Defending Constantine— Part Three

Defending Constantine— Part Three May 5, 2011

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.

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