Debating Constantine

Debating Constantine September 18, 2013

Peter Leithart’s landmark book Defending Constantine (2010) sharply rebuked Christian pacifists. Leithart clearly intended to do more than rehabilitate the reputation of Constantine, emperor of Rome in the fourth century; this project was also a polemic against Mennonite icon John Howard Yoder. In its most grave charge, Defending Constantine accuses Yoder of doing bad history. Roger Olson puts it colorfully: “[Leithart] frequently treats Yoder as some kind of Anabaptist nincompoop who ignorantly plays fast and loose with facts.” Specifically, Leithart contends that there was no “Constantinian shift” from New Testament pacifism to a Christendom willing to use violence to extend both the Church and state. Yoder’s case, Leithart contended, rested on an Anabaptist “fall of the church” historiography that mistakenly assumes that the early Church was pacifist in the first place. Among his arguments: that there was interest in Christian empire before Constantine; that his pursuit of justice helped maintain the rule of law and the protection of Christians and the poor; and that he helpfully elevated Christians to positions of political responsibility.

Other scholars have been pursuing a similar, if less pugnacious, line of argumentation. David Hunter, for example, has been championing a “new consensus” that accounts for both pacifist and non-pacifist positions. He suggests that early Christians were as repelled by the idolatry of the Roman State as much as its violence; that there is evidence that some Christians were diverging from a uniform pacifist stance by the end of the second century; and that stances on warfare varied according to geography (antimilitarism, for example, was strongest among Christians in the heart of Rome; it was weakest on the borders). Many Christian crusaders and just-war theorists have cheered on Leithart and Hunter, pleased that scholars with theological and historical chops were substantively critiquing Yoder.

The rebuttal to Leithart is on. The book immediately sparked lively conversations online here and here and here and here. The October 2011 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review offered quick and substantive responses from four critics. John Nugent argued, in a theological vein, that God calls his people away from imperial identities—whether that is Roman, German, or American—to lives ‘of vulnerability, trust, and service to all those created in God’s image.” Alan Kreider offered a historical criticism, contending that Leithart’s sources on Christian participation in the military were sparse and questionable compared to evidence against involvement in state-sponsored violence. Constantine’s reign did indeed signal a fundamental shift: “from the gestalt of early Christianity to another gestalt—Christendom.” Responding in the same MQR issue to this battery of criticism, Leithart was unrepentant. “Because Christ is king,” he wrote, “kings should be Christians and exercise their earthly dominion in a righteous manner.” Leithart raised the stakes theologically. “The rub,” he declared, is that “we do not agree on the Gospel.”

The debate continues as a small avalanche of books rolls off the press. Last year Ron Sider released The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment. Also in 2012 Wheaton professor George Kalantzis published Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service. And now Goshen College’s John Roth, author of Choosing Against War, is releasing a more direct rebuttal of Leithart entitled Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate. It is an edited volume featuring an impressive lineup of Anabaptist theologians and ethicists including Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Thiessen Nation. Together, these books argue, in the words of Kalantzis, against “recent scholarship [that] accepts as axiomatic that there was ambivalence among the earliest Christians. . . . I do not believe that such a conclusion is borne by the literary evidence.” They marshal writings by Pliny the Younger, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Lactantius, and others. Jesus Christ, they say, inaugurated “a new call to non-violence, unrecognizable by the culture around them, for it took the form of civil disobedience as the mark of a transnational community bound together with the bonds of baptism. A community that honored Caesar by disobeying his commands and receiving upon their bodies the only response a state based on the power of the powerful could meet—an imitation of Christ.” The bottom line: “With remarkably univocity they speak of participation in the Christian mysteries as antithetical to killing, and the practices of the army.”

And so it goes. Scholars will continue to assess complex historical records and debate theological arguments (see Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence and Jeremy Gabrielson’s Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel). The debate hasn’t resolved in the three years since Defending Constantine—and won’t anytime soon. After all it has raged since Constantine himself, if not before.

* The video below features an appearance by Leithart and Kalantzis at Wheaton on November 16, 2011.

Leithart and Kalantzis

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  • Miles Mullin

    Nice! The timing on this is great. I just gave a brief lecture on the “imperial church” to my college level church history class. Thanks, David.

  • Justin Bronson Barringer

    Great job David. I would also add Rob Arner’s book about the ethics of bloodshed in ancient Christianity to your list of resources on the subject even though it came out before Leithart’s book.

  • Joshua Fink

    While you’re right that Leithart certainly takes Yoder to task, your article sounds a little bit like he treats him flippantly. That statement by Olson probably says more about how Olson read it than how Leithart said it. In Stanley Hauerwas’s own reivew in Christian Century he praised Leithart for being a critic who actually “read Yoder appreciatively.”

    Hauerwas’s review can be read here:

  • Guest

    The popular history of churchianity begins from 325 years after Christ, the 20thyear of the reign of Constantine the Great, when the famous Council was convened at the City of Nicea Those who have read the life of this august Roman Emperor will remember how remarkable was the character of this so called pious supporter of the church dogmas. He put to death his own son and his wife Fausta on groundless suspicion, cut off his brother-in-law Licinius and the unoffending son of Licinius and massacred everyone of his rivals. Nevertheless the Greek Church has canonized him, and adores the memory of St. Constantine.

    It was Constantine the Great who issued a decree in 321 A.D., for the general observance of Sunday, instead of the Jewish Sabbath. He hated the Jews and everything connected with the Jews, and said: “This day shall be regarded as a special occasion of prayer, because it is the Sun’s day, the day of our Lord”. Since that time, the church has accepted that decree, ignoring the fact that this was the day for the worship of the sun among the pagans.

    It was Constantine the great who decided what should be the creed of the church and commanded the assembled bishops to receive the decrees of the Council of Nicea as the dictates of the Holy Spirit. Since that time the church has given authenticity to that creed, which is repeated almost every Sunday in all the orthodox churches in Christendom.

  • frjohnmorris

    Both Yoder and Leithart wrote from a Western point of view. They both failed to mention that the Eastern Orthodox Church, which more than any other church was influenced by Byzantium, never accepted the just war theory. The just war theory accepted by Roman Catholics and Protestants comes from Augustine, who had no influence in the East. To this day an Eastern Orthodox soldier who kills even in battle in penanced and not allowed to take Communion until after he has been to Confession. Orthodoxy continues to uphold the ancient Christian teaching that all war is evil. There may be time when resorting to arms is a lesser evil than allowing a tyrant to occupy your country and oppress your people, but never the less, war is still evil in Orthodox moral theology.

  • AugustineThomas

    It’s interesting that none of these “critics” would exist if not for Constantine the Great!!!

  • Malcolm Yarnell

    Nice review. Thank you for writing this up. While not convinced of the pacifist argument, Leithart’s effort in “Defending Constantine” struck me as more offensive or demeaning than defensive or convincing.

  • Michael

    Christian abandonment of the Jewish Sabbath had nothing to do with Constantine. Shmuel Boteach, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, attributes that development to the apostle Paul’s position against the law. See pp. 114 of his “Kosher Jesus” (Geffen Publishing House, 2012).

    Allow me to mention again that it is a Jewish rabbi saying this, and not a mainline Protestant, a Roman Catholic, or a Greek Orthodox.

    Constantine called the bishops together, but he did not “decide” what should be in the Creed. That task was left to the (mostly Eastern) bishops.

    The Nicene creed is basically an elaboration of earlier creeds that developed out of the ritual of baptism, albeit with a notably contra-Arius focus.

  • The old saw about early Christians not entering the military because of the issue of Idolatry obscures the clear concern about bloodshed. That concern was also reflected in one of evangelicals heroes of the faith, Charles Spurgeon: