Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Worship of the Christian Emperor Constantine

In the wake of the 'revisionist history' nonsense about Constantine being the great establisher of Christian orthodoxy and suppressor of heterodoxy (which it is a stretch to even call a half truth), it is refreshing to read the works of scholars who actually know the primary sources when it comes to Constantine.

One such person is Edwin Judge, the fine social historian, now retired from MacQuarrie University in Sydney Austrailia. I have been working through the papyri of the early Christian era with the help of "New Documents which Illustrate Early Christianity" These volumes are invaluable, and Judge was a regularly contributor to them in the early days of the serial (which now has thankfully been picked up and published by Eerdmans).

The inscription I am interested in was found not in the east (e.g. Asia Minor), where Emperors were more frequently worshipped, but in Umbria no less in Italy itself. Its date is 336 A.D. in the very midst of Constantine's reign and well after he declared his allegiance to Christianity, at least nominally, and removed the Christian faith from the list of 'superstitio' ending the Christian persecutions which had reaced new heights under Diocletian. The inscription in question reads "The council of Plestia to the deified Flavius Valerius Constantinus Augustus".

Judge (New Docs II, p. 192) commenting says that this inscription "pinpoints the fact that the establishment of Christendom had by no means done away with the Imperial cult; rather it had clarified some of its ambiguities. The Caesars had mostly insisted on their own humanity, at the same time as they accepted or encouraged the cult as an expression of gratitude and loyalty....The conversion of Constantine helped define the difference [between Emperors who made explicit claims to deity like Gaius, and Emperors like Constantine who saw it as a sort of hyperbolic loyalty statement]. He promoted his own family's temple and cult 'provided it is not polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstition.' But as one chosen by God he could both revive traditional disclaimers of divinity and anticipate his own apotheosis in the form of a personal reception into heaven at death.... Paradoxically the Christianization of the [Emperor] cult may actually have open the way for people seriously to pray to their rulers for the first time. Their divine calling and sanctity ranked them with the saints in this respect....."

Thus far Edwin Judge. I would add that when we closely examine the historical records about Constantine, we discover that he continued to be a patron of various pagan priests and cults until his death. Here is an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia (online) on Constantine:

"In the dedication of Constantinople in 330 a ceremonial half pagan, half Christian was used. The chariot of the sun-god was set in the market-place, and over its head was placed the Cross of Christ, while the Kyrie Eleison was sung. Shortly before his death Constantine confirmed the privileges of the priests of the ancient gods. Many other actions of his have also the appearance of half-measures, as if he himself had wavered and had always held in reality to some form of syncretistic religion. Thus he commanded the heathen troops to make use of a prayer in which any monotheist could join, and which ran thus: "We acknowledge thee alone as god and king, we call upon thee as our helper. From thee have we received the victory, by thee have we overcome the foe. To thee we owe that good which we have received up to now, from thee do we hope for it in the future. To thee we offer our entreaties and implore thee that thou wilt preserve to us our emperor Constantine and his god-fearing sons for many years uninjured and victorious." The emperor went at least one step further when he withdrew his statue from the pagan temples, forbade the repair of temples that had fallen into decay, and suppressed offensive forms of worship. But these measures did not go beyond the syncretistic tendency which Constantine had shown for a long time. Yet he must have perceived more and more clearly that syncretism was impossible."

What this all makes abundantly clear is that while Constantine's conversion may have been real, nonetheless he was a shrewd politician who did not simply repudiate the practices of Rome's past, but rather operated in a pluralistic fashion. The manner in which he helped Christianity was by taking it off the list of superstitions or banned religions. He certainly did not impose orthodoxy on the Empire or draw and quarter all the Gnostics nor eliminate their texts. Sorry Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Marvin Meyer. It will not do to paint Constantine as the watershed, or big bad guy who supressed your texts of interest.


Ben Witherington said...

Well evolutionist you certainly know how to put things clearly.

In the first place its about time you owned up to the fact that most scientists of whatever religion realize that evolution is a THEORY, not a fact. Like all good theories that endure, it seems to have some empirical evidence to support.

The truth is there is as much empirical evidence for human fallenness, which has nothing to do with evolution, as there is for the theory of evolution itself. In fact, we might need a theory of devolution when it comes to human beings because our capacity for more and more inhumane and barbaric behavior and inventions has increased exponentially in the last several hundred years.

My wife is both a biologist and a botanist and an ecologist. We are certainly not persuaded that the world is only 6,000 years old while having the appearance of age. Neither are most Christians.

We are also fully aware of the many problems and flaws in the evolutionary theory. The theory that an intelligent God made all of creation, even if he did so through the mechanism of a big bang is far more plausible from a purely scientific point of view than that all this came to be by random chance.

And as for Adam and Eve, we've got more empirical evidence for the origins of the human race in the fertile crescent valley of the Tigris and Euphrates then we do for the general theory of evolution itself, which after all is not a very old theory.

It would behoove you to get better informed about both evolution and the wide spectrum of views that support the notion of divine creation, including creationist views affirmed by those who are practicing scientists not theologians.

And if you cannot see that the world is run by fallen human beings who are selfish, self-centered, arrogant, ignorant, parochial, ethnocentric, and a host of other things, then I am wondering what news report you've been watching. If all of this is the result of the evolutionary spiral and not the historical fall, then heaven help us--- we need to be delivered from evolution not by evolutionary theory.

I would suggest you sit down a read a good book--- how about Phillip Johnson's opening salvo--- Darwin on Trial.


Ben W.

David Johnson said...

I fail to see how the lack of a "literal historical fall" negates humanity's need for a savior. To me, whether or not humanity enjoyed literal companionship with God in a Garden of Eden and broke the closeness of their relationship by disobedience is immaterial; the point is that humanity has been choosing to sin ever since we became morally conscious. It's just like the argument for original sin--"If there wasn't a disease (original sin), then why did we need a cure?" Rubbish. The cure is not for the fall of our ancestors, but for our own sin.

Anyway, Constantine's syncretistic philosophy impacted the patristic church greatly--the rise of "the saints" and the veneration of Mary often were direct replacements in ideal for the pagan gods and goddesses (the "perpetual virgin" Mary being the replacement for the pagan fertility deities). One could, of course, argue that the "accommadation" of the church allowed for the rise of a character like Constantine. Constantine also is something of a line marking a changing understanding of the church's relation to the state. We shouldn't be surprised today when we see and hear Christians behaving and speaking as though the United States were the "New Israel"--Eusebius was already doing that in the 4th century.

A. C. Mattern said...

Extremely informative post Prof. Witherington.

I'm beginning to see that theologians (even amateurs such as I) need to be equal parts historian if we really want to grasp the theological doctrines explored and contributions made from each succeeding generation.

My understanding of church history is pretty slim so a post like this really starts to flesh out what was happening to Christianity at the time of Constantine and shed a little light on the arguments of biblical canonization and the various councils held at the time. Obviously Constantine wasn't the massive influence that he's typically exaggerated into being, just as the priests didn't necessarily do away with all pagan sacraments they practiced before being "converted."

Studying (ever so slowly) through your commentary on Revelation as well as Bauckham's has pretty much convinced me of the neccessity of grasping the culture and society of the times even when studying out apostolic and early church writings. It makes sense considering that Christianity was never intended to exist within a bubble; its transmission within a culture is often times a response to the needs/weaknesses of that particular society. Yes, that's probably a gross over-generalization, but it would be interesting to see how common methods/messages of evangelism respond to the issues within societies within a certain context of time/geography.

Hopefully we are doing a decent job in this era reporting both theological beliefs (orthodoxy or not) as well as the “heart” of a society (or portions of society). Your recent blog 'Just in Time'-- 'God Wants You Wealthy' is a good example of that. It also helps to show the evolution of theologies that have become exaggerated and misconstrued from truth. Humanity tends to do that, Christian or not.

Honesty when dealing with the history of the church lends more credibility to Christianity then attempting to hide warts and bruises or attempt to justify obvious character flaws.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for the websites. I see no problems with finding God's fingerprints in creation, though I would be reluctant to use the over used term 'proof'. Unfortunately the word 'creationism' has been highjacked by fundamentalists, which is certainly not where I am coming from. I do however think Johnson does a very fine job showing some of the major problems logically with Darwinism. As is always the case, it is easier to deconstruct someone else's paradigm than to adequately build one's own.

In my view, evolutionary theory is not a value neutral purely 'scientific' theory with loads of empirical evidence to support it. It has evidence for it, but there are such huge gaps in the theory, that there are clearly problems, for example at the subatomic level. I would suggest ya'll read some of the stimulating stuff by Philip Davies from downunder--- for example his "God and the New Physics" a fascinating read indeed. I also think that all truth is God's truth, and so I would expect that science and theology would find some harmonic convergences along the way.

From both a historical and a theological point of view, the origin of humankind is important. Evolutionary theory is problematic for a robust theology of humans being uniquely created in the image of God. I doubt many Christians have any problems with the 'development' of a species, adapting to its environment, or even for that matter the morphing of one sort critter into another sort in order to survive. The issue really is where do human beings come from? Maybe Cro-Magnon man et al. are examples of the immediate efffects of the fall.



yuckabuck said...

So is "fundy-baiting" something atheists do when they're bored?

As has been pointed out elsewhere, both the Fundamentalist's "6-day Creationist" position, as well as the "evolutionist's" criticism of it is based on an overly literal reading of Genesis. Neither position is taking the Bible seriously, but rather is handling it lightly, in a somewhat facile way. In "The Ways of Our God," Charles Scobie puts it better than I can:

"Both these views reject the first principle of interpretation of a biblical text: correct identification of its literary genre. Much of what the Bible says about creation is in the form of poetry. In Gen 1-11 truth is conveyed in story form. The intention of these stories is to convey theological truth, not "scientific" truth.... "Creationists" are just as much at
fault as "evolutionists" in insisting that the only possible interpretation of Gen 1-11 is a literal one; both views depend on the thoroughly modernistic, rationalistic presupposition that the only kind of truth is literal, scientific truth. Because of this, both groups fail to let the texts speak on their own terms." (page 185)

The current critique of Darwinism centers on the materialistic philosophy that undergirds it. The notion that common descent occurred through random chance is a philosophical position, not a scientific one, unless "science" is defined as neccessarily entailing a thorough-going materialistic worldview. Isaac Newton used the "scientific method" but was actually a Christian and not a total materialist, so the current "scientific" position is wrong to say that this is the only way science can be done. That's the whole point of the Intelligent Design movement.

(If you don't have time to read Davies' "God and the New Physics," just read the chapter on "the anthropic principle" in Davies' "Other Worlds." It's stuff like this that encouraged many scientists to wonder if perhaps there was something more going on than what could be contained in the strict materialist view of the world. For a good introduction to properly interpreting the Bible, the popular "How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth" is excellent.)

yuckabuck said...

Who said anything about denying pre-hominid species? And who stood up for old-earth creationism versus young-earth creationism. My friend, you need to stop assuming all Christians are ignorant of science (and theology, including hermeneutics!) and perhaps find out more about the range of beliefs that exist in the Christian world. If the other books that were listed do not hit the spot, then at least check out the "Three views on Creation and Evolution" book. I think Jesus' job is pretty safe. He is, in fact, seeking employment with you.

Brian said...

what are your thoughts on theistic evolution? Is that different than creationism? I am kind new to this and don't know where I stand as to the age of the earth. I don't believe creation happened in an isntant, but that there were "de-nuevo"(sp?) acts of creation over time. What say you?

I also agree with yukabuck about approaching Genesis from the p.o.v. of literary criticism, it is theological not literal necessarily - it is real events communitcated "mytho-poetically" in the words of D. Bloesch.

reading on constantine is interesting.

Ben Witherington said...

What I think most of you are under-appreciating is the fact that God is extravagant. It isn't a question of failed efforts of making an elephant. God is creative in similar manner to the way a great artist is creative. He has no problem with producing many variations on a theme, nor does he have any problems with built in obsolescence here and there. The Bible says nothing about God creating all species so they will last forever.

I agree that science and faith need not be at odds. In fact, the scientific world view in general is based on a Judeo-Christian view of reality. For example, scientists operate with the faith assumption that nature is not defiled by the study or close examination of it. Why? Because nature is not God of course, its just part of God's creation. Or for example why exactly do scientists believe that human sense perception, and the use of such perception is a generally reliable way of getting at the facts and truth of empirical reality? The answer is pretty simple-- they share the same epistemology fundamentally as do theists! If one actually studies the origins of modern science you will find people like Galileo and Newton and other devout Christians laying down the foundations. They assumed a Christian worldview when they did so.

In regard to literary issues, it is simply not sufficient to read Gen. 1-2 as pure poetry, because it isn't. It is elevated prose with poetic features. It is indeed making some truth claims about where the human race came from, even if you think the description of the actual creation of man is largely figurative rather than literal. Reality can be described figuratively or literally--- look for example at the Ode of Deborah, a poem about a great battle that actually took place. So, this issue cannot be settled by literary analysis. Whatever else one says, the author of Genesis connects Gen. 1-3 with what follows by genealogies. This indicates that he thinks human beings, or at least the chosen race, go back to Adam. Both Jesus and Paul do theology based on that historical assumption.


Ben W.

Matt said...

Evolution fits the hard evidence in many ways, however it certainly doesn't present a good story (metanarrative) in its current form. Check out this poem and its portrayal of evolution. I'm beginning to think that poetry may be the only way to probe some questions.

At the Smithville Methodist Church, by Stephen Dunn

I especially like the following line,
"Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. You can't say to your child "Evolution loves you." The story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries.

Jeff said...


Can we get you to come on The Narrow Mind to defend some of your views? Please Email me

yuckabuck said...

I did not say that Evolution is a materialistic/atheistic philosophy. I said that one of the current critiques of Darwinism concerned its underlying philosophy. It is actually innacurate to say evolution "simply describes the development of biological species." "Evolution" has become one of those words that now mean both everything and nothing at the same time. I am aware of the evidence for what is properly called "Common Descent," and it is pretty compelling. Just check out the (not Christian) website for a pretty good pile of evidence.

I used to be one of those Christians who said, "I have no problem with micro-evolution, but macro-evolution is just a theory." My atheist friend called me out and showed me that micro-evolution IS the evidence for macro-evolution. Comman Descent is a theory that has a lot of heft behind it, and this Christian is not afraid to acknowledge it.

BUT, "evolution" as it is understood today, and sometimes presented in schools, is more than Common Descent. It also includes philosophical positions about whether random mutations and biological progression over time were "undirected" or not. As a Christian, I believe that everything was indeed "directed." This is NOT a God-of-the-gaps. But it is PHILOSOPHY, not BIOLOGY. Biology does not contain the tools to ultimately say whether or not God created the world through Common Descent. It can (and should) only describe how the mechanism took place. Let's keep biology in biology class, and keep philosophy in philosophy class.

That is what is at the heart of the Intelligent Design movement, as well as the position known as theistic evolution. As I said, the early rumblings of the ID movement were among scientists like the quantum physicist Paul Davies, who called attention to what he called the "anthropic principle." Davies was not trying to proove anything about God. He was just raising the question, as a physicist, of why all these things that science had uncovered had happened.

But I don't talk about ID much, because lately it has been hijacked by Creationists on the one hand, and falsely described by the press. As the comments from the controversy in Pennsylvania showed, there are definitely Christians who push ID in order to introduce young-earth creationism. And this has been all the press has needed to protray ID as "creationism in disguise." I think it's a shame. ID rarely gets a fair hearing.

yuckabuck said...

Dr. Witherington,
I must here repeat my plea of several months ago for an extended treatment from you on hermeneutics. I did not think Wright's "Last Word" dealt with the REAL issues, as this current dialogue shows. (Not to mention the current controversy over Pope Benedict, who caused a ruckus by comparing how Christians think the Bible is God's word given in human words, as opposed to Islam, which holds that the Koran is only Allah's word.)
There is hardly a reference to Genesis in Fee and Stuart's How To Read the Bible For All It's Worth. Why are theologians afraid of this passage?
Playing Devil's advocate: I agree that Genesis cannot be purely poetry, as poetry does not normally contain geneologies. But the literary genre of at least Genesis 1-11 does not seem to be "history" either. (Sorry for using such a loaded term.) Was it Barth who called it "saga?" These narratives are distinct in style from, say, 1 and 2 Kings (which is also a "theological narrative"). Can we nail the genre down more precisely than "theological narrative?"

byron smith said...

Ben, really enjoyed the post on Constantine. Pity there hasn't been more discussion on this topic (not that I begrudge yet more clarifying comments all round on Genesis...).

MWC said...

There are many conversations going on here that I see misunderstandings within, but I want to comment on one thing: ID.

I think too much generalization is taking place on here and elsewhere regarding ID. There is quite a diversity of theological belief, philosophical belief, area of expertise, and conclusions based on scientific evidence among proponents of ID. This includes several of them (the scientists who are curious about ID and at least disatisfied with Darwinian evolution to account for all the data) adhering to some form of common descent.

As well, the crux of the ID, in the most intellectually satisfying form, is at the point where biological information is seen in a similar fashion as other types of specified complex information in open spaces. The idea is to apply the same type of algorithms applied in fraud detection, etc., to biological information. It is not a 'god of the gaps' in the most rigorous form (see Dembski), although certain people on the fringe of the intellectual movement may say things similar to 'god of the gaps'.