Book Review: Defending Constantine

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  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 2010)
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  • “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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Book Review – Healing for a Broken World

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway Books
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  • Much is being written these days on the relationship between Christianity and politics, especially in the light of the decline of the religious right. The more enlightened of these articles and books avoid simply defending either the Republican or Democrat party line, but instead seek to apply biblical principles to public policy and civil society. One recent book that does this well is Steve Monsma’s Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy. Monsma is a former state senator, emeritus professor of political science at Pepperdine, and currently senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College.

    The book is divided into two parts. Part one sets out four principles from Scripture that Monsma believes are the most relevant for thinking about public policy. These principles are creation, sin, and redemption; justice; solidarity; and civil society. The first principle is drawn from the early chapters of Genesis and portrays the nature of our world and the human condition: God instructed human beings to multiply and subdue the earth (the cultural mandate). But man fell, and God is now in the process of redeeming humanity, as well as every aspect of His creation. (I appreciate this reformed approach to redemption, which includes all of creation, and doesn’t focus solely on human souls—important as that is.)

    The second principle (justice) indicates that “God has instituted governing authorities and their public policies to work against evil and to promote justice in society” (p. 49). The third principle is solidarity, which is the obligation God has given every person to love their neighbor as themselves (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8). The final principle draws on Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” which holds that God has established several domains of human society, each of which is authoritative in its own realm. Chief among these domains are the government, the family, and the church. Since each sphere possesses its own authority, it is wrong for any one sphere to usurp the authority of another—for example, for the government to usurp the authority of the family, or the church to usurp the authority of the government. These four principles, Monsma contends, are those that should guide a Christian approach to public policy.

    Part two seeks to apply these four principles to several pressing issues in our world today, including church and state, life, poverty, the environment, human rights, the needs of Africa, and war and terrorism. On the issue of abortion, for example, Monsma points out that justice requires that human life, which is made in God’s image, should be protected by law. At the same time, Christians and others in our society should stand in solidarity with pregnant women facing difficult circumstances and seek to help and support them. In terms of civil society/sphere sovereignty, private organizations are typically better equipped to offer emotional and spiritual support, while government agencies are often better placed to provide monetary assistance, housing, and job training (though there may be exceptions where organizations can also contribute to these).

    Yet challenges and gray areas remain. To what extent should a society attempt to restrict abortion? Should exceptions be made for the health of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, or when the fetus is severely deformed? Are conservatives willing to support assistance programs for low-income families that will discourage women from having abortions? Are liberals willing to extend their concern for children to the womb?

    Monsma frequently raises difficult issues such as these in each of the chapters in part two, which I appreciate about the book. I believe his four biblical principles are compelling and important, though others, no doubt, could be added. He does a good job of consistently applying these criteria to the problems he addresses, while also highlighting some of the ambiguities that arise in trying to construct a consistent Christian public policy.  At some points I felt that references to relevant political philosophy would have made for a richer discussion (for example, in defining terms like “justice”), but Monsma was keen to keep the discussion concrete and practical (p. 50).

    The relationship between Christianity and government is a difficult and complex topic, and there are no easy answers. But the principles Monsma suggests are indispensable to the discussion, and deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition.   Anyone interested in the intersection of Christianity and politics will find this book helpful, especially since the author has wrestled with many of these issues firsthand.

    — Reviewed by Chris Reese

    * Thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy.

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    Dallas Willard on Science

    “ ‘Science,’ as now generally understood, actually combines appeals to all three sources [of knowledge: authority, reason, and experience], but in undigested and incoherent ways that permit it to be manipulated in the public arena, where policy issues are in question, for numerous unscientific and political purposes.  Indeed, nothing would be more helpful in the midst of today’s confusions than a thorough understanding of the nature and limitations of “science” itself.

    “But the sciences themselves cannot provide such an understanding, because each one is limited to its peculiar subject matter (which certainly is not “science”), and so the necessary work cannot be done in any way that is “scientific” under current understandings.  That reveals the impasse of modern life.  Science is the presumed authority on knowledge, but it cannot provide scientific knowledge of science.

    “. . . No science is omnicompetent, nor, very likely, is any [particular] “scientifically minded” person.  But given the present confusions in the world of intellect, this seems to be a point easily missed.  Actually, what we see here are the influences of an unsupported worldview.”

    — Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today, 60-61.

     

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    City of Man (with Download of Foreword and Preface)

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    I recently had the pleasure of editing City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner,  releasing October 1 from Moody Publishers.  In this volume, Gerson and Wehner draw on their experience as former White House staff, journalists, and commentators on religion (especially evangelicalism) to chart a new course for Christians to engage with politics in a post-Religious-Right era.

    Rather than focusing on specific strategies for influencing legislation or electing politicians, the authors outline broad biblical principles that should inform believers as they engage the realm of politics—the “City of Man” in the words of Augustine.  Such principles include fighting for human rights, defending life, supporting the family and other character-shaping institutions, and engaging with political and ideological opponents in a civil and respectful manner.

    What I most appreciate about City of Man is that it isn’t partisan in its approach, though both authors are well-known conservatives, but that it strives to present biblically and theologically sound first principles that apply to Christians of all political persuasions.  I believe the authors succeed, and I recommend this volume to any Christian looking for a deeper understanding of how the City of God relates to the City of Man.

    You can download the foreword (by Timothy Keller) and preface in PDF format here.

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    Philosophy Word of the Day — John Locke’s Political Philosophy

    John Locke, by Herman Verelst (died 1690). See...

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    “John Locke (1632–1704) is among the most influential political philosophers of the modern period. In the Two Treatises of Government, he defended the claim that men are by nature free and equal against claims that God had made all people naturally subject to a monarch. He argued that people have rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and property, that have a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society. Locke used the claim that men are naturally free and equal as part of the justification for understanding legitimate political government as the result of a social contract where people in the state of nature conditionally transfer some of their rights to the government in order to better insure the stable, comfortable enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property.

    “Since governments exist by the consent of the people in order to protect the rights of the people and promote the public good, governments that fail to do so can be resisted and replaced with new governments. Locke is thus also important for his defense of the right of revolution. Locke also defends the principle of majority rule and the separation of legislative and executive powers. In the Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke denied that coercion should be used to bring people to (what the ruler believes is) the true religion and also denied that churches should have any coercive power over their members. Locke elaborated on these themes in his later political writings, such as the Second Letter on Toleration and Third Letter on Toleration.” (continue article)

    — Alex Tuckness in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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