constantine, history, Stanley Hauerwas, William Cavanaugh

Looking for the Puppeteer: Constantine, Housio of Cordoba, Imperial Power, Doctrinal Formation, Theologians and Historians

I have a warning. This post is long, but it really in no way lends itself to a shorter or more conversational post. It is already fairly conversational, despite that it turns out to be a paper on historiography. Also, shortening more than it already is would weaken the integrity of the argument and I certainly do not want to do that, for this could fly in the face of a number of my theological friends and I want to be careful with what I say and how it is backed up.

This post calls into question Stanley Hauerwas’ history of “Constantinianism.” I still like a lot of what Hauerwas says (he is far more experienced and smarter than I’ll ever be and I do not mean to be presumptious), but I think his use of history, particularly the reliance on a couple of events around Constantine is shaky ground. I think if we are going to run with a political theology (rooted in history, or memory if we want to be Metzian) about interaction between the church and the modern nation-state, then William Cavanaugh presents a very good interpretation of the historical landscape beginning with the European early modern period (in Theopolitical Imagination). Anyways, I do not get into Cavanaugh in the post, perhaps later, but I do end with a construction about what I think Hauerwas really can or should say.

Approaching Critically the Past and Present

As I have grown as a theologian and become increasingly aware of theological conversations, the controversial issue of imperial power and early Christian formation has come to the forefront in my life so to speak. First there is Stanley Hauerwas’ assertion about the Constantinian shift (Constantianism).1 While the Hauerwas’ condemnation of Constantinianism is nothing particularly new, per se, my exposure to Hauerwas’ work is relatively recent, as my first exposure was around four years ago. Soon to follow on the heels of Hauerwas, at least in my life, was the popular Da Vinci Code. While the Da Vinci Code itself was nothing scholarly, and largely inaccurate even when it did claim to be correct, I did begin to see a deeper question developing: How much influence did secular power have in the formation of Christianity? And more importantly, was the imperial power corrupting?

However, as I researched I realized that answering these two questions are exceedingly complex and possibly not entirely answerable, or at least directly, for the following reasons:

Little Documentation
We have very little documentation for what is seen as this history changing event. There is nothing from left from the Council of Nicaea – there are no surviving writings from during the Council, not even the creed, and the reason we have it now is because it was later saved on paper in a following council that revised the Nicene creed.2 In fact, “Within twenty-five years a leading participant in the council wrote a book about it and had to rely on his memory for an account of what went on.”3 For such an important council, that seems to some to have determined the fate of Christianity with some sort of finality (Hauerwas and the Da Vinci Code), it is rather telling to have only minute information about it from sources written years later.

With such a skewed vision of what happened, or simply a lack of knowledge, the imagination of anyone can pervade the events to their liking; something outlandish can appear to be reality and the only response is, “Perhaps, but probably not because we just do not know.”

Councils are not Quick or Alone
Little documentation concerning Nicaea takes on an even greater importance than it ought to when Nicaea becomes one of the privileged moments in history. When Nicaea becomes a larger than life event, the event then incorrectly eclipses the surrounding context – a context of continuous creed making and argument. The problems concerning Christology were never totally finished in Nicaea, but to say the contrary, or to view Nicaea alone as the starting or ending point, is to misunderstand Nicaea in relation to not only the Arian conflict, but also to the other great creeds, like Constantinople I, Ephesus and others, that followed in an attempt to reform and improve the Christological understanding.

We cannot ignore the continuation of the Arian conflict, in which emperors continued to weigh in on. When we say “Constantinianism”, rather we must understand any “Constantinianism” as at least a process that continued long beyond the death of Constantine to at least Constantinople I to find fruition in Theodosius I’s raising Christianity to officially the state religion, if we are not reaching farther to Chalcedon. This is if one is to use the term “Constantinianism” at all. A sweeping change of status and power was not achievable by one ruler (there were sons and successive emperors necessary to carry on the work), as nor was Christianity unified by one Council.

Everything in a Word
As much of a problem it is to focus on one council, particularly one we know through second hand histories, it is even more problematic to base one’s idea of how the induction of one word occurred. It seems that often Homoousion becomes a microcosm for the whole discussion of imperial power in the church and the point where one stakes a claim on the imperial intervention, despite the fact that the emperor did not have the right to vote, but only to confirm and pronounce the vote as an edict and was also barred from the Eucharist and membership in the church since we was not baptized.4 Of course we have writings that say that Constantine brought up the word itself, but was it in exasperation or was it part of a grand conspiracy or was it something in between? The sources do not tell us if it was a suggestion or a heavy-handed order from the emperor. We know Constantine desired to unify his empire and wanted to use Christianity to that end, however, that still tells us preciously little about the back-story of presenting the word.

Also, something rarely taken into account by anyone other than the professional historians, is the influence Christians had on Constantine about presenting Homoousion. It is entirely possible that Housio (or Ossius) of Cordoba, the adviser to Constantine, prompted Constantine to suggest the word. And likewise a similar circumstance occurred with the Donatist controversy.5 Perhaps the puppet was the emperor himself.6 It seems tenuous at best to rely heavily on one council to define an outlook, much less the introduction of one word and the little we know about the atmosphere in which it was birthed, other than that the Arians objected, but still signed.

Constantine Scrubbed Clean
Constantine seems scrubbed clean by many Christians and some historians, both past and current.7 The texts passed down that “chronicled” the greatness of Constantine were explicitly meant to influence how we understand “Constantine the Great” and in there seems to be little account as to the moral diversity of actions committed by him. There is the assumption that Constantine was the first Christian emperor, and a glorious one at that, rather than an emperor who had a vision of Apollo and seemed to have continued to continue pagan practices with his so called Christianity.8

Many texts also gloss over theopolitical developments around the time of Constantine and the affects of Caesarpapistic Christologies, as both Nicene and Arian contended for, for a time.9 At least one view held that the emperor is “not the ruler of one people, class or religion: he is the just ruler and saviour (sic) of all. The emperor is to be like God in all respects, a heavenly being, … he is most like God, [in] is his philanthropia [love of humankind]. His mind intent upon heaven, he strives to be the image of God…the imitation of God’s fatherhood.”10 In this sense, the emperor becomes a manifestation of God – the image of the Logos – an avatar, an incarnation, or theophany if you will.11 As the emperor is the avatar, the “authority of the emperor stems not from the people or the army but from God” and the word of the emperor “may be taken for a canon.”12

Combining this development of theopolitical identity with the previous identity of emperors, largely manifested in the cultic worship of a human who will die and become divine, the office of emperor becomes an interestingly tricky and problematic place for Christians theologically and politically. As the emperor assumes divine-like closeness, Christians and historians of the past and today, possibly incorrectly, call the relationship apostleship or “sanctification of the temporal order”, instead of an imperial grab for equal status with Christ.13 Dr. McGuckin asserts that this move towards closeness was the attempt by Constantine to assert himself as both Christ and the Unconquered Sun of Apollo, which he seemed to have dialectically maintained through his life and even into death.14 Thus, to call an emperor – Constantine – solely Christian, who interestingly seemed to reflect the modern evangelical concept of radical conversion, by later Christians results in the historical bleaching of the emperor identity and acceptance of Christian history, or propaganda, as truth. While the Nicenes eventually pulled away from Caesarpapism, but only when Constanius, an Arian, rose to power; nevertheless, to act or write as if there was little complexity in the conflicting debates is disingenuous at best.15

Also, with a Constantine scrubbed clean, there is little way of showing how the Nicene faction began to assert ecclesial independence and reaction against any attempts by Constantine to assert an emperor cult within Christianity or Constantine’s movement towards Arianism through Eusebius of Nicomedia.16 The assertion of ecclesial independence and its Caesarpapism is vital to the understanding of Church and State relationship in centuries to follow, particularly within the fourth century where the Arian crisis continued unabated for years.

These are Modern Questions
On a final note, these questions are fundamentally modern questions; these questions are not, it seems, what the early Christians would be asking about Church and State. We ought to proceed carefully so as to not project the idea of the modern nation-state onto the past, and also not to assume that there was some form of separation of Church and State. “There was no place in the thought of Eusebius (or the Arian Reviser) for two related but distinct societies, the church and the Christianized State, each with its special task under Christ as Basileus kai Hiereus, but rather one God, one emperor, one religion, and a single-minded dutiful episcopate.”17 Thus, to lie on top of the historical narrative our own political and theological assumptions would entirely miss the assumptions and beliefs of the past for they seem radically different, if not merely pre-modern.

Constructing the Past

The entire narrative is complex to begin with and made far more complex with the lack of sources, not to mention that there is rarely a broad consensus between current historians about what actually happened.18 And as a complex issue, the eventual and correct answer from a historical understanding for the original questions about the influence of imperial power is: yes, no and kind of; which is to say, we are dealing largely with probability, similar to Constantine’s conversion, whenever that really was.19 The over arching answer simply put is: everyone is attempting to use everyone else. It seems that at the time, Christians are attempting to use imperial power, as imperial power is attempting to use Christians, all the while we have second hand texts that attempt to denounce or elevate party lines and individuals within along the lines of the bias within the text.

We know of Constantine as a consensus builder, or said in another way, a man in both camps and attempted to balance them in co-existence, although tolerance seemed to be his last resort.20 He raised up a statue that could be interpreted favorably by pagans and Christians alike and he gave the church money and property, but did not give up his title Pontifex Maximus or cease the financial contributions to the pagan cults.21 Likewise, along the same lines, the council itself was a “joint result of an episcopal and imperial decision.”22 It seems that one can solidly say, that in Constantine’s attempt to unify his empire, he became a friend to all sides and a proper politician.

At the same time, as mentioned earlier, the church both welcomed Caesarpapism and eventually, other factions found the imperial power disconcerting and responded towards independence to some degree. Nevertheless, there was always some sort of relation between Church and State, be it a bishop as imperial legate or Constantine himself.23

It is clear that Constantine called the Council, seeking unity, but it is also true that Constantine did not have direct access to controlling the Council itself; both Constantine and the bishops kept him distanced from control, as he could not vote and he treated the bishops with respect in their own council.24 Perhaps there was subterfuge somewhere or the emperor attempted to script part of the council, but this is all conjecture and unknowable. Likewise, the puppeteer who originally suggested Homoousion, be it Constantine, Housio or someone else, we will probably never know short of finding new documents.

Addressing History Correctly as a Theologian
History can only speak to the facts, rarely to conjecture even with a large caveat, and never to a “what if” question. Facts in this case are relatively low in number and disinformation is high. Thus, what we can begin to judge is whether or not calling the councils, through imperial means, did harm to the church. Did the church lose itself as it began to grow or did it adapt to the opportunities at hand? This is ultimately the question that Hauerwas seeks to answer and he can begin to answer this without resorting to leaning on conjecture or assumptions that because the emperor suggested something it is tainted or an attempt to control.

Thus, in order for Hauerwas to rightly begin to speak about “Constantianism” as a Christian shift towards combining with secular, and possibly evil, power structures, he ought to look later where synchronization seems in full swing and the examples are blatant and plentiful, rather than shrouded in mystery.

Perhaps also, Hauerwas would do well to look at where the Church seems to be reneging its Christian call as he defines it, rather than looking specifically for the imperial power subjecting the church to the secular. Ultimately, no matter what the secular power attempts to do, be it Theodosius I or Diocletian’s persecution, it is the church that allows or rejects the intrusion and thus, the church is responsible for its own secularization. It seems that Hauerwas would do better to focus on the church allowing the emperor who has retained the title Pontifex Maximus to sit in the council and speak, rather than basing a great deal on the Edict of Milan and Homoousion.25

1. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in a Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992) and The Hauerwas Reader edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

2. Robert Grant, “Religion and Politics at the Council of Nicaea” The Journal of Religion, 55 (Jan., 1975), 1.

3. Ibid., 1.

4. Johannes Straub, “Constantine as ###### ######### Tradition and Innovation in the Representation of the First Christian Emperor’s Majesty” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 21 (1967), 48-49.

5. Ibid., 47-48.

6. Victor C. De Clercq, Ossius of Cordova (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1954), 218-281. Francis Dvornik, “Emperors, Popes, and General Councils” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 6 (1951), 10. John McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 74, 172-173. Though some think it improbable that Ossius suggested the word, nevertheless, Hanson states it is also improbably that the word originated from Constantine. RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 201-202.

7. “Eusebius, Lactantius and others….” “The bulk of the written material is by Christians about christiainity, thus strongly illuminating one side of Constantine’s character and life but leaving another in deep shadow. Modern scholars usually submit to this balance of light, rightly if they are studying the reign as an important episode in the history of the Church, wrongly if they are studying it on its own terms and for its own sake.” Ramsay MacMullen, Constantine (New York: Croom Helm, 1987), 243-244.

8. Emperor as Pontifex Maximus in Colm Luibhéid, The Council of Nicaea (Ireland: Galway University Press, 1982), 12-16.

9. George Huntston Williams, “Christology and Church-State Relations” Church History, 20 (1951), 8-10.

10. Ibid., 22.

11. Johannes Roldanus, The Church in the Age of Constantine: The Theological Challenges (New York: Routledge, 2006), 60-61. Williams, 6-8. Massey H. Shepard, Jr., “Liturgical Expressions of the Constantinian Triumph” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 21 (1967), 78.

12. Williams, 22-23.

13. Shepard, 74-75.

14. From discussion with Professor McGuckin and also in McGuckin, 74-75.

15. Williams, 9-10.

16. McGuckin, 74-75. Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement Volume 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (New York: Orbist Books, 2006), 177.

17. Williams, 19.

18. I have even come across at least three different dates for the beginning of the Council of Nicaea, and this speaks to the lack of consensus between historians on the small details, much less the more important subjects.

19. T. G. Elliott, “Constantine’s Conversion: Do We Really Need It?” Pheonix, 41 (1987), 420.

20. Grant, 2.

21. Straub, 44, 46-47.

22. Francis Dvornik, “Emperors, Popes, and General Councils” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 6 (1951), 9.

23. Grant, 5.

24. Ibid., 7.

25. Resident Aliens, 17.

Works Consulted but not Cited
Barnes, Timothy. Constantine and Eusebius. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Drake, H. A. Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

_____, and Eusebius. In Praise of Constantine. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975.

Meyendorff, John. Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 A.D. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989.

Young, Frances. From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and its Background. Philedelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.


2 thoughts on “Looking for the Puppeteer: Constantine, Housio of Cordoba, Imperial Power, Doctrinal Formation, Theologians and Historians

  1. Pingback: Critiquing a favorite theologian « flying.farther

  2. Pingback: On Cornel West, Constantinianism and Adjusting Hauerwas « flying.farther

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