I very much appreciate Peter Thiel’s contributions to public discourse. I likely lean away from his overall optimism about technology–I wish we could think of a way to grow economically without needing to radically altering the labor market and our sense of things with the latest invention every few years. That said, those who can combine business acumen, incisive cultural commentary, and theological insight deserve a listen.
The subject of Constantine came up in his recent interview on the Meeting of Minds podcast with Jerry Bowyer. Thiel alluded to the problems of governance in accordance with truth and goodness. Politics is inevitably icky, and linking Christianity with such ickiness has always proved problematic. Thiel made the intriguing comment that given the chaotic nature of the times, perhaps Constantine had it right in postponing his baptism and official conversion until near his death.
I had never thought this way before about Constantine, and while I wished Thiel had continued his thoughts on this point, the fact that he left it at that leaves me room to speculate with abandon.
To understand politics, and to try and have some sympathy with Constantine’s decision, we need to see the difference between Authority and Power. Hopefully both have a strong relation to each other. But in strange times, they tend to move further apart.
“Authority” contains the core, and the origin, of a particular action. The core must be solid, and stable. For Authority to work, it has to embody this reality. Authority gives legitimacy, or impetus, or perhaps even permission, to Power.
“Power” applies Authority, and so must have more fluidity and movement. It is this movement which gives Power, well, its power. This motion will have an effect, however, regardless of its association to Authority. That is why we hope that Power will always stay connected to legitimate Authority.
Some examples of this Authority-Power dynamic at work . . .
- An army waits to go right or left. The general, back at HQ, gives the order. The corporals and privates eventually start to move and they begin the attack. The general has authority, but has no power by himself. What can one man do? But, the general actuates Power, and gives Power its purpose. The army starts to move. Authority (hopefully) tames and directs Power.
- In chess the King/Authority moves little, and hence has little Power. Power belongs to the Queen, and so she has the most freedom of movement. But everything depends on the existence of the King/Authority.
- People often stated about Queen Elizabeth that she had no real power. Very true. But she was beloved nearly the world over because we instinctively realized that she embodied Authority to near perfection. Her bearing, countenance, and behavior all spoke of Authority. It was crucial, in fact, that she rarely sought to have Power–this allowed her to maintain Authority.
- We see these patterns on Earth because it is the foundation of all things in the life of the Trinity. God the Father does not “move.”** He is, in a way, the Origin. God the Son moves more, but His movement is somewhat “restricted” to going down and then up again in a specific place. It is the Holy Spirit, the “power of God,” which “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8) going to a fro throughout the Earth.
When Authority and Power have no clear connection, then things get a little weird, and actually have to get a little weird, to set the times right again. Think of King Saul pursuing David. God’s anointed king (Saul) betrayed his calling, making authority in the realm more or less of no effect. Note, for example, the story of Jonathan and the honey, or the fact that Saul cannot catch David. David must then resort to weirdness to come to a place where things get right again, even to the extent of
- Feigning insanity to ingratiate himself with the Philistines, and
- Leading a portion of the Philistine army
Centuries later, with the Romans occupying Palestine and the Jewish religious leaders failing the people, no true Authority existed among the people of God. It took a man dressed in camel skins who ate bugs to bring hope and point to the one who “taught with authority” (Lk. 4:32).
Many legends and folklore point to this same dynamic. When King Richard languished in prison and King John took the throne, the only honest men were the thieves in the forest with Robin Hood. When we remember that the forest for medievals meant a dark, dangerous, unpredictable place, this dynamic looks even stranger. Once King Richard returned, the merry band disbanded.
Understanding this relationship gives us a good lens to understand controversial political actions. For example, some criticize Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation, usually on two fronts:
- Lincoln had no Constitutional authority to issue the edict, and
- The edict actually accomplished nothing, serving as a mere empty symbol
Though I am no Lincoln expert, I suspect that he thought that Authority (i.e., the Constitution) had fled the scene by 1860. The Constitution already suffered mightily “de facto” by the very fact of the secession of several states. The Constitution was designed to bind the states together. More importantly, “Authority” failed to solve slavery, our most pressing moral, cultural, and political problem. Not only could operating under the Constitution not solve the slavery problem, slavery got much worse from 1788-1860.
This meant that Lincoln might have to lean into the weird, and use Power to knock Authority back into place. The Emancipation Proclamation was weird, no question. One can argue that it actually freed no slaves at all. But if one looks at a bit of a slant, we see that it set in motion events that led to Authority set back in place with the 13th Amendment banning slavery. Lincoln rightly intuited that the U.S. could not exist on any other basis, because otherwise the Constitution could not serve the role of Authority for the nation.
All of this brings us to Constantine.
Constantine remains an ambiguous and problematic figure for many westerners for a few different reasons.
- Some see him as corrupting the church by linking it with the state
- Some see him as using the church to further his own power
- Some see him as a hypocrite, using Christianity as a cover to accomplish certain political ends.
Of course, Christians at the time saw him much differently.
- He ended Diocletian’s persecution of Christians
- He commissioned the building of numerous churches, including the Church of Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
- He restored property taken by Diocletian to Christians/Churches
- He used the Church as the main arm of charity for the state
- He made Sunday, the “Lord’s Day,” a holy day with no work mandated, allowing space for everyone to attend church
- He exempted clergy from civic duties, significantly contributing to the church’s freedom
- Perhaps most importantly, by “neutering” pagan religion and removing the foundation of the state from pagan sacrifices, he made it possible to found civilizations on an entirely new basis.
But for sure, many of his other actions raise eyebrows, such as the possible execution of his son, his turning on Licinius, Crispus, and the like. And then, if he was such a Christian, why postpone baptism until the end of his life?
Certainly, Constantine presents us with many conundrums. But we might get more clarity if we think of him as exercising Power in an attempt to create a new Authority. His behavior will look odd and wrong looking straight on, but if we look from angle, we might see different things.
Rome experienced an almost absurd amount of political instability in the 3rd century AD, as the following list shows:
- Septimius 193–211
- Caracalla 211–217
- Geta 211–212
- Macrinus 217–218 A.D.
- Diadumenianus 218 A.D.
- Elagabalus 218–222 A.D.
- Alexander Severus 222-235
The Soldier Emperors
- Maximinus I 235–238
- Gordian 238 A.D.
- Balbinus and 238
- Pupienus (in Italy) 238
- Gordian III 238–244 A.D.
- Philip the Arab 244–249 A.D.
- Trajan Decius 249–251 A.D.
- Trebonianus Gallus
- (with Volusian) 251–253 A.D.
- Aemilianus 253 A.D.
- Gallienus 253–268
- with Valerian 253–260 A.D.
Gallic Empire (West)
following the death of Valerian
- Postumus 260–269 A.D.
- Laelian 268 A.D.
- Marius 268 A.D.
- Victorinus 268–270 A.D.
- Domitianus 271 A.D.
- Tetricus I and II 270–274 A.D.
- Odenathus c. 250–267 A.D.
- (with Zenobia) 267–272 A.D.
The Soldier Emperors (continued)
- Claudius II Gothicus 268–270 A.D.
- Quintillus 270 A.D.
- Aurelian 270–275 A.D.
- Tacitus 275–276 A.D.
- Florianus 276 A.D.
- Probus 276–282 A.D.
- Carus 282–283 A.D.
- Carinus 283–284 A.D.
- Numerianus 283–284 A.D.
Obviously, any reality of Authority had flown the coop in Rome, and only Power remained. After winning the battle at Milvan Bridge, Constantine entered Rome as someone not yet a Christian, but sympathetic to Christianity, where Christianity remained a distinct minority faith. The life of any Roman general at this time meant dancing on the edge of a knife. Those too ambitious too soon would likely get noticed in a bad way by those in power. But armies wanted their generals ambitious. The success of the general inevitably meant good things for them. Generals–and Emperors as well–not ambitious enough might have their army turn on them and kill them.
In interpreting Constantine, we must take into account that he tried simultaneously to a) End a century of civil wars, and b) Not just re-establish an old Authority but install a new one. His situation was more precarious, and more weird, than that of Lincoln. In this light, establishing New Rome (what would later be Constantinople) went far beyond politics or military policy. In New Rome he could lay the foundation of a new Authority, from whence could flow a moderated, tamed Power. Those who simultaneously blame him for hypocrisy and for postponing his baptism should look again. In delaying joining the Church officially, Constantine perhaps tried to avoid the very things he gets blamed for. Maybe what he did had to be done. To do them as a formal, official, Christian would have sullied the Church.
Neither Lincoln or Constantine stand without blemish.^ But neither of them had the chance to play entirely fair. Still, both used Power rightly. The proof lies with the Authority they established.
*These next few paragraphs have a deep debt to Jonathan Pageau’s thoughts found here.
**I lack the knowledge to know if Thomas Aquinas meant something like this Authority/Power distinction in his “Unmoved Mover” argument for the existence of God. If so, I find that argument more convincing.