Two Versions of Constantine the Great

I recently finished reading two books about the Emperor Constantine who is also recognized as a saint of the Church since ancient times.  The first is Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR (you can read my short review of this book).   The book was a good history read, and portrays Constantine riding the military to power, but giving some credit to the unconquerable and greatest God – that of the Christians – which brought him to power.   The second book is Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE (you can read my short review of this book).  Leithart’s book is polemical in that he is refuting the Anabaptist version of Christian history promulgated by John Yoder.  Yoder basically seems to say with Constantine the Church abandoned Christianity.  Leithart’s  persuasive argument is that one has to measure Constantine in terms of 4th Century Christianity, not in terms of 21st Century post-Enlightenment liberalism.  Constantine does embrace Christianity as he understands it as the Emperor of Rome.  His embrace of Christianity is real and does bring a change to the empire, but it also changes Christianity whose 4th Century leadership probably wasn’t prepared to deal with what it meant to be the religion aligned with political power rather than the subject of its persecution.

I’m not interested in taking up Leithart’s thesis regarding Yoder since I consider that an internal dispute in the Reformed tradition.  But I do intend in the next several blogs to write about Constantine and what his conversion meant for the Church.  I will do this by offering quotes from Leithart and Stephenson’s books.   The two authors have different interests and perspectives, and in comparing the two we will get some sense about why some say there is no such thing as history (meaning the facts about what happened) but rather there is always an interpretation of the facts.   For example on 6 August 1945 a massive explosion occurred over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  That is a fact but it tells us nothing about the meaning of that event in world history.

Stephenson writes a history with a critical eye on how Constantine’s ‘conversion to Christianity’ came about and what it meant for history.   He is critical of the exact nature of Constantine’s faith and to what extent Constantine lived the Christian life.  Yet his critique is not without sympathy for Christianity and for Constantine.

Leithart on the other hand has a more determined agenda – to refute a worldview (Yoder’s) in which Christianity is a totally pacifist religion which is hijacked by Constantine for his own ambitions and goals.   Leithart is much more sympathetic to Constantine and sees Constantine as simply adding a new dimension to Christianity – namely that of state power.  In some sense if Christians were doing what Christ commissioned them to do (Matthew 28), the day would come when Christians would have to wrestle with the issue of government power, or at least with what it means that a Christian holds supreme power in an empire.  Leithart assumes God intended Christians to come to power in the world at some point.

Had Christianity rejected any notion that its members could hold positions of supreme government power, how would that have changed the course of Church history?   In as much as Christians were becoming a significant minority in the Roman empire, it could have led to the demise of Rome even faster than it actually happened in history as it would have meant a significant part of the imperial population would have refused to participate in government or the army.    Persia probably would have succeeded in conquering Rome, and no one can know what that change would have meant to the world or to Christianity.  (Constantine at one point made some overtures to the Persian leaders to get them to embrace Christianity which they rejected).

My intention in this blog series is to look at ideas I gathered from the two authors and their interpretation of Constantine, of history and of the Church.

Next:  Constantine Comes to Power