Constantine Verses Christ
One of the underlying concepts that undergird the Middle Ages, including the divine right of kings concept that dominated so much of history until the Glorious Revolution, was the Constantinian Synthesis. This combination of Christianity and state was natural within the context of the Roman Empire; world history is replete with nations built from a sacral base, where religion and religion melded into one hierarchy of power.
Into this morass wanders the question, ”was Constantine a Christian?” While the question might seem of little import to the history of the world, the impact is actually great. If Constantine was a Christian, then he was simply a Christian trying to get an empire to accept what he believed to be the truth in the quickest and least painful way possible. If he was not, then he was not only a fake, he was a radical destroyer of God’s people —possibly worse than all those who had persecuted the Church before him.
In this book, Constantine Verses Christ, Alistair Lee argues for the latter —Constantine used religion for his own good, rather than the good of the Church. In short, that the Constantinian Synthesis was simply a way for Constantine to provide a new basis for his rule, since the gods of the old Republic had obviously failed, and could not support him in his bid to unify Rome under his command.
As we have seen, Constantine’s approach to religion was not a personal or private one. It was necessary for him to adopt the most appropriate form of religious legitimation available. This had in turn led him to associate himself with and dissociate himself from Hercules. He then turned to Apollo. But of course he could not simply decide to exchange one divine patron for another. The decision was his, but it had to have some element of heavenly confirmation. This is the effect of the ‘pagan’ vision, as recorded in the Panegyrici Latini. The basis of the decision was not a religious one, in a narrow sense, but a pragmatic one. Which god was more likely to bring him victory and success? –Page 12
The author supports his contention from the original sources, primarily Eusebius and a few references to other writers of that time. He deconstructs what Eusebius writes in his various histories of the Church, pulling from their pages the pieces he considers valid, and discarding that which he considers invalid. His, in fact, is the weakest point of the entire effort; in simply discarding that which he considers to be invalid evidence, he sometimes falls into begging the question. ”We know Constantine was not a Christian, so we can safely disregard those sections of the record which say that he was.”
Beyond this flaw, however, Kee argues his case well. By the end of the book, the reader is left with little choice but to conclude that Constantine was, in fact, primarily interested in politics, rather than religious belief —that his background, beliefs, and drive would push him in this direction, and there’s little in the record to contradict that reading. This supports the thesis that the Constantinian Synthesis was not a good thing for the Church, but rather a bad thing, bringing in its wake problems the Church has struggled to outgrow for over 2000 years.
Kee’s work is well worth reading, even though he pushes a bit far in his thesis, and his support isn’t always as strong as it could be.