Defending Constantine— Part One

In recent years Constantine has come in for some extremely heavy criticism.   On the one hand he has been accused on imposing Christianity on a reluctant and mostly pagan empire.  On the other hand he has been accused of polluting Christianity, and not even being a genuine Christian.    On the one hand he has been accused of simply being politically astute and backing the right horse (namely Christianity) without himself ever really becoming a Christian,  and on the other hand he has been accused of forming the Christian canon, helping to dictate the key terms in the Nicean creed, and other things.   On the one hand he has been accused of being morally rigoristic and something of prude as well.  On the other hand he has been accused of murdering his own wife and son, and marrying another woman thereafter. The frustrated student of history has a right to exclaim— ‘Will the real Constantine please stand up’.

Critics of Constantine, such as Craig Carter (see his The Politics of the Cross), John Howard Yoder (lots of books  see e.g.  The Priestly Kingdom), Jacob Burkhardt  (The Age of Constantine the Great) and Ramsay MacMullen ( Constantine, and see also Voting on God) have done their best to make Constantine look like one of the true bad guys when it comes to Christianity and its relationship to Empire.  Into this frey has come Peter Leithart, and as the title of this post suggests,  he takes a different viewpoint, to say the least.

Let me say from the outset that Defending Constantine, whether you buy what Leithart is selling or not,  is one of the most interesting and well written historical books I have read in a long time.  And one thing Leithart is very good at is showing the flaws in the arguments and the flies in the ointments that the aforementioned writers have been offering.  So you need to strap on your seatbelt when you read this book as it is quite the ride on the roller coaster.    In this post we must begin with a few basic contextual matters.

The Roman Empire in the era of Diocletian and thereafter was a very different place than the Roman Empire in the first century A.D.  Take for instance the issue of Roman citizenship.   Already in 212 A.D. Caracalla had promulgated an edict granting citizenship to all free residents in the Empire!   By the time we get to Constantine,  Roman citizenship was and had not been for a  century the privileged status of a few.    There was in theory only one city, Roma, one law, and one worship throughout the Empire which was expected of all citizens.  In this situation,  deviation from Roman religion by any citizen became not just bad form, or bad religion, but treason punishable by death (see Leithart, p. 35).  It is no accident that the first Empire wide persecution came under Decian in A.D. 249-50, which is to say after the law of 212 had taken effect, Empire wide.   What had happened was that instead of tolerance of local deviant religions as long as the Roman gods were also honored,  local cult was united to local government on the terms dictated from the top— the Emperor.  The Empire had become a politically and religiously monolithic entity.

But with this privilege of citizenship came responsibilities, including the worshipping of  the Emperor.  One of the major legal reasons for the major persecutions of Christians by Diocletian and others was because they were not playing by the rules that Roman citizens had to play by in that period of time.   Christianity was not a licit religion, unlike Judaism, the exception which proved the rule,  and anybody else, including Christians had to obey the laws incumbent on citizens.    What was seen as especially obnoxious and weird about Christians is that they didn’t offer sacrifices to any god, and this is one main reason they were called atheists—-  no sacrifice, no religion as far as most ancient Romans were concerned.

The second factor, rightly pointed out by Leithart is that modern Christians often don’t understand about the Roman Empire is that religion and politics were always necessarily intertwined, and involved the Emperor himself, even without taking into account the imperial cult.  By this I mean that Emperors, and Romans in general, all believed that the favor or blessing of the gods on Roma depended on the appeasement of the gods through proper  sacrifices and other religious rituals.  If the gods were not pleased and appeased, then things were not well in the body politic called the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire stood or fell on the basis of the foundational virtue of pietas, piety, reverence for the gods, or so it was believed, and indeed it is clear enough that the Emperor Constantine also believed that the honoring of whatever God there was, was a non-negotiable job for the Emperor if he wanted to secure the stability, and the prosperity of the Empire.  This was job one, and the Emperor was in fact the pontifex maximus  (the high priest— a title later taken by the Pope).   Constantine, once he did become a Christian and became convinced about the truth of Jesus Christ believed that he had to,  as an Emperor, make sure that Christ and his worship was a central part of the religious life of the Roman Empire.    The essence of ancient religion was after all priests, temples, and sacrifices, and so it is no surprise that once Constantine had secured the throne as the sole Emperor, he quite understandably went on a building spree when it came to basilicas or churches all over the place, including in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

During the same time period,  A.D. 212- 312 (when the Edict of Milan was issued, on which see the next post),  Christianity was growing rapidly throughout the Empire.  Not only Decian,  but later Diocletian found it easy, when things went wrong in the Empire (say another loss of a war to Persia or Germanic tribes)  to scapegoat Christians— those anti-patriotic  anti-religious Christians.   What was an Emperor to do when a large and growing part of his citizens were acting in such ways?  The result was various crack downs and persecutions.  It is into this situation that Constantine came and stopped the persecution dead in its tracks,  helped issue an Edict of tolerance quite specifically to keep it that way, and swore allegiance to Christ and the cross.   One might think that Constantine would be applauded for stopping the persecutions and accepting Christianity as a legal religion.    But in fact, he has been vilified for what he did.   In the next post we will begin to explore his story.

Uncommon Sense– Part Two
Kingsman– The Secret Service
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Forward Thinking about “Reading Backwards’ Conclusions
  • Friar_Tuck

    This is helpful. Thanks.

  • Watchman

    What Constantine did to Christianity is he tainted it with politics and military might. What was once a group of ragtag men and women belonging to the kingdom of God became sword-wielding citizens of the kingdom of the world. The Christian no longer was a peace-loving pacifist, but instead became a forceful, patriotic, citizen of Rome no different than today’s American Christianity. The early Christians up until Constantine were in most part pacifists. Those who did serve in the military were encouraged to participate in non-combative roles only, or otherwise leave their post. This is why Roman authorities thought Christians were treasonous and unloyal to Rome, along with their refusal to bow to Caesar. One of the early church fathers that predates Constantine writes:

    “The divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword.” (Tertullian)

    Gregory Boyd writes about this in his book, “The Myth of a Christian Nation” and Anabaptist author David Bercot writes about this in his book, “The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down”.

    Although Constantine saved many Christians from dying under persecution, it was only replaced with further allegiance to politics, bowing at the altar of worldly kingdom patriotism rather than the godly kingdom serving cross.

  • ben witherington

    And in fact Leithart shows that this view of early Christianity in fact is partially wrong. By no means were all early Christians pacifists and the reason many did not participate in the army was because it required worshipping pagan deities. Christianity always had social and political implications, which is what got Jesus killed in the first place. Christianity was not turned into a more political and militaristic entity overnight. Constantine did not go around recruiting Christians for his army.


  • JeremyJ

    Hey Dr. Ben, I agree that Constantine has been vilified both in the church and outside the church and most times for contradictory reasons, as such both cannot be true at the same time. I also agree that his move to make Christianity the religion of the empire did indeed stop the persecution of Christians for the most part (see Diocletian and Galerius). With that said what are in your view the legitimate criticisms of Constantine? I’m thinking mostly of the rise of the idea of Christendom (union of Christianity to the Earthly kingdoms) as seen in the writings of Augustine and the flooding of the Church with nominal Christians resulting in the subsequent diluting of the Christian faith amongst the laity, and clergy for that matter.

  • David

    Constantine, like every other political leader, mistook the spiritual “powers to defeat enemies” as another magic sword of power, a weapon of supernatural ability to defeat the Empire’s enemy. The peace of Rome under Constantine had a new sword. Kind of like today’s American christian backing Israel’s militarism and the American Military/Industrial/Political Internatuional Allied Complex god. Amen.

  • Watchman

    Dr. Witherington,

    The history books seem to beg to differ. How can you reconcile some of the following quotes about early Christians and military service? Were these just a minority? Or, did the early Christians interpret Christ’s teachings as advocating non-violence? It seems the latter is prevalent in most historical Christian text up until the 4th century AD.

    “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.”
    —Hippolytus of Rome

    “For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature.”
    —Arnobius, Adversus Gentes I:VI

    I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command… Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.
    —Tatian’s Address to the Greeks

    “Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.”
    —Disputation of Archelaus and Manes

  • ben witherington

    Watchman you need to read Leithart and see. I don’t dispute these quotes but they can’t be globalized. They don’t represent all early Christians.


  • David Withun

    It’s unfortunate that the ignorant but zealous have to ruin what could otherwise be very interesting conversations. Thank you, Dr. Witherington, for this post; I look forward to reading the rest of your posts on this topic.

  • D C Cramer

    If I can “defend Yoder” for a moment:

    Yoder rarely talks about Constantine the person. Rather, he openly acknowledges that “Contantinianism” is more a label for a shift in Christianity that took place slowly over the course of hundreds of years. Moreover, it wasn’t Anabaptists such as Yoder who first started using Constantine as the symbol for this shift. Using Constantine’s name as a symbol was first done by those who thought the shift was a good thing–something God ordained (e.g., Eusebius, medieval Catholicism). The Anabaptists simply appropriated the the symbol of Constantine already in use and turned that meaning on its head.

    Secondly, Yoder doesn’t argue that pre-Constantinian Christianity was uniformly pacifist. Indeed, the fact that these church fathers spoke against Christians in the military suggests that it was happening to some extent. Moreover, Yoder acknowledges that many of the reasons they gave for not participating in the military had to do with pagan worship, but (a) he believes that idolatry is present in the military today–putting other priorities (national security, democracy, etc) above discipleship to Jesus, and (b) the father’s rejection of the military because of its paganism need not (and in fact does not) negate rejecting it also because of its use of bloodshed, which is also clear in these early father’s writings.

    For a good discussion of these issues, see Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Brazos 2009).

  • Ryan Collins

    Whoa! Constantine had a huge nose!

    Great post, as always.

  • ben witherington

    Yep there is a lot of shade for Christians under that Roman nose :)


  • Jeremy Sexton

    Here’s what Stanley Hauerwas says about Leithart’s book:

    “Asking me to write a review of Peter Leithart’s defense of Emperor Constantine may seem like asking the fox to inspect the henhouse. My work, after all, has been closely identified with that of John Howard Yoder and in particular with Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism. Leithart, moreover, makes clear that though Defending Constantine is a biography of Constantine, his primary purpose is theological- he has written his book in defense of Constantine and to provide a critique of the work of Yoder. Not exactly a project designed to warm this theologian’s heart.

    “But I think Leithart has written an important book that does more than help us to better understand the complex human being who bore the name Constantine. More significantly, Leithart’s criticisms of Yoder’s account of Constantinianism is one that Yoder would have appreciated and taken seriously. For unlike many who criticize Yoder, Leithart has actually read him appreciatively. He understands that even if Yoder does not get the “historical Constantine” right, that does not mean Yoder’s case against Constantinianism is mistaken. The history matters, Leithart makes clear, but how it matters is finally a theological question.

    “Leithart has done his historical homework. As far as I can judge, he uses the best scholarship available to develop an engaging biography of Constantine as emperor and human being. To make a long story short, Leithart argues convincingly that Constantine was a real Christian; that the significance of his vision of the cross before his victory at Rome is confirmed by his subsequent action; that though he was not a subtle theologian, he was convinced that the Christian God is the heavenly Judge who opposes those who oppose him; and that Constantine’s interventions at Nicaea were appropriate and substantial. Leithart acknowledges that Constantine’s Christianity did not qualify his war-making proclivities, nor did it make him less a Roman politician who, when necessary, was ready to execute those close to him. Nonetheless, Leithart makes the case that Constantine was a much more complex figure than the stereotypes suggest.”

    Read the rest here:

    Peace of Christ,

  • Anthony

    Prof Witherington – Thanks for posting on this issue. I work at a Mennonite institution, and graduated from this institution as an undergrad, and have certainly been influenced by this tradition. However, I am Presbyterian by upbringing, and Anglican by choice, which, of course, are both not Pacifist traditions. My conviction is that all Christians should engage Yoder, and other pacifist thinkers, if only so that their embrace of political realism or just war theory will not be an easy embrace.

    At this point, my thinking is that the Kingdom of God cannot be established or advanced through the sword, that it is a “peacable kingdom” that is advanced in a manner consonant with God’s self-offering on the cross. That said, it seems to me that in the larger economy of God’s relationship to the world, there is a place for the restraint of evil, and that the sword has a function in such restraint, and that Xians can pick up the sword to participate in this work. The hitch in this is to be clear that such participation is not to be identified with God’s ultimate will, which is revealed in the Gospel, but rather this work is a provisional work in light of the evil of this present age. Such sword wielding work is not redemptive, it is merely restraining, and Christians as Christians, should ultimately seek the former.

  • Anthony

    So, regarding what I was moving towards in my previous comment, the thing about Constantine is that his conversion foregrounds the issue of a Xian’s relationship to the sword in light of God’s work to restrain evil. Prior to his conversion this was not even an option as the Empire was firmly entrenched in idolatry and imperialism, and so, sword wielding was merely a tool of this reality. After his conversion, I imagine that Christians were forced to address the issue of whether sword wielding, in a society that has embraced the faith, is now possible in light of God’s work to restrain evil. Of course the key question is: in what sense, if any, can a society embrace the Gospel, and does this sense allow for sword wielding?

    In the end, it seems to me, as I said previously, that sword wielding will always be provisional and tragic. And so, I am glad for a historical examination that attempts to get at the complexity of these issues.

  • Ampat Varghese

    It’s simple. Yes, there were two kinds of Christians even then. One who followed Christ and repudiated the political-military madness of the world. Another, who claimed allegiance to Christ but waited in the wings to enjoy the blessings of Mammon and Military Power in this world while claiming a place in the Next. Constantine was a “god-send” for these opportunists who were just waiting for the opportunity to be “mere men”. And, as some have already pointed out, this is the sort of Christian that drives America’s military-industrial complex and seeks to persecute all who do not bow down before that idol.