Was Constantine the Great a patron of the Church, convert, pagan, true Christian or pagan conniver?

For many Christians, he represents all that was wrong with Church-state relations in the ancient and medieval worlds. For others, he represents courage under fire, a convert willing to take a risk for the fledgling Christian Church.

A completely clear picture of Constantine does not exist, but historians acknowledge that he was a complex man, a powerful and sometimes cruel emperor (he executed a wife and a son under mysterious circumstances) whose apparent — and apparently authentic — passion for Christianity was not always guided by theological knowledge or Godly wisdom. There is also no doubt that the course of Christianity was substantially influenced and changed by Constantine.

But what sort of influence did the emperor exert, and was it appropriate?

In The Da Vinci Code, Constantine’s reign is presented as a key turning point in the history of Christianity and Christendom. The best-selling novel portrays the emperor as a power-hungry pretender and Machiavellian prince — “a very good businessman,” says the historian Leigh Teabing — whose only interest in the Catholic Church was political.

In the book, Teabing describes Constantine as “a lifelong pagan” and further claims that he was the head priest of the cult of Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun), for the official religion of Rome was “sun worship,” that he wasn’t ever a believing Christian and that he transformed Jesus from a mere mortal prophet into the “Son of God” and thus cemented the Catholic Church’s control of the person of Jesus.

In the late 200s, Constantine’s father, Flavius Constantius, was made a Caesar in the West under Diocletian. At first Christians enjoyed freedom and relative peace under Diocletian’s rule.

That changed on Feb. 23, 303, when an edict was posted ordering the destruction of the Christian Scriptures and churches and the prohibition of all Christian meetings for worship. Christians were essentially reduced to the level of slavery and Christian leaders were required to sacrifice to pagan gods or else be executed.

Emperor Diocletian abdicated two years later and Constantius was named Augustus of the West. A year later, Constantius died while fighting in Britain and his young son was named Constantine Augustus.

Ambitious and volatile in temperament, Constantine also possessed a passion for religion. It isn’t certain what exactly happened on A.D. 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, where, according to Eusebius, “a most incredible sign appeared to [Constantine] from heaven,” but it was a definite turning point for the young ruler. Having seen the cross of Christ in the sky, Constantine underwent a conversion. In 313 A.D., he and fellow-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which recognized Christianity as a legal religion.

The evidence, including the writings of the Bishop Eusebius, indicates that Constantine did indeed become a believing Christian and sought to renounce his former worship of pagan gods. Yet he apparently struggled with reconciling his attachment to the Sol Invictus cult and his belief in the God of the Christians.

Part of this was probably due to his position as emperor, as well as the fact that the majority of the population was pagan.

Constantine’s move from paganism to Christianity was not immediate or consistent. But he eventually increased his support of the Church and implemented laws against certain pagan practices and activities.

For Constantine, who had small concern for theological precision, there was probably little distinction between the pagan and Christian notions of God (even though he surely recognized the differences in worship and morality). But he did see Christianity as a unifying force — and he was correct in his assessment that Christianity, not paganism, had the moral core and theological vision to change society for the better.

He may not have been a saint, but neither was he simply a political operator without concern for truth and goodness.

The Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with turning a merely mortal Jesus into a god or God; all those who attended already believed that Jesus was the divine Son of God. The first ecumenical council of the Church came about because of Constantine’s desire to end the controversy caused by the Arian heresy.

Arius (b. ca. 260-80; d. 336) was a priest from Alexandria who taught that the Son had not existed for all of eternity past, but was a created being who was begotten by the Father as an instrument of, first, creation and then, later, salvation.

Put another way, Arius believed that the Son was not God by nature, but was a lesser god. Arius’ beliefs proved so popular and disruptive that Constantine decided to bring together the bishops and put an end to the controversy; his interest was most likely in unity over theological clarity, but he realized the former would defend in large part upon the latter.

On May 20, 325, a number of bishops, the vast majority of them from the East, convened at Nicaea; the council lasted until July 25 of the same year. The number of bishops in attendance has traditionally been listed as 318, likely a symbolic number (cf., Gen. 14:14); the actual number was probably around 220 to 250.

Although actively involved in the council, Constantine knew that his place was not to be a theologian or scholar, but to facilitate a structured and productive gathering.

Was he perfect? No, of course not.

But he was far more than a businessman. And his positive contributions to the Church and Western civilization should not be ignored or taken for granted.

Carl E. Olson is the co-author, with Sandra Miesel, of

The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (http://www.davincihoax.com), published by Ignatius Press. He is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.