgy: The Development of the Eucharistic Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite. New York: St Vladmir’s Seminary Press, 1990.

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