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Is it true that Emperor Constantine led an army of Christians against the Donatists in 316 AD?Jan 17th, 2012
It is unfortunate that Anabaptists and others in the "Free" Church feel a certain superiority about their stance on such things as pacifism and being anti-hiearchical. If you read my book review on "Retrieving the Tradition" you will see that I have been a "Free" church Christian my entire Christian experience. I have reached out to several Anabaptist writers/blogs/web sites to challenge them as an historian of the early church, but only one has had the humility to admit and change the error. When you continue to write or say what you have been shown to be false, what is that? One young man told me he would consult his own historian to confirm what I was attempting to show him - his own historian could not disagree with me...yet he continues to have this incorrect statement below on his web site. Very sad.
The end does not justify the means. Telling lies or distorting the truth about Constantine does NOT help the cause of Christ.
Update: 2014-03-15 This young man and I have exchanged around two dozen e-mail messages. He has satisfied me that he was justified in posting the sentence in question below - he used Christian theologian Justo Gonzalez who has been shown to be sloppy in his historical writing. See this exchange below
While doing research to see how people search online for Emperor Constantine, I found a site with an article on pacifism and Christianity. One of the main points of the author is that "Constantine fundamentally changed the Church [from pacifism to] the idea of Christians going to kill other Christians."
After deciding against the Donatists, Constantine led an army of Christians against the Donatist Christians.
In all of my reading about Constantine I had NEVER read anything like this statement, and thus, I found it dubious. My general Christian history reading is WHC Frend, Rise of Christianity and Hans Lietzmann's four volume set A History of the Early Church. My primary source documents for Constantine have included Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, portions of Lactantius, and portions of the histories of both Sozomen and Socrates. On the Donatist controversy I have now just recently read portions of Optatus' Against the Donatists, obviously biased, but still an historical document. Added to these sources, I have read hundreds of pages about this time period in scholarly works where Constantine is referenced in more ways than can be mentioned...yet I had never read anything about him leading an army of Christians against anyone.
After ruling in favor of Caecilian, Constantine received news that a certain Menalius was stirring up anti-Caecilian riots in Numidia. As early as 313 Constantine had been briefed about the situation in N.Africa and had warned the Roman bishop, Miltiades that rioting would not be permitted (Frend, p.156), thus he wanted something done quickly to bring peace. Constantine had traveled to Milan with directions for both Caecilian and Donatus to be retained in Italy. He feared that their presence would inflame the already tense situation in N. Africa, and it turns out he was correct. During this time one of Constantine's favored advisors suggested a compromise plan to the two groups still in Rome: a commission of bishops would be sent to Africa to appoint a new bishop of Carthage. The proposal was accepted, but when the delegation arrived in Africa it was met with hostility. The Donatists boycotted and riots broke out in the streets of Carthage. After 40 days the Roman prelates left Carthage with no resolution. (Frend, pp.156-57)
I am still looking through my Justo Gonzalez book, but I ran across this:
"Irritated at the obstinacy of the Donatists in declining even yet to accept their defeat, Constantine now enforced the decision of the councils by the aid of the secular arm. The Donatists were proscribed, deprived of their churches, their property was confiscated, their bishops were exiled...Constantine sent an army, and for the first time in the world's history Christians slaughtered Christians....Such were the fruits of the alliance of Church and State." - Robinson Souttar; A Short History of Medieval People.
From the Dawn of the Christian Era to the Fall of Constantinople, p. 227
This is interesting and unfortunately does not surprise me. Gonzalez has made such mistakes before. I just visited the latest version of his text on Google books. He said that he was going to remove a particular error he had made regarding the nickname "black dwarf" for Athanasius - indeed, he has removed it. I will have to update my page now.
This is another such error.
First, Gonzalez earned his Ph.D. in theology. Just let it be said that I would never attempt to write a text on theology....Gonzalez really should not be authoring texts on Church History. [This example and his poor choice for the "black dwarf" quote on Athanasius give evidence for my harsh view of his inexperience in church history.]
Secondly, he is citing from a text first published in 1903. I found Souttar's text on an archive site and Gonzalez did cite him correctly. So, I guess we can release Gonzalez from error. No! As a scholar he is responsible for whatever he cites. Souttar, as far as I can tell, does not give any primary source for his commentary on the Donatists...Frend's text on Optatus and the Donatists came out in 1952 so Souttar is working with limited sources....But Souttar is incorrect in his VERY general description of the events. I will admit that his comment is so general that I have very LITTLE idea of exactly what event he is commenting on. But my reading of Optatus/Frend shows that there was only one such incident where anything like an army was called in.
I am fairly certain that Constantine did not specifically say, "Go kill those Donatists." He told his governor to keep violence from happening. Even though Roman soldiers were sent, this was a police action. Like the Governor of California calling in the National Guard to quell the Rodney King LA riots. Rioters were killing people - 53 people died in these riots, mainly rioters, but also innocent victims of random attacks. Police and National Guard had real guns with real bullets to enforce the peace. I personally would not fault the Governor, nor would I fault a Christian serving in the Police/National Guard if they had to shoot someone for being violent.
1. This was not "an army."
2. The Donatist were not "deprived of their churches," but were being forced to give up churches they had wrongly taken from catholic bishops.
3. It is highly likely that the soldiers sent in to quell this "riot" were NOT Christians. In fact, many of these were probably the same soldiers that had persecuted the Christians under Diocletian only 10-12 years prior. (Leithart, Peter, "Defending Constantine," p.160)
Thus, to describe this as "Christians slaughtered Christians" is a very inflamatory way of presenting this event - and really not true.
This just strikes me as overly-emotional, used to bolster the argument. In my view what the Romans did in their various persecutions could easily be called a slaughter. But in this instance the death toll was anywhere from 6 to 40 people. The catholic writers claim deaths of 6-12 while the Donatist writers claim 30-40. But remember, the Donatists were barricading themselves inside church buildings and refusing to surrender the buildings. We know Donatist Christians were killed in this context and it may be that some of those killed should have been given more opportunity to surrender. But they were no more innocent than the men who refused to leave the Alamo - they made their choice knowing full well the possibility of death.
This quote above by Souttar does illustrate how poor historical reporting has ramifications. Like my DH Williams review shows, misrepresenting Constantine by the Anabaptist Free church writers of the Reformation has had a lasting impact. I just found yet another site where a reader is reporting what she has learned from Gonzalez. A few good points, but a few skewed ones from a skewed presentation by Gonzalez. He is a trained theologian, not an historian. He proves this by making two undergraduate errors - and these are just two I happened upon.
I am sure Justo Gonzalez is a good man. I think he is a sincere Christian and probably a good theologian. I am sure he knows at least 100 times more about theology than I do. But I would be surprised if he has not made several more historical errors like the two I have stumbled upon....
Another message from me:
I never said that Constantine did not use force. But the force was to tell his governor in N.Africa (Numidia, I think) to quell any violence. N.Africa had a history of violence and Constantine, prior to knowing about the Donatist issue, had signaled earlier that he wanted peace and quiet.
Donatists were commanded to get out of the churches they had taken (this is important - Donatus had traveled around the region recruiting bishops to follow him. This would include whatever buildings they had) and when they refused and some of their extremists took to the streets threatening (and perhaps beating people), Roman soldiers were sent in as a police force. When the Donatists "defended" their churches, deadly force followed.
Again, this is NOT "leading an army" into battle. This is calling in Roman troops on a police action. Kind of like the governor of California calling in the National Guard during the Rodney King riots.
It is also important to know that the violence and the deadly force only happened in Carthage. Donatists in other cities/towns did not resist and were left alone. If Constantine had just wanted to kill Christians he would have sent troops to ALL Donatist churches and rooted them out. Constantine quickly regretted the police action and never did anything like this again. In fact, he reversed his action and granted the Donatists freedom with their churches.
The point is the way Gonzalez and others present it puts Constantine in an unfair light. Now if you want to say things like this against Julian a bit later...that is more accurate. But to give the few lines you used, or what Gonzalez reported, does not even mention the violence and obstinence of the Donatists. It is all about how the data is presented.
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