Is Peter Leithart right to defend Constantine?

I just finished reading Peter Leithart‘s Defending Constantine, a book in which Leithart synthesizes the work of modern scholarship to present a thorough-going critique of John Howard Yoder’s popular narrative in which the fall of the church into heresy comes with the “Constantinian turn.” A Mennonite theologian, Yoder inspired what many have come to describe as the emergence of a neo-Anabaptist tradition within the academy and the broader church. And of course, not only did Yoder reject the idea of Christendom, but he was a pacifist.

Leithart’s book makes a predominantly historical argument, although he is forthright about his theological and polemical concerns, and particularly towards the end of the book he shifts to the work of straight-up theology. The first few chapters are an excellent introduction to the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day, as well as to the basic narrative of Constantine’s life and the controversies surrounding it. Leithart offers a persuasive case that Constantine was a genuine Christian believer who sought to place his life and rule at the service of Christ and his church, not a cynical politician who simply used Christianity and manipulated the church for his own imperial purposes.

One important contribution of Leithart is to put the reign of Constantine back into perspective. Whatever one might think of the “Constantinian turn” Constantine should be credited for liberating the church from persecution and making its existence legal. He should be praised for eliminating the gladiatorial games and outlawing violent sacrifice. He should be recognized as the one who began the process of conforming Roman law to a higher standard of justice (what Leithart calls “the evangelization of law”) even if his own record on that account was somewhat mixed.

To be sure, Leithart does not hesitate to criticize Constantine from time to time. Constantine did little to challenge the oppressive social dynamic of his day in which the lower classes were easily manipulated and mistreated by the upper classes. He used military force in an unsuccessful attempt to end the Donatist controversy, confiscating the Donatists’ property, closing their churches, imprisoning bishops, and even allowing some to be tortured and executed. And as interpreted by church historians like Constantine’s contemporary Eusebius, his Christianization of the empire led many to link their hopes for the church and for Christ’s kingdom too closely with Rome.

But Leithart insists that in the case of Constantine the good contributions outweigh the bad. While there may have been a Constantinian “moment” of excess and eschatological utopia, the moment did not last long and was certainly repudiated by Augustine in his City of God (despite Yoder’s conflation of Augustine with Eusebius). The only reason Constantine’s reign seems like such a fall to Yoder, Leithart suggests, is that Yoder exaggerates the pacifism and anti-statism of the church leading up to Constantine, and he caricatures the Christendom that followed him.

On the point of pacifism Leithart rejects the claim that the early church was ever universally pacifist. He suggests that not only were concerns of theologians like Origen and Tertullian about military service closely tied with concerns about pagan Roman religion, but that these sources themselves suggest awareness of a “divergence in Christian opinion and practice” (263). Leithart’s case is somewhat more persuasive and based on the evidence than was suggested in George Kalantzis’s recent lecture at the Candler School of Theology. And he helpfully demonstrates how even those early Christian theologians who are claimed to have been pacifist differ in their emphasis from contemporary neo-Anabaptist pacifists. For instance, the early church fathers spoke highly of Rome and prayed for the success of the Roman legions in war.  What’s more, unlike contemporary neo-Anabaptists “No church father, at least, ever made the distinction between police work and warfare as a way of justifying Christian military service” (266). And tellingly, “there was, quite strikingly, no controversy over war and pacifism at the time of Constantine’s conversion” (272).

What about Constantine’s legacy? Not only did Constantine not conflate the church with the empire, but if anything he weakened the empire by uniting Christians, including those outside the empire, in subservience to an allegiance higher than that of Rome. Constantine’s patronage of the church in the form of wealth and the empowerment of bishops’ courts drastically increased the church’s independence and prestige at the expense of Rome.

In short, the conversion of the empire did not bond empire and church inseparably together. It had, as we would expect and Yoder would want, the opposite effect. It loosened the bonds that many Romans felt to the empire, even as it strengthened their bonds to another city, another kingdom, one that spilled far over the limits of the empire. Baptized Rome found that it could join with baptized barbaria, wince Jesus had broken down the dividing wall. (292)

In all of these areas Leithart’s book is a worthwhile contribution, and it should encourage Protestant theologians to take the legacy of Christendom and the middle ages more seriously. Leithart helpfully asks the question, What should the church do if an emperor or empire actually embraces its message about Jesus Christ and seeks to serve and “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2)?

That said, I do not find Leithart’s own answer to this question, (too) briefly outlined in the last chapter of the book, entirely satisfactory. His defense of the occasional use of force by Christians ignores Romans 13 and appears to be more of an apology for the right of self-defense than of anything like that offered by a theologian like Augustine or John Calvin. He describes the government’s use of the sword as a matter of loving discipline rather than in Paul’s terms of the exercise of vengeance and of God’s wrath. And he explains Jesus’ command to ‘Turn the other cheek’ with an exegetical interpretation that is obscure and is rejected by most New Testament scholars.

Leithart is right to say that in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount magistrates should “not do alms or pray or fast or do any other good things to be seen by others, especially by others with cameras – a rule that would revolutionize modern politics” (338). He is right to note that the church should inform a ruler that he or she will be judged based on “what she had done for the homeless, the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry” (339). But on what basis does Leithart suggest the church should urge a person with the vocation of civil magistrate “not to lose sleep over budget shortfalls or stock market declines, and exhort them instead to store up treasure in heaven by acts of mercy and justice”? (339)

Most troubling of all, in my view, is Leithart’s criticism (or dismissal) of the modern democratic state. He claims that the state “will not kiss the Son as the King of a different city” and that “Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church.” He even goes so far as to argue that “because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state” (340). The modern state, like Rome, needs to be willing to be baptized and so listen to the teaching of Jesus rather than to devote itself to violence in subservience to its highest god – the nation itself. Such a baptism would initiate “a new beginning” (the beginning of what?) and avoid what is otherwise inevitable – an apocalypse (doesn’t John teach us that the apocalypse is certain?) (341-342).

I beg to differ. Part of Leithart’s problem here, it seems to me, is his conflation of rulers and magistrates, who can indeed kiss the Son (as, for instance, virtually every American president has claimed to do), with the impersonal, bureaucratic, pluralistic state, which cannot. Yet underlying even this claim is the question of how a magistrate is to kiss the Son in the first place. Is it really by giving the church material wealth so that the church can use government dollars to build churches and care for the poor, as Leithart seems to suggest?

Leithart’s claim that modern democracies marginalize the church also baffles me. Churches are not required to pay taxes in this country, are not forced to conform to national and state policies against discrimination, and are given numerous freedoms and exceptions not awarded to other organizations. Many, if not most, American politicians, probably regularly attend church or study religious teaching in order to learn from that “model city, as teacher and judge.”

Finally, I find bizarre Leithart’s claim that the modern nation has reasserted its status as the restored sacrificial state, the state devoted to violence and bloodshed in rejection of the teachings of our Lord. The democratic states of modern Europe have been disarming at an alarming pace, and the United States requires its armed forces to operate according to standards of just war more strict than possibly any army in the history of the world. America does not act as if it considers itself to be god, but “under God” is committed to a doctrine of rights and freedoms grounded in the existence of a Creator. Even if there are traces of an ideology of sacrifice in American rhetoric, Leithart’s claim is at best a massive exaggeration.

But of course, the emphasis of Leithart’s book is not on his own constructive political theology. And I highly commend Defending Constantine for its careful historical analysis, and for its asking some excellent questions. Although it seeks to defend a man who ruled 1,700 years ago this book helps move the conversation forward, not backward.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 27, 2012, in Just War, Neo-Anabaptism, pacifism, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is Peter Leithart right to defend Constantine?.

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