March 14, 2013 AD, Heliopolis, Egypt
Last February it was exactly 1700 years after the promulgation of the Edict of Milan. A decision of the Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius to treat Christians benevolently and granting Roman subjects freedom of religion. A landmark in the history of the Church, but also in the history of politics. This year, at least in Europe, there is a lot of attention for this historic event. New books are published on this subject, newspapers have articles on the so called ‘Constantinian turn’ and academic faculties of history, theology and politics are holding conferences on this topic. Also the Church commemorates this event and the historic figures that so profoundly shaped the course of its history. Considering this fresh interest for Constantine this study conference on the Council of Nicaea, summoned by this same emperor, is very well timed. I am not an historic expert on Roman history nor on Constantine, but in the last few months I have spent some time studying the life of Constantine and his significance for the Church. I hope to share with you some of the knowledge and insights I have gained about this interesting but also controversial figure and what were his reasons to interfere so much in Church affairs.
[NEW IMAGE] In imagery of the Council of Nicaea we very often see the emperor Constantine sitting or standing in the midst of the fathers of the Council, the most of them bishops from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. Kind of strange don't you think? It is like having an group photo of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council [NEW IMAGE] with president John F. Kennedy in the center. [NEW IMAGE] You may not have noticed, because of all the beards and beautiful vestments, but why is there a politician, a worldly ruler among those holy men and confessors who are in the process of defining the orthodox Christian faith? [NEW IMAGE] And, assuming that Constantine somehow deserves a place in that image or icon, why is he so often in the middle, attracting so much of the attention and not, for example, a patriarch or a pope? Why such a place of honor for a worldly ruler who spilt a lot of blood in many wars and political intrigues, who banished and imprisoned austere Christian bishops and was at least involved in the murders of his brother-in-law and the execution of his wife Fausta and his son Crispus?
Nevertheless, many Eastern Orthodox Christian churches consider Constantine to be a saint. Some call him even 'isapostolos' equal to the apostles. [NEW IMAGE] Quite an honor to be placed next to that other isapostolos: Saint Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection of Christ. There is no denying that Constantine’s career profoundly influenced the history of the Church and the future of Christianity. Of the many marvelous basilicas this Roman emperor built for the worship of God some are still standing and are still awe-inspiring. [NEW IMAGE] His religious politics was the starting point for Christendom: a Europe that defined itself for almost seventeen centuries as Christian, a fact thanks to which I am a Christian and lots of you are Christian. Also a fact thanks to which a British Field Marshal built this church here in Heliopolis. [NEW IMAGE]
But the emperor Constantine owes his sainthood first and foremost for convening the First Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea, [NEW IMAGE] for presumably presiding over it and, as Eusebius of Caesarea has it, for offering the solution: a creedal formula that separated the great majority of Catholic bishops from a minority of heretical clergy. The creed promulgated by the Council of Nicaea is in fact the early draft of the litmus test for orthodox Christianity, up until this very day.
But what interest does a Roman emperor have in convening a large Church meeting? Was he indeed that committed trinitarian Christian ruler as some hagiographists picture him? A passionate Christian sovereign who could not bear to see the truth being contested and the church in his dominions disintegrate?
In this part of the conference I will sketch the path leading up to the Council of Nicaea and also a little bit about what is known about the role of the emperor at the Council itself. For this purpose it is also important to pay attention to Constantine’s life and career and to say something about the Christians in the Roman Empire. Together we will read some short texts that will hopefully shed some more light on this. And I hope there will be some time and opportunity for us to discuss the relation between Church and State, which could be of particular interest in the present context, here in Egypt.
· Let us continue by reading the bold sections in the letter of Constantine to patriarch Alexander of Alexandria and his priest Arius, the two figures whose disagreement about the relation of the Son to God The Father is at the core of the doctrinal conflict between the churches in the Eastern part of the Roman empire:
In the year 324 Constantine defeated his co-emperor and relative Licinius at the battle of Adrianople. In the same year as the Council, 325, Constantine accuses Licinius of plotting against him and has him arrested and hanged. A political murder that shocked contemporary opinion (as did later the execution of his wife and son). Since the defeat of his co-emperor, Constantine is the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire. And it's only natural for an emperor to be concerned about the unity of his empire. But what is the relationship between the well being of the church and the unity of the Roman empire? For that we must go back in history.
Born around the year 272 in Naissus in contemporary Serbia, the young noble man Constantine is trained and educated at the court of the Roman emperor Diocletian in Nicomedia, a city in present-day Northern Turkey. Constantine spends his days at the imperial palace like a bird in a golden cage. In a courteous way he is held hostage to keep the ambitions of his father Constantinus in check in the most Western province of the Roman Empire: Britannia. [NEW IMAGE] Constantine manages to escape the palace in Nicomedia and flees to Eboracum (present-day York) in Britannia, where he is declared successor of his father by the Roman troops. After the resignation of emperor Diocletian in 305 his successors start to battle for control of the Roman Empire. After much political maneuvering and many political murders Constantine becomes 'augustus' of the Western part of the Western half of the Roman Empire. [NEW IMAGE] His territory ranging from modern-day England to Spain and France. His competitor in the West is his brother-in-law Maxentius, who rules Italy, Sicily and a large portion of Northern Africa.
Just like his father, Constantine maintains a politics of tolerance towards the religion of the Christians, a small minority in the religious melting pot [NEW IMAGE] of the Roman Empire : a syncretist mixture of local cults, eastern religions, mystery religions, the interchangeable Greek and Roman pantheon and cults venerating the emperors. Just like the Jews, Christians were not very popular. In its seclusion and secrecy it was like other mystery cults but unlike the other religions Christians refused to worship other gods and backed out of social activities that were permeated with the religious, a fact for which they were sometimes pictured as atheists and traitors of the empire. Christianity was an easy victim for demonization. Other then the Jews the religion of the Christians was something new. And to Roman ears new things are synonymous for suspicious things.
Nevertheless, most of the time Christians were left alone. Measures against followers of the Christian faith were most of the time sporadic and local. The first systematic attempt to enforce a universal worship to the gods was in the year 250 under Decius and later once more under emperor Valerian. The son of Valerian undid the damage his father made and restituted church possessions and restored buildings. The age of exclusion was over. Christians held offices in administration and also served in the army. Ecclesial organization gained its definitive form in dioceses, metropoles and patriarchates. Theological and disciplinary matters were decided in regional meetings, or councils of bishops. The greatest systematic persecution of Christians [NEW IMAGE] was under Diocletian in 298: their scriptures had to be burned, their churches dismantled, Christians were excluded from public offices, bishops, priests and deacons were arrested. Some of them were killed. The edict that legitimized this persecution applied for the entire Roman Empire, but was not strictly applied everywhere. The persecutions in the East were more severe than in the West, for example. Constantinus, Constantines father, dismantled churches, but executed nobody. Moreover, Christians were not forced to hand in their sacred scriptures. On the whole we get a picture of more or less tolerance. This too, seems to be the politics of Constantine. He was not particularly hostile towards Christians, indeed, and quite remarkable, a Christian clergyman appears in his entourage [NEW IMAGE]: the Spanish bishop Hosius (or Ossius) of Cordoba. Constantine himself seems to have had a devotion for the wargod Mars and the solar deity Apollo, who shows a particular overlap with Sol Invictus: the Invincible Sun.
As I said before, persecutions were more severe in the Eastern part of the empire. On his deathbed the Eastern emperor Galerius, suffering incredible pains, permits the Christians freedom of religion, as long as they don't react against the public order and pray for the well being of the emperor and his empire. It is very well possible he saw his own suffering as a revenge from the God of the Christians. The Christians were sure of this and rejoiced in the recantation of their arch-persecutor. In the West Constantine may already have wondered whether the strange God the Christians worshipped was not a power to be feared...
Back to the battlefield: Constantine and his brother-in-law Maxentius were struggling for dominion over the Western part of the Roman Empire. At long last they meet for battle on the 28th of October 312 at the Milvian Bridge. [NEW IMAGE] Even though Maxentius has the numerical upper hand, Constantine beats him convincingly. Maxentius, who drowns in the river, is dragged up and decapitated. Victoriously Constantine marches into Rome with the head of his enemy and brother-in-law on a stick. From that moment on it is no longer disputed who is emperor in the West.
After his invasion of Rome Constantine switches from a politics of tolerance towards the Christians to a politics of active support of the Church. Confiscated churches and church property are restored to their previous owners and Christian clergy are paid from public funds. [NEW IMAGE]
· Let’s read a letter of the Emperor to Anullinus:
What has happened? The Christian writer Lactantius some years after the event recounts that Constantine, just before the battle, in a dream received the instruction [NEW IMAGE] to paint "the heavenly sign" on the shields of his soldiers, "the cipher of Christ". Eusebius knows nothing about this in his Church History.
Twenty-five years after the event however, shortly after Constantine's baptism and subsequent death, Eusebius, an ardent venerator and admirer of the emperor, comes up with a fascinating story in another book, The Life of Constantine, a work in which he exceedingly praises and incenses the emperor for all he has done to benefit the true Catholic faith. Eusebius contends that the emperor personally told him this story, in secret, and confirmed it with an oath. Here is how the story goes:
Just before the battle against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine sees [NEW IMAGE] a trophy of a cross of light superimposed upon the sun and the words "In this conquer" (èn toutooi nika) written in the sky. While the emperor is pondering the meaning of this miraculous sign, suddenly night falls in, and Christ appears to him in a dream commanding him to put the symbol on a battle standard, the famous Labarum. [NEW IMAGE]
Constantine's glorious defeat of Maxentius and his conquest of the Western Roman Empire is thus explained as an act of the God of the Christians. Or according to Eusebius: [NEW IMAGE] "The God of all, the Supreme Governor of the whole universe, by his own will appointed Constantine (...) to be prince and sovereign."
While this story certainly does a good job explaining the remarkable shift in the life and politics of Constantine, the historical truth of this 'deus ex machina'-event nevertheless is highly contested, for both historical and theological reasons. And not in the least because of the (at least for twenty-first-century readers) shockingly uncritical bias of Eusebius.
Fascinating enough, there is another story of a solar miracle promising Constantine divine assistance: an anonymous pagan orator in a panegyric, a speech of praise to Constantine, recounts of an impressive light vision the emperor had, two years earlier, near the city of Trier. [NEW IMAGE] In this light vision solar deity Apollo and the goddess of Victory promise Constantine the wreath of victory and a thirty years reign.
Some historians suggest Constantine might have been witness of a rare but not uncommon solar phenomenon called 'halo'. [NEW IMAGE] In the eyes of a pagan and highly religious conqueror this physical phenomenon may easily have been read as a solar deity offering him a wreath. Could Constantine’s explanation, handed down in the story of Eusebius, perhaps be a very opportune reinterpretation of an earlier event? [NEW IMAGE]
Whatever you think of it, Constantine’s conversion has an awful lot to do with the sun. It cannot be a coincidence that Constantine's favorite cult was that of the Invincible Sun. It is a documented fact that the solar cult continues in Rome, and is explicitly supported by Constantine. [NEW IMAGE] Symbols of Sol Invictus survive for many years after 312 on imperial coins. And Constantine's regulations on the Sun-day, ten years later, bear clear stamps of a veneration of the Sun.
It is possible that Constantine in the period around the conquest of Rome identified the Christian God with the Invincible Sun. [NEW IMAGE] Did not the Christians themselves meet for prayer on the day of the sun and in their prayers turn towards the rising sun? Was it not written in their scriptures that God was the Sun of Righteousness?
[NEW IMAGE] I think we cannot say that Constantine -whatever happened, if anything extraordinary happened at all- had some kind of a Pauline conversion. There are many factors indicating that the so-called 'Constantinian turn', the undeniable shift to a more positive attitude towards the Christian religion, was a matter of gradual change. Even before the conquest of Rome the Christian religion seems to have had adherents within the imperial court. And on the other hand, after the conquest of Rome, imperially supported paganism survived for many years. Constantine appears to have been not so much a non-Christian before the conquest of Rome as he appears to have been a committed Christian afterwards.
Constantine certainly was a patron and a devotee of the highest divinity whom the Christians worshipped, but he seems to have had absolutely no idea of the strict religious exclusivism of the Christianity of that day nor about the moral and metaphysical claims of the Christian religion. And, fair is fair, Christian bishops are not in a hurry to correct the theological views of Constantine. Experience had taught them that one can lose imperial support in the blink of an eye. Probably they were glad enough with their new freedom and privileges. Of course this changes over time, when Constantine becomes better informed and more instructed about the contents of the Christian faith.
Why Constantine chose the minority religion of the Christians, still remains something of a riddle. In a 2012 book on Constantine a present-day Dutch Church historian suggests that political strategy should certainly not be excluded from the reasons for this choice: Christianity was on the rise, slowly but certainly. Having survived the persecutions this former 'religion of slaves' was advancing on the social scale to a respected religion, even among the elite. Moreover and contrary to the polytheistic and syncretistic melting pot of cults, Christianity was monopolistic, universally present and exclusivist. It asked commitment and loyalty and was not ethnically fixed. A perfect candidate one might say to serve the unity of the empire. One Emperor, one Empire, One religion.
Shortly after Constantine's elevation as emperor of the West, he meets his Eastern counterpart Licinius in the city of Milan. [NEW IMAGE] In February 313 (1700 years ago) they promulgate the famous Edict of Milan, which grants the Christians and followers of other religions freedom of religion.
· Edict of Milan (313)
Constantine starts to interfere more in Church affairs. There appears to be a schism between lax and rigorist sections about how to deal with Christians who lapsed during the persecutions. In 314 Constantine adopts the Church custom to decide on doctrinal and disciplinary matters by means of a council of bishops. [NEW IMAGE] In the French city of Arles the emperor convokes a Council that decides in favor of the lax groups (which, by the way still had a pretty strict church discipline, compared to the present-day situation). The Donatists, the rigorist section, first receive mild treatment of the emperor, but later he becomes much more severe: he banishes Donatist bishops and confiscates their churches. The first persecution of Christians by a Christian government is a fact.
"The first and most obvious measure to win the favor of the Supreme Divinity was to give his church liberty, wealth and immunity to carry on His worship. But now Constantine was learning that favors to the church were not enough. The Supreme Divinity demanded unity in his church and was bitterly offended by schism among his worshippers. Therefore it was Constantine's duty as emperor in order to keep his favor for the empire to impose unity on the church."
When, ten years later, in 324, Constantine defeats his former ally Licinius he becomes ruler of the entire Roman Empire, as we saw before. [NEW IMAGE] The Eastern part of the empire now falls under his government. Immediately after this fact he discovers to his shock that the Church in the Eastern part has fallen prey to a widespread division among churches: the Arian controversy, together with more disagreement such as, again, the treatment of lapsed Christians under the heavy persecutions in the East. His spiritual adviser, bishop Hosius of Cordoba, brings together another council in Antioch, a provisional meeting pending a larger council in Ancyra. But to end all this ecclesial strife once and for all, Constantine convenes a much greater Council: that of Nicaea.
· Letter convoking the Council of Nicaea [NEW IMAGE]
The contents and the proceedings of this Council have our attention, these days. The fathers also took decisions on other matters, most notably the date of Easter, but I have to limit myself. [NEW IMAGE]
There is, sadly enough, no official record of the proceedings of the first ecumenical congress of the church and not much of the role emperor Constantine played at the council itself. There are some fragmentary statements, but because of their polemical and rhetorical tone the historical trustworthiness of these statements is disputed.
It seems that Constantine opened the Council on the 20th of May 325. The emperor entered the great hall of the imperial palace in Nicaea where all the bishops (an exact figure is unknown) were assembled.
During the course of the debate, Constantine seems to have been in the chair and he seems to have taken an active part in guiding the proceedings. According to Roman custom he as presider he seems to have played a more active role than does chairman of a meeting nowadays.
Constantine was no metaphysician or theologian. As we saw in the beginning, he regarded the dispute as unnecessary and irrelevant. On the other hand, as we know, he had a deep seated conviction that for the well being of the empire this ecclesial division must be brought to an end. What Constantine seems to have wanted was an inclusive formula which all could accept. At a certain point it seems such a formula is reached: the traditional baptismal creed of the Church of Caesarea: [NEW IMAGE]
Among the bishops there were undoubtedly many who followed the line of the emperor and wanted an inclusive formula, but there was also a strong anti-Arian party who were determined to frame a formula which should exclude them. The creed of Caesarea turned out to be unfit for this purpose, because any Arian could accept it.
According to Eusebius it is at this stage that Constantine drops his bombshell. Probably on advice of Hosius of Cordoba he suggested to describe the relation Son and Father expressed by the much disputed word homo-ousios (of one essence) that in other contexts has the smell of heresy. Arians could not accept this term because Arius had condemned it as heretical. A great majority accepted this and the aforementioned Creed of Caesarea is rewritten, [NEW IMAGE] also with the addition that the Son is begotten, not made. The anti-Arian party seems to have exploited it to the full.
Constantine has the formula he wanted and uses all that is within his power to convince the remaining doubters. Even bishops that were sympathetic to Arius' views finally signed. Only two don't and they are excommunicated and, together with Arius condemned to exile.
However after the Council of Nicaea Constantine gradually became more lenient toward those whom the Council had exiled. Ultimately, in 327, he permits Arius and many of his adherents to return to their homes, once Arius had reformulated his Christology. Constantine directed Alexander of Constantinople to receive Arius, despite Alexander's objections. The Arian Schism finally has been healed and the whole Church unanimously accepts the faith of Nicaea. The worshippers of the Supreme Divinity are united. The fate of the Roman Empire is safe. Constantine has fulfilled his obligations as an emperor. [NEW IMAGE]
There is a whole lot more to say about Constantine's relation to Christianity. It is for example quite paradoxically to see a growing influence of Arian-minded bishops on the imperial household. [NEW IMAGE] It is remarkable that Constantine in 337, just before his death, is baptized by bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, one of Arius' strongest defenders, who stood at the beginning of the so called 'Arian' missions to Western Europe. We also could say more about Constantine's influence in history, about the magnificent Churches he ordered to erect, about his wish to be buried in the midst of the holy remains of the twelve apostles, or about the fact that he held long and rather obtrusive sermons to his household, but perhaps it is better to give room for discussion. It would be nice if you could respond to one or two of the following (slightly provocative) statements [NEW IMAGE]
Morsi & Constantine
Egypt: a large country that is ruled by a religious statesman who has the support of a privileged religious group and who -by giving priority to that group- hopes for the support of God. President Morsi is a modern-day and Islamic version of Constantine.
The Creed of Nicaea
Why do we attach so much value to a document that leaves so much room for interpretation and which owes its fundamental role for serving a political goal. Isn't it contaminated?
Orthodox = imperial
To be an orthodox Christian means to be an adherent of imperial Christianity.
Constantine contributed greatly to the catholicity of the Church by transforming Christianity from a loosely connected group of local churches to an imperial and thus universal religion.