Defending Constantine—- Final Thoughts

Defending Constantine—- Final Thoughts May 12, 2011

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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