This is the 10th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantine, the Church and War (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.
The early church, especially in the years of persecution, lived Christ’s teachings – martyrdom. We may lay down our lives for our friends, but there was no command to take up arms to kill any opponents. Modern historians note that the objection to military service in the early church rarely is expressed as opposition to violence, but rather more objects to the Roman military’s mandatory ritual pagan observances as unacceptable to Christians. The rhetorician Lactantius (d. ca 325AD) is thought by some to be by far the greatest defender of pacifism in Christianity at the time of Constantine. Leithart says of Lactantius, “If there is a patristic poster boy of pacificism, Lactantius is it.” Lactantius wrote:
“’…when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men.’ He made a broader demand as well: ‘it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, not to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 271-272)
Lactantius generally writes favorably of Constantine, yet on the issue of war and even killing, Lactanius is clear that warfare is not a Christian enterprise. However, even Constantine seemed to understand that truth. Constantine saw his having to go to war as emperor as part of the spiritual cross he had to bear, AND he postpones his baptism until his deathbed because he so respects the seriousness of the baptismal cleansing of sin, that he does not want to sin after his baptism. He takes his chance that God will give him time to repent, but then removes himself from leading any into war.
“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.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 257)
In the decades following Constantine, Christian leaders continued to struggle with issues of civil power, warfare and the Christian way.
“Ambrose (d. 397 AD) renounced self-defense and claimed that even the ‘thought of warlike matters seems to be foreign to the duty of our office,’ the office of priests. It is not the priest’s business to ‘look at arms, but rather to the forces of peace.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 276)
So St. Ambrose renounces even self-defense for priests, but by the time he dies the empire’s army is mostly Christian. The attitude toward war has clearly changed and now it is only priests who are exempted from warfare but the laity is not only not exempt from military service but is expected to fulfill its duty to the empire.
Another Western writer who wrote about the issue of violence and military serve, St. Augustine (d. 430AD), comments:
“Turning the other cheek ‘does not forbid punishment which serves a corrective. In fact, that kind of punishment is a form of mercy. . . . The only person suitable for inflicting punishment is the man whose love has driven out that normal hatred which rages in us when we have a desire for revenge. … we can love and punish a son at the same time.’”
Augustine appealed to the same analogy to draw a conclusion about war. When ‘the earthly city observes Christian principles,’ then it wages war ‘with the benevolent purpose that better provision might be made for the defeated to live harmoniously together in justice and godliness. Freedom is not the ultimate good, and restraining freedom can be a good when the freedom is being used to do evil. If possible, ‘wars would be waged as an act of mercy by good men so that by controlling unbridled passions they could stamp out those vices that ought to be removed or suppressed by an responsible government.’
Augustine … knew that warfare was most often perverted with pride, greed, lust for domination. … war had to be waged, when it was waged, for the sake of peace. Peace, not war, was still the Christian vision of the world subdued by the gospel.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, pp 277-278)
St. Augustine writes at a time when the empire’s army was almost totally Christian, and he lived through Barbarian invasions of Rome. So he had plenty to contemplate regarding Christianity, peace and war. He certainly does not extol the glories of warfare, but acquiesces to their necessity, and at times to their justification. If there was such a thing as an empire converted to Christianity, then there was going to be such a thing as Christians going to war – this could not be escaped in the fallen world, no matter what Christian idealism preferred. Wars might be necessary to attain a good.
Leithart sees the church struggling with notions of war, however, he does not think that pacifism is the only Christian thread running through early church history. Leithart offers examples of Christians who accepted the fact that military people too were in need of salvation and could embrace Christianity. Simultaneously, an empire needs an army at a minimum for self defense. Thus the Christian acceptance of the military after the conversion of Constantine was not in his eyes an abrupt about face on the issue of war, but rather was an organic and pragmatic development as Christianity’s role in the empire changed from persecuted minority to being the people with responsible for exerting power to run the empire.
Stephenson views Constantine as becoming a Christian while holding on to the powers natural to him as Roman emperor, and thus re-interpreting wars and armies in a peculiarly Christian way:
“As we have seen, there were many Christian attitudes to war and violence, and pacifism was certainly strongly represented among them. This remained the case after Constantine. But as a consequence of his conversion and the consistent message disseminated from his court that the ‘greatest god’ was his patron, Constantine established Christianity as the religion of victory within the army.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 278)
For Stephenson, pacifism did become integrated into the official thinking of the empire due to Christianity – not only priests, but monks too were exempted from military service. But Constantine reworks the Christian understanding of God by transferring the existing Roman idea of the “greatest god’ – the God who brought victory to himself and to the Christian people – to the God of the Gospel. To some extent this transition was helped by emphasizing certain teachings of God gleaned from the Old Testament. Leithart rejects the notion that Christians were all pacifists before Constantine and sees Christianity as ever embracing more concerns not just for Christians but for society and the empire itself as it moves from a persecuted sect to the catholic religion of the empire.
Thus a Constantinian effect on the Church was to get the Church not to be so completely other worldly, but to show the Church that it should be concerned with all the issues of people on earth and specifically within the empire in which they resided and of which they now enjoyed its protection and favor. The Constantinian legacy took the cross – the Christian symbol of God’s victory over sin and death and added to it, first, the notion of victory over paganism, but then victory over the enemies of the Roman Empire. Constantine saw himself as continuing what Jesus had begun on the Cross – becoming victorious over all adversaries of the one God.
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