45: Constantine the Enigma

But God is the judge:
he putteth down one, and setteth up another.

Psalms 75:7

Constantine the Great, closes one chapter of Church History and opens up a new era of freedom for the beleaguered people of God. He will always remain an enigma, however; a great historic figure whom we struggle to understand.

By virtue of Diocletian’s extensive delegation of power to co-regents throughout the Empire, his death was destined to provoke rivalries and civil war. While the army in York had declared Constantine Emperor, he had to fight off his rivals and negotiate a peace. In 312 AD Constantine won a notable victory at Milvio Bridge over Maxentius, which propelled him to the seat of the Caesars. He is called ‘Great’ for very good reasons – under his authority Rome recovered lost territory, the army was reorganised and strengthened and coinage improved.

His most significant contribution, however, was in the realm of religion. He claimed to have seen a vision of the cross with the words “In this sign thou shalt conquer”. Subsequently the Latin phrase “In hoc signio vinces” together with the Chi-Rho symbol became his motto. The Chi-Rho was a motto framed using the first two letters of Christ’s name. Believing that the God of the Christians had done for him what the gods of Rome could not do Constantine made Christianity the official faith of his Empire.

In 313 AD he negotiated a peace settlement with another rival, Licinius, in Milan where the two warriors officially granted full tolerance to Christianity and all religions throughout the empire in what has been called the Edict of Milan. It is believed this is the first accord guaranteeing religious freedom in history.

For the Christians this dramatically transformed their position in society. With freedom arose new opportunities but many dangers also lurked. Christianity for the first time was becoming connected to the state and Constantine was keen to ensure that the official religion was well organised throughout his dominion. Among the pagans many converted to Christianity because it was fashionable and popular. Therefore a nominal Christianity was developing with new dangerous influences. The full outcome, however, would not be evident for several centuries; apostasy creeps in by stealth.

But what motivated Constantine? Was he a true convert or did he use Christianity for his own selfish ends? Therein lies the enigma. It is true that before his his death in 337 AD he requested Christian baptism, perhaps indicating that at some stage he became convinced of the truth that is in Jesus.

While we must leave his faith in God’s hands, I wholly concur with the assessment of historian Philip Schaff that Christianity was now controlling the current of history and Constantine was wise enough to recognise this; there cannot be a future without Christ.

Great God of nations, now to Thee
Our hymn of gratitude we raise;
With humble heart and bending knee
We offer Thee our song of praise.

Alfred A. Woodhull

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