Defending Constantine— Part Three

As  Leithart says  (Chapter 4, pp. 68ff.) Constantine, to the surprise of probably the vast majority in Rome, entered Rome as a Christian Emperor.  His soldiers carried an entirely new standard— the labarum a long spear made into a cross with a perpendicular bar and perched on the top was a wreath of gold and precious stones within which the first letters of  Christos were engraved.  The proper thing to conclude from this was that Constantine was making a statement that he was a Christian.  After all his mother was already a Christian, and his sister had been named Anastasia because of the resurrection of Jesus.   If we have doubt about Constantine’s dream which changed his life we must be willing to doubt Eusebius’ emphatic claim  that heard the story from the horse’s mouth, and indeed that Constantine confirmed the story with an oath.   Now it could be reasonably argued that Constantine misunderstood what God was trying to tell him in the dream or vision.  Seeing a cross and the words ‘in this sign conquer’  could of course be variously interpreted.  But it is clear that on the night of a battle, and in the mind of this military man Constantine, it was interpreted to mean that Constantine must pledge his allegiance to Christ and his cross if he wanted to win the battle against his adversaries and indeed become a Christian Emperor that put an end to persecution and made Christianity a religion that did not need to hide underground any more.   What is pretty clear historically is that Constantine increasingly turned away even from tolerating paganism, to a more and more explicitly Christian stance after A.D. 312.  The reason he waited until near his death to be baptized was not due to his lack of faith in Christ.  He had had a part in the Donatist and baptismal controversies as an Emperor, and like many Christians of that day, he had heard the teaching, based on a misreading of  Hebrews 6,  that if one sinned after one’s baptism,  one was lost.    This was the reason for the delaying of the baptism, it seems pretty clear.

Constantine, as Leithart says, adopted a wise policy of gradualism, when it came to the symbols of his Empire, gradually replacing pagan symbols on coins, buildings etc. with Christian ones.  Between 318-321 he had removed almost all such symbols from any coins.   Leithart relies on the careful work of Peter Weiss on the conversion of Constantine ( P. Weiss, “The Vision of Constantine”  Journal of Roman Archaeology 16, 2003, see especially pp. 247-56).     Now you need to understand that most ancient peoples, including ancient Romans strongly believed that the divine guided human beings through dreams, visions, and signs and portents in the sky.  Constantine was no different, and in fact the evidence shows that he asked some of the Christians in his army what they thought the vision meant.   They told him “Christ had appeared, and they gave him a Christian interpretation of the sign he had witnessed”  (p. 78).   Yes, Constantine already had Christians in his entourage and army before the battle of Milvan bridge, Christians whom he trusted and confided in.   It is in fact not true that there were not Christians in the Roman army before Constantine became the Emperor of the entire Empire.    Weiss concludes that already in 310,  “Constantine, with his army, unexpectedly witnesses a complex halo-phenomenon. He saw a double ring halo, with three mock suns arranged in cross formation around the sun…with a more or less distinct light cross in the middle.”  This was interpreted by both Constantine and others with him as a sign of conquest by the cross.

While it is possible to be cynical about all this, and say, well Constantine figured out a way to solve the Christian problem— baptize the movement and call it good and no longer require Christians to offer sacrifices to any deity, obviating any reason for persecution.  But of course that was not all.  Constantine chose to promote actively this minority religion, and make no mistake it was still a minority religion in A.D. 312.   Here I think the arguments of Leithart against Carter who accuses Constantine of never really promoting the Christian faith but just making a shrewd political move, cannot stand up to close scrutiny, not least because Constantine took a huge risk in endorsing this minority religion that was so widely despised in the Empire.  Leithart estimates that at the time of Constantine’s conversion only 10-15% of the Empire was Christian.  Even if it was three times that number, it was still a hugely risky move, and we need to appreciate the audacity and courage it took to move in a Christian direction.   And Constantine was not just a nominal Christian, he was a missional one.

According to Eusebius, Constantine began studying the Scriptures in earnest in A.D. 312.  He became convinced, based in part on arguments by the Christian rhetorician Lactantius that the Biblical God opposes those who oppose him and his people, indeed the Biblical God takes vengeance on Emperors who persecute Christians.   But it wasn’t just from fear that Constantine systematically promoted Christianity.  It was also because he saw the opportunity to help to unite the Empire under  “one God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.  No ruler of that age would have doubted the necessity of the religious undergirding of the Empire.  This, after all, had in part been what the Emperor cult had been about before Constantine’s time.   But Constantine had a deep concern that the church itself was divided, and this is precisely why he tried to help facilitate the resolution of major church crises and disputes, by hosting a council like Nicaea in A.D. 325.

Leithart gives a careful account in this chapter of Constantine’s prayer life, his commendations of councils working towards orthodoxy in Christology and praxis, his setting up a tabernacle for prayer outside his army camp when he had to go to war against invaders, his providing Eusebius with various copies of the Scriptures for various churches, his rebuking of Arians for bad exegesis of the ‘divinely inspired Scriptures’  and much more.   In fact Constantine himself became a preacher in his own palace, and wearied much of his court with Christian exhortations, including various anti-pagan polemics. He was especially given to apologetics.   The only real way to deny all this considerable evidence is to argue that Eusebius is lieing through his teeth, and is the most dishonest historian of all time.  With all the cautions I mentioned in a previous post in this series, I am certainly not prepared to throw Eusebius in the dustbin of history as completely unreliable.  Polemical yes,  exuberant about Constantine, yes,  (he seems to have drunk the same Koolaide that modern conservative Christians drink when they think they have helped elected a really born again politician or even a President), naive yes,  but unreliable about the facts,  no.   We must read him critically, but where we can check him he is honest, and reliable.

Quoting Timothy Barnes at the end of this chapter,  Leithart adds “From the days of his youth Constantine had been sympathetic to Christianity, and in 312 he experienced a religious conversion which profoundly affected his conception of himself. After 312 Constantine considered his main duty as Emperor was to inculcate virtue in his subjects and to persuade them to worship God. Constantine’s character is not wholly enigmatic. with all his faults and despite an intense ambition for personal power, he nevertheless sincerely believed that God had given him a special mission to convert the Roman Empire to Christianity”  (p. 96).   Not by force mind you, but by persuasion, which brings us back to the Edict of Milan, one of the most remarkable of all ancient documents.  More in the next post on that.

Here I have to say that I don’t think we should see Constantine as much different than some of our own genuinely Christian Presidents who have to try and reconcile being commanders in chief and being worshippers of the one true God.  As President, there are decisions one must make and roles that one must play, which as a private citizen much less as a private Christian one cannot and should not make.   Constantine of course raises in an acute form the question of whether Christians can serve in such a public office and in the military, or if that is somehow a fundamental betrayal of the cause of Christ.   We will say more of this in a bit.

What I am prepared to say now is that no fair and responsible exegete should conclude that somehow Romans 13  and materials in 1 Peter suggest that rulers and kingdoms are not authorized and set up by God.   In fact that is precisely what Jesus himself said about Pontius Pilate— that he would have no power over Jesus if it had not been given him from above, and it is doubtful Jesus meant by the Emperor!  (see John 18-19 and Chris Bryan’s  Render unto Caesar).   In other words, the Anabaptist reading, and Yoder’s in particular is not plausible or correct when it comes to texts like Rom. 13.    But that doesn’t answer the questions whether Christians can serve in such God sanctioned governmental capacities.    Nor does it tell us what sort of kingdom Jesus had in mind that was to be in but not of this world.  We will talk about that more later.     For now, we must continue to follow Leithart’s not so light hearted argument.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 5
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 4
Finding Jesus— Begins Sunday Night at 9 P.M. on CNN
  • Watchman

    There is no doubt in my mind that Constantine was converted to the Christian faith. And, like many Christians living in America today, patriotism became interwoven with his faith. Sadly, many Americans continue to bow at the altar of patriotism and neglect the teachings of Christ concerning pacifism and loving our enemies. There is no doubt that Romans 13 makes the case for our government authorities to protect, defend, and care for its citizens, even if this should include a bloody war. Where the early church, and Yoder for that matter, diverge from Romans 13 is that no transformed kingdom of God believing Christian should kill another man, whether it be in the line of military duty or otherwise. Therefore, the question is begged, can a Christian serve in the military without killing another human being? During peacetime perhaps, but certainly not during wartime. Constantine, being the zealous military man he was could not separate his faith from civic duty. Therefore, he clearly justified his duties as an Emperor/military commander with his faith allowing him to use the sword when necessary. Constantine seemed to neglect the fact that we as Christians are citizens living in the Kingdom of God and are only visitors of this world. There is a clear distinction between the two each with its own set of laws and dynamics. And, Constantine transcended both kingdoms in his own mind.

  • Joel

    David seemed to have no problem serving God and executing war. The feeble state of the Church in regard to the State in our day shows that we are a long way from another Christendom in the West. Perhaps Africa can show us the way, as Christians there are not so fearful of ruling. I am a postmillenialist, and as such expect that we will see a 2nd and perhaps 3rd Christendom.

  • James

    It seems to me that Leithart is using the sources quoted poorly. Weiss’s work seems to indicate, not that Constantine replaced pagan symbols on coins with Christian ones, but rather fused them. Thus, what Constantine “actually” saw in the sky was a solar image that someone (Eusebius?) later christianized for him. Thus, he saw no problem with producing coins with the image of the solar circle surrounding his head–which was most definitely not a Christian halo.

    And the quote from Barnes is fine, except that it ignores basically everything Barnes says about Constantine–yes he had a conversion experience that pushed him toward Christianity. But he did not reject paganism. He retained the title of pontifex maximus; pagan temples continued to operate, etc… The question is not whether Constantine thought that he had converted, or whether Eusebius thought he was a “true” convert; the question is of continuity and discontinuity with the past. I am totally fine saying Constantine coverted so long as the working definition of conversion implies continuity with a pagan past that survives fully in tact.

  • ben witherington

    Actually James he did reject paganism, increasingly so. He even lectured his court over and over again about the abominable nature of pagan sacrifices. And as for syncretism, Leithart shows that while one might thing Constantine started out there, he certainly didn’t end there. He became increasingly and vehemently purely Christian in his thought and pronouncements.


  • Steve Billingsley

    One minor quibble with the post. While it is certainly true that some modern American Christian conservatives qualify as “kool-aid” drinkers when it comes to the election of a “born-again” President, don’t exempt the Evangelical Left from some serious “kool-aid” drinking regarding our current President (and don’t forget the exuberance many showed in the 1976 election over our first “born-again” President).

    Please note that I am not making any comment on the sincerity of the faith held by any of our Presidents, Democrat or Republican. I give all of them the benefit of the doubt and try to just use my judgment and discernment on whether I support their policies and actions.

    But just know that going overboard in the support of a political leader is not the exclusive province of any political party or point of view.

  • James

    Ultimately it comes down to weighing the depiction of Constantine in Eusebius against other types of historical and archaeological evidence. I believe there is a middle ground somewhere between the Constantine of Eusebius and the other end of the spectrum which, as you say, is the conclusion that Eusebius is simply making it all up. And perhaps that middle ground is viewing Constantine as one who accepted Christianity in both word and deed, and yet did not break ties with the past. Anti-pagan orations or not, all other evidence suggests that Constantine did not break radically with the past. It’s not like we could trust Eusebius to tell us that Constantine continued “pagan” practices…that would ruin his whole endeavor.

    By the way, just to lay my cards on the table, I generally adhere to the P. Brown/A. Cameron/E. Clark school of approaching most ancient texts as literary productions in which the rhetorical aims outweigh historical reality. Thus, I am predisposed to read Eusebius constructing rather than representing Constantine.

    And I don’t raise objections to demonize Constantine in the way that Yoder or others have. I simply raise them because I don’t think Constantine is fully hero or villain. He was a late Roman man within an increasingly divided empire (divided in many ways–the rise of Christianity being only one factor). Thus, his actions are likely best seen as attempts to bring unity to a diverse empire. And that unity meant including Christians as well as retaining the status quo with regard to public practices of paganism, regardless of what he may have actually “thought” about pagan sacrifices.

  • Bryant J. Williams III

    Dear Ben,

    The portrayal of Constantine not breaking with his pagan past and, therefore, the Empire’s paganism, should be seen in the fact that Christians usually take time to become more and more Christian in their thinking. This change of thinking is complex. It initially involves repentance, that is, a change of attitude or way of thinking about God, Christ, etc. Eventually, it will also involve a change of behavior. The first change is justification. The second change is sanctification which is a lifelong process. Constantine’s life reflects the daily conflict between being heavenly minded and earthly minded. Where the needs of the state and the church conflict. This is where the Christian Constantine and the Commander-in-Chief Constantine had conflicts. It is so easy being an armchair general 1700 years removed.

    Regarding the Donatist controversy. This is the time when Constantine set a precedent that had ramifications far beyond his own time both negative and postive, but mostly negative, state involvement in church affairs; no matter how well intentioned. You may want to comment further.

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

  • Derek

    Watchman seems to be suffering from a serious case of confirmation bias.

  • ben witherington

    First of all Watchman I think I mostly agree with your post this time. I agree with you Bryant about the Donatist controversy. But let us suppose for a minute that we had a President who had also been elected a bishop in a church earlier on in life. You aren’t really suggest that the President couldn’t put on his bishop’s hat when there was a church crisis and do his best to solve it, are you? It might look like Presidential meddling in the church, but it wouldn’t actually be that.


  • Watchman


    Touche. ;-)


  • James Mace

    Dear brother Ben,

    Thanks so much for this even-handed treatment of Constantine! Such a good deed is a much needed corrective for tendentious Yoderites et al. and may free many from biased caricature.

    Others attack Constantine from assuming a dialectical middle position due to disbelief that God could actually do such an extreme work in a powerful man’s life, yet we should not discount the power of God to draw anyone and need not first assume naturalistic causation for Constantine’s actions (similar to the presuppositional errors of, e.g., the Jesus Seminar).

    One question I have re the Constantinian establishment and subsequent development is the degree to which distinctly intra-ecclesial, mutual, reciprocal love of Christians for fellow believers became downplayed and relatively disregarded through the influx of nominal Christians. I wonder to what degree the lack of loving solidarity with fellow Christians was lost, replaced by general love for all in the state as all became baptized and Church was displaced somewhat by Christendom. Does Leithart happen to address this or closely related issues much? (Or might you know who does? I’ll be working on issues related to this at St. Andrews, where I head this fall.)

    Cheerio, and thanks again!


  • Bryant J. Williams III

    Dear Ben,

    [Ben said]
    But let us suppose for a minute that we had a President who had also been elected a bishop in a church earlier on in life. You aren’t really suggest that the President couldn’t put on his bishop’s hat when there was a church crisis and do his best to solve it, are you? It might look like Presidential meddling in the church, but it wouldn’t actually be that.

    A person who has been elected earlier in life as a bishop and has now been elected President would have set aside that office of Bishop. Any attempt by that President to be involved with an issue of church polity or doctrinal issue would be very troublesome. It appears that the state, represented by the President, is meddling in church affairs. This is where the President should “avoid every appearance of evil;” even when the President makes a statement that he is acting as a “Bishop” and not as the President. It sets up all sorts of problems. Just because he has the “right” to be involved does not mean that he should. Paul is very clear on that issue in I Corinthians 6:12ff and Romans 14.

    Leithart will get to the Council of Nicea and Constantine’s role, but the precedent with the Donatist Controversy already leads one to a negative impression.

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

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