Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, III
Scholarly opinion rests at all points on the scale when it comes to opinions on the genuineness of Constantine’s fathering of the Christian religion and soon-to-be church, from the motives of a true and deep religious conversion at one extreme to the moves of a calculating statesman consolidating his empire at the other, along with all points in between. However, regardless of how deeply genuine his conversion may or may not have run, Constantine would not have been able to help looking at the Christian through the eyes of a sovereign – a sovereign educated in the belief that the success of the Roman Empire was due at least in part to the unifying influence of the official state cult. As Christianity continued to spread and gain in numbers, he would have been hard-pressed not to see it as a potential replacement for the old Imperial cult, if only its issues with internal unity could be resolved.
With his goal of a united church in mind, Constantine’s control over the Nicean council in 324 AD was much tighter than with his earlier attempts in Arles. In the interests of sustaining unity and peace throughout his empire, he dominated both the proceedings and their outcome, viewing himself as an integral part of the new, unified church being formed. Indeed, the association of Constantine the Roman Emperor and the Christian church was a unilateral one at the Emperor’s discretion; the Emperor defined the terms of the alliance and set them forth for the church to accept, which it was more than happy to do, given the great potential opportunities implicit within for the religious organization. The opportunities were still strictly limited, however: Constantine was an absolutist emperor who had no intention of allowing an increasingly influential Church operate independently of the state’s guidance and oversight.
Yet Constantine’s meddling in the internal affairs of the emerging Christian religion was not yet finished. He did not intend to have a church that would be limited to a small, pristine body of the elected few. Such an organization would be useless in encouraging the unity of the state as a whole. Instead, he envisioned his state-supported Church as more of an ‘umbrella’ organization, able to encompass all the differing beliefs and factions that made up the whole of the Christian faithful under an over-arching mutual interest – a goal which, more than anything else, reveals how little he understood his chosen religion. The sought-after religious unity, which would in theory foster political unity once the church was tied to the state, was a goal of Constantine’s going into the Nicean council. However, he was not willing to impose such unity by force, which would only have served to increase tensions and aggression between the factions. Instead, he subtly used interpretations of Christian texts, including quotes attributed to Christ, to isolate and rebuke the extremists who were clamouring for such coercion to take place from the larger, more moderate mass of faithful. (As a quick and dirty example, one could cite Jesus’ commands to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” to support a policy of non-intervention with non-believers, or instead bring up the tale of Jesus driving the money-lenders from the temple as support for coercion.) Constantine was able to make his own point by taking advantage of ambiguities in the text and interpret the message to his own ends, as he did in his “Oration to the Saints,” where among other things he related the story of Christ’s arrest to put forward the interpretation that Jesus made a decision “to choose rather to endure than to inflict injury, and to be ready, should necessity so require, to suffer, but not to do, wrong.” These themes, when looked at in the context of public policy, are pushing forward Constantine’s ideal of a tolerant and diversified Church operating under the “umbrella” of mutual interest.
The Emperor may have claimed to be Christian, but he resisted the pressures to use coercion to enforce belief. Indeed, there is some basis on which to claim that Constantine did not particularly care which side in the Arian controversy proved victorious in the Council at Nicea (recall if you will his earlier opinion on the schism), but only that the victor could be shown to have the majority of the support of the lay worshippers. As long as he was satisfied on that count, he could – in theory – be assured of harmony within the Church and, by extension, his Empire. As it turned out, the doctrine of Arianism was defeated and declared heresy, and the Nicean creed, reaffirming belief in the orthodox viewpoint (most importantly that Christ was holy and possessed a divine soul, being essentially God and both part and all of the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) was put into widespread use across the Empire, primarily for baptisms but also taking on different usages in local churches depending on customs and the symbols present in each location.
Unfortunately for the ambitious Emperor, his decisions were to have some unintended consequences…