Constantine, his ‘alleged’ conversion to Christianity and his rule as a Christian, or at least pro-Christian emperor has been a source of debate for a long time. There are many who see Constantine as a shrewd political operator who used Christianity as a way of solidifying his support and rule of the empire. There are others who think that he had a real experience of God and that he straddled the Christian faith, holding onto much of his paganism but also adopting some Christian practices. Still others (of which I am one) see the question of whether Constantine was a convert to Christianity as up for debate, but that the effects of Constantine’s rule – the legalization of Christianity, and it’s elevation to the State religion of Rome as having a negative effect on the Church both in the 4th century and continuing to today.
Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine is a superb addition to this debate. Leithart vigorously defends (maybe too much) Constantine, answering the critics and at the same time seeking to show that Constantine was a positive and indeed vital addition to the history and development of the Church. Leithart reminds the critics of Constantine that they must assess him in light of the fact that lived in the fourth century and the decisions and actions he took have to be seen in light of that context. The bottom line is that for Leithart, the Church fared well under Constantine and that those critics who have attacked Constantine have simply got it wrong and have misread major church figures like Eusebius and Augustine.
Leithart does not engage with some important scholars, such as Alistair Kee (Constantine Verses Christ) who argues that Constantine’s intervention in the church was not because of his Christian commitment but because the unity of the empire was at risk and John Eadie (The Conversion of Constantine), who argues that Constantine was trying to appease the Christian God and not necessarily worship him, which can be seen in the dualism that Constantine showed by banning private divination (punishable by death) and yet public divination was encouraged in the temples.
However, this book is a wonderful read – informative, challenging, well argued and very enjoyable.