Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
by peter leithart
ivp academic, 373 pages, $27
Anti-Constantinianism is a form of ecclesial primitivism. Like other modern historical theories of the “fall of the Church”—for example, Adolf von Harnack’s “hellenization of the gospel” or the “early Catholicism” favored by New Testament scholars—anti-Constantinianism posits an earlier and more authentic Christianity that stands in stark contrast to subsequent institutional and intellectual developments deemed corruptions of the gospel. Sometimes the fall away from original purity involves the emergence of the office of bishop, at other times the “bourgeois morality” of the pastoral epistles, the formation of creeds, the Church’s alliance with political power, soldiering and warfare, monasticism, infant baptism, or liturgical formalism. The particulars vary, but the aim of the critique is predictable: to call the Church to reform and restore a model of life that claims to be drawn from the Church’s earliest history.
Appeals to an original and purer form of Christianity necessarily involve arguments from history. And this is the case with anti-Constantinianism. The most articulate spokesman was John Yoder, the Mennonite theologian, who made pacifism an integral part of anti-Constantinianism. I was a colleague of Yoder’s at the University of Notre Dame in the 1970s and 1980s, and he was a formidable intellectual presence in the Department of Theology. To his credit, Yoder realized that his theological program required an historical grounding.
Though Yoder’s primary field was theology and ethics, he had a lively interest in the Church’s history, particularly the early centuries and the relations between Christianity and Judaism. I recall that he would mysteriously and, to my mind, unexpectedly appear at learned conferences on the early Church in this country and abroad. He would quietly find a seat at the back of the room, say little, and diligently take notes on the discussions.
It is fitting then that Peter Leithart’s critique of Yoder’s thought should take the form of an historical essay, for Yoder’s theology and historical analysis are intertwined. Defending Constantine provides an up-to-date and informed account of the age of Constantine: the events leading up to the great persecution at the beginning of the fourth century, his conversion and accession to the purple, his involvement in the Church’s affairs and dealings with bishops, his legislation, and the consequences of the revolution he inaugurated. As Leithart makes clear from the outset, his historical reflections serve a polemical purpose. To put the matter bluntly: He believes that Yoder got most things wrong in his interpretation of early Christian history.
As Leithart recognizes, the fundamental tenet of Yoder’s anti-Constantianism is “pacifism.” Yoder realized that a narrow definition of pacifism will not do; the evidence on the Church’s attitude in these matters in the early centuries is too sketchy and disparate. So he judged a “rejection of Caesar’s wars” to be the salient feature. But, as Leithart shows, this reformulation is too ambiguous to sustain Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism. Does it mean that Christians refused to fight? Was the early Church opposed to any and all of Caesar’s wars? The historical data yield no easy answers.
The entire question of military service is complicated. The earliest Christians did not take part in public affairs, whether civil or military. Yet they prayed for the empire, and Origen says by their prayers they supported the emperor in his wars. At the end of the second century Tertullian has strong words against war and killing, but by then Christians could be found in the army. Some scholars think that opposition to military service had more to do with idolatry than with opposition to war. The army was a religious world in its own right. To complicate matters even more, the most trenchant critique of warfare comes from Lactantius at the beginning of the fourth century, yet he dedicates his book to Constantine, a soldier, and celebrates Constantine’s military victory at the Milvian Bridge as the “triumph of God.”
In truth, there was no united and consistent pacifism, however defined, in the early Church. And the deeper one probes into the matter, the more it becomes evident the question cannot be adjudicated on historical grounds alone. At issue is a conception of the Church and how one views the Christian community as a corporate and diverse body existing in time and space. As the number of Christians increased and new responsibilities were thrust on the faithful, different responses were called for. For example, in assessing the new political realities, one early council seemed to make room for conscientious objectors. Later, Ambrose said that the use of arms was foreign to the office of the priest. The biblical exhortation to love one’s enemies shaped Augustine’s thoughts on just wars. Yoder, however, had little sympathy for or appreciation of Augustine.
In sketching out his own view, Leithart suggests that Christian teaching on war in particular and secular power more generally turns, finally, on baptism, especially infant baptism. In the case of adult, or believer’s, baptism, one is expected to enter into a mature Christian life as one is born again in Christ, whereas the baptism of an infant marks the beginning of Christian life, followed by a long process of growth and formation leading to maturity in the faith. As Augustine put it, one must give due weight “to the interval between the remission of sins which takes place in baptism, and the permanently established sinless state in the kingdom that is to come.” The believer lives in a “middle time of prayer, while we must pray, ‘Forgive us our sins.’” So it is with the history of the Church. “Constantine, Rome, and ourselves stand in medial time,” writes Leithart, “and yet are no less Christian for that.” In fallen historical time, the Church had to learn how properly to give Caesar his due.
Besides presenting a sustained critique of the thought of John Yoder under the guise of a historical study, Defending Constantine offers a provocative proposal. Leithart’s aim is not simply to show that Constantine does not represent a “fall of the Church”; he believes that Constantine provides a “model for Christian political practice.” After his victory at the Milvian bridge Constantine entered Rome in triumph, acclaimed by the people. Breaking with ancient tradition, at the culmination of his triumphal procession through the city Constantine refused to ascend the Capitol to offer the customary sacrifices to the gods. The symbolism of his gesture was not lost on the citizenry. Constantine was determined to give the Christian God a public face, and a few months later he began the construction of a church in Rome. In the past emperors had built temples to the gods, but Constantine erected a basilica to the one God on the site of what is today St. John Lateran.
Public sacrifice was at the center of civic life, and Leithart argues that Constantine “desacrificed” the ancient city. His reign “marked the beginning of the end of sacrifice.” But Constantine did more: He welcomed a new and different kind of sacrifice into the city, the sacrifice of the Eucharist, the Church’s central religious rite. The cities of the empire began to acquire a new center, a church building in which the sacrifice of Christ was offered. This was no small achievement; it led to the reordering of public space, the transformation of the urban landscape, and the building of a new civilization. “The Church did not ‘fall’ in the fourth century,” writes Leithart; it was “recognized and honored as the true city.”
The Constantinian revolution certainly put before the Church temptations to which it often succumbed, as any fair-minded observer must allow. Its leaders were beguiled by political power, corrupted by wealth, and at times given to complicity with violence. But what moderns forget is that in ancient times the world was ruled by emperors and kings; with a growing Christian population there was no future that did not include the blessing of temporal rulers. In antiquity religion was not a private affair. The Church in the fourth century was no longer a small association but a vibrant and visible community with resourceful leaders, a network of communications, and a large constituency. And as the Church’s rituals became civic celebrations its way of life was changing the rhythms of society. A rapprochement with the state was inescapable. In fact for Rome the alliance came late; outside the empire, in Ethiopia or Armenia, for example, and later in early medieval Europe, the Christian mission began at the top. First the king (or queen) was converted, then the people were baptized, and the king became the head of the Christian people. Conversion was not a warming of the heart, but a change of public practice.
Leithart does not develop the full implications of his argument, but his defense of Constantine provides a welcome corrective to the chorus of critics who have often carried the day. Moreover, his suggestion that infant baptism and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are the key to a robust and realistic ecclesiology is sound. All in all, he has written a constructive, timely, and rewarding book.
Robert Louis Wilken is chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.