We are all Constantinians now

(With respect to President Nixon).

I expect Anabaptists to hate on St Constantine–that doesn’t bother me.  It is curious, though, to see more mainline, non-pacifist Protestants rail on Constantine.  Presumably they, too, want a Christian form of culture.  They want to see Jesus vindicated in the public forum (though with varying degrees of intensity–see the responses to theonomy).

The more mainline, conservative rejection of Constantine, though, is not political, I suspect, but liturgical.  Constantine, so the argument goes, took the “hard edge” off of the Cross, making Christianity popular, and lessening the need to follow Christ against all odds.

No doubt some of that is true, but there were compromisers before Constantine (Judas, anyone?).  No doubt Constantine wasn’t that astute a theologian–he certainly backed the wrong causes.  None of these arguments, though, refute the essence of “Constantinianism.”  In any case, Christians before Constantine were venerating icons, praying to and for the departed, using incense and candles in worship, so it is hard to see just how Constantine brought “paganism” into the Church.

Let’s go back to the political argument.   I suspect that Constantine’s (initial) political moves and his liturgical moves must be judged together.  While the Church is not initially concerned with politics, this artificial separation of polis from liturgy would have been unintelligible to most cultures throughout world history.

Even honest Protestant scholars admit this.  Baptist Bruce Shelley writes,

Western Christians often regard these changes (e.g., Constantine) as the beginning of an enslavement of the Church by the State, or even the “fall” of the Church from heights of primitive Christian freedom. For Eastern Christians, however, Constantine remains the holy initiator of the Christian world, the hero of that victory of light over darkness that crowned the courageous struggle of the martyrs.

Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 143.

Even the number one critic of Constantinianism asks the right questions.

John Howard Yoder asks a proper question: What if Constantine had been different?

It might happen that the result would be that his enemies would triumph over him, but that often happens to rulers anyway. It might happen that he would have to suffer, or not stay in office all his life, but that too often happens to rulers anyway, and it is something Christians are supposed to be ready for. It might happen that he would be killed–but most Caesars are killed anyway. (!) It might happen that some of his follwers would have to suffer. But emperors and kings are accumstoned to aksing people to suffer for them. Especially if the view were authentically alive, which the earlier Christians undeniably had held to and which the theologians of the age of Constantine were still repeating, that God blesses those who serve him, it might also have been possible that, together with all the risks just described, most of which a ruler accepts anyway, there could have been in some times and in some places the possibility that good could be done, that creative social alternatives could be discovered, that problems could be solved, enemies loved, and justice fostered (This is Leithart’s summary of Yoder’s discussion in “The Constantian sources of Western Social Ethics,” chapter 7 of The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

Leithart continues, Yet this means that the evils of “Constantinianism” were historical accidents, not inevitable results of the conversion of the Roman Empire. Yoder does not see that the hypothetical “faithful Constantine” fundamentally challenges his case against Constantinianism (Leithart, 132)

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