There has been a lot of talk and defences recently about the validity of Constantine’s Christianity.
This line of conversation is important, because Church leaders look to Constantine as the figure who fathered the Roman Catholic Church in its form of unity between State and Church. Some theologians and church historians who focus on the “First Things” of Christianity say Constantine was a genuine Christian with flaws like the rest of us.
[One can read Constantines-Christian-Creed.]
I posit that if Constantine was a genuine Christian, he was a puppet of the Roman Senate, and the Empire did more to destroy authentic Christianity through Constantine than all of the preceding emperors and persecutions combined.
I begin my discourse with a response to J.W. Wartick’s assertion that, “There was only one church, and Constantine, Eusebius, Athanasius, Augustine, Basil, Ambrose, Jerome, etc. each belonged to it.”
To say there was only one church is false information. I will tell you of two branches of Christian churches, starting from the time of Justin Martyr onward.
First, we must understand that in 67, Nero initiated Christian persecutions. Then in 81 and 88, Domitian and Trajan held respective persecutions of Christians, due to their growth and monotheistic influence against the pantheistic Romans.
Because 70 years of persecution had only grown a Christian presence in the Roman world (instead of ridding the Empire of Christians), the Roman Senate gave audience to the doctrines of Christianity via Justin Martyr’s defense to them (A.D. 140-150). Yet, the Senate and Emperors of Rome decided to persecute the Christians ever after. Altogether, there were 10 persecutions under Roman emperors, the 10th being under Diocletian (in 303), who instituted the Persecution Act the same year.
Due to these persecutions, there were (as today) placating groups of Christians, and there were those who stood true to the Apostles’ doctrine. These two kinds of Christianity evidenced themselves in the following historical events after the time of Justin Martyr.
Have you not read of the Monatists (c. A.D. 158), whose spiritual descendants withstood the doctrine of pedobaptism set forth first by Calixtus, pastor of Rome (A.D. 219-223)… and which doctrine was later accepted at the Council of Carthage (A.D. 252) and by Origen (who died in 254)? Have you never read that Novation (a protesting church leader) was excommunicated from Rome in 257 for holding contrary beliefs to the pedobaptism of Council of Carthage?
But, even after the Persecution Act by Diolcletian in 303 and the subsequent persecution of true-to-the-faith Christians by Rome, the population of Christians was not undermined.
Intriguingly, we read that the Senate underwent a major shift of tactic in 311. Whereas they persecuted Christians before, they now pass a Toleration Act (A. D. 311). Two (2) years later, Constantine ascended to the throne. Coincidence? I think not, because in 318, only 5 years after Constantine’s installment, we see a shift of focus in the Christian world to Carthage, where Donatus was appointed bishop. [Donatus is the father of the Donatist Movement (who did not hold to pedobaptism or to Constantine)].
If this group of Donatist Christians were a real affront to Constantine’s and Rome’s Christianity, then we would expect to see them persecuted by the Emperor. AND, that is exactly what happened! In the same year (A.D. 324/325) that Constantine declares his Christianity the religion of Rome, we see the Christians of Northern Africa being persecuted… and Rome does not come to their aid. In fact, the persecution of Donatists stems from Rome.
In the time that Jerome was compiling and writing the Vulgate–the Romanized Bible (331-420), 30+ pastors of Lybia and Egypt were martyred.
354-430 Augustine, having already aligned himself with Rome’s church, presents a defense to the Senate of Rome, explaining why Christians are not the reason for Rome’s collapse. His work, The City of God, becomes the basis for viewing the Christian religion as that which is best embodied as a City–a nationality, if you will. (a.k.a. Covenant Replacement Theology in seed form and grounds for the Vatican).
In 379, the Church of Rome holds “heresy” as a capital offense to be punished by death.
390 – Jovinion is condemned for holding to the regeneration by the Spirit, the Preservation of the Saints, and denying the equivalent of Mariology
415 – Donatists are forbidden by the Church of Rome to assemble
416 – Council of Milevium (Decrees Church Discipline–excommunication–for all who do not hold to Pedobaptism)
445 – Valentenian III “makes” Leo of Rome the rightful ruler of the Western Church
Thus, the Roman Catholic Church is established with its first Roman-recognized “pope.” And, here I thought Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are those who “make” Church leaders. [sarcasm]
From these facts, we conclude that Constantine was a product of the Senate’s choice to “Tolerate” Christianity. This Toleration Act was the alternate strategy to persecution, which had been unprofitable or ineffective over 70+ years and several emperors before. In solid Roman fashion, “divide and conquer” seems to have been the plan of the Senate and their new Emperor Constantine. They did divide the Christian Church, in doctrine and in location. Those who stayed with Rome and embraced a State Religion were the compromised. Those who were persecuted and went to Northern Africa (mainly Donatists) were the true.
Based on this study of history, I hold 2 pillars of “First Things:”
1. There was not just one Church
2. Constantine is a pretender Christian, or at least a puppet of the Senate.
And for that matter, who in his right mind (excepting those who today hold Catholic unification of Church and State and Divine Right of Rule and Covenant Replacement Theology) would ever say, “In this sign conquer” is a valid thing to cross the lips of a true Christian?
Noting that the author — to which you refer (Peter J. Leithart) for your information — lays out a case for “Reformational Catholicism” as a Presbyterian, I find your source biased, if not confused. Subsequently, I find your review of his materials both unprofessional as an objective historian and your defense of Constantine untenable.
The Anabaptists by Scot McKnight via Patheos
Christianity through the Centuries by Cairns
Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church
This Day in Baptist History, vols. 1-3, by David Cummins (my late Church History professor)