Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (III)

As an addendum to the blogs Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I) and Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (II), I offer two hymns from the Christmas services of the Orthodox Church.  In those two blogs I pointed out that the Nativity of Christ narratives in the Gospels according to Sts. Matthew and Luke were written not merely to record historical event but also to sound a challenge to the religious and imperial claims of the Roman Empire.  The Christian Gospel was confronting the false claims of imperial religion and power and placing the entire Roman Empire within the context of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God (note in the hymn below Augustus reigned alone ON EARTH, but not in heaven.  Augustus like any man lives only on earth and is answerable to God).  For the Gospel writers, the Roman Empire was not the context of the story of the birth of Christ, rather the Empire was being shown to be temporary and passing away.  That was a pretty bold claim for a religion that was completely disrespected by the imperial government and by pagan philosophers.











(Vespers of Christmas)

In other words with the birth of Christ, it is the nations of the earth which stand under God’s judgment rather than the foundling religion of Christianity being under the judgment of the Roman Empire.  The conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the embrace of Christianity by the Roman Empire is nothing short of miraculous.  The Christians had no armies, yet they defeated the region’s only superpower.   Christianity did not represent ideas compatible with Roman values, but rather challenged them.  Surely, some of the Gospel claims about Christ are already found in pagan religions and in the claims of the Empire about the Emperor.  But Christianity does not take the pagan and imperial stories and add more gods and miracles to its Gospel.  Rather it claims an exclusive truth to the Gospel and displaces all of the pagan and imperial claims with the Gospel.






(Matins of Christmas)

Christians respected the notion of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but then claimed even Caesar answers to God.

Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (II)

This is the conclusion to the blog that began with Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I).   In these two blogs we are looking at how the early Christians intentionally shaped the understanding of Christ and the Christmas story as a challenge to pagan and imperial Roman ideas concerning religion, creation, kingdoms and lords.   For example, Christians came to read some of the Jewish prophets as writing for and speaking to the Gentiles to prepare them for the coming of the Christ, and they came to see even in pagan literature references, however oblique, to the coming of the Messiah.

“Finally, as we saw in the previous chapter, a major aspect of popular early Christian perceptions of Isaiah was undoubtedly his role as a prophet to the gentiles.   In the patristic period the Book of Isaiah was much used in debates about one of the most intriguing gentile ‘messianic prophecies’, namely, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil, known as the ‘Pollio’.  In language and imagery often strikingly close to Latin versions of Isaiah, this first-century BC poem, written in honour of the emperor Augustus, foretells the coming of an age of peace, a new heaven and a new earth, heralded by the appearance of a virgin (iam redit et virgo) and the birth of a boy (nascent puero), where mountains burst into song, trees and flowers grow up in wild places, and goats and lions live together in peace.

Constantine the Great and Augustine both claimed the fourth Eclogue as a gentile prophecy of Christ, using Isaiah as the proof…”   (John Sawyer, THE FIFTH GOSPEL, ISAIAH IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, p 47)

The early Christians were so awed by the truth of the Gospel that they saw it supplanting and fulfilling not just Jewish prophecies or the promises of God in the Old Testament but also pagan religion and its oracles.  As already mentioned, the Roman Empire had no separation of church and state but understood the truth about religion as being foundational to its very success.  Thus the emperors’ own understanding of religion and divinity was essential to the well being of the empire.

“It was Augustus who established this dominant role for the emperor, and his divine power was conveyed through the various titles used for him.  Divi Filius, meaning ‘Son of the Divine,’ or ‘Son of God,’ was his favorite title.  This title appears on almost every coin that Augustus had minted.  … Augustus was considered Son of God because he had a god for his father, Julius Caesar.  Julius was deified upon his death by Augustus, thus also giving Augustus divine status.  Another prominent title for Augustus was Dominus in Latin, or Kyrios in Greek, which means ‘Lord.’  …  Another title for Augustus was Soter, meaning ‘Savior,’ a title conveying that he had saved the empire from instability and foreign powers for peace.  Augustus was also Pontifex  Maximus, ‘High Priest’…   Such is the sketch of the dominant kingdom and king in Paul’s lifetime—the kingdom of Rome, the kingdom of Augustus, the kingdom of god.  This divine king brought peace to the kingdom by means of military victory, and he was worshipped as a god by the people as a basic expression of loyalty to him.”  (John Fotopoulos in THINKING THROUGH FAITH: NEW PERSPECTIVES FROM ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SCHOLARS, p 25)

Pantheon in Rome

The Christian Gospel was a direct challenge to the commonly accepted ideas about the emperor and about religion.   Thus Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was a true conversion for the empire.  He came to accept the meta-narrative of Christianity as being the correct way to understand himself and the Roman Empire which he governed.  This challenge to imperial and pagan religion began in the First Century of Christianity, when Christianity had no empire or army to support its claims.

Evangelist Mark

Stanley Porter in his book,  HEARING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT,  describes the Gospel of Mark as a direct challenge to the Roman Empire’s claim about Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69-79 AD).  Even Jewish Historian Josephus (d. 100AD) claimed the Jewish scriptures foretold Vespasian’s coming to power.   Porter claims Mark’s opening line to his Gospel (“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”)  was written to oppose any idea that the Old Testament prophesied Vespasian as the savior:

“the Markan evangelist has challenged the imperial cult of the divine emperor… The Markan evangelist puts forward Jesus as the true Son of God, in whom the good news for the world really begins.”

 Porter thinks Mark wrote his Gospel the same year that Vespasian came to power.  Vespasian was

“regarded as divine, as savior, and as the beginning of the good news for the world.  In many other inscriptions and papyri Augustus is referred to as ‘son of God.’ … The language is applied to Vespasian when he was acclaimed emperor.  According to Josephesus, ‘every city celebrated the good news (evangelia)… the whole empire being now secured and Roman state saved.’”  (Porter, pp 93-94)

St. Mark rejects the notion that any Roman Emperor, mere mortal, could be the savior of the world.  The Roman Emperors’ reigns and ability to save the world were limited to their life on earth.  Jesus is prcoclaimed in the Gospel as  a King who rules forever, not from some earthly throne, but seated on God’s throne in heaven.

Thus the Christmas narrative though containing human description surrounding the birth of Jesus, was actually written to challenge both imperial claims and pagan myths.  The Christmas story as written is a powerful message of God’s Kingdom which transformed the mistaken beliefs of an empire into a proclamation of the truth about God, government and creation.

See the addendum:  Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (III)

Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I)

One aspect of the Gospel narratives concerning the nativity of Jesus Christ which historians especially point out is that the Evangelists tell the story to clearly compete with and challenge the claims which the Roman Empire had begun to make concerning their emperors.  While today, the popular portrayal of Christmas in crèche and card emphasizes the humanism of the story – the babe, the traveling/homeless holy family, the manger – the Gospel writers were sounding a challenge to the Roman imperial and religious claims of that day.  Challenging Roman authority in this way was not without its own risks to the Christians – that is part of the story we miss when we only focus on what we like in the story.  For the nativity of Christ also brought suffering – Herod slaughters the innocent children in an effort to kill the Christ child.  All of the claims of Jesus being Lord and King will be brought against Jesus at his trial when his death is demanded because He is portrayed as a threat to Caesar.  For example,

“The following was found chiseled on the ruins of an old government building in Asia Minor, dated 6 BC:

‘The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura;  Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all . . . The beginning of life and vitality . . . All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year . . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order;  and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest /PHANEIS/, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times . . . the birthday of the god (Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of good news /EVANGELION/ concerning him.’”   (Shane Claiborne, JESUS FOR PRESIDENT, p 70)

Here we read chiseled in stone that from his birth, Caesar Augustus is proclaimed to be divine, Savior, God manifest, and the beginning of the Good News (Evangelion).  These are all titles the Gospel writers apply to Jesus Christ.  The Romans had laid claim to these titles for their Emperor first;  the Christian Gospel writers take these claims and apply them to Jesus.   Thus there is a theological war taking place with opposing claims being made.  Which is true?  Who is Lord, Jesus or Caesar?

Another inscription, The Priene calendar inscription (9BCE), also from about the time of Christ’s birth but written decades before the Gospels were recorded reads:

“… since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior (soter), both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (epiphanein) … since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him…”  (Stanley Porter, HEARING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, p 93)

The Romans were beginning to deify their emperors, proclaiming each to be an epiphany and a savior, a king of peace.  Augustus declared his father a god, making himself of course the son of God.   It was against these imperial claims that the Gospel writers recorded the story of God proclaiming Christ His Son, not the human son trying to make his father into a god.

In the 4th Century the Christians continued to challenge Roman imperial claims as well as the claims of Roman religions.   For example, the exact birthday of Jesus is not known, which would seem to fit the claims of the story  – he is born into poverty and peasantry, so who would have recorded the date?   As the Christians increasingly understand the implications of the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, they began to challenge the pagan claims about the universe.  And so the Christians intentionally took on the claims of the birth of the Invincible Sun (held on December 25.  Some also claim this was the birthday of Mithras, a deity whose worship was extremely popular among Roman soldiers) and declared that the real birth that mattered was that of Jesus Christ not of the sun.  Thus the Christians boldly put forth that the Creator of the Universe should be worshipped, not things of creation, like the sun which is a star not a god.  In this sense Christians defied  pagan superstitions about the universe, and really advocated for scientific truth as a subtopic under the truth about God.    Unfortunately today, some Christians who limit their thinking by biblical literalism fear those who deny December 25 as Christ’s birthday and rather claim it was merely a pagan feast hijacked by the Christians.  Indeed the Christians intentionally took the date of the pagan feast, but did it because they believed in the truth of the Gospels and wanted to transform the superstitious ideas of the pagans into a search for the truth about God.   But certainly the Christians were not interested in replacing one set of mythology with another, rather they were aiming to move away completely from mythological claims about the nature of the universe, away from pantheism, to a clear understanding of the difference between creation and Creator.   This was not an effort to design creation science, but rather to help everyone see all truth about creation and the spirit world as pointing to the One Creator.

Next:  Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (II)

St. Constantine the Great Series (PDF)

The blog series I wrote on Constantine the Great is now available as a PDF if you prefer to read it as one continuous document rather than by following the links in the blog.

The series was based on comments from two recent books dealing with Constantine.  The first is Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR (you can read my short review of this book).   The book was a good history read, and portrays Constantine riding the military to power, but giving some credit to the unconquerable and greatest God – that of the Christians – which brought him to power.   The second book is Peter Leithart’sDEFENDING CONSTANTINE (you can read my short review of this book).  Leithart’s book was more polemical as he was intentionally defending Constantine and his legacy from modern (mostly Anabaptist) critics.

The blog series began with the blog Two Versions of Constantine the Great.  There are links in the blog to connect you to the entire set of the fourteen blogs in the series.

As noted you can access the entire series as a PDF at

A list of other of my blog series available in PDF can be found at

Christianity and/or Constantinianism

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?

Minerva: Goddess of Learning

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:

Liberty & Peace

“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.

Constantinople, Constantine’s Legacy

This is the 13th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Constantinianism and the Martyrs.    In this blog we will consider the legacy of Constantine in the history of Christianity through the writings of the two modern historians Paul Stephenson  (CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR ) and Peter Leithart (DEFENDING CONSTANTINE) as they consider the new capital of the Roman Empire which he established in the 4th Century.

Leithart and Stephenson do evaluate the reasons for Constantine’s rise to power slightly differently and also the degree to which Constantine embraced the Christian faith in shaping his policies and life.  Leithart sees Constantine becoming more consciously Christian and believes if we look at him from the eyes of Christians in the 4th Century, his embrace of Christianity is obvious and extensive.  Stephenson tends to see Constantine as incorporating Christian ideals into his already existing ideas of imperial power – crediting the God of the Christians with his rise to power, but interpreting these events from the point of view that many previous pagan emperors would have done.

These historians evaluation of Constantine’s legacy is most diverse and even irreconcilable in the comments that are made about Constantinople, the new capital city of the Roman Empire which Constantine creates.  Here we see how history is not simply facts but largely interpretation of what is known, surmised, and believed to be true.

Stephenson does not see Constantine as creating a Christian city and thus denies that Christianity was at the heart of Constantine’s rise to power (he sees this as being more military than anything else) nor part of the legacy Constantine wanted to create.

“The prevalence of antique statuary is a strong clue that Constantine did not conceive of his new city, as has so often been said, as a new Christian capital for the Roman empire.  Temples were constructed for pagan citizens … The first known chapel in the palace complex, dedicated to St. Stephen, was erected no earlier than AD 421 … a document called the Notitia, written in AD 425, which mentions fourteen churches.  If the population at the time were in the region of 350,000 each would have needed to house a congregation of 25,000…   Of the fourteen churches that are known to have stood in 425, only three or four can be attributed with any conviction to Constantine.  These do not include the first version of the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, dedicated only in 360.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 201-202 )

Leithart reluctantly admits that Constantinople does not represent a complete break with Rome’s pagan past.  However, in direct contradiction to Stephenson, Leithhart sees the signs of the emerging Christianization of the Roman Empire.

“From what we can tell at this distance, Constantinople’s break with the pagan past was not so self-evident.  … Notable churches dotted the city including the first form of the Church of Holy Wisdom and the Church of the Apostles, where for a time the emperor was buried.  Christian imagery was evident throughout.  Yet he also treated the city as a project continuous with the Roman past.  …  he erected a statue to Tyche, the goddess of good fortune, and at the top of the porphyry column that still stands in the center of the old square of Constantinople, he placed a golden statue of Apollo looking toward the rising sun, whose face was remade into the face of Constantine with an inscription that ‘intended to signify that instead of being a sungod Constantine gave his allegiance to the God who made the sun.”   (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 119)

However, Leithart accepts the evaluation of the ancient Christian historian Eusebius that in fact Constantine intended for his new capital city to be Christian.  Whereas many modern historians discount Eusebius’ history, Leithart is willing to give him credence as a much closer observer of events than we are.

“Inspired by a dream, Constantine founded the city shortly after his victory over Licinius and dedicated it on May 11, 330.  Eusebius found no hint of ambiguity.  In celebration of his victory over the ‘tyrant’ Licinius, Constantine established the city as an explicitly and thoroughly Christian civic space, having first cleansed it of idols.  Thereafter ‘he embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity.’  By honoring the martyrs, the emperor was simultaneously consecrating the city ‘to the martyrs’ God.’  The emperor insisted that the city be free of idolatry, ‘that henceforth no statues might be worshipped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood.’  Above all, he prohibited ‘sacrifices consumed by fire,’ as well as ‘demon festivals’ and all ‘other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious.’”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 119)

As a final comparision, I offer the evaluation of Constantinople as Constantine’s Christian legacy by modern historian Judith Herrin who wrote:

“Constantine brought sculptures from all parts of the empire to embellish his new capital, including the Serpent Column … an Egyptian Obelisk … Statues of pagan gods (Zeus, Heracles)… on imperial coins, Constantine adapted this type using the Tyche (Good Luck, Fortuna) of Constantinople ..  Gradually Christian symbols replaced the ancient ones: the Cross is used for the first time in the sixth century and a portrait of Christ in the late seventh.  The nature and degree of Constantine’s commitment to Christianity is disputed: his biographer Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea,  313-c. 340) emphasizes it above all else, while secular historians record his devotion to the unconquerable sun, Sol Invictus … The sacrificial element of pagan cult was gradually restricted; the killing of animals was to be replaced by the bloodless sacrifice offered to the Christian God.  …  So whether he was converted by the vision of 312, or only when he knew that he was dying in 337, Constantine spent most of his adult life as a patron of Christianity, supporting the previously persecuted communities; he endowed their grand new churches with liturgical objects …  It is not clear how many new religious buildings within Constantinople were built by Constantine.  He probably planned the church of the Holy Apostles, to which the imperial mausoleum was attached … In a decisive shift from the Roman tradition of imperial cremation, however, Constantine was buried according to Christian rites in the mausoleum…”  (Judith Herrin, BYZANTIUM: THE SURPRISING LIFE OF A MEDIEVAL EMPIRE, pp 8-10)

It is amazing that these three modern historians do not agree on a basic fact:  how many churches or Christian edifices were erected by Constantine or in his life time in his new capital.  Obviously history is not simply fact, which apparently can’t always be established, but history relies a lot on interpretation.   This is important to remember when we read ancient historians and modern ones.  When reading history, ancient or modern, we learn as much about the historians as about the history they present.  Many modern historians distrust Eusebius as a historian, but we see in the modern historians a similar problem: their beliefs form both the basis of the facts they report and the way in which they interpret those facts.

Next:  Christianity and/or Constantinianism

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

Constantine, the Church and War (2)

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)

Rome's Pantheon with Christian Symbols Added

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.

Martyrs Boris and Gleb

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.

Next:  The Myth of Constantinianism?

Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (2)

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.

Next:  Constantine, the Church and War (1)

Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (1)

This is the 7th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Constantine and the Christian Bishops (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.

Constantine elevated the status of the Christian bishops in society making them recognizable authorities, capable of dealing with some legal disputes between people.  He also declared that the public in general should come to respect the decisions of bishops since their decisions on issues were thought to represent the ideas of God.  Constantine soon came to realize there were warring factions within the church, and the granting of religious tolerance gave the Christians a legal status in the empire  which led to the Christians making legal appeals to the state to help settle property disputes.   This quickly became a means to ask the state to intervene in disputes in which there were disputing candidates each claiming to be the legitimate bishop in a city; thus the state was being asked to legitimize the bishop rather than it be purely a church decision .  Both Stephenson and Leithart see Constantine’s default attitude in these disputes to be one of trying to find reconciliation in order to maintain church unity.

“Letters written soon after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge demonstrate the emperor’s desire to end factionalism within the Christian community, lest this bring down divine wrath upon the emperor.  The sentiment is as authentic as the letters, for it reflects Constantine’s  conception of the summus deus  as a grantor of victory, which might be rescinded as surely as it was given.  Constantine’s concern for Christians was founded in a practical desire to ensure divine favour for his own enterprises, and this facilitated the emperor’s conversion from veneration of a summus deus  that he portrayed in the traditional iconography of Sun worshippers, to his public recognition of the god of the Christians as the true ‘greatest god.’”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  169)

Stephenson as is consistent with his presentation of Constantine sees his actions as being self-serving:  Constantine wants to please the God who brought him to power and interprets church divisions not as efforts to seek the truth but as threats to the empire’s receiving divine favor from the God who had brought him to power.  Constantine is the pragmatist and Christianity serves his utilitarian motivation.  However, Stephenson does acknowledge that Constantine’s concern is still authentic – there was no separation of church and state in the 4th Century Roman Empire; thus, part of Constantine’s role in defending the interests of the state is to assure that the gods or THE God is appeased through right worship.

Leithart  like Stephenson acknowledges Constantine’s political interests and motivations, yet Leithart sees Constantine being more inclined to support religious truth in his political decisions.  Constantine is a believer in the power of God, and understands that right worship and doctrine are essential for serving this one true God, and for securing God’s favor for the empire.  To this extent, Constantine is a believer in the Christian God and desires to serve this God who has blessed him.

“Constantine was a very skilled politician, and he had definite preferences, strategies, goals.  … his understanding of Christianity was inherently political, structurally similar to Diocletian’s Tetrarchic political theology: right worship of the Christian God would ensure the prosperity and peace of Rome, and right worship demanded the unity of the church.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 152)

Constantine never loses sight of his role as emperor even though he is coming to better understand Christianity and its implication for all aspects of life in the Empire.  Constantine embraces the monotheism of Christianity as it serves his purpose well for uniting the empire under one emperor, namely himself.  Constantine’s vision includes: one empire, one emperor, one God, one religion for everyone in the Empire.   The appeal of the Gospel to unity and oneness is appealing to Constantine’s own vision of the Roman Empire.  Polytheism could not unite all the diverse elements of the empire, but Christianity welcomed women, men, slaves, rulers, Latins, Greeks, Arabs, Africans and all humans to serve the one God of the universe.   Thus the Church does serve his political agenda, and yet the evidence also indicates that Constantine embraced the goals and agenda of the Church to bring the Gospel to all, and to help make things “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Constantine believes the one supreme God has desired the unity of his empire, and comes to understand his god-given role as to help bring about this unity.

Next:  Constantine, Heretics and Schismatics (2)