Defending Constantine—- Final Thoughts

In this last post we need to do some house keeping and summing up.  You will have already deduced that I think Leithart’s book is first rate, though of course there is a good deal I don’t agree with him on, and especially that is true about his last ten pages or so, which I will address in a moment.      Since it’s too much like piling on,  I will allow you to read the many more pages of critique of Yoder which show up in the last 50 or so pages in the book itself.

First of all,  I think Leithart is right to stress that perhaps the most significant thing Constantine did besides stopping persecution and allowing Christianity to exist as a legal religion was his ending of sacrifice as a central religious ritual in the Empire.  When Leithart talks about Constantine baptizing Rome what he means is this: “when a people, nation, or empire receives the gospel of the victory of Jesus and is blown by the Spirit from the world of sacrifice, purity, temples and sacred space and is transferred into a new religio-socio-political world. It is a baptism out of the world of the stoicheia, which at least for Gentiles involved the worship of not-gods, into a world without sacrifice, a world after the end of sacrifice. ”  (pp. 326-27).   It would be a mistake to under-estimate the importance of this shift, since  sacrifice was right at the heart of Roman civilization and it was believed that sacrifice secured favor with the gods and survival of the empire.   Constantine did not create a secular state, he just created a different sort of religious one.    One could say Constantine stopped the sacrificing of animals,  of Christians, of gladiators in the arena and he refused to sacrifice when he had his Roman triumph entering Rome as a conquering hero.  All of this was a momentous religious shift, but it was not the one Yoder thought happened.  Leithart calls it the establishment of a desacrificial society.

The Achilles heel of Leithart’s analysis shows up at several places in the book, and nowhere more than at the end of the book when he attempts to do exegesis and hermeneutics with various Biblical texts.  I would encourage you to read pp. 333ff for yourself and see what you think.   Here are some of the problems: 1) his exegesis of the creation order mandate is atrocious.  Adam was not called upon the guard the garden!  2) the fact that God is called a warrior in the OT tells us absolutely nothing about whether and when God’s people should be.  It is irrelevant;  3) the enmity set between humans and ‘the serpent’  has nothing to do with an endorsement of war,  it has to do with a spiritual battle against evil and the Evil One more particularly, or, if you prefer literalism enmity between Eve’s offspring and those of snakes!!  Either way, the text has nothing to do with human wars.  And indeed killing is what happens as a result of the Fall, almost immediately once outside the garden.   Killing is not God’s creation order mandate for humans,  it is a reprehensible act for which God places a mark on Cain.  Adam’s fall was not a renunciation of war and so a capitulation to the enemy, as Leithart would have it (p. 334).  Adam’s fall was caused by failure to avoid eating from a tree God prohibited!!  4)  Gen. 3.15 is not in any way shape or form a messianic prophecy about a warrior messiah.  The ‘he’ in question is the descendants of Eve of course and in any case, even if it were a reference to Christ, Christ solved the Satan problem not by being a warrior messiah and thus by killing but by dying on a cross!!   Jesus was the antithesis of a warrior messiah when he came.  5)  it is not Marcionism to recognize that the OT tells the story of covenants that Christians are no longer under, and which the NT says quite clearly reflects God dealing with the hardness of human hearts problem,  God dealing with fallen humans where they are.  God’s perfect will is not revealed in the blood and guts narratives of the OT and they provide no basis for Christian praxis.  Christians are under the new covenant, not any of the old ones.   What is most stunning about Leithart’s analysis is his complete failure to have any kind of sense of progressive revelation in the Scriptures,  despite the fact that texts like Hebrews 1.1-4 tells us very clearly that the revelation in previous days was partial and piecemeal, but in Christ the will and character of God is fully revealed and evident.   6) Heb. 11.34 tells us certainly that OT kings conquered kingdoms and administered justice through faith clearly enough but the focus is on their faith,  and the reference is to OT rulers,  not to Christians.  There is nothing here that implies an endorsement of such activities by ordinary Christians.  At most you could argue such a text might be applicable to a Constantine perhaps. 7)  Doubtless the Jews didn’t stone Stephen for mentioning Moses’ murdering of Egyptians an action which not incidentally Moses knew was wrong and fled the country for.   But in any case Stephen’s critique is given to Jews who would evaluate it on the basis of the old covenant.  He is not exhorting Christians here!    8) the attempt to minimize Jesus’ call to non-violence in Mt. 5 is weak.  How exactly is killing a fulfillment of ‘love your enemies’  do them no harm, or turn the other cheek,  or overcome evil with good?   It isn’t.    I could carry on for a while,  but I will stop here.

It is the measure of an excellent book that it produces strong responses.  This is indeed an excellent book despite its near total failure to do exegesis and hermeneutics in a Christian way in the last 10 pages.   I would suggest it was perhaps the book of the year last year.   But it is not without its flaws,  which can also be said of Constantine.  There are plenty of things the man did wrong, and on occasion he abused his power.   It is not a surprise that he waited until the very end of life to be baptized.  He was, to use an OT phrase  ‘a man of bloods’.   But just as the Christian way to evaluate a person is to seek to evaluate them at their best first,   so also I will apply this standard to Leithart’s book.   At its best, when it is doing top drawer historical analysis.   It is very good indeed.   Something all of us should read and reflect on, perhaps especially my Anabaptist friends.

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  • Eric Sawyer

    Thank you for sharing your insights; they will be a welcome addition to my library and a good preparation for my current studies.

  • David

    I have more than enjoyed your reports here!! Thanks.

  • Casey Taylor

    Read this book right when it came out. Having studied patristics and imbibed Yoder via Hauerwas, I was glad to see such an articulate rereading of Constantine.

    You’re right about the last 10 pages: it does seem to go off the rails.

    On the so-called messianic prophecy of Genesis 3: is it fair, in your understanding of Scripture, to see (retrospectively) many such sign posts that Christ alone “fulfills?”

  • Barry Applewhite

    I enjoy your blog a lot, which is why I list it on my own blog and direct people toward individual articles you write (particularly those that oppose Bart Ehrman’s distortions).

    While I have not read Leithart’s book or his exegesis of the creation account, I write today to take exception to the following comment you made in your post: “his exegesis of the creation order mandate is atrocious. Adam was not called upon the guard the garden!”

    The relevant verse is Gen. 2:15, which commentator Gordon Wenham translates by saying: “Then the Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and guard it.” (Genesis, page 44). Note that the next usage of the relevant Hebrew verb occurs in Genesis 3:24 when God puts an angel with a flaming, whirling sword “to guard the way to the tree of life” (ESV). The commentary of Victor Hamilton (Genesis, page 171) also supports the idea of guarding in Genesis 2:15.

    It is true that many translations of Genesis 2:15 say something like “to work it and keep it” (ESV) or “to work it and take care of it” (NIV 2011). The weakness of that translation is that the author’s statement becomes redundant, like saying “work it and put effort into it.” It is a bit more plausible to assume the author used two different verbs to say two different things.

    Thanks for all the effort you put into keeping all of us informed about books we might otherwise never read.


  • ben witherington

    Hi Barry:

    I am not buying that translation of Gen. 2.15. There was nothing to protect the garden from unless you are referring to Satan, and quite specifically God told them not to have anything to do with that tree (or its snake for that matter). There is no redundancy at all– tilling a garden is one thing, keeping it weeded and taking care of it etc. a whole different ballgame. Its as different as planting and reaping.

    Casey I would say that prediction is one thing, and fulfillment is quite another. In a broad sense Christ is the fulfillment of many good things mentioned in the OT. It is quite another thing to see something as an intended messianic prophecy. I think the connection with the end of Romans 16 however indicates that a later Christological relecture or re-reading of the text was seen as legitimate.

    Ben W.

  • Joel

    Perhaps you should read Leithart’s “Deep Exegesis” to understand more of where he is coming from. He is from the school of Interpretive Maximalism that James Jordan has outline in writings such as “Apologia on Reading the Bible”:

  • Joel
  • ben witherington

    Yeah I read his response. He doesn’t even pretend to answer the question—- ‘guard the garden from what??? Snakes? I don’t think so. There is no evidence of human hostility against other humans before the Fall and no need for such guarding. Besides the Hebrew verb in question does not stand alone, it stands in tandem with another verb and two are quite rightly and naturally translated together as tend and keep, or the like (see most of the translations).


  • ben witherington

    P.S. Bill Arnold’s Genesis commentary is clear enough on these two verbs— they are infinitive constructs indicating purpose—- which he rightly translates to till and to keep it, hardly synonyms much less redundant. The image is of planting and tending. Not guarding anything. (See Arnold Genesis p. 59 and the notes).


  • Tim

    Let’s keep in mind that the two verbs in Gen 2.15 do not simply appear there. They are paralleled in the law, where the Levites were called to do practical service in the temple, and to guard it. Seeing those sorts of links is very important, and the sort of stuff that Leithart frankly does well.

    I do encourage you to read Leithart’s Deep Exegesis. It’s a very important book on the matter of hermeneutics.

  • Chris E

    “Yeah I read his response. He doesn’t even pretend to answer the question—- ‘guard the garden from what??? Snakes?”

    I think his answer would be, guard the garden from Satan/Evil.

  • ben witherington

    Which is not Adam’s job. Adam has no business fighting Satan before the Fall. The parallel to Leviticus isn’t. Leviticus envisions a totally different social situation from the one depicted in Gen. 2. As for deep exegesis, if this means deep allegory based on an over-reading of the OT, no thanks. Word studies are fine but the contexts need to be parallel. Otherwise, we are guilt of the same sort of stripping words out of their contexts as the JWs.


  • Fr. Barnabas Powell

    Thanks so much for the introduction to this book. I plan to get it and read it as soon as possible.

    One thought that your excellent critique of the last 10 pages brought to mind was the image of Christ as a warrior messiah.

    There is a strong exegesis of the Cross within the Eastern Orthodox theology of Christ as exactly that – a Champion ascending the wood of the cross as conquerer. This is why almost all the icons of the crucifixion in Orthodoxy show Christ’s cross over a skull at he bottom of the cross. It also suggests that even though Christ is on the cross, He still holds up the Sun and the Moon. This is showing Christ as the Victor over death.

    So, Orthodoxy would see Christ as precisely a Warrior messiah, but the fight is with sin, death, and Satan. And Christ “tramples down death by death” and destroys the gates of hell, hinges and all. It is a subtle difference in the Eastern and Western views of the cross that bring this distinction out. For the West, Christ is seen as Victim – the Lamb led to slaughter. For the East, Christ is seen as Victor, entering into death so as to completely destroy it from the inside out. Hell thought it swallowed a man and found Him to be God and was burst asunder.

    As will any generalized statements, there are exceptions, but the predominate imagery seems to hold.

    Thanks again.

  • Barry Applewhite

    It turns out that the thing that needed protecting in the garden was Eve!

    Also, I note that you do not acknowledge the relatively near context of Genesis 3:24 for the meaning of “guarding” in relation to that particular verb. The position you present on the Hebrew verb is certainly defensible — which accounts for the translations that use it — but Leithart’s view is not utterly groundless.

    Thanks for the interaction.


  • Ron Jung

    So a serpent comes to my wife and tries to get her to doubt God’s Word and I am suppose to do what? Stand there and do nothing? Should Adam have done just a little guarding? Maybe enough to cry out for help? Just a thought.

  • Watchman

    Dr. Witherington,

    Thanks for this series on Constantine. Although I didn’t agree with some of it, I also learned a great deal about Constantine that I didn’t know.

    I look forward to seeing what is next. I enjoy your blog and the time and effort you put into it.

    Many blessings.


  • Eric Sawyer

    Dear Ben,

    I never studied history, but I would like to help this bloke with his question. I tried reading your series but as I’m not that clued up on this sort of stuff, I’d greatly appreciate any help you could give me with the following challenge:


    All religion, [ .... ] and especially Christianity. Pure and simple lies. Jesus never existed, there is no Heaven or Hell, no demons, no angels, no eternal torture, just mythology imposed by the Emperor himself in the Roman Empire. After 17 centuries of bigotry, hatred and castration, some people decided to open their eyes. The rest still call themselves Christians. Peace and understanding.

    [ .... ] Christianity was imposed by law and blood, it is accurate. The First Council of Nicaea (325 c.e.) was presided by Emperor Constantine in the flesh, not a Pope, not a bishop, just the Emperor. And he extended the whole thing through fire and metal. So did all Emperors after him, except Julian The Apostate.

    The Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, was delivered on 27 February 380 c.e. by Emperor Theodosius I and forced all people (through law, execution and torture) in the whole Empire to adopt the Christian Faith. Just plain History, no tricks. Christians prefer not to learn about their own religion. Peace and freedom of mind, see you any other time.

    Presented by u-tuber: cfr939


    Eric J. Sawyer

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Eric:

    If you will go over to my blog at Beliefnet and type in Zeitgeist you will see my critique of this sort of anti-historical rant.


  • 790114666

    Thank you Ben.

    Would that be: The Zeitgeist of the ‘Zeitgeist’ ?

    Thanks in advance,

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  • Jedidiah

    I am guessing you haven’t done much farming? Keeping a garden requires vigilantly protecting it from all sorts of ‘enemies.’ If the garden is a place of shalom certainly keeping and tilling would involve any number of protective actions.

    And I am a little surprised that you would see Leviticus as a different literary context than Genesis. You don’t have go for Leithart’s hermeneutic to know that you can’t read any book of the Pentateuch in isolation. Even if Gen 1-11 is more ancient than the rest of Gen. it has been stitched into, shapes and is shaped by the whole.

  • Anonymous

    Note to Jedidah: Boy are you wrong. My wife is a botanist and a professional gardener. But frankly we live in a fallen world, for as Paul says the creation was subjected to futility in the Fall. Before that, the garden needed no such protection. Notice that the curse on Adam involves thorns and thistles.