In my blog entry on ‘Nicaea the Movie’ (25 January 2014) I commented that I have seen little on the Web about Eighth Day Books’ symposium, ‘Constantine, Christendom and Cultural Renewal’ (16–18 January 2014), which contrasted the views on St Constantine the Great of the eminent Mennonite theologian and pacifist, John Howard Yoder (1927–97) and the Reformed minister and theologian Peter Leithart.
I recently came across an article by Tim Huber on the Mennonite World Review website, 3 February 2014, reporting the presentation to the symposium of Alan Kreider, retired professor of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Prof. Kreider published an essay in the collection edited by John D. Roth, Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder and the Constantinian Debate, (Wipf and Stock, 2013), published in response to Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine.
Prof. Kreider remains unshaken in the Anabaptist conviction that ‘Constantine may have considered himself a pious ruler, but the early Christian church [by which he evidently means the pre-Constantinian church] would have found him an impious follower of Christ.’ He added that the Emperor’s baptism, which he put off until just before his death, shows that he and the church understood that state power was not compatible with the life of a Christian.
And yet it is common knowledge among church historians that Christians at that time put baptism off to the last possible moment. It was life in this world that was considered hazardous to our salvation, not just participation in state power.
The suggestion that state power is not compatible with the life of a Christian raises problems. The early Church required Christians to submit to state power. Note St Paul’s words: ‘I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.’ (1 Tim. 2: 1-2) And, famously—or notoriously— ‘… rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil … for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain … Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.’ (Rom. 13: 3-7)
The Christian, although enjoined to obedience, could not take full part in the public life of a pagan state, since it required pagan ritual sacrifice. But what would happen when most of the people considered themselves to be Christian—and when pagan sacrifice was no longer a condition of public office? Christians recognised that the state was necessary but how was it to be carried on in the changed circumstances? This was the question that needed to be answered at the time of Constantine.
Prof. Kreider is quoted as saying, ‘The more I study the early Christians, and I study them a lot, the more convinced I am they were nonviolent.’ This elicits comments on the website from two Orthodox priests, both of them scholars and historians.
First, Fr John W. Morris, Pastor of St George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and teacher of history at a number of universities, expresses disagreement with Yoder’s view (that ‘the obligation [of Christians] to participate in war … [is a tradition] which has prevailed in the churches since Constantine …’ The Politics of Jesus, 1994, p. 210): ‘The Eastern Orthodox Church … never accepted the ‘just war theory’ of Augustine … To this day, an Eastern Orthodox soldier who kills in battle is barred from Communion until after they have been to Confession and have served a penance. In Eastern Orthodox theology all war is evil. However, there are times when war is a lesser evil than allowing a foreign country to invade your country and oppress your people.’
This arouses Fr Alexander F.W. Webster, Pastor of St Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church (ROCOR) in Stafford, Virginia and retired professor of history and National Guard chaplain: ‘I must dissent from my esteemed Orthodox colleague Fr. John W. Morris’s mischaracterization of Eastern Orthodox moral tradition on the issues of war and peace … the ‘lesser evil’ approach to moral issues is decidedly not—and never has been—Orthodox.’
It would be difficult to find two Orthodox theologians who agree completely as to what is the Church’s doctrine concerning war and military service but there seems general agreement that the Church in the East is not explicitly pacifist but neither has it formulated anything as explicit as the Western just-war tradition—at least as far as the jus ad bellum goes; there is less agreement as to the jus in bello. Fr Alexander, however, spurred on by outrage at certain remarks made by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which is unusual among the Orthodox in espousing frank pacifism), co-authored with the Protestant Darrell Cole, professor of religion at Drew University, The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East & West (2004). They argue (convincingly, to my mind) that in fact the fundamental position of the Church East and West is and has always been the same—the position of which the Western just-war tradition is one expression. More specifically, Fr Alexander holds that the Orthodox Church holds in tension, in this as in other cases, two apparently contradictory notions: absolute pacifism and justifiable war. An unjustifiable war is evil; a justifiable war is not a lesser evil but a necessary work of charity.
Further to Fr John’s comment on the requirement of penance for a soldier, it is a fearful thing to kill another human being, even accidentally, and the Church has always required confession and penance. But St Basil the Great in his Canon 13 said, ‘Our Fathers did not consider homicides in war among homicides, it seems to me giving pardon to those who defend temperance and piety. But perhaps it is more advisable, as the hands are not clean, to abstain from Communion for three years only.’ The penance prescribed for a soldier who caused a death in battle is thus just a third of the penance prescribed for someone who has caused the death of another by pure accident.
I learn from James Kushiner’s column (The Fellowship of St James) that a new movie will be in production this year called Nicæa. It even has its own website, www.nicaeathemovie.com. I am absolutely certain that this is the first movie ever to be made about an œcumenical council.
It is being produced by a small U.S. company, Electric Avenue Radio, with only two productions to its credit so far, and directed by Jamil Dehlavi, an independent Pakistani director living in London known for films on obscure subjects. A year and a half ago in the Express Tribune (Karachi), an aspiring young Pakistani director, Jibran Khan, described his films about Pakistan as displaying an ‘erratic yet daring depiction’ of their subject.
While I don’t know what he will make of St Constantine the Great, I am not sure that the subject will respond well to ‘erratic yet daring depiction’—or that we are likely to get much theological depth from a production thinking in terms of ‘blood, grit and pageantry.’ Who would you cast as St Athanasius? Who as Arius? Will they even appear in the film?
Kushiner’s reference to the movie was in a comment on Eighth Day Books’ symposium, ‘Constantine, Christendom and Cultural Renewal,’ 16–18 January 2014 in Wichita, Kansas, where Peter Leithart, author of Defending Constantine, spoke. Leithart’s talks inspired Kushiner with the interesting and possibly disquieting thought, ‘Wouldn't you pray for the conversion of your ruler? What if your prayer was answered?’
I am looking forward to hearing more on the proceedings of this symposium, so far little reported in the blogosphere.
St Paul the Confessor was born in Thessalonica c. A.D. 300. He was ordained deacon and priest by St Alexander, Archbishop of Constantinople, and was consecrated his successor as archbishop of the city in 340. Like St Alexander, he was a defender of the creed proclaimed by the 1st Œcumenical Council and earned the title of confessor by suffering for his faith at the hands of the authorities.
The Emperor Constantius (second son of St Constantine the Great, who reigned 337–361, first as Augustus in the East, then as sole ruler) was a supporter of Arianism and deposed Paul from his see immediately. St Paul took refuge in Rome, where St Athanasius of Alexandria was also in exile. With the support of the pope, Julius I, and the Augustus of the West, Constans, St Constantine the Great’s third son, both saints were restored to their archdioceses, although not for long.
With the death in 350 of Constans, who had been a defender of Nicene orthodoxy, Constantius once again unleashed his wrath on St Paul, banishing him to Lesser Armenia. There at some time between 351 and 357 he was killed by an Arian mob as he celebrated the Liturgy, thus adding the title Martyr to that of Confessor.
Constantine, son of the Cæsar Constantius, was raised as a pagan although his mother was a devout Christian. On the death of his father, he was proclaimed emperor by the army at York in Britain on 26 July 306, but did not become sole ruler of the Roman empire until A.D. 323.
On the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312 against the usurper Maxentius, Constantine received a vision in a dream, revealing that he would be victorious if he fought under the symbol of Christ--In hoc signo vinces. Following his victory, he issued the Edict of Milan, proclaiming for the first time religious toleration in the Roman empire, thus establishing the Peace of the Church and ending the great persecution begun by the Emperor Galerius in A.D. 303.
He became the champion of orthodoxy by ending the Donatist schism in North Africa and by summoning the first œcumenical council at Nicæa in 325 to condemn the Arian heresy, although, like many Christians at the time, he was not actually baptized until he was on his deathbed.
Inspired by his pious mother Helen, he founded many churches, most famously the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the place where St Helen had found the True Cross.
Despite his great services to Christianity and the Church, St Constantine has become controversial in modern times. Many Protestant theologians and a few Roman Catholic theologians blame him for an alleged fall of Christianity into worldliness and hierarchy. (To some present-day theologians ‘hierarchy’ is self-evidently a bad thing.)
John Howard Yoder, theologian at Notre Dame University and Mennonite pacifist, is a notable example of this position, identifying the submission of the Church to the State, and of Christians to the secular world with Constantine. (The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed., 1994, p. 210)
Yoder’s position was examined critically by Peter J. Leithart, a Presbyterian theologian, in Defending Constantine (2010). He pointed out that, although Constantine did attempt to influence the Church in the interest of political stability, he never attempted to reduce it to an integral part of the State, as the ancient Roman sacrificial cult had been. He ‘desacrificed’ the Roman political order because he understood that Jesus was the end of sacrifice.
Henceforward religion would have a degree of independence of the State that it had never before possessed, setting the stage for the modern notion of the separation of Church and State.
At the same time, in a society in which Christians were the majority, it was no longer possible for them to treat the State as something wholly alien—willy-nilly, they had become responsible for it. The theological implications of the new situation institutionalised by Constantine would be worked out in the next century by St Augustine and become the basis for Christendom, the form of Western society until just a century or so ago—and to which we owe more than many are now prepared to recognise.
Today is the feast of one of the great saints and doctors of the Church, whose name is indissolubly linked to that of the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea.
About the year 319, an elderly priest of Alexandria named Arius, although well respected and a famous preacher, became suspect of subordinationist teachings concerning the Christ. Archbishop Alexander of Alexandria asked him to clarify his views. Arius asserted that, although the Son was not a creature in the sense that we are creatures, since in fact he created us, and although he was not created in time, since time itself is a part of his creation, there was nonetheless a 'then' when he was not. Originally there was only the Father and the Son was in some sense created by the Father and so could not be of the same ousia, roughly translated, 'substance,' as the Father. (By 'ousia' or 'substance' is meant that which makes us what we are.)
The controversy spread rapidly and divided the church of the East. In 325, the Emperor Constantine summoned the first oecumenical council to resolve it. The aged Archbishop Alexander was accompanied by a young deacon, barely thirty, Athanasius, who served as his secretary. Athanasius, a strong believer in the coeternity and coequality of the Trinity, by his cogency, consistency and pertinacity became the champion of the orthodox party at the council, asserting that the Son is 'homoousios' with the Father—of the same substance. This became the key term of the Creed formulated by the council, ruling out the subordinationist doctrine of the Arians.
In 328, the young Athanasius succeeded Alexander on the throne of Alexandria. In a long and tumultuous life, he defended the 'homoousios' and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He died in 373, just before the 2nd oecumenical council of 381 vindicated his christology.
Edward Gibbon, although no friend of the Greek church, was impressed by his sheer doggedness and said of him, 'The immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being … his long administration [his 46 years as Archbishop of Alexandria] was spent in a perpetual combat against the powers of Arianism. Five times was Athanasius expelled from his throne; twenty years he passed as an exile or a fugitive; and almost every province of the Roman empire was successively witness to his merits, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion, which he considered as the sole pleasure and business, as the duty and as the glory of his life.' (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, cap. xxi)
Although today is known as the feast of the translation of his relics, in fact it commemorates the day of his perfection in death. His relics were transferred to Santa Sophia in Constantinople at an unknown date. At the fall of Constantinople in 1453, they were taken to Venice.
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.