The Emperor Constantine is one of those people who could very ably defend himself while alive, but now, having the misfortune of being dead, has become a whipping boy for church historians and theologians alike. In his book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, Peter Leithart attempts to wipe the rotten vegetables off Constantine’s face and scour the reputation that the centuries have sullied.
A common version of Constantine’s story, one that Leithart sets out to refute, is that Constantine (who may or may not have truly converted) took control of the Church and absorbed it into the empire in such a way that its distinctives became diluted and its witness ineffectual. He freed the Church from persecution but then neutered the Church and created an atmosphere where “real” Christians and “pretend” Christians could not be told one from the other.
Leithart’s first method of refutation is to provide a biographical study of Constantine, firmly seating the man in the context of late Roman antiquity, judging his actions as they would have been understood by his contemporaries instead of holding them up against a perfectionistic standard. Yes, Constantine often referred to God in ambiguous terms like “Providence” instead of with explicitly Christian ones, but the fact that he paid no sacrifice or acknowledgment to Jupiter was enough to make Romans sit up and take notice. Yes, Constantine meddled in Church affairs, but the Church had some serious problems that needed to be meddled with. Yes, Constantine “called” the Council of Nicea, but he did not “preside” over it or dictate its verdict. Yes, contemporary ecclesiastics like Eusebius flattered Constantine unduly and thought he was the greatest thing since pita bread, but wouldn’t you too if you had suffered the horrendous persecutions of Diocletian and Galerian?
In a section titled “The Emperor and the Queen,” Leithart explains how Constantine had the right motivations but sometimes went overboard in his execution:
“Kiss the Son,” Psalm 2 exhorts, addressing itself to kings of the earth. Constantine kissed the Son, publicly acknowledging the Christian God as the true God and confessing Jesus as “our Savior.”
For Constantine and the emperors who followed him, after kissing the Son and Lord, it made sense to do homage to Jesus by supporting his Queen, the church–building and adorning cathedrals, distributing funds for poor relief and hospitals, assisting the bishops to resolve their differences by calling and providing for councils. Constantine did not always show restraint. Sometimes he took over business that belonged to the King and Queen alone. But if we want to judge Constantine fairly, we have to recognize that the Queen often had issues. A queen’s bodyguard ought to keep his hands off the queen, but what does he do when she turns harpy and starts scratching the face of her lady-in-waiting?
In the latter half of the book, Leithart waxes theological and deals with complaints by the theologian John Howard Yoder about the “heresy” of Constantinianism. Yoder claims that during Constantine’s reign, the Church was knocked off its Biblical trajectory and “fell” in such a way that it has never recovered. His three main issues with Constantinianism are: (1) it identified the nation/empire with the purposes of God (instead of the Church) and thus distorted the mission of the Church; (2) it destroyed the non-imperialist stance that the early Church had adhered to; and (3) it destroyed the early Church’s commitment to pacifism.
Leithart decimates these arguments in reverse order, showing that the history underpinning Yoder’s arguments is shaky at best. A shift in emphasis did occur during Constantine’s rule, but it was not the open break with the past that Yoder postulates, and much of the change can be seen as the difference between the Church in exile and the Church come into the promise land.
To me, the most interesting section was where Leithart refuted the claim that the pre-Constantine Church was unreservedly pacifist:
[T]he church was never united in an absolute opposition to Christian participation in war; the opposition that existed was in some measure circumstantial, based on the fact that the Roman army demanded sharing in religious liturgies that Christians refused; and once military service could be pursued without participating in idolatry, many Christians found military service a legitimate life for a Christian disciple.
Constantine did not seduce Christians into the military; he allowed them to become part of it by removing the ritual of pagan oaths and sacrifice that earlier emperors had demanded of their soldiers.
Leithart concludes his book by applying the analogy of infant baptism to what happened to Rome under the rule of Constantine:
In the end it all comes round to baptism, specifically to infant baptism. Rome was baptized in the fourth century. Eusebian hopes notwithstanding, it was not instantly transformed into the kingdom of heaven. It did not immediately become the city of God on earth. Baptism never does that. It is not meant to. Baptism sets a new trajectory, initiates a new beginning, but every beginning is the beginning of something. Through Constantine, Rome was baptized into a world without animal sacrifice and officially recognized the true sacrificial city, the one community that does offer a foretaste of the final kingdom. Christian Rome was in its infancy, but that was hardly surprising….
And what about John Howard Yoder and those other theologians that our long-dead Constantine needs defending against?
For Yoder, Rome was not radically Christian, Rome’s adherence to the faith was infantile, and because of that, he reasons, it was not Christian at all but apostate. He failed, as Augustine said against Pelagius, to give due weight to “the interim, the interval between the remission of sins which takes place in baptism, and the permanently established sinless state in the kingdom that is to come, this middle time of prayer, while [we] must pray, ‘Forgive us our sins.'” He failed to acknowledge that all–Constantine, Rome, ourselves–stand in medial time, and yet are no less Christian for that.