The Constantinian Turn Was Definitive

The conversion of Constantine marks a watershed in the patristic period. In the second and third centuries the Church was a relatively private community, suffering from time to time the threats and the actuality of imperial persecution and looking for the end of the world. Its worship took place in houses. We know from Justin Martyr the bare outline of its initiation rite and its Sunday assembly for Word and sacrament in the middle of the second century; but the prayers were extempore. As the second century passes into the third, we can add details and possibly texts from Tertullian and (problematically) from the document identified as Ap. Trad. Of developments in the third century we know little. With the conversion of Constantine, however, the Church ‘went public’, and from the second half leave for the Century onwards we possess fairly full information about Christian worship. The church now borrow much from the civil magistracy: the basilica building, the clothes, the processions, the lights, the incense… The ritual structure of initiation and Eucharist became fixed in this classical period: we have the detailed evidence of the mystagogical catechesis…and of the chief Eucharistic liturgies of both East and West, whose principal features—and sometimes even the texts–go back to this time….

—Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Periods of Liturgical History,” in Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold ed. The Study of Liturgy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 35–36.

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  1. Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom , Peter Leithart, IVP, 2010, p 333: “The Creator made man to participate in and prosecute His wars.”

    Constantine really subverted the empire (you see) because he used his great power in the empire to change the empire! How could Constantine have ended the gladiatorial shows, if he had retreated into 2k cultural dis-engagement? If you can kill to protect religious liberty, then the killing itself becomes civilization!

    And shame on Constantine for refusing to wear the purple when he thought he was near death, as if being emperor and being Christian were in competition. Leithart suspects that your (modern) anti-Constantinianism is a cover for your being less “catholic” than you could be. . Augustine was a Christian. .Therefore Christians need only to reject sectarian wars of peasant rebellion against the magistrate. . But when Constantine becomes a Christian, then the magistrate’s wars become Christian wars.

    Yes of course Constantine’s history Is somewhat messy (especially his family life) but the alternative is the impatience of perfectionism. Leithart appeals to all of us who grew up in dispensationalism and now see ourselves as superior to all that. Surely, “church history is not an empty parenthesis.” (p325) We need to work with that which has come about with the passing of time, and if we resist the gradualism of the Magisterial Reformers, we will end up with no church at all, and no more religious liberty to maintain conservative culture!

    In order to “de-sacrifice the empire” and thus eliminate the confusion of patriotism and religion, we need to do two things, according to Leithart. First, we need to sacrifice the enemies of the Christian nation. . Second, we need to move the patriotic rituals out of the secular realm and move them into the church (which will support the Christian nation). Remember that blood sacrifice ended in the Jewish temple in Ad 70. Constantine means the beginning of the end of exile.

  2. Whether we like it or not, Constantine happened. Not all that he did was good and right; he tended towards semi-Arianism. However, he ended the Roman persecution and at least partly introduced Christian standards into Roman law (although perhaps not as much as Justinian).

    However, I must admit my queasiness with part of Leithart’s view. Move patriotic rituals into church? While I, no less than everyone from John Knox to Toyohiko Kagawa would like to see the way of Christ realized in the national life of my nation (and others), we must preserve the understanding that Jesus Christ is lord of and judge among nations, not the property of any one of them.

    I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea that church and state have somewhat different responsibilities under God–especially when these are understood as stewardship rather than mastery; and that these stewardships are necessarily limited because they are placed in the hands of men who are capable of sinning (even when the best of Christians).

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