Monday, 22 May 2006
Putting the con back in Constantine
Was Constantine, the Roman emperor who legitimized Catholic Christianity, a good guy or a bad guy. The Da Vinci Code implies the latter, and there's a truckload of COG literature over the years that says much the same as Dan Brown. Constantine was, according to this analysis, either a highly savvy politician bent on manipulating the church to his own ends, or, to cite the most extreme option, a pawn of Satan who succeeded in derailing Truth.
Alastair Kee agrees. This Scottish Presbyterian theologian produced a thorough debunking of Constantine's "conversion" in a book called Constantine Versus Christ (1982). If you're interested in the subject, this is one study that's well worth digging up.
I mention this because the subject of Constantine came up in a recent church history tutorial. After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing, the lecturer closed off discussion with these words of wisdom (which I'm paraphrasing):
"If we accept that Constantine was a bad man, and his legacy to the church was negative, we have to ask whether the Holy Spirit would or could permit such a terrible thing to occur. I think not."
Driving home that night I tossed that particular thought around. I don't know this man's denominational affiliation, but I assume it's something crashingly boring and conformist. These folk - unlike most readers of this blog - will have assumed that the acceptance of Christianity by the empire was a good thing. We of course, having been inoculated with multiple strains of heresy, know better. Being part of the modern Christian fringe gives one some sympathy for the underdogs of past ages. I find myself invariably rooting for the bit players in church history: Arians, Pelagians, Marcionites, all in the spirit of the bumper sticker that says "I support two teams, New Zealand and whoever is playing against Australia."
But there's a more important point than personal prejudices here. If we say that things can't go horribly wrong because of the Holy Spirit's guidance, then nothing can go wrong. Inquisitions, pogroms, crusades - no problem! If anyone is it blame it's the Holy Spirit. Oh wait, let's not blame the Holy Spirit (Matt.12:31)! No really, everything is just fine.
If that seems a perverse position, the dodgy recourse of wicked Popes and Patriarchs, consider for a moment how some of us responded (or failed to respond) during the last days of Armstrongism. The Pasadena apostle could do as he wanted (and make us do as he wanted) with a shake of his jowls and a threat of "not making it." The flock feared for their salvation if they were unconvinced. Jump? Yes sir! How high? How different is that from regarding Constantine and his episcopal buddies as the voice and choice of God?
I'm with Kee on this, even if it means gritting my teeth and also agreeing with Meredith & Co. Constantine was a shonky con artist who knew how to both flatter and coerce as circumstances required. The church however - or at least the part of it that the emperor adopted as his pet project - was hardly an unwilling partner, and anyone who thinks that slimey symbiosis was heralded with doves and haloes has "swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all" (as Luther is reputed to have said).
But lest we feel too smug, it pays to remember the spineless subservience of the dumb sheep to Apostle Herb and his enforcers in our own lifetimes.