Review–Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine

Peter J. Leithart,

InterVarsity Academic, 2010

Thanks to the generosity of InterVarsity Press, I was given a copy of this book in order to use it in a larger review-essay which would have also focused on Peter J. Leithart’s new book on Athanasius (Brazos, 2011). And I do think a larger essay could work, focusing on the sharp ways in which Leithart uses history for other ends. In Athanasius, for example, history is deployed to explore contemporary issues and challenges in exegesis, metaphysics, and theological method. In Defending Constantine, similarly, Leithart’s compelling historical narrative is pressed into theological, polemical, and ethical service.

But, I won’t be writing that essay. And the reason is quite simple: Defending Constantine is of sufficient importance to stand on its own. Athanasius will have to wait.

Readers of First Things will recognize Peter J. Leithart as one of that journal’s regular contributors. He is also senior fellow at New Saint Andrews College and a pastor at Trinity Reformed Church, both in Moscow, Idaho.  The author of several books and a regular contributor to the religious and secular press, Leithart is among a growing number of Christian essayists in North America seeking to carve out a distinctively Christian political voice. Many of that number—Chris Hubner, Doug  Harink, Paul Doerksen, for example—stand squarely in the tradition of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Leithart is almost unique in his unwavering insistence that “Yoderwas” (if Terry Eagleton can coin, Ditchkins. . . .), is wrong.

I first ran across that wonderfully liberating thesis in Leithart’s earlier and shorter book, Against Christianity. And I am very happy to see it expanded and developed here.

Defending Constantine functions on four levels. It is, first of all, a work of history. As such it is not, nor does it intend to be, original. Rather, Leithart draws from widely available translations of ancient sources and the very best secondary sources to give to a wider audience the historical consensus about Constantine. His purpose: to refute the claim made by writers as diverse as Dan Brown and John Howard Yoder that Constantine’s conversion is the “fall” of Christianity from a state of relative purity maintained by persecutions to a politically compromised, ecclesiologically corrupt, and theologically hollow institution.

Leithart’s narrative effectively silences the “fall” account for two reasons. First, he shows that the Church was neither as uniform nor as “pure” prior to Constantine as Yoderwas needs it to be for his version to stand. The Church—this is the most significant example—was divided on how best to live within the Empire and support its military well before the fourth century. And such divisions had, as often as not, not to do with Christian participation in coercive violence but how to deal with the non-Christian religious expectations that came with such service.

Second he shows—again powerfully—that Constantine’s conversion should be written without the scare quotes. He really did become a Christian. Did he continue to sin? Yes. Leithart, for example, faces squarely the charge that the Christian Emperor murdered his wife and son. Did Constantine delay his baptism until he neared death? Again yes. And Leithart does observe that once Constantine relinquished the Imperial purple for the baptismal white, he never took up the purple again. Suggesting—contrary to Leithart’s own case—that the Emperor himself recognized he could not fully execute his office and be a disciple at the same time.  These are, for Leithart, side questions. The real issue is Constantine’s legistlative record. Were the laws he passed seasoned by the Gospel of Grace? Did they make Rome not simply more Christian, but more humane? Here, the answer is, absolutely. Constantine’s legislative record went beyond favouring Christianity—though it did that. It was genuinely pluralistic (in a way unfollowed by later Christian emperors). It desacrificalized Roman public life so that Christians could participate in government but without outlawing either pre-Christian religions or Judaism. It strengthened the positions of women and children while weakining the status of the pater familias. It curtailed the bloodsports so prevalent in Roman society. Christian Rome was not, at the end of Constantine’s life, the Kingdom of God (the claims of Eusebius notwithstanding). But it really was Christian Rome. It was different from what it had been before. It had, with its Emperor, been baptized.

As I say, this is not a new interpretation of Constantine. It is a popular presentation of a scholarly consensus for an audience who, if they know anything about Constantine at all, likely believe he was a very very bad man indeed. Leithart’s picture complicates things. And that is very, very good.

Defending Constantine is, however, not only a history. It is also theology. And theologically, it has to do with sacrifice and baptism. The impact of Constantine’s conversion can be assessed negatively or positively. Negatively, he desacrificialized Rome.  This is no metaphor. Constantine removed the sacrificial requirements embedded in Roman public life and in so doing, gave human society a first: a polis—a public life—that was not founded on the literal shedding of blood. For, as Constantine well knew, the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, remembered in the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist had forever ended such bloodletting.  Positively, Rome, like her Emperor, was baptized. Rome did not thereby become the Kingdom. But a real journey of discipleship—as displayed in Constantine’s legislative record—did begin. Every baptism—and that of Rome and of Constantine are no different—is an infant baptism in this way: it is the start of the journey of discipleship.

Third, Defending Constantine is a polemic—in the proper and best sense of the word. It is a sustained argument against Yoderwas in particular and the Anabaptist theology/ethic of withdrawal in general. Leithart contends that Yoderwas’s Constantinianism—when the Church loses its apostolic message and becomes content to do ethics for Caesar—rests on a particular telling of history. What we have called the “fall” narrative above. He shows—to my mind persuasively—that Yoderwas’s history is contorted, misleading and in many places, simply mistaken. And if the history is, then the heresy is too. Were there times when Bishops and Kings were too close? Certainly. Did Christendom bring in the Kingdom? No. But—and this is what Yoderwas asserts—was it a mistake from the ground up? Leithart argues—I think persuasively—that the answer again is no.

Finally, Defending Constantine is an ethic. Leithart writes with a view to taking a stance vis-a-vis public life today. And he is worried for our culture if too many follow Yoderwas to the isolation of the colony. Leithart does believe that cultures, legislative agendas, and even emperors can be baptized. That they can grow into Christian faith and practices. He agrees with Yoderwas that the West is re-paganizing, re-sacrificializing. It is returning to altars sated with blood, only this time, all of it human. He disagrees about what to do about it. Leithart’s conclusion—and he is right—is that the solution lies not in withdrawal, but in evangelization rooted in the conviction that today’s emperors can—like Constantine in the fourth century—bow the knee to King Jesus. That they can indeed be baptized.

6 thoughts on “Review–Defending Constantine

  1. Tim, I liked your review and agree with you that Leithart has written a book that Anabaptist scholars will need to take into account. I also have written a short review of Leithart which should be appearing in the Conrad Grebel Review shortly. Although I agree with your assessment in many respects, I uncover some problems with Leithart’s refutation of Yoder. I wish we could dialogue in person.

  2. I haven’t read the work, wasn’t even aware of it until now, but I must say it sounds like a rather myopic reading of Constantine’s affect on Christianity in the Empire. What he praises of the initial affects on the empire are nothing more than a hastening of that which was already occurring – even the secular historians will argue that. Sure this was good, but a significant price would be paid in the long term. For it led to an understanding in the ecclesiae that a simple identification of its agenda with the powers that be was enough to secure its aims. A sickening perversion of its purpose, and means of serving it, that continues to live on in much of the Church today, particularly in Republican America. This produced an awfully bloody record when alternative agendas attempted to gain influence centuries later. Constantine cannot be blamed for this that’s true and here I welcome what the work might have to offer. However, neither should the record be judged for its short term gains alone. I don’t mean to defend Hauerwas, in particular, I think Yoder is less guilty than he in so far as he criticizes the record for what it produced and not for how it started. He, at least in his later appreciation of Barth, recognizes that the change that needs to come about is in the Church and not simply a retreat to the Church as in Hauerwas.

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