This is the 4th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Did Constantine become Christian? This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books: Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.
Two of the important sources of information about Constantine are the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339AD) and the rhetorician Lactantius (d. ca 325AD). Because they often write in praise of Constantine, some modern historians are leery of their objectivity as historians. However, we can learn something about historians just by looking at how Leithart and Stephenson deal with Lactantius. Below is a quote from each of the modern historians dealing with a similar topic – Lactantius evaluation of Constantine’s competing co-emperors who were not tolerant of Christianity. The comments of Leithart and Stephenson betray or reveal their own assumptions (one can see how changing a word – reveal or betray – can change the meaning of a sentence).
“Not only did Lactantius delight in the misfortune and demise of the persecuting emperors, he also attributed them to the intervention of the god of the Christians, defending the interests of the faithful. Such an approach rejected the very premise on which martyrs had accepted death at the hands of their persecutors: that their god did not meddle in earthly affairs o bring misfortune upon Roman emperors. This was the first step in articulating a new Christian triumphalistic rhetoric… In doing so, Lactantius drew on an Old Testament model, the Second Book of Maccabees, which still forms an accepted part of the Orthodox canon. Thus, the opening refrain of each text thanks God for punishing the wicked, and the agonizing death of Galerius mirrors that of Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Maccabees 9). And just as Judas Maccabeus is promised divine aid in a dream before his victory over Nicanor, so Constantine dreams that he will conquer his rival Maxentius.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 109)
Stephenson casts Lactantius in a more negative light, but makes an insightful comparison to 2 Maccabees which helps us understand Lactantius desire to show Constantine is in the same religious tradition which includes Judas Maccabeus and Christ. Leithart sees the same tendency in Lactanius to rejoice in the demise of Constantine’s opposition but he then interprets this through the lens of “freedom of conscience.” Leithart sees Lactantius as interpreting Constantine as the defender of religious toleration and opposing those other tyrannical emperors who were persecuting the Christians.
“Though he detested the persecuting emperors and merrily detailed their gruesome deaths, Lactantius’s basic plea was for freedom of conscience. ‘Religion is the one field in which freedom has pitched her tent,’ Lactantius wrote, ‘for religion is, first and foremost, a matter of free will, and no man can be forced under compulsion to adore what he has no will to adore.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 107)
Stephenson interprets Lactantius’delight in the rise of Christianity as betraying an earlier Christianity – the Christianity of the martyrs. According to Stephenson the martyrs accepted their persecution and death because they were trying to demonstrate to the empire that Christianity was no threat to emperors or the empire and therefore should be tolerated. According to Stephenson, Lactantius completely abandons this ideal, reveling in his heavy Christian partisanship by rejoicing that the God of the Christians was in fact overthrowing the emperors. Stephenson’s thesis though seems to ignore the fact that Christians had a strong proselytizing ethic, believing that God’s dominion extended over everything including the entire Roman empire. Indeed when the Christians were a persecuted minority they had to deal with questions about why they were suffering and why God allowed evil to triumph and why they were persecuted. The Christians seem to have dealt pretty successfully with these questions: despite their suffering persecution withtheir leaders being martyred, the faith continued to spread and the Church continued to grow.
Leithart sees Lactantius well within the tradition of the early martyrs for in Leithart’s read of history just as the martyrs appealed to Rome for toleration of their practices (we accept martyrdom under the hand of the emperors: we will die for our faith but not kill for it) when the political fortunes changed and Christians were no longer being persecuted Leithart sees Lactanius as continuing to argue for freedom of conscious. Lactantius indeed rejoiced in the reversal of fortune he witnessed for his fellow Christians but at least according to Leithart he does not abandon the idea that each of us is called to exercise a freedom of conscience in choosing what we believe about God. The triumph of Christianity was not an immediate narrowing of the mind of the Christians but was cause for them to rejoice in what God was doing on their behalf.