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Notes on Defending Constantine (3)

A third note, this one, perhaps, more substantive.

On p. 203, n. 45, Leithart writes, “Surely, though, empowering and funding an already well-organized Christian counterpolity counts as a Christianizing program, and one that Constantine pursued legislatively. Did Constantine intend to Christianize the empire in this fashion? No one can know, and no one needs to know: his intentions did not determine the outcome” (bold emphasis mine, italicized emphasis his).

My question has to do with the phrase “Christian counterpolity.” To whom are we to attribute these words? Is this Leithart’s own gloss on the nature of the church, or is this an example of “deviant focalization” or “free indirect discourse,” i.e., are we to infer that Leithart means that this would have been the way in which Constantine himself viewed the situation, thus: “[E]mpowering and funding [what he considered to be a] Christian counterpolity…”? If the former, the issue of debate (should there be one) would be theological, and that is not my concern here. If the latter, it would be historical, and then, I think, we’d have a problem. For though this is rather a popular way of construing the church at present, it seems to me impossible that Constantine would have viewed the church in this way, and that, if he did, he would have sought to destroy it. Constantine’s entire way of envisioning the church, and the church in imperial society, runs against it, for it would make nonsense of the Eusebian theorization of “One God-One Emperor [and, one could add, -One Church],” which there is no reason to doubt Constantine shared. The church was not thought to exist, nor was it thought that it ought to exist, as a polity that competed with the civic polity of a Christian emperor–if it did, it would have been subversive of Constantine himself. There is no evidence that Constantine would have welcomed such subversion from within, and much evidence against it. Constantine sought a harmonious ordering between church and society and not one that was fundamentally antagonistic and competitive.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.