Book Review: Defending Constantine

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  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 2010)
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  • 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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Kurt Vonnegut on Disaster, Drama, and Real Life

I was at a Kurt Vonnegut talk in New York a few years ago.  Talking about writing, life, and everything.

He explained why people have such a need for drama in their life.

He said, “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let’s look at a few examples.”

He drew an empty grid on the board, like this:

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Time moves from left to right.  Happiness from bottom to top.

He said, “Let’s look at a very common story arc. The story of Cinderella.”

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It starts with her awful life with evil stepsisters, scrubbing the fireplace. Then she get an invitation to the ball! Things look up. Then the fairy godmother makes her a dress and a coach. Even better! Then she goes to the ball, and dances with the prince! This is great!  But then it’s midnight. She has to go. Oh no. Sadness. Back to her humdrum life scrubbing the fireplace. But it’s not as bad as before, because she’s had this encouraging experience.  Then, the prince finds her, and the happiness factor is off the chart!  Happily ever after.

“People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.”

(Continue) (HT First Thoughts)

Vonnegut goes on to describe a common disaster story and comments similarly:

“People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.”

Since we grow up with these larger-than-life stories,

we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.”

That’s why people invent fights. That’s why we’re drawn to sports. That’s why we act like everything that happens to us is such a big deal.

We’re trying to make our life into a fairy tale.

In my view, we’re all part of a much bigger drama than any of those he mentions – the cosmic drama of redemption, and the Kingdom of God against the powers of darkness.  Perhaps it’s no mistake that we think and imagine on a grand scale.  Maybe that’s an aspect of having eternity set in our hearts (Eccles. 3:11).

What do you think?

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Blog Series on Twentieth-Century Theologians

The Resurrection—Tischbein, 1778.
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I’ve mentioned philosophy professor Win Corduan’s series on modern theologians before, and he’s now helpfully collected all of the posts in one place for easy reading.  These are nice introductions to these theologians’ ideas and works, and he also points out where their ideas intersect with philosophy.

For example, writing on Wolfhart Pannenberg,

Pannenberg’s doctorate was in philosophy, but when the opportunity came for him to teach theology he quickly had to “throw together” a habilitation thesis (to qualify for university teaching) in theology.  This “hastily” produced book, Jesus-God and Man (1968) , turned out to be a huge hit and will probably remain the one for which he is best known.  In this book he attempted to construct a Christology “from below,” which means that he started with the man Jesus and then showed that this man was (is) God incarnate.

Crucial to this argument is the resurrection of Christ, and Pannenberg went to great lengths to show that it was a historical event.  He also calls it a mystery, but when I asked him about using that term, he explained that he had in mind the fact that ultimately the very natures of death and life are mysterious to us. He did not mean to whittle back on the historicity of the resurrection.  That assertion caused a bit of consternation among the Bultmannians in the audience.

Now, the crucial term to understand Pannenberg’s theology is “proleptic.”  That term means that something is not yet here, but we are already benefiting from it.  Thus, Pannenberg argued that the Kingdom of God is not yet here, but it is already present among us proleptically, as guaranteed by the resurrection.  How is this different from what [Jurgen] Moltmann was saying?, you might ask.  Pannenberg does not resort to equivocal language.  In keeping with the Scotist roots to which we alluded above, the hope to which he refers has actual biblical content.

The posts are nice, short summaries of the theologians’ most important ideas and writings.

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Great Calvin Quote

Thanks to my colleague Madison for passing on this quote by John Calvin from Kevin DeYoung’s blog DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed.  Good stuff.

We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him.” If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth…If we see redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other (Inst., II.xvi.19).

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