Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, By Peter Leithart. IVP Academic, 2010. Pp. 373. $27.00 paper.
Peter Leithart is that rare and wonderful kind of theologian so engaged with the theological tradition of the church catholic that he lives and breathes it—and trusts it matters—yet is intellectually curious and skeptical enough not to accept inaccurate and prejudiced historical caricatures at face value. He believes that the “historical stories we tell contribute a great deal to our theology and practice as Christians, so a distorted view of Constantine and the civilization that followed him is bound to produce distortions elsewhere” (Author Q&A).
Leithart believes many if not most theologians in the present era do indeed have a distorted view of Constantine, and although this applies to much of the constructive and historical work done in the field (and so also preached from our pulpits) it is especially instantiated in the work of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. Given the growing and substantial influence of these two theologians, and especially given their constant references to Constantinianism as the bogey man, clear thinking about Constantine and his influence is essential.
For the sake of full disclosure, readers of reviews in Word & World may know that I have written positive reviews of two very Yoderian and Hauerwasian books by Craig Carter in these pages. Both books Leithart takes issue with because they develop their arguments based on the historical inaccuracies that undergird the theology of Yoder and his epigones. Unlike Leithart, I have simply taken the received wisdom concerning Constantine’s (supposedly negative) influence on Christendom at face value. I am chastened and challenged by the scholarship of Leithart.
Here are some of the questions Leithart raises: What if a majority of the received wisdom concerning Constantine and his legacy is wrong? What if the concept—Constantinianism—is premised on inaccurate interpretations of the historical record? And the most troubling question of all—what if some of the most enduring and influential constructive theologies of the last century, including such luminaries as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, have been constructed on this damnably false edifice? What if, in the end, all of these problems come down to a misunderstanding of baptism?
It is not surprising that Leithart, a strong proponent of infant baptism, would take issue with Yoder, a Mennonite, on the topic of baptism. What is surprising is that the paedobaptist/Anabaptist debate pertains to discussions concerning Constantine. And yet it does. “In the end it all comes round to baptism, specifically to infant baptism… Christian Rome was in its infancy, but that was hardly surprising. All baptisms are infant baptisms… Yoder failed… 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] pray, ‘Forgive us our sins.’’ He failed to acknowledge that all—Constantine, Rome, and ourselves—stand in medial time, and yet are no less Christian for that” (341-342).
Leithart considers Constantine a Christian—fallen, immature in faith in his early years, paradoxical—but a Christian nonetheless. Out of that operative assumption, he finds Constantine and his reign generative for a whole theology as a social science (11). “I have found that, far from representing a fall for the church, Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice. At the very least, his reign provides rich material for reflection on a whole series of perennial political-theological questions: about religious toleration and coercion, about the legitimacy of Christian involvement in political life, about a Christian ruler’s relationship to the church, about how Christianity influence civil law, about the propriety of violent coercion, about the legitimacy of empire” (11).
This book is full of surprises. For example, I had not expected to have my thinking about the relationship between the theology of baptism and political theology reinvigorated. But even more stunning, whereas most Christian theology considers the end of sacrifice accomplished by Christ and effected through the practices of early synagogues in Babylonian captivity in absence of a temple, Leithart draws attention to Constantine as perhaps the greatest figure (after Christ) who brought about the end of sacrifice.
First, Leithart notes that “Romans sacrifice Christians to protect Rome by fending off the unthinkable prospect of the end of sacrifice” (27). Leithart understands the phenomenon of martyrdom under Roman rule to be the logical corollary of Rome’s sacrificial practices, as well as its defense mechanism for the same. “Constantine’s victory marked the end of the entire system of the Tetarchy and the beginning of a new political theology. The change showed itself almost immediately. The rules of the triumph required Constantine to enter the Capitolium and offer sacrifice to Jupiter; Constantine refused. Diocletian’s empire was built on sacrifice, his persecutions inspired by a failed sacrifice. As soon as he defeated Maxentius, Constantine made it clear that a new political theology was coming to be, a political theology without sacrifice. It was a signal of the ‘opposition to sacrifice’ that he would hold to ‘consistently for the rest of his life’” (66-67). Furthermore, his future legislation created an atmosphere where sacrifice, as it were, faded away (129). As they say, “I did not know that!” We learn from Leithart that the U.S. Senate does not begin its sessions by slaughtering a goat, perhaps primarily because Constantine brought an end to such practices. So thank you, Constantine.
John Howard Yoder is widely recognized as one of the greatest apologists for radical Christian pacifism. Leithart’s most significant theological contribution in this book is to vitiate Yoder’s historical claims and the force of those claims for his apology. “Yoder claims that the church slid or fell into Constantinianism from an earlier renunciation of violence and war. In fact, things are more messy and complicated, and therefore Yoder is wrong… in short, the story of the church and war is ambiguity before Constantine, ambiguity after, ambiguity right to the present. Constantine is in this respect a far lesser figure than Yoder wants to make him” (278).
Leithart achieves the goal he sets for himself of writing a book of Christian political thought that attends to the “gritty realities of history” (29). Really, this book should be required reading for anyone who has read anything by John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas, anyone who has tossed the concept of Constantiniasm into the fray in a theological conversation, or anyone who would like to think clearly about what a robust and baptized political theology might look like in a new era of empire.
It also helps that Leithart is polemical, authentic, and at times witty. Consider this sentence, “Yoder’s Augustine is so far from the real Augustine that it is difficult to find a response beyond pointing to a copy of City of God with the exhortation Tolle lege” (287). Or this one, tossed into the middle of the book. “Constantine was not just a Christian; he was a missional Christian!” (88) I imagine Leithart may be able to claim to be the first person to write a book on missional Constantinianism. Maybe they should have thrown “missional” into the sub-title to sell more copy!
The Reverend Clint Schnekloth
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
This book review is forthcoming in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry