Constantine is a huge name in history, especially Church history. He lived around 300 AD and depending on who you talk to he was responsible for either: compromising the essentials of the Christian faith or enabling Christianity to grow into an influential world religion. As emperor of the Roman empire, he declared full legal toleration for Christianity in 313 AD in the Edict of Milan. Up to this point, Christianity had been harassed and persecuted by a series of Roman emperors. They belonged to a growing but still minority religious fringe group whose freedoms were severely restricted. Constantine's edict changed all of that. They were able to worship freely and all the former restrictions were removed. Constantine even built churches and clergy (Catholic) were given prestigious offices. In 323, he summoned a Church council to decide the Arian controversy and the Nicene Creed was the outcome. He moved the center of the empire from Rome because of its pagan past to the new city of Constantinople which he hoped to found on Christian principles.
Constantine is a controversial figure to this day and historians continue to debate his accomplishments and motives. One area of controversy is the genuineness of his Christian faith. Was he really a Christian? Why did he convert to Christianity in the first place? He placed his conversion in 312 AD at the battle of Milvian Bridge, north of Rome. Before the battle he claimed to have seen a vision of the cross of Christ that assured him of victory. He wore an emblem of the cross into battle and won. He became the protector of the Church of Christ although he was never baptized until right before he died. Some historians insist he was a megalomaniac who used Christianity for political and military purposes. He kept his distance from the Church but called himself the "servant of God" and the chief bishop of the Church. Yet, many of the decisions he made and the ways he used (and abused) power have raised many questions as to the validity of his faith. Either way, his Edict in 313 virtually made Christianity the faith of the empire.
In contrast to many recent studies that question not only Constantine's reasons for adopting Christianity but also whether it was good for the Church's long term growth and health, Peter Leithart has written a new book in which he defends Constantine from his critics. Called, Defending Constantine, Leithart argues that Constantine was a real Christian, who genuinely tried to apply his faith to life, living in difficult times.
One of Constantines main critics within the Church has been the Anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder. Yoder has maintained that Constantinianism changed Christianity from a minority faith that required courage and obedience from its adherents to a faith that was politically and socially privileged so that it was assumed everyone was a Christian. Yoder states that prior to Constantine you knew a Christian by how she lived but after Constantine church membership meant very little. Yoder, as a pacifist, also charges that before Constantine Christians were pacifists but after him, they were not. Christians now believed violence could be justified if history needed a nudge in the right way. Post Constantine the fundamental tension between the world and the church changed and the Church no longer followed a suffering Christ but now saw themselves as the victors.
Leithhart's book is a lively re- presentation of Constantine's life and beliefs and the consequences that we are living right up to this day. Constantine is an important figure for the issues he still raises today. We are very much living his legacy in the church. More on that legacy later as I get further into the book!