This is the 6th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantine and the Christian Bishops (1). 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.
As noted in the previous blog, Stephenson and Leithart evaluate quite differently the relationship between Constantine and the Christian bishops. Leithart, as his book title suggests, defends Constantine’s relationship to and affect on the church as more positive. Stephenson offers not an entirely negative assessment, but is more critical of the relationship. The fact is of course that Constantine brought about an immense change in the relationship of church and state in the Roman Empire – a complete reversal of policy. Because the change was so total and unprecedented, one would expect that there would be unanticipated problems for both church and state.
“Constantine knew that he too enjoyed spiritual authority, a divine gift, and that his acts of war were his askesis, from which his pragmatic authority derived. He also knew that in all categories his authority surpassed that of any single bishop or indeed of them all combined. If bishops were successors to the apostles, and by virtue of their ordination received the same Holy Spirit as had the apostles from Christ, Constantine came to consider himself a second Christ.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 257)
Stephenson raises several crucial issues in the above passage. First, there is the issue of Christianity’s relationship to the military interests of the empire, and the emperor as a Christian leading military warfare. These issues will be addressed further in future blogs. Second, Constantine’s ideas about the emperor’s relationship to all other citizens was shaped in the world of his holding absolute power and of the emperor being considered a god. There was no easy way to demote him to mere mortal status, but Constantine moves in that direction by considering “himself a second Christ.” While this offends modern sensibilities, within the context of the Fourth Century Roman Empire and the sometimes and somewhat subordinationist views of some Christians, Constantine’s self analysis might be more understandable: he sees himself as a son of God rather than as a god himself, however he may have understood that difference. Additionally, while Constantine casts the new church-state relationship in terms of Christ (Constantine) and the apostles (the bishops), he elevates the decisions and teachings of the bishops to a higher (divine!) level.
“As Constantine had reminded his bishops after Arles, ‘the judgement of the priests should be regarded as if God himself were in the judge’s seat, but when it was not, then he, Constantine, took that seat. The final right of appeal was to him alone, for the Holy Spirit had entered him as it did a bishop at ordination, and worked through him as it did a bishop when he administered the sacraments.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 275)
Constantine maintains his absolute authority in the empire, even while accepting Christianity. He is however elevating the role of the Christian leaders in the empire. Their decisions are to be respected as if coming directly from God. The elevation of the status of the bishops led to them being more incorporated into leadership status within the society. Stephenson sees this as somewhat negative because the bishops are being co-opted by the values of the Roman government.
The bishops were now “afforded titles as splendid as those attached to senators, ‘the most glorious (gloriosissimus) or illustrious (illustris).’” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 278)
Both Letihart and Stephenson note that Constantine’s immediate efforts in dealing with problems and divisions within the Christian community was to push the feuding factions toward reconciliation and for all parties to pursue peace in accordance with the teachings of Christ (we will look more closely at Constantine’s relationship to the Church in terms of internal Christian problems and divisions). In this aspect, Constantine is influenced by the Gospel teachings on brotherly love, concord and unity.
Constantine “participated in the discussion, often urging the bishops to practice moderation and pursue peace. Eusebius thought this all to his credit, but Eustathius later complained that the pleas for peace had the effect of shutting down debate and silencing the most effective speakers.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 169 )
In the end however, while Stephenson sees a negative Constantinian affect on the church, curtailing and co-opting church authority, Leithart points to several examples of Christian bishops openly confronting emperors and showing no recognition of imperial authority over the church. St. Athanasius who appeals his own case to Constantine also confronts Constantine’s son, Constantius when he became emperor.
St. Athanasius “in a remarkable rebuke” to the Emperor Constantius “demanded to know ‘what concern the emperor had’ with a judgment ‘passed by bishops.’ ‘When,’ he protested, ‘did a judgment of the church receive its validity from the emperor or rather when was his decree ever recognized by the church?’ One is tempted to say, ‘In 325, don’t you remember?’ Perhaps the bishop had forgotten Nicea … Or, perhaps, these questions expressed his own understanding of what was actually happening in 325. Even in 325, he did not think of the emperor as the leader of Christ’s church.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 184)
Leithart sees St. Athanasius comments to Constantius to mean that Athanasius never understood Constantine as having any real power or authority in the Church. Athanasius is a contemporary of Constantine and certainly had some sense of how the Church viewed Constantine’s embrace of Christianity. It appears that embrace included humbly learning his place within the Church.