Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse: Constantine and the Great Transformation

Acton Institute just published my review of Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. It appears on their website and in the upcoming issue of Religion and Liberty.

Source: Acton Institute | Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010)

Reviewed by Johannes L. Jacobse

The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.

Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.

But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.

Emperor Constantine (Byzantine mosaic ca. 1000 from the Hagia Sophia)

Emperor Constantine (Byzantine mosaic ca. 1000 from the Hagia Sophia)

“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”

This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”

Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith.

Rescuing the historical narrative from the strictures of a Yoder-like pacifism is no easy task. Pacifist ideas hold tremendous moral power because they appeal to an unblemished definition of personal virtue. It enables the pacifist to occupy a moral high-ground that is virtually unassailable. Who, after all, really wants violence? And who, in defending the necessity of violence, does not feel the heat of the pacifist’s disapproving stare?

The culture surrounding the early Christians was often violent. But the violence, while often senseless, still has a cultural and thus comprehensible context. Violence was endemic in pagan culture. It often was seen as divinely ordained. It’s the historian’s task to uncover, define, and describe it for us. It takes real work to describe it properly and the reader must labor to understand it. When the narrative has to throw off the strictures of pacifism and other anachronistic preconceptions, the task is even harder.

Rescuing the historical narrative then requires two things. First, the modern animus against violence must be seen for what it is: a moralistic precondition imposed on the text and fundamentally a-historical. Second, a new narrative free of the precondition has to be written; history needs to be rediscovered. This requires an able historian who is also a good writer.

Leithart accomplishes both. First he is very clear in his purposes and approach. He pulls no punches, couches nothing in euphemism, and makes no appeals to false virtue. Second, Leithart has the novelist’s gift for description and detail. He captures the native lyricism of the language. The book is a joy to read.

His narrative reaches deep into the pagan world, revealing the thoughts and beliefs that animated it. His well-rounded portraits show how and why the Gospel was indeed a radically new way of seeing the world, and why Christians represented a grave threat to the moral legitimacy of the Empire. It is a tall order to pull off for a historian. Understanding a different culture is hard enough. Trying to describe it to others is even harder. David Bentley Hart accomplished the same thing in his recently published Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
(although his opinion of Constantine leans toward the Yoder camp). Perhaps these books portend a recovery of the historical task free of anachronistic cant.

The late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote in his popular history The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy years ago that Constantine exemplified the transition from pagan antiquity to Christian culture. The complexity of his life and rule is not due to crass self-interest and hypocrisy that the modern critics claim (indeed, what does modern criticism allow beyond the condemnation of putative motives?). Instead, his life reflects the very real existential conflicts when a culture transforms itself into something new.

Leithart would most likely agree. The emergence of Constantine, particularly his embrace of Christianity, represents a cultural shift of the highest order despite the moral problems, ambiguities, even contradictions expressed throughout his life. In fact, these problems represent some of the conflicts that emerge when cultures change. The great transformation from pagan to Christian civilization was an organic enterprise. It happen in space and time. It was more than an architect’s plan. It took real sweat to build the walls and shingle the roof.

And therein lies the value of Leithart’s book. In laying out for us the chronology and ideas of the momentous shift, from Constantine’s conversion, Nicea, the Christian foundations of law and so forth, he shows us how pagan culture was, in the end, baptized.

Reducing Constantine to a marginal figure based on nothing more than unexamined moralistic preconceptions (political correctness), reflects a debilitating paucity of moral vision. This truncated vision, this failure of imagination and thought, has contributed to the failure of Christians to address the very real challenges brought by secularism and other forces that deny the sacred dimension of our lives. Christians who still hold to these preconceptions have no clue about what faces them today and the real battle that needs to be fought.

Pope Benedict of Rome and Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow have both affirmed that Western Culture needs to return to its Christian roots. It needs to uncover the knowledge and power of that initial baptism of culture that occurred in the age of Constantine and in no small measure under Constantine’s protection (the Orthodox Church honors Constantine with the title “Equal to the Apostles”). Indeed, this call to re-evangelize is rapidly becoming the common ground between the Churches of East and West.

That too is Leithart’s vision and therein lies the value of Defending Constantine. Leithart has given us a clear, comprehensible, theologically sound, and beautifully written history of our beginning. It is, I believe, a book of tremendous value for all orthodox Christians.

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse is President of the American Orthodox Institute in Naples, Fla., and a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.

Books cited:


  1. George Patsourakos :

    I believe that Emperor Constantine the Great has had a greater impact on the flourishing and worldwide acceptance of Christianity than any other individual. Indeed, Emperor Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity in the fourth century was an extremely critical turning point for Christianity, because it permitted Christianity to prevail over paganism that pervaded the world at that time.

  2. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    The power of Leithart’s book (and Hart’s “Atheist Delusions”) is that they describe how Christianity won the culture first. Politics, particularly the lifting of the persecutions, was possible only because of this initial witness. This is a dimension, given our modern emphasis on politics, that often gets overlooked.

  3. cynthia curran :

    Good Point. As historian Paul Johnson stated Constantine was a complex person. I don’t believe that christians are required to be pacifists, however, I believe that anabapists and others use referances to early saints like Martin of Tours that refuse to fight in a battle. Constantine is criticized by modern critics for putting to death his 2nd wife and son which might have been caused by a charged of the son attempting to committed adultery with her. As stated before delayed bapistisim was common in the 4th century, even Augustine and Ambrose was bapistized as adults.

  4. cynthia curran :

    In the East, there were more christians in the upper class in Constantine day but in the west in Rome a lot of the great families were still pagan, so becoming a christian was not to Constantine’s political advantage.

  5. The triumph of Christianity not only freed Christians from the spiritual stimulus of persecution, but it opened the door of the Christian home to worldly habits and luxury which were hitherto unknown, and which made the practice of the higher ideals of the spirit difficult, if not impossible, in the ordinary surroundings of the family life. To use the expression of Walter Hilton, the baptism of Constantine “brought so many fish into Peter’s net that it was well-nigh rent by the very multitude.” Henceforth it became necessary for Christians, who would satisfy the deeply seated instinct of human nature for the higher life, to seek it mostly in the solitudes of the desert, or later within the sheltering walls of the monastery. THE MONASTIC LIFE

    The institution of Christian monasticism began in the deserts in 4th century Egypt as a kind of living martyrdom. Some scholars attribute the rise of monasticism at this time to the changes in Roman society that had been brought about subsequent to the Emperor St. Constantine’s conversion and the legal tolerance of Christianity in the Roman Empire. This ended the position of Christians as a small, persecuted group, leading to the rise of nominal Christianity within the Church. In response, many who wished to maintain the intensity of the earliest years of Christian life fled to the desert to fast and pray, free from the fragmenting influence of the world. The end of persecution also meant that martyrdom was no longer as common, and so asceticism as a form of living martyrdom came to be pursued.

  6. AFAIK Constantine is not venerated as a Saint in the Western Church, and I don’t know that he ever was, at least in any significant or lasting way … nevermind calling him Great or Equal to the Apostles.* Maybe mad at him for moving to Byzantion?! I’d be surprised if he’s ever been formally condemned or anything by the West … probably just failure to take up devotion to him, though the West does venerate St. Helen. In all my years as a Mennonite / Anabaptist / Quaker / Christian-pacifist scholar — the 1990s — I never encountered consciousness that he IS actually venerated in the East … just the apparently widespread sense among Protestants in general since the Reformation — and not just among pacifists — that Christianity experienced a qualitative “fall” in becoming the Empire of the Romans’ official religion, which they usually inaccurately attribute to him rather than to Emperor St. Theodosius I (also the Great). It seemed non-pacifist Protestants saw this fall not just in that respect — giving peace witness their usual mere lip-service — but in general observance of morals and ideals, “charisma,” Church operations / structures / governance (Dan Brown’s inaccuracies are just the latest version), even worship (intimate, ‘meaningful’ house-church, to en masse, ornate basilica liturgies). The feeling is centuries older than Yoder and Hauerwas and even any recent “politically correct” kudos for pacifism. In any case, I’d be surprised if a marginal “sectarian” like Yoder has single-handedly wielded so much influence on 4th century studies even just since his rise around the 1960s … nevermind retroactively. Try Martin Luther and co., even the Late Medieval Western “sectarian” movements that in many ways laid the groundwork for them.

    –Leo Peter O’Filon, M.A.

    (*–And they complain about some Orthodox’ lukewarmth — or less — for Augustine of Hippo?!)

    PS: I don’t belive it’s necessary to join the debate about an o/Orthodox approach to “the necessity of violence,” to take my position.

  7. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Actually, try Adolf Harnack, the “father” (so to speak) of the history of Christian Dogma. The notion that the Church fell in the fourth century first gained wide currency with him. Yoder, et. al., developed this thesis into a workable ideology.

Care to Comment?