How Constantine significantly changed the early church

Constantine Versus Christ: The Triumph of Ideology
By Alistair Kee
Wipf and Stock, 2016 (1st printing in 1982), 186 pages

In many of my posts, I’ve referred to the de-evolution of the early church and its simple Gospel of grace into the institutionalized Roman Catholic ecclesiastical monolith that was focused on the accumulation of temporal power and wealth.

How did that happen? What sources do I sight for my claims?

Most importantly, it’s clear from the New Testament that the beliefs and practices of the New Testament church had little in common with the later Roman Catholic church and its many un-Biblical and even anti-Biblical traditions. What other sources? I’ve read several books and articles regarding the institutionalization and paganization of the church, but perhaps the first one that comes to mind is Alexander Hislop’s “The Two Babylons or the Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife,” first published in 1853. See here. While there’s definitely a lot of good information in that old chestnut, the Scottish theologian presented some conjectural extrapolations as facts. “Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity” by James J. O’Donnell is another good source on how the church adapted pagan beliefs and practices. See here.

I recently stumbled across another excellent resource on the topic; “Constantine Versus Christ: The Triumph of Ideology” by theologian Alistair Kee (1937-2011). In the first half of the book, Kee examines ancient documents written by the church’s first historian, Eusebius, in which the bishop of Caesarea described the emperor’s role as savior and defender of the church. Kee argues that the documents reveal Constantine was a pragmatist who switched from being a patron of paganism to supporting Christianity to suit his purposes rather than because of a personal faith in Jesus Christ. In Constantine’s version of Christianity, Jesus is de-emphasized in favor of an impersonal “Logos.” I found the first half of the book to be tedious reading better suited for academics, although parts were interesting.

The second half of the book provides many fascinating examples of Constantine in his role as defender and shepherd of the church. The emperor assumed the role of an Old Testament king in the pattern of David rather than a follower of Jesus Christ. He acted as a political and military messiah, a role Jesus had absolutely refused. The church, grateful that the emperor had legalized Christianity,* gradually acceded to Constantine’s imperial model. The accumulation of temporal wealth and power and absolute control of its membership in league with the state became the church’s aims, rather than spreading the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Historians label this insidious change that took place in the church under the sponsorship of Constantine as the “Constantinian shift.”

Kee was a supporter of “liberation theology” but his exposé of the church’s de-evolution into Constantine’s willing pawn and partner is compelling.

I HIGHLY recommend this book to those who are interested in how the early church was diverted from its mission and changed the meaning of the Gospel from salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone to religious legalism, ritualism, and sacramentalism, all tightly controlled by the privileged church hierarchy. Order from Amazon here.

Postscript: Where was the bishop of Rome during the years of Constantine’s absolute dominion over the church? Contrary to Catholicism’s claims of primacy for its papacy, the bishop of Rome was actually just another supporting character subservient to the emperor.

*Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion in 380. All pagan religions were outlawed in 392.

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