Defending Constantine is the book I needed to read in college.
Peter Leithart’s biographical apology for one of Christian history’s most despised figures would have come in handy during all those dialogues with friends in which we asserted, with an inverse relationship between our confidence and actual knowledge, that a lot of the problems facing the church today (that is, American evangelicalism) started when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In my mind, you could draw a straight line from Constantine’s accomplishments right to the wolves-in-sheep-clothing of the American Religious Right. Both represented the same reprehensible ideal: taking the Gospel and using it for political gain.
“’Constantinianism refers to a theology and ecclesial practice that took form when the church assumed a dominant position in Roman society. Constantinianism is the wedding of piety to power, the notion that the empire or state, the ruler of civil government rather than the church, is the primary bearer of meaning in history. When the church succumbs to Constantinianism, Christians think they need to link themselves to the ‘real powers’ in the palace or the White House in order to get things done, in order to take some control of history” (176).
Here’s what I’ve come to learn since those days: the more a person blames Constantine for all the troubles that have befallen the Bride, the more likely it is that such a person doesn’t actually know what Constantine did. What Leithart writes about John Howard Yoder’s work on Constantine applies, I think, to a popular audience of Christians today: they’re more concerned with Constantine as a shift in church affairs than Constantine the man and convert.
And this is where Leithart’s book comes in handy. Starting with the persecution of Christians under Diocletian, the author traces Constantine’s rise to emperor and the evolution of his policies toward both the minority Christians of the empire and the overwhelming pagan population. He shows how Constantine at one point tried to create freedom for other religions in the hope of their adherents converting to the one, true God—and how at other points issued edicts against heretical groups and ordered their property seized (although these edicts weren’t always enforced).
In this regard, Leithart doesn’t defend Constantine’s actions toward these groups so much as he tries to set the record straight. He writes of how Constantine held the Jews in contempt, threatened those proselytizers who tried to win over Christians, and augmented the ban on circumcision. The author also notes that in some ways, life for Jewish people didn’t change with the rise of Constantine. Some of their privileges were allowed to stand.
“… apart from his ‘violently prejudicial language,’ and it is both violent and prejudicial, his legislation changed the lives of Jews very little. Jews were permitted to serve on municipal senates, and Constantine extended the same tax exemption to synagogue heads and other Jewish leaders that he offered to Christian priests (CTh 16.8.2, 4), thus enabling ‘a system of Jewish self-government that strengthened Jewish life and identity.’” (132)
Again, it’s important to remember something about this book: this is not an apologetic for everything Constantine did. Leithart, in my opinion, has not tried to soften the blow of what the first Christian Roman emperor did while in office and the effects of those actions, whether for good or ill. Defending Constantine succeeds in its purpose, and that is simply to correct some of the misperceptions and false claims about Constantine today.
Constantine also desired unity among the church and worried about how the disunity in Christian circles would negatively affect their missionary efforts among the pagans. Unity was his goal when he attended the Council of Nicea, and here, I was surprised to learn that Constantine did not go to the council until he was invited, and even then, he was an unbaptized Christian. (I remembered only later that the emperor was baptized soon before he died.)
Even when he was there, Constantine did not impose his will upon the bishops in attendance. He plead for peace, apparently to the point that people started complaining that Constantine’s overtures were shutting down debate (169). And while the emperor exercised influence at the council—Leithart writes that Constantine’s interpretation of homoousios helped persuade bishops to vote for the creed—he did not impose his will upon the church. The church continued to hold councils over Christological debates, and it did so without Constantine. (One would also wonder of the point of the councils, if this question had already been answered, forcefully, by the emperor.)
Even if this had been Constantine’s goal, the people in attendance wouldn’t have made it easy for him:
“Doubtless … he entered the Arian dispute disabused of any naïve expectation that the bishops were going to be easy to work with. They would not be. Arius was a strong personality, and persistent; Eusebius of Caesarea was a widely respected scholar and writer, a force to be reckoned with; Athanasius, who attended the council as a diaconal assistant to Alexander, would prove to be the strongest of all, willing to rebuke an emperor to his face” (168).
After Nicea, bishops continued to insist on their independence from Constantine and his successors, even if they were glad for imperial support. Hilary of Portiers, for instance, criticized Constantine’s son, Constantius, after he stopped persecuting the church and instead tried to flatter it. For Constantius’ attempts to make nice with the church, Hilary went so far as to call him an antichrist (186).
The book lists several of Constantine’s achievements and policies, which served to baptize the Roman Empire. Constantine tried to fight corruption in the judicial system by allowing litigants to appeal their cases to the bishops, who worked for free and thus wouldn’t be tempted to give “just” verdicts to the highest bidders (216). He shut down the gladiatorial games. He prohibited crucifixion but not all forms of torture (201–202). He extended the benefits that married couples enjoyed, such as retaining property rights, to celibates (205). Constantine increased the penalty for unjustified divorce, although men could continue to divorce their wives for infidelity while wives could not divorce their husbands for sleeping with prostitutes (206). He ordered tax assessments to prevent the lower class from being taken advantage of by those in power (209). Constantine didn’t outright prohibit the practice of exposing an unwanted child to be killed, but he try to undermine the practice in other ways. For instance, he gave people who found the exposed children the right to decide if the child would be free or a slave. This, the emperor reasoned, might help curb child-killing:
“For some Romans exposing their children and, by all odds, killing them would be preferable to selling them to slavery. … If parents know that their children could end up as permanent slaves, they might think twice about setting them out” (220–221).
In the remaining chapters of the book, Leithard confronts the works of people like John Howard Yoder, who have insisted that before Constantine, the church maintained a pacifist stance (though the term itself may be anachronistic). Leithart shows that there was not one Christian opinion on whether believers could serve in the military; instead, the church picked up on an already existing tradition after Constantine. In another instance, Leithard disproves that the “Constantinian shift” stifled the church’s evangelistic mission.
Along the way, Leithart countered some of the misconceptions I’d had about Constantine. I’d always imagined that so-called “Christian” emperor acted out of political gain, not from genuine spiritual passion. But Leithart points out that Constantine didn’t gain much from alienating the vast majority of pagans under his rule, so the idea that he could gain political capital from embracing a minority religion—a fast growing one, to be sure, but a minority one nonetheless—just doesn’t make much sense.
If anything, Defending Constantine adds complexity to a discussion that is often engaged with too much simplicity, and that is the role of the Christian church in the affairs of the state. What, exactly, is our stance to be? The cooperative good citizen? The strong prophetic voice? Is it always wrong for the church to have political power, and is that power something that can even be avoided? You might think the answer to the first half of that question is no, but keep in mind that every time Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was talking about a political position as well as a spiritual one. Perhaps our spiritual and political stances cannot be so easily separated, and if they can’t, then we need more responsible ways of talking about them both.
The book raises another complex question: what is the government’s role when the church doesn’t act as the church should, to the detriment of others? The apostle Paul wrote that the government is the servant of God, who gave it a sword to enforce justice. Does it have the right to encourage or tell church leaders what to do, or should the government mind its own business? I used to think that any intervention into the church by Constantine was automatically bad, but statements like this have at least given me pause:
“… if we want to judge Constantine fairly, we have to recognize that the Queen often had issues. A queen’s bodyguard ought to keep his hands off the queen, but what does he do when she turns harpy and starts scratching the face of her lady-in-waiting?” (188)
Not only does this book raise good questions, but it knocks down caricatures that had embedded themselves as historical facts in the minds of Christians. Constantine’s rise to power and his conversion to Christianity did not so change the church that its bishops became obsessed with political power and nothing else, a sorry state of affairs that didn’t cease to be until the Protestant Reformation or the Anabaptists or, well, you can insert your own heroic tradition here. Like most things in history, the relationship between the new Christian emperor and the church was complicated, messy, and at times, contradictory. (Leithart notes that Constantine could be swayed too easily by contrasting figures, Arius and Athanasius among them.) That doesn’t mean that some of his policies weren’t reprehensible—there’s simply no excusing his belligerence toward the Jews or the murder of his wife and son—but it does mean that the window we’re looking through it’s clear. It’s stained glass.
I enjoyed this book. My only reservation about is that I had trouble keeping track of who everyone was in the earlier chapters. I found my footing when Leithart discussed things with which I was more familiar, but if you’re completely new to church history, then you might want to keep Wikipedia or a trusted history source nearby for when you reach a topic that you hadn’t heard of until you got to that passage.
That said, this is a strong book and worth the time of anyone who’s willing to learn.
- Full title: Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
- Publisher: IVP Academic
- Released 2010
- 327 pages (not counting the preface, acknowledgments, index, or bibliography)