I am increasingly coming to the view that a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament will sooner or later be seen to have significant implications for how we understand the transition that the church made in the fourth century from persecuted minority to privileged imperial religion. For the most part, theological opinion today holds that Constantinianism was at best a regrettable compromise and at worst a catastrophic departure from New Testament Christianity. I think that an important strand of New Testament prophetic thought has in view—quite concretely and realistically—the ending of the persecution of the early church, the defeat of paganism, and the public, empire-wide acknowledgment of Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords”. The exegetical argument does not amount to an exculpation of Christendom—and it is certainly not a call for its reinstatement. But I do think that an evangelical theology needs to re-examine the modern prejudice against Constantine and the Christendom paradigm, and to consider other ways of integrating the transformative event into its self-understanding.
If anyone is willing to set out on this revisionist journey, Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom is an excellent place to start. I plan to review the book in piecemeal fashion, here jumping in at the point where Leithart first takes issue with the influential argument of John Howard Yoder that “Constantinianism” was a “heresy”—a “disavowal and apostasy”—that has created a gap between biblical Christianity and the modern church (175).
Leithart is not blind to the contradictions, ironies and injustices that marred the difficult merger of church and state, but he thinks that Yoder’s account of what happened to the church in the fourth century is seriously misleading and in places “outright false”. Yoder misrepresents the contrast between the “hardy heroic church of the martyrs” and the “accommodated post-Constantinian church” (178). For example, there is evidence that the process leading to baptism was more, not less, rigorous after Constantine. Yoder misreads both Eusebius, who, for all his enthusiasm for the new state of affairs, maintained a certain independence of church and state and did not believe that Constantine’s victory inaugurated the millennium, and Augustine, who wrote City of God in order to “distinguish the Roman peace from the peace of the kingdom” (180). He also “makes questionable claims about the relationship between Christology and politics in the fourth century”—it cannot simply be argued, Leithart claims, that the heretics were always on the side of a prophetic biblical truth while the supposedly “orthodox” had sold out to empire. It is interesting to see that Stanley Hauerwas agrees with much of Leithart’s analysis.
But perhaps the more interesting part of Leithart’s critique of Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism, at least in this section of the book, is its lack of historical imagination or empathy, its failure both historically and theologically to understand the particular realities of the transition.
More fundamentally, Yoder utterly fails to grasp the motivations and passions of fourth-century actors…. For all his interest in martyrs and the suffering church, Yoder makes virtually no effort to enter into the mentality of beleaguered Christians or to understand the relief they felt at the gradual realization that Constantine was on their side and he was going to be there for a long time. I have not found in Yoder a single word of gratitude to Constantine for keeping Roman officials from killing Christians for being Christians. I have not found a single word that shows any effort to get under the “psychic skin” of bishops (like Eusebius) who witnessed Christians being roasted alive and then witnessed Constantine kissing the empty eye-sockets of a persecuted brother. Yoder shows little sign of trying to understand why the bishops answered the question “Where should the emperor sit in Council?” the way they did. (181-182)
Leithart concludes the section by stressing the unprecedented nature of the problem with which both the emperor and the church were confronted. On the one hand, a Christian emperor had to work out how to reconcile his political responsibilities with his conviction that the security and integrity of the empire were firmly in the hands of the one true God; and on the other, a victorious church, convinced that the faith of the martyrs had been vindicated by the conversion of Constantine, had to work out how to “integrate the emperor into the church” (183).
What interests me especially in this, however, is the alignment of this natural sense of victory and vindication with the hope widely expressed in the New Testament that the suffering community of the saints would eventually be vindicated or justified in the presence of the Son of man following judgment on an aggressive pagan power.