Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010, 373pp., softcover, $27.00.
(note: this review was first published in the Fall of 2011 in the Criswell Theological Review).
Defending Constantine is a recent work by Peter Leithart, a senior fellow in theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. Leithart has authored more than twenty works in the areas of history, theology, literature, and biblical studies and some of his more well-known books include Deep Exegesis (Baylor, 2009) and a commentary on 1 and 2 Kings (Brazos, 2006). Since writing Defending Constantine, Leithart has released another work entitled Athanasius (Baker, 2011). Indeed, given that Leithart is a professor and pastor—not to mention a husband and father to ten children—his scholarly output over the last fifteen years is quite impressive.
Leithart’s stated aim in this work is to bring another perspective to bear on Constantine and Constantianism and answer the criticisms of some twentieth-century historians and theologians about the fourth-century emperor (pp. 9-12). Though he names James Carroll and Stanley Hauerwas, Leithart’s key opponent in this work is the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder whose position of Christian pacificism was largely articulated in the 1972 work The Politics of Jesus. Hence, Leithart seeks to challenge Yoder’s ethical theory—that Constantine’s conversion and inauguration of Christendom set into motion a state + church paradigm that was counter to the values of the earliest followers of Christ. Leithart argues his case by examining the historical foundations and accuracy of Yoder’s claims.
Leithart begins the book (chapters 1-3) by offering a helpful backdrop that includes the reign of Diocletian, the establishment of the Roman tetrarchy, and the ensuing struggle for power— the context in which Constantine rose to power. In chapter 4, Leithart recounts Constantine’s alleged conversion (one that the author argues was authentic) that occurred following his vision of a sign in the sky on the eve of the battle at Milvian Bridge in 312. In chapters 5-6, Leithart discusses how Constantine gave peace to the church, began to “baptize public spaces” through building churches, and how he brought an end to pagan sacrifice in Rome while apparently remaining tolerant of other non-Christian religious practices. The author continues the narrative in chapters 7-8 by showing how the emperor became involved in church matters, particularly the Dontatist and Arian controversies, and of course convened the Council of Nicaea of 325. In chapters 9-11, Leithart endeavors to show how Constantine enacted biblically founded laws that protected the church and brought about social transformation. In chapter 12, Leithart takes Yoder to task on his assertion that the pre-Constantinian church was pacifistic in nature; while in chapter 13, the author discusses the notion of a Christian empire. In chapter 14, Leithart concludes the work by writing a summary, analytical chapter that reiterates his argument for a fresh reading of Constantine against the conclusions of Yoder and others.
What are the strengths of Defending Constantine? First, Leithart has demonstrated in part why he is a prolific writer because this is a very engaging and well-written work. It is stimulating, challenging, and well-researched but does not read like a dull academic monograph. Second, he has offered the reader much colorful insight into the ancient Roman world by demonstrating a clear handle on Roman history (pp. 190-97) and through showing the pagan spiritual worldview of Diocletian and other emperors (pp. 15-51; 233-36). Third, his insights on the art and architecture commissioned by Constantine also offers greater understanding of this period (pp. 112-25). Finally, in chapter 12, he has successfully appealed to primary sources and cast reasonable doubt on Yoder’s often unchallenged argument that the pre-Constantinian church was thoroughly pacifistic. This discussion has stimulated new reflection on the diverse thought about the church and state that existed in the pre-Constantine period.
While I have quite a number of quibbles with this book, I will limit my critique to three areas. First, regarding the question of Constantine’s conversion, Leithart maintains without the best support that the emperor experienced a genuine conversion. Though he does refer to Constantine as “an infant in faith” (p. 96), he cautions the reader against requiring a modern conversion experience for the emperor (p. 79). In my view, we should impose a biblical conversion framework on him in which Constantine responds to Christ in faith and repentance and where every aspect of his life is yielded to Christ for transformation. This would include his clear syncretism (continuing pagan practices and erecting pagan statues) that Leithart has dismissed as “ambiguity” (p. 76) as well as his violent ways. The latter was most clearly evident in his ruthless dealings with his wife, son, and political enemies. Again, “despite the damning evidence” (pp. 227-30), Leithart urges caution when evaluating Constantine’s violent acts that are incompatible with the gospel. Finally, it is truly impossible to draw a conclusion from the sources (Eusebius, Lactantius, or Zosimus) as to whether Constantine was truly converted or not because these sources—regardless of bias—cannot confirm what was in his heart. In sum, Leithart seems to overstate the case that Constantine was a true believer.
Second, Leithart argues that one proof of Constantine’s faith and Christianizing influence on Rome was that he baptized public spaces through building churches and curbing the influence of pagan temples (pp. 303; 326-33). As noted, he did not fully baptize the public sphere because some pagan statues were erected there. Yet, even if he did furnish the forum with just churches, I would argue that the Kingdom of God is not about real estate and buildings but about the hearts of people being converted to Christ and continually transformed to his likeness. Today, many such monuments to Christendom attract more tourists than worshippers while Christian communities are meeting in homes, warehouses, and movie theatres.
Third, while Leithart has made helpful arguments against Yoder and others to vindicate Constantine at least to some extent, the fact remains that once the emperor preferred Christianity, a paradigm was set into motion that united church and state for many centuries and ultimately invited political and church leaders to continually wrestle for power and control over the other. Leithart is correct in noting that “with power, money and prestige came the temptation to accommodate, a problem that nearly every church father after Constantine addressed repeatedly and explicitly” (p. 305). With the establishment of Christendom, Christian expansion flowed from a place of power and wealth and it became difficult (especially for those receiving missions) to distinguish between gospel mission and imperial expansion. This was a reality for Roman Catholic missions in the age of discovery and expansion from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, and for Protestant missions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Modern missiologists such as Orlando Costas and David Bosch have reminded us that authentic Christian mission that reflects the Kingdom of God flows from a place of humility and even vulnerability. After all, the Jesus movement got started when a Nazarene carpenter made disciples of fishermen on the north shore of Galilee and after three years released them to make disciples of all nations.
In summary, I enjoyed Leithart retelling the story of Rome and the life and career of the Emperor Constantine. Though he has challenged through historical reflection the theories of some theologians and ethicists, some of his conclusions appear to be overstated. As the seventeen hundredth anniversary of the so-called Edict of Milan is upon in a few short months, professors and students of Constantine, Christian history, and Christian mission will surely find Leithart’s work very stimulating.