The Donation of Constantine: Why Academics Matter

forgeryby Dr. Lindsey Scholl, Logic School Academic Coordinator

Sometimes those involved in Christian education feel the temptation to simply give it all up and go preach the Gospel in the simplest terms possible. Why are we teaching our kids Latin, algebra, pre-modern history, and formal grammar when all that is truly needed is to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds?

I have no idea what heaven’s educational scene will look like, but down here, proper and rigorous education can save us a great deal of grief. I’m not simply talking about scientific and technological breakthroughs, although those are fabulous. Today I want to give you an example of what might be considered an “obscure breakthrough,” but one that changed the face of Christianity’s relationship to secular powers such as kings, dukes, etc.

For centuries, the medieval papacy believed it had two particular prerogatives. The first was a right to appoint or depose secular rulers. You can see why this would give the medieval popes a great deal of power: if you feel that you can appoint King A and get rid of King B, then you are going to use that power (and perhaps for good reason). Yet King B might object, which can cause a tension and even violence.  The second was the right to own lands in Italy, specifically Rome and surrounding areas. Again, more power and more tension, because the papacy becomes a government all on its own that could collect taxes, wages wars, and behave like a secular government.

The papacy believed it had both of these powers partly because of a document called “The Donation of Constantine.” This “donation” was supposedly given by Constantine the Great in the 300s to the pope at the time. In this act, Constantine gave the pope jurisdiction over “the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy or of the western regions” ( If such a document were authentic, imagine how remarkable it would be! It would be as if the President of the United States said, “Church, I give you all the power you want over the state of Texas. You can own it, govern it, tax it, and even go to war with it.”

The trouble was, “The Donation of Constantine” was a forgery. Constantine never wrote such a document—nor, as a savvy politician, would he. It was forged in the 700s, four hundred years after Constantine’s rule. It was not the papacy’s fault that this forgery had crept in, but it was a forgery nonetheless.

Now to the point of this little essay: someone had to discover that it was a forgery. In doing so, that person released the secular rulers from certain obligations to an over-powerful papacy. It also released the papacy itself from feeling like it had to rule the world in a governmental sense.

Although some had already suspected the document’s authenticity, the person who proved and broadcasted it as a forgery was Lorenzo Valla, who wrote in the mid-1400s. Valla was a highly educated man who knew Latin better than the back of his hand, as well as other classical texts, theories, and trends. When he applied his considerable learning to “The Donation of Constantine,” he found that the Latin in the document was not the sort of Latin Constantine would have used. It was the sort of Latin that writers in the 700s would have used. Thus, it was a forgery.

In the history of forgeries, “The Donation of Constantine” is neither the most troubling nor significant. Nevertheless, it was a falsehood that had crept into the Church and provided support for a false way of thinking. It took an individual of great education to discover and correct it (after all, who on the medieval street could tell the difference between 4th century and 8th century Latin?). Without someone applying a certain degree of learning to the document, the forgery could have persisted even to the present day.

As we wrap up another school year, we have no idea how God is going to use our students’ education. Undoubtedly there are still more forgeries to uncover and more truths to reveal. Perhaps their studies in ancient history in 1st grade or physics in 7th will contribute to ridding the world of significant, detrimental misconceptions? I’m thinking on a grand scale here, but as summer approaches, anything seems possible.