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Constantine’s Birth: Cause for Celebration?

Wikipedia

Celebrating Constantine’s birthday on February 27 might seem, at least for some, like celebrating the Crusades. It’s rarely a good thing when society adds an “-ism” to the end of your name. For Christians like John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and their followers, the church “fell” under Constantine and has yet to recover. According to them, the Christian political ethic from Constantine onwards has been “success,” not a theology of the cross, which Luther rediscovered and the Anabaptists fulfilled.

Nevertheless, we remember that on this day in AD 272, Constantine the Great was born.

By This Sign

Stories about the conversion of Constantine conflict, but the popular legend told by Eusebius of Caesarea goes like this:

About noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, Conquer by this sign.

Constantine won the pivotal battle of Milvian Bridge over Maxentius and entered Rome as a Christian conqueror and sole emperor of the West in 312.

One year later in 313, Constantine, along with Licinius I, signed the famous Edict of Milan, which overturned a series of orders by Emperor Diocletian and Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius in 303. These cruel edicts had rescinded legal rights of Christians and demanded that they comply with Roman religious practices. The order unleashed what has been traditionally called the Diocletian Persecution (or the Great Persecution), the last and likely the most severe in the Roman Empire.

For many early Christians, Constantine became Liberator Ecclesiae (Liberator of the Church). But historical interpretation hasn’t been so kind. The fact that Constantine postponed his baptism and had Licinius I executed, along with many other red flags, leads many historians to wonder whether Constantine simply used Christianity as a political tool. Many regard his summons for the Council of Nicea in 325 as more of an effort to unify his empire, rather than a concern for orthodoxy. Some believe Constantine was more hungry for blood, power, and compliance than for Christ. When the church followed Constantine’s lead by seeking and wielding the sword in defense of the gospel, many saw conflict with the ethic of Jesus in the Gospels.

Defending Constantine and Constantinianism

But not every Christian has been happy with this declension narrative. One recent example is Peter Leithart in Defending Constantine, though he is not the first.

In Foolishness to the Greeks, Leslie Newbigin called for caution when assessing the sins of Constantine and Constantinianism. It’s easy to show that complete political power seems to conflict with the Jesus of the Gospels, Newbigin argued, but what other choice should have been made? When the classical world, once so brilliant and promising, ran out of spiritual fuel and turned to the church to hold the disintegrating world together, should the church have refused the appeal and washed its hands of the responsibility?

The subsequent influence of Christian revelation on so much of public and private life in the West produced “much of what we take for granted about normal behavior,” Newbigin wrote. “However, much of we rebel against it, we are its products.”

Writing in the essay “Culture, Church, and a Civil Society,” Richard Mouw agrees. “[F]or all the mistakes that were made along the ways, it was nonetheless a good thing that the church actively took up this challenge.”

More recently, Leithart took issue with Yoder and his followers. His book is part deconstruction of a false historical narrative and part proposal for a Christian understanding of public life. Hauerwas ended his review of Leithart’s book with this compliment: “As a pacifist I could not want a better conversation partner than Peter Leithart. God is good.”

If You Want to Learn More

With almost every aspect of Constantine’s life debated, it’s difficult to know who to trust. If you want the earliest account (or legend, depending on who you talk to), you can read Eusebius: The Church History. Even the most sympathetic Constantinian will admit that Eusebius tended to err on the side of hero worship.

Justo Gonzalez gives an excellent introductory account in The Story of Christianity (vol. 1). Alister McGrath’s Historical Theology provides a helpful selection of primary source readings to get a sense of the times.

Peter Brown is one of the better scholars of the era. His Authority and the Sacred shows that Christianity conquered the late Roman World not mainly through Constantine but through the growing presence of Christians in the public realm. These believers slowly shifted how society conducted religious and political life. According to Brown, Constantine was only part of the remarkable story.

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