Reader David responded to the post “The polemical nonsense about Constantine”: A follow-up on Peter Leithart’s new book Defending Constantine with the following:
While I agree that Constantine is not the whole story of the development of Christendom. In my understanding, he is but one step – a formative one – in a longer slide toward Christendom (which is not the same as saying “perfect before/all bad after.” I think we need to at least characterize this shift as my friend Alan Kreider does from the imperial accommodation of Christianity (Constantine) to imperial adoption of Christianity (Theodosius). There is a difference between declaring religious tolerance of Christianity and making it the Imperial religion.
To me, this is an important distinction. As I responded initially to David:
David, there certainly is a difference. One part of that difference was the temptation, not always resisted, to use the arm of the state to persecute adherents of pagan religions–not a happy chapter in our history. By the way, I have been interested and inspired by Alan’s work on the “lifestyle evangelism” mode of the early Christians–certainly something that resonates with the best of Anabaptism. I’d be happier if scholars such as Alan didn’t feel quite so free to dismiss the important work of the definition of orthodox belief, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from them.
But there’s more to this. The Anabaptists still see “imperial accommodation” (without explicit use of the arm of state to persecute non-Christian religions) as a fall from Christian purity. But I don’t, necessarily, though of course there were negative consequences of that accommodation. So I added another response to David’s post:
A second thought: are we really so in love with the idea of Christianity as a martyr faith that we would have preferred that that “imperial accommodation” never have taken place? That, in other words, Christians were still being killed for their faith in every world culture (as certainly continues to happen in some)? Quite apart from the ability of an un-persecuted faith to propagate itself worldwide in so many ways, I just can’t see that the tremendous advances in the sciences, arts, health & healing (the development of the hospital), and so much else that we take for granted today would have emerged from a marginalized, persecuted church.
But I am a “Christ above culture” guy, not a “Christ against culture” guy, on H. R. Niebuhr’s Christ-and-culture map (which I buy despite the critique of Hauerwas & Willimon). I would fall into the camp of Robert Louis Wilken, who talks about, for example, the “Christianization of Hellenism” rather than the “Hellenization of Christianity.” Or the camp of Lamin Sanneh, who points out that Christianity always, when it first enters a culture, both revises and relativizes various aspects of that culture–as a part of the incarnational principle of “translatability.” I’m not ready to give up on the common grace, the general revelation, the widespread action of the Logos even in arenas and cultures that do not acknowledge Christ, and so forth.
So to me, the “imperial accommodation” has turned out on balance to be a positive thing. What Theodosius did is a separate issue–though of course it wouldn’t have happened without Constantine. Neither, however, would the freedom of religion in the modern American Empire–including the ability of Anabaptists to live out their non-violent convictions through the options of conscientious objection, etc.
I’m re-posting these comments because I would be interested in continuing this conversation.
I know the calculus is a difficult one:
–hospitals, yes, but also crusades;
–the development of Christian-sponsored democratic nations with space of religious freedom, yes, but also the use of Christian rhetoric by those nations to sponsor war
–the sciences with all of their blessings, yes (which emerged in the West out of Roger Bacon’s and Thomas Aquinas’s wise recognition of “general revelation” in the work of Aristotle and their consequent adaptation of Aristotelian science within Christian cosmology and theology), but also the use of those sciences to create the atomic bomb, to be wielded by those warring “Christian” states.
In each of these dyads, neither the first part nor the second part, I believe, happens without Constantine’s “imperial accommodation” of Christianity. So how are we to assess that accommodation?