How Christians should perceive the early 4th-century Roman emperor, Constantine—his role and legacy, whether harmful or beneficial—is a vexing question, one that has admittedly caused for me, as an Orthodox Christian and historian of Christianity, much disillusionment.
Despite my Orthodoxy, speaking as a semi-Yoderian / Hauerwasian (though “recovering” to a large degree) who spends his life trying to be historically responsible and nuanced, we have to first remember that perfection isn’t the criterion of Sainthood; if this were the case, we’d have no Saints. While many Saints are recognized as such because they exhibited genuinely imitable piety and humility, often one of the faithful is recognized as a Saint simply because of one standout accomplishment or extraordinary act. All their faults and destructive behaviour—whether Constantine’s or another Saint’s—should be and certainly are acknowledged and condemned by the Orthodox Church despite their Sainthood. These acts ought not to be sanitized, trivialized, or euphemistically labeled as mere “flaws”: many of the acts that Constantine carried out in his own lifetime and the usurpation of the standards of the kingdom of God (poverty and peacemaking) in favour of the priorities of the state (wealth-building and security through violence) were horrific and have had downright destructive, seemingly irrevocable consequences.
I personally know Orthodox monks who would not consider Constantine a Saint, which is our prerogative too; often we place too much emphasis on what’s “official,” the propriety of public designations within Orthodoxy that gloss over the very real and horrific—even if historically contextual—actions that Constantine (as with other Saints) sanctioned in his own lifetime. Orthodox Christians love to rail against Arius—oddly reciting with glee that St. Nicholas of Myra punched him in the ear at the Council of Nicea (an act he was ashamed of and for which he later asked forgiveness despite our whimsical celebration of it)—but somehow our veneration of Constantine isn’t tempered by the fact that he was baptized on his deathbed (!) by Eusebius of Nicomedia—the bishop who read the opening statement of the Nicene Council in defense of Arius and one of only two bishops present to possibly refuse to sign the final Creed. What this says about the orthodoxy of Constantine—during whose reign Arianism wasn’t entirely abandoned and whose son, Constantius II, embraced Arianism—will likely never be adequately resolved.
Even still, it is essential that we adopt a historical maturity and sensitivity to the age, a sincere ability to put ourselves in certain past situations, to truly “enter into” history—apart from today’s technology, “20/20” hindsight (at least to us, while a future generation will no doubt condemn us with their 20/20 hindsight, and so it goes…), modern cultural and moral sensitivities, convenience of the information age, the fact that we have the luxury of volumes exposing the life of Constantine that we don’t have of some today whom we still nevertheless respect—by acknowledging what it was like for Christians before Constantine and after Constantine. When all Christian bishops can gather in one place for the first time after centuries of brutal persecution to labour on behalf of theological uniformity, and they kiss each other’s wounds where ears were sliced off and limbs were severed, the one responsible for such a dramatic reversal might reasonably elicit our gratitude and acknowledgement; to do otherwise, stems—in my view—from a subconscious (i.e., often unintentional) privileged elitism. There were too many positive changes that went along with this shift to get into here, but suffice it to say, he is “Equal-to-the-Apostles” not because of his piety (which was lacking, to say the least) but because of his major role in the Christianization of large swaths of humanity (i.e., much like the vocation of an Apostle—despite their own faults too, even the denial of Christ, in-fighting, etc.). Nothing more, nothing less.
But the bottom line is this: whether one condemns or adores (or is non-committal toward) Constantine usually depends on the target of one’s attention; if we look for the speck in others’ eyes, we will fail to recognize that Constantine’s plank is my plank. As we pray before ingesting the Holy Gifts, “…You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” If I truly believe this, I should reasonably expect someone to write a book called, “Defending Andrew.” My criticisms of Constantine in the paragraphs above reflect what I also need to repent of and change; I have been angry with my brother as well, an internal impulse without which murder would not be possible, as Christ teaches us (Mt. 5:21–22). As I’ve said many times before, Constantine didn’t just live 1,700 years ago; I am Constantine too.