Constantine and Christendom: Glory or Calamity? | Catholic Lane
October 29, 2012 2 Comments
Let’s continue from yesterday discussing the legacy of Constantine and his conversion. Today we will see how the church became allied (sometimes, anyway) with the state, and how armed resistance to the state is also sometimes allowed under our doctrines. All of this as well as much more come from Constantine, who provides one of the major turning points in Christianity.
Here we see the beginning of the Church Militant, and the beginning of Christendom as we understand it. We have spoken here of the importance of this to western civilization. From Catholic Lane.
God did not send the Savior to a pacifist society in Nepal, or to some remote place eschewing military preparedness (like an ancient version of today’s Costa Rica). Instead he chose the world’s greatest and most literate empire at “the fullness of time.” The Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, was maintained by training, equipping and deploying scores of legions to fight on the frontiers and keep order within the Empire. Imperial Rome was very much about political authority over society, in conjunction with a readiness to wield the power of the sword described in Romans13:4. Yet much of this legacy was hard for the Church to embrace. When for 2½ centuries the sword of state was turned against us; when Emperors so frequently reversed St. Paul’s axiom that government existed to punish evildoers and reinforce the good; then God provided Christianswith various avenues of escape. They ranged from going over to the Goths and fleeing imperial domains; or finding refuge in “fields and deserts, forests and mountains;” or to the ultimate escape, i.e. graduating to a better world via the course of martyrdom.At first, Christians found it hard to adjust to this radical transformation. In the end they found it impossible to discern the divine will without reference to salvation history. Our ancestors in the Faith had to take divine Providence as it actually transpired, not as one might suppose the Great Helmsman of history could more fortuitously have steered the course of events. Proud minds ready to second-guess God wonder why the Divinity did not stop Christians from having recourse to the sword; or why God let the Church be sullied by immersion in power politics. Such thinking overlooks Isaiah 55:9: “For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” Only in that context can we understand the ways of Divine Providence. Otherwise it is incomprehensible that from the days of Pontius Pilate until Diocletian and Galerius the Beast, we suffered upon the cross of persecution. And then, during the dominion of Christendom, the not infrequent burden for believers was to labor under the hypocrisy of ostensibly Catholic rulers. And so we went from tyrants who persecuted us, to rulers who deceived us. How could such a mix of misfortunes have come to pass? I would argue that it was inherent in fallen humanity’s condition, and intrinsic to God’s plan of salvation. Christ founded Christianity, and his loyal servant, Constantine, founded Christendom. Unlike Christianity, however, Christendom was both in the world and of the world. Ipso facto vanity was present from the outset. The Epistle to the Romans puts it thus, “For creation was made subject to vanity – not by its own will but by reason of him who made it subject.” (Romans 8:20) St. Paul goes on to explain how all creation groans and travails in pain, but with the hope of eventual delivery from the slavery to the vain things of this world. One of the worst of vanities is a man’s refusal to believe Divine revelation. “For God has locked up all in the prison of unbelief, that upon all alike He may have mercy.” (Romans 11:32) So too with other manifestations of vanity, like lust for political status and power.It is no surprise, then, that the pain of subjection to vanity takes different forms depending on whether Christians experience direct persecution from pagan rulers; or as in the halcyon days of Constantine, when the merciful God comes to our rescue, scatters the proud in the conceit of their hearts, and puts down the mighty from their thrones (Luke 1:51-52). Yet, whether in good times or bad, the world must endure an overarching oppression by vanity. Vain craving for status created dissension within, of all places, the sacred ranks of the Apostles. But Jesus reprimanded them for trying to lord it over others, and he urged them to follow his example. “I came not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10: 42-45). Thus did Jesus wash his Apostles’ feet at the Last Supper. If the curse of vanity could afflict even the college of the Apostles, then pray tell what institution founded by mere mortals could escape it? Wisdom must respond, “none will escape.” Therefore, the view popularized in the 17th century that the revolution under Constantine was what first introduced corruption into the Church is, as T.G. Elliott put it, a “dream.” According to Professor Elliott this illusion led to the delusion “that Constantine corrupted a Church which was glorying in its pristine virtue by making it into a servant of the state.”
On the contrary, Constantine, the devout Catholic, would hardly have entertained a desire to make the Church into a footstool of his throne. Not all of his successors were so pious or reticent, however, and church-state rivalries reared their head from time to time throughout the many centuries when the terms “Western Civilization” and “Christendom” were synonymous. But the Pietistic-Lutheran condemnation of Constantine – eventually articulated in scholarly fashion by Gottfried Arnold (1699-1700) – saw ‘religious decadence’ in a ‘fall’ or ‘estrangement’ from original Christian purity. In idealizing primitive Christianity during the persecution, Arnold apparently forgot the pervasive curse of vanity which creeps into every human institution. It is in this context that the limitations inherent in the most salutary reforms must be kept in perspective, including even that revolution par excellence, as pushed through under the leadership of Constantine. Mark 9:1 suggests, somewhat mysteriously, that the Lord intended to see his kingdom “coming in power,” sooner or later. Which is quite the contrary of a weak Church vulnerable throughout history to every hostile confrontation. It is wishful thinking to suppose that if the Church had eschewed political power and militarism in the 4th century, the forces of darkness would not have discovered a host of other ways to create discord and hypocrisy in ecclesiastical leadership. Overlooking Martin Luther’s dictum, “wherever God builds a church, the Devil will build a chapel hard by,” Arnold remained steadfast in refusing to see the merits and advantages of the Christian revolution under Constantine. Nor would Arnold and his followers acknowledge manifest interpositions of Providence, and so take salvation history into account theologically.
Continue reading Constantine and Christendom: Glory or Calamity? | Catholic Lane.
Western Civilization owes far more to Constantine than is usually acknowledged.
- Constantine’s Gift to Christianity: Catholic World Report (nebraskaenergyobserver.wordpress.com)
- October 27, 312 – Constantine’s Conversion (gentlereformation.org)
- Christendom: Time To Unite (reverenddrred.wordpress.com)
- Is Peter Leithart right to defend Constantine? (matthewtuininga.wordpress.com)
- The day Christianity became a fighting faith (thewesternexperience.com)