Hail Caesar?

After years of scorn at the hands of religious and secular scholars alike, the first Christian emperor of Rome now has a cadre of authors who come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. The intense interest of late in the reign of Constantine (306–337) revolves around his role in making Christianity the official religion of the empire, establishing it as a dominant social force in much of the inhabited world for the next fifteen hundred years. If you think that what followed was a mistake, you cast him as the antagonist in a tragic drama; if you think that at its best it was consistent with the gospel, you move him closer to center stage in the divine comedy.

The latest salvo in this engagement has been fired by Peter Leithart in his book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Though Leithart does reference a number of unflattering depictions of the emperor in secular culture—he mentions Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword by name—his crosshairs are focused squarely on John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and their “tribe” of followers. But Leithart is not alone in his spirited advocacy of Constantine. Books, articles and blogs have sprouted up to join the cause, many harboring the same animus against Yoder, Hauerwas, et al.

It must be said from the start that, at their best, the emperor’s contemporary apologists engage in sober historiographical investigation that corrects the oversimplifications, the half-truths, and the plain and simple mistakes that often permeate the writings of those who brandish the notion of Constantinianism like a knife in a back-alley brawl. Even Yoder’s most ardent supporters will concede that his narration of the early centuries of the Church in support of his theological vision is flawed at many points and in need of substantial revision. It is historically imprecise, for example, to blame (or credit, for that matter) Constantine for all that “Christendom” comes to signify, as though the complex and fluid sequence of relations between Church and secular powers that developed during the next millennium—or at the very least the essentials of which were firmly in place by the end of the fourth century—were the direct design and result of the first Christian emperor’s efforts. He can hardly be faulted, for example, for failing to foresee the collapse of the empire in the West in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the Church would surely have been morally culpable if it had neglected the very real needs created by this collapse.

Moreover, what is ordinarily labeled Constantinianism could more justifiably be called Carolingianism, for it was during the reign of Charlemagne that the whole of the medieval world and not just the Church came to be thought of as the Body of Christ, with the dual offices of prince and bishop aligned with the two natures—human and divine, neither confused nor separated—of Christ. Previously the potestas of the earthly sovereign was outside the Church, and all true authority resided solely within the Church, but now temporal power and ecclesiastical authority were fused together. The anointing of a king acquired a sacramental significance comparable to that of baptism and ordination, signified by the acquisition of titles such as “Vicar of Christ” and “King and Priest.” With this change, writes Oliver O’Donovan, “the last consciousness of a notional distinction between the two societies had disappeared; one could no longer say that the ruler ruled Christians qua civil society but not qua heavenly city.”

In addition to faulty historical scholarship there have also been some questionable doctrinal assertions—for example, the oft-repeated contention that, with Constantine’s conversion, the Church “fell” from an original, ostensibly pristine state. Prior to the Edict of Milan in 313 the Christian community supposedly possessed an identity and an ethic that was not just compromised with the granting of imperial toleration, but virtually eradicated, save for residual pockets of purity springing up spontaneously here and there, now and then.
There are more than a few problems with this notion of the fall of the Church, beginning with the fact that it fosters an idealized picture of Christian thought and practice prior to the fourth century. But the most pernicious effect of the alleged “Constantinian fall of the Church” is to render suspect everything that happened subsequently. It suggests, whether tacitly or explicitly, that the Church essentially ceased being the earthly-historical Body of Christ, and therefore that Jesus was wrong and the gates of hell could, and in fact did prevail against it. Such attitudes not only call into question the faithfulness of God to the divine work of redemption in history, beginning with the chosen people of Israel, they would deprive all of us of a rich Christian heritage that will be indispensible for nurturing a deep and abiding faith in the time to come.
We should be careful, however, not to overcompensate in an attempt to set the historical record straight. Whatever Constantine’s intentions were, it is clear that with his conversion a new situation was at hand for the Christian community. The same empire that had frequently ridiculed, and on occasion persecuted Christians, had turned to embrace the Church’s story of salvation. The gospel had emerged victorious in its struggle with the empire, and it was Rome that had capitulated and thus needed to make the significant concessions. Church leaders in turn believed that they could render this holy service to the empire while maintaining intact its mission as the sacrament of the new creation. But their confidence was ill-founded, and the blame rests largely with the Church, because it too often and too uncritically sought to be, not what it is, but what it is not.

The real point of contention for the life of the Church in our time is not whether Constantine’s conversion was an authentic act or a ploy designed to conscript Christian practices and institutions in support of his imperial aims. In fact, it really does not have much to do with him one way or another. O’Donovan correctly identifies the heart of the matter with his observation that the Church’s original awareness of a distinction between itself and temporal society had disappeared over time. It is a question of how the Church should describe its relationship to the other cultural, ethnic, political and economic movements and institutions that have ordered God’s cherished yet damaged creation down through the centuries. Is the biblical and patristic notion that the Church is a society in its own right, with all that this term connotes in our time, a permanent feature of its self-understanding? If so, then Christians should see their shared way of life as existing at a greater or lesser angle to all other forms of human association and their ways of pursuing the goods necessary to a life well-lived. If not, then are there times and places when the Church may erase (or at least not be overly concerned with) the societal boundary between itself and certain instantiations of the civitas terrena? If this is the case, then it may be a good and proper thing for us to baptize, not just Caesar, but as Leithart incredibly suggests in his last chapter, “Rome Baptized,” the whole of the empire as well. Doing so would authorize the Church to perform an official function of the earthly city as its spiritual form, but it would also undercut the integrity and autonomy of the Body of Christ as the sacrament of the City of God that was defended vigorously by Ambrose, Augustine and Chrysostom, and closer to our time by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Patronage may have its benefits, but it also expects a big return on its investment.


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