Book Review: Defending Constantine

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  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Christian Book Distributors
  • Author’s Website


  • “What is a Christian view of politics?” “Does the church have political power?” “If so, how should we Christians exercise such political power in order to advance the Kingdom of God?” Questions like these naturally come to mind when we think about the relation between the church and politics. There is no easy answer for such weighty questions. In this book, Peter Leithart looks for the answer in Constantine. Perhaps, for many, it is a surprising place given the fact that Constantine’s accomplishments as emperor are often overshadowed by questions about the sincerity of his faith. His defense of Constantine is twofold: First, he aims to defend Constantine by refuting scholars who accuse the emperor of being a tyrant, egoist, opportunist and the like and by providing a “fairly fair account of Constantine’s life and work” (10). Second, he argues that “Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice” (11).

    In the first part of the book, Leithart presents his scholarly interpretation of what kind of Christian emperor Constantine was. He begins with the background of how Constantine rose to power as emperor and describes how he changed Rome. Leithart states, “He [Constantine] was a sincere if somewhat simple believer. He knew some portions of the Old Testament and perhaps the basic outline of biblical history, and he could summarize the story of the Gospels. For Constantine, God was a providential Judge who supports the righteous and destroys the wicked, and he believed that the church had to be unified if it was going to offer pleasing worship to God” (302). Leithart demonstrates solid scholarly work in his interpretation of historical writings to present a fair portrayal of Constantine. Yet, it is fair to say that his own voice seems to overtake the voice of Constantine from time to time.

    In the latter part of his book (Chapters 12 to 14), Leithart engages with John Howard Yoder, whose work in pacifism has received considerable attention and who also coined the term “Constantianism,” which is defined as “a set of mental, spiritual and institutional habits that gets into the blood of careless Christians” (310). His engagement with Yoder is delightful. His criticism of Yoder, as Leithart clearly states, is not mainly historical, but theological. Still, Leithart argues that Yoder gets fourth-century church history completely wrong: He misconstrues his “entire reading of church history which is a hinge of his theological project” (11).

    “He [Yoder] argues that the early church was uniformly, or almost uniformly, pacifist and that Christians who served in the military would have been excommunicated . . . the evidence for Christians in the army in the mid-second century represents an accommodation to worldliness, a sign of drift and ultimately apostasy . . . Constantine consolidated and institutionalized this drift into a centuries-long apostasy” (258). However, Leithart asserts that the historical evidence is too ambiguous to make such a judgment call. Instead, Yoder’s rather hasty judgment may show that his historical interpretation is motivated by his Anabaptist background, instead of a fair examination of the historical evidence.

    Yet, Leithart sympathizes with pacifism. Not with the same intensity as Yoder, of course, but he agrees with Augustine that “One does not pursue peace in order to wage war, he wages war to achieve peace” (337). And this is indeed what we see in the Bible: “The Bible is from beginning to end a story of war” (333) to bring the world the benefit of peace. In this way Leithart shows his appreciation of Yoder. In fact, agreeing with Yoder, Leithart contends, “If there is going to be a Christian politics, it is going to have to be an evangelical Christian politics, one that places Jesus, his cross and his resurrection at the center. It will not do to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount with a wave of the hand (‘that’s for personal life, not political life’) (332). However, for Yoder, this cannot be accomplished with the help of empire, while for Leithart it is plausible because God finds His vessels in unlikely places.

    In conclusion, I believe that what these two theologians seek is the same: To advance the Kingdom of God. Yet, they differ in how to achieve this end. As a student of theology, I find myself in basic agreement with Leithart. Although I disagree with a number of points that he makes throughout the book, I agree with his basic principle: God can use empire, government, and social institutions to advance His Kingdom, as Scripture supports. Yet, I am not fond of Leithart’s interpretation of the Bible as a story of war. I agree, though, that a canonical reading of the Bible is a crucial key to understanding how we should participate in advancing the Kingdom of God. For this, Jeremiah 29 is crucial. How should we understand “seek the welfare of the city?” Perhaps, if we examine Jeremiah 29 in light of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28, and the new earth and heaven of Revelation 21-22, we may come to see that God also brings redemption to this fallen world and we are to participate in this redemptive work of the created world (Rom 8:19-21). As William T. Cavanaugh rightly states, “If the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during that period, we must find ways to appreciate Christendom.” It is plausible to conclude that Constantine was one of God’s vessels to advance the Kingdom of God.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Reese

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Defending Constantine

  1. Pingback: Dumbest Book Ever?

  2. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.01.2011) | Near Emmaus

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