Defending the Real Constantine 2

Here’s the situation as I can discern it: a vocal segment of scholarship believes Constantine more or less ruined the church. By combining political power, sometimes described as persecution of those with anything other than Christian faith and the use of coercion to create theological uniformity, with the church, Constantine created “Constantinianism.”

Peter Leithart is out to reclaim the real Constantine and suggest that much of the Constantine of the above sketch is an unhistorical bogeyman.

What would western democracies look like if Constantine’s theory of concord were the guiding principle? Do you think Leithart’s comparison of Constantine with Locke is accurate and useful for today? Do you think Constantine’s empire was tolerant? Was Constantine a Christian? A big one: Have the critics of Constantine misunderstood him and misused him?

Leithart’s book is called Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. For those who are willing to read it carefully and fairly, it will be a powerful challenge to the ruling Constantinianism theory. It would take pages and pages to summarize the details of this book and we can’t do that. So I want to get at some central ideas. I suggest you read the book for yourself to see the details.

First, Leithart argues that Constantine was genuinely converted, and this against the grain of some who think his “conversion” was little more than political powermongering. Here is his summary statement of the “By this sign, conquer” vision of Constantine:

Prior to 312, Constantine’s coinage and military standard honored pagan gods, particularly Sol or Apollo. After 312, he adopted a Christian standard and military insignia and put Christian symbols on his coins, which gradually replaced pagan signs. Something happened in between. Constantine said he changed because he received a sign from the Christian God. Was that true?

I believe the answer is yes.

That is the first plank in this book, and he goes on to support it in Constantine’s own words about how he saw his responsibility before God. Divisions in the church and empire displeased God; he wanted God’s favor. Furthermore, Constantine, and here he quotes Timothy Barnes — major Constantine scholar, believed his mission was to convert the Roman empire to Christianity.The second is this: Constantine’s essential policy toward other faiths was one of toleration, not coercion or violence or force. Here Leithart draws out the connection between Constantine and Lactantius, and he argues that Constantine relied upon and developed Lactantius’ theory of toleration, a view of toleration that moves in the direction of toleration in our world. What needed respect was the will and the free mind of the Roman empire. People could worship the god of their choice.

Thus, Constantine tolerated paganism and Judaism, though his attitudes over time shifted. Here’s a good indicator: “anyone who delights in error, should be made welcome to the same degree of peace and tranquility which they have who believe.” It’s all here: Constantine was a Christian; he believed in it truthfulness; he would tolerate those with other beliefs; he still saw them as error.

Most importantly, Constantine created an atmosphere wherein Christianity was not only favored but wherein others felt the pressure to convert. Leithart thinks Constantine was more like Billy Graham than a theocrat with a sword.

In other words, against John Howard Yoder, Constantine did not decide everyone had to be a Christian.

And now a third point: Constantine ended sacrifice in the Roman empire. This is no small issue to Leithart. He made an edict to end sacrifice though there is precious little evidence that he enforced the edict. He made it difficult to sacrifice. This was Constantine’s style according to Leithart.

Leithart finds the same policy with respect to heresies. Prohibit them but no sign he thoroughly enforced his edicts.

On Judaism, he sees a tightening and a contempt, but he knows that Augustine later would re-Judaize Christianity. He did have contempt for Jews but his policies did not change the lives of ordinary Jews, and he actually had laws that gave rabbis the same privileges one finds with priests. Again he’s after Yoder’s theories on the de-Judaization of Christianity under Constantine.

Finally: Constantine moved from toleration to concord. That is, he moved from tolerating other faiths — on principle defending human choice and protecting choice — to concord. Concord means he he practiced forbearance as a means of or until conversion occurred.  He formed a Christianized public and that put pressure on others to convert.

Leithart thinks Constantine’s honest policy is superior to Locke’s for Locke forced religion into the inward dimension and gave authority to the State. Locke’s theory, he argues, turns into the tyranny of the majority and cedes authority to the civil magistrates/State.

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  • James Petticrew

    Here is another question do we really believe that it was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose son shunned the being the military messiah to embrace the mission of the Suffering Servant really told Constantine “By this sign, conquer” ?
    The fact that Constantine adopted Christian symbolism for his military proves nothing to me accept that he misunderstood the message of Jesus.
    I think in many ways he was a “tolerant” ruler by contemporary standards but his involvement in the church and influence over it to me began a process whereby worldly power subverted the nature and mission of the church

  • Jeremy

    Does he touch on Constantine’s campaigns against heretics in north Africa at all? I mean, I’ll cut the guy a lot of slack for being one of the first Christian leaders and a man of his time, but unless my history is way off, he wasn’t particularly tolerant of Christian sects that didn’t conform to Rome.

  • smcknight

    Jeremy, that’s the next chp more … but Leithart thinks he was harder in edicts and words than actions, and he uses the Novatians — condemned and then later restored. He sees his rhetoric as exhortation and pressure but not put into hard-core realities.

  • Diane

    I find this argument quite interesting, and “I want to believe,” but what of Constantine’s continuation in his role as a pagan high priest? And as James points out, did Constantine ever really “get” Christianity? Was Jesus just another powerful god in his pantheon he felt he should appease? Finally, what of arguments that he embraced Christianity to curry favor with Egypt, the most Christianized territory in the Empire and vital to him as a breadbasket?

  • James @1

    Don’t forget that the same God in heaven inspired John the Baptist who did not command soldiers to leave their armies. The same Jesus saw faith unaccounted for in a Roman Centurion who he did not upbraid for being a soldier.

    The truth is, Constantine’s vision was focused around one battle. A battle over who would rule the Roman empire. Would it be someone who would continue Christian persecution or someone who would end it?

  • “Leithart thinks Constantine was more like Billy Graham than a theocrat with a sword.”

    Um…he was Emperor of Rome. In what sense can anything he did be merely persuasive and not coercive?

  • Currently reading ‘Defending Constantine”. Well written, challenging notions. A good reminder that we should be cautious, not evaluating the past anachronistically. What is defended as ‘Christian’ today, was not imagined as ‘Christian’ in ages past – however loud our protests to the contrary. Was Constantine a Jimmy Carter kind of Christian world leader, or more like George Bush, Jr or even Thomas Jefferson? Or was he a legitimate 4th century leader of which his contemporaries wouldn’t have doubted as being truly ‘Christian’? For that matter, who was more clearly Christian – Paul, Peter, or James?

  • normbv

    I contemplate whether Leithart’s propensity for a Federal Vision view of God’s people ruling the world possibly influences his reading of Constantine. If so, is that a direction as understood by Leinhart as one that should be embraced by the church at large?
    There may be some veiled theological utility in Leithart’s positive interpretation of Constantine.

  • smcknight

    Normbv, you are right. That, however, doesn’t necessarily overturn his study here.

  • David M. @5, I still think the nature of Jesus’ kingship would run contrary to His calling for a military victory with Constantine simply so that the persecution of Christians would end. To me, that runs contrary to His life & teachings.


  • normbv


    And of course you are right. I just thought it might be useful to be aware of Leithart’s background. We all bring our suppositional worldviews into our approaches.

  • Chris Zoephel

    So in seminary at Mount Saint Mary’s (a orthodox Catholic seminary to boot) they taught us that Constantine offered sacrifices to pagan God’s AFTER his supposed conversion. TEDS taught me this too… John Henry Newman told me that Constantine had some Arian issues as well (influenced by his sister etc…).

  • Chris Zoephel

    normbv…I was thinking the same thing. Especially with him and Doug Wilson.

  • Rod

    Well, as a pro-peace/Yoderian Christian I am open to a new reading of Constantine. He did end the death penalty (the persecutions) for being a Christian from my limited understanding. I would like to learn more about Lactantius however. Never heard of him.

  • T

    “What would western democracies look like if Constantine’s theory of concord were the guiding principle?”

    I think that’s a fascinating question. It’s also I think fair to say that the US had something like that in various states early on. We remember that the First Amendment provides that “Congress” shall make no law toward the establishment of religion, but the States were free to do exactly that (until after the Civil War) and had done so. Being at least a nominial Christian, even of a particular stripe, was practically required to have positions of influence in many of the early US communities.

  • Robin

    Being a nominal Christian is still practically required to have positions of influence in many states…are you saying that states made laws respecting an establishment of religion in the European sense? Did states require the payment of a tithe along with taxation which was forwarded immediately to the state church? Were there were actual voting or office-holding requirements which required membership in the Anglican, Quaker, or Lutheran church?

    I understand that Americans have always had strong preferences for elected officials that shared their religion, but unless these preferecnes were codified into state law I see no differences between the national situation and the situation in various states.

  • T


    Some early states had laws requiring folks in office to be not only Christians, but Protestants. Other states required all men to members of a church and allowed churches to tax its members. You can see this chart for a simple overview.

    So, yes, the protestant Christian faith was actually made law for state leaders in some states. Point being, some principle of “Concord” that Constantine pursued was, I believe, pursued in this country’s democracies for the first hundred years or so in some states.

  • Robin

    Just for fun, I looked up the New York 8th congressional districts, the 2nd most “Jewish” in the country. It looks like that congressional district has been represented by by someone of Jewish descent for 57 consecutive years. And according the the Mandell Berman institute the 5 districts with the largest Jewish populations, and 8 out of the top 10, are all represented by Jewish persons.

    I point out all of that to say that adherence to a particular religion is still “practically required” for lots of stuff in politics, whether it is being a nominal Christian in the bible belt, or a nominal “other religion” in a district heavily influenced by that religion.

    I am not sure how todays politics differs significantly from yesterdays.

  • Robin

    Thanks for the information T, you have made very clear how today politics differed from yesterdays.

  • normbv

    I think it may be helpful to keep in view that the messianic coming was to bring judgment upon the nations along with physical Israel and their theocracies. All the ANE nations it appears utilized a theocratic method of some sort whether it entailed Israel’s One True God or the pagan gods of the Greeks, Assyrians and Egyptians. Through Christ the reliance upon a theocracy was usurped and moved into the Spiritual Realm regarding our interaction with God. This Spiritual has ramifications for our physical lives and communities at large there is no doubt but the confluence or hybridization that existed in the ancient world was to be put into a different perspective from Christ onwards.

    I personally believe that Constantine brought us a mixed bag. However it is the historical reality and the remnants of that mindset are still with us and makes up the fabric of Christian culture. Cultures ebb and flow throughout history trying to massage things in view of what may be perceived as a higher enlightenment. Often the higher enlightenment is found in the wisdom and application of Biblical refinement which may embrace old concepts once considered outdated viewed anew with fresh eyes.

  • Deets

    I can’t discern if my brother-in-law is truly saved. How can we know about a guy who lived a gazillion years ago?

  • DRT

    T, an aside, I remember how shocked I was when my dad told me that I probably would never be president because I was RC. It was the discrimintion part that shocked me..

  • Tim

    “Most importantly, Constantine created an atmosphere wherein Christianity was not only favored but wherein others felt the pressure to convert.”

    And this is something we would want in our society today? Where our government favors Christianity and “pressures” others to convert though not through blatantly coercive means such that those who don’t are still tolerated, while their influence is not allowed to participate on equal footing with Christians in determining the edicts of our Government and the shaping of society at large?

    What would this look like in today’s society?

    Christianization of the public sphere? Religious instruction in our public schools, even though those of other faiths are (graciously) permitted the privilege of practicing their religion in their own communities?

    Christian thinkers influencing government decisions, while those scholars of non-Christian persuasion sit on the sidelines or are relegated to a lesser degree of influence?

    Legislatures and courts theocracizing our laws?

    I don’t know about anyone else, but the idea of a theocracy, albeit even a “tolerant” one that won’t compel people against their will to convert, is a very scary thought no matter how you look at it.

    My own take on this matter is a big, no thank you. I don’t want it, and I will publicly offer my support in fighting tooth and nail to prevent it from ever entering our political realm.

  • Barb

    How many non-Mormons hold office in Utah?

  • Phil M

    This is a bit of an aside, but to me, the biggest problem with Constantine’s rule was the money he took off the pagan temples and threw at the Church. I think it was Rodney Stark who painted a very bleak picture (I think it was in “For the Glory of God“) of the corruption that blossomed under the weight of so much money. Whatever “atmosphere” was created by his vision was badly tainted by greed in the church.

  • Phil Atley

    For the record, comparing the established state churches of some of the American states is apples compared to Constantine’s oranges.

    Constantine did not create a state church. He ended the persecution of Christians and he favored Christianity but he did not outlaw paganism.

    Theodosius outlawed paganism. But even he did not create a state church. Because of Ambrose and Augustine, the Western, Latin Church developed a distinction between temporal and spiritual authority. It was in the East that a more theocratic trend obtained, but even there it was not a state church. The emperors interfered in the Church more successfully. In the West, efforts by kings to interfere succeeded at times, especially in the early Middle Ages but the central Middle Ages were characterized by spiritual and temporal rulers facing off against each other.

    The state churches of New England or Virginia were products of the Protestant Reformation. The first state Churches were early modern Protestant national or city-state churches, in England, Zurich etc. Geneva had something closer to the medieval two-sword approach. The English colonies derived their state church ideal from England.

    The Protestant Reformation coincided with the rise of absolutism in which the church was reduced to subject status under the emerging state (there was not even a concept of “state” in the Middle Ages, only “temporal rulers” and their network of personal loyalties [vassals])

    Catholic Maryland had religious toleration, until it was taken over by the Crown.

    John Howard Yoder was just flat wrong on “Constantinianism.” So were the 16th-century Anabaptists he was trying to repristinize in order to overcome Mennonite traditional culture. He only succeeded in furthering the dissolution of a functioning Mennonite culture.

    When Yoder describes positively what he envisions in the relation of the believer to the state it’s very close to a strict constructionist Augustinian two-sword approach. But he never could understand that his foil, the eeeeeeevvvvvvvviiiiiiillllll Constantinianism was a fiction invented in the later Middle Ages. He thought he was overcoming it when in fact he was reinventing the wheel that Augustine and Ambrose had first worked out as a way to avoid Eastern theocratic and sacral kingship tendencies.

  • Phil Atley

    Moreover, there is no such real thing as “Anabaptism” today. It’s a notional fiction. The real 16thc Anabaptists became Mennonites and Amish. The Anabaptists who insisted on being purely Anabaptists died out, because at the heart of 16thc Anabaptism was iconoclasm that railed against the traditing of faith from one generation to another (infant baptism being part of that process). Genuinely iconoclastic Anabaptists (Hans Hut, Thomas Muentzer etc.) died out because they had no mechanism to bridge the generations.

    The heirs of the Anabaptists who survived were those who recatholicized, unwittingly brought back quasi-sacraments, tradition, cultural transmission of faith. No, they didn’t go back to baptizing infants but the age of “adult” baptism and “joining the church” crept downward to 8 or 10 years–child baptism. And in order to maintain the fiction that this was adult baptism, they started inducing a kind of adolescent rebellion that could then be resolved by crisis conversion. These are all marks of a Christianity embedded in culture, which is what Catholics and magisterial Reformers, in differing forms all embraced. Cultural Mennonites in Russia even imprisoned and beat revivalist Mennonites in their colonies for daring to challenge what had become a kind of “Constantinian” settling down to cultural faith.

    Yoder saw all this, saw this development of “Mennonite” traditionalism and cultural transmission, saw it as contradicting his notional 16thc pure Anabaptism, went so far as to call it “Constantinianism” and railed against it along with his young turk “Concern Movement” intellectuals (most of whom had served in relief work in Europe after World War II and encountered European culture and theology of the big churches).

    Yoder helped destroy a functioning Christian subculture (mechanization of agriculture and the resulting destruction of the rural Mennonite subculture would have done that anyway, Yoder created the intellectual justification for killing it off) in the name of repristinizing 16thc pure Anabaptism.

    The trouble with intellectuals creating notional realities and leapfrogging over the centuries for their framework is that inevitably what they create resembles the distant past very little and to a far greater degree mirrors the intellectuals’ own utopian notions.

    I smile when I hear people call themselves “Anabaptists” today. It’s a nice comfortable thing to do: you can pour just about whatever content you want into it because it does not exist in any real-time culture or subculture. It’s whatever you want it to be.

    So too with conventional attacks on “Constantinianism.” Invariably they tell you far more about the anti-Constantinianist putting them forth than about what really happened after 312.

    God made us as cultural beings. He told us to marry and have children and pass on the faith to them. That means tradition and culture and, yes, infant or child baptism. Any movement that tries to bypass these God-given cultural elements will end up being a single-generation flash-in-the-pan.

  • Dave

    For those who are interested, Stanley Hauerwas reviewed the book here:

  • Phil Atley

    To put it in a nutshell, Hauerwas may think he’s being Anabaptist, but he’s really being Stanely Hauerwas. Yoder thought he was being truly Anabaptist, he was really just being John Howard Yoder. There are, perhaps today Hauerwasians and Yoderians and who knows what elseians but none of this ians will last into a second generation.

    The next generation will find a new set of celebrity theologians to use in order to eviscerate the inherited–if anything at all gets inherited. 19thc Evangelicals did arise from an inheritance. The late 20th-century celebrity Evangelicalism won’t survive the generational transition.

    A movement that defines itself largely by what it is not (I’m not Constantinian, I’m not Fundamentalist, I’m not a MegaChurcher, I’m not a fill in the blanker) has no future.

    The built up inherited capital from the Apostolic age through the Fathers and Constantine and the Middle Ages was huge enough to survive the first few centuries of “we know we’re not that” but as the cycles of “we know we’re not that” go from 100 years down to eight or ten years (as they are now recycling among Evangelicals) the whole ball of wax will melt.

    It’d be smart to spend a lot less time railing against Constantine and Constantinianism and a lot more time investigating just how the Church managed to transmit the faith over a period of 1500 years before the first vast “we’re not that” movement arose.

  • Richard

    Tell us how you really feel Phil