Debate: Constantine and Theodosius (Updated)
Joe Carter has now responded to my own opening argument, and I reproduce that response below. As we are now entering the phase of the net-based back-and-forth when formatting itself becomes the greatest potential enemy of truth and clarity, I will put his latest words in bold and the text to which he is responding paragraph by paragraph in italics. Later today, I will respond to this response paragraph by paragraph in this same post.
There has been a degree of consternation over how this debate has been proceeding, some of which strikes me as reasonable and some of which doesn’t. As for the latter, I disagree that our initial discussion on metaphysics was unproductive, even if little agreement could be found between the two general factions; in the ensuing comment discussion, I myself learned quite a bit, metaphysics not being my area. Nor do I think it has been unproductive to examine the 4th century and argue our respective cases in regards to what we ought to take from that era; this is, of course, a debate on Christianity, atheism, and the state, and it was in the 4th century that Christianity first took hold of the reins of state.
Meanwhile, several of our readers as well as Joe Carter himself would prefer that we establish one or more specific positions, and although I tend to prefer the more freewheeling and long-arced style of debate that I’ve employed here so far, my own aims here are not incompatible with the suggestion that this be formalized. As such, I will take the following stance and will aim to make it evident to any honest observer as the debate proceeds: That the form of Christian activism engaged in by the Family Research Council and associated organizations cloaks its aims in the language of freedom while concerning itself almost entirely with the restriction of that freedom, and that the leaders of such organizations, particularly Tony Perkins and James Dobson, have pursued their theological objectives in a manner which, upon examination, can be regarded as nothing other than incredible dishonesty.
Of course, Joe Carter is himself the former director of communications of the Family Research Council, and although I don’t know what his opinion is on the organization and its leadership, I absolutely understand if he would prefer not to engage in such a discussion. Nor have I chosen this particular subject merely to give him a hard time; it happens that my upcoming book includes some 15,000 words on the FRC, Focus on the Family, and their Liberty Sunday events, which, having played host to dozens of the most significant leaders of the Republican and conservative factions, are far more noteworthy in regards to where this republic has been and where it is headed than one might think from the degree of attention they receive at the public at large. At the same time, I will happily engage Carter on any position he himself would like to take on any specific question he would be interested in debating.
Meanwhile, I will respond to Carter’s own response below on the subject of early Christianity and the Byzantines, as I have always enjoyed calling them, and will hopefully do so tomorrow morning as soon as I have finished the article that’s been taking up valuable debate time.
Thanks to everyone for their input so far.
Before I respond to Mr. Brown’s opening argument, it might be helpful to make an adjustment in form to this discussion. As Tom Van Dyke said in the comments section of that post, “What the hell is the debate topic?” Good question.
When Mr. Brown proposed a debate, I told him I was game for anything. After he chose the subject (The Nature of Atheism, Christianity, and the State) and the format (three posts each with additional follow-ups), I suggested he write the initial post since I lacked a clear understanding of what direction he wanted to take the discussion. Nevertheless, Mr. Brown encouraged me to go first since he said had themes that he could work in regardless of where I started.
Initially, I thought that in keeping with the subject title I should discuss the nature of atheism and Christianity. Since I was planning to argue that metaphysical assumptions influence theorizing, I assumed that would be necessary to examine that issue before we considered the implications for theories that proceed from the two worldviews related to the State.
Now that I’ve read (and responded) to Mr. Brown’s opening, I am not confident that we can truly tie that topic to his current theme. Rather than run the risk that we’ll end up talking past each other (and further confuse our patient audience), I think it’d be best for me to drop that line of argument and simply follow Mr. Brown down the direction he is heading.
I certainly don’t mind making such a course correction. When I agreed to the debate I didn’t harbor any illusions that I was going to change the mind of any atheists who might read this exchange (and I suspect Mr. Brown was not suffering from a similar delusion). The best we could hope for was to provide some thought-provoking points for our readers to consider. That’s more difficult to do if each of us is arguing two complicated and unrelated tracks, so I’ll concede the lead to Mr. Brown.
Now, back to the debate. Mr. Brown’s opens his initial post by saying:
Before this debate began I introduced a quotation from the Emperor Theodosius I, who reigned at the end of a long and telling struggle between the two major Christian factions of the time: those who ascribed to the Trinity as three co-equal components of the deity which had been worshiped and apparently misunderstood by the Jews for a couple of thousand years, and those who ascribed to the concept of the Father as the superior and – as our friend Joe Carter might put it – non-dependent element of a somewhat different Trinity in which the Son is subordinate to the Father. The latter doctrine, represented by the Presbyter Arius, held sway over a sufficiently influential portion of the Roman Empire to have been adopted by Constantius II and others and thus flourish for a time as the most useful theology to which to ascribe in public, but the circumstances were such that the former doctrine, represented by Athanasius, won the approval of a far greater number of bishops and eventually that of our Theodosius, who did more than anyone else in history to perpetuate modern Christianity by ushering in an age in which those failed to ascribe to its doctrines would exist only to the extent that a series of Christian states allowed them to.
My quibbles with this extended statement are few and relatively trivial. My main point of disagreement is with the claim that Theodosius “did more than anyone else in history to perpetuate modern Christianity by ushering in an age in which those failed to ascribe to its doctrines would exist only to the extent that a series of Christian states allowed them to.”
While is it is true that the Edict of Thessalonika (mentioned by Mr. Brown in his opening) proclaimed that heretics would be punished by the state, there is no evidence that this threat was carried out. The famous church historian Salminius Hermias Sozomen (c. 443) claims that the emperor “made severe punishment by his laws but did not carry them out, for he did not wish to punish, but only to frighten his subjects, that they might think as he did about Divine things, And he praised those who were converted of their own accord.” (Church History VII.12).
But as shall become apparent, I come to bury Theodosius, not to praise him.
It is a fine thing, then, that Theodosius chose to defend by arms the one religious doctrine that is truly and plainly valid; otherwise, we might look back upon the intervening history and see that a tremendous degree of violence and oppression has been perpetrated in reference to some set of beliefs that owe their popularity to historical accident, and we might look upon those who ascribe to such beliefs as either historically illiterate or irrational. In such a wacky alternative universe as I have here proposed, many Christians would know little if anything of the processes that came to define their own beliefs, and the majority of them would have taken on the mantle of Christians in suspicious accordance with the opinions of their parents, well before such a point as they could reasonably be expected to make such a determination on their own.
Mr. Brown seems to think that had it not been for the intervention of Theodosius, the modern Christian church would consider the Arian heresy to be the default orthodox position. That’s a rather bold claim and a conclusion that I doubt many historians of Christianity who agree with.
At the time of the Edict of Thessalonika, the West was committed to Nicene Christianity. Arianism was only a dominant heresy in the eastern part of the empire. The most that can be assumed is that had Theodosius not intervened by convening the second general council at Constantinople (381) to clarify the formula of the Nicene creed, the Eastern and Western churches might still be in disagreement on this important point of doctrine.
Thus it was that the first act performed by the first political authority to ascribe to Trinitarian Christianity was to threaten with violence all other men who would find themselves under the Christian dominion.
While I’m not sure if this point is significant to Mr. Brown’s latter argument, it is probably worth poining out that it is inaccurate. Constantine I was the first political authority to ascribe to Trinitarian Christianity, even if he would later renounce it in favor of Arianism. The first act performed after Constantine converted to the faith is unclear. But since the emperor favored freedom of thought on the issue (so long as it didn’t interfere with the authority of the State), it is unlikely to have been a threat of violence against heretics.
From this point on to the Enlightenment, when Christianity and all religion began to lose its control of the state and its influence on the minds of the educated, this threat was carried out with regularity – although, within a few hundred years, . . .
Since it’s not central to our debate, I won’t spend too much time correcting the revisionist historical claim that after the Enlightenment, “Christianity and all religion began to lose its control of the state and its influence on the minds of the educated.” The truth is that there has never been a time in human history when religion lost its “influence on the mind of the educated.” Such a claim is easily refuted in our own time, when most educated people remain committed to some of religion.
But it is also not true that the period of the Enlightenment rejected religion. During and after the Enlightenment, one of the most influential beliefs of the intelligentsia was the Christian heresy of Deism. The five points of Deism were: (1) There is a God; (2) He ought to be worshiped; (3) Virtue is the principle element in this worship; (4) Humans should repent of their sins; and (5) There is life after death, where the evil will be punished and the good rewarded.
That certainly doesn’t sound like atheism. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the Englightment—like in most of human history—was a period that continued to treat atheism as less than intellectually respectable.
. . . such threats were largely unnecessary, as the average person would have no access whatsoever to any materials that would contradict the doctrines under which he was ruled.
Why would this make the threats unnecessary? Until well after the time of Gutenberg, the average person had no access whatsoever to any doctrinal materials at all. Yet somehow they were able to create, believe, and spread heterodox religious views.
These were the mechanics by which the Christians perpetuated their system of belief beyond the minority that had come to the religion of their own volition from the time of Christ to the reign of Constantine’s heirs.
It would be more accurate to say that the system of state control over religion was more of a hindrance to true Christian belief and practice than it was a catalyst.
This was an easy enough “sentiment” for Constantine to have expressed, having done so at a time when Christianity was relegated to a small minority of the empire’s soldiers and somewhat larger percentages of its women and slaves. Had he instead expressed his desire to subordinate the majority of the classical world that still followed the various mysteries and civic rituals, he would not have lived much longer than had those previous emperors who had been assassinated for considerably lesser transgressions against the known world. In fact, we do not need to wonder whether a believing Christian of the age who on the other hand found himself in the position to enforce his doctrines by force would opt to do so; Theodosius did just that, and this policy remained in force for well over a thousand years.
I’m unclear on what Mr. Brown is claiming. He says that Constantine would have likely been assassinated had he not expressed religious tolerance in 324, when Christians only comprised about ten percent of Roman Empire. Yet he then claims that Theodosius had no such fear when he issued his own edict in 380. Had the Roman Empire truly changed so radically in the intervening fifty-six year period?
At any rate, well before Constantine had his noted encounter with Christ before the final battle of the civil war, he likewise had an encounter with Apollo, whose qualities he thereafter took on, even commissioning statues of himself as that deity. Constantine was much more fortunate than those of us who never encounter any gods at all, having managed to encounter two, entirely contradictory deities on occasions entirely convenient to his own ambitions. As far as I know, he never repudiated his claim to have something of Apollo in him. And so my first question to Joe Carter, in light of his choice of quotations, would have to be, “Is this individual whom you have chosen to quote as an example of a Christian who displayed tolerance to others actually a Christian?
Prior to 310, Constantine was loyal to the Roman gods Mars and Apollo. After that time he claimed allegiance to Christ. Was Constantine an actual Christian as opposed to merely professing to have been a Christian? I honestly don’t know. Whether he gave up his pagan beliefs is unclear. However, because he later reverted back to a form of Arianism, I would certainly be hesitant to consider him an orthodox Christian.
And, if so, would you be willing to vote for a political candidate who claims to have conversed not only with Christ but also with another, more ancient deity?”
Would I vote for a professed Christian who secretly venerated the God of War? I already have: In the last election I voted for John McCain.
My second question is, “What should we make of Christianity’s early track record in terms of governance?”
What should we make of the religious intolerance by Christians during that period? We should be appalled by it and denounce it in the strongest terms. I think it highlights the dangers of Caesaropapism—a heresy of political theology that says the head of the state should also the head of the church and supreme judge in religious matters.
The most important medieval Catholic theologians—Erasmus, Thomas Aquinas, John of Salisbury, John of Paris, Thomas More, et al.—articulated a political theology which affirmed the dignity of both Church and State without confusion of the two or domination of either one by the other.
My own Protestant traditions—Reformed and Baptist—make similar claims. One of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation was semper reformanda, “always reforming.” The belief is that the Christian church is always in need of being reformed according to the Word of God. Had the Christians during the period under discussion been guided more by the Bible than by their own desire for political control of people’s conscience, they would have recognized their error.
My own view can be summarized by a remark made by Dr. George W. Truett in 1920:
Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout all their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to oppression of conscience. They have forever been the unwavering champions of liberty, both religious and civil. Their contention now, is, and has been, and, please God, must ever be, that it is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty. Toleration implies that somebody falsely claims the right to tolerate. Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle. Toleration is a gift from God. It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe. God wants free worshipers and no other kind.
Whether it is to protect the dictates of the conscience of a Christian or atheist, the right to religious liberty is one that I would give my life to defend.