New books: We’ve gotten both the Emperor Constantine and the whole Reformation wrong


Two books have just arrived (it’s good to be a blogger and get free books; now if only I had time to read and review them all), and I look forward to dipping into them.

First, Peter Leithart of New St. Andrew’s College in Idaho has written a defense of Constantine–the “first Christian emperor,” whose name has become, especially thanks to the work of Yoder and Hauerwas, a curse-word on the lips of many Western Protestants. The book is titled Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, and it has surprisingly shot up to a sales ranking of better than 5,000 on Amazon.com (pretty stunning for a history book), and the #11 position on the Amazon.com church history bestsellers list.

From the bit of it that I’ve read already, it seems level-headed and historically careful, effectively refuting much of the polemical nonsense being spouted these days about Constantine and so-called “Constantinianization.” (I expect at any minute that my friend and colleague, radical Mennonite sparkplug Mark Van Steenwyk, will crawl down my throat and yank out my liver.)

[For Mark’s response to this post and my response to his, see

The second book, which I skimmed in pre-publication proofs, is a similar exercise in debunking, or at least gentle correction. The target of this one is all the silly things we believe about the Reformation that have no shred of basis in the facts of history. This one is Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, by James R. Payton, Jr. It’s doing respectably well, though not hitting the stellar popularity ratings of the Leithart book. It’s been a while since I looked at it, but my memory is that it does an admirable job of achieving what it sets out to do. Again, I look forward to digging into it more in the coming months. As the product information on the book’s Amazon page says, Payton’s book

  • places the Reformation in the context of medieval and Renaissance reform efforts
  • analyzes conflicts among the Reformers
  • corrects common misunderstandings of what the Reformers meant by sola fide and sola Scriptura
  • examines how the Anabaptist movement fits in with the magisterial Reformation
  • critiques the post-Reformational move to Protestant Scholasticism
  • explores how the fresh perspective on the Reformation could make a difference in today’s churches

The whole free-church misunderstanding of what the Reformers meant by Sola Scriptura (NOT “Scripture alone!”) really chaps my . . . um . . . buttocks, as I’ve said in posts such as “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word part V (conclusion): Learning to love tradition” and “‘The Bible alone’? Not for John Calvin!” So it’s nice to see a Reformation scholar putting the thing clearly.

3 responses to “New books: We’ve gotten both the Emperor Constantine and the whole Reformation wrong

  1. Interestingly, Stan Hauerwas wrote a review of the Constantine book and says that the author DOES point out some weak spots in Yoder’s account of “the fall of the church”. I would give a link but I’m on my phone.

  2. *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*

    • Mark, see my follow-up post addressing your question, just posted: “‘The polemical nonsense about Constantine’: A follow-up on Peter Leithart’s new book Defending Constantine.”

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