The Constantinian Experiment


Part of the process of maturity for the Spirit-led Church is to go where no institution has gone before. The Jews crossed Land and Sea to make proselytes, their Temple a spring in the desert, but Christian mission was the over-tipping of the cleansing Laver, the baptism of the first century world. Of course, this was bound to have political consequences.

Constantine’s union of church and state has been widely criticized. But God loves an entrepreneur. The Spirit of God is the great matchmaker, and the marriage of Church and State, though they have distinct roles, is always His goal. Peter Leithart argues that, within the constraints of the fourth century, Constantine “boldly went.”

We may call Constantine cynical, but such towering cynicim is highly implausible. Equally implausible is [Craig] Carter’s hint that Constantine or the bishops would have been better off to pursue a separation of church and state. As we saw in the last chapter, Constantine did in fact follow a policy of tolerant concord. Beyond that, no one in the fourth century would have thought that a political regime could function without religious sanction, and it is naive to think that Constantine’s conversion would have instantly turned him into James Madison…

The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century? What were the constraints on his action? What, perhaps more importantly, were the limits of his imagination? Only when we have considered those questions are we capable of doing justice to Constantine’s interventions in church politics.

Constantine was a very skilled politician, and he had definite preferences, strategies, goals. His understanding of Christianity was inherently political, structurally similar to Diocletian’s Tetrarchic political theology: right worship of the Christian God would ensure the prosperity and peace of Rome, and right worship demanded the unity of the church.

Much of what he attempted and did was experimental, pursued in fits and starts and not in a single grand strategy. If he had a grand aim, it was to unify the church, and he employed myriad tactics to achieve that end. He had to experiment, because neither he nor any other emperor had ever encountered anything like the church:

The Church could never be simply the religious department of the respublica as the old religion had been. The Church had its own officers, the clergy, who were absolutely distinct from the officers of the state. It accepted the authority of sacred writings and of traditions which were not part of Graeco-Roman civilization … The weekly services, sermons, the discipline of penance, and religious instruction offered the clergy means of indoctrination which had no precedent… The incorporation of the Church involved a fundamental transformation of Roman institutions, with consequences that were bound to be very great indeed. [1]

Constantine was not, besides, the only one with an agenda. he was not capable of simply imposing his will on the bishops, even if he had wanted to, and there are clear signs that he did not want to. Bishops had wills too.

It was a gesture, but Constantine knew that it would be a meaningful one: Constantine refused to take a place in the council until invited. [2]

Was the Constantinian experiment simply a failure in the long run, or a necessary, though temporary, benchmark for the early Church? Rather than being a corruption of the “simplicity of Christianity,” the establishment of the first Christendom was a growth ring, a glimpse of the global future.

[1] J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion, pp. 292.93.
[2] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, pp. 152-153.

See also Church and State.

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