Constantine and the Edict of Milan 1,700 Years On

This massive bust of Constantine is about 8 feet tall

Can you imagine Pope Francis counseling the heads of Western governments to heed the example of Constantine, the Roman emperor in the early 4th century? Neither can Peter Leithart, author of Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP Academic, 2010). In this piece over at First Things, Leithart reflects on the contrast between how Constantine was viewed in the West at the 1,600 year anniversary of the Edict of Milan in 1913 with how he is viewed by contemporary Westerners at the 1,700 year mark today. What a difference a hundred years makes.

Here is a taste–

[Pope] Pius [X in 1913] wasn’t dealing in hypotheticals. Given his testy international relations with Italy, France, and Russia, it’s not difficult to identify his targets, and he used Constantine’s anniversary to exhort Christian rulers to finish what the first Christian king began. As late as the sexdecentennial, Constantine was still a symbol potent enough to have a role in ongoing political struggles.

At the septendecentennial, not so much. Constantine has nothing like the political heft he had only a century ago. I can’t see Francis invoking Constantine when advising Merkel, Obama, or Putin. During the past nine months, there have been more media references to DC Comics’ John Constantine than to the Emperor. Most news articles about Constantine have tracked the comings and goings of his head, now safely back in York after a year on display in Italy.

That’s a boon for Constantine scholarship. Freed from the need to defend or demonize, scholars can assume that Constantine was a Christian and get down to the business of sifting sources, analyzing his achievements, and tracing the accompanying changes in the Church. Politically moribund, Constantine can be pinned like a butterfly and formulated. The result is a more dispassionate, detailed, and accurate picture of Constantine than we’ve had for centuries.

From the fourth century to the twenty-first, the line between pro- and anti-Constantinians has been one of the fissures running through Western political and cultural history. From the beginning, he polarized. Pagans like Julian hated him for undermining the empire; Christians like Eusebius celebrated him for his pious devotion to the true God. He liberated the Church from persecutors, but over time became a symbol of the Church’s enslavement to empire. Millions honor him for saving orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea, while others complain that he imprisoned the gospel in a Hellenic creed. Critics of the papacy attacked Constantine because they believed he had granted imperial powers to the Pope.

Leithart argues in his book that Constantine’s contribution to the Church and to Western civilization was, overall, a positive one. He rejects the argument that Constantine’s legalization of Christianity was an indispensable factor in the later corruption of the Church. It is an interesting read because, at least in the free church tradition, Leithart’s position is often the outlier.

I agree with Leithart that the renewed interest in Constantine among scholars is a positive development. Like Leithart, I hope that this interest extends beyond the academy, and will bring awareness to the continuing reality of the curtailment of religious freedom and the persecution of Christians worldwide.

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