This is the 14th and final blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. We are considering the books by Paul Stephenson (CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR ) and Peter Leithart (DEFENDING CONSTANTINE) in evaluating Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire. The previous blog is Constantinople, Constantine’s Legacy. Did Constantine and the Empire become Christian, or did Christianity become tamed and imperialized by Constantinianism?
A number of Christians in the initial centuries of Christian existence wrestled with whether Christianity had any relationship to Athens (pagan philosophy) or Rome (worldly power). What many of them could not even imagine is what would it mean for Christianity if the emperor himself became a Christian. So Constantine’s embrace of Christianity caught many Christian leaders – who were far more used to thinking of Rome as that beast which persecuted them – by surprise. No one apparently had made provision for this, they obviously did not think it inevitable since they were proclaiming a Kingdom not of this world, and Rome was the worldly power most oppressing them.
There was no precedence for the Christians to shape what it means for the emperor to tolerate let alone embrace Christianity. What unfolded was the unplanned for and rocky marriage between the Church and the emperor/empire. Neither side knew exactly how to work it out, and yet the event was upon them. Some aspects of this marriage worked, and some experiments failed, and what emerged in Constantine’s lifetime was a marriage in progress, not a finished product.
We see evidence of Constantine fully embracing some of the teachings and concerns of Christianity.
Constantine “saw it as his duty as emperor, in Lactantius’s words, ‘to protect and defend orphans and widows who are destitute and stand in need of assistance.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 217)
There was a new attitude even toward things at the heart of what it meant to be Roman – military might and triumphing in the mortal combat of gladiatorial games or in war. In the early Second Century St. Justin the Martyr (who professed that truth was truth, even pagan truth is truth) wrote that as a result of accepting the Gospel, “we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willing die confessing Christ” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 256). In Constantine’s day we find similar sentiments expressed in the poets of the empire. Prudentius (d. 413AD) wrote a poem:
“Whoever would worship God
Properly with the whole burnt offerings, let him above all offer peace.
No sacrifice is sweeter to Christ; this gift alone please him with a pure Aroma when he turns his face toward the holy altar.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 251)
No longer was animal sacrifice, let alone human sacrifice in the gladiatorial games valued more than peace. Peace became the official offering and sacrifice to God. (Which many believe is reflected in the now awkward and uncertain phrase in the Orthodox Liturgy: “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”)
Constantine’s original tolerance of Christianity came in the form of a general tolerance for all religion in the empire. But as Constantine became more committed to the values and teachings of Christianity, he also became confronted by the diversity and divisions (schismatics and heretics) within Christianity. Prior to Constantine, these divisions were dealt with by excommunications, after Constantine the competing factions asked the empire to intervene in their disputes. This too was an unexpected and unplanned for affect on how Christians dealt with each other. Constantine believed it his duty to ensure peace and tranquility in the empire and so naturally assumed he had this god-given role in the church as well. He tried to use church methods to solve these problems – appealed to the bishops to rule on the disputes, and called forchurch councils to permanently settle the problems. Constantine also had no precedent to learn from about how to be the Emperor and also be a member of the Church. So his dealings with church problems show some inconsistencies, fits and starts and changing direction, failure to resolve conflicts, and mistakes. The record doesn’t show him taking over the church, but being actively engaged in the religion whose God he believed had brought him to power. He asked for church leaders to solve problems, and then offered to solve problems with the authority only he as emperor had. It is also obvious in his thinking, that Christian belief had influenced him and he did desire to continue to receive the favor of the God who had brought him to power.
“Once the empire was a creedal empire, heresy could not be seen as a tolerable difference of opinion; it was subversive, an attack on the vitals of the imperial body, and had to be expelled. Inevitably, then, the empire founded on a monotheistic creed fractured and eventually yielded to a commonwealth of Christian peoples, the Byzantine ‘empire.’
It was not long after Constantine, as Alasdair MacIntyre points out, that people of goodwill decided that maintaining justice, peace and civilized life did not require the maintenance of the Roman empire. Some left for monasteries, while others continued in the empire but not of it. Whatever Constantinian moment there had been was over, ironically assisted by Constantine himself, who not only failed to prevent the empire’s inevitable collapse but probably helped to hasten it.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 293)
Leitharts’ conclusion is that the very merging of the state with the church in the Roman Empire did bring about great changes in ecclesiology and authority. Simultaneously however, the issues that were of greatest concern to the church became the problems of the state, and this in Leithart’s opinion weakened the empire’s might and power, and eventually fractured the empire itself. Constantine’s effort to embrace the church directly contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. This in Leithart’s final evaluation is the real legacy of Constantinianism.
The Greek Christians tried to live up to the ideals of the Christian empire that Constantine envisioned and embraced, but found Christianity fragmented by those who rejected centralized imperial power running the Church: monastics, Monophysites, Nestorians, Latins and a host of others (all the non-Greeks of the empire). Constantinianism thus failed to take over the church. Eventually the Roman then Byzantine empire disappeared into the dustbin of history, while the Church continued to carry out its mission to go into all the world, even when and where Constantinianism did not and could not exist.