Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine

The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom

by Peter J. Leithart
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Trade Paperback, 367 pages
Current Retail Price: $27.00
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We know that Constantine

  • issued the Edict of Milan in 313
  • outlawed paganism and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire
  • manipulated the Council of Nicea in 325
  • exercised absolute authority over the church, co-opting it for the aims of empire

And if Constantine the emperor were not problem enough, we all know that Constantinianism has been very bad for the church. Or do we know these things? Peter Leithart weighs these claims and finds them wanting. And what's more, in focusing on these historical mirages we have failed to notice the true significance of Constantine and Rome baptized. For beneath the surface of this contested story there emerges a deeper narrative of the end of Roman sacrifice—a tectonic shift in the political theology of an empire—and with far-reaching implications. In this probing and informative book Peter Leithart examines the real Constantine, weighs the charges against Constantinianism, and sets the terms for a new conversation about this pivotal emperor and the Christendom that emerged.

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  The Emperor Strikes Back
Rosanne Spears of Oregon City, OR, 10/11/2011
The Emperor Constantine is one of those people who could very ably defend himself while alive, but now, having the misfortune of being dead, has become a whipping boy for church historians and theologians alike. In his book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, Peter Leithart attempts to wipe the rotten vegetables off Constantine’s face and scour the reputation that the centuries have sullied.

A common version of Constantine’s story, one that Leithart sets out to refute, is that Constantine (who may or may not have truly converted) took control of the Church and absorbed it into the empire in such a way that its distinctives became diluted and its witness ineffectual. He freed the Church from persecution but then neutered the Church and created an atmosphere where “real” Christians and “pretend” Christians could not be told one from the other.

Leithart’s first method of refutation is to provide a biographical study of Constantine, firmly seating the man in the context of late Roman antiquity, judging his actions as they would have been understood by his contemporaries instead of holding them up against a perfectionistic standard. Yes, Constantine often referred to God in ambiguous terms like “Providence” instead of with explicitly Christian ones, but the fact that he paid no sacrifice or acknowledgment to Jupiter was enough to make Romans sit up and take notice. Yes, Constantine meddled in Church affairs, but the Church had some serious problems that needed to be meddled with. Yes, Constantine “called” the Council of Nicea, but he did not “preside” over it or dictate its verdict. Yes, contemporary ecclesiastics like Eusebius flattered Constantine unduly and thought he was the greatest thing since pita bread, but wouldn’t you too if you had suffered the horrendous persecutions of Diocletian and Galerian?

In a section titled “The Emperor and the Queen,” Leithart explains how Constantine had the right motivations but sometimes went overboard in his execution:

" 'Kiss the Son,' Psalm 2 exhorts, addressing itself to kings of the earth. Constantine kissed the Son, publicly acknowledging the Christian God as the true God and confessing Jesus as 'our Savior.'

"For Constantine and the emperors who followed him, after kissing the Son and Lord, it made sense to do homage to Jesus by supporting his Queen, the church–building and adorning cathedrals, distributing funds for poor relief and hospitals, assisting the bishops to resolve their differences by calling and providing for councils. Constantine did not always show restraint. Sometimes he took over business that belonged to the King and Queen alone. But if we want to judge Constantine fairly, we have to recognize that the Queen often had issues. A queen’s bodyguard ought to keep his hands off the queen, but what does he do when she turns harpy and starts scratching the face of her lady-in-waiting?"

In the latter half of the book, Leithart waxes theological and deals with complaints by the theologian John Howard Yoder about the “heresy” of Constantinianism. Yoder claims that during Constantine’s reign, the Church was knocked off its Biblical trajectory and “fell” in such a way that it has never recovered. His three main issues with Constantinianism are: (1) it identified the nation/empire with the purposes of God (instead of the Church) and thus distorted the mission of the Church; (2) it destroyed the non-imperialist stance that the early Church had adhered to; and (3) it destroyed the early Church’s commitment to pacifism.

Leithart decimates these arguments in reverse order, showing that the history underpinning Yoder’s arguments is shaky at best. A shift in emphasis did occur during Constantine’s rule, but it was not the open break with the past that Yoder postulates, and much of the change can be seen as the difference between the Church in exile and the Church come into the promise land.

To me, the most interesting section was where Leithart refuted the claim that the pre-Constantine Church was unreservedly pacifist:

"[T]he church was never united in an absolute opposition to Christian participation in war; the opposition that existed was in some measure circumstantial, based on the fact that the Roman army demanded sharing in religious liturgies that Christians refused; and once military service could be pursued without participating in idolatry, many Christians found military service a legitimate life for a Christian disciple."

Constantine did not seduce Christians into the military; he allowed them to become part of it by removing the ritual of pagan oaths and sacrifice that earlier emperors had demanded of their soldiers.

Leithart concludes his book by applying the analogy of infant baptism to what happened to Rome under the rule of Constantine:

"In the end it all comes round to baptism, specifically to infant baptism. Rome was baptized in the fourth century. Eusebian hopes notwithstanding, it was not instantly transformed into the kingdom of heaven. It did not immediately become the city of God on earth. Baptism never does that. It is not meant to. Baptism sets a new trajectory, initiates a new beginning, but every beginning is the beginning of something. Through Constantine, Rome was baptized into a world without animal sacrifice and officially recognized the true sacrificial city, the one community that does offer a foretaste of the final kingdom. Christian Rome was in its infancy, but that was hardly surprising…."

And what about John Howard Yoder and those other theologians that our long-dead Constantine needs defending against?

"For Yoder, Rome was not radically Christian, Rome’s adherence to the faith was infantile, and because of that, he reasons, it was not Christian at all but apostate. He failed, as Augustine said against Pelagius, to give due weight to “the interim, the interval between the remission of sins which takes place in baptism, and the permanently established sinless state in the kingdom that is to come, this middle time of prayer, while [we] must pray, ‘Forgive us our sins.’” He failed to acknowledge that all–Constantine, Rome, ourselves–stand in medial time, and yet are no less Christian for that."
  Gives Clarity and Perspective on the Young Church
Miss Pickwickian of Oregon, 8/31/2011
"Defending Constantine" is organized somewhat like a backwards "Against Christianity." The first portion sorts through history and what accounts we have of the times of the early church, before, after, and during the reign of Constantine.

The entire book is theologically grounded and continually shows the tension and relation of Church and State. Many portions read like an essay or thesis against writers and thinkers like John Howard Yoder. Other sections are simply history with thoughts from a man who takes the Bible seriously.

A few sections may take some persistance, but the whole book is well worth the read and is organized with typical Leithart clarity and infused with scattered humor.

The scale of research, quotes, and organization alone is an impressive feat. Dr. Leitart attacks hard questions and arguments, giving full attention to ideas on church and state. He looks through a wide scope of history with God's Word open in one hand.

The book gave an extended lesson on how theology, even minor ideas, affect the outworking of much of what we do. I found the discussion on pacifism particularly intriguing.

Dr. Leithart's arguments against John Howard Yoder are an interesting look into debate and thinking. By the end of the book, he has turned most of Yoder's arguments against Yoder himself.

This book was wonderful on a number of levels, but it was well worth the time for the early church history alone.

Don't expect heroes to be perfect. But when imperfect people bow the knee to Christ, they can do great things...and who knows the consequences.

"Defending Constantine" is a history lesson, argument, and theological discussion wrapped up in a fascinating character and time in history.
  Cannot Be Too Highly Recommended
Doug Hayes of Oregon, 7/5/2011
Christians today know that something has changed in our relation to the world in the last couple of centuries. We know that we no longer are in a position of leadership or even broad influence in the broader culture. But we are torn as to why this is true, or even if this is a good or bad thing. Is it even a part of our mission as the Church to lead culture in an explicitly Christian manner, or has Christ instructed us to be content with being a sub-culture within a culture?

Peter Leithart’s, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, is an attempt to address these questions in a manner that takes seriously the Great Commission, the history of the last two thousand years, and the ongoing theological reflections of various Christian thinkers on the subject.

Since Constantine was the first (in a long line) Christian ruler that tried to rule as a Christian, historians, theologians, political philosophers and social scientists begin with him. Among most academics today (both Christian and otherwise), Constantine has become an almost iconic symbol of all that has been wrong about Christian involvement and leadership society, and is now associated with what is called “Constantiniansm.” Leithart’s aim is to not only provide a fresh look at Constantine in his historical context (biography), but to present a polemic to the prevailing negative attitude toward Constantine and the Christendom that follow in next thousand years (and into the modern period). One of his aims is to “contribute to the formation of a theology that does not simply inform but is a social science.” His final and most important purpose is very practical: “I have found that, far from representing a fall for the church, Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice” [and general cultural engagement by Christians].

One of the fascinating things that Leithart demonstrates is that the ancient world, from beginning to end, was bound up with sacrifice (both animal and human). With Constantine, the world was forced to come to grips with the Gospel (i.e. good news) of Christ and the implications of the finality of His self-sacrifice. Only the sacrifice of Christ and our participation in that sacrifice can free the world of the tyranny of paganism.

I’m not one to read the end before the beginning – but I can, in good conscience, recommend that people may want to read the last two chapters first so as to be assured of the value of reading such a careful and academic work. For, indeed, the journey through Defending Constantine is well worth the time and effort it is to get to the end.

Of note is the fact that one of those whom Leithart takes to task in the book, Stanley Hauerwas, has written a very positive review of Defending Constantine. Hauerwas wrote:
“Leithart has written an important book that does more than help us to better understand the complex human being who bore the name Constantine…Leithart has done his historical homework. As far as I can judge, he uses the best scholarship available to develop an engaging biography of Constantine as emperor and human being…I am primarily interested in Leithart's primary interest- which is to provide a critique of Yoder in the hope that Christians will recognize that they have a more robust political theology than Yoder could provide.”
The review is available here:

I cannot possibly recommend this book too highly. It is a must read for anyone serious about Church history, the theology of Christian mission and involvement in society.