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American Academy of Religion Church and State Relations: The Changes Wrought by Constantine Author(s): Gregory

American Academy of Religion

Church and State Relations: The Changes Wrought by Constantine Author(s): Gregory T. Armstrong Source: Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 1-7 Published by: Oxford University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1460422 Accessed: 26-05-2016 15:53 UTC

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Church and State Relations:

The Changes Wrought by Constantine


Church and State relations a topic of public debate. There are many issues involved

here - public religious observances, government assistance or exemptions ex- tended to church groups, legislation reflecting particular religious and moral

teachings - to name a few. We cannot escape the fact that religion and the churches have a

special status in our country, and that they exercise a considerable influence on society

and even on government policy. It is historically instructive to see how many of the con-

temporary patterns and practices in respect to Church and State go back to that crucial

period of initial recognition of the Church by the State under the emperor Constantine.

For it was in that period that the Church and its clergy first received certain privileges and exemptions from the State, and that the State began to clothe itself in Christian forms and

ceremony. I should like therefore to examine the changes which took place in Church and State relations under Constantine, particularly the legislation affecting the Church. I want

to ask how, if at all, these changes were prepared for, how they were effected, and how,

from the perspective of the Church, they were justified.

The earliest Christians lived, of course, in a non-Christian and usually hostile society.

The Church's claim to an exclusive revelation ruled out any possibility of syncretism or

co-existence with the other cults of the Roman empire. The Church's position was analogous to that of Judaism with its rigid monotheism, but the Jews existed not merely as a religion but also as a nation with a long history. Their claim to special status was one of birthright. The Church, on the other hand, chose not to remain a sect of Judaism but rather to open itself to the world. It could not claim legal status as a nation, nor could it expect toleration as a religion without acknowledging the official emperor cult. Still, as the New Testament

indicates, the relationship of Church and State did not become at once a matter of open


There are at least three attitudes toward the State to be found in the New Testament.'

There is the attitude of Luke, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, which views the

GREGORY T. ARMSTRONG is Assistant Professor of Church History, Vanderbilt Divinity School. He holds the B.D. from McCormick Theological Seminary and the Dr. Theol. from the University of

Heidelberg, and is the author of Die Genesis in der alten Kirche (Tiibingen, 1962) and a contributor to Master-

pieces of Christian Literature, ed. Frank Magill (New York: Harper and Row, 1963). His article is based on a paper read before the American Society of Church History.

1 1 omit from consideration the Old Testament because Israel did not face the problem of Church and State in the sense that the Christians did, and I omit also the reply of Jesus to the Pharisees, "Render to

Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," which served to avoid an en-

snaring question. Matt. 22:21.

? 1964, by The National Association of Biblical Instructors

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Roman authorities in a very favorable light and anticipates from them the vindication of

Christianity.2 Another view of the State is given us by Paul in Romans 13. Again it is

fundamentally positive or at least neutral." Paul does not yet reflect the response of the Church

to open hostility and persecution on the part of the State. It is the book of the Revelation

that presents a clearly negative attitude toward the State. This book reflects, of course,

the experience of the early persecutions under Nero and Domitian.4

All three of these views of the State - favorable, positive but neutral, and negative -

were to have adherents in the early church. The apologists appealed to the State for recogni- tion or at least toleration. The martyrs continued to be a witness to the fundamental opposi-

tion of Church and State. The bishops were perhaps more inclined to seek a via media. It

is clear, however, that the Church received no special consideration from the State such as we often take for granted today. Indeed, the best emperors from the Roman point of view

were always the first to recognize the essentially divisive effect of Christianity within

the empire. The characteristic position of the Church in regard to most civic duties such as military service and sacrifices was one of non-participation or passive resistance.A The great fear of

the early Christians, stronger at times than pacifistic and other motives, was the fear of

idolatry.6 Many professions besides the military were for this reason out of bounds for

the Christian.' Although the church fathers protested bitterly the denial of a fair trial to the Christians, they never advocated overthrow of the government but always proclaimed

their political loyalty.8 The Church seemed content to live under the empire even with certain restrictions, provided it might worship unhindered and not be required to com-

promise its faith. It was willing to enjoy the benefits of Rome while condemning her sins.'

Such an arrangement tacitly existed throughout much of the third century. We must re-

member, however, that the Roman empire was not a modern democracy, and that the Chris-

tians as individuals did not, by and large, carry political responsibility. Their status and

circumstances permitted withdrawal from society. Only when their numbers waxed con-

siderably, and especially when the emperor himself became a Christian, was this situation

2 In Acts, Paul asserts his citizenship proudly and effectively, and the Roman officials save him on more

than one occasion from the hands of the Jews. Acts 16:37-39; 21:30 ff.; 22:25 ff.; 23:10, 12 ff.; 25:10-12.

In the Gospel according to Luke, the Centurion at the crucifixion proclaims not, "Truly this was a son of

God" as in Matt. 27:54, but rather "Certainly this man was innocent!" Luke 23:47.

a Rom. 13:1-3. I Pet. 2 and 3 is in the same vein under severer circumstances.

4 Rev. 17:3-6, 18.

5 Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (New York and Nashville, 1960),

pp. 53-84.

6 Bainton, pp. 73 f. Tertullian, de idolatria, develops the implications for several occupations, including

the military, and for obedience to the emperor. Cf. also Hans Frhr. von Campenhausen, "Der Kriegsdienst

der Christen in der Kirche des Altertums," Tradition und Leben (Tiibingen, 1960), pp. 203-215.

7 E. g., The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (cited in Bainton, Early Christianity [Princeton, 1960],

pp. 152 f.): "If a man is a sculptor or painter, he must be charged not to make idols; if he does not desist

he must be rejected. If a man is an actor or pantomimist, he must desist or be rejected. A teacher of young

children had best desist, but if he has no other occupation, he may be permitted to continue. A charioteer,

likewise, who races or frequents races, must desist or be rejected. A gladiator or a trainer of gladiators,

or a huntsman or anyone connected with these shows, or a public official in charge of gladiatorial exhibitions

must desist or be rejected."

8 This contrast is seen in Tertullian's Apology, chs. 2 (plea for a fair trial) and 32 (protest of loyalty to emperor). Commodianus is the only instance of revolutionary sentiment, according to Bainton, p. 74.

9 Bainton, pp. 74 f.

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radically altered.'0 But first came the persecutions and the demonstration of the Church's

endurance under affliction.

I do not intend to go into the character of the persecutions of Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian. They did, however, reveal the fundamental opposition between the Christian

Church and the pagan state. The persecutions may be said to have come to an end with the

Edict of Toleration issued by Galerius on his deathbed in 311,1" but the decisive turning point was Constantine. It is his religious policy that concerns us.

The so-called Edict of Milan was the foundation stone of Constantine's religious policy,

but it was neither the first nor the last measure affecting and favoring the Christian Church.12

In the year prior to the meeting of Constantine and Licinius at Milan, namely in 312, there

appeared a letter to Anulinus, Proconsul in Africa, restoring Church property to the

Catholics, and a letter to Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, granting funds to the Catholic clergy."3 Another letter to Caecilian in 313 granted immunity from civic burdens and taxes

to the Catholic clergy.14 It is evident that Constantine sought to end the Donatist schism

by drawing the Donatists back into the Catholic Church with special privileges. Indeed the whole handling of the controversy with the Donatists shows Constantine's sense of

responsibility for the unity of the Church at a very early date and his intervention with

political means. It is not necessary to trace through the letters pertaining to the controversy,

including the calling of the Synod of Aries, in order to be aware of the significance of the imperial involvement in ecclesiastical affairs.'5 We should, however, note that the Donatists

did not hesitate to appeal to the emperor for vindication. Finally in 321, Constantine re-

scinded his oppressive measures and left the Donatists to the judgment of God.16

Let us turn then to the Edict of Milan. That there was an edict is disputed. That there

was a policy as represented by the letters to Africa already mentioned and by other re- scripts is certain, and that this policy was to be promulgated in the East by Licinius is

equally certain. Necessarily Licinius had to provide a preamble to explain the circumstances

of the collection of letters issued to the provincial officials, and this we find in Eusebius.

10 von Campenhausen, pp. 205, 212, in respect to military service.

11 Lactantius, de mortibus persecutorum 37. Note especially the closing sentence:

In return for this indulgence of ours it will be the duty of Christians to pray to God for our re-

covery, for the public weal and for their own; that the state may be preserved from danger on every

side, and that they themselves may dwell safely in their homes.

12 The decrees, letters, and other writings attributed to Constantine are collected in Migne's Patrologia

latina, Vol. VIII. There is also a collection of Constantine's religious legislation in Hermann Doerries'

Das Selbstzeugnis Kaiser Konstantins (Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in G6ttingen, Phil.-

hist. Klasse, 3. Folge Nr. 34, 1954), 162-207, but this volume was not available to me. A summary of the

letters and edicts is to be found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. I, pp. 437-439. J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius: Documents illustrative of the history of the Church to A.D. 337 (New

York, 1957), includes many of the letters and edicts pertaining to the church.

1s Eusebius, H. E., X.5.15-17; X.6. I follow the dating of Norman H. Baynes, "Constantine the Great

and the Christian Church," Proceedings of the British Academy 1929, XV, 348. I believe that Heinz Kraft

(Kaiser Konstantins religi'se Entwicklung [Tiibingen, 1955]) permits such a dating while declaring it im-

possible to arrange the legislation of Constantine chronologically (p. 68). So also Hermann Doerries

(Konstantin der Grosse [Stuttgart, 1958]) as I understand him.

14 H. E., X.7.

15 Kraft provides a convenient collection of these letters, mostly from Optatus, and a useful discussion

of the problem.

16 Optatus, App. 9; Kraft, pp. 196 f.; Stevenson, pp. 329 f.

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Such at least is the view of Baynes.'7 In any case the policy provided for universal religious

toleration, for the restoration of confiscated church buildings, and for the recognition of the

Church as a legal corporation permitted to hold property. Significantly only the Christians

were mentioned by name.18 Aside from the letters pertaining to the Donatist controversy there was little legislative

activity from 313 until 319, when the course of the empire became clear. The Christian

Church was the future state religion.19 We approach at this point the final conflict with

Licinius, and the legislation seems to prepare one for the outcome. A decree against private

divination was issued in 319.20 The decree establishing a day of rest in 321 is, in an urban

culture, refreshing to read:

Constantine to Elpidius. All judges, city people and craftsmen shall rest on the venerable day of the Sun.

But countrymen may without hindrance attend to agriculture, since it often happens that this is the most

suitable day for sowing grain or planting vines, so that the opportunity afforded by divine providence may

not be lost, for the right season is of short duration."'

The same year an edict designating Sunday as a fitting day for the emancipation of slaves

was issued.22 The observance of "Sun-day" could, of course, be so interpreted as to be

acceptable to both pagan and Christian, and may well have been deliberately ambiguous.

The more exclusive term, Lord's Day, was later introduced into law by Theodosius at the

same time that paganism in all forms was banished. "The Sunday is the lasting monument

of the Constantinian era; one could not wish for a better one."23

Another important aspect of Constantinian legislation was the incorporation of the

episcopal courts into the imperial judicial system. For one thing, the empire was beset with

a back-log of civil and criminal cases. Constantine must also have realized the reluctance

of Christians to enter the courts of their former persecutors, especially in light of the long

tradition of keeping disputes among Christians within the Church. He seems further to

have believed that the bishops by divine guidance might better seek out the truth in a legal

dispute than the civil authorities. There was also the hope that the Church would so pacify society that the number of new cases would decline.24 Needless to say, these measures added

greatly to the work load of the bishops and bound them to the support of the state.

It was the victory over Licinius in 324 which explicitly gave Christianity the victory

over paganism. The war itself had the character of a crusade, and it was followed by nu-

merous edicts of toleration and restitution which apply to the whole empire the previous

steps taken toward the establishment of Christianity as the state religion.25 The Vita

Constantini contains many of the rescripts and letters from this period and thereafter.28

Special compensation was made to those persecuted by Licinius and to the heirs of the

17 Baynes, pp. 349, 410-412. Doerries, Konstantin, also notes the connection to the African letters

(pp. 40 f.).

is H. E., X.5.2-14.

I9 Kraft, pp. 69 ff.

20 Cod. Theod., IX.16.1; Henry Bettenson (ed.), Documents of the Christian Church (New York and

London, 1947), p. 26. Cf. Kraft, pp. 72 f. n Cod. Just., III.12.3; Bettenson, p. 27.

22 Cod. Theod., 11.8.1; Bettenson, p. 27.

2s Doerries, Konstantin, p. 94; discussion of Sunday legislation, pp. 88-94.

24 Doerries, Konstantin, pp. 66-68; Kraft, pp. 70 f.

2A Kraft, pp. 68 f.; Baynes, pp. 354-357.

28 Eusebius, V. C., 11.20 and following. I am not listing individual references for all the provisions in

these letters.

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martyrs. There was release from all the various forms of exile as well as from slavery in the case of freemen. There was the customary release from curial duty for the clergy, although

edicts appeared in 320 and 326 prohibiting decurions from entering the ranks of the clergy.27

Heretics, of course, were denied all immunities and privileges. Provincial rulers were

prohibited from sacrificing to idols. Additional statutes abolished images, divination, and sacrifices. A great number of decrees down to the death of Constantine provided for the

enlarging and building of churches at government expense. Some late edicts ordered the

destruction of pagan temples as well as repression of heresy. Special instructions were

given for the observance of Sunday by soldiers with prescribed prayer. Martyrs' days and other church feast days were recognized by law. The laws on childless persons and on wills were amended to accommodate the Christians. The famous remark of Constantine to the

effect that he was a bishop "to oversee whatever is external to the Church" is also recorded

by Eusebius in the Vita,28 and reflects substantially the role of the emperor. Many laws reflect the influence of the Church and Christian morality on Constantine.

Crucifixion was eliminated as a form of capital punishment. More humane treatment of slaves and criminals was instituted, and provision was made for the freeing of slaves in

Christian churches instead of before a state official. Gladiatorial contests were ended. In

regard to the army, Constantine made it possible for Christians who had left the ranks or

been expelled for their religious beliefs to return to their old places or to secure an honorable

discharge. Meanwhile the. Church was doing its part too as, for example, when the Synod

of Arles in 314 permitted Christians to hold office in the government and to serve in the

army. Indeed the Synod denied communion to those who deserted from the army in peace- time.29 Other imperial legislation affected the treatment of children, family life, and the punishment of debtors. The pattern of Christian guidance for the state was thus laid down.

We come finally to the involvement of Constantine in the Arian controversy. As in

the Donatist struggle, the imperial concern was unity and peace, but the emperor seemed

determined to keep a tighter hand on the situation. He approached the principals, Arius

and Alexander, directly.30 He then transferred the synod, called by the bishops meeting

at Antioch in 325, from Ancyra to Nicea, and transformed it into a general council.' Baynes

argues with some force that Constantine actually presided.82 Certainly he dominated the

proceedings and the outcome, and he viewed himself as a part of the Church which was

being put in order at Nicea. Kraft suggests that it was a recognition of the Church as "das

gottgewollte Friedensreich, das Reich der Zukunft."33 In any case a pattern of church and

state relations was established at Nicea and throughout the Constantinian legislation from

which we are only now departing. It is not necessary to underline further the points at which

similarities to the privileged status of the contemporary Church and clergy are evident.

Likewise the ubiquity of Christian forms and influences in western society is manifest and follows, I believe, directly from the changes wrought by Constantine. It remains after this review of church and state relations to consider the three "how"

questions introduced at the outset of this paper. The easiest to answer is: how were these

2" Cod. Theod., XVI.2.3; Stevenson, p. 334.

s V. C., IV.24.

29 Canon 3; Stevenson, p. 322.

30 V. C., 11.63-72; Stevenson, p. 352 ff.

31 Stevenson, p. 358; Kraft, pp. 218, 87-113.

32 Baynes, p. 359.

13 Kraft, p. 99.

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changes effected? It seems to me and to most of the students of Constantine that they were

unquestionably effected unilaterally by the emperor himself. Apart from any consideration

of Constantine's motives - a topic which has been deliberately circumvented; I hope,

justifiably - it is virtually self-evident that only a victorious and powerful emperor could

so alter the religious pattern of the empire. The Church could not and did not change the

laws. It is probably to be doubted that it sought particular benefits, other than to be let alone,

from the state, although this was to change soon enough and although some judicio-

theological appeals were sent to the emperor for decision. In the words of Baynes:

I believe that the association of Roman emperor and Christian Church was essentially not a Concordat,

but a unilateral act. The emperor defined the terms of that alliance and the Church accepted them. And when that transaction of offer and acceptance was complete, then the emperor used every means in his

power to draw into the Church the pagan world, while imperial munificence found its opportunity in erecting

churches throughout the Roman East.34

The question of how these changes were prepared for is more complex. We have

noted already, however, that the disposition of the Church toward the State was largely

positive but neutral. The strand of anti-state or revolutionary thought was very thin and

was a reflection of particular circumstances of persecution. Assuming the absence of open

hostility, the Church could get along very well with the State. It appreciated even the

State's exercise of force in maintaining the peace and defending the frontiers.35 There is

perhaps no example of outright cooperation between State and Church before Constantine,

but there is an instance of an appeal to the emperor Aurelian in 272 over the possession of the church building in Antioch during the controversy with Paul of Samosata.36 It was one of the earliest appeals to the pagan state for judgment, and the decision was called just by

Eusebius. In a very practical way the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius prepared the

Church to accept the benefits of imperial recognition and favor without serious qualms.

Moreover the magnificence of Constantine himself must have overwhelmed the leading

churchmen if Eusebius' description of the Council of Nicea is any indication.

More basic than these considerations is, however, the political and social philosophy of that day. Constantine was an absolutist emperor who had no intention of letting the

Church operate independently of the State.37 Politically and otherwise, religion and the

State were historically inseparable. Indeed, the unity of faith and culture was the basic

premise of classical society. Glanville Downey has developed this thesis admirably for

Julian and Justinian, and it applies equally well to Constantine.38 Neither separation of

Church and State nor religious pluralism--in the modem sense as distinguished from syn-

34 Baynes, "Idolatry and the Early Church," Byzantine Studies and Other Essays (London, 1955), p. 126.

Baynes, Doerries, Kraft and Hans Lietzmann ("Der Glaube Konstantins des Grossen," Kleine Schriften

[Texte und Untersuchungen 67, Berlin, 1958] I, 186-201) are substantially in agreement on this point and also on the presence of conscious "Christian" motivation. Even Jacob Burckhardt (The Age of Constantine

the Great [Garden City, 1949]) acknowledges that Constantine is personally responsible for giving the

Church imperial sanction. Eusebius, V. C., 111.66, of course, gives Constantine alone the credit for estab-

lishing a united Church in the empire. v5 von Campenhausen, p. 204; Bainton, pp. 68 ff., 79 ff.

36 H. E., VII.30.19-21. Severus Alexander (222-235) issued a rescript permitting the Roman Church

to retain property. Vita Alexandri Severi, 49, cited by Trevor Gervase Jalland, The Church and the Papacy

(London, 1949), p. 127.

37 S. L. Greenslade, Church and State from Constantine to Theodosius (London, 1954), pp. 12-13.

38 Glanville Downey, "Julian and Justinian and the Unity of Faith and Culture," Church History

XXVIII (1959), 339, 343.

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cretism which did prevail - were live alternatives to the integration of Church and State.

(Were they even alternatives for Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin?) The real choice was

between an anti-Christian society and a Christianized society. The Church could not help

but share this conception of things, and therefore could only accept and, more commonly,

welcome the change of policy under Constantine. Such, I believe, constituted the prepara-

tion for Constantine's religious legislation.39

The fact that the Church was to this extent prepared for the changes does not mean

that a justification was not required. The need for justification was not, however, so great as we usually imagine from our twentieth century perspective. Still the voices of protest, including in part the monastic movement, are an indication that all were not convinced by the apparent advantages of recognition. It is Eusebius to whom we turn again for the thesis

that Constantine's work was the will of God.40 This theological explanation - perhaps not

profound but clearly theological - seems to have derived from Constantine himself and his well-known "Sendungsbewusstsein."41 We may question the character of his Chris-

tianity and his use of the Church, but his self-understanding seems definite, and this under-

standing Eusebius accepted and employed as a theological justification of his reign. But we

can say more. Eusebius set forth a political philosophy for the Christian empire in his Oration. The imperial government was the copy on earth of the rule of God in heaven.

The emperor was the vicegerent, the Logos-directed representative of God at the head of

the Christian world.42 Could then any Christian oppose the emperor, and was it any wonder that Constantine took his place at death as the thirteenth apostle?

The picture which we thus derive of the crucial turn in Church and State relations at

the time of Constantine reveals, I think, the extent to which so many contemporary practices

are merely modifications of Constantinian legislation and policy. The State embraced the

Church and many of its forms and teachings, and the Church embraced the State and its

distributions of privileges and largess. Ever since it has been difficult to see where the one

ends and the other begins. Only gradually is it becoming clear that the Church was once

granted and since has had a special status in the eyes of the State, and that the Church does not hold this status by nature.

31 Admittedly, the other side of the pre-Constantinian development should not be overlooked. Inasmuch

as the Church was in many respects unprepared for the change of policy, it accepted the same uncritically.

40 Oration in Praise of Constantine, NPNF, Second Series, Vol. I. Excerpts in Stevenson, pp. 391 ff.

41 Cf. Doerries, Kraft, Lietzmann, and Baynes, who share a primary concern to establish this point,

regardless of how Christian Constantine was by our standards.

42 Baynes, "Eusebius and the Christian Empire," Byzantine Studies, pp. 168-172, has developed this

theory and shown its parallelism to and possible derivation from the Hellenistic philosophy of kingship.

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