The Myth of Constantinianism?

This is the 11th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is  Constantine, the Church and War (2).    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.

Modern historians who are completely critical of the impact of Constantine’s conversion on the Church usually lay the charge that the church ended up submitting to the will of the state.  Thus, so the accusation goes, Christianity became changed by the power and interests of the Roman Empire.  But there certainly are historical examples which show the church did not simply submit to the state, but that it in fact tamed the state and brought an otherwise pagan state completely in line with Christian ideals.  We saw earlier that St. Athanasius boldly confronted both Constantine and later Constantine’s son, Emperor Constantius and denied that the emperor had any power over the bishops.

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)

Athanasius as a bishop who actually met and confronted Constantine never recognized Constantine as having become the Church’s leader.  Athanasius participated in the First Ecumenical Council and so was an actual witness to the events that happened.  His comments don’t come from some later age when other Christian historians may have wanted to show how complete the symphony between church and state had become.

Athanasius (d. 373AD)  did not write any treatises of political theology, but his Life of Anthony was arguably an early counter to Constantinianism.  Not only did he record Anthony’s (d. ca 350AD)  insistence that Constantine was no more than a man and that ‘Christ is the only true and eternal Emperor,’ but he also laid out an alternative way of life for Christians in a Constantinian system.  Rather than conform to the standards of the political world, Athanasius implicitly urged, Christians were called to follow the ascetic example of humility found in Anthony.  Athanasius’s argument was not missed by later emperors, who, without leaving the palace, conformed their personal lives to Anthony’s example.  Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy claimed that St. Francis won political vindication when Lincoln walked unarmed into defeated Richmond.  Anthony too had his political victory.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   185)

The monastic movement was an active movement in the church at the very time Constantinianism was supposedly taking over the church.  The monks were a bold witness to the fact that Christ and Christianity did not submit to imperial authority.   It was emperors who came to recognize Christ as their king.

One other witness to the resistance of any supposed Constantinian take-over of the church comes from Bishop Ossius (d. 358AD) who was a trusted advisor to the Emperor Constantine.   Ossius wrote to Constantine’s son, Constantius:

 “…remember that you are a mortal man: fear the day of judgment and keep yourself pure for it.  Do not intrude into the affairs of the Church, and do not give us advice about these matters, but rather receive instruction on them from us.  God has given you kingship, but has entrusted us with what belongs to the Church.  Just as the man who tries to steal your position contradicts God who has placed you there, so you should be aware of becoming guilty of a great offense by putting the affairs of the Church under your control.  It is written:  ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God those that are God’s’  … Hence neither do we [bishops] have the right to rule over the world nor do you, emperor, have the right to officiate in the church.”   (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   186)

While the Christians certainly understood that God was working some miracle in bringing the Emperor and the Empire in submission to Christ, they also did not put their trust in princes or sons of men.    The empire might wield great power over the lives of its citizens, but the empire had to submit to the Kingdom of God, and Christians in the empire had their true loyalty to Christ and His Kingdom which were not of this world.

Next:   Constantinianism and the Martyrs