Constantine’s dream and us
We should take care as we try to interpret one of the defining moments of Western civilisation, writes Clive Pearson.
It sounds like an impossible question: what’s the connection between Constantine’s dream on the Milvian Bridge so long ago and the situation now facing our Synod?
How can our talk of “new and risky paths”, “a missional church” and report after report on how “the world has changed” possibly have anything to do with the nocturnal imaginings of a Roman emperor about to go to battle?
It is, of course, now known that dreams (and visions) have always played a pivotal role in the life of the Christian faith.
Barbara Holmes has reminded us of how dreams play a part in our ordinary, everyday living as well permeate the biblical text.
Time and time again they are the conduit for an encounter with the divine: they slip in between the cracks of routine patters of organising the world and how we “manage” God.
The prophetic literature presupposes dreams and vision are essential to the faithful community; they propose an alternate reality to what is in place or seemingly soon will be. The birth narratives to do with Jesus abound in their disruptive presence.
Holmes doesn’t deal with Constantine’s dream, though. It occurred on the night of the October 27-28, 312.
The 1,700th anniversary of one of the most important dreams in Christian history has thus slipped by us almost unnoticed.
Constantine is one of three emperors. He is marching on Rome to do battle with Maxentius. He should by rights lose. His numbers are inferior and his rival — his brother-in-law — lies ensconced in Rome.
On the way, Constantine beholds a vision in which above the sun lies a cross and he is told “in this sign you shall conquer”.
That night his sleep is interrupted by a dream which interprets this vision: Christ comes to him and Constantine is told that he should use this sign against his enemies.
Eusebius tells of how Constantine thus went into battle seemingly under the auspices of the Chi-Rho symbol which is made up of the first two letters of the Greek spelling of Christ.
And the rest is history!
Constantine defeats Maxentius and eventually becomes the sole emperor of the empire.
The Christian faith benefits. Constantine privileges the church in a way in which it ceases to be a vulnerable minority movement forever at risk of persecution.
It becomes, in effect, the religion of the empire — though this does not mean that Constantine will impose uniformity.
It does mean that Constantine will provide financial support and status to Christian leaders, build churches and his mother will initiate pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
In due course Constantine will intervene in matters to do with Christian belief and practice: he will summon the council of Nicea, which gives us one of the creeds referred to in the Basis of Union.
He will make judgments on what might be regarded as an orthodox point of view in dealing with dissentients.
There is debate on the role of his conversion and reign on the shape of the Bible we now possess.
Constantine and his dream matters!
His conversion and legacy is subject to much controversy.
Was his vision sufficiently Christ-centred or was it a variation of the sun-god Apollo? Was his conversion at this time genuine? He was only baptised on his death bed in 337.
Did the way in which he intervened in ecclesiastical disputes mean that, in the future, the Christian faith would be more inclined to use political means to ensure conformity — that “we are all in this together”?
Did Constantine pave the way for too close a connection between the dominant culture and the Christian faith? Was something of the charismatic energy and vitality of a movement bearing the marks of the suffering and persecuted Christ lost?
Did Constantine’s dream lead to Christendom and shape the way in which “the traditional church” and patterns of ministry are often understood today?
Is this the legacy with which we are contending in all our “post-it” talk to day: postmodern, post-Christendom, post-Christian and post-Constantinian?
It is not unusual these days to hear Constantine’s “conversion” dismissed as unfortunate.
Such an opinion would not have secured the support of his Christian contemporaries – nor indeed of contemporary missiologists like Stuart Murray.
Writing in A Public Faith, Ivor Davidson notes that “for many of the Christians of his own time Constantine’s reign brought a welcome end to repression and provided opportunities for social expansion and political influence that previous generations of believers would have found unimaginable.”
And again: his political regime had witnessed a substantial revolution in the status of the faith in the Roman world. The churches had gone from at best being tolerated and often a harassed flock, obliged to live a precarious existence in the world and trust in God, to being an “officially recognised institution”.
John Dungan looks in vain for any record of a bishop or theologian objecting to Constantine’s initiatives. Murray presumes that the expansion of the Christian faith into fresh mission fields would not have happened so readily.
The ancient historian, Eusebius, viewed Constantine’s patronage as a work of the Holy Spirit; they saw this turn of events as God’s preparation of the empire for the further spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Allen Brent suggests that Constantine’s support of the Christian faith is in keeping with the overture the writer of Luke-Acts made to the Gentile world through his prologues to “Dear Theophilus”.
Today we are not too sure.
We are burdened by too many buildings. We are troubled by census Christians.
We are nervous about being co-opted by the cultural and political capital of the day — though we do not shun so quickly its business and management practices.
Dreams are sidelined: visions are less theological than they might be and more about generosity and inclusion.
And we are simply post-it! The world has changed. We are “over” Constantine and co.
Are things so simple?
Lesslie Newbigin has argued that the belief sometimes espoused that we can get back to the earliest church — that we can become “pre-Constantinian” — is naïve and just not possible.
Newbigin has been one of the foremost thinkers on the relationship of gospel and culture and the imperative for mission. The very nature of what we believe and do in the Christian faith is informed by Constantine’s legacy.
It might seem an odd claim. It is hard to imagine our current talk of godly play, messy church, a missional church happening without Constantine and his dream.
Would the Uniting Church have a Basis of Union with its references to the four marks of the church being “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” without Constantine?
Maybe we have some further work to do in the interpreting of dreams. Maybe we have not yet done sufficient homework on the context in which we are called to be a missional church.
Certainly our descriptions of the present period being postmodern, post-Christendom, post-Christian and post-Constantinian are very confused.
Each of these descriptions carries hidden assumptions; they mean very different things and presume we will need to adopt a variety of strategies.
It is hard to dream of a vibrant, energetic church engaged in mission in an increasingly (hyper-) public world if this basic work is not done.
It is obvious that a faithful and spirit-filled way ahead cannot be shaped solely upon the cost of things conceived in economic terms.
Constantine’s dream still requires careful interpretation; his legacy is too important and nuanced to be dispensed with in off-the-cuff one-liners.
Clive Pearson is Principal, Lecturer in Theology and Ethics and Head of School, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University.