We don’t need a Constantine

We don’t need a Constantine January 22, 2021

For the past few years I’ve been trying to knock out a volume or two per year of that giant 19th century set of the Church Fathers edited by Philip Schaff. Technically, I should have started the first volume of John Chrysostom over Christmas. But not only did cracking into volume one of six seem a bit daunting, it seemed like reading a bit of what Eusebius had to say about Constantine might be appropriate, given the situation in America these days. Or, you know, those days–before lunatics briefly overran the U.S. Capitol building, and whatever else will have happened by the time this actually posts.

Some balance on how we should think about Constantine and the idea of a Christian ruler was what I was looking for, so I turned to the first volume of the second series of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers containing the works of Eusebius.

The short version is: you should read these works. They’re not terribly long and they’re important, especially the Church History (though I’d recommend picking up the Penguin version, as it’s easier to read than the clunky 19th century translation). It’s an excellent and mostly-accurate survey of the first three centuries of the church. Later volumes in the series will fill out the details and add to the history as the centuries roll on. I’m not going to say much else about the Church History.

You should also read the other works in this book, The Life of Constantine the Great and Oration in Praise of Constantine, which brings me to the long version of my thoughts on this volume: Eusebius is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s understandable why he’s wrong, of course. Having gone through intense persecution (real persecution, not our modern American perspectives on being persecuted), the guy who not only comes along and ends persecution but actively turns the powers of the state in your favor, and then uses those powers to persecute the people who used to go after you? Well, it makes sense that said guy will be your hero–you might even take his rise to power as a sign of God’s favor. Perhaps even a sign of the beginning of the end times. So Eusebius isn’t being unreasonable in his unfettered praise of Constantine. Wrong, but not unreasonably so. For example, in the Life of Constantine, Eusebius writes:

“And God himself, whom Constantine worshiped, has confirmed this truth [that Constantine was His friend] by the clearest manifestations of his will, being present to aid him at the commencement, during the course, and at the end of his reign, and holding him up to the human race as an instructive example of godliness. Accordingly, by the manifold blessings he has conferred on him, he has distinguished him alone of all the sovereigns of whom we have ever heard as at once a mighty luminary and most clear-voiced herald of genuine piety.” (482)

Given that in living memory Christians were being persecuted across the Roman Empire, this rhetoric makes sense. As does this, from the Oration in Praise of Constantine:

“Of old the nations of the earth, the entire human race, were variously distributed into provincial, national, and local governments, subject to kingdoms and principalities of many kinds. The consequences of this variety were war and strife, depopulation and captivity, which raged in country and city with unceasing fury. Hence, too, the countless subjects of history, adulteries, and rapes of women; hence the woes of Troy, and the ancient tragedies, so known among all peoples.
The origin of these may justly be ascribed to the delusion of polytheistic error. But when that instrument of our redemption, the thrice holy body of Christ, which proved itself superior to all Satanic fraud, and free from evil both in word and deed, was raised, at once for the abolition of ancient evils, and in token of his victory over the powers of darkness; the energy of these evil spirits was at once destroyed. The manifold forms of government, the tyrannies and republics, the siege of cities, and devastation of countries caused thereby, were now no more, and one God was proclaimed to all mankind.
At the same time one universal power, the Roman empire, arose and flourished, while the enduring and implacable hatred of nation against nation was now removed: and as the knowledge of one God, and one way of religion and salvation, even the doctrine of Christ, was made known to all mankind; so at the self-same period, the entire dominion of the Roman empire being vested in a single sovereign, profound peace reigned throughout the world. And thus, by the express appointment of the same God, two roots of blessing, the Roman empire, and the doctrine of Christian piety, sprang up together for the benefit of men.” (606)

Again, we can understand why Eusebius would make this kind of argument. Given how fast the historical pendulum swung from “full-blown persecution” to “Rome was on its way to being officially Christian”, it makes sense to conclude that 1) Rome was the culmination of historical development and 2) Christ was about to return because of the spread and growth of Rome.

And hopefully we can also see why this is relevant for our own time. Our temptation as Americans (and even earlier–this was a temptation for the British colonists as well) is to read our own successes as being the work of God that will bring about the coming golden age. And there is a sense in which this is true, in that God is sovereign over history, and that history is moving towards its culmination in the return of Christ. (For more on this, see the ongoing posts on Kuyper’s Common Grace on Tuesdays on this blog.) Yet this is also a temptation we must resist. For while it’s true that history is moving forward, that we’re a part of that movement, and that history will end with the return of Christ, that is true for every nation. It is not any more uniquely true for Rome and America than it is for England or China or the ancient Greek city-states. We must resist the temptation to see our nation–or any nation–as uniquely ‘God’s people’ doing God’s work.

Resisting that temptation will in turn help us resist the more specific temptation to find our hope in worldly leaders. We should of course pray for our leaders, thank God when we get good ones, hold them accountable when they stumble or do wrong, and encourage all of them to pursue virtue and justice in their positions of power. But we should not look to them for salvation or look at them as specific agents of God’s end-times work in the world in any kind of grandiose sense. This is a regular temptation in the life of Christians throughout history, and I like to think that we’d have learned better now (but of course we haven’t, if my social media feed is an accurate representation of the way Christians are thinking).

All that to say that these works are necessary reading both for the history of the first three centuries of the church, but also as a cautionary tale for what we should be careful to avoid when thinking about politics and politicians.

Dr. Coyle Neal is host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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