Was Constantine a Christian? This vain question has to be considered, hardly discussed. The interminable opinions, one way or the other, are for the most part wise-seeming, meaningless generalizations. Like any generalized statement, it is conditioned by the point of view of the author. When ten men answered the question “What is a Christian?” in ten different ways, who shall say what any one is? This has been the difficulty. One does not conceive of Christianity apart from baptismal regeneration. The question has then narrowed to one of baptism.
Constantine was not a Christian until just before his death. Another has some other test. Another is not a Christian himself, and so on. A good Biblical, Protestant starting-point is to say he was a Christian as soon as he believed in Christ, and that the evidence of faith is in confession and action. Already, before his campaign into Italy, he seems to have been in intimate contact with the Christians. Hosius was probably already one of his advisers. The young emperor had inherited his father’s piety (Paneg. 307, c. 5), and was inclined to monotheism. The words of advisers must have made him think at least, and he seems to have made a sort of test of believing at the time of the famous “vision of the cross,” whatever that may have been. Judging from the way men think and feel their way to faith, it seems psychologically probable that, feeling his way along to that point, he tried faith and, having success, he substantially believed from that time on. Certainly from a very early period after this, the evidences begin to be clear and increasingly so as presumably his faith itself became more clear and fixed. The account in Eusebius of the process of thought by which he inclined toward Christianity has the greatest plausibility. He says that “considering the matter of Divine assistance, it occurred to him that those who had relied on idols had been deceived and destroyed, while his father…had honored the one Supreme God, had found him Saviour, &c.…he judged it folly to join in the idle worship of those who were no gods…and felt it incumbent on him to honor no other than the God of his father.” The nature of the vision of the cross, whether a miracle, a natural phenomenon, or only a dream, does not affect the probability of the account by Eusebius of what followed it (V. C. 1. 32). “At the time above specified, being struck with amazement at the extraordinary vision, and resolving to worship no other God save him who had appeared to him, he sent for those who were acquainted with the mysteries of his doctrines, and inquired also what God was.…They affirmed that he was God, the only begotten Son of the one and only God,” and he thereupon “made the priests of God his counsellors and deemed it incumbent on him to honor the God who had appeared to him, with all devotion.” According to Sozomen, “it is universally admitted Constantine embraced the 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” (Soz. 1. 5; cf. 1. 3). Philostorgius (1. 6), “in conformity with all other writers,” ascribes to the victory over Maxentius (Photius. Epit.). This is confirmed, too, by the remark of the Panegyrist (313, c. 4; cf. c. 2 and c. 11), that he conducted the war by Divine instruction, and the famous inscription on the triumphal arch, “instinctu Divinitatis.” According to Augustine he was at the time of the petition of the Donatists, “mindful of the hope which he maintained in Christ” (August. contra litt. Petil. Bk. II. c. 92, p. 205).
The tales of his baptism at this time, or by Sylvester at all, are pure fables (cf. under The Mythical Constantine), but it appears from antecedent probability, from testimony, and from his early subsequent identification with the Christians that he became fairly convinced at this time. His letters concerning the council at Arles, to be sure, have little direct evidence, but enough to show that he regarded the Christian religion as the worship of that one supreme God, and in them Hosius was already his trusted adviser. But in his letters to Chrestus (314) he speaks of those who are “forgetful of their own salvation and the reverence due to the most holy faith,” and if his letter to the bishops after the council at Arles—a letter full of expressions like “Christ the Saviour,” “brethren beloved,” “I who myself await the judgment of Christ,” “our Saviour”—be genuine, Constantine was well advanced in his commitment in 314; but whether it is or not, the fact of his Christian advisers, of his laws in behalf of Christians, and various substantial favors to them, his recognition of their God as his one God, makes it almost idle to discuss the question. Was Constantine a Christian in 314? What is a Christian? He seems to have been. The type was that of many a business-man church-member of to-day—Christians, but neither over-well-instructed, nor dangerously zealous in the exercise of his faith. It must be remembered that during these earlier years his confession of his faith and identification of himself with the Christians was conditioned by his relation to the old religion. Such a change was a radical novelty. His position was not yet secure. He had to use his utmost tact to keep all elements in hand. He was conditioned just as a modern Christian emperor or president, a majority of whose political advisers and subjects or electors are non-religious. He had great problems of political organization to effect, and was immersed in these. The only matter of surprise is that he grew so rapidly. There is no ground whatever for supposing that he dissembled to the end, or even at all. To say that his retaining the title of pontifex maximus, or making concessions respecting the old worship, or allowing soothsayers to be consulted, or even the postponement of his baptism, indicate this, is critical absurdity in the face of evidence. (3045 His saying before baptism is discussed in the V. C. 4. 2, notes. ) Testimony, both heathen and Christian, to the openness of his action is complete, and the testimony of his acts—such, e.g., as the law for the observance of Sunday—conclusive. Later, at least, he “most openly destroyed temple worship and built Christian houses of worship” (Eunap. Vita Ædes. 37, ed. Boiss. p. 20). From the defeat of Licinius on, edicts, letters, speeches, acts of all sorts, testify to a most unequivocal adoption of the Christian religion. Eusebius hardly overstates in saying that “he maintained a continual testimony to his Christianity, with all boldness and before all men, and so far was he from shrinking from an open profession of the Christian name, that he rather desired to make it manifest to all that he regarded this as his highest honor” (V. C. 3. 2). Really the question whether he considered himself, or was considered, a Christian at and after the time of the Council of Nicæa is too idle even to mention, if it had not been gravely discussed. In the opinion of the bishops there he was “most pious” and “dear to God” (Ep. synod. in Socr. 1. 9; Theodoret, 1. 8). On his part, letters are full of pious expression and usually begin or end or both with “beloved brethren.” To the council itself he describes himself as “fellow-servant” of “Him who is our common Lord and Saviour.” Another more considerable position is that all that indisputable external connection with Christianity was pure political expediency, that he was a shrewd politician who saw which way the wind was blowing, and had skill to take advantage of it. That Constantine was not a Christian in the strict sense even to the end of his life was the position of Keim. Burckhardt regards him as a pure politician, without a touch of Christian life. Brieger (1880) says we have not grounds to decide either way, whether he was “a godless egoistic fatalist or had a more or less warm religious or even Christian interest,” but that the fixed fact is, that it was not because of his inner belief in the Christian religion that he showed favor to the Christians. In a brief attempt to get some basis in the sources, the enthusiastic testimony of Eusebius and other writers, explicit as it is, may be quite disregarded, even the testimony to facts, such as his practice of giving thanks (V. C. 1. 39), of invoking Divine aid (Euseb. V. C. 2, 4, 6, 13; Soz. 2. 34), of his erecting a place of prayer in his palace (Soz. 1. 8), of his fasting (V. C. 2. 41), of his having a stated hour of prayer (V. C. 4. 22), although all these are interesting. The documents, however, unless by supremely uncritical rejection, can be regarded as fundamental sources. A brief analysis of these, even though imperfect, will furnish grounds on the basis of which those who apply various tests may apply them. Starting from his faith in Christ, surely the center of Christianity, he believed Christ to be Son of God, “God and the Son of God the author of every blessing” (S. C.), the revealer of the Father, who has “revealed a pure light in the person of Thy Son…and hast thus given testimony concerning Thyself” (S. C. 1), proceeding from the Father (S. C.), and incarnate, his incarnation having been predicted also by the prophets. He believed this Son of God to be his Saviour (Ad Tyr., Ad Ant., Ad Euseb., &c.) “our common Lord and Saviour” (Ad Euseb.), “our Saviour, our hope, and our life” (Ad eccl. Al.). He believed in his miraculous birth (S. C.) and in his death for our deliverance (Ad Nic.; cf. Ad Mac. &c.), “the path which leads to everlasting life” (S. C. 1), “a precious and toilsome” work (Ad Euseb.), and in his ascension into heaven (S. C. 1). He believed in “God the Father” (Ad Euseb. 2), “Almighty” (Ad Euseb.), Lord of all (Ad Euseb. 2), and the Holy Ghost (Ad eccl. Al.; cf. S. C.). He believed in “Divine Providence” (Ad Eccl. Al.; Ad Alex. et Ar.; Ad. Euseb. 1), God the preserver of all men (Ad Alex. et Ar.), who sees all things (Ad Syn. Nic.), who is near us and the observer of all our actions (S. C.), and “under the guidance of whose Almighty hand” he is (Ad Prov. Pal.), that all things are regulated by the determination of his will (Ad Euseb.). He believed in the existence of a personal devil (Ad Eccl. Al.). He believed in the future life (Ad Prov. Pal.), “the only true life” (S. C. 12), the “strife for immortality” (Ad Euseb.), to which those may aspire who know Him (S. C. 12). He believed in future rewards and punishments (Ad Prov. Pal.; S. C. 23). He believed in the inspiration of the Scriptures (Ad Eccl. Al.). He loved God (Ad Euseb. 2; V. C. 2. 55), and considered it his chief work in life to glorify Christ (S. C.). He loved his fellow-men, being disposed “to love you with an enduring affection” (Ad Ant.; V. C. 3. 60, &c.), and recognized it as virtue in others (8, c. 11). To him, God, in general, is the source of all blessings (Ad Prov. Pal.; S. C., &c.). “I am most certainly persuaded,” he says, “that I myself owe my life, my every breath, in short, my very inmost and secret thoughts to the favor of the Supreme God” (Ad Prov. Pal.). He recognizes contrition as a requisite for pardon (Ad. Prov. Pal), and that it is the power of God which removes guilt (Ad Euseb.). In the conduct of life. “Our Saviour’s words and precepts are a model, as it were, of what our life should be” (Ad. Ant.; V. C. 3. 60).
Expositions of his doctrinal and ethical positions might be multiplied almost without end from the many and fruitful sources, but a few specimens in his own expression will best show the spirit of his religious life. A most suggestive and beautiful sketch of Christ’s ministry on earth too long to quote here may be found in his Oration (ch. 15), but the following selections will give the idea:
A description of the inner Christian life. “For the only power in man which can be elevated to a comparison with that of Godinner Christian life. is sincere and guiltless service and devotion of heart to Himself, with the contemplation and study of whatever pleases Him, the raising our affections above the things of earth, and directing our thoughts, as far as we may, to high and heavenly objects” (S. C. 14).
A description of the outer Christian life. “Compare our religion with your own. Is there not with us genuine concord, and unwearied love of others? If we reprove a fault, is not our object to admonish, not to destroy; our correction for safety, not for cruelty? Do we not exercise not only sincere faith toward God, but fidelity in the relations of social life? Do we not pity the unfortunate? Is not ours a life of simplicity which disdains to cover evil beneath the mask of fraud and hypocrisy?” (S. C. 23).
A prayer. “Not without cause, O holy God, do I prefer this prayer to Thee, the Lord of all. Under Thy guidance have I devised and accomplished measures fraught with blessing: preceded by Thy sacred sign, I have led Thy armies to victory: and still on each occasion of public danger, I follow the same symbol of Thy perfections while advancing to meet the foe. Therefore have I dedicated to Thy service a soul duly attempered by love and fear. For Thy name I truly love, while I regard with reverence that power of which Thou hast given abundant proofs, to the confirmation and increase of my faith” (Ad prov. Or.).
A confession of faith in God and in Christ. “This God I confess that I hold in unceasing honor and remembrance; this God I delight to contemplate with pure and guileless thoughts in the height of his glory.” “His pleasure is in works of moderation and gentleness. He loves the meek and hates the turbulent spirit, delighting in faith. He chastises unbelief” (Ad Sap.). “He is the supreme judge of all things, the prince of immortality, the giver of everlasting life” (S. C. 36).
Was Constantine a Christian? Let each one apply his own test.
(Ernest Cushing Richardson, from his prolegomena to Eusebius: The Life of Constantine)