Defending Constantine— Part Five

Defending Constantine— Part Five May 9, 2011

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

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