In Defense of Constantine

Robert Louis Wilken

Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 36-40.

Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance. By H. A. Drake. Johns Hopkins University Press. 609 pp. $68.

The Making of a Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome. By Elizabeth DePalma Digeser. Cornell University Press. 199 pp. $39.95.

The ritual pronouncement of anathemas against Constantinianism has become so commonplace that the historical Constantine (a.d. 288?–337) has slipped from our sight. Apparently it is not what Constantine himself wrought that is the object of obloquy, but the work of mischievous kings and perfidious bishops in the centuries after him. When theologians write essays with titles such as “Is Constantinianism the Most Basic Problem for Christian Social Ethics?”, Constantine is not the sole villain. What provokes critics’ ire is an ordering of Christian society that flourished in medieval and early modern Europe and still, it is claimed, impedes an authentic Christian witness.

After the tiresome rhetoric against Constantinianism of recent years it is particularly satisfying to take into one’s hands a book on the historical Constantine, and especially one with the title Constantine and the Bishops, that announces, without embarrassment, in the first sentence, “This is a book about politics.” Harold Drake, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes about the way the Church came to figure in Constantine’s political program and how Christian bishops became players in the “game of empire.”

Drake’s book, however, has a second agenda, and that is to highlight the role of “religious freedom” in Constantine’s policy and to examine the struggle within Christianity in the decades after Constantine over the propriety of using the powers of the state to support Christian beliefs. Drake challenges the widespread assumption that intolerance is endemic to Christianity; his argument is buttressed by a second book, The Making of a Christian Empire, by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, a student of Drake who is now professor of history at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Lactantius, the subject of her book, was a Latin Christian apologist and contemporary of Constantine, and Digeser argues that he was the first Western thinker to adumbrate a theory of religious freedom rooted not in notions about toleration but in the nature of religious belief. In both books, Lactantius emerges as the key figure formulating ideas that would find expression in Constantine’s religious policy.

Conventional accounts of Constantine, even those written by unconventional historians such as Jacob Burck­ hardt, predictably address the question as to whether Constantine’s conversion was sincere. The ancient sources, which means chiefly the church historian Eusebius, say that Constantine adopted the God of the Christians because he wanted, among other things, to use the power of this God to unify the empire and give him a secure and successful reign. Because Eusebius’ favorable account gave a primary place to political factors in Constantine’s conversion, Burckhardt presumed that his conversion was insincere. By putting “a pious veneer over such raw ambition,” says Burckhardt, Eusebius was “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity.”

With cool reason and uncommon good sense Drake shows that Burckhardt had missed what was most important about Constantine’s age and Eusebius’ account of his reign. There was no way that the emperor could deal with the politics of the Roman Empire without enlisting the authority of religion. That Eusebius was not embarrassed by Constantine’s political savvy about religion, that he indeed shared his view, indicates that Eusebius understood very well how things worked. Burckhardt was simply reformulating with footnotes the old critique of Catholic Christianity by the left wing of the Reformation.

In the years before Constantine took the throne, Christianity was rapidly winning the hearts and minds of millions of Roman citizens, including the most gifted thinkers. The effort of Constantine’s immediate predecessors in the purple, most notably Diocletian, to impede the growth of Christianity through empire–wide persecution had failed miserably. At the beginning of the fourth century the Church was too large, its way of life and institutions too well established, its leaders too resourceful, for Christianity to be halted with the sword. The refusal of Christians to venerate the traditional gods, and hence to show honor to the emperor and fealty to the institutions of society, created a dilemma for the emperors. By forcing a choice between Rome and Christianity, the emperors badly misjudged the strength and resiliency of Christianity.

Constantine realized the shortsightedness of trying to purge the society of Christians and sought a way to make room for Christianity under the umbrella of a genial monotheism (which Christians confessed and philosophers taught). His policy, writes Drake, sought to “reconcile the imperial need for religious justification with the refusal of Christians to pay divine honors to any other deity.” In granting the Church legitimacy Constantine not only diffused a tense situation, he harnessed Christian energy in service to the state.

Both Drake and Digeser believe that Lactantius provided the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Constantine’s religious policy. Lactantius had met Constantine at the court in Nicomedia early in the fourth century, and later, at the onset of the persecution of Christians (burning the scriptures, destroying churches, depriving Christians of their civil rights, compelling them to sacrifice), Lactantius fled to the West to join the court of Constantine as tutor to Constantine’s son Crispus. During these years he wrote a large work entitled Divine Institutes (the title echoing the institutes of civil law) in defense of Christianity and, according to Digeser, he read the work at court in the presence of Constantine.

Lactantius’ Institutes deals with a grab bag of theological and moral topics, but at places in the work one can see that he had an additional agenda: he wished to deprive Roman authorities of a philosophical and legal justification for the persecution of Christians by appealing to their own ideals of toleration, which they had abandoned in this case. Lactantius moved beyond the usual apologetic gambits to offer a positive argument as to why religion of any sort cannot be coerced. Religion, says Lactantius, has to do with love of God and purity of mind, neither of which can be compelled. “Why should a god love a person who does not feel love in return?” he asks. Religion cannot be imposed on someone, it can only be promoted by “words,” i.e., by persuasion, for it has to do with an interior disposition, and must be “voluntary.” “Nothing,” he writes, “requires freedom of the will as religion.”

Though Lactantius draws on earlier Roman writers, Digeser argues that he is proposing something quite new, indeed something quite modern. His argument is not that Christianity should be tolerated because there are many ways to God and no one can know which way is correct (a conventional defense of religious toleration). Rather, Lactantius claims that coercion is inimical to the nature of religion. This is the first theological rationale for religious freedom, because it is the first rationale to be rooted in the nature of God and of devotion to God.

Drake and Digeser see the hand of Lactantius in the famous Edict of Milan, the circular letter issued by Constantine and his co–emperor Licinius in 313 that granted Christians the right to practice their religion without interference from Roman authorities. The Edict of Milan, however, is not simply a grant of toleration; it is a more radical and far–reaching solution to the problems faced by the emperors. For it grants not only to Christians but also to “all men . . . freedom to follow whatever religion each one wished.” By mentioning not only Christianity (the immediate occasion for the decree) but other forms of worship, the decree set forth a policy of religious freedom, not simply the toleration of a troublesome sect. As the emperors put it, each person should be given the freedom “to give his mind to the religion which he felt was most fitting to himself,” for the supreme divinity is to be served “with free mind.” The Edict of Milan, says Drake, is a “landmark in the evolution of Western thought—not because it gives legal standing to Christianity, which it does, but because it is the first official government document in the Western world to recognize the freedom of belief.”

What makes this argument convincing is that it is possible to compare the reasoning of Lactantius, who was active at the court of Constantine, with that of Porphyry, a philosopher at the court of the emperor Diocletian who had initiated the persecution. Porphyry, known to historians of philosophy as the disciple of the great Neoplatonist Plotinus, was the most astute and learned critic of Christianity in the first four centuries of the Church’s history. But unlike earlier critics he had the emperor’s ear, and provided philosophical and religious legitimation for an aggressive policy against the Christians early in the fourth century. Although Porphyry believed that there were many roads to the divine, and no one could claim to have found the true way, he thought the Christians were subversive. In his book dealing with Christians he asked: “How can men not be in every way impious who have apostatized from the customs of our fathers, through which every nation and city is sustained? . . . What else are they than fighters against God? What types of pardon will they be worthy of who have turned away from those recognized as gods from the earliest times?” Christians, in his view, should adjust their religious beliefs to traditional Roman practice. If not, they should be punished accordingly.

It is commonly assumed that because polytheism is not exclusive it must be tolerant. But the historical evidence will not bear this interpretation. Porphyry was the exponent of an inclusive religious outlook that held that there were many ways to God; he even attempted to find a way of integrating Christ into the pantheon of Roman gods by honoring him as a sage. But he had few takers among the Christians and he concluded that Christianity, at least in its orthodox form (because of its belief in the divinity of Christ), was harmful to Roman society. Consequently he was unwilling to grant forbearance to the Christians.

 Christianity, on the other hand, is exclusive, for it claims not only that one can know the true God but that the way to God has been revealed in Christ. Hence it is often assumed that Christianity is inherently intolerant. But this confuses exclusivism with intolerance. Polytheism is not exclusive, but it can be intolerant as it was at the time of Diocletian’s persecution. Christianity is exclusive, but it can be tolerant (though of course it can also be intolerant, as later history will demonstrate). In the early fourth century there is no evidence that traditional pagans found Constantine’s religious policy favoring the Christians a threat to their beliefs and practices. Lactantius (and Constantine) believed all men should be granted freedom to follow whatever form of religion each wished. For this reason, Drake argues that the claim that Christianity in itself is intolerant is a modern prejudice: “The coercive Christian as normative is a modern construct—the worst sort of conceptual anachronism, one that has required every ounce of scholarly ingenuity to maintain.”

By embracing Christianity, Constantine not only forged a new policy, he acquired a new constituency. One of the most attractive features of Constantine and the Bishops is Drake’s discussion of the new role of the Church, and in particular her bishops, in the politics of empire. Priests were a familiar feature of life within the Roman Empire, but Christian bishops, the priests of the Church, were something quite new. They were organized, and thought of themselves as leaders of an alternate society, another city if you will, and they had a constituency, and a large one at that. They were not functionaries of the state, and political authorities had no say in the selection of a bishop. Unlike the traditional priests whose role was primarily cultic, the office of the bishop included oversight (the meaning of episcopos) and teaching (e.g., preaching) as well. Furthermore, most bishops were well educated and were expected to provide spiritual leadership and moral example. This all meant that “the emperor had to establish a working relationship with an organization over which he had no formal control whatsoever.” The Church had become a force to be reckoned with in imperial life.

But the story does not end here. By the end of the fourth century Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, and as the state granted more privileges to Christianity the Church’s bishops put greater pressure on imperial officials to restrict the practice of other forms of religious belief. Drake ends his book with a discussion of the famous confrontation between Bishop Ambrose of Milan and emperor Theodosius, in which Ambrose asserted the authority of the Church over the authority of the crown in spiritual matters. By using the power of the state to promote the interests of one religious party over another, Constantine helped prepare the way for the use of the powers of the state to support Christian beliefs.

Drake realizes that the developments later in the fourth century and in the centuries to follow put into question his arguments about Constantine’s policy and Lactantius’ doctrine. How is one to reconcile the principles set forth by Lactantius with the actual practice of the bishops and magistrates in what had become a Christian state? In response Drake offers a useful distinction. Intolerance is a theological issue, coercion a political matter. In other words, it was not Christian theology that led, for example, to laws prohibiting pagan sacrifices, but the effort of the emperors to mandate a Christian society.

Ancient Rome was not a secular state. The empire was a religious institution headed by the emperor. In the years after Constantine’s death in 337, the Christian community was growing rapidly, and many who came into the Church with little understanding of their new faith needed direction and guidance. The Church was also riven by a bitter theological controversy over the doctrine of the Trinity that set bishops against bishops and brought the mechanism of imperial power into play to maintain peace. Further, thirty years after Constantine’s death, and some fifty years after the peace of the Church, Julian (known in Christian tradition as the Apostate) became emperor and launched an aggressive program to undermine Christianity, purge Christians from the schools (“How can they teach Homer if they do not believe the gods of Homer?” asked Julian), and drive a wedge between Christianity and the cultural life of the empire. By the end of the century, after it had survived the challenge of heresy and the threat of apostasy, the Church was seeking to consolidate its position as the empire’s dominant religion.

As can be seen from this summary, the arguments of these two books move on several different levels, some of them historical, some philosophical. Drake is most successful in constructing an original interpretation of Constantine’s political program in the years after the failure of Diocletian’s persecution, and his discussion of the role of Christian bishops in the politics of empire is fresh and insightful. Digeser provides a careful reconstruction of the historical setting in which Lactantius wrote and of the intellectual context of his thinking about religion, and also documents the persistence of Lactantian motifs in Constantine’s religious policy after he had become sole emperor in 324. Taken together Drake and Digeser set forth a persuasive argument for a reconsideration of Constantine and his religious policy as Roman emperor.

Because they deal with Constantine himself and make only passing reference to the Constantinian settlement, the authors do not address the topic of Constantinianism, at least not explicitly. Yet they do set one’s thoughts moving in that direction, for if it is possible to rescue Constantine from his critics, it may also be possible to free Constantinianism from the hands of the anti–Constantinians.

Constantinianism, as it has been understood by thinkers such as John Howard Yoder, refers to an accommodation between the churches and political authority in which the churches “identify themselves with the power structures of their respective societies instead of seeing their duty as calling these powers to modesty and resisting their recurrent rebellion.” The great temptation of Constantinianism is to see the “true meaning of history” in the world and not in the Church. As Yoder describes Constantinianism, it holds that the world is already “by itself” on the way to achieving the “fullness of salvation,” and the Church is to be but an instrument to aid it on its way.

It is noteworthy, however, that during the reign of Constantine and in the “Constantinian settlement” of the following centuries, it was the society that accommodated the Church, socially as well as religiously, not the other way around. The Constantinian revolution created space for Christianity to shape the new society that was being constructed; the distinctive organization of the Church, the “working ecclesiology” if you will, allowed the Christian community to seize this opportunity and manage its success. The bishops were flexible and versatile, at once bearers of continuity from generation to generation as well as signs of unity for a community spread across the empire and beyond. Unlike the older religious institutions of the empire, the Church thought of itself as a single corporate body with a common identity (exemplified in the extensive correspondence of leading bishops with one another). As the Church struggled to deal with the new realities of power, it put forward a new idea of community within society and the result was a great flowering of Christian expression in art, architecture, poetry, theology, philosophy, and spiritual literature, the first golden age in Christian culture.

The most visible example of this, as I have already noted, is the new role of the bishop, but Drake also shows that the martyrs (whose numbers had swelled with the persecution under Diocletian, and whose memory was celebrated in the Church’s worship) helped to keep the Christian community from losing its distinctive identity and being absorbed by the culture.

It is also evident that the public life of the society was being transformed by the recognition given to Christianity. Constantine introduced laws that made Sunday a day of rest, thereby introducing a new calendar and reordering the life of society to make space for Christian worship. He issued laws that discouraged the exposure of infants by indigent parents and declared that the public fisc should provide food and clothing to rear abandoned children. The emperor built churches, not only in the new Christian city of Constantinople and the old capital Rome, but all across the empire (in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, for example). As these new buildings displaced the temples (built by former emperors) the city plans began to reflect the new faith. The most prominent public building was the church, and to this day one finds a church on the central public square of most European cities.

None of this was imposed. Rather, it followed naturally as the number of Christians mounted across the empire. The transformation that took place within the empire would be replicated again and again as Christianity spread beyond Rome’s boundaries into northern Europe, among the Franks and the Germans, the British and the Irish, the Scandinavians and the Poles, the Lithuanians and the Bulgars, the Ukrainians and the Russians, into Asia among the Armenians and Georgians, and into Africa among the Nubians and Ethiopians. For all these peoples conversion to Christianity meant a change of public practice in law, in architecture, in calendar, in marriage customs, in political institutions, in social mores, in burial practices, and much more. Christianity is a culture–forming religion.

There were, to be sure, unholy tradeoffs, and as Christian societies took form, kings and princes sought to manage the affairs of the Church and to use her spiritual authority to serve their ends. But even when the Church and the society were one and the king was considered head of the Christian people, the Church retained its distinctive identity. One of the major themes of medieval history is the effort of bishops and popes to assert the unique vocation of the Church over against that of the temporal powers. The king, unlike the bishop, could not claim apostolic authority. It was the bishops and pope who constituted the Church. At the same time the Christian king had a role, indeed duty, in the new Christian society. The truth is that some form of Constantinianism is an inescapable consequence of the Church’s success. Because Christians confess one God who is creator of everything that is, as their numbers increase they will inevitably strive to transform all of life and society. The Church must say yea as well as nay to the world.

A classic example is Gregory the Great’s advice to his missionaries in England early in the seventh century. Gregory was asked what was to be done with the temples to idols when a people converted to Christianity. Some had advocated destroying the temples and building churches at other locations. Gregory advised that the temples be left standing. “Take holy water and sprinkle it on these shrines, build altars and place relics in them.” The people, he said, would be more ready to come to places they are familiar with and in them to “worship the true God.” In the same way, one should not banish the sacrificing of animals. Better to continue having a feast of roasted meat, not as an offering to idols but as “food to the praise of God.”

The true hero of this eventful tale is Lactantius, whose discussion of religion lays bare the spiritual roots of Western notions of religious liberty. For he saw that religious freedom rests on a quite different philosophical foundation than toleration of religion. It is not far–fetched to say that Lactantius’ view of religious freedom is echoed in James Madison’s defense of the free exercise of religion after the 1771 flogging of Separate Baptists in Madison’s home of Orange County, Virginia. A few years later, in 1776, when the leaders of the revolution in Virginia were working on a “Declaration of Rights” for the new commonwealth, Madison quietly replaced the term “toleration” with “the full and free exercise of religion.” And in his Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785, written to protest the bill before the Virginia legislature “Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” he argued that “religion is the duty we owe to our Creator. . . . It is the duty of every man to render the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him [the Edict of Milan has, “freedom to follow whatever religion each one wished”]. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of civil society. Before any man can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.” Religion could not be compelled, it had to be voluntary, and its practice free of the dictates of political authorities. Like Lactantius many centuries earlier, James Madison had a religious understanding of religious freedom.

It is unlikely that Madison read Lactantius, though he was theologically well informed, but Lactantius’ insight, which is really an insight drawn from biblical religion, is confirmed by other Christian thinkers in antiquity and in the Middle Ages. When Gregory the Great learned that some Jews in Gaul had been baptized against their will, he wrote to the Bishop of Marseilles that people should be brought to baptism only by persuasion, not “by compulsion.” And Thomas Aquinas held that faith is by its nature a free act of the will, so that if someone does not come to faith freely and voluntarily, the act of faith is not genuine.

But to come closer to our own time, it is instructive to read the Declaration on Religious Liberty from Vatican II. There the key passage reads: “One of the chief Catholic teachings, found in the word of God and repeatedly preached by the Fathers of the Church, is that the response of people to God in faith should be voluntary; so no one must be forced to embrace the faith against his own will. Indeed by its very nature the act of faith is a free act. . . . It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters of religion every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded.” Though the decree’s defense of religious liberty is well known, what is seldom recognized is that the language in this passage is drawn almost directly from Lactantius. In the accompanying note that provides references to early Christian and medieval writers the first author to be cited is none other than Lactantius.

Whether Lactantius was the primary influence shaping Constantine’s religious policy will be debated by historians of the emperor’s reign, and how influential Lactantius’ Divine Institutes was on the formation of Christian ideas of religious freedom (he was after all a minor figure) is a matter for historians of Christian thought to negotiate. Nevertheless, it cannot be doubted that Lactantius saw something that none of his contemporaries discerned, and that he did so as a Christian thinker.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.