The Constantine Conundrum: A Historical Perspective.

Emperor Constantine


A week ago I posted a remark on Facebook examining the idea that Emperor Constantine changed Christianity, that after he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 the Church became more corrupt resulting in a change to her foundational teachings, from a purely rational perspective. I lamented then that time and space could not be given to looking at the issue from a historical perspective. It is my hope to do that now, though still in brief.  The writings of the Church Fathers are extensive, the edition published by T & T Clark published from 1867 – 1900 is thirty-eight volumes and a more complete edition published by John Henry Parker from 1838 – 1881 is an even longer fifty volumes. For the sake of convenience, both mine and the reader’s, I will be quoting the Fathers from Jimmy Akin’s wonderful work The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. Quotations of Scripture will be from the RSV:CE  (the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition)

I made a bold claim in my post on Facebook that comparing what the pre-Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers taught would show a remarkable contiguous line of congruity, that in essence, they taught the same things. In order to help illustrate this line, I intend to look here at three issues.

  • Baptismal Regeneration
  • The Need for Baptism
  • The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

I will attempt to keep my own comments and commentary to a minimum and let the words of the Fathers speak for themselves. I will begin each quotation with the name of the writer, the work and its year of writing. My own comments will be in normal typeface, everything else in italic. A quick review for your convenience.

  • c. or circa before a date means approximately
  • The First Council of Nicaea was held in 325
  • Emperor Constantine died in May of 337


Baptismal Regeneration

St. Justin Martyr – First Apology (c. A.D. 151).

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, and are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their past sins, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same way we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” [Jn 3:3]

St. Irenaeus of Lyons – Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus (c. A.D. 190).

For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean of our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord; we are spiritually regenerated as newborn babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” [Jn 3:5]

St. Augustine of Hippo – Letters (A.D. 408).

But the possibility of regeneration through the office of the will of another, when the child is presented to receive the sacred rite, is the work exclusively of the Spirit by whom the child presented is regenerated. For it is not written, “Except a man be born again by the will of his parents, or by the faith of those presenting the child, or of those administering the ordinance,” but, “Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit” [Jn 3:5]

Notice what they take John 3 to mean? Keep this in your thoughts as we look at the need for baptism then we’ll discuss both together.

(Side Note. Did you notice St. Augustine’s reference to infant baptism?)


The Need for Baptism

Hermas of Rome – The Shepherd (c. A.D. 80).

And I said, “I heard, sir, some teachers say that there is no other repentance than what takes place when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins.” He said to me, “That was sound doctrine you heard; for that is really the case” 

St. Augustine of Hippo – Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed (c. A.D. 395).

In three ways are sins remitted in the Church; by baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins except to the baptized.

A quick note regarding whether or not someone who has not heard the Gospel and thus has had no chance of baptism can be saved, I quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. (CCC 847)


Baptismal Conclusions

Returning to the discussion of John 3. Contrary to how many choose to think Christ in John 3 is not simply talking about belief/faith, or a prayer asking him (Christ) to come dwell in us (what is often called a sinner’s prayer). The point here is not that prayer or belief are unimportant but that something more is also necessary. What is that something more? Baptism. This reading is unanimous among the Fathers. It is through baptism that we are born again, given new life and made a new creation in Christ. 

We must ask ourselves a hard question. Which is more likely; that all of the Fathers would err so far or that the modern idea, an idea that only began to take shape fifteen hundred years later, is in error? 


The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

St. Ignatius of Antioch – Letter to the Romans  (c. A.D. 110).

I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible

St. Ignatius of Antioch – Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6–7 (c. A.D. 110).

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ, which have come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh that suffered for our sins and that the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes 

St. Justin Martyr – First Apology (c. A.D. 151).

We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing that is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus 

St. Irenaeus of Lyons – Against Heresies (c. A.D. 189).

If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?

St. Cyril of Jerusalem – Catechetical Lectures (c. A.D. 350).

[A]s the bread and wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Trinity, which is holy and worthy of adoration, were simple bread and wine, after the invocation the bread becomes the body of Christ, and the wine the blood of Christ

St. Ambrose of Milan – The Mysteries (c. A.D. 390).

Perhaps you may be saying, “I see something else; how can you assure me that I am receiving the body of Christ?” It only remains for us to prove it. And how many are the examples we might use! . . . Christ is in that sacrament, because it is the body of Christ 

St. Augustine of Hippo – Explanations of the Psalms (c. A.D. 405).

Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, “This is my body” [Mt 26:26]. For he carried that body in his hands 

St. Augustine of Hippo – Sermons 227 (c. A.D. 411).

I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s table. . . . The bread you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. The chalice, or rather, what is in the chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ 


Eucharistic Conclusions

47 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” 59 This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. (Jn 6:47-59)

Once again we find remarkable, dare I say unanimous, agreement among the Fathers on the nature of the Eucharist, that it no mere memorial but the partaking of the body and blood of Christ himself. Which the Catechism calls “the source and summit of the Christian life.” (CCC 1324)

Granted I have only provided here a small sampling of quotations, and yet already the post grows long. Take the time to search out what the Fathers taught and this story will be played out again and again.

Does this mean that the Fathers agreed on all things? The Church has always allowed, even encouraged, philosophical debate on some issues on which she has not defined her teachings. Ah but wait! I hear some of you say. “Defined her teachings” sounds an awful like “changed her teachings” doesn’t it? No. An analogy.

If I asked my four-year-old nephew what was 2+2? He would rightly say 4.  If I asked him why however he could not answer, at least not rightly. But suppose thirty years from now after many degrees and a long, illustrious career in mathematics I ask again and he answers correctly. Could I justly say “Ah but you changed your answer!”?

As humans, we understand things more perfectly the longer we study, reflect, ponder and even wrestle with things. This is true not only as individuals but as a whole, building on the ideas of those who have come before.


Final Thoughts

What conclusions can we draw from this, short though it may be, look into the Fathers? Did a change happen in the Church’s foundational teachings during the reign of Constantine? It is hard to get much more foundational than these three topics. Yet we see agreement among the Fathers, both before and after the Emperor,  so the answer has to be no.

Is it possible however that these teachings came about earlier? The earliest quotations given were from Hermas of Rome in A.D. 80 and St. Ignatius of Antioch in 110 after all. This is not very likely. At the end of the First Century and beginning of the Second Century we are still within living memory of the Apostles, this is especially of the Apostle John who died c. A.D. 100. Any new teaching could have been opposed by those who knew what the Apostles taught, this is precisely what we see during the rise of Gnosticism.

Thinking of the Eucharist the evidence is there as early as Acts.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

It is true that this breaking was originally a Jewish rite of thanksgiving for food, but it soon became the earliest technical term for the Eucharist, which at first was celebrated at a meal. It is used of the Eucharist in 20:7, 11, and very probably in 46, and perhaps 27:35 and Lk 24:35. All the accounts of the Institution say that our Lord ‘broke bread’. In 1 Cor 10:16 St Paul uses the phrase, and emphasizes how the Eucharist symbolizes and causes the union mentioned in 42. His teaching came from the Twelve, 1 Cor 15:3, 11. The prayers are those surrounding the Eucharist, the beginnings of the Christian liturgy, held in private assemblies, rather than prayers in the temple. (A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture p. 1026.)

Since these teachings go all the way back to the very foundations of the Church we must set aside the idea that they were introduced later.

Once we do this the unavoidable conclusion is not only that Constantine changed nothing but that, even more importantly, the Churched continued to be what it always had been, what Christ founded it as. I have spent the better past of the last year reading, studying, amassing a library on the subject that would have rivaled the Venerable Bede’s. The conclusion I came to is not personal opinion, theological or otherwise, but historical fact. The Church Christ founded was and is Catholic.