«In defense of Constantine»

Ὄχι ὅτι χρειαζόταν.

Robert Louis Wilken

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.”

There was no way that the emperor could deal with the politics of the Roman Empire without enlisting the authority of religion.

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.

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.  … 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.

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.

 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

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. 

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This entry was posted in Ύστερη Αρχαιότητα, Αναδημοσιεύσεις, Δύση, Ρωμανία, θρησκεία, ιστορία and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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