Review: Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP, 2010).

★★★★☆

Peter Leithart can usually be relied upon to produce books that are well-written, clearly articulated, and provocative. And, this one is no exception. In Defending Constantine Leithart argues that Constantine has been misconstrued, misunderstood, and abused for far too long. Instead of being the political manipulator who co-opted the Church, infecting her with visions of political power and influence, and distracting her from her true, Gospel-focused mission in the world, we should see Constantine as a sincere believer seeking to support the Church and its mission, while at the same time trying to figure out for the first time what it means to be a Christian emperor. He certainly experienced difficulties along the way, but a sympathetic and historically-grounded look at his life offers a far more positive picture than is usually given.

Summary

In the opening chapters (1-3), Leithart lays out the historical background necessary for understanding Constantine. He explains the challenges that the Roman empire faced in the third century Diocletian‘s attempted political, theological, and economic reforms. And, he also summarizes Constantine’s early life and the details surrounding Constantine’s rise to power.

Leithart discusses Constantine’s conversion and his political theology (chapters 4-6). Unsurprisingly, Leithart spends considerable time on Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge and the details of his conversion, arguing that both were real and sincere (i.e. they were not just part of some political ploy). And, in what I found to be on of the more interesting portion of the book, associates Constantine’s political theology with Lactantius – an early theologian who provided theological arguments for religious freedom. So, Leithart summarizes Constantine’s position as one of general religious freedom, but in which he provides clear support for the Christian Church. Thus, Leithart argues that Constantine allows significant religious freedom to Roman pagans, but provided clear support for the Christian Church and its theology through his re-construction of public space and his legislative/administrative initiatives.

In the third main section of the book (chapters 7-8), Leithart addresses the nature of the Church/state relationship. Leithart first argues that Constantine was not ignorant of theological matters. Instead, he was well-educated in general and reasonably well-versed theologically. But, looking at both the Donatist controversy and the Council of Nicea, Leithart contends that although Constantine exercised significant influence on the Church, he did not dominate or determine Church policy or theology. Leithart rightly points out that many of Constantine’s critics seem to expect him to operate as a 20th century Western intellectual. But, “The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century?” (152). And, Leithart argues that everyone in the fourth century believed in the intimate interrelation of church and state:

That the emperor had oversight (‘episcopacy’) of religious life was as natural to fourth-century Romans as the First Amendment separation of church and state is to modern Americans. (182)

So, it’s not legitimate to criticize Constantine for being involved in theological concerns, that was inevitable. What needs to be considered is the precise manner in which he involved himself. And, Leithart argues that although Constantine certainly exercised his force of personality and political skill, he did not force his will on the Church. Instead, as he summarizes later in the book:

Constantine had considerable influence on the church but did not dominate it, dictate the election of bishops or make final decisions about doctrine. Councils met without his approval, and bishops were elected locally. He did not have ‘absolute authority’ over the church, and there is no evidence that he wanted to get it. (305)

I found the fourth main section (chapters 9-11) to be the least compelling. Here Leithart deals with the “baptism” or Christianization of the Roman empire through Constantine’s legislation, exercise of justice, and imperial leadership.

In the final main section (chapters 12-14), Leithart focuses directly on the anti-Constantinianism of John Howard Yoder, who has been the target of criticism throughout. Against Yoder, Leithart argues: (1) the Constantinian church never collapsed church and state or subsumed the church’s identity/mission under that of the state; (2) there was no shift from anti- to pro-imperialism; and (3) there was no shift from pacifism to militarism. Here I think Leithart convincingly demonstrates that the early church was neither purely pacifistic (e.g., it did not reject military service or coercive violence) nor purely anti-imperial (e.g. they expressed strong appreciation for the “goods” of the Roman empire). And, as Leithart argues, even the anti-imperialism that was there needs to be understood as criticism of a pagan empire, opinions that may have been phrased very differently if a Christian ruler were in view. In addition, he argues that Yoder’s argument exhibits significant historiographical weaknesses: outdated data, failure to recognize the historical biases of his sources, failure to understand Constantine in his own context, and a tendency to force the data into the metanarrative that he’s constructed.

Strengths

There’s a lot to appreciate about Leithart’s book. He certainly should be commended for the historical sensitivity that his displays for this time period. Leithart is keen to make sure that we see all of the key players as real individuals, steeped in their cultural and historical contexts, and consequently limited by those contexts.

I really enjoyed Leithart’s discussion of the political theology of the church before Constantine. I don’t think that his arguments will convince anyone pre-disposed toward understanding the early church to be pacifist and anti-imperialist. Nonetheless, this part of the book was interesting and Leithart presents a number of arguments that are worth considering.

Leithart, of course, does a great job providing a sympathetic reading of Constantine. While it’s certainly possible that he has been overly sympathetic at times, this book personifies the idea that we should really try to get inside another person’s skin before we criticize them. And, I particularly like the emphasis placed on understanding Constantine’s theology – something noticeably lacking in many other works.

Finally, I liked that he treated the early church leaders as people who could hold their own in political and theological contexts, not as pushovers easily manipulated by a new ruler.

Weaknesses

First, although the book is well written overall, certain sections did get a bit tedious at times. The discussion of Yoder was fascinating, but it seemed to go on a bit too long and could have been condensed considerably. At times if felt like the title of the book really could have been Attacking Yoder, rather than Defending Constantine. I realize that Leithart felt that the former was necessary for the latter, but it still got tedious. And, this was true with a few other sections as well (e.g. discussing Constantine’s legislative practices).

Second, as much as I appreciated his sympathetic treatment of Constantine, it did seem that he swung the pendulum a bit too hard in the other direction. Like any other human, Constantine had short-comings. And, I would have liked to see those addressed a little more clearly as part of a fair and historically balanced account. Leithart did mention several of Constantine’s weaknesses, but they tended to get swallowed up in the defense.

And third, the same can be said for the consequences of Constantine’s actions. Although Leithart did a great job explaining those actions in context, helping us understand the meaning and purpose of those actions, I would have liked to see a little more on the (mostly unintended) consequences that did impact the church negatively in some ways. Again, since Leithart’s purpose was to defend Constantine, it’s no surprise that these elements are downplayed. But, we need to recognize both the positive and the negative if we’re going to assess what happened.

Conclusion

Overall, Defending Constantine is an outstanding book that is well worth reading. Even if you disagree with Leithart’s conclusions, he will offer a new perspective on the early church and what exactly happened when Constantine became a Christian. I think anyone reading this book will walk away with at least a more nuanced understanding of the man and his era.

And, this book also serves as an extended critique of Yoder’s “fall” narrative, which has been so influential in recent years. Indeed, I think Leithart is successful in demonstrating that Yoder is more concerned with critiquing an abstract idea (“Constantinianism”) rather that the historical individual, and that Yoder does not succeed in demonstrating that the latter is responsible for the former. At best, he argues that there was a brief “Constantinian moment” as the church figured out how to interact with a Christian ruler.

To get a more balanced perspective, though, the book should probably be paired with one offering a different take on Constantine’s life and significance – e.g., Paul Stephenson’s Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christus Victor (Overlook, 2010).

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 28, 2010, in Church History, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Thanks, Marc. Helpful summary. In one of his other books, Against Christianity, Leithart devotes some pages to critiquing Hauerwas on issues of “Constantinianism,” anti-imperialism, cultural retreat and the like. This sounds like a more fleshed out and thorough address.

    It is interesting how much traction Yoder’s “fall narrative” has gotten (a narrative I am sympathetic towards, though not convinced by). And the traction/promotion has come primarily from people who themselves are not Anabaptist. Did Leithart connect this “fall” narrative with the rest of Yoder’s theology, e.g. view of ecclesiology, ordinances (aka sacraments), etc.?

    • I just realized that I never responded to your question. No, to the best of my recollection, Leithart does not deal directly with the way that this “fall” narrative plays out in the rest of Yoder’s theology. He really focused on the historical adequacy of Yoder’s narrative rather than its theological coherence within Yoder’s overall theology.

  2. I guess you don’t have many Yoderian readers, Marc.

    Nice review.

  3. Oh come now, not a sad face. I’m much harder to offend than that. You’d at least have to accuse me of liking cats or something to really get me upset.

  4. Dogs are great. Especially when they eat cats.

  5. Mr. Cortez,
    Excellent review… really, very good. Too often reviews turn from actual reviews into rants. Yours was very informative and helpful. Thanks!
    -Tim

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