Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas –
Q: Constantine’s reign as Roman emperor (A.D. 306-337) dramatically changed the direction of Christianity, and what we have now is not the Church that Christ established.
Naturally, by making Christianity a kind of official religion, Constantine changed the course of Christianity forever. But the important question is: Did Constantine change the teachings of Christianity? Did he appoint his own leaders? Did he change the Sacraments of the Church?
This is actually a question of Continuity vs. Discontinuity. How do we tell whether the Church has flowed continuously since the apostolic period, or has been destroyed at times and restarted? The answer is found in the sevenfold definition of the Church’s unity in Ephesians 4:4-6: One Body, One Spirit, One Hope, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God the Father.
All Christians agree about One Spirit, One Hope, One Lord, One Father. The differences are in the other three: One Body, One Faith, One Baptism (and other Sacraments).
- The concept of the Body of Christ is explained in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. It consists of people having different roles in the Church – some are like the head, some are like the hands, etc. In other words, Church leaders and Church members. If these change too dramatically (as has happened in history when a person without being chosen by the Church appoints himself Bishop or Pope), then we say that there is discontinuity in the Church. However, it is clear that Constantine did not appoint the Popes or the other Church leaders of his time. Instead, he tried to obey the leaders who were already in charge of the Church, namely the Bishops, the Councils, and the Pope.
It is also true that many people joined the Church (through conversions) during Constantine’s time resulting in a change in Church membership, but that is no different from what happened in the Acts of the Apostles itself. If the addition of 3000 people on Pentecost Day, which changed the Church membership to the point that those who knew Christ personally became a small minority, did not change the nature of Christianity, then by comparison the changes that took place in Constantine’s time were minor and insignificant. By the time he died, around 10% of the Empire had converted to Christianity, which is not an overwhelming number. Importantly, Constantine did not change any of the Church leaders, and hence it is clear that he did not introduce any discontinuity in the Body of the faithful.
- Similarly, the Faith aspect: Did Constantine change the content of the Christian faith? If he had introduced any new books into the Bible, or if he had declared that a particular doctrine was to be changed by his orders, then he would be responsible for having changed the faith. There is no evidence that he introduced any new doctrines or teachings into Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity was defined during Constantine’s time, by the Council of Nicea, but there is no need to suppose that the Emperor’s view carried greater weight than the views of Catholic theologians and bishops who had already studied the issue before assembling at Nicea. Further, when Constantine abandoned the teachings of Nicea and adopted Arianism, insisting on the reinstatement of the heretic called Arius (333-334 AD), there was NO CHANGE in the Church teachings as a result.
So the answer is no, Constantine did NOT have a significant impact on Church doctrine. [The Arians rejected the Catholic understanding of the Trinity and believed instead that the Son had been created by the Father. Constantine seems to have favoured this view in his later years, and it is clear that the Church paid much more attention to its own bishops – such as Athanasius, exiled and persecuted by Constantine – than to the views of the Emperor on this issue].
- Lastly, the Sacraments: Did Constantine make any change in the Sacraments? Again the answer is no. This was not a major issue in his days. All the sacraments of the Church are mentioned even before the time of Constantine. Constantine himself was not baptized into the Catholic Church, but received (Arian) baptism on his deathbed, in 337 AD. Some may say that infant baptism was introduced during Constantine’s time, but the fact is that it was already well documented as an apostolic practice as early as the second century AD.
So the answer is: Yes, Constantine did change the history of the Church, but not to the point that there was sufficient discontinuity to consider it a NEW CHURCH. No, it remained the same Church that Christ established.
Rev. Fr. Adrian Mascarenhas has served as the Assistant Parish Priest of St. Patrick’s Church and Ascension Church, and has completed two years of ministry at St. Peter’s Church, Bangalore, India. He received his licentiate in sacred theology from Dharmaram Vidya Kshethram and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome.