TW Viewpoint | Constantine and Christianity

January 2, 2019 | Jonathan Riley

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The story of early Christianity is a story of struggle, persecution and martyrdom, often at the hands of the ruling government. Yet, less than 300 years after the founding of the Church, Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the most powerful empire the world had ever known. Who was Constantine and why did he claim to be a Christian?

At the dawn of the fourth century Constantine began his ascent in both power and prestige. He was proclaimed Emperor in AD 306. By AD 324 he had solidified control over the entire Roman Empire and in the following year he called the First Council of Nicaea.

This council formally established a number of doctrinal changes that had been adopted in practise over the previous two centuries. The nature of God and the celebration of Easter were two key items on the agenda. It was Constantine's prior signing of the Edict of Milan that eventually brought peace after more than two centuries of religious persecution. To understand the scope of this change in philosophy, we must first look back to the beginning in the first century.

The persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire started under the rule of Emperor Nero. More than two hundred years later, by the end of the third century, rank persecution of Christians had become commonplace throughout the empire. Christians who refused to recant their faith and worship both the emperor and Roman pagan gods were tortured and killed. In the mid-third century, under the rule of Decius, an edict was issued that forced those claiming to be Christians to either worship Roman gods or face execution. Decius's religious campaign was intended to restore the empire to its former glory by uniting everyone under their ancestral religion.

How then did Roman society's opinion of Christianity change so significantly to culminate in Constantine adopting the religion? The answer to this lies in the vast changes that took place in Christian practises between the first and fourth century. Overtime the leaders of the church began accepting or at least tolerating new doctrine. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria left a vast body of work that, according to Justo L. Gonzalez in Volume I of The Story of Christianity, "Clement uses the [Greek doctrine of Logos] to call Christians to be open to truth in philosophy."

The second century Bishop of Rome, later known as Pope Victor I, is well known for the 'Quartodeciman Controversy' where he pushed for the excommunication of Christians who kept Passover as opposed to the adopted pagan fertility festival held on Sunday, later known as Easter. Victor sent out a letter to be distributed among all the Christian churches where he warned that "...the Lord's resurrection from the dead should be celebrated on no other day than on Sunday..." In response to this instruction, Polycrates the bishop of Smyrna, wrote that he kept the Passover "...on the fourteenth of the month according to the Gospel, without deviating from, but following the rule of faith. ...threats do not frighten me; for greater ones than I have said: God must be obeyed rather than men."

Tertullian of Carthage was an early Christian author around the turn of the third century. He was influenced by Stoic philosophy and it was his writings on the concept of God being a trinity "that eventually became the hallmark of orthodoxy."

The Christian faith underwent a dramatic transformation adopting pagan practises and symbolism, such as that of the ancient Egyptian symbol of life which was used to picture the cross. The religion had changed so much that by the time Constantine ordered his soldiers to use this symbol on their shield on the eve of battle of Milvian Bridge in AD 312, Christianity had become fully immersed in pagan practises and traditions.

Having been raised as a pagan devotee of the Unconquered Sun, Constantine's adoption of the transformed Christian faith effectively blended his ancestral pagan religion with what Christianity had become. "Constantine seems to have thought that the Unconquered Sun and the Christian God were compatible-perhaps two views of the same Supreme Deity."

On March 7th 321 AD Constantine declared that "On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed." Sunday worship, as opposed to Sabbath day observance was later canonised by the Council of Laodicea in AD 363.

It was Constantine who gave the stamp of approval for all the transformation that took place between the first and fourth centuries. Unlike Decius who sought to unite the empire under paganism, Constantine managed to unite the empire under the guise of Christianity. He effectively set the stage for all the faux Christian practises you see emanating from Rome today. Dr. William Durant wrote in volume three of The Story of Civilisation, "Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. ...From Egypt came the ideas of a divine trinity...personal immortality of reward and punishment...the adoration of Mother and Child...Christianity was the last great creation of the ancient pagan world..."

If you have ever wondered why the Catholic church and the Protestant offshoots observe religious events and practises that are not found in the Bible, then you only need to look to Constantine and the steady adoption of pagan idolatry to find the source.

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