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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

2. The Triumph Of Christianity (27 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church


Conversion of Constantine.

The conversion of the Emperor Constantine resulted in the greatest change that the Church had ever undergone. Its significance was by no means limited to the altered relations between Church and state — the external conditions of Church life. Far more important were the developments in the mind of Christianity itself, the profound internal transformation that took place gradually in the Church community. This process was so complex and many-sided that one must treat with caution the contradictory evaluations of the age of Constantine, indiscriminate condemnation as well as unconditional justification.

In proportion as the struggle between the empire and Christianity was, as we have seen, fated and inevitable, just so, inversely, the peace between them was a matter primarily of a single person, a single will, and a single initiative. No one denies that Constantine played this role, but the evaluations of it have been diametrically opposed. For Eastern Christianity, Constantine still remains the holy initiator of the Christian world, the instrument for the victory of light over darkness that crowned the heroic feats of the martyrs. The West, on the other hand, often regards the era of Constantine as the beginning of an enslavement of the Church by the state, or even as the first falling away on the part of the Church from the height of primitive Christian freedom. It is essential to examine, at least briefly, this long-standing dispute.

In the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church, the conversion of Constantine is compared to that of Paul — “like Paul, he received a call not from men.”[2] But the historian must immediately note the radical distinction between them. What Paul experienced on the road to Damascus was a real and profound crisis, a “transvaluation of all values.” Between the old and the new lay an impenetrable line, which changed everything in the apostle’s life and psychology. This was not true of Constantine.
However, it was not by chance that his conversion occurred at the most critical point in his political and imperial career. It was not a matter of political calculation or “Machiavellianism,” as some historians have asserted; yet neither was it a transformation of personality, as it had been for Paul. The explanation of Constantine’s conversion must be sought in his psychology and religious and political ideology, which alone will furnish clues for an understanding of his place in Christian history.

In Constantine’s time the evolution of the Roman Empire, which began with its first contact with the Hellenistic East, reached completion. It had attained its ultimate territorial limits, which had already under Hadrian begun to shrink and were now to waver, shrink further, or divide, according to the pressure of peoples and personalities in the coming centuries — only to recombine or expand once more, and then again divide or contract.
Politically, the same final development had been attained. The Roman principality had gradually become a theocratic monarchy, the emperor being the connecting link between God and the world, while the state was the earthly reflection of divine law. The cult of the invincible Sun, which Emperor Aurelian had made the imperial religion in the middle of the third century, was by now closely connected with the new religious view of monarchy. The emperor in the world was the same as the sun in heaven; he was a participant in its glorious nature and its representative on earth. The monarch stood apart from simple mortals; he was “consecrated,” and therefore all that surrounded him was consecrated. The religious devotion tendered to him, the imperial liturgy, and the sacred ritual that surrounded his whole life symbolized the divine nature of the state and the heavenly system reflected in the world. This evolution of attitude toward the state corresponded to the religious movement of the Greco-Roman world toward belief in a single God; each inspired the other. The Neoplatonism of Plotinus, the swan song of Greek philosophy, the Eastern cults and hermetic scriptures — all the main spiritual and intellectual currents of the period proclaimed one source, one supreme God in heaven.

Constantine was a typical representative of this new religious state of mind. According to his first Christian biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea, his father had already “dedicated to the One God his children, his wife, his servants, and his whole palace.” Constantine grew up in the atmosphere of this exalted heavenly religion, purged of coarse paganism. He had always had mystical interests, a faith in dreams, visions, and illuminations. He firmly believed in his election, and his whole political career was marked by his personal contacts with heaven. Such a state of mind does not wholly explain his conversion to Christianity, but it helps us to understand better how Constantine himself received Christianity and how he became the representative of a new approach to the Church and its faith.


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