Give the King Thy Judgments, O LORD (Part I)

Constantine, Augustine, and the Legacy of Western Christendom

The streets of Rome thronged with celebrants awaiting the advent of the victorious new emperor. Though it was typical for emperors or kings upon their ascension to be contrasted with their predecessors and praised as the ushers of a new era of peace and prosperity, on this day the world really was different from that which existed in those previous. It was October 29, 313, the day after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Regardless of what actually occurred leading up to the battle, whether there was a sign in the sky or a message communicated in a dream, Constantine emerged the victor, and the church of Christ had indeed entered a new era. For the first time, a sympathizer, if not yet a believer, of the Christian faith sat on the imperial throne. This change in the political context of the early church has been regarded as a negative one by many in the modern world. Constantine and “Constantinianism”[1] are easy targets for those holding to a broad spectrum of varying theological persuasions and serve as a kind of shorthand for critics for all that is wrong with Christianity in general and the church in particular. From Dan Brown’s fictional Da Vinci Code, which was very popular among secular audiences, to Anabaptist theologians such as the late John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, to even a segment of the Reformed community,[2] the “Constantinian shift” is a lamentable detour in the course of church history that has happily expired, and any remaining vestiges of it must be continually eliminated.

Surely all sides would acknowledge some immediate benefits to the early church due to Constantine’s ascension, the most obvious being the cessation of the fierce persecution of the church begun under Diocletian and continued under Galerius and Maxentius. Some critics, however, would claim that the presence of a Christian emperor and his continued favor towards the church set up problematic trajectories that weakened the church over time through nominalism and syncretism. Others, based on historical myths, would object more strongly to Constantine’s supposed use of the sword to force conversion to Christianity. In either case, Constantine’s legacy is considered to be a net negative for the church in history. However, a proper analysis of Constantine must do more than run his ideas and his actions through the grid of modern liberal secularism, the propositions of which are largely accepted uncritically by moderns, Christian and non-Christian alike. What if the Enlightenment and the precepts of modern secularism are not actually an improvement upon Constantinianism and thus not a valid standard of evaluation? What if agnostic neutrality in the public sphere is a myth? Rather than the standard hasty dismissals of Constantine and Western Christendom that followed in his wake, it is the intention of this author to provide a more Augustinian critique of the church and state relationship in the fourth and fifth centuries from which we may benefit today. In God’s providence, Constantine was used to guard the church as it rose into a new position of prominence in the world which brought its own unique benefits and problems and, tempered by the political philosophy of Augustine, constituted a step forward in the history of the Western church.

In this post, we will consider the context in which Constantine ruled, and in the next we will analyze Constantine’s reforms and some of his failures, as well as examine Augustine’s modification of Constantinianism.

Constantine’s World

Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, or Constantine, was born circa 280 A.D. in Naissus, modern day Serbia. His father, Constantius Chlorus, was a successful Roman general; his mother, Helena, was a pious woman of humble origins who later converted to Christianity. In the years before his birth, the Roman world had been plagued by instability and war. Before Diocletian took power in 285, Rome had been ruled by no less than twenty emperors over the course of the three preceding decades, some for no more than a few months at a time before being assassinated and replaced by yet another short-lived reign. To preserve the gains that he had made against Rome’s enemies abroad and to ensure unity and stability at home, Diocletian split the empire between the east and west in 286, creating a Diarchy. Diocletian governed as Augustus of the Eastern half of the empire while his friend Maximian was made Augustus of the west. Not long after, in 293 A.D., Diocletian split the empire again into four parts consisting of twelve dioceses and created a Tetrarchy. In this new system, there would be two senior emperors, Augusti, and two junior emperors, Caesars; each would govern one-quarter of the empire. This would eliminate, Diocletian hoped, the civil wars of succession that had destabilized the empire and emboldened its enemies on the frontier. Constantine’s father became the Caesar in the west and governed the empire’s westernmost regions of Britannia, Gaul, and Iberia.

The church, however, had enjoyed relative peace and freedom of worship since 260 A.D. when Gallienus ended the first empire-wide persecution that was begun by his grandfather Decius in 251 A.D. and had continued under his father, Valerian. Though still a vast minority, Christians at this time were able to rise amidst the pagan culture to positions of some influence. It was the presence of these Christians in Diocletian’s administration and in the army that caused him to panic in 299 A.D. when the sacrifices he offered at Antioch failed.[3] Unable to read the entrails of the sacrificed animal, Diocletian’s diviners claimed that the sacrifices were being interrupted by Christians since they were not participating in the pagan rituals. Also, the junior Caesar in the East, Galerius, was encouraging Diocletian to increase the persecution due to his personal hatred of Christians, possibly to further his political interests as well.[4] At first, Christians were purged from the administration and the army, and then by 303 A.D. the most brutal empire-wide persecution yet was in full swing. It was Constantius alone who continued to tolerate Christianity in his region and only half-heartedly carried out Diocletian’s decree.

It would be a mistake to interpret the persecution that raged against the early church as simply a punishment for failure to comply with imperial edicts. On the contrary, the politics of persecution contained a significant religious dimension. Unlike the modern world, where it is presumed that sacred space can be neatly separated from the secular public realm and relegated to a small, privatized sphere, much of the ancient world sacralized the state itself.[5] Thus, the boundaries of the sacred were coextensive with the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The peace of the empire was connected with the peace of the gods and procurement of this peace required sacrifice.[6] To engage in sacrifice was to perform a civic duty. Failure to participate constituted nothing less than treason since it was “a fundamental challenge to Roman identity and that carefully crafted balance between the Roman state and the gods.”[7] When Christians staunchly refused to sacrifice and claimed loyalty to the one true God, it was inevitable that they would then become the sacrifices for Rome’s insatiable gods. In Constantine’s world, there was never a question as to whether sacrifices would be made, but only one as to who would be the object of worship. The God of the Christians and the gods of Rome were at war. It is likely that Constantine witnessed these battles as martyrs boldly testified to the superiority of their God, refusing to buckle under the power of Rome in the face of torture and death.

While his father was sent to govern the far western dioceses of the Empire, Constantine was to stay behind to be educated under the wing of Diocletian and then Galerius in Constantinople. It was at this time that Constantine began to display his military capability and leadership potential. He must have understood that in some sense he was being held as prisoner, for when given permission to reunite with his father, Constantine did not wait for the Eastern emperor to change his mind but rode through the night to ensure his escape. The early church father, Eusebius, drew a parallel between Constantine and Moses in his biography.[8] Like Moses, Constantine was trained as a prince before fleeing the oppressor’s court and leading the people of God to their deliverance. Shortly after his safe arrival in Britannia, Constantius died, and the western army supported Constantine’s claim to his father’s position as a member of the imperial court. This was not how Diocletian’s system of succession was supposed to work. Nonetheless, due to the current political circumstances, Constantine was recognized as the Caesar of the west by the other co-emperors.

Having secured the western portion of the empire, Constantine began to move against his rival Maxentius, who controlled Italy and North Africa. Eusebius claimed that Constantine was motivated in this quest by compassion for the people and desired to remove the “weight of tyrannous oppression” under which they suffered.[9] To what extent this was true and to what extent Constantine simply desired to increase his own power is a matter for speculation. Nonetheless, it is agreed by all that Maxentius was a violent and licentious ruler who fully participated in the persecution of the church. It was here at the gates of Rome where accounts begin to diverge as to what Constantine saw that inspired him to make the Chi Rho and cross the standard under which he fought. Whether Constantine was truly converted at this time cannot be known; however, there can be no doubt that he understood this conflict to be a religious, rather than merely a political, war. Modern cynics may be quick to see Constantine’s use of Christian imagery in battle as a cheap form of propaganda not unlike that used by American politicians during an election season or on the eve of war. Once again, this analysis fails to account for the sacralized nature of the state in the ancient world. The gods were at war, and, however limited Constantine’s understanding of theology may have been at this point, he believed that the God of the Christians was superior to the gods of Rome. The victory over Maxentius confirmed this to Constantine. As Constantine entered Rome in triumph, Eusebius records that the emperor gave thanks to God for the victory.[10] Later, while celebrating the tenth anniversary of his reign, Eusebius writes that Constantine “offered prayers of thanksgiving to God, the King of all, as sacrifices without flame or smoke.”[11] Constantine had begun the process of desacralizing the pagan state.[12]

In 313, Constantine entered into an official agreement with Licinius, now the sole emperor in the east, at Milan which extended the freedom of religion to all faiths throughout the entirety of the empire. This agreement was short-lived. Licinius began to persecute the Christians once again. According to Eusebius, Constantine believed it his duty to relieve the oppression of the church in the east and thus went to war against Licinius. Constantine once again was victorious and by 324 A.D. stood alone as the sole Augustus of the Roman Empire. Diocletian’s system of dividing power came to an end, and Rome was united under one ruler, which was the appropriate reflection, Constantine believed, of the rule of one God over the world.[13]

While the empire was united under one ruler, the church was divided in the midst of a serious dispute. Beginning around 318 A.D. Christological controversy erupted in Alexandria between that church’s bishop, Alexander, and a presbyter, Arius. Arius affirmed that the person of the Son was created by the Father, that there was a time when the Son did not exist, and therefore, that Jesus Christ was not co-equal with the Father. Arius was deposed from his position, but took refuge with sympathizers of his view and continued to spread his influence outside the bounds of the church. Just one year after his victory over Licinius, in an effort to bring unity to a deeply divided church, Constantine took the unprecedented action of calling an ecumenical council at Nicaea. Prior to calling the council, Constantine wrote to Alexander and to Arius urging them to reconcile over a matters he deemed to be “small and very insignificant questions” of doctrine.[14] While the church had convened regional councils to resolve disputes in the past, Nicaea would be the largest council to date and the first to be called by an emperor in his official capacity. The Council of Nicaea concluded by adopting the word homoousios or “of the same substance” to describe the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, affirming that Jesus Christ was fully divine and an uncreated being. Arius and his followers were anathematized. Despite his best efforts, Constantine’s attempt to unify the church had only superficial success for this creed marked only the beginning of a conflict that would continue throughout the rest of his reign and only be resolved at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D.

Notes

  1. This term as well as “Constantinian shift” were coined by John Howard Yoder and used as shorthand to refer to the transition that took place in the church when Constantine became the first Christian emperor.
  2. Those who hold to the Natural Law/Two Kingdom theology have been most critical of Constantine or the idea of Christendom. See http://heidelblog.net/2013/06/surrounded-by-constantinians/
  3. Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 16-17.
  4. Leithart, 19-20.
  5. George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service, (Eugene Oregon, Cascade Books, 2012), 13.
  6. Kalantzis, 15.
  7. Kalantzis, 21.
  8. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1:12.
  9. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1:26.
  10. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1:39.
  11. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1:48.
  12. See Leithart, 329-331.
  13. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2:19.
  14. Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2:71.

 

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Jared Lovell

Jared Lovell is a deacon in the Reformed Episcopal Church serving Grace RE Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jared is a classical educator, teaching European and American history at Memoria Press Online Academy, and is a teaching fellow at the Wayside School.


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