Constantine and the Dialogue of Religions (c. 300-c. 340 A.D.)

What of Constantine’s own religion? Even those who make him a fanatic for orthodoxy sometimes doubt his theological intelligence. He is also represented as a crypto-pagan, a temporising hypocrite or simply a man who is swimming further and further out of his depth.

See Also: Religions of the Constantinian Empire (Oxford University Press, 2016).

By Mark Edwards
Professor of Early Christian Studies
University of Oxford
Tutor in Theology at Christ Church
Oxford, United Kingdom
January 2016

I have been invited to contribute some thoughts to Bible and Interpretation, which were suggested to me in the course of writing my recent book Religions of the Constantinian Empire. The book itself was partly inspired by a chapter that I wrote for another volume, on religions in the age of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.). The age of Marcus is interesting because it saw the first exchange of literary polemics between Christians and philosophers, along with a sudden increase in in dedications to Mithras and a number of innovatory speculations in pagan theology, especially that of the Platonists. The Constantinian era is of equal or greater interest because it coincides with a falling off in the evidence for a number of “ethnic cults”, including Mithraism, and a growth in religious literature of the kind that we call esoteric; it is also marked, of course, by a shift of political favour to the church, an unprecedented profusion of Christian writing and the temporary silence of their pagan adversaries. Nevertheless, it struck me, after some years of writing on Neoplatonism, Constantine, the debates which surrounded the Council of Nicaea and the esoteric literature of the same period, that it was very rare for anyone to treat even one of these subjects in conjunction with the others. Iamblichus, for example, was seldom considered as a representative thinker of the epoch from 285-325 A.D., Constantine was seldom given any credit as a theologian, the study of the Christian apologists rarely impinged on histories of the “development of doctrine”, Gnosticism attracted interest only as a phenomenon of the post-apostolic era, and it was possible to write comprehensive studies of Christian teaching in the first decades of the third century without showing the slightest acquaintance with Juvencus, Zosimus, Firmicus Maternus or Chalcidius. Fine works have appeared on the end of pagan sacrifice and on the sacrificial character of the Eucharist in the fourth century, but I know of no book that brings both topics within the same discussion.

Now of course we can’t assume that just because two phenomena are contemporary there must be some causal relation between them; it might be dangerous even to assume that there must be some common intellectual or political background which accounts for both, unless it is so vaguely defined that it might account for anything. But to take the case of sacrifice, we can hardly think it an accident that language of priesthood and sacrifice becomes much more pervasive in Christian expositions of the Eucharist in the period when rival forms of sacrifice and priesthood are disappearing. It was always part of Eucharistic teaching to explain how this rite differed from the Passover, and one of the most enduring measures of Constantine was to fix the Easter calendar in such a way as to preclude the assimilation of the two festivals. Most Christians of the fourth century were more familiar with pagan than with Jewish religious practice, and pagan sacrifice was strongly linked in their minds with idolatry, the worship of false gods under human forms which proved that they were either dead men of demonic counterfeits. The vehemence with which Christian apologists denounced the civic religion in the years preceding Constantine’s accession to the eastern throne in 324 must obviously have been a bar to the use of sacrificial terms with regard to ecclesiastical ceremonies. Between 300 and 325 the case against false cults was urged with unprecedented vigour and erudition by at least three writers, Lactantius, Arnobius and Eusbeius of Caesarea; the latter also wrote a long dissertation on the Eucharist, which explains how it supersedes the Jewish Passover and stops short of affirming that it is the church’s equivalent to sacrifice. The best way to understand Christian thought of this epoch in its fullness is to acquaint oneself with the copious oeuvre of this remarkable author, who is too often treated either as a historian or as a theologian or as an apologist or as an exegete, when in fact he is nearly always all four in one.

Christianity and Platonism

The great bugbear of Eusebius was Porphyry (c. 232-c. 305), a Neoplatonic philosopher, just as versatile as Eusebius himself, but remembered by Christians chiefly for his trenchant attacks on the gospels and the Old Testament. According to Christian reports he was a child of the church before he became its enemy; whether this is true or not, he seems to have presented his Platonism in a way that would be more enticing to Christians than the austerely philosophical writings of his master Plotinus (204-270). He spoke of the highest principle, for example, as “god over all”, a phrase borrowed from his older contemporary, the Christian Origen; from Origen again he took the formula “three hypostases”, which he applies to the ontology of the divine realm in Plotinus without clear warrant in his master’s own vocabulary. It has been observed that he may have borrowed some ideas from the Gnostics, a group attacked by Plotinus whom Porphyry himself describes as “heretical” Christians; he even came up with a list of cardinal virtues (faith, hope, love, truth) which was anticipated in the Gnostic (or more properly, Valentinian) Gospel of Philip. A great deal has been written about the influence of pagan ideas on Christian thought, but much less about the influence of Christianity on the Greek philosophers. From what I have said, we see that this was quite possibly occurring even before the accession of Constantine, and cannot therefore be attributed only to the use of imperial force to secure the triumph of Christianity.

An even more striking example of this exposure of Greek philosophy to Christian influences can be detected, if I am right, in the work of Iamblichus, Porphyry’s pupil, who never refers to Christianity by name in his extant works, although he does once mention the Gnostics. Iamblichus was both an assiduous commentator on Plato and an exponent of the Pythagorean tradition; in fact his work On the Pythagorean Life is one of the principal sources for our knowledge of ancient biographical literature on Pythagoras. Again and again in this text, however, we come across phrases and episodes which remind us of the gospels, above all of the gospel of John. There is no reason to doubt that Iamblichus would have known this text, as another Platonist, Amelius, is said to have written a commentary on the prologue. If he does allude to it, and expects his readers to notice this, he is not of course commending Christianity to them but representing Pythagoreanism as a superior alternative, perhaps with the innuendo that the gospels themselves have simply plagiarised the Greek tradition. On the Christian side, Iamblichus; biography of Pythagoras was quickly followed by lives of the two great pioneers of monasticism, Antony and Pachomius, both of whom were active during the life of Constantine. There may be deliberate echoes of Iamblichus in the Life of Antony, commonly ascribed to Athanasius; again it is not a simple case of borrowing but of purposeful emulation, with the aim of showing that Christians can achieve by the power of Christ the perfection that pagans are only groping for by the light of human reason.

Purity and hybridity

Once we grasp that such echoes generally have a theological purpose, we shall be wary of the modern for seeing hybridity everywhere – for denying, that is, that any religious phenomenon of the fourth century was rigidly demarcated from the others. Porphyry, whatever he learned from the Christians, drew a sharp line between the church and the “lawful” practice of philosophy. So did Origen in his long defence of Christianity called Against Celsus, the only work in which he makes frequent reference to Plato. Anyone who calls Origen a Christian Platonist is contradicting his own presentation of Christianity as a philosophy of divine origin, superior to Platonism as to every other. That’s not to deny – he says so himself – that he borrows terms and concepts from all philosophies (not just Platonism) to elucidate the scriptures, which are the only source of knowledge concerning God. He will also go further than this, expressing what he takes to be the doctrine of the Bible or the church in a philosophic form in order that, by speaking to the philosophers on their own terms, he can make it clear where they and the Christians differ. Much the same is true of the great theologians of the Constantinian era, Eusebius and Athanasius: they adopt the philosophical tongue in order to argue with the philosophers, not in order to join them. Of course it is always possible to make the most systematic Christian thinking look like Platonism, Stoicism or even Cynicism by assembling dossiers of “parallels” which have been plucked out of their original contexts like the colour-plates from an old Bible; this method is by no means novel, not is the disrepute into which it has fallen among professional historians of ideas.

And yet the Constantinian era shows us that hybridity did occur, and even in authors who possessed a deep knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology. One of the first surviving commentaries on the Timaeus, a dialogue in which Plato described the creation of the cosmos, was written by an otherwise unknown author named Chalcidius, who dedicated his work to a certain Hosius, often identified with the bishop of Cordova who acted as Constantine’s confessor. Chalcdius quotes both Origen and the Hebrew scriptures, using the pronoun “we” in a way that appears to mean “we Christians”, or at least “we who believe the scriptures”. At the same time he believes in transmigration, the passage of human souls into animal bodies after death, and he accepts the Platonic view that the world is governed not directly by God himself but by a world-soul. That is Christian Platonism: the existence of Chalcidius is the strongest argument against giving this label to Origen, who never follows Plato when he contradicts ecclesiastical teaching. Again, there was an alchemist named Zosimus, one of the revered masters of the art in later times, who evidently regarded himself as a Christian and seems to consider the vision of the Son of God as one of the goals of his labour. At the same time, he is quite happy to cite Zoroaster (not the real one) or an Egyptian sage called Hermes Trismegistus as authorities, along with a certain “Nicodemus, the hidden one”, who also appears in Gnostic literature (see next paragraph). Finally, we can cite the case of Firmicus Maternus, an astrologer in the closing years of Constantine’s reign and a violent lobbyist for imperial measures again the pagan cults in the early years of Constantine’s sons Constantius and Constans. He may have changed his religion, but for all we know he held the same religion throughout his life, seeing no incompatibility between Christian belief and his own theistic brand of astral fatalism.

The Gnostics whom I have mentioned were aberrant Christians - aberrant at least in the eyes of the bishops who defined the nascent orthodoxy of the second century – who taught (among other things) that the creator of the world was a lesser deity who was not the father of Christ. Although they tend to be thought of as a second-century phenomenon, the manuscripts from which we learn most about them, the Nag Hammadi Codices, were produced by scribes of the mid-fourth century (maybe a generation after Constantine’s death) and may have been housed in the Pachomian monasteries, which were celebrated for their championship of orthodoxy. We can hardly accuse the monks of syncretism, a calculated amalgamation of Christianity with tis pagan rivals, but it is possible that they were willing to experiment with ideas that lay outside the Bible, so long as these ideas did not clash with the biblical presuppositions. We give the name Hermetic to a body of philosophic texts, Platonic and Stoic in inspiration, which have some affinities with Gnosticism. While these texts are not Christian, almost all the authors who quote them are Christian, and it is likely that we should never have heard of Hermes Trismegistus, the putative author, if Christianity had not triumphed. The same may be true of the Manichaeans, a sect who arose in Persia in the 240s, flourished for a while and then were driven out of one empire into another by vigorous persecution. Having entered the Roman Empire, they were persecuted with equal savagery by Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian, who ordered that they be burned along with their books. By contrast, the Manichaeans suffered little but ridicule from Christianity under Constantine, and they survived robustly as a Christian heresy up to the end of the Roman Empire in the west. One reason may be that they formed ascetic communities at a time when the earliest Christian communities were growing up under the leadership of Antony and Pachomius. Pagans had few, if any organizations of this kind: even if they did not inspire the Christian movement, the similarity must have made it easier for the Manichaeans to pass as Christians.

Thus it certainly cannot be maintained that Constantine’s adoption of Christianity inevitably led to the decay of all forms of religion which were at variance with his own faith. We can’t deny that evidence for the “ethnic religions” declines in his reign, but Mithraism at least had been declining for some time since its heyday in the third century. On the other hand, the advent of a Christian emperor may have helped to rejuvenate Latin literature, which seems to have been displaying little power of innovation in this period. A Christian poet, Juvencus, undertook to write a harmony of the gospels in four books of hexameter verse, the metre that had been used by Virgil three centuries earlier to praise Augustus, the first and greatest of the emperors. Had Constantine been a pagan, the chances are that Juvencus would have employed his talents on some moribund eulogy of his triumphs, which would have passed into oblivion like the work of so many panegyrists before him. As it, Juvencus shows great dexterity in turning the pagan commonplaces to a Christian purpose, and, while he is not a great poet himself, the Christian verse inspired by his example often exhibits a freshness and vivacity that we seek in vain in the Greek poets of the era.

The role of Constantine

There is, of course another side to the story, a calculated normalisation of Christian belief under Constantine’s auspices, most notably at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Some blame Constantine himself for the shaping of a rigid orthodoxy and even for the canonisation of scripture. Yet he doesn’t seem to be guilty of the latter process at least, for the canon had all but been established by consensus before his accession, and what hadn’t been defined by then continued to be debated long after his death. The concept of orthodoxy was not his invention either, to judge by the Origenist controversy which preceded the Nicene Council by a quarter of a century. All parties to this debate agreed on certain tenets which excluded (for example) the salient teachings of the Gnostics, yet no imperial power can have had any role in effecting this consensus. The decisions of Nicaea suggest a partial modification of the principles which had satisfied both the friends and the censors of Origen, but we must not overestimate the novelty of the council’s resolutions. Many beliefs which we now regard as unorthodox (e.g. the subordination of God the Son to God the Father, or the denial that the Holy Spirit is God) are in fact permitted by the wording of the Nicene creed of 325, and the adoption of the new term homoousios (“consubstantial”) to characterize the Son’s relation to the Father did not put a stop to debate but generated half a century of subtle controversy. For Constantine himself the most important achievement of the Council was to settle the date of Easter: that is a matter of practical policy, which no ruler of an empire can afford to ignore if he wants his subjects to live at peace.

What of Constantine’s own religion? Even those who make him a fanatic for orthodoxy sometimes doubt his theological intelligence. He is also represented as a crypto-pagan, a temporising hypocrite or simply a man who is swimming further and further out of his depth. His conversion may seem to be well-authenticated, but the classic accounts of it are irreconcilable, or at least they can be reconciled only by missing out the most important details of each rendition. He exhibits a quite immoderate hatred of pagan rites in some of his edicts and letters, and even expresses a hope for the universal victory of the Christian faith; his Christian admirers (Eusebius, Optatus, Theodoret) credit him with the total abolition of public sacrifice. Yet no such decree is preserved in the Roman law-codes, and the pagan author Libanius (who wrote early enough to know what he was talking about) expressly says that sacrifice was abolished not by Constantine, but by his heir Constantius, whose legislation does in fact survive. Moreover, Constantine did not deprive the pagan priesthoods of their fiscal privileges, he did not renounce the pagan title Pontifex Maximus and he allowed himself to be portrayed on coins with the solar imagery that had hitherto graced the heads of pagan emperors. He suppressed some cults but seems to have given legal and financial support to others; his Oration to the Saints reveals a firm grasp of Christian orthodoxy as it was understood in the Latin west, but tells the pagans that they are permitted to perform their unholy rites. Perhaps these inconsistencies will be more tractable if we remember that it is the duty of an emperor to govern all his subjects – to be, as Constantine said of himself, the “bishop of those without”. To exasperate the pagan majority would have been political suicide, and perhaps it would not have been good theology either. There is after all a good Christian case to be made against religious coercion, even where it might be efficacious; it was made, for example, by Augustine and Luther. Constantine, where he was tolerant, may have been tolerant partly for pragmatic reasons and partly on principle. This is not ignorance, syncretism or accretion; if we want a theological word, we may call it economy.

In sum, then, the reign of Constantine was neither uniformly propitious nor uniformly hostile to diversity in religion. Old narratives which extol him as the champion of an invincible orthodoxy have given way to new ones in which he is not the hero but the villain of the same process; neither kind, however, fits all the facts. The Emperor had strong opinions, but enforced them with a statesmanlike circumspection; in one instance, that of the Manicheans, we find him less severe than his pagan predecessor. The formulation of orthodoxy was certainly a matter of great concern for the bishops; the formulae changed, however, and even the Nicene Creed left many things open that were sealed by later amendments. Some phenomena that we cannot call Christian appear to owe their survival to the triumph of Christianity: it was possible for an intelligent man to combine his profession of faith with astrology or alchemy, while orthodox monks may have imitated the Manicheans or fingered Gnostic texts. Platonism did not die but evolved under the pressure of Christianity; Christians, on the other hand, could embrace Platonic doctrines that were not licensed by the church. Despite the presence of a few clear heads, whose forensic reasonings dominate the extant literature, religion in the age of Constantine is rather a muddle. That means that it doesn’t lend itself to schematic analysis, but not that we cannot hope to make any sense of it, so long as we see that this was an epoch strangely (or, one might think, not so strangely) like our own.

Comments (4)

A couple of questions, partly about definitions.
Does the label 'Gnostic' apply to anyone who self-identifies as a Christian and believes in the creation (or government?) of the world by a secondary deity and in a few other things, which need not be specified perhaps beyond a sense of mystical speculation? At that rate Chalcidius, as you present him, might qualify as a Gnostic. It's interesting that you consider the speculations of some Pachomian monks to be Gnostic yet not to conflict with the Bible.
Might we need a separate term - 'ultragnostic'? - for one who takes the further step of saying that the secondary deity is or has become a cosmic bad guy: one way of coping with the problem of evil, of course?
By 'Platonist' do we mean someone who agrees with Plato at some important points, someone who is truth following Plato's arguments or someone who is following Plato and says that that is what (s)he is doing (like Iris Murdoch)? I think that people have applied the C-P label,to Origen on the strength of the first style of definition, particularly thinking of his belief in the pre-existent soul. I take you to be thinking of a definition in the third style - Ori could never profess himself persuaded by Plato or by any nisi scriptura sola authority. Framing the question under the second definition might be of some use - are there occasions when Christian thinkers are following trains of thought which are, but which they may not admit, are independent of their faith? And conversely, are pagans following arguments suggested by Christians without attribution? Was Iamblichus persuaded by specifically Christian ideas of virtue and self-discipline or was he just attributing to pagan heroes ideas which were accepted on both sides?
Of what points could Christians hope to persuade others who would not be moved sola scriptura? This is a very important contemporary question, I think.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 02/01/2016 - 16:30

The gospel of Mark speaks against the interpretation of Jesus as one member of the trinity. The prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, like the cry of dereliction from the cross, both show Jesus crying out to an Other: to God. It would be absurd to argue that in these cases Jesus was calling out to himself.

#2 - John MacDonald - 02/01/2016 - 19:40

The cry of dereliction from the cross also shows Mark's Jesus did not think he would be resurrected on the third because it makes no sense for Jesus to make the cry of dereliction if he is anticipating that he will be resurrected a few days later.

#3 - John MacDonald - 02/01/2016 - 21:22

I was using Gnostic in its broad (modern) sense, though the usage is more refined in the book.Most ancient witnesses would agree with Porphyry that a Gnostic is a Christian who holds that "the maker of the world is lacking in goodness". Chalcidius doesn't believe this; even Platonists who posit an evil world soul don't go so far as to posit an evil creator, though there is surely some relation between the Platonic (or Philonic) world soul and Gnostic Sophia.

In the ancient world, philosophic allegiance is indicated by declared membership of a school; if the selective adoption of someone's ideas were enough to define one's philosophy, Plotinus would be an Aristotelian, Cicero would be a Stoic, Seneca would be an Epicurean and Aristotle himself would be a Platonist. Origen taught a range of standard philosophies but did not bind himself to any.

#4 - Mark Edwards - 02/05/2016 - 22:48

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