Defending Constantine image

Defending Constantine

Constantine is the guy everybody loves to hate. He gets blamed for everything: empire, compromise, greed, warfare, corruption, idolatry, syncretism, torture, murder, the Crusades, slavery, and the length of the word "Constantinople." His reputation is such that hardly anybody has a sufficiently robust background in biblical, liturgical, historical and political theology to say a good word about him, let alone to write a popular-level defence of the guy. Hardly anybody, that is, except Peter Leithart.

Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom is a very impressive piece of work. Leithart provides a historically documented, intellectually satisfying and rhetorically enjoyable set of contrarian answers to the usual questions: whether Constantine really had that vision (yes) and genuinely converted (yes), whether his support of the Church was a cynical manoeuvre because the writing was already on the wall (no), whether imperial Christianity was a good thing overall (yes), whether he moved Rome closer to religious freedom (yes [!]), whether he cowed the Nicene council into submission (no), whether he pushed Roman law and culture in a Christian direction (yes), and so on. He challenges the simplistic pacifist argument (that the church was pacifist until Constantine, at which point everyone switched and became warmongers), and provides a compelling rebuttal to the arguments of John Howard Yoder in particular. The book is far from a whitewash: Leithart is honest about Constantine’s many failings, both personal and imperial, and highlights the way in which his interaction with the Persians prompted a backlash against the Christians there that did lasting damage. But it does attempt, successfully in my view, a rehabilitation of the great bogeyman, at least when we understand him within his historical context. It is also a great read.

Two passages stood out to me, which contain plenty of insight for our day. The first relates to religious neutrality in public life, or the appearance thereof:

Locke is the great theorist of religious freedom? Constantine, more like.

Constantine’s policy is more coherent than Locke’s because it is more honest. Locke pretends to offer a level playing field but tilts it in the direction of a latitudinarian and sectarian Protestantism. Constantine openly favoured one religion, Christianity, and dedicated the empire’s pulpit, its incentives, its persuasive powers to encourage ultimate unity in religion. He allowed other religions to continue, in the hope that their adherents would convert ...

Space must be organised somehow. Something must be at the centre of a city, and that something is, in practice, going to be higher, bolder, bigger, more dazzling than the surrounding cityscape. Modern cities, where even great cathedrals cower in the shadows of insurance companies, banks, law firms, investment companies, high-tech corporations, are certainly not religiously neutral. To a Christian sensibility, modern cities are organised to lift up the idol Mammon above all others and to leave just enough space for the church to be a cheerleader or a marginal, cranky critic. Constantine had many faults and committed many wrongs, but he apparently knew this much: neither society nor social space, neither public life nor the space in which it takes place, can be religiously neutral.

The second concerns violence, sacrifice and the modern state. The italicised sentence (my italics) is fantastic:

Because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state. This means that there must be blood. Medieval life was rough and brutish in plenty of ways and had its share of blood. But believe that the Eucharistic blood of Jesus founded the true city provided a brake on bloodshed. Bishops imposed the peace and truce of God, and monks and others continuously modelled Christ before kings. Modern states have no brakes. Modern nations thus get resacralised because they are resacrificialised, they demand the “ultimate sacrifice” (pro patria mori), they expel citizens of the wrong colour or nationality or religion ...

Nihilistic politics arises when the modern state reassumes the role of sacrificer but then realises there are no more gods to receive the sacrifice—no more gods but itself. And there can be no more goats and bulls, since animal sacrifice is cruel and inhumane. Yet there is blood, more blood than ever, more blood than any ancient tyranny would have thought possible, and all of it human.

“All baptisms are infant baptisms,” says Leithart in his conclusion, presumably with a mischievous grin. He means this of Constantine, but also of Rome: we should not expect, as Yoder did, an immediate transformation when an empire “converts,” any more than we would expect it of an individual; baptism is a change of trajectory, the start of something not the end of something. As a credobaptist and a pacifist myself, I shouldn’t have enjoyed either this point, or this book. But I did, and I think you might as well.

← Prev article
Next article →