While the emperor Constantine (ca. 285-337) is often lauded for granting Christians freedom of worship and expanding their privileges, his story fills a dark page in the history of Christianity. Church buildings began with him." The story is astonishing.
By the time Constantine emerged on the scene, the atmosphere was ripe for Christians to escape their despised, minority status. The temptation to be accepted was just too great to resist, and Constantine's influence began in earnest.
In AD 312, Constantine became caesar of the Western Empire." By 324, he became emperor of the entire Roman Empire. Shortly afterward, he began ordering the construction of church buildings. He did so to promote the popularity and acceptance of Christianity. If the Christians had their own sacred buildings—as did the Jews and the pagans—their faith would be regarded as legitimate.
It is important to understand Constantine's mind-set—for it explains why he was so enthusiastic about the establishment of church buildings. Constantine's thinking was dominated by superstition and pagan magic. Even after he became emperor, he allowed the old pagan institutions to remain as they were."
Following his conversion to Christianity, Constantine never abandoned sun worship. He kept the sun on his coins. And he set up a statue of the sun god that bore his own image in the Forum of Constantinople (his new capital). Constantine also built a statue of the mother-goddess Cybele (though he presented her in a posture
Illion T. Jones, A Historical Approach to Evangelical Worship (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), 103; Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:542. Schaff's opening words are telling: "After Christianity was acknowledged by the state and empowered to hold property, it raised houses of worship in all parts of the Roman Empire. There was probably more building of this kind in the fourth century than there has been in any period, excepting perhaps the nineteenth century in the United States." Norrington points out that as the bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries grew in wealth, they funneled it into elaborate church building programs (To Preach or Not, 29). Ferguson writes, "Not until the Constantinian age do we find specially constructed buildings, at first simple halls and then the Constantinian basilicas." Before Constantine, all structures used for church gatherings were "houses or commercial buildings modified for church use" (Early Christians Speak, 74).
That year Constantine defeated the western emperor Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine claimed that on the eve of the battle. he saw a sign of the cross in the heavens and was converted to Christ (Connolly, Indestructible Book, 39-40). This included the temples, priestly offices, college of pontiffs, vestal virgins, and the title (reserved for himself) Pontifex Maximus. See Louis Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church (London: John Murray, 19(2), 49-50; M. A. Smith, From Christ to Constantine (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 172.
of Christian prayer)." Historians continue to debate whether or not Constantine was a genuine Christian. The fact that he is reported to have had his eldest son, his nephew, and his brother-in-law executed does not strengthen the case for his conversion." But we will not probe that nerve too deeply here.
In AD 321, Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of rest—a legal holiday." It appears that Constantine's intention in doing this was to honor the god Mithras, the Unconquered Sun.' (He described Sunday as "the day of the sun.") Further demonstrating Constantine's affinity with sun worship, excavations of St. Peter's in Rome uncovered a mosaic of Christ as the Unconquered Sun."
Almost to his dying day, Constantine "still functioned as the high priest of paganism."" In fact, he retained the pagan title Pontifex Maximus, which means chief of the pagan priests!' (In the fifteenth century, this same title became the honorific title for the Roman Catholic pope.)"
When Constantine dedicated Constantinople as his new capital on May 11, 330, he adorned it with treasures taken from heathen temples." And he used pagan magic formulas to protect crops and heal diseases. 60
Further, all historical evidence indicates that Constantine was an egomaniac. When he built the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople, he included monuments to the twelve apostles. The twelve monuments surrounded a single tomb, which lay at the center. That tomb was reserved for Constantine himself—thus making himself the thirteenth and chief apostle. Thus Constantine not only continued
Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), 68.
He is also charged with the death of his second wife, though some historians believe this is a false rumor. Taylor, Christians and Holy Places, 297; Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 3:16-17; Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100-400 (London: Yale University Press, 1984), 44-58.
Kim Tan, Lost Heritage: The Heroic Story of Radical Christianity (Godalming, UK: Highland Books, 1996), 84. Constantine seems to have thought that the Unconquered Sun (a pagan god) and Christ were somehow compatible. Justs L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1999),1:122-123. Hinson, "Worshiping Like Pagans?" 20; Jungmann, Early Liturgy, 136. 1 Gonzalez, Story of Christianity, 123.
Fox, Pagans and Christians, 666; Durant, Caesar and Christ, 63, 656. ^ Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1307.
Robert M. Grant, Early Christianity and Society (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977), 155. Durant, Caesar and Christ, 656.
the pagan practice of honoring the dead, he also sought to be included as one of the significant dead.'
Constantine also strengthened the pagan notion of the sacredness of objects and places." Largely due to his influence, relic mongering became common in the church." By the fourth century, obsession with relics got so bad that some Christian leaders spoke out against it, calling it "a heathen observance introduced in the churches under the cloak of religion . . . the work of idolaters.""
Constantine is also noted for bringing to the Christian faith the idea of the holy site, which was based on the model of the pagan shrine. Because of the aura of "sacredness" that the fourth-century Christians attached to Palestine, it had become known as "the Holy Land" by the sixth century."
After Constantine's death, he was declared to be "divine." (This was the custom for all pagan emperors who died before him.)" It was the senate who declared him to be a pagan god at his death." And no one stopped them from doing so.
At this point, a word should be said about Constantine's mother, Helena. This woman was most noted for her obsession with relics. In AD 326, Helena made a pilgrimage to Palestine." In AD 327 in Jerusalem, she reportedly found the cross and nails that were used to crucify Jesus.' It is reported that Constantine promoted the idea that the bits of wood that came from Christ's cross possessed spiritual powers." Truly,
Johnson, History of Christianity 69; Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, 69. In the Eastern Church, Constantine is actually named the thirteenth apostle and is venerated as a saint (Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 405; Taylor, Christians Holy Places. 303, 316; Snyder, Ante Pacem. 93). " Taylor, Christians and the Holy Places, 308; Davies, Secular Use of Church Buildings, 222-237.
The notion that relics had magical power cannot be credited to the Jews, for they believed that any contact with a dead body was a pollution. This idea was completely pagan (Boggs, Christian Saga, 210). Johnson, History of Christianity 106. This is a quote from Vigilantius. Taylor, Christians and Holy Places, 317,339-341. Boggs, Christian Saga, 202. " Gonzalez, Story of Christianity. 123.
Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1379. Helena made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land immediately following the execution of Constantine's son and the "suicide" of his wife (Fox, Pagans and Christians, 670-671, 674). Oscar Hardman, A History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1937). Helena gave Constantine two of these nails: one for his diadem and the other for his horse's bit (Johnson, History of Christianity, 106; Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, 64-65). "The cross was said to have miraculous powers, and pieces of wood claiming to come from it were found all over the Empire" (Gonzalez, Story of Christianity 126). The legend of Helena's discovery of the cross originated in Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century and rapidly spread over the entire Empire. Taylor, Christians and Holy Places, 308; Boggs, Christian Saga, 206-207.
a pagan magical mind was at work in Emperor Constantine—the father of the church building.
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