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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