Could Constantine Have Been James Madison?

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

So after a few months of having it stare at me from my book shelf, I was able to start reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine:The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  Admittedly I’m only about half-way through the work, but to me this is a tour de force of historiography and theological polemic re-examining the life and times of the first Christian Emperor, as well as the theological critique of “Constantinian” relations between church and state a la John Howard Yoder. Given that I’ve just arrived in Orlando for the Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference I can’t take time for a truly substantial post about it yet. Still, one section in particular stuck me as worth briefly sharing and commenting on.

In reviewing his involvement in the internal affairs of the Church such as the Arian controversy and conflict between the Catholics and the Donatists, Leithart addresses the criticism Constantine receives as an un-baptized Emperor with no particular religious authority mucking about in such matters. For us moderns, it seems so obvious that there ought to be a separation between Church and State. Constantine should have taken a hands-off approach and left it bishops to handle their “spiritual” business while he took care of the affairs of state. Leithart calls this suggestion “implausible” and comments:

As we saw in the last chapter, Constantine did in fact follow a policy of tolerant concord. Beyond that, no one in the fourth century would have thought that a political regime could function without religious sanction, and it is naive to think that Constantine’s conversion  would have instantly turned him into James Madison…The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century? What were the constraints on his action? What, perhaps more important, were the limits of his imagination? Only when we have considered those questions are we capable of doing justice to Constantine’s interventions in church politics.

Defending Constantine, -pg. 132

The point is, when dealing with Constantine’s political legacy, we need to consider our historical distance and the limits of the subject’s own political horizon. Constantine wasn’t ruling his Empire after the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the various historico-political developments that have shaped Western thought on religion and politics. Indeed, the separation between the two would have been an entirely foreign one, and so would the idea of an Emperor who kept a distance from the cultus. While admittedly not the biblical ideal, Leithart gives us good historical reason to think that Constantine’s foray into a constructive relationship between the State and the Church isn’t the sheer, unmitigated disaster that popular polemics would have us believe.

Soli Deo Gloria

3 thoughts on “Could Constantine Have Been James Madison?

  1. I agree that Constantine is a scapegoat but that doesn’t mean that Christendom in general through all the varied, impossible to label means by which it came together wasn’t a betrayal of the cruciform kingdom any less than a Christianity which has been contorted to valorize capitalism and nationalism. Yoder may have needed a better label but that doesn’t mean that everything he has to say is full of crap.

    • No, but much of it needs serious critique. Leithart isn’t some capitalist apologist, but he is reminding us that there is more to non-Anabaptist thinking on Christ and Culture than is currently supposed.

  2. III. The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

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