Preliminary Review of Defending Constantine

Preliminary Review of Defending Constantine July 20, 2012

I don’t usually review books before I’ve finished them and I wouldn’t do that for publication. But a blog is not the same as a formal publication; these are my “musings,” not my final thoughts on anything. The ideas I pose here are for consideration and discussion. I retain the right to change my mind in light of comments or further consideration. Once I submit a book review article to a journal and it’s accepted for publication, I have to be prepared to defend what I wrote. It’s “carved in stone,” so to speak. Not so here. That’s why I put the word “musings” in this blog’s title; these are my often tentative thoughts thrown up in the air like trial balloons to be shot down if necessary.

Lately I’ve been reading Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christianity by Peter Leithart (IVP 2010). “Defending Constantine?” The title caught my eye and piqued my interest. For years I’ve been teaching that there is no valid defense of Constantine, that he was not a Christian and that many church leaders were seduced into allowing him, a murderous tyrant who claimed the title “Pontifex Maximus” (head of the pagan religion of the empire), to influence if not control them. Of course, I’ve also always taught there were hold outs among the Christian leaders of the time, especially Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who dared to stand up to the emperor and challenge him (even in the streets of Constantinople!).

I wrongly assumed that Leithart’s defense of Constantine would be a calm historian’s correction of some misrepresentations of the first “Christian” Roman emperor and that I would learn and be challenged to reconsider some of what I have always thought and taught about him. To a certain extent, that’s true. However, there seems to be much more going on in the background of Leithart’s defense of Constantine. One thing that becomes progressively clearer as one reads the book is the author’s very strong anti-Yoderian (anti-anti-Constantinian) political theology.  Yoder is Leithart’s main foil; he clearly believes Yoder has misrepresented Constantine and the church during Constantine’s reign in writings such as The Royal Priesthood.

I have now reached the halfway point in Defending Constantine and have some thoughts to share about the book. I remain open to correction; one should never form a definite opinion until the end of a book. So I will wait to reveal my final thoughts until then. Here, however, I will pose some questions and suggest some qualms I am having about the drift of Leithart’s argument.

At the end of Chapter 8 (p. 189) Leithart says something that truly shocks me. I am open to having my thoughts about Constantine corrected; perhaps he was not a cynical pretender to Christianity merely using the church for his own purposes. (But I think Leithart dismisses that possibility too cavalierly. He thinks it’s simply unlikely given some of Constantine’s public statements about Christianity including especially his “Oration” to his court about Christianity. Nothing Leithart has said so far, however, relieves my suspicions.)

What I am not open to reconsidering (at this point) is my strong belief that the political structure of church and state during Constantine’s reign was an egregious error. Of course, much depends on what one means by “structure,” but I take it to mean “arrangement”—whether formal or informal. On page 189 Leithart says, referring to some of Constantine’s and later “Christian” emperors’ acts toward the church and its leader, “All these were real, and often horrific, acts of unfaithfulness. But they do not imply a structural flaw. Once the emperor has kissed the Son, should he not honor the Son’s Bride?”

So what were Constantine’s admitted “horrific acts of unfaithfulness?” Leithart admits that Constantine was not a baptized Christian, but he clearly considers him nevertheless a Christian. One question I would like to ask him is whether he believes unbaptized persons, persons who could be baptized but decline or refuse, are really Christians. What does “Christian” mean in that case? Saved? Okay, but is that really sufficient to call someone a “Christian?” Clearly, given all the evidence Leithart marshals, Constantine considered himself a Christian and was considered a Christian by most Christian bishops and by thousands, perhaps millions, of Romans. So what? I would dare say most Germans during the 1930s considered Hitler a Christian because he was baptized. Leithart, in my opinion, so far, minimizes Constantine’s “horrific acts of unfaithfulness.” In my opinion, he lets him off the hook too easily and interprets him through the eyes of Eusebius of Caesarea who clearly favored Constantine and treated him almost as a saint and new savior.

Again, I ask, What were Constantine’s undisputed “horrific acts of unfaithfulness?” Well, I think I know what some of the worst ones were, but those haven’t been mentioned directly by Leithart yet. (So far he has only alluded to them as they have been mentioned by others.) One that Leithart admits is Constantine’s occasional persecutions of dissenting Christians, especially the Donatists. The Donatists were a group of Christians in North Africa who believed that the sacramental acts of lapsed priests and bishops were invalid. According to them, after the great empire wide persecutions by Decius and Diocletian, especially, priests and bishops who denied Christ and especially those who collaborated with the persecutors should be considered not Christians and their baptisms and ordinations invalid. Later, of course, Augustine developed his theory of ex opera operato against the Donatists. During Constantine’s reign, there was severe competition between the “Catholic” and Donatist churches and leaders in North Africa and it occasionally involved violence. Constantine clearly came down hard on the Donatists, persecuting and attempting to eliminate them as a church. Some of them were arrested and tortured and even killed because of some of Constantine’s edicts against them. (He did not order that they be killed, but his language against them clearly gave permission to local authorities to do that. If that’s not what he wanted, he surely would have moderated his language.)

And then there’s Constantine’s treatment of Athanasius. He exiled him. Leithart claims that Constantine did not “control” the church and uses Athanasius as evidence. But, in my opinion, Athanasius provides the proof that Constantine attempted to control the church and that’s the accusation Yoder and others make. How else should we consider an emperor exiling a bishop for criticizing him and his policies? I don’t know anyone, Yoder included, who claims that Constantine had total control over the church or that the church as a whole, without exception, allowed him to control the church. What Constantine did was attempt to have the final say in church matters—after allowing much deliberation and attempting to get “concord” among the bishops. Leithart admits that. Is there really that much difference? Isn’t this a quibble?

Back to the troubling end of Chapter 8 (p. 189). Leithart finally admits that Constantine and later “Christian” emperors committed “horrific acts of unfaithfulness.” But his main argument is that these “do not imply a structural flaw.” “Once the emperor has kissed the Son, should he not honor the Son’s Bride?” That statement raises many questions about Christian political theology that I hope Leithart will answer in the second half of the book. Here I’ll raise some of them myself.

The statement begs the question “Which ‘Bride’?’ Leithart admits that Christians were divided in Constantine’s time. Among others, there were the “schismatic” Montanists and Donatists. Who’s to say these were not parts of the “Bride” (of Christ)? What Constantine “honored” (imperfectly, obviously) was “Catholic” Christianity—the bishops he chose to regard as real bishops and their churches. Others he dishonored and even persecuted as did later “Christian” emperors.

How is that not a “structural flaw?” How is that not Constantinianism (in Yoder’s sense) and even Caesaropapism? True, as Leithart points out, it was the Donatists who first appealed to Constantine to settle their dispute with the Catholics in North Africa. But so what? Constantine should have refused (except insofar as violence needed to be stopped)? By taking sides in theological and ecclesiastical disputes, Constantine set a trend. He was not always consistent about it, but he clearly considered himself the final authority in church matters. And clearly many of the bishops agreed. When he died he was buried in the Church of the Apostles as if he were, as some bishops called him, the “the thirteenth apostle.”

When I had read about a hundred pages of Leithart’s book I began to get nervous and I remain nervous. I also remain open to having my nervousness alleviated in the book’s second half. My anxiety arose not from Leithart’s many corrections of misconceptions of Constantine (although I think he gives Constantine the benefit of the doubt too much too often). Leithart keeps asking (in various ways) what people think Constantine should have done differently given the cultural context in which Roman emperors were universally considered (?) the supreme leader of the empire including religion, and in which there were such deep divisions both within Christianity and between Christians and Jews and pagans.

This touches on a subject I’ve raised here before. To what extent should we let historical figures off the hook just because of the cultural context and the times in which they lived—especially when they claimed to be Christians and had their Bibles and read them? Should we excuse Zwingli for having the Zurich city council torture Hubmaier? By all accounts Zwingli stood in the torture chamber and demanded that Hubmaier, who had come to Zurich at Zwingli’s invitation for a debate assuming protection, recant his Anabaptist views. And, of course, Zwingli fully supported the drowning of Anabaptist men and women. Shall we say “Well, those were harsh times?” I don’t think so. Either Zwingli is in hell or he had to go through a purgatory-like process before entering heaven. If you don’t believe in anything like purgatory (even C. S. Lewis’ highly Protestantized version), I don’t see how you can avoid putting Zwingli in hell.

Shall we say that Constantine’s attempts to dominate and control the churches by force (Donatist and Montanist at least!) are excusable because that is what people expected of an emperor? How do we excuse his claiming to be Christian without baptism? How do we excuse his keeping the pagan title “Pontifex Maximus?” All kinds of arguments can be made to defend him, but doesn’t that just open the door to possibly defending any evil tyrant of history—because of the “times?”

What concerns me most is Leithart’s claim that there was no “structural flaw” in Constantine’s relations with the churches. Does he mean that would be the case today, as well? Is he defending the idea that “Christian” civil rulers should dominate or even attempt to influence churches and church leaders (about matters theological and ecclesiastical)? I can’t believe it.

This may seem a very minor point, but on page 181, in footnote 62, Leithart uses Rousas John Rushdoony as an authority. I have never seen that before in any scholarly work. Who even reads Rushdoony except Christian Reconstructionists?

So I looked up Leithart to see where he teaches. He is a senior fellow and dean of graduate studies at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho (or was when this book was written). I’ll leave it to you, my dear readers, to look it up and read its statement of faith. Read it carefully. This is also where Douglas Wilson is a faculty member. Google “Douglas Wilson” and “slavery.” I’m not implying anything about Leithart’s beliefs about slavery; I only mention it as a matter of interest. (I will say that if one of my colleagues wrote a pamphlet that even seemed to defend slavery as not entirely and without exception an evil institution I would have a talk with him or her. Maybe Leithart has done that. I hope so.)

Finally, I will say that I think Leithart’s treatment of Yoder throughout the first half of his book has been dismissive at best and insulting at worst. He finds a few historical mistakes in what Yoder wrote about Constantine and, in my opinion, implies that Yoder was simply ignorant of what he wrote about. But worse, I detect a strong bias against Yoder and the Anabaptist tradition in general in the first half of the book and that bias seems to me to be expressed in ungenerous ways.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • James Petticrew

    The issue of “histtoric slack” for Christians acting in an unchristian way is an interesting one and very pervasive. I live in Edinburgh in Scotland I regularly hear Presbyertians saying what a wonderful example of faith the Covenanters were at the momument to their executions by the State and Episcopally orientated Church of Scotland at the time. When I have asked them about some of the Covenanters dragging the Archbishop of St Andrews from his coach and shooting him in the head I am told that we can’t judge them by today’s standards.

    I got the same reply from a Catholic tour guide in Malta when I was on holiday there a few weeks ago. The guide told us how the Knights of St John had saved the Christian faith by resisting the siege of the Ottoman Turks. He also told us how after the Ottomans had crucified Christian prisoners and floated them across the harbour these warrior monks chopped the heads of their muslim prisoners and fired them by cannons back at the Muslims. When I asked how monks who were meant to followers of Jesus could so clearly contradict his teaching I was told that such things happened in war back then. In one these monks are held up as great examples of Christianity and yet in another they are excused from some of its most basic teaching.

    I don’t think we should expect perfect performance and complete understanding from Christians in the past but I agree when leaders of the church act in ways that so clearly contradict the teaching of Jesus and the nature of the Kingdom of God we can’t simply excuse them as “children of their times” any more than we can turn a blind eye to Ted Haggard because homosexuality has in our time become a more accepted way of life.

  • Rob

    Does he mention whether or not Constantine was a catechumen? I always heard that he was. The state of being a catechumen was a recognized and official status in the church at that time. A catechumen was not fully a member of the church but was not just what we would call a ‘visitor’ either. A catechumen received instruction from priests and prepared for baptism which was taken much more seriously then compared to today. Often, soldiers remained catechumens because their livelihood might require them to shed blood and it was thought that they should not be baptized until that part of their life was over.

    • rogereolson

      Should a catechumen be dabbling in church politics and theology? Can a Christian remain a catechumen their entire life and only be baptized on their deathbed and then be called a Christian by later generations?

      • Daniel W

        The practice of deathbed baptism was extremely widespread at the time, even among laypeople I believe. It was due to a certain theology of baptism that insisted that committing major sins after one was baptized left one condemned. I believe Tertullian argues in favor of the practice at some point. Surely you are aware of this. People were not necessarily planning to commit grievous sins during their lives, but they didn’t want to risk the chance that they might do so after baptism. Many bishops were not even baptized until right before their ordinations. Are you trying to say that the vast number of Christians that practiced end of life baptisms were not truly Christians their entire lives? You almost seem to imply this in your discussion of Constantine. You don’t address that end of life baptism was not something unique to Constantine at the time.

        • Daniel W

          To clarify, Tertullian does not explicitly argue for deathbed baptism, but for a delay of baptism until a time when one is less likely to sin. For example, in On Baptism 18, he urges the unmarried to wait to be baptized until they are married, lest they fall into sexual sin after baptism. It seems unlikely that Tertullian would not consider these unmarried young people Christians, even if they were not yet fully part of the church. At the end of the chapter Tertullian says, “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay.”

          • rogereolson

            I’m aware of it, but our modern Christian reaction to that has usually been that Tertullian was wrong. He is, after all, not considered one of the great orthodox teachers of the church for various reasons. He taught many strange things. But I think the question is whether even Tertullian thought someone was fully Christianized (worthy of being considered “Christian” without qualification) without baptism.

        • rogereolson

          Of course I know it was not unique to Constantine. But neither do I think that fact should excuse him. Selling and buying indulgences was also a common practice and taken for granted (in Luther’s time). Do we therefore say it was okay? We don’t. We decry its stupidity and heresy–especially by people like the pope and the prince-bishops who benefited from it and Tetzel.

      • Rob

        Well I am not defending any form of caesaropapism; I just do not take his prolonged catechumen stage to indicate that he was not serious about being a Christian. If someone inhabited a station in life deemed morally dangerous (like being a soldier or actor or even an unmarried young person) then he or she was often advised to prolong baptism until out of that station or even until one’s deathbed. Augustine was only baptized by his mother when they thought he would surely die–otherwise it would have been prolonged significantly, at least until he was married or beyond the morally dangerous stage of being young.

        Of course, I think the idea about baptism only covering previous sins was a superstition–but it was widespread among Christians all over the world at that time and it explains Constantine’s behavior. We can criticize him for being superstitious, and maybe we should, but that criticism will apply to most Christians of that time period.

  • Casey

    As I headed off to work yesterday I had a choice to make: 1) take Leithart’s “Defending Constantine” off my shelf as my next read, or 2) take Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “Christianity.” I went with MacCulloch, but your musings make me excited to get to Leithart.

    Also, its good to see Godwin’s Law at work. Hitler comparisons never lose their usefulness.

    Have you read Doug Wilson’s “Southern Slavery As It Was” or “Black and Tan”?

    • rogereolson

      I have read reviews only so far. In my humble opinion, slavery was and always is an unmitigated evil and to suggest otherwise is, in my opinion, absurd.

      • Here is a link to Wilson’s Southern Slavery. It’s pretty short – more like a pamphlet than book.

        http://reformed-theology.org/html/books/slavery/southern_slavery_as_it_was.htm

        I’m not surprised by this neo-Confederate revisionist understanding of slavery. I am, however, surprised that someone with these views could be so popular among conservative evangelicals, popular enough to be a regular contributor to Christianity Today…

  • icthusiast

    Roger, strong words indeed.

    Just a couple of comments/questions.

    Constantine and Baptism: I have heard it said that delaying baptism out of fear that post-baptismal sin was irredeemable was not uncommon in the early Church. Have I been misled on that?

    Zwingli and his eternal reward: I would have thought that the answer to your question was grace? We are saved “by grace, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ”, not by perfect performance, or even highly commendable performance, in consequence of that.

    Salvation and Baptism: I know you have made a distinction beteeen being saved and being a Christian, but I don’t detect that distinction in operation here. You seem to be implying that Constantine could not have been either and one of your evidences for that is that he wasn’t baptised. Again, my understanding is that we are saved (justified) “by grace, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ”.

    Comments?

    • rogereolson

      I do question the salvation of anyone who engages in torture or murder. There. Grace is free but cannnot be used as an excuse to do anything (or to excuse anything in history). I have said here before that I agree with the idea of mortal sin. A person who commits a mortal sin (e.g., murder) without sincere repentance and (at least a sincere attempt at) amendment of life was never saved in the first place (or, within a Wesleyan perspective, loses salvation). Jesus said that if we do not forgive others, the Father will not forgive us. Isn’t that a proof text that “grace” doesn’t permit everything?

  • I am thankful for this review. I have read parts of this book but had not known what to make of it. regarding leaders and cultural context, some grace and leeway should be given. Yet I believe every generation of Christians are called to question cultural norms and see if they line up with the gospel.

    I was also thinking, don’t we let off the hook people from biblical history and explain their actions using their cultural context?

    • rogereolson

      Who’s an example?

      • C.S. Lewis mitigates the harsh words of Psalm 137 by explaining the horrific acts of the psalmists cultural context. When it comes to Paul the Apostle and passages against women leadership in the Pastorals, mainliners often have a few proof texts to refute this, yet for the most part they explain it away by saying that Paul was (in-part) a product of the culture of his time. Also, I have heard evangelicals explain away troubling Old Testament passages like Judges 21 using cultural clues from the times.

        When I say that ‘we let people off the hook in biblical history…’ I mean that Christians in general often do it. You, and others with a mature and thought-out hermeneutic, may not consciously do this. But I see it a lot Christians in general doing this and I just thought it was an interesting observation given the questions that you raise.

  • Norman

    Roger asked … “Is he defending the idea that “Christian” civil rulers should dominate or even attempt to influence churches and church leaders (about matters theological and ecclesiastical)? I can’t believe it.”

    Yes your instincts are correct concerning Leithart. He has roots in the Federal Vision movement which filtered from Reconstructionism. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia that you can take or leave.

    “Several leaders in the Federal Vision began their theological careers in the Christian Reconstructionist movement until differences in methods and interpretations led to their exodus from Reconstructionism. Peter Leithart and James B. Jordan are two notable examples.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Vision

    Leithart is going to be much more comfortable with state involvement or a Christian theocracy than most would be which I believe colors his view of Constantine.

    McKnight and others here on patheos have also critiqued Leitharts book in the past and you might want to look their comments over. Just do a patheos search for Leithart to find them.

    • rogereolson

      Fascinating. I guess I have to believe it.

  • Felix Alexander

    Aren’t you making too much of his not being baptised? The Salvation Army doesn’t practice it today; are Salvos not Christian? And although I don’t have the chronology in my head, I always understood that at some point during the early church, it was unclear whether sins after baptism could be forgiven, so it wasn’t that unusual to wait for the deathbed, “just to be safe”. In Constantine’s case maybe that was an excuse, but then that’s the problem, not the specific timing.

    You’ll know if someone’s a Christian by their fruit—and you do focus on that. But I don’t think it’s worth much fussing about a long-dead person’s sacramental practices.

    • rogereolson

      You misinterpret my comment. My question is why Leithart, who is of a fairly strict Reformed perspective, would consider someone who declines baptism a full Christian? The issue, you see, isn’t neglect of baptism but refusal of baptism.

  • EricMichaelSay

    I think you’re asking for a conversation about what Jared Wilson wrote on Gospel Coalition last week. Curious of your take as I respect your egalitarian stance.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t read other blogs. I suppose I should, but I just don’t have the time. I prefer to read books.

  • I read Leithart’s blog, though not the book. There is no doubt that he is a proponent of Christendom, the unity of church and state. He most definitely rejects Two Kingdom theology. His associate, Doug Wilson, rejects Kuyper’s view of sphere sovereignty. All of this is of the same fabric. It tastes of old Europe, the very thing American Evangelicals feared from the RC immigrants. I think Leithart needs to be questioned on his views of a pluralistic society. My guess is that he is highly suspicious of the American experiment in establishing a secular state which makes room for heresy and orthodoxy and atheism alike.

    • rogereolson

      That is the sense I began to have early in the book. My alarm bells were going off before I saw anything really suspicious such as his use of Rushdoony as an authority. But what really throws me off is N. T. Wright’s endorsement of the book. Is this a British versus American thing? But when has the British model realy worked to accomplish true toleration of dissent (what Leithart calls “concord”) without eventually falling into what we see today–near complete pluralism? In other words, what value is there in having Christendom if you’re not going to execute heretics? Is Leithart envisioning a society in which heretics are persecuted just for being heretics? If not (I hope not), what is he envisioning?

      • James Petticrew

        Let’s remember there is no British model of the relationship between church and state. The Church of England is the established church of England not the UK of which the monarch is the supreme head and historical had a very Constantine style role. The church of Scotland is the established church of Scotland but neither the royal family not the government has any role in it’s leadership or decision making structures. Tens of thousands of Scots died over that diffence. NT Wright as a former church of England bishop supports the monarch having a role in the church

  • Douglas Wilson’s stance on women was made clear this week due to a popular blogger of The Gospel Coalition quoting one of his books. The blog caught so much attention (the wording Douglas used was extremely offensive and degrading to women) so while had you mentioned him another week, it would have passed unnoticed, but this week, many were suddenly made aware not only of his misogyny but also of his racist stances.

    As I read through the long history of the church and consider Al’Qaeda terrorism of today, I am struck by the similarities. This makes for difficult questions in regard to faith and religion. How different are we? if we hold the terrorists of today accountable, should we not also hold Christians who acted very similarly just a few hundred years ago to the same accountability? The US is very isolated from the after-effects of war. We too quickly rush to judge those who have been ravaged by it. China spent the first part of the twentieth century, nearly fifty years in one bloody conflict after another on its own land, then nearly twenty years under a savage government that starved its people, and we turn and condemn them for human rights that they should know better for?

    Know better? How can we know? How do we understand the context in which the people find themselves in when we ourselves have not had a sustained war on our land in over a century?

    • rogereolson

      I have heard the same line of reasoning used to defend Hitler and the Nazis because of Germany’s precarious position vis-a-vis communism in the 1920s. (I know you’re not defending Hitler or the Nazis; I’m just asking how far this line of reasoning can go.) My own questioning was of people who claimed to be Christians but engaged in torture and murder of “heretics.” Was drowning Anabaptist women ever justified by anything? I don’t think so. I agree with the commenter here who said we contemporary Christians practice a double standard. We condemn the Inquisition but excuse Zwingli and Calvin.

  • Jordan Litchfield

    On this topic, how do you approach such figures in church history when you are teaching? Is there any merit to rehabilitation of the following?

    Bernard of Claurvaux – his support of the crusades
    Luther – his encouragement to the political leaders to crush the peasant rebellion & his anti-Semitism
    Calvin – his support of the execution of Michael Servetus (although not supporting the manner in which he was executed)

    Probably most would agree that each of these figures had positive contributions. However, if we are willing to rule out the genuineness of Constantine’s faith because he did not live out the key evidence of Christianity – love for enemies – then what are we to make of others who seemed to have major failings in the same manner? Is allowance made for theological understanding? For example, at least Luther and Calvin probably acted the way they did in part because of their beliefs concerning the contemporary relevance of OT law.

    • rogereolson

      I talk about the difference between “explanation” and “excuse.” We can understand mitigating cultural and theological conditions without making excuses for behavior. I never excuse torture, murder or holy war by Christians. How God will deal with them is up to him.

  • Craig Wright

    I was surprised to find out that Jonathan Edwards owned a woman (a Black female slave). In responding to responses that he was a “person of his times” I have pointed out that he lived in the North, and that other people in his town criticized him for doing that. The bill of sale is on record in his home town.

    It is interesting to see the extreme effort to force unity on the church in those days (even on the newly formed Protestant movement that had broken the unity of its day), but I’m sure no one would want Obama, or even possibly Romney, to step in and try to settle doctrinal disputes, and then go out and burn down JW’s Kingdom Halls.

    • rogereolson

      You raise exactly my concern about those who, like Leithart (so it seems, anyway), want a new Christendom kind of social arrangement of church and state where the state is explicitly Christian and intervenes in disputes among Christians–even to attempt to bring about what he calls “concord.” (I am open to correction about Leithart’s beliefs about this, but I know there are some, if not he, who want this.) Which version of Christianity would the head of state promote? What would he or she do about radically dissenting groups (such as the early Donatists who were not yet the violent terrorists of a century after Constantine)? Today’s British arrangement where the monarch is chief governor of the religion of the realm has completely accommodated to pluralism. So it’s not even a model. But before that, dissenters were not allowed to call their churches “churches.” They were, at best, “chapels.” They couldn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge. What exactly do these people (whether Leithart or not, certainly some) want if not the secular state and pluralism that we have in the U.S. and Canada and Great Britain?

      • James Petticrew

        Roger you are scholar and so I think you should try and get the constitutional arrangement in relational to the church in the UK right when you talk about. There is no ONE position in the UK in terms of the relationships between the monarch and the established church as there exists in the United Kingdom TWO ESTABLISHED CHURCHES, the anglican Church of England and the presbyterian Church of Scotland.

        It is simply not the case that the “monarch is chief governor of the religion of the realm” that is true of ONE PART of the realm, England, not the whole realm composed of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
        The British monarch is constitutionally “the supreme head of the church of England” she has a formal role in the Church of England the established church of ENGLAND. Howevershe has NO ROLE at all in terms of the Church of Scotland, apart from being a member when in Scotland.

        • rogereolson

          I’m flattered that you still think of me as a scholar in spite of my frequent lapses–especially with regard to the UK. I think this must be the third time I’ve done that and you’ve corrected me. Hopefully this time it will stick. 🙂

          • James Petticrew

            I am afraid trying to get over to my American friends that England does not equal the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that Scotland has a separate system of law, education system and established church is a life long vocation. Hopefully us Scots will vote for Indpendence in 2014 and make our consitutional arrangements easier for Americans to understand 🙂

  • Fred Karlson

    Last year, Ben Witherington did a long review of Leithart’s book. Ben gave what I thought was a positive review of it in his blog, and did a quite extensive treatment. I was surprised but not convinced. Links to the nine part review are here: http://awordaboutwords.wordpress.com/2011/05/12/dr-ben-witherington-iiis-review-of-dr-peter-leitharts-defending-constantine/

  • Roger,you saay this is a kind of test balloon–let me suggest popping the balloon. Questioning someone’s view of Rushdoony by the fact that he has a footnote, and not even giving any context to the the footnote’s purpose is not solid ground for such a serious charge. And speculating in public about his feelings about slavery is like speculating about your feelings about Oral Roberts because you taught at his school. Both charges are not fit for public insinuation given your paltry evidence. I carry no brief for Leithart having not read the book, and I am as fearful of the specter of Reconstructionism as anyone, but what you have done here does not teflect well on your civility and respect for other’s reputations and you should take it down or dramatically improve the evidence. It reminds me too much of David Stern’s recent “have you stopped beating your sife?” Question to Jim Rome. Just asking a question about someone’s affection for Rushdoony or for slavery goes very far injuring a reputation. Please don’t go there unless you are going to “go there”.

    • John Inglis

      Did you notice that RO said he was musing? As for Rushdoony, the onus (to show that quoting him is relevant) is on those who quote him to make a point, or to support or explain a point–especially in a book about Constantine. It is, on the other hand, quite useful to make the noteworthy comment that no other scholar but him has used Rushdoony. RO’s comment was intended to raise antennae, as it should.

      • rogereolson

        Thanks for coming to my defense, John. I greatly admire and respect Greg and take his chastisement to heart, but, in the end, I think I was well within my rights–as you say.

  • Roger, I am a huge fan of the blog and the ministry you have, but I am shocked by the careless/guilt by association charge in these two paragraphs. As you know I am as concerned about Rushdoony reconstructionism as anyone and I abhor slavery, but to raise the specter of them in someone’s ministry should only be done with clear evidence and not as part of a trial balloon at a public blog. What you wrote in these two paragraphs is in my estimation not worthy of your usually careful mind and generous heart:

    “”This may seem a very minor point, but on page 181, in footnote 62, Leithart uses Rousas John Rushdoony as an authority. I have never seen that before in any scholarly work. Who even reads Rushdoony except Christian Reconstructionists?
    So I looked up Leithart to see where he teaches. He is a senior fellow and dean of graduate studies at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho (or was when this book was written). I’ll leave it to you, my dear readers, to look it up and read its statement of faith. Read it carefully. This is also where Douglas Wilson is a faculty member. Google “Douglas Wilson” and “slavery.” I’m not implying anything about Leithart’s beliefs about slavery; I only mention it as a matter of interest. (I will say that if one of my colleagues wrote a pamphlet that even seemed to defend slavery as not entirely and without exception an evil institution I would have a talk with him or her. Maybe Leithart has done that. I hope so.)””

    • Norman

      I don’t think your criticism of Roger is fair. Roger seems to me is opening up the question concerning Leithart’s possible preconceptions regarding his favorable view of Constantine and questioning its convention. However Leithart apparently matured away from extreme Christian Reconstructionist and moved into a more nuanced exploration resulting in a movement called “Federal Vision”.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Vision

      “Several leaders in the Federal Vision began their theological careers in the Christian Reconstructionist movement until differences in methods and interpretations led to their exodus from Reconstructionism. Peter Leithart and James B. Jordan are two notable examples.”
      “In addition to the original four conference speakers, a number of men have identified themselves as proponents of Federal Vision theology by signing a document entitled, “A Joint Federal Vision Profession.” Signers include Randy Booth, Tim Gallant, Mark Horne, James B. Jordan, Peter Leithart, Rich Lusk, and Ralph A. Smith.

      Leithart has apparently separated his approach from Rushdoony.

      “Most who advocate the Federal Vision believe in some form of law-code based upon Scripture, but not many (if any) advocate Biblical law to the extent of the Christian Reconstructionists. Both Peter Leithart and James B. Jordan have publicly repudiated Theonomy as developed by R. J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary North.”

      Indeed it is very pertinent to seek an understanding of the degree of state and church union that Leithart has had a tendency toward historically. As I have mentioned previously Leithart has a propensity that colors his possible appreciation of Constantine church/state unification ideas. After all the Federal Vision view sees a progressive growth of the church and state until Christ returns when Christ and the church will rule a perfect world here on earth. That is the basics of their postmillennial view.

      I have read extensively some of these guys works such as James Jordan because they do utilize a biblical hermeneutic that is accurate to a degree but it is their conclusions of a physical tie in with the Kingdom of Christ where I part company with them (actually many areas I part with them). Their approach IMO makes a mockery of Christ words to Pilate that practically speaking the Romans do not have anything to fear as far as a physical army because Christ Kingdom is not of this physical world. These nuances concerning the physicality of the Kingdom have tormented the faithful for nearly 2000 years as there are many millennial approaches attempting to sort through it.

      John 17: 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
      John 19: 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

  • John Mark

    David Bentley Hart– in a book whose title escapes me, it is an oversize, heavily illustrated book on church history– says that Calvin taunted or mocked Servetus cries as he died. I have never read this anywhere else. Gonzalez, on the other hand, simply calls Calvin a ‘man of his times,’ an oft used argument, as this blog and comments would show. It is understandable (or is it?) that people would want to overlook the sins or flaws of the Reformers, or Church Fathers, though lamentable, and sad. Perhaps we are defending our own sins……

    • rogereolson

      If I’m not mistaken, Calvin sent William Farel to preach to Servetus while he roasted in the flames all day (due to a wind that kept putting out the flames so they had to be rekindled). But Calvin took full responsibility for it in letters responding to criticisms from fellow Swiss (and other) reformers.

      • John Mark

        Hart is a brilliant person, so I wonder–of he is in error–what his source was. Here is what he wrote: Servetus was convicted and sentenced to be burned at the stake. To his credit, perhaps, Calvin expressed a preference for quick and merciful decapitation. This did not prevent him later, how, from mocking Servetus’ cries of torment amid the flames. I suppose you could make the case that he was not present during the actual event. And again, he does not footnote this. The book is The Story of Christianity/Quercus Publishing/p. 193.

        • John Mark

          however rather than how, sorry

        • rogereolson

          If he is wrong about this detail, I don’t think it detracts from his overall excellence as a scholar. It’s a fairly minor point. Whether Calvin attended Servetus’ burning or sent Farel, he was complicit in the murder.

  • @Norman–what is fair is your careful description of concerns about Peter/reconstructionism, a carefulness not reflected in Roger’s post unfortunately.

    • rogereolson

      The question is–am I vindicated? 🙂 I guess not in your eyes. 🙁 All I said was what I suspected based on some clues in the book. I really don’t see what’s so wrong with that. I indicated that I wasn’t sure.

    • Norman

      Greg,
      I appreciate your concern for thoroughness in raising questions about people’s motives. I indeed understand where you were coming from in your questioning of Roger. However that is the reason that I chimed in with more clarification upon what Roger instincts were raising concerning Peter’s referencing a Reconstructionist ideologue. I felt that Roger raised valid concerns and I felt that more information would be helpful for clarification for Roger and the readers in my first post After all it appeared to me that Roger’s musing was seeking input and we as readers and participants in his blog were able to respond to a degree. It does indeed appear that Roger’s instincts were following a path that needed exploring.
      However your point of being careful and accurate is indeed noted and appreciated.

  • Phil

    I think it’s about time someone raised the issue of “historic slack”, as James puts it above, and take a stand against continuing to excuse what have been acts of pure evil on the part of characters like Constantine, Zwingli and Calvin, to name only a few. Drowning or burning someone alive is way beyond a mere mistake. It is beyond the pale. Most importantly it has only encouraged others to follow the example of their blasphemous brutality. Whether in the Holy Land during the Crusades, on the continent during the Reformation period, in England during the Civil War, or here in America in our first settlements and later across the West, the substance of our Christian “witness” has been the kind of conduct that in an earlier age prompted more than one declaration that “‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom 2.24).

  • Aaron

    The argument that these christians who tortured people were simply “men of their times” or “It was a harsh time” falls flat because the anabaptists were alive at the same time and yet they chose to love their enemies to the point of dying for them. Being “men of their times” gives people no excuse for torturing & killing others.

    • rogereolson

      I agree.

  • I do think that part of the issue is the murky realm of blogging ethics. I do agree that there is a distinction between a blog and a print/publication review and I wouldn’t want to suggest anything that would prevent the kind of exchanges and conversations that blogging makes possible. I have never made a comment like the ones here about any of Roger’s prior work and I have done so here out of my great respect for his work and its vital role in Christian development. I think Roger’s second blog on this topic is superb and more fairly places the burden on Leithart to respond.