Defending Constantine— Part Five

Constantine was what Andy Crouch calls a culture-maker.  The question is whether he was building a good culture which distilled Christian values, or somehow distorted  Christian values.  Besides all his church building exercises, there were also Constantine’s legislative initiative, one of the earliest being tax exemption for clergy (yeah!).   Constantine said this would protect them from harassment by heretics.

One of the problems in evaluating Constantine and the impact of his reign is that edicts and promulgations by Emperors didn’t function in the same way that laws do today.  By this I mean that provincial governors tended to take such things as moral exhortations or good rules of thumb, and they were honored in the breech sometimes as much as in the observance.   When it came to sacrifices,  Constantine did specifically prohibit his provincial governors from offering pagan sacrifices at official functions, and the specific reason for this was so Christians could be civil servants without violating their consciences.   Here is one place where Eusebius has over-egged the pudding. Constantine did not prohibit all sacrifices under all situations or occasions or in all pagan temples in the Empire.  He did make clear that he found such sacrifices abhorrent, but the so-called Edict of Milan was his real view, and so he tried to persuade out of existence these practices, not legally bring the hammer down in every conceivable place and circumstance.   Constantine knew in any case that his vigorous anti-pagan legislation would not necessarily be vigorously enforced in various provinces anyway.  It was a question of how much change could be implemented without violating conscience, and how quickly.

What about Constantine and the Jews?  Were his policies a change towards anti-Semitism?  In fact Roman law long before Constantine had basically prohibited Jews from proselytizing for their faith.  For example they had been prohibited from circumcising converts unless they were slaves.   Constantine did not change this law, but what he did do was give rabbis and other Jewish leaders the same tax exemption as clergy, and under Constantine, for the first time since Hadrian’s rule,  Jews were allowed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Furthermore,  Constantine left the Jewish patriarch in Constantinople alone, and allowed him to judge religious issues within his own community, but not only religious issues, also civil issues.  The same privilege would be extended to Christians as they built up church law and canon law.   It is true of course he threatened Jews who harassed converts to Christianity and strengthened rules against circumcising non-Jews.   Constantine does not appear to have been as anti-Semitic as many of his predecessors in the Emperor’s chair, but there is clearly some prejudice in evidence in his life and work.

One of the central charges sometimes made by Anabaptists against Constantine is that he was responsible for the de-Judaizing of Christianity by merging the Christian faith with the Roman Empire.  The truth is far otherwise.  Christianity was overwhelmingly Gentile in character long before Constantine.  Indeed, it may even have had a majority of Gentile members by the end of the first century A.D.  On this blog in earlier posts  I have criticized at length Luke Johnson’s recent tome Among the Gentiles for offering the exaggerated opposite thesis, namely that Christianity was a Gentile religion basically almost from day one.  This also is not quite accurate.

The claim of Yoder in his recent book The Jewish Christian Schism Revisited (Eerdmans 2003)  is that it was the merging of Christianity with the power of the Empire that de-Judaized Christianity.  Thus Christians abandoned the specifics of Jewish law, which were now played off against the Gospel.  They abandoned Jewish universalism for the pseudo-universalism of Greek culture and Roman  power, and of course when they picked up the sword they left behind the Jewish pacifism of Jesus.  Thus even the Judaism the West has known since Constantine is a product of Christianity and specifically of the Constantinian apostasy which has gone on until the present in various quarters.

As Leithart points out this is mostly false for a whole series of historical reasons, not least of which is that it ignores the re-Judaizing of Christianity that took place after Constantine where ministers became priests, the Lord’s Supper became a sacrifice modeled on the OT and basilicas began to be seen as old style Temples. And the theological underpinning for such hermeneutical moves is already evident in Augustine,  whose pro-Jewish theology and protection of Jews from persecution should be noted.  It is hard indeed to examine medieval Orthodox or Catholic praxis and religion and not think it was more heavily indebted to Judaism than to earliest Christianity.    The OT hermeneutic and way of reading even the NT did not disappear with Constantine.  If anything, it became more widespread in Christendom.

On the issue of pacifism, it does seem to be true that there were less Christian pacifists than before the time of Constantine, but it was not because Constantine dictated such a change.   It is not the Jewishness of Christianity that is suddenly left behind with Constantine, it is the clandestined and underground character of the faith that is left behind.  Nor can we even say Christianity lost its minority status with Constantine. Definitely not.  Even the most liberal estimates suggest that by 337 when Constantine died,  no more than say 25% max of the Empire was Christian.   What was left behind was that Christianity was a persecuted minority.   And there is the rub.

Yoder would have it that when Christianity loses its beleaguered underdog status it loses something essential, it loses for example its counter-cultural element.    But Christianity was never intended to be counter cultural in the full sense of that term.    Counter-cultural is simply reaction to the dominant culture.  As Andy Crouch reminds us,  Christianity at heart is about building its own positive culture,  and rightly or wrongly that is what Constantine was trying to do.    There is a difference between building culture and transforming culture and rejecting culture and to some degree Christianity was about all three of these things from the start.   It was however only the anti-Christian elements of the culture that was rejected by the earliest Christians such as Paul.  By contrast, Paul says in Phil. 4 that Christians should sift the culture not simply have an allergic reaction to it.  Whatever was noble or honorable or comported with the Gospel in the culture should be affirmed.

Think on these things

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part One
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 4
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
  • James Mace

    Amen! If we build Christian identity as essentially counter-cultural, then what happens when we get what we want and the culture we oppose is destroyed? That is the dead-end, short-term view that many adopt, yet it is actually much easier than going to the harder work of constructing civilization.

    Furthermore, how does such a negative, destructive view teach us to take responsibility, to grow, and conform the Church into the full-orbed stewardship role the renewed humanity is to exercise? How does humanity mature ever closer to the ultimate Adam, Christ? Our basic human function is to be stewards of this “garden,” to fully assume our creational mandate, to become perfected, not to merely overthrow what we don’t like about the current situation.

    But, alas, pietistic withdrawal, like reactionary revolutionism, is easier to comprehend and embrace than more complete creative obedience. (Yet I do find the moralistic high ground they assume to be quite ironic, considering its reductionism against the more mature authority we have been delegated.)

  • Ben Witherington

    Good comment James!


  • Lawson Stone

    This is a splendid review of Leithart’s book, which is on my “to read” shelf. Your nuancing of the issues, clarifying the questions, and defining precisely what the historical facts are was illuminating. It is always a pleasure to see an over-schematized stereotypical analysis of history dissolved by the application of data and sound reasoning. Thanks for giving us such a judicious assessment of this important book.

  • Austin Eisele

    Prof. Witherington,

    I’ve actually just read through all your review of the book, a book I’ve very interested. I just had a question.

    In the section of your book “We Have Seen His Glory” on Judaism and early Christianity you note the continuity between the two, and how the historical structures of the early church grew out of the practice of the Synagogue. I think Yoder’s thesis in the book you mentioned makes a lot of this fact, not just practically, but theologically. For Yoder post-Constantine Christianity “de-Judaized” by giving up THIS continuity with Judaism.

    That’s why Yoder puts so much weight onto an Exilic Judaism, rather than the Judaism of the priesthood and sacrifice. That post-Constantine Christianity became more “Old Testament,” in terms of its symbolic forms, but at the same time it was also more supercessionist.

    I think that is the problem Yoder had: in his view, the church started to loose its vocation as sojourners on earth, and became “establishment.” It doesn’t seem that Yoder was interesting in counter-culture for its own sake, but rather counter-culture because claims of power and cultural formation often override claims of discipleship. Once one is the position to create culture, one also makes choices between cultural-making and discipleship. Yoder seemed to think that the phenomenon of “Constantine” (and he often said that he was not making judgments about the person of Constantine, but rather about the phenomenon) would eventually flourish into a discipleship-denying, ethical hollowing-out of the gospel.