The Academics: Constantine and Christ

I am currently neck deep in free will/determinism for yet another essay, but while in the midst of the current one I recalled how I posted my first essay here, and so I will do the same for the most recent essay turned in. As of yet I have not heard any evaluation from my professor, so this is how it stands, good or bad. I touched on this topic a few weeks ago, and it seems to keep coming up in conversations, lectures, and general life, and the more it does the more I see how pervasive such an approach like Constantinian thought can be. So here it is. Share your thoughts as well. My mind is still processing it.

Constantine and Christ:

With the conversion and imperial ascent of Constantine, Christians finally had a chance to come out of hiding after nearly two centuries of persecution. After experiencing a vision of a cross and taking it as his battle standard, Constantine conquered the Empire in the name of the Christian God and, as a result, was seen by many as the first Christian emperor and the fulfillment of God’s promises to His followers. He enacted policies allowing for religious freedom and helped the Church build places of worship. However, history has not looked upon the “Constantinian settlement” as kindly as Christians in that time did; many see the marriage of church and throne as the beginnings of later problems in the Church. As author Bryan Stone says, “Constantinianism made it easy for the world to be Christian – and the church has been paying the price ever since” (Stone 119). While the Church benefited from the settlement, the damage done to the theology and practice of the Church outweighs those benefits, and as theology became wrapped up in politics, the Church found itself at the whims of the emperor and the victim of its own growing power.

Until the rise of Constantine, the theological thought of the Church was spread via correspondence and writing from local bishops, such as Tertullian and Origen. The faith was spread by way of conversation and the travel of Christians, often seen as “despicable rabble” by many, for in the early centuries the Christian faith was represented most within the lower classes of society (Gonzalez 92). These believers saw their faith and the Empire at odds, for the Empire stood for paganism and the persecution of their brothers and sisters in the faith. They took Christ’s teachings on the kingdom of God to mean they were citizens of a kingdom that was in opposition to the earthly kingdom of the Empire, standing in the face of persecution declaring Christ as “the emperor over all kings” (92).

When Constantine claimed the faith and repealed persecution, some claimed the kingdom of God had arrived, while others approached the friendliness of the Empire with caution. Indeed, the Church did benefit from the rise of Constantine insofar as they no longer had to fear death for their witness. However, some saw Constantine as God’s chosen leader, and began to cast him as the culmination of the kingdom of God. This led to the development of an “official theology” presented by such leaders as Eusebius, casting the culmination of Christian history as the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire (134). “Official theology” and the resulting theological confusion following Constantine’s rule were a distraction that drew the Church away from its initial purpose.

The Church found itself the center of Constantine’s new empire and a central part of his plan to rebuild Rome. With this new power came the development of a church built around citizenship rather than conversion, with new “converts” flocking to the new, grand basilicas (built with the money of the Empire) at such a rate that the catechumenate had to be abandoned. New means of worship were developed to fill these new buildings, and Christian worship became less about involvement and more about spectating (Viola 25). Additionally, the leadership of the Church found itself with new power and wealth, creating an ecclesiological hierarchy. According to Stone, “In the Constantinian synthesis of church and world, princes became bishops, church discipline was applied by civil courts . . . and the empire guaranteed the meaning of people’s lives” (Stone 118). As one of the few stable forms of leadership in the Empire during this time, the Church leadership found itself wielding political influence, but also found itself being influenced by political divisions.

The new power and wealth of the Church can be seen in the artistic developments that occurred during this time. Prior to Constantine, churches met in believers’ homes; thus, artistic expression was limited to small frescoes and religious symbolism. The few artistic depictions consisted of Old Testament stories and Christ as shepherd, reflecting Greek imagery. With new basilicas and government money, the Church had the means to express itself artistically, and new mosaics, commissioned by wealthy members, depicted state leaders filling religious roles. Elaborate gold furnishings and mosaics within the Church emphasized wealth and power over poverty. Additionally, depictions of Christ Pantokrator, reminiscent of a Roman emperor, towered over the believers in lofty basilica halls. Compared to the humble beginnings of Christian art, Constantinian depictions reflect a Church confident and wealthy.

The Church suffered from its union with the Empire under Constantine. Overwhelmed with new prestige and wealth, the Church lost sight of its humble beginnings and its call to the poor; the faith became a matter of social standing rather than spiritual commitment (Gonzalez 134). Theological issues became entangled with political maneuvering, and as many believers were deemed heretical due to political reasons as religious. Not all believers fell to the allure of the Empire, maintaining their theological integrity while accepting the new friendliness of the Empire with caution. Had more Christians followed this model, especially among leaders such as Eusebius, the damage of the Constantinian settlement may not have been as extensive.

In light of what we know about the results of the Constantinian settlement and its impact on the Church, Christians should be wary of any extensive union between the Church and the overall culture. Whatever role the Church takes in a given society, it must never be forgotten that the followers of Christ are citizens of a different kingdom (Phil. 3:20) and as such our primary role on earth is not to create a separate earthly “Christian” kingdom. This was a central flaw in the philosophy of the Constantinian Empire. As we approach the role of the Church in an American context, we must be as wary of casting the Christian message in a strictly political sense as of casting it as unrelated to earthly politics at all. As followers of Christ, we are called to create disciples, not to create Christian nations to legislate Judeo-Christian values. According to Stone, “the church is not called to be chaplain . . . but rather a prophetic conscience and witness in the world” (128). Attempting to create a “Christian society” within the American context misconstrues Christ’s message and misunderstands the culture in which we live. Moral convictions must flow out of a deeper heart change in the individual or community, not out of legislative force. The Church is the “Christian society” on earth; we must not confuse that with earthly societies and kingdoms. The Christian message is that of another kingdom, and it is to that kingdom we hold our allegiance. The Church must “incarnate” that kingdom, to use Eckman’s model, by embodying the Gospel within society, taking up its prophetic role as proclaimer of another kingdom and seeking to bring people into that kingdom rather than bringing that kingdom upon earthly institutions (Eckman 25). The lesson of the Constantinian settlement is that legislated Christianity is ultimately a destruction of the message of Christ and results in a politicized and divided Church. The American Church would do well to learn from the mistakes of the Constantinian Church and seek the transformation of society through the transformation of people rather than through institutions.

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One thought on “The Academics: Constantine and Christ”

  1. Good, insightful thoughts. History sure does teach us a lot, doesn’t it? It’s amazing how many do not know history and to not know history is to often make huge and incorrect assumptions. Good writing!

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