How we got from kingdom to Trinity: Constantine and pagan monotheism

Seventeen hundred years after the conversion of the Roman Empire, with European Christendom and its offshoots rapidly becoming things of the past, the common opinion—not least among Christians—is no doubt that the whole thing was a massive mistake. I take the somewhat contrary (with the stress on either the first or the second syllable, take your pick) view that the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world was exactly what the early church had in mind as it spread beyond Judea and Samaria.

But I can’t say I have given a great deal of thought to how the fulfilment of this objective might best be conceived. As a matter of New Testament interpretation, it doesn’t matter too much. The task is to point out those features of the vision that indicate a realistic, historical outcome rather than a final and transcendent outcome—not to read history back into prophecy.

Still, the more we read the New Testament historically, the more acutely we feel the disjunction between the prophetic-apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the rationalisation of his relation to the Father that became Trinitarian orthodoxy. Or so it seems to me.

I’m not likely to get very far down this road, but I have just finished reading Kegan Chandler’s quite short and very readable book Constantine and the Divine Mind: The Imperial Quest for Primitive Monotheism (2019), and I am left thinking that he may have identified an important element in the process by which the early church got from the proclamation of the coming kingdom of God to the postulations of the Nicene Creed. Correct me if I’m wrong.

According to Chandler’s account, Constantine was driven by a more fundamental theological ambition than the conversion of the empire to Christianity. There were two parts to his self-understanding: first, he was a devout “pagan monotheist” and remained in certain respects a pagan monotheist even after his turn towards the Christian God in 312; secondly, he believed that he had been entrusted by the supreme god with the task of recovering a primordial monotheism after centuries of religious decline.

Pagan monotheism

Some form of pagan monotheism can be traced back at least to Plato, though in more abstract and universal terms than the exclusive covenantal monotheism of the Jews. I suppose we could say that pagan monotheists believed in one god who created and sustained all things, not in one god who created and sustained all things and then entered into a long term, committed, tumultuous, and near disastrous relationship with a single people group. In scripture the divine response to the “fall” of human civilisation and the turn to empire building—Babel—was to bring into existence a new creation in microcosm, in the land, which would sustain a dedicated priestly people in the midst of the pagan nations.

It appears that the overarching aim of Constantine as a pagan monotheist was not so different from Paul’s as an apostle of the God of Israel.

The monotheism espoused by Constantine combined cult worship of the sun god Sol Invictus and a more rationalist component that drew on both Platonism and the notion of the Divine Mind or Nous found in Stoicism and Hermeticism. Chandler even thinks that the key term homoousios (“of the same substance”) was introduced into the deliberations at Nicaea by Constantine and that he had found the term in Hermeticism.

In fact, it rather looks as though Constantine provided—or at least represented—the crucial intellectual matrix for the Nicene resolution of the contradiction between the Jewish-Christian apocalyptic account of the preeminence of Jesus and an essential monotheism:

eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

But I’m not really in a position to judge.

Making monotheism great again

Pagan monotheism came with its own meta-narrative. Constantine shared the quite commonly held belief that humanity had departed from an original “aniconic” monotheism, that idolatry and polytheism were degenerate forms of religion, and that monotheism would finally be restored.

The view can be found among Roman writes such as Varro, Plutarch, Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero; but—as I argued in my books on Romans and on same-sex relationships—the idea is also presented, with some modification, in Romans 1:18-32. Paul’s contention here is not that humanity in the persons of Adam and Eve sinned and fell into a universal religious and moral disorder; it is that the Greeks should have perceived something of the reality and glory of the one creator God in the natural world but chose instead, at some point in history, to worship images of people and animals, resulting—according to the Jewish critique—in a culture of sexual aberration and moral corruption.

Constantine’s mission

It appears that the overarching aim of Constantine as a pagan monotheist was not so different from Paul’s as an apostle of the God of Israel. His goal on acceding to the throne was to unify the peoples of the Roman Empire under a tolerant and just monotheism, in the expectation that traditional polytheistic superstitions and practices would eventually die out.

Christianity was initially seen as a new monotheism that could easily be assimilated into the pagan monotheistic paradigm. But more importantly, and more practically, Constantine reckoned that the Christians constituted a disciplined priestly class which could be trusted to implement the monotheist programme, which is why so much political and judicial power was put in the hands of the bishops. In Chandler’s words:

If one were looking for an engine which could not only spread monotheism in the empire, but had the organizational potential to maintain social and theological cohesion, it was the Christian organism. (86)

His confidence was no doubt badly shaken by the Donatist and Arian controversies, which perhaps explains his recourse to a more rigorous means of enforcement at a later stage. But it seems Constantine remained convinced that it had fallen to him to complete what Jesus had begun.

A year before Constantine’s death, Eusebius declared in a speech addressed, in appropriately fawning terms, to the emperor that the programme of religious revival had been a resounding success. God had bestowed two great benefits on humanity: monotheism and the Roman Empire. Jesus’ attempt to reform religion had been cut short prematurely, but he nevertheless had become the necessary means by which the pagan nations would be set free from the “delusion of polytheistic error” (Orat. 16.3). Constantine had now realised that possibility:

The falsehood of demon superstition was convicted: the inveterate strife and mutual hatred of the nations was removed: at the same time One God, and the knowledge of that God, were proclaimed to all: one universal empire prevailed; and the whole human race, subdued by the controlling power of peace and concord, received one another as brethren, and responded to the feelings of their common nature. Hence, as children of one God and Father, and owning true religion as their common mother, they saluted and welcomed each other with words of peace.

Thus the whole world (oikoumenēn) appeared like one well-ordered and united family: each one might journey unhindered as far as and whithersoever he pleased: men might securely travel from West to East, and from East to West, as to their own native country: in short, the ancient oracles and predictions of the prophets were fulfilled, more numerous than we can at present cite, and those especially which speak as follows concerning the saving Word. “He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” And again, “In his days shall righteousness spring up; and abundance of peace.” “And they shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into sickles: and nation shall not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn to war any more.” (Orat. 16.7)

That may all seem absurdly parochial and short-sighted from the perspective of a modern church that has little interest in history, but at the time it may well have been received as a very reasonable conclusion to the apostolic mission.

New Testament eschatology and the triumph of monotheism

New Testament eschatology is conceived principally in terms of judgment and rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. So, for example, in Romans, Paul affirms the good news concerning a descendant of David who has become “Son of God in power” by virtue of his resurrection, which demands an obedience of faith from among the peoples encompassed by his apostolic mission, and which will result eventually, following a judgment against Greek idolatry and its associated practices, in the rule of this “root of Jesse” over the nations of the Greek-Roman world (Rom. 1:1-5; 2:9; 15:12).

But the rule of Jesus, of course, directly entails the triumph of monotheism—perhaps nowhere more clearly so than in the second part of the Christ encomium in Philippians. When Jesus is confessed as Lord (Phil. 2:9-11), Isaiah’s vision of the exile of the old gods and the conversion of the nations to monotheistic worship is fulfilled:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength.… Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. (Is. 45:22-46:2)

It is important to say that in the Old Testament eschatological perspective the nations as nations do not become part of the people of God, with the exception of some individual proselytes. They remain separate peoples, but they are now oriented religiously towards a restored Jerusalem and its temple, and Israel becomes what it was always meant to be—a royal priesthood for the nations. Arguably, in this eschatological paradigm, a pagan monotheism remains operative.

How the story pivots from kingdom towards Trinity

So I wonder if we can now understand better how the meta-narrative of the early church pivoted from kingdom towards Trinity—or perhaps how the narrative of kingdom became the metaphysics of Trinitarianism.

What New Testament eschatology aimed at was the rule of God’s exalted king, seated at his right hand, over the hostile pagan nations, over the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, over an empire that stretched from Jerusalem to Spain.

By the time that vision landed, its path had been bent by the massive gravitational pull of the pagan monotheism that Chandler describes. But Constantine’s role in the process, if it has been fairly portrayed, shows how the practical exercise of judgment and rule—and, therefore, the story about kingdom—was not yet supplanted by philosophical argumentation. It runs all the way through to Nicaea.

Jason Coates | Tue, 01/17/2023 - 12:05 | Permalink

Andrew, whenever the Great Commission pops up on your blog timeline, I am reminded to go back to your thesis about the third horizon and what you term “The Greater Commission.” Without holding those ideas up in the air it becomes difficult for those of us who get too stuck up on Constantine. 

That, I think, is the Eusebius quote I have been trying to recall in which he connects Constantine with kingdom fulfilment. Thank you!

I’d be interested to see what you make of the closing chapters of The Patient Ferment of the Early Church in which Alan Kreider explores ways in which Constantine may have ‘converted’ the patience of Christians, and then Augustine, in expanding the scope of mission, gave the ‘patient’ game away.