28 November 2010

Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine is a phenomenal new book by Peter Leithart that seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of the first Christian emperor of Rome. It seems that Constantine, by converting to the Christian faith, permanently securing Christians against persecution, financing new churches, appointing Christians to the highest levels of government, and allowing bishops to hear civil complaints, made himself one of the most debated characters in Church history. Starting with St. Francis of Assisi, who believed that it was wrong for Constantine to tempt the Church with worldly power, and continuing especially through the Reformers and into the modern era, Constantine has had a bad rap. The validity of his conversion has been questioned, and the results of his policies have been harshly criticized. In this book, partly biography and partly theology, Leithart specifically focuses on the challenge to “Constantinism” brought by John Howard Yoder and his current theological descendents.

This book is probably not for everyone. It is closely reasoned and heavily footnoted, and thus requires time to digest and work through. It is very well-written and engaging, and I appreciate the fact that Leithart avoids any sort of sweeping generalizations. History is complicated, and he is determined to bring as many of the particular facts as possible to the table for discussion. There are at least two distinct groups of Christians that I believe need to read this book.

First of all, most Protestants who are thoughtful about their faith and interested in Church history ought to read this book. Protestants by and large, whether descended from Luther and Calvin or from the Anabaptists, have a “fall” view of Church history. The idea is that the apostolic and early Church was a “pure” Church, and at some point, the Church fell away from faithfulness and from the gospel only to be restored when this or that man came along more than a millennium later to call everyone back to the mythical golden age of the Church. Many will trace this “fall” of the Church to around the time of Constantine, when the Church absorbed pagan culture and religion, and became corrupted as part of the Roman state. Leithart does a great job of exploding this myth in his discussion of the Church prior to, during the time of, and after Constantine.

Secondly, Christians who are involved in politics or would like to be involved in politics ought to read this book. Many Christians today have bought into the idea that the political realm is atheological and that Jesus has nothing to say to power. Christian must be willing to take their place at the table and argue for policies that uphold a neutral “public space,” which is devoid of any specific theological content. Furthermore, Christians who reject this myth of neutrality are often seen as dangerous theonomists who would bring about a reign of terror and intolerance if they ever gained political power. However, in Constantine, Dr. Leithart finds a third way. Constantine effectively through his policies ended sacrifice in Rome and Christianized the public square. Leithart uses the term “concord” for this policy. Concord though disapproving of idolatry forbears to sanction against other religions or practices. This is not the same as our postmodern idea that all ideas are equal. Rather the disapproval of a certain view is assumed, but for specific convictions about the nature of man (namely that religion must be freely chosen) and the limits of the power of the state this disapproval does not manifest itself in violence or legal sanctions. Finally, this policy “expects that by treating its dissenters with forbearance it is creating conditions under which they will ultimately change their behavior to conform to what the state accepts.”

From beginning to end Defending Constantine is packed with insights about the fourth century Church and empire. My favorite chapters however, come near the end, and discuss the relationship of the early Church to the military and empire. I encourage those who fall into the two categories above or those who are simply interested in the history of God’s people to read Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart.

2 comments:

Jnorm said...

I would like to thank you for posting this!

Rick said...

I'm glad it was helpful. Hope you enjoy the book.