Friday, January 28, 2011

Review of Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart

What do all of these have in common? 

The churches fixation on having political power.  Flashy programs and buildings with little dedication to Christ.  Church members and Christ “followers” that have little real commitment and look very little like Jesus.  Christians involved in war.  Lust for power and fear of suffering. 

Answer?  Constantine.  Everything changed after Constantine.  The church went from a smaller band of dedicated followers to a wide number of nominal believers.  When persecution stopped the health of the church waned.  Not only that but Constantine interfered with many important church decisions.  It is quite possible that the Council of Nicea would have never met and would have never voted on making Christ divine had Constantine not pulled a power play. 

In the minds of many, the greatest villain of church history is not a Nero, Domitian, Mao, or Hitler.  The greatest villain of the church is Constantine.  Peter Leithart has written Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom in the hopes of balancing that perspective.

Some have even questioned whether Constantine was really converted.  Perhaps, it is thought, Constantine saw the church as an opportunity to unify and expand his empire.  That may very well be the case, but Leithart labors to defend the legitimacy of Constantine’s conversion. 

Leithart does this by placing us in Constantine’s 4th century setting.  Historically speaking the church “would not have provided enough glue to stick the empire together” (84).  But Constantine, in his own words, had come to meet the true God.  And because Constantine—true to his historical setting—believed that politics and theology were “inextricably mixed” (84) his conversion would reflect this.  This explains Constantine’s involvement in church divisions.  He knew that disunity displeased God.  Without such unity the true God would not be pleased with his empire and therefore it would not be secure.

It is this type of argumentation that permeates this book.  In many places Leithart is attempting to rescue Constanine (along with Eusebius and Augustine) from the treatment of John Howard Yoder.  In fact this book could easily be called Defending Constantine: Why Yoder’s Constantine Doesn’t Exist.  Leithart shows throughout that the Constantine of Yoder is not the Constantine of history.  Furthermore, the pristine early church that Yoder exalts is probably not legit either. 

This book “does history” well.  It is very intentional about reading Constantine and the early church in its context.  Leithart avoids many of the fallacies that Carl Trueman has written about in his work Histories and Fallacies.  All in all his treatment of Constantine is fair.  He does not treat him as a saint or a savior but as a man—an emperor—in the 4th century that came to Christ.  A good deal of the space in the book is given to analyzing what type of Christian emperor Constantine was. 

Leithart, at least in my opinion, does a great job of Defending Constantine.  He may not be right on everything but every serious student of the early church and Constantine will now have to deal with this piece. 

There are a few disclaimers, though.  This is not simply history.  Yoder (who Leithart is defending Constantine from) falls into letting his master narrative redefine history.  Leithart is not as bad about that but nonetheless he has a theology and master-narrative that dictates his writing.  That’s expected.  We all do.  I do not agree with Yoder on everything.  But I do not agree with Leithart either. 

One particular thing that was not treated in this book was the way that Constantine changed church buildings.  Certainly, there was a movement towards an established place of worship.  But Constantine—as near as I can tell—began the movement of making them highly decorated.  It does seem that in many instances Rome was unhealthily married to the church.  Leithart, does mention that the church is just as culpable as Rome (if not more).  But most historians are not looking to blame Constantine.  We are looking to call the church towards Scripture.

And it is here that I part ways with Leithart a few times.  His reading of Constantine‘s conversion seems to be more concerned with “what did conversion look like in the 4th Century” and less “what did it look like in Scripture”.  Granted, we have to have grace with where people are historically.  But it is the Scripture and not one’s cultural context that determines truth.  This is what happens a few times. 

It seems that Leithart is occasionally more concerned with history than he is with Scripture.  He does an apt job of restoring for us the Constantine of history.  But he could probably have went further in looking at Constantine according to the Scriptures. 

Nonetheless, this book is an interesting and informative read that should be considered by every historian.  If you do not have a decent background of Rome or early church history this book may read a little slow.  It is definitely worth going through—but I will warn you that it may be a little historically technical.  But if you do have some exposure to history then you need to consider this book. 

You can buy it for only only 16.93

I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for a review.

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