This is the 8th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (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.
Constantine was a politician, and a rather successful one at that. Both Leithart and Stephenson note his default tendency in dealing with internal Christian disagreements was at first to appeal to unity and to push the parties toward submitting themselves to the will of the church as expressed through decisions rendered by bishops in council.
“When Constantine first learned of the dispute (Arian), his first instinct, as usual, was to urge concord. ‘Do ye both exhibit an equal degree of forbearance,’ he wrote to Arius and Alexander. … For himself, the emperor considered it ‘wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded,’ since ‘those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear.’ … Both the one who asked ‘unguarded questions’ and the one who offered an ‘inconsiderate answer’ should seek ‘mutual forgiveness.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 167)
Thus Leithart sees Constantine as attempting to follow a path of wisdom in which he recognizes human causes for the divisions which occur in the church – some who cause disturbance by asking questions merely for curiosity or sport and those who quickly take offense at such questions. Constantine’s solution is to lower the rhetoric and tension and to encourage both sides in a dispute to ask for mutual forgiveness. Here we see Constantine advocating for Christian morality, rather than relying purely on the force of power that he would have as emperor in settling any dispute which threatened the concord of the empire. Obviously a Christian vision for the church influenced his thinking on how to deal with conflict within the church.
However when Constantine saw that appeals to reason, to peace, and to Christian unity did not end some of the disputes and that the warring factions continued to appeal to his authority, he was willing to exercise the power he had as emperor to intervene. Even so, Constantine appeals to theology in the actions he takes; his concern is that the disputing factions are bringing disrespect to the “greatest god” and this is not acceptable as it threatens the entire empire with losing God’s favor.
Constantine wrote: “Those who incite and do things so that the greatest god is not worshipped with the requisite devotion, I shall destroy and scatter. … those whom I find to be opposed to right and religion itself, and apprehend in violation of the due form of worship, then those without doubt I shall cause to suffer the due penalties of their madness and their reckless obstinacy.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 263)
To the Donatists Constantine said: “Those same persons who now stir up the people in such a war as to bring it about that the supreme God is not worshipped with the veneration that is His due, I shall destroy and dash to pieces.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 84)
Constantine had some sense that there is a correct way to worship God, and he came to see the disputing factions in Christianity as dividing not only the Church but in their opposition to one another calling into question which form of worship was the correct way to approach God. By causing divisions in the church, the Christians were not able to worship God in a consistent and proper manner but instead were divided into different sects each worshipping God in its own manner. Constantine interpreted this as a threat to the empire.
Constantine saw in his duty to protect the empire from not only external enemies but also from those within the empire who might offend the one God who had brought him into power and who had bestowed peace and unity on the empire. Constantine wrote to heretics and schismatics:
“…it is no longer possible to tolerate the pernicious effect of your destructiveness, by this decree we publicly command that none of you henceforth shall dare to assemble. Therefore, we have also given order that all your buildings are to be confiscated … to prohibit the gathering of assemblies of your superstitious folly.” ….. Constantine’s professed policy of toleration for all faiths, for which he had fought his last great war against Licinius, foundered on the diversity of Christian doctrine and practice. In the name of unity he persecuted those whose beliefs were now far closer to his own than those held by worshippers of Sol Invictus, and still more than those of devotees of Dionysius or Asclepius.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 270-271)
Though Constantine pursued efforts to maintain unity and concord within the Church, he became incensed at the stubbornness of certain Christian leaders to resist Church unity/conformity. In his lifetime his efforts to attain peace and unity are obvious in his wavering of which side in various disputes to support. Especially when one faction did not back down even in the face of imperial threat, Constantine did switch sides and try to bring the more stubborn party into unity by joining them. This did earn him the rebuke which we noted from St. Athanasius.
As Stephenson notes, sadly for Constantine, his support of Christianity which led him to decree a toleration of religion bringing an end to Christian persecution, revealed the unexpected divisions in the Christian Church of schismatics and heretics. Now Constantine’s ideas of toleration and his default tendency toward concord proved ineffective in dealing with divisions within the Church. His call of the first Ecumenical Council brought together his desire for Christian concord, with his trust that the bishops had the authority to decide on internal church disputes, and with his willingness to put imperial force behind the decisions of the bishops. Yet all of this did not bring a quick and sure end to disputes. For imperial authority was not recognized as the final say in church matters, and a spiritual wisdom was valued more than mere force in dealing with theological disputes. Thus the charge that a Constantinian change took place in the church in which the state simply took control of church life cannot be sustained by the evidence. Constantine himself was not able to enforce Constantinianism. The Arian crisis continued despite Constantine’s efforts to end it.