- Give the King Thy Judgments, O LORD (Part I)
- Give the King Thy Judgments, O LORD (Part II)
In the previous post, we looked at the context in which Constantine ruled by highlighting the significant events of his rise and reign.
Having set out the events that shaped Constantine’s historical context, the reforms and policies of his reign must be considered in this light. First, Constantine made reforms in the law that lessened cruelty and recognized the dignity of human beings. From constant foreign and civil wars to gladiatorial entertainment, to infanticide, to merciless punishments for criminals or political prisoners, Rome was a harsh and violent environment. Constantine began to reverse this trend. Most famously, he ended the persecution of Christians and extended tolerance to all religions in the empire. Constantine outlawed crucifixion as a means of execution and prohibited the use of torture on a person’s face, believing that the face reflected the image of God in man. The bloody spectacle of the gladiatorial games was also outlawed. Laws were also passed that expanded the property rights of women as well as afforded them more protection against sexual depredation.1 The practice of infanticide, which had always been condemned by the church, was largely undermined by a combination of laws which prohibited parricide (the hastening of the death of a family member), provided assistance to desperate mothers unable to take care of their children, and incentivized adopting parents to claim unwanted children as free or slaves.2
Such laws as those aforementioned would not be found objectionable by today’s secular-minded critics. But what of Constantine’s favor toward the church which shocks the conscience of modern notions of separation of church and state? The second kind of laws to be considered are those in which Constantine sought to defend the church and to restore to it what had been taken during the persecution. In this regard, he was not acting outside of his duty as a magistrate to see that justice was preserved by applying standards not inconsistent with laws concerning restitution in the Lex Talionis. Constantine began by extending exemptions from taxation to churches as were already enjoyed by pagan priests. He then went further by returning lands to churches that had been confiscated from them by the state. Property that had been forfeited by martyrs was also returned to family members or to the church if no family members survived. But Constantine went even further when he began to donate money from the public treasury in order to restore churches that had been destroyed or neglected, as well as constructing new churches and chapels. Yet, it may be argued that this action did not constitute state favor toward the church as much as it did the application of restorative justice. Constantine sought not merely to reimburse the church for its losses, but to restore them to the position that they would have held had the state not made war against them. Finally, Constantine also extended power and influence to the church by opening up the courts for the bishops to act as judges of disputes. While such action may seem to demonstrate an unhealthy union between church and state, it actually served as a check upon the power of the state that would have major implications for the development of law in the West.3 It has been typical throughout history for the state to try to accrue to itself a monopoly on administering justice. By allowing bishops to render judgment on civil disputes brought to them, pressure was taken off of an overburdened court system and resolution of conflict could be brought more quickly to the parties involved.4 It also served an educational purpose as people would not look to the state alone as the sole source of legal authority.
Constantine’s reforms did not end with mere defensive measures for the church, however. A third type of reforms may be categorized as offensive reforms and these, at least on the surface, are the most controversial. Though he originally allowed for the free exercise of religion in the empire, it was not long before Constantine began to move against paganism by prohibiting sacrifices. This may be considered by some to be an improper interference by the state in religion, yet similar cases of prohibition of animal sacrifice can be found in modern jurisprudence as recently as 1992.5 Even modern tolerance has its limits. In trying to reconcile Eusebius and Lactantius, Peter Leithart has argued that the prohibition of sacrifice was not actually enforced. The statement of prohibition in the law served as a moral lecture and helped to create an environment where sacrifice would be discouraged and eventually disappear.6 In addition to the prohibition of sacrifices, pagan temples and statues were torn down and destroyed. By such action has not Constantine become the monster he replaced by persecuting pagans or was he simply continuing the liberation of the empire that he began? Keeping in mind the religiously charged nature of the pagan state, Eusebius provides context with the following explanation:
For as soon as he understood that the ignorant multitudes were inspired with a vain and childish dread of these bugbears of error, wrought in gold and silver, he judged it right to remove these also, like stumbling-stones thrown in the way of men walking in the dark…. They ordered the priests themselves, amidst general laughter and scorn, to bring their gods from their dark recesses to the light of day: they then stripped them of their ornaments, and exhibited to the gaze of all the unsightly reality which had been hidden beneath a painted exterior.7
In Eusebius’ view, Constantine was not acting as a tyrant, indeed, he also notes that Constantine did not use soldiers to accomplish this task, but was removing the mask of idolatry which had allowed the Roman state to dominate the people and exposed it as a fraud. Reminiscent of Isaiah 44:15, Constantine demonstrated that the gods of Rome were powerless after all.
In Book I, Chapter 10 of Life of Constantine, Eusebius sets out his purpose for writing the biography. “But my narrative…will yet derive luster even from the bare relation of noble actions. And surely the record of conduct that has been pleasing to God will afford a far from unprofitable, indeed a most instructive study, to persons of well-disposed minds.”7 The account is to serve as an instruction manual for princes as much as it is to recount the details of Constantine’s life. The messy details of Constantine’s less noble actions as well as any criticism of his reign are noticeably absent. However, this does not mean that the church was living in a golden age. Indeed, the persecution had stopped, and the church did grow and prosper as a legal religion favored by the emperor, but these were accompanied by their own share of setbacks and losses as is true in every age in the life of the church.
One of the most significant problems besetting the church after the proclamation of the Edict of Milan was nominalism. It no longer cost anything to confess Christ and join the church; on the contrary, such actions were encouraged. While Constantine did not use the sword to force people into her fold, the church gained many among her number who were not truly converted but wished to participate in a religion that was now in vogue throughout the empire. This was a problem, but problems were not unique to the life of the church. Numerous heresies had oppressed the church in its first three centuries even as it existed as a persecuted minority on the margins of society. In the half-century prior to Constantine’s rise, the church had been divided between “rigorism” and “laxism” over how to handle Christians who had lapsed under the persecution of Decius and Valerian. Those who lament the supposedly tragic fall of the church under Constantine end up portraying the years prior to his reign as a kind of golden age to which we should return (or have returned), which is also inaccurate. Has nominalism failed to manifest itself just as thoroughly in the modern era of separation between church and state? Phillip Schaff pointed out that the real distinction between the Constantinian and modern church is much more subtle indeed: “We have among ourselves almost all the errors and abuses of the old world, not collected indeed in any one communion, but distributed among our various denominations and sects.”8
Another noteworthy problem resulting from Constantine’s reign was the dangerous precedent of an emperor calling and participating in an ecumenical church council. While the degree to which Constantine dominated the council is debated by historians, at the very least his presence at the council was motivated by a desire to force the church into a unified position for political purposes. True unity on the divinity of Christ was not achieved until the Council of Constantinople in 381. While a Christian emperor should preserve the peace and create conditions in which the church may prosper, Nicaea confirms that it is only the Spirit that can bring true unity. When factions in the church know that the power of the sword is on their side, the command “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” can be overcome by the temptation to wield the temporal power. The short-term gains the creed produced there resulted in longer-term pain as Constantine’s son would side with the Arians and use the sword to persecute the orthodox.
There are many other failures of Constantine’s reign that may be discussed: from the apparent lack of due process surrounding the execution of his son, Crispus, and wife, Fausta, to the exile of Athanasius. The church likewise bears some of the fault during this time, for in their great appreciation for and admiration of Constantine, they may have been only too willing to identify Constantine’s reign as the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on earth. This was indeed true of Eusebius. The resolution to this problem would be found nearly a century later in the work of Augustine.
Constantine rightly gave thanks to God for his victories and Eusebius boldly claimed that it was God who put Constantine on the throne and gave him sole control of the entire empire. Such claims strike us as more than a little presumptuous. But even the humble act of kissing the Son (Psalm 2) implies a lofty claim that that sovereign is God’s man to rule. For who else would recognize his authority as deriving from a higher power but the one whom God has chosen to bless (Psalm 128)? Yet, the soaring rhetoric of Eusebius went beyond mere acknowledgment of God’s promise to bless the king who fears him to the identification of Constantine’s reign with God’s eternal purposes. Believing that he was witnessing the fulfillment of Isaiah 27 and the introduction of a millennial kingdom,9 Eusebius failed to dispense with the absolutist rhetoric of the previous pagan state which perceived itself as the locus of the gods’ work on earth. Constantine and Eusebius recognized the religiously charged nature of the pagan Roman world and desired to reorient its aim toward the one true God. However, they carried on the assumption of the ancient pagan world that saw the state as a healer rather than merely a dispenser of justice (Romans 13:1-7).
The dismal realities and messy details of subsequent political life tended to provide an antithesis to the Eusebian propaganda. Shortly after Constantine’s death, his son, Constantius, sided with the Arians and began to wield the sword against orthodox Christianity in the name of Christianity. Later, Ambrose, as a leading representative of the church in the West clashed repeatedly with the emperor Theodosius providing further evidence that even an emperor claiming the name of Christ did not automatically speak for God or for the church. Finally, the cataclysmic events of Rome’s fall to Alaric in 410 A.D. provided the death blow to Eusebius’ apologetic. If the God of the Christians was supposed to ensure the continual peace and prosperity of the Christian empire, why did the empire fall?
Into this gap stepped Augustine to synthesize the contradictory events of the previous century: the elevation of a Christian prince and the sacking of the ancient imperial city. What was God doing? Augustine provided an answer by distinguishing the City of God from the earthly city. This was not a distinction between the spiritual and physical world made by the Gnostics, nor a distinction between church and state, but a distinction of loves. The love of those belonging to the City of God is set upon God as the highest good. The love of the earthly city is set on self.10 The City of God can infiltrate and work for the good of the state as much as the city of man can infiltrate and work to the detriment of the church throughout the time between man’s fall and final redemption. Furthermore, the City of God is one where perfect justice reigns. The classical philosophers defined justice as “giving everyone his due.”11 If God is worthy to be loved and worshiped as the highest good, Augustine reasoned, then there can be no truly just society for all men fail to give God His due given their fallen nature. Thus, no earthly city can approximate the City of God for no earthly city is made up of those who render perfect justice.
By this formulation, Augustine does not reject Constantinianism in favor of a complete separation between church and state, but he does significantly modify it. Contrary to the modern liberal understanding, a state cannot be neutral in Augustine’s view because there is no such thing as people who do not love and worship.12 It is never a question of whether there is a love, but who or what that love is. Yet, at the same time, no state can represent the kingdom of God on earth because even the best state is made up of fallen sinners unable to render perfect justice. For Augustine then, the state in general is a necessary evil created with the purpose of restraining evil and preserving order. Absent justice, the state is nothing more than a band of pirates.13 In the presence of justice, a state may be a blessing from God. In either case, Augustine presents the state as having a narrow function and is skeptical about what it may accomplish beyond preserving the peace. However, he does not rewind the church’s clock back to a pre-Constantinian conception of the state, nor does he call for a radical separation between church and state as would be later advocated by the Anabaptists in the 16th century and Enlightenment secularists of the 18th century. Augustine does not see the Constantinian shift as a step backward, but he does diminish the importance of Constantine’s reign without openly criticizing him by showing that God’s work in building His City is a much larger work than man can imagine or at times even understand.
Discussions about Constantine’s legacy beg the question as to what the proper role of the Christian prince is. While it is the preaching of the gospel alone that changes hearts, what is the prince to do if his heart has been changed? Should he merely make a neutral space? As we have seen, Constantine lived in an environment steeped in paganism. Despite miserable failures, Constantine worked to provide justice as well as to reorient the empire toward the true King of kings and away from the tyranny of gods and emperors that had gone before by desacralizing the state. The danger of Constantine’s agenda was the co-opting of the church by a state that saw itself as God’s representative on earth. While this tradition would continue in the East in the form of Caesaropapism, Augustine’s philosophy served to limit the power of the state in the Western world by inculcating a distinction between the City of God and the earthly city. From Augustine’s modified Constantinianism, we should learn to acquire a healthy skepticism of not only the state but the Enlightenment secularism which has grown over the past three centuries. Recovering a more accurate understanding of the legacies of both Constantine and Augustine would go a long way toward helping the modern church to live out an embodied, counter-cultural faith in an environment where, thinking itself free, it has found itself largely co-opted by secularism.
- Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010), 205-207. ↩︎
- Leithart, 218-221. ↩︎
- Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 311-590, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 103. ↩︎
- Leithart, 217. ↩︎
- See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc., v. City of Hialiah, Florida (1993). In that case, the Supreme Court ultimately struck down a state statute that prohibited ritual animal sacrifice as a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment because the intention of the statute was aimed specifically at prohibiting the practices of the Santeria religion. However, this case is worth noting to show that even modern secular states, like Florida, have limits in what they believe to be within the bounds of legitimate religious freedom. However, the court has left the door open for states to restrict certain religious practices where the aim of the law is directed at a legitimate state interest and the burden on the religious practice is incidental. See Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990). ↩︎
- Leithart, 128-129. ↩︎
- Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1:10. ↩︎
- Schaff, 95. ↩︎
- Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3:3. ↩︎
- Augustine, City of God, 14:28. ↩︎
- J. Mark Mattox, “Augustine: Political and Social Philosophy”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/aug-poso/. Accessed 2 November 2023. ↩︎
- Augustine, City of God, 19:24. ↩︎
- Augustine, City of God, 4:1-6. ↩︎