Peter Leithart, a polymath and a compelling thinker and writer, is laying down a challenge to the Anabaptists of this world and to the progressive Christians of this world — anyone who critiques Christendom, the nation-church connection that begins in earnest with Constantine and carried on for centuries.
For all its flaws, though, I believe the project of Christendom — the project of seeking to reshape political and cultural institutions and values in accord with the gospel — is a direct implication of the gospel’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Yoder, to his great credit, argued that Christians are called to live in conformity with the demands of the gospel here and now, and he even imagined what a more faithful Constantine might have looked like. His imaginary Constantine resembled the real Constantine more than Yoder realized. Christians disagree on how achievable that project [Christendom] is. It is, of course, full of risk and temptation, like everything else. I have a difficult time understanding Christians who object to the premise of Christendom.
Talk about challenging people to run the gauntlet. Leithart’s book is called Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.
Leithart doesn’t believe in the “fall” of the Church with Constantine, but instead that there is much to learn from Constantine about Christian politics. He says he is a “model for Christian political practice” (11). I’m inclined at this point to say Leithart is grandstanding or at least being a curmudgeon just to make a point, a bit the way Rodney Stark did when he said the Crusades weren’t all that bad. But Leithart is doing neither. He’s dead serious.
His eye will always be, like Constantine’s, on empire. My eye, however, will also be on Paul Stephenson’s exceptional study of Constantine, Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, which argues precisely the opposite of Leithart and which, when I had heard of Leithart’s book, I read in preparation for this exercise in rattling the Anabaptist and Progressive cages.
What does Constantinianism mean to you? And another: If Jesus is Lord, and being Lord also means ruling culture and politics, what would a Jesus-as-Lord politics look like?
Tell me, what do you know about Constantine? What are the problems with Constantinianism? What are the strengths?