Religious Ideas of Emperor Constantine

by Andrew Lisa

The story of Christianity can largely be divided into the time before Emperor Constantine and the time after. Contrary to popular belief, he did not establish Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, but he did legalize it and give it legitimacy. His religious ideas changed the role of religion in politics and marked a turning point for global Christendom.

Predetermined Destiny

Of all Constantine's religious ideas, the most important may have been his apparent belief that he was chosen by God. In the spring of 311, Constantine faced off against an enemy who was challenging him for control of the Western Roman Empire. Accounts say that his rival and brother-in-law Maxentius had Constantine outnumbered four to one at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. After Constantine reportedly saw a cross in the sky with the words, "By this sign conquer," he said Jesus told him in a dream to take the cross into battle, which he did. He overwhelmed his enemy and seized the throne. Whether the omens and visions were real or just believed, they propelled Constantine forward with the belief that he had been divinely ordained.

Religious Singularity

As the cornerstone of his vision for a renewed Rome, Constantine believed that a single empire ruled by a single emperor should be united under a single church. He began his reign with purges and persecutions of other Christians. Gnostic Christians, dualistic Christians and Christians who ignored the Old Testament were among the first targeted. As part of his idea of religious singularity, Constantine charged the bishops with settling upon a united, singular policy and theology of true Christian thought.

State-Church

The concept of the Christian church and secular state being intertwined that would dominate Europe for 1,000 years originated under Constantine. When a controversy between secular forces and church authorities threatened to split his newly united empire, Constantine called a meeting in Nicea of the bishops and told them, "You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the church. But I also am a bishop, ordained by God to oversee those outside the church." The concept of divine ordination of a Christian leader would lead to the concept of the papacy.

Toleration

Perhaps his most important legacy, Constantine ushered in the first real era of religious toleration in Roman history. His Edict of Milan unified his Western Roman Empire with that of Licinius, Constantine's rival emperor who dominated the East, and was eventually defeated and executed by Constantine. The Edict of Milan established a new philosophy of individual worship, not only for Christians, and Romans were free for the first time to worship whatever deity they chose. Christians were allowed to build churches and Jews were forbidden from stoning other Jews to death for converting to Christianity. While there had been previous experiments in religious toleration, they lived only as long as the emperor. Constantine's edict, however, ushered in a new era for Rome.

About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. A graduate of Hofstra University, he was a section editor for "amNewYork", the most widely distributed paper in Manhattan. He was a nationally syndicated columnist with Gannett News Service, the largest news syndicate in the country, and works as a writer in Los Angeles.

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