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

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32 thoughts on “Two Versions of Constantine the Great

  1. b. wilson

    Fr. Ted –

    As I have long struggled with how to view Constantine, I appreciate that you will be spending some time wrestling with the issue. I have at times appreciated Yoder’s critique of the Church’s collusion with empire, power, and war, but I find that Rene Girard’s theories of sacrificial crisis and the violence that is necessary to ancient religions bring a different insight to the debate of how pacifistic a religion Christianity is. Girard is a Roman Catholic, though he has never been immune to controversy in or outside the Church. His view of Christ as “scapegoat” inherently carries a critique of the use of violence in Christianity, as it is supposed to stand apart (and be superior to) any religion which must utilize violence to maintain the sacred order. The purity of Christ’s sacrifice, Girard argues, short-circuits the sacrificial system and establishes a pattern of non-violence and resistance to violence in Christianity, because violence will always be used to maintain an order which is, by definition, at odds with the purpose of Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection. It’s a powerful critique and one that is not beholden to Anabaptist perspectives. I am not totally in thrall with it, but it does give me pause when reflecting on Constantine’s life. I am looking forward to your insights in the upcoming posts.

    Peace to you.

    1. Fr. Ted

      One of the things that is clear in Constantine’s own sojourn to becoming a Christian is he does progressively abandon and then oppose animal sacrifice. Though he remained pontifex maximus as emperor,he refused to participate in animal sacrifices, and eventually comes to forbid them in areas where he had influence – the army, the civic ceremonies of the empire. He also does come to oppose the gladiatorial games. These changes seem to be due to his increasing Christian identity.

      Also, I think we have to keep in mind there is a tendency for humans to read history anachronistically. The Reformers for example began reading Paul as if he were a Reformer like them and so they read a lot into his Epistles which seemed to confirm their own beliefs. So too the Anabaptists read into Constantine things that justify their beliefs.

      But Leithart and to a lesser extent Stephenson tried to emphasize the need to read Constantine as 4th Century Christians understood him and as the context for evaluating his own self understanding. He is the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. He has no model of a Christian emperor to follow. He is incorporating Christianity into his thinking, but he is shaped very strongly by the Roman imperial tradition. He does not understand his calling into Christianity as a call to abandon the throne. He is being called as the emperor and he has to discern what that means. He has certain power and privileges as emperor. But there is no tradition yet as to how to use these as a Christian. So he makes mistakes. He approaches situations – dealing with heretics and schismatics for example – as emperor with all that implies in terms of power. He believes that is why they are appealing to him and he trusts that God wants him to apply his god-given authority to these situations.

      My tendency has been to see a lot of negatives in the mutual embrace between Christianity and the Roman Empire. Yet in my readings I do see how Christianity influenced and changed Constantine. It wasn’t a miraculous instant makeover like can happen on modern TV “reality” shows because the changes to be made were not cosmetic, but involved deep changes of heart and mind and of a deeply embedded tradition which was Roman imperialism. One does not change the direction of a huge ship in the ocean “on a dime.” It takes a fair amount of space and time. The empire is not as small as a ship, so it needed a lot more time and space to change its direction.

  2. David Lindblom

    How timely. I just had a phone conversation w/ my brother-in-law last night and he was under the common impression that Constantine was the corrupter of Christianity and that is where the Roman Catholic Church came into existence. I told him that was merely Protestant propaganda.

    There was a comment on your review of Stephenson’s book:
    “The Church had no one way to solve its internal differences and conflicts, and to some extent lived with them – at least until bishops realized they could appeal to Constantine to solve problems (= impose solutions). This caused church leaders to vie for Constantine’s favor and attention and to be willing to throw others under the bus. This changed the very way in which the various Christian factions related to each other. ”
    I didn’t know the Church was that divided. Was the Church really little more than a bunch of independent squabbling factions? Almost like a collection of denominations? I guess I was under the impression it was far more united than that.

    1. Fr. Ted

      All I can say is look at the number of schisms and heresies the church confronted from its earliest days and you find your answer. Church historians like to present the story as a fairly clear and straightforward main thrust of Orthodoxy with a number of side diversions. But considering that during the Arian crisis it was virtually St. Athanasius alone among bishops in the East carrying on the resistance, we see that church history is fraught with disputes, twists and turns and moments at which Orthodoxy was neither mainstream nor the majority.

      1. David Lindblom

        Funny, I just today listened to a podcast from Fr. Hopko and he was talking about the time around Constantine. His words mirror what you are saying. Always lots to learn.

  3. Pingback: Constantine Comes to Power | Fr. Ted's Blog

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  9. Pingback: Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (1) | Fr. Ted's Blog

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  17. Fr. Ted,

    i haven’t read your series yet, but will be doing so soon. i’m a grad student and my dissertation work is on pacifism. i’m also a catachumen and trying hard to learn about Orthodoxy. i’d like to just present a quick question:

    Is there anything in Orthodox theology that is incompatible with a Christian being a pacifist or believing the Church ought to avoid the use of state power to enact/enforce Christians values upon any given nation (say, in favor of doing so by means of living out the tough and demanding, yet transformative Christian virtues like sacrifice, suffering, hospitality, love-for-enemies, etc.)?

    Best,

    –guy

    1. Fr. Ted

      I think there is nothing incompatible in Orthodoxy with pacifism as such or with believing the Church ought not rely on the state to enforce its values. That being said, the history and tradition of the Church is far more complicated and perhaps nuanced. If we follow the command to love one another for example, is it conceivable that there might be a circumstance in which using lethal force against a crazed individual might be the only way to stop the abuse of a group of children or defenseless people? If the Samaritan arrived earlier on the scene in time to foresee what the group of thieves was about to spring upon the hapless traveler to Jericho, is he just to wait until the man is victimized before he becomes the “good” Samaritan and helps the wounded man. Or would he have been obligated to come to the man’s defense and use force, even lethal force, to help protect the traveler? Does pacifism mean passivity?

      Certainly monasticism got its impetus from monks fleeing the imperial church and wanting to live the Gospel far removed from the benefits which the empire offered.

      On the other hand, when Christianity pervaded the culture to the point that even emperors saw themselves as Christians, did the church have a mandate to try to Christianize society? For example, whatever one thinks of Constantine, he did under the influence of Christianity begin the process of banning animal sacrifices in religion and of banning the gladiatorial games. He seems to have believed these things were incompatible with Christianity. So if we argue that the Church should not use the state to impose its values, would we say the church should allow the resumption of gladiator games? Are there any circumstances in which the church should try to influence state laws and through them morality – abolition of slavery, stopping abortion, equality for women, advocating human rights, humane treatment for prisoners, sexual trafficking, etc?

      The Church has lived through being persecuted, being a minority, and being in power. It has many experiences with all of these various states of existence. It has many varied experiences in which it has tried to live the Gospel life, but has also seen limits to its success and abuses of its powers. The Church continues to struggle with being in the world but not of the world. Christ said “no” to Satan when Satan tempted Him with all of the power and glory of empires on earth. But how we are to live this lesson in the world today becomes one of the ways in which we have to take up the cross and follow Christ.

      1. Fr. Ted,

        i appreciate your taking the time to answer my question, but i’m confused by some of your elaboration–do you mean your questions to have rhetorically obvious answers? To be brief, i don’t believe it’s conceivable that there exist situations with no third option, i don’t believe that defense of third party victims necessarily requires *violent* defense, i don’t believe that affecting societal change entails the acquisition or use of political authority, and i don’t hold that pacifism equates to passivity (there is a mass of literature dealing with all these issues you raise).

        This issue is of great concern to me. From the Anabaptist point of view, a certain view of Constantine’s role in church history seems pivotal to Anabaptist views of pacifism. But i recognize that Orthodoxy holds a view of Constantine incompatible with that of the Anabaptist tradition. Yet, as you say, there seems to be no clear or simple position of Orthodoxy about how the church or individual Christian ought to relate to the state or political powers. There seem to be points in history where the two are quite friendly, and there seem to be times when the Church was willing to “rebel” in the sense of calling political authorities ‘on the carpet’ and affirming Christ’s supreme authority over even heads of state. So it’s hard to understand how or whether Orthodoxy’s political theology affects/relates to Orthodoxy’s teaching about personal ethics concerning violence.

        i guess maybe i should start from another direction. How does Orthodoxy interpret Jesus’ teachings concerning turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies in the Sermon on the Mount?

        –guy

      2. Fr. Ted

        I didn’t mean for them to have rhetorically obvious answers, but rather that discipleship requires great wisdom to discern and pat answers do not work.

        In our tradition there have been saints who refused to fight and suffered martyrdom (Sts Boris and Gleb, sons of St. Vladimir come to mind). There have also been saints who were military men, though generally they were not declared saints because of their military exploits, but being a military man did not disqualify them from becoming saints.

        Numerous saints did accept martyrdom as the consequence of following Christ and turning the other cheek. So we have saints who refused to take up the sword and refused to defend themselves.

        But Orthodoxy also embraced an ideal from the Lord’s prayer that things on earth could be as they are in heaven. So they did not see the Kingdom of God as always being at some far distant point in the future. The Kingdom could be lived in the hearts of Christians and also in Christian communities if people were willing to lay down their own wills and to completely follow the will of God.

        I perhaps have no definitive answer for you because I’m not sure Christ addressed the issue of how “political theology affects” teaching personal ethics concerning violence. Christ did address personal ethics and violence and did allow us to lay down our lives for the sake of others. But the issue of political theology, he seems to have left that to His followers to work out. And history shows that individuals and communities within the church have opted at different times for different ways to work this out.

        If you want one law from Christ that answers your question about political theology, all we have is the law of love. But Christ did not answer the issue of what happens if His disciples come to political power. That issues has been variously addressed by Orthodox writers through the centuries.

        St. Basil for example proffered that if a Christian was called to war by the state, it was his duty to go, but then he had to be excommunicated from the church for several years for having gone to war. There we see the complexity of the issue.

        I’m sure you can find other Orthodox who are willing to give you an exact, unequivocal answer, but my take is that we each personally and then together with our fellow Christians collectively must continue to wrestle with these issues and work out our salvation.

      3. Fr. Ted,

        i appreciate you taking so much time in your explanations with me. After reading your comment, i went and read the story of St. Boris and Gleb (whose commemoration day was just last Tues, i undestand!). i also went and read St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the relevant bits of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps i’m too eager to read my own position into his words, but i took him basically to be teaching a non-violent ethic. Could i deduce from Steve’s words and your own comments that non-violence is an ethical ideal, but the Church has tolerated (i don’t mean that in any negative sense) those who could not live up to that ideal (perhaps similar to the case of divorce?)?

        –guy

      4. Fr. Ted

        I suppose I would put it all in the context of St. Paul’s words about their being two kinds of Christians – the weak and the strong. He applies the idea to encourage the nascent Christian communities to learn how to live together in peace despite divisive issues. For example the blending together in community of Jews who were used to kosher law and not eating with Gentiles with Gentiles who had no such dietary restrictions. How can you balance these two irreconcilable positions and keep peace in community? St. Paul said the strong have to bear with the weak. The strong were those who felt eating meat offered to idols was no problem since idols were nothing anyway, and the weak were those whose consciences not only prevented them from eating meat offered to idols but who were completely upset because other Christians would eat this meat.

        I think this is the context in which we Christians might consider pacifism and the willingness to soldier in defense of others. There are some of us who are completely morally repulsed by violence and war and cannot see how war and violence can ever be Christian. But there are also those who strongly believe they must lay their lives on the line in defense of loved ones, and this will mean a willingness not just to die but to use lethal force. This would not be for wars of aggression and expansion but in defensive wars. We see in St. Paul in Romans 13 that he does believe the Emperor or the empire were given the sword to enforce the good, and this is a power from God.

        Now St. Paul writes at a time when perhaps no one could imagine Christian emperors, but he writes as if this is a universal principle not dependent on who the emperor is.

        I would say, that St. Paul’s notion of strong and weak Christians might apply to many different issues in the church. What we see even in the desert fathers/mothers tradition is there is no “one size fits all” thinking when it comes to Christian education and spiritual formation. The Eastern Christian especially continued to value the free will of each person – we each must cooperate with God (work with, synergy) for our salvation, which often means we must wrestle with issues and take up the cross and follow Christ. So there is no one rule which applies to everyone in every circumstance as we work out our salvation.

        Christ was a wisdom teacher and called each of us to wisely use His teachings regarding love. As I’ve said by way of example, Law is a traffic stop sign. But that stop sign can never tell you when to go. That requires Wisdom. Wisdom is what we need to know how, when and where and why to apply the lessons of the Gospel.

        Some want absolute rules from theology, but wisdom is also an essential part of our tradition. I’m not advocating relativism, but the very difficult path of wisdom.

  18. There is little I can add to the excellent points made by Fr Ted, but perhaps one or two things:
    1. The Orthodox Church is not a “peace church”, like the Mennonites or Quakers.
    2. As far as I am aware, the Orthodox Church does not hot hold to the Western doctrine of a “just war”; violence can never be justified.

    As Fr Ted has pointed out, you can find among the Orthodox saints both soldiers and pacifists; those who fought, and those who refused to fight. But if those who fought killed someone in battle, they needed to acknowledge that as a sin and do penance. In some circumstances killing someone might be unavoidable, but it is never “justified”.

    Western theology tends to be legalistic, and to make much of justification, or the lack of it. Orthodox theology seems to regard mercy as more important, which may be why we say “Lord have mercy” so many times.

    So in the scenario where someone is about to murder an innocent person, and the only way to prevent that is to kill the would-be murderer, then one might have to do that, but such a killing is never justified. The killer of the would-be murderer still needs to repent. There is no such thing as “justifiable homicide”. I find it odd that Western Christians, who make so much of “justification by faith” (and, among the Calvinists, “imputed righteousness”), should also claim so strongly that there can be justified killing, which amounts to self-justification, and is quite incompatible with “justification by faith”. The lesser of two evils is still evil, and we must repent, and not try to justify ourselves in the eyes of man or of God.

    One final point — I find this discussion very important, and very good in the way it has been conducted, and I’d like to ask permission of both Guy and Fr Ted to reproduce parts of it in another forum, on “Christianity and society”.

    1. Steve,

      It’s okay with me as well for you to reproduce my comments elsewhere. In fact, send me a link, i’d love to read it. (i do visit your blog from time to time.)

      i find your opening statement to be fascinating and want to understand more. So you seem to be identifying some sort of position between peace churches and acceptance of just war theory. What is the difference between a peace church’s position and the belief that violence is never justified? Wouldn’t the claim that “violence is never justified” be how a member of a peace church might sum up his own position?

      –guy

      1. Guy,

        You can subscruibe to the discussion by sending an e-mail to
        chris_soc-subscribe@yahoogroups.com
        And you can learn more about it here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/chris_soc/.

        Yes, a member of a peace church might well sum up their position as “violence is never justified”. But I think there is a sense in which peace churches are also affected by the legalism of Western theology, in that they tend to see abstaining from violence as something required by a law of God. In Orthodoxy it is seen somewhat differently — that it is not the law of God that tedermines our actions and behavior, but the love of God, and the more our hearts and lives are filled with the love of God, the less inclined we will be to behave violently.

        I should perhaps add that, as an Orthodox Christian, I feel more comfortable and at home among Mennonites than I do among just about any other variety of Western Christians. We have theological and ecclesiological differences, but there is something similar in the dynamics.

      2. Steve,

        i believe i understand your point now. So you’re pointing out the general difference between an Eastern and Western conception of salvation and sin, yes? Western conceptions include a moral law and sin as legal infractions. But the Eastern view is more analogous to health and disease. Could we say, then, that a peace church may tend to understand “violence is never justified” as identifying a particular moral law and any act of violence as a breach, whereas the Eastern Church might say that acts of violence are symptoms of the disease of sin and death, and as one is healed by the life of Christ, traces of violence and the attitudes/dispositions which give rise to violence dissipate?–is that a fair summary?

        –guy

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