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Chapter 4: Constantine, Paganism, and Nicaea

Constantine’s move from paganism to Christianity was not immediate or always consistent. But over the course of several years he increased his support of the Church and implemented laws against certain pagan practices and activities."For a time it seemed as if merely tolerance and equality were to prevail", states The Catholic Encyclopedia, "Constantine showed equal favour to both religious. As pontifex maximus he watched over the heathen worship and protected its rights. The one thing he did was to suppress divination and magic; this the heathen emperors had also at times sought to do. Thus, in 320, the emperor forbade the diviners or haruspices to enter a private house under pain of death."

Some scholars argue that the chasm between the monotheism of Christianity and the cult of Sol Invictus was not as wide as it might initially appear. The cult of Sol Invictus was not polytheistic or even pantheistic, but monotheistic; it was "the worship of the divine spirit by whom the whole universe was ruled, the spirit whose symbol is the sun; a symbol in which this spirit in some way specially manifests itself. . . . The whole cult is penetrated with the idea of an overruling divine monarchy. Moreover, the cult was in harmony with a philosophical religion steadily growing, in the high places of the administration, throughout this same [fourth] century, the cult of Summus Deus–the God who is supreme."

For Constantine–a man without concern for theological precision–there was probably little, if any, distinction between the pagan and Christian notions of God (even though he surely recognized the differences in worship and morality)."The transition from solar monotheism (the most popular form of contemporary paganism) to Christianity was not difficult", writes Henry Chadwick. "In Old Testament prophecy Christ was entitled ‘the sun of righteousness’[Mal. 4:2]. Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 200) speaks of Christ driving his chariot across the sky like a Sun-god. . . . Tertullian says that many pagans imagined the Christians worshiped the sun because they met on Sundays and prayed towards the East."

The Da Vinci Code
implies that Constantine was baptized against his wishes (232). This was not the case. He had desired to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus had been baptized, but it was not to be. Not long after the Easter of 337 he called together some bishops, removed his purple robe, and put on the white garments of a catachumen, then was baptized by Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia. He died a few days later. It was common for Christians at the time to put off baptism until their deathbed. Serious sins committed after baptism would require severe penance, so some considered it safer to wait until the end of life to be baptized. This practice was mentioned by Augustine in his Confessions; as a child he nearly died of illness and his mother considered having him baptized. Augustine writes that once he recovered, however, "my cleansing was deferred, as if it were inevitable that, if I should live, I would be further polluted; and, further, because the guilt contracted by sin after baptism would be still greater and more perilous."18 This approach to baptism would have fit Constantine’s case since he undoubtedly understood that many of his actions were considered grave sins by the Church: "It was common at this time (and continued so until about A.D. 400) to postpone baptism to the end of one’s life, especially if one’s duty as an official included torture and execution of criminals. Part of the reason for postponement lay in the seriousness with which the responsibilities were taken."

Constantine did see Christianity as a unifying force–and he was correct in his assessment that Christianity, not paganism, had the moral core and theological vision to change society for the better. He may not have been a saint, but neither was he simply a political operator without concern for truth and goodness. William Durant, hardly partial to the Catholic Church, writes, "His Christianity, beginning as policy, appears to have graduated into sincere conviction. He became the most persistent preacher in his realm, persecuted heretics faithfully, and took God into partnership at every step. Wiser than Diocletian, he gave new life to an aging Empire by associating it with a young religion, a vigorous organization, a fresh morality." Constantine was not a life-long pagan or a cynical manipulator, as The Da Vinci Code suggests. "[Dan] Brown has turned him into a cartoonish villain", states Dr. Mitchell. "That Constantine the emperor had "political" motives (The Da Vinci Code, p. 234) is hardly news to anyone! The question is how religion and politics (which cannot be separated in the ancient world) were interrelated in him." The "answers" that Brown gives to that question are less than satisfying as we’ll see in his explanation of how Constantine supposedly "created" a "hybrid religion" of paganism and Christianity.