“The polemical nonsense about Constantine”: A follow-up on Peter Leithart’s new book Defending Constantine


Head of the colossal statue of Constantine I, ...

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After my sympathetic post today about Peter Leithart‘s new book, Defending Constantine, my Anabaptist friend Mark Van Steenwyk responded as follows:

*in steps Mark, who has been lurking in the shadows*

Could you give an example of some commonly asserted “polemical nonsense being spouted these days about Constantine?” I get that there is more to the story than Constantine, and that he isn’t the lone Villain responsible for developing a sort of pro-War, nationalist Christianity. But doesn’t he play his part? Is Yoder being unfair?

*returning the shadows*

This is my response to Mark:

Here’s the deal, Mark (and thanks for sparing my liver . . . for now):

I have seen nothing in the primary documents that supports the portrayal of Constantine (and I’ll quote Leithart throughout this response) as “a hardened power-politician who never really became Christian, a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the church for his own political ends.”

As for the dreaded “Constantinianism,” I don’t buy that it existed, at least in the form I understand has been described by Yoder. Leithart acknowledges that Yoder “provided the most sophisticated and systematic treatment” of this concept (that after Constantine came “a heretical mindset and set of habits that have distorted Christian faith since (at least) the fourth century”). But there was, I join Leithart in believing, no fourth-century “fall” of the church attributable to Constantine.

As Leithart puts it, “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 should influence civil law, about the propriety of violent coercion, about the legitimacy of empire.”

Of course, I know where you stand on these things, and why the model of “Constantinianization” appeals to you. The question is not whether the model is appealing or communicates partial truths. The question is whether it stands up to scrutiny: can we verify historically that such a “fall” in fact took place? Leithart’s answer, and my strong suspicion, is that it we cannot, and that we only believe this scenario because it serves certain of our (political) agendas–in a way not dissimilar to Wilson-Hartgrove’s (and other new monastics’) portrayal of “old monasticism”–as you and I discussed when I posted recently on that portrayal.

Says Leithart, “Yoder gets the fourth century wrong in many particulars, and this distorts his entire reading of church history, which is a hinge of his theological project.” I haven’t seen Leithart’s evidence for this yet, but I have to say that it rings true to me.

We have today gotten beyond polemical (and wildly incorrect) Roman Catholic and magisterial Protestant renderings of church history–especially on the history of the Reformation, but also on the early church. Why are we still crediting polemical (and incorrect) Anabaptist renderings of church history?

The historiographical horse is a delicate animal: she cannot flourish when harnessed to the polemical war machine. It throws her all out of stride and wounds her true beauties.

Finally, a few words from one of the book’s back-cover blurbs:  “Too many people, for far too long, have been able to murmur the awful word CONSTANTINE, knowing that the shudder it produces will absolve them from the need to think through how the church and the powers of the world actually relate, let alone construct a coherent historical or theological argument on the subject. Peter Leithart challenges all this, and forces us to face the question of what Constantine’s settlement actually was, and meant.”  N. T. Wright

[The conversation continues with ““]

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8 responses to ““The polemical nonsense about Constantine”: A follow-up on Peter Leithart’s new book Defending Constantine

  1. B.C. (Before Constantine) the people called “Christians” never became soldiers. After Constantine, you couldn’t be in the Roman army UNLESS you were a Christian.

    The way I see it, that’s a definite step downward.

  2. While I agree that Constantine is not the whole story of the development of Christendom. In my understanding, he is but one step – a formative one – in a longer slide toward Christendom (which is not the same as saying “perfect before/all bad after.” I think we need to at least characterize this shift as my friend Alan Kreider does from the imperial accommodation of Christianity (Constantine) to imperial adoption of Christianity (Theodosius). There is a difference between declaring religious tolerance of Christianity and making it the Imperial religion.

    • David, there certainly is a difference. One part of that difference was the temptation, not always resisted, to use the arm of the state to persecute adherents of pagan religions–not a happy chapter in our history. By the way, I have been interested and inspired by Alan’s work on the “lifestyle evangelism” mode of the early Christians–certainly something that resonates with the best of Anabaptism. I’d be happier if scholars such as Alan didn’t feel quite so free to dismiss the important work of the definition of orthodox belief, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from them.

    • A second thought: are we really so in love with the idea of Christianity as a martyr faith that we would have preferred that that “imperial accommodation” never have taken place? That, in other words, Christians were still being killed for their faith in every world culture (as certainly continues to happen in some)? Quite apart from the ability of an un-persecuted faith to propagate itself worldwide in so many ways, I just can’t see that the tremendous advances in the sciences, arts, health & healing (the development of the hospital), and so much else that we take for granted today would have emerged from a marginalized, persecuted church.

      But I am a “Christ above culture” guy, not a “Christ against culture” guy, on H. R. Niebuhr’s Christ-and-culture map (which I buy despite the critique of Hauerwas & Willimon). I would fall into the camp of Robert Louis Wilken, who talks about, for example, the “Christianization of Hellenism” rather than the “Hellenization of Christianity.” Or the camp of Lamin Sanneh, who points out that Christianity always, when it first enters a culture, both revises and relativizes various aspects of that culture–as a part of the incarnational principle of “translatability.” I’m not ready to give up on the common grace, the general revelation, the widespread action of the Logos even in arenas and cultures that do not acknowledge Christ, and so forth.

      So to me, the “imperial accommodation” has turned out on balance to be a positive thing. What Theodosius did is a separate issue–though of course it wouldn’t have happened without Constantine. Neither, however, would the freedom of religion in the modern American Empire–including the ability of Anabaptists to live out their non-violent convictions through the options of conscientious objection, etc.

  3. Thank you for an interesting overview of a book I will need to read. However, my own view of Constantine as the symbol (if not the source) of the reversal of the anti-imperial Gospel comes not from Yoder but from such esteemed historians as Hal Drake, in his “Constantine and the Bishops.” How does Leithart deal with Drake, Stevenson and others who have shown Constantine’s imperial and anti-gospel tendencies?

  4. Pingback: Debating Constantinianism « The Revealer

  5. I tend to have a more nuanced read of Constantine…I look at him as a symbolic scapegoat of a larger process that started before him and continues after him…that became particularly nasty during the times when the Papacy rose to its political peak. I understand the desire to look back to a golden age when everything was perfect. It isn’t there, however. There are some convictions that seem to be there early on that get lost along the way (pacifism is one example), so I understand the appeal of the Church Fathers, but it would be a mistake to say “good until Constantine ruined it…and then it stayed ruined until the Reformation.”

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