Andy Walton looks at whether there is a "Religious Right" emerging in Britain
MP compared those who oppose same-sex marriage to Christians who resisted abolition - The Standard
How to defend the indefensible
16th January 2012
Once upon a time, Christians were all really nice. Being pacifists, none of them was ever violent or even nasty. They hated the Roman Empire but never picked up the sword either against it or, which would have been far worse, for it. Then clever Constantine became emperor and, recognising it would be easier and more profitable to co-opt the church than to persecute it, bought and bullied ecclesiastical loyalty and, within a matter of years, turned Christ’s spotless bride into a gold-digging, dagger-wielding, blood-spattered whore.
Or so the story goes.
Peter Leithart, a fellow at New Saint Andrews College in Idaho, will have none of it and sets out to defend what many today would deem indefensible: the emperor Constantine himself and the ‘Constantinian’ settlement he instituted. Disturbingly, he does a very good job.
His tactic is simply to return ad fontes, to the historical sources for the early fourth century itself. He highlights a number of issues of historical detail, many of which are small but no less relevant for being so, each of which revises or fully reworks the picture with which most of us will be familiar.
So, the Edict of Milan, which Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius passed in 313 was an edict of toleration, allowing Christianity to co-exist alongside pagan religions, not an act of enforcement. Given that the Great Persecution, in which Christians had been publicly tortured and executed was well within living memory (indeed, was still sporadically going on in places), a contemporary Christian would have to have been insane to have objected to this.
Tolerating Christianity only officially became compelling it half a century after Constantine died. While it would be an exaggeration to call Constantine’s political settlement one of ‘principled pluralism’ – the emperor was too obviously pro-Christian for it to be that – but it was certainly principled and it certainly permitted pluralism.
Then there is the vexed question of violence. Leithart points out what has long been known in academic circles, namely that Christians wielded the sword on behalf of Rome from as early at the 180s (and very possibly from earlier than that – we simply don’t have the records to know one way or the other). He also points out that one of, perhaps the central objection that Christians had to serving in the army was the fact that it entailed pagan worship, forms of localised religiosity that bound regiments together. Some, he is careful to point out, had an immovable objection to the use of violence, but that was clearly not the default position. Christian willingness to use force undoubtedly did change with the advent of Constantine but not as much as many would like to imagine.
Leithart is similarly ‘revisionist’ when it comes to a number of other key areas. Just at Christians attitude to violence was somewhat ambivalent before Constantine, so was their attitude to empire. This is not to say that pre-Constantinian Christians were as enthusiastic about the role and rule of Rome as (many) post-Constantinian ones were. Rather, it is to point out that just as the New Testament is ambivalent about imperial power, legitimising the exercise of the sword but at the same time severely limiting it to issues of public order and placing it under God’s judgment, so pre-Constantinian Christians exhibited a similarly complex attitude. Moreover, not all post-Constantinian Christians were as uncritically enthusiastic about it as Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s biographer whose willingness to see God’s providence in empire and emperor rather blinded his more critical faculties.
Sometimes Leithart appears to be trying a little too hard. He does a valiant effort to point out the beneficial impact of Constantine’s legislative activity on the gladiatorial games; the status of women, infants and the unborn; and legal procedure and the chronic and corrupt appeals system, to pick up just three examples. However, he doesn’t quite answer the charge raised by earlier historians that Constantine’s legislation illustrates and obsession with sexual misdemeanours and increased brutality in punishment. (Not that Leithart goes there, but the fact that the legislative activity of the newly Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms several centuries later exhibits the same trends does seem to suggest that this is something intrinsic rather than incidental to the Christendom mindset).
Leithart is certainly not blind to Constantine’s faults. He acknowledges that the emperor’s legislation on slavery is mixed and that the manner in which he did away with his wife Fausta and son Crispus was probably an example of merciless power play at its very worst. Yet, he is determined to put as good a spin on the emperor as possible and if one is left with a vague feeling that he being a little too generous, the book nonetheless remains cogent and persuasive.
John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite, pacificist Christian ethicist is clearly in Leithart’s sights throughout the book and emerges into the limelight in the final chapters. While respecting his integrity and many of his arguments, Leithart repeatedly shows that those arguments are based on seriously flawed history. And that, ultimately, is the strength of this book.
Those ideologically opposed to Constantianism are unlikely to be swayed by the arguments therein. But Leithart has done such a clear and careful job of reassessing the historical grounds on which all positions on the proper relationship between church and state in some way rely, that those minded to deliver blanket denunciations of the Constantinian settlement, will have a harder job in the future.
Defending Constantine: The Twilight of and Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart is published by IVP Academic (2010)