On Defending Constantine

In Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart draws a complex, sympathetic portrait of the first Christian emperor.

Constantine ended the unimaginably horrible slaughter of Christians under Diocletian. It’s no wonder that Eusebius and other Christian bishops were overjoyed to see him come to the throne. Leithart writes that they had “witnessed Christians being roasted alive and then witnessed Constantine kissing the empty eye-sockets of a persecuted brother.” They can be forgiven for their understandable if overly optimistic expectations of what his reign would mean.

Constantine also ended the cult of animal sacrifice that supported the empire and the gladiatorial slaughter in the arena. He provided funds to care for the poor and the sick and gave the poor greater access to courts of law.

Like all emperors, Constantine sought glory and power. He could also be petty and vindictive.

Constantine was immersed in Rome’s military culture. He was in the Roman army from his youth to the end of his life, and like nearly every Roman emperor before and most after him, he was ambitious for territory and glory. Like his predecessors, he was willing to use brute force to attain his  goals, and he covered his violence with propaganda …

Leithart’s Constantine is certainly no plastic saint – and perhaps not even a model Christian – but neither is he the devil. He was, rather, both a fallible human being with Christian beliefs and a product of his age and social setting in 4th century Rome.

It is unrealistic, Leithart says, to expect him to have become a political leader in the mold of James Madison or Martin Luther King, Jr.

The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century? What were the constraints on his action? What, perhaps more important, were the limits of his imagination?

Leithart repeatedly contrasts his portrait of Constantine with what he considers to be a historically inaccurate and misleading caricature of Constantine in the writings of John Howard Yoder. Yoder has a naïve view of the pre-Constantinian  church as consisting of pure-hearted Anabaptists in togas (and universally pacifist and anti-Roman). The actual history and makeup of the church was much more complex. Following John Helgeland and others, Leithert finds considerable evidence for Christians serving in the Roman army (and Roman government). Even outside the armed forces, Christians weren’t always pacific in their actions. Christian-on-Christian violence was not unknown.

Leithart addresses Yoder’s writings throughout the book. He disagrees with both Yoder’s understanding of history and the major thrust of Yoder’s political theology (although he is actually sympathetic to Yoder’s theology at several points).

The major point of contention between the two is the relationship between the church and the state.

Constantine, and everyone in the empire, inherited a set of assumptions about the responsibilities of the Roman emperor. Caesar was responsible for the defense of the empire, for the administration of justice, and, equally important, for the sacra and sacerdotes of Rome. Cult was within his jurisdiction as one who had care of the status rei Romanae. That the emperor had oversight (“episcopacy”) of religious life was as natural to fourth-century Romans as the First Amendment separation of church and state is to modern Americans. It is hardly fair to expect Constantine and all the bishops of the fourth century instantly to abandon centuries of imperial practice as soon as Constantine converted.

Constantine thought that supporting Christianity would bring God’s favor on the empire and help establish it in peace. This is much the same idea that Constantine’s predecessors held about the various cults of Rome. Constantine built churches and provided funds for the church’s religious and charitable work. Because the Roman court system had become unwieldy and unresponsive to the needs of the poor, he allowed everyone to bring their cases before ecclesiastical courts instead of civil courts (and thus gave the bishops a measure of civil power). He appointed Christians to positions of authority within his government. He publicly sided with the Church and encouraged Romans to become Christians (but not at the point of a sword). He continued to tolerate pagans and paganism (to a degree) but abolished animal sacrifice. (For Leithart, the elimination of animal sacrifice is one of Constantine’s most significant acts, both politically and religiously.)

Constantine believed it was important for the church to be united in life and doctrine. When there were disputes, he encouraged the bishops to settle them. When necessary, he called the bishops to meet in council to decide the matter. And when the matter was decided, he expected everyone to get on board. Heretics and disturbers of the ecclesiastical peace could be exiled.

All of this is understandable from a historical point of view. Both the emperor and the church were in an unprecedented position. What came next?

. . . the church was already a state within a state before Constantine, and with the conversion of Constantine the church and the empire both were faced with the challenge of figuring out how the Christian polity and  the Roman polity were to relate.

As Leithart sees it, under Constantine the empire did not absorb the church. Quite to the contrary,

For many Christians, such as Eusebius, the task of the hour was not to integrate the church into the empire. The empire had lost the battle with the church, and it was the empire that should make concessions. The church was not incorporated but victorious; the martyrs’ faith had been vindicated, and the task was now to integrate the emperor into the church.

The 4th century church did not take what is commonly called a “two kingdoms” approach to this task.

Yoder claims that under the Constantinian system Christian rulers were expected to act like non-Christian rulers, accepting the “natural” limits of their vocation. But Eusebius – the Constantinian theologian par excellence – did just what Yoder said nobody did, and went a step further. Yoder makes the broad, rather surprising claim that under the Constantinian system Caesar can never be asked to live like a Christian because the gospel contains no ethics for officials. But Eusebius did expect Constantine to act like a Christian.

The Constantinian settlement was not perfect, Leithart admits. The emperor sometimes overstepped his authority and took upon himself the church’s own prerogatives. Worse, the church itself didn’t always remain faithful to its Lord in this new relationship with the Emperor.

Constantine did not always show restraint. Sometimes he took over business that belonged to the King and Queen [i.e. Christ and the church] alone. But if we want to judge Constantine fairly, we have to recognize that the Queen often had issues. . . . And the Queen had some responsibility to be true to her King. She was not supposed to be flattered by the blandishments of a Constantine or a Justinian or a Charlemagne. She was not to look wistfully at the emperor’s court, as she too often did, and remodel her own courtiers into the image of the emperor’s. . . . at times the Queen was only too happy to take a tumble with the emperor, provided he paid her handsomely for the pleasure-there’s a good biblical word for that (see Revelation 17-18).

Leithart says that in Constantine, the church baptized the empire. In saying this, he doesn’t mean that the empire did a 180 degree turn overnight or that that the church simply slapped a Christian label on a pagan system. Rather, he says, it was a new beginning.

[First,] something happened, some border was crossed; second, that this something made the Roman Empire “Christian” in some important respects; and, third, that this something was, like every baptism, only a beginning. It was, like every baptism, an infant baptism.

The question before us, however, is this: can what happened 1700 years ago serve as a model for us today? Does the Constantinian settlement have anything positive to say to us as we try to find our way forward. Leithart thinks it does.

Theoretically, Constantine’s policy has much to recommend it. On the  one hand, he retained the virtues of toleration. In principle, he treated religion   as a matter of choice and conscience, an area free of state meddling. At the same time, he saw this freedom as a time for conversion. He made no pretense of being neutral among religions but both verbally and practically supported the work of the one religion he regarded as true. Here, perhaps surprisingly, at one of the main points of criticism of Constantine, we find a policy that Christian political theory might in certain respects honor and emulate.

Leithart contrasts Constantine’s policy with the post-enlightenment religious neutrality often associated with the philosopher John Locke.

Constantine’s policy is more coherent than Locke’s because it is more honest.

Leithart and Yoder agree on this issue: the state and its laws cannot be religiously neutral. Yoder thinks that the state is and will forever be hostile to the reign of Christ. Leithart thinks otherwise. And this disagreement raises a very good point. What happens when a persecuted Christian minority is offered the reigns of power and told, “You think you’re so smart? Here, you try running things for awhile.” Do we say, “No, thanks. You pagans just keep running things and we’ll just keep saying that you’re going to hell for it.” That hardly seems like Christian responsibility.

If we are going to do justice to Constantine, we cannot sidestep certain  questions: Should fourth-century Christians, like the Jews [in the Bible], have rejoiced  in the king’s confession of the God of heaven? They did. Should they, like  Daniel and Joseph and Mordecai, have served in the imperial administration? They did. Should they, like Ezra and Nehemiah, have gratefully accepted the king’s largesse, which helped them build magnificent places of worship? They did. Should they, like Joseph and Daniel, have witnessed to  the truth even in the face of enticements, threats and imperial fury? The best of them did. Should they, like Daniel, have acknowledged that God, not the emperor, controlled history and that God’s people, not Babylon or Rome, was the secret center of the world? Nearly all of them did. Should they have recognized that the church has its own power and does not need to be bound to the sword to carry on its mission? Most of them did.

Theoretically, I can see how a government could officially recognize and encourage Nicene Christianity, incorporate a faith perspective into law and still allow others to live in freedom and peace. I have to ask the same questions, however, that Leithart asked of Constantine and the church in the fourth century. What are the real options, today? What are the constraints? What are the limits of democratic imagination?

As Leithart so clearly illustrates, Constantine adopted (and baptized) a religious and political model already extant in society. We don’t have that option. The enlightenment happened; pluralism and religious neutrality (even if somewhat illusory) is burned into the Western mind.

Constantine recognized that his policy depended on the unity of the church. There is no unity of life or doctrine within the church today.

The American evangelical movement of the 19th century tried to create non-creedal, non-ecclesiastical version of a Christian religious settlement. The movement ultimately failed and seriously distorted the faith in the process.

Leithart’s suggestion that the Constantinian settlement serve as a model for Christian political theory is unworkable in the contemporary environment. Nevertheless, I highly enjoyed the book and recommend it to Christians interested in church-state issues. The questions he raises deserve serious thought by Christians.