*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 "Another layer of the onion: “Imperial accommodation”–all bad?"]