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