Leithart’s Defending Constantine Revisited

Leithart’s Defending Constantine Revisited August 3, 2012

A No Longer Preliminary (and Yet Not Final) Report on Leithart’s Defending Constantine

A while back I posted a preliminary review of Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by theologian Peter Leithart (InterVarsity Press, 2010). At that point I had read only half the book—up through Chapter 8 “Nicea and After.” Then I expressed some qualms about Leithart’s argument and especially the last paragraph of Chapter 8 (p. 189). Referring to some of Constantine’s acts Leithart wrote “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?” I suggested that I feared Leithart was flirting with Christian Reconstructionism or something like it.

Now I have read the entire book. Let me say first that I’m glad I invested in it and read it. I like to read books with which I disagree. Karl Barth said that a person who knew only his own side of an argument knew little of that. I find that too few people are willing to do the hard work of reading books and articles (or listening to talk show programs!) with which they disagree. Only through encounter with the “other” can we come to understand our own beliefs and grow—possibly into change. That is why I am so dismayed by and often very critical of Calvinist theologians; my experience is that they have usually not even read any serious Arminian theology. Their entire “knowledge” of Arminian theology often comes from other Calvinist sources. That’s a travesty—especially when they go on to vilify Arminianism while misunderstanding it.

Leithart challenges me. And I have learned much from reading this book. I recommend it highly, but I urge caution. Read it critically. For example, I think Leithart takes Eusebius’s accounts of Constantine uncritically. He acknowledges occasionally that Eusebius may have exaggerated and that he may have been under an imperial spell. But, overall, I judge, he too easily buys into Eusebius’s portrait of Constantine as a sincere Christian and savior of the Christians.

Also, throughout the book Leithart continually refers to “the church”—meaning (at least when referring to ancient Christianity and empire) the Catholic church—to the exclusion of minority churches which he routinely treats as false forms of Christianity (e.g., Montanism and Donatism). I think he too uncritically accepts the myth of a unified “church of the bishops” as counted by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches without acknowledging (perhaps even to himself) that this was often structured via sanction by imperial power (beginning with Constantine).

I think most readers will see that Leithart has done a great deal of research. My main concern, as I think other readers’ should be, is not with the “facts” so much as with the picture he paints with them—that is, his interpretation of the facts from his own overall narrative of history and especially church history. He accuses Yoder of being wrongly biased by such a narrative, but, in my opinion, his is just as determinative and less convincing.

However, having said that, I don’t think piles and piles of facts prove either narrative correct to the exclusion of the other one. Yoder’s (who is Leithart’s foil throughout the book) and Leithart’s  are both perspectives that can be supported but not proven with historical facts. Leithart thinks the historical facts disprove Yoder’s, an argument with which I strongly disagree. But I don’t think bare facts can disprove Leithart’s, either.

One thing I must say about Leithart’s rhetoric is that I think it is unnecessarily harsh with regard to Yoder. In spite of some compliments, he frequently treats Yoder as some kind of Anabaptist nincompoop who ignorantly plays fast and loose with facts and, for the most part, simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he talks about Constantine and earlier and later church and state matters. For example, Leithart dismisses Yoder’s argument that, for the most part, pre-Constantinian Christianity was pacifist as absolutely unsupported by facts. What Leithart proves is that there were exceptions and that some lay Christians did participate in the military and wars, but I don’t think Yoder would dispute that. And some of Leithart’s evidence is, in my opinion, unconvincing. He quotes Origen and other early church fathers, for example, as praising the empire and its peace-keeping power and as expressing prayer to God for the empire. That’s not inconsistent with pacifism. There is and always has been a type of Christian pacifism that believes God gives the sword (violent power) to the state but not to Christians. A Christian pacifist can be very glad the Allies won World War 2 without believing Christians are called to take up arms violently.

I think Leithart simply does not grasp the Yoderian/Anabaptist/Hauerwas/Boyd (etc.) perspective on Christianity. He frequently ridicules Yoder for saying that Christianity experienced a “fall” with Constantine. (He admits that Yoder says the fall was gradual and not sudden; it was already beginning before Constantine and got worse after him.) He treats Constantine as a true Christian in spite of his “often horrific acts of unfaithfulness.” (For example, Constantine had his wife and son killed. Leithart tries to excuse these murders as possibly justified acts of capital punishment for incest and/or treason, but few historians are as lenient as that.) Yoder, et al., simply have a higher standard for true Christianity than Leithart. For them (and for me), it’s quite a stretch to think of Constantine as a true, sincere Christian even if he did favor Christianity and Christians and put a stop to persecutions of Christians (he persecuted Jews and “heretics,” though) and pagan sacrifices. Constantine kept the title “Pontifex Maximus” which was the traditional title of Roman emperors signifying their headship of the imperial pagan religion. And he was by all accounts, vain, power hungry, ambitious to a fault, militant and too willing to compromise with real heresy (viz., Arianism or semi-Arianism) something Leithart plays down.

But the real issue of this book is not Constantine as a person. The real issue of the book is political theology and especially the phenomenon of “Constantinianism.” The real issue of the book is Yoder’s pacifist and anti-power political theology, the “politics of Jesus.” Leithart can barely disguise his disdain, his total contempt for Yoder’s vision of Christianity in relation to states and governments and worldly political power.

I suggest readers begin reading Defending Constantine at the end. The real point of the book is found in Chapter 14: “Rome Baptized.” Read it first and then you’ll understand much of what he does with Constantine and Yoder earlier in the book, throughout most of the book. Chapter 14 contains at least strong hints of Leithart’s own political theology and it is almost opposite of Yoder’s (and Hauerwas’s and Boyd’s and other Anabaptists and quasi-Anabaptists).

In Chapter 14 Leithart expresses agreement with some of Yoder’s beliefs. He agrees, for example, that Jesus taught a social ethic and Christians do not need to, and should not, reach outside “evangelical Christian politics” for social-political norms. He says “If a Christian political theology cannot justify war, coercive punishment and judgment evangelically, it cannot justify them convincingly.” (p. 333) That’s where agreement begins and ends. Yoder says it cannot; Leithart says it can.

I begin to get nervous when Leithart says “I do not find Yoder’s claims that Jesus was a pacifist convincing.” (p. 333) Really? So, Leithart takes up the Sermon on the Mount issue. What did Jesus mean by those sayings? Well, first, we have to know that Leithart insists on interpreting the Sermon on the Mount in light of the Old Testament which, he tells us, reveals that “From the beginning, this Creator [Yahweh] made men to participate in and prosecute his wars. His goal in history is to train hands to fight.” (p. 333) According to Leithart, “We [God’s people] are priests and kings by his blood, anointed for priestly and royal service by baptism, baptized into armor, baptized for battle.” (p. 335) He qualifies this by saying that “our weapons are not fleshly but Spiritual,” (p. 335) but he goes on to argue that our weapons are also fleshly: “if the Lord lets Christians wield the most powerful of spiritual weapons, does he not expect us to be able to handle lesser weapons? If he has handed us a broadsword, does he not assume we know how to use a penknife?” (p. 336)

Then Leithart discusses the Sermon on the Mount weakly (in my opinion). He says that “the Old Testament remains normative for Christians” (p. 335) and “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth: so goes the pattern of biblical justice.” (p. 334) I don’t see that he really engages seriously with the Sermon on the Mount at all. I don’t think it would be unfair to say he sets it aside. Nowhere (that I could find) does he discuss “Resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39) or other absolutistic commands of Jesus.

Leithart argues (at the very end of the book) that what happened with Constantine was the empire welcomed the church into itself and allowed itself to be baptized by it. It wasn’t a sudden or full conversion; it was an “infant baptism” and, like all infant baptisms, it was only a beginning. Nevertheless, it’s clear that he does not see any real structural problem with the “Christianization of the Roman Empire” under Constantine. He admits very real problems later, but he doesn’t see them as endemic to the Constantinian relationship between church (and he means Roman Catholic) and empire.

Leithart suggest some specific things the Christian church should say to rulers in the “city of man” indwelt by the “Eucharistic city” of the church. (pp. 338-339) Few would disagree with them. According to him, “The ruler would get an earful of the politics of Jesus.” (p. 339) There the author speaks as if the role of the church would be speak truth to power. Who would disagree with that? Yoder certainly wouldn’t! So what’s different in Leithart’s politics of Jesus? Well, apparently, he believes in some kind of special relationship between church and empire such as was attempted by Constantine even if it never quite worked out the way it should have. Here’s a clue: “Through Constantine, Rome was baptized into a world without animal sacrifice and officially recognized the true sacrificial city, the one community that does offer a foretaste of the final kingdom. Christian Rome was in its infancy, but that was hardly surprising. All baptisms are infant baptisms.” (p. 341)

Leithart disagrees most vigorously with Yoder about the “Christianization of Rome.” He believes it was Christianized even if imperfectly.

Here’s the key to Leithart’s political theology. It’s the last paragraph of the book. He argues (leading up to it) that the problem with Yoder is that he thinks since the Roman Empire’s “Christianity” was infantile, it was apostate. (I doubt Yoder would describe it as “infantile.”) Leithart argues for a “middle time” between not Christian and fully Christian and situates Constantinian Rome and, one can only assume, the ideal state, in that situation. Read this carefully: “What can we expect in this middle time? Not much, Yoder thinks. He says that the project of Christianizing the state is doomed. The time when that could happen has long ago passed away. [Actually, I doubt Yoder thought that; he thought the Christianizing of the state is eschatological.] If he is right, we are facing nothing short of apocalypse. I believe that here too Yoder is wrong, and that we can escape apocalypse. But this can only happen on certain conditions: only through reevangelization, only through a revival of a purified Constantinianism, only by the formation of a Christically centered politics, only through fresh public confession that Jesus’ city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice. An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward to be baptized.” (p. 342)

Am I wrong to interpret that final statement through the lens of the statement of faith of the institution where Leithart teaches which affirms postmillennialism? I don’t think so. In my opinion, the statement taken alone, without that lens, implies postmillennial hopes if not confident expectations.

On the penultimate pages of the book Leithart lays out a stringent criticism, even condemnation, of modern nation states including democracies because they are post-Christian. (pp. 340-341) “We might say that modern nations are post-Christian; they benefit from the new covenant privilege of handling the sword and the fire but refuse to listen to Jesus when he tells them how to avoid cutting or burning themselves.” (p. 341) Yoder would no doubt ask if it is even possible for a nation state to be Christian short of the eschaton. I agree. Apparently Leithart dreams of a re-Christianizing of nations, perhaps the U.S., along Constantinian lines. What troubles me is the Constantinianism implied there. While Constantine did not make the Catholic Church the official church of the Roman Empire (Theodosius did that later, following the trajectory Constantine set in motion), he did favor the Catholic Church, interfered in church matters including theological disputes, exiled bishops who disagreed with him, persecuted Christian “schismatics and heretics,” and viewed himself, before baptism, as an authority over the church. Leithart disputes that, but I don’t see how he can. In some places he admits behavior that demonstrates it and in other places he denies that’s what it was. I think he’s inconsistent on that score.

What I ask Leithart is whether it is even conceivable that a nation state “listen to Jesus”—especially if one does not ignore Jesus’ strongest sayings in the Sermon on the Mount (as Leithart does). That is, before Jesus arrives as Lord in his parousia.

Leithart accuses Yoder of interpreting historical facts through a preconceived theological lens—the Anabaptist one. I am sure Yoder would accuse Leithart of interpreting historical facts and possibilities through a preconceived theological lens—a postmillennial and qualified Christian Reconstructionist one. (Here I am not using that term pejoratively even though I disagree with all forms of it.)

What Leithart needs to do now is publish a follow up volume telling us exactly what his envisioned Christianized nation would look like. Which form of Christianity would have the rulers’ ears? What precisely would be the relation between church and state? The only historical example I can think of, trying to be as generous as possible, is England and the Church of England. Would he want the monarch or president to be governor of the church? Would he want a constitutional requirement that the president or ruler belong to a Christian tradition-community? You see, there is no such thing as simply “listening to Jesus” pure and simple. A Christianized government would “listen to Jesus” as spoken by the human leaders of some denomination. Which one? What would happen to dissenters, “schismatics,” “heretics?”

These are all legitimate questions and they are not the only legitimate questions that must be raised to Leithart and anyone who argues for a re-Christianization of nation-state. What would be the historical model? Well, if I read Defending Constantine rightly at all, Leithart’s model is Constantine and the early fourth century Roman Empire. I find that truly frightening. Almost certainly had I lived there and then, I would have been one persecuted by the emperor and his favored bishops—just as Athanasius was. But I would probably be persecuted by Athanasius as well. Very specifically, what I would like to know is, what would Leithart advise the “Christianized” government to do about those who refuse to baptize infants? Those who ordain women to ministry? Those who “re-baptize” Christians baptized as infants because they don’t consider those “baptisms” legitimate? (This is analogous to the Donatists who refused to recognize Catholic baptisms and ordinations as valid when they were performed by lapsed priests. Constantine tried to force Donatists to re-unite with the Catholic Church under pain of severe persecution.)

It’s all well and good to envision and call for a re-Christianized nation state and to bemoan the secularization of modern nation states. But it’s another thing to provide a viable alternative that doesn’t take us back to state churches, persecutions of dissenters, treating non-Christians (or non-members of the favored flavor of Christianity) as second class citizens, etc.

Also, I agree with Yoder that Jesus was a pacifist. (By that I mean he did not use or sanction the use of deadly force.) But I also agree with Leithart that we cannot always be pacifists in this world. But I agree with Niebuhr that deadly force is always a sin and God is merciful and understands our predicament and forgives (when deadly force becomes a necessary evil). Leithart seems to see deadly force as something other than at best a necessary evil; he seems to see it as a Christian calling. That troubles me very much.

None of this is to imply that I’m finished with Leithart. If I can, I intend to read Defending Constantine again. I have yet to discuss the second half with my reading partner; he may convince me to change my mind about some of my conclusions. I remain open to correction from Leithart and/or his defenders. Where am I wrong? Why shouldn’t I be concerned? I hope Leithart writes the sequel I suggested above—to clarify and elaborate and explain.

In the meantime I have to consider Leithart, however tentatively and qualifiedly, a Christian Reconstructionist. I find that alarming. Perhaps that’s because of my Anabaptist sympathies, but I prefer to think it’s because I think power always corrupts and that before Jesus returns there is no possibility of an empire or nation state that is truly Christian. That’s not what Jesus envisioned.

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  • Rob

    There might be something deviant about his focusing on Constantine and not addressing the various state churches and wars of religion in the 1500s and 1600s. After all, these events are much closer to us in history and the modern liberal democracies we live in came into being partially as a reaction to these wars. If he want to convince us that we should create an alliance between church and state, shouldn’t he explain what went wrong with the magisterial reformations and the resulting wars? What do you do with dissenters? Or nations with a different church? How do we avoid living the 1600s all over again?

    • rogereolson

      He seems to think the only time in history when the church-state relationship was correct, or at least leaning in the right direction, was a “Constantinian interlude” (or something like that) before things went terribly wrong (e.g., with Theodosius). It seems he thinks they have never been right since then as he’s very critical of most arrangements throughout history. However, I do wonder if he thinks Calvin’s Geneva and John Knox’s Scotland might offer good models for today? He doesn’t mention them specifically, but in both cases the civil magistrates and the chief pastors/consistories worked together to develop a “Christianized” society/city/nation. But again, my question to him is (as is yours)–what about dissenters? I’m looking forward to his sequel (which I haven’t heard of but only hope for).

  • James Petticrew

    I am not a supporter of “established ” churches but I think the eventual model of the Church of Scotland after much spilled blood was as good as they get. Post Reformation the monarch was a member of the church an important member but not a supreme ruler. The church saw it’s role as educating the monarch in his role as a Christian monarch (James 6th ) probably thought they bulled him but a change from the monarch giving the church a hard time. The church also acted as the voice of the nation and church, Knox often harangued Mary Queen of Scots for her percieved faults.

    It was pretty obviously a model not favoured by the monarchy, right after the Union of Crowns James 6th now James 1 of England tried to impose the English model with power invested in the King on Scotland. This blew up in his son’s facing Charles 1st losing his life in the ensuing civil war. After the commonwealth of Cromwell Charles 2nd had thousands of .scots Presbyterians killed for resisting the episicopal system with it’s monarchial head ( presybterians killed more than a few Bishops and their supporters in retun) The scots secured their presbyterian system after the Glorious revolution which saw William and Mary come to the throne and it survivedthe Act of Union in 1707.

    Not anperfect model not even a good one but better than the Church of England one in my opinion.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I guessed (in response to a previous commenter) that Leithart might be thinking of Scotland (or Geneva) as the model. However, this still raises the question of dissenters and which “church” is going to be favored by the monarch or other civil rulers. Any established church in any country is always going to try to squeeze out any influence by its competitors.

      • James Petticrew

        To hold Scotland up as any sort of example he would have to deal with the disastrous “rule of the saints” and the endless bloody feuding between episcopalian and Presbyterians each one using / conniving with the State to the suppress the other, usually violently. It seems to me that access to state power always seems to subvert or compromise the essence of the Kingdom of God eventually.

        • rogereolson

          Yoder’s point exactly. In my opinion, Leithart (and others) dismisses this issue too cavalierly (or hardly even discusses it). His engagement with Yoderian thinking about power is, in my opinion, shallow. I wonder how many readers of Defending Constantine realized that?

  • This is an excellent engagement and a great challenge to Leithart. And everything you find frightening in the book I find frightening as well. I would like to see you explain what you mean by Christian Reconstructionism and how Leithart exhibits it because that term has multiple meanings, all of which trouble me but to degrees that vary depending on the definition.

    There is a Roman Catholic triumphalism (see the book Triumph for a perfect example of it) and a Reformed triumphalism and when the two overlap other Christian traditions don’t receive fair hearings.

    • rogereolson

      By “Christian Reconstructionism” I mean (in its broadest meaning) any desire or attempt to “Christianize” the nation that goes beyond persuasion into restructuring the fundamental legal system so that it is based on “biblical law.”

  • Bev Mitchell


    Thanks for his review. It brings home clearly the seemingly irreconcilable perspectives of OT Christians and NT Christians. Greg Boyd is currently preaching a sermon or two along these lines. His stories (timely warnings) about how some OT Christian leaders are using the “normative” OT passages to justify horrible prayers of their own design are absolutely chilling – a NT Christian would be right in calling them evil.

    This brings up Matt. 5:39 “resist not evil” that you question Leithart about. Only somewhat tongue in cheek one could ask: “To what lengths should we go to resist the evil that flows from considering some parts of OT law as normative? (Paul has a couple of imaginative suggestions!) With the Spirit’s help we can abolish such thinking from our own mind and spirit – is this sufficient? 

    And speaking of chilling: “An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward to be baptized.” It’s odd how such a strong endorsement  of “collective christianity” can come from a philosophy/political theology that is so thoroughly individualistic – but then inconsistent thinking seems to be all the rage these days. I wonder if this quote appears on the dust cover of the book? It should, in all honesty.

    This is indeed scary stuff, if one even knows a bit of history. I like the outline  you suggest for Leithart’s next book, but it would be even more frightening.

    • rogereolson

      I have been informed he has a forthcoming book in “empire.” That’s all I was told. I’m looking forward to reading it and reviewing it here! 🙂

  • Bev Mitchell

    My good wife reminded me of the answer to my semi- tongue in cheek question above re what we should do to resist. She has a way of cutting to the heart of the matter after I have gone on overlong. Her answer is covered in Mark 9:28-9  After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, 
    “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied , “This kind can come out only by prayer (and fasting).” NIV 2011

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    CONCERNING CONSTANTINE’S CHRISTIAN CONVERSION: Theodoret’s Ecclesiastical History (1.17) suggests that [his mother, Helena] “nurtured [Constantine] in piety”, meaning that she was responsible for furthering Constantine’s own faith at some point of his life. She was a devout Christian who later funded the construction of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Other historians have suggested that his father was also sympathetic to the emerging Christian religion in a syncretic kind of way. If this be true, it would seem to indicate that Constantine’s later vision at the Milvian Bridge was the culmination of Christian witness, not his initial introduction to the faith.

    • rogereolson

      Leithart admits Christian influence on Constantine before his “vision.” But he takes Eusebius’ description of Constantine’s “conversion” too much at face value, in my opinion. But that’s not his main point or mine. He thinks Constantine was a real Christian; I don’t. We look at the same evidence and he interprets it one way and I interpret it another way. I’m not questioning Constantine’s salvation; that’s God’s business, not mine. But I do question the authenticity of C’s Christian discipleship. He seems to me to have been more a lover of power than Christ.

  • Wright

    The way he treats the New Testament passages is, well, frankly quite disturbing. Favouring “an eye for an eye” over the Sermon on the Mount? That seems wildly antithetical to the majority of Jesus’ teachings on the subject.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Obviously this is bugging me.

    Amazing how some can wallow in the diagnosis of the NT while clinging by their fingernails to the unworkable solutions of the OT. I guess if one is of the elect, then he will know how to make the Law work. Didn’t we hear something similar from that other branch of totalitarianism after the Russians messed it up? Getting both diagnosis and treatment correct concurrently appears to be a difficult challenge for all of God’s children.

  • Cal

    Oh boy…
    I’ve read Yoder and as far as I know, Leithart is guilty of not only misrepresenting Yoder correctly (as you point out) but just bad history.

    It is often left out that 3 of the 4 emperors in the bloody war for the throne were supporters of tolerance for the Christians. In fact, Eusebius originally praised Constantine AND Licinius when they defeated Maximinius Daia and Maxentius. Then when Constantine invades (in essence) Licinius, the court mouth piece Eusebius curses Licinius as the force of the devil.

    Some people try to say that Constantine was never a Christian and was shrewd; others say he was a devout Christian who tried to rule the best he could with his old influences. My opinion based on what I’ve read is that Constantine was a very superstitious man. He was willing to worship the Christ, though he was not ready to give up his piety to Sol and some of the other gods of Rome. In fact, there is evidence that Constantine began to style himself as a sort of equal with Christ, a second messiah if you will.

    While I think Constantine was a typical, power mad Caesar who paid whatever price to secure the throne and the Empire, my disdain falls mostly on Eusebius of Caesarea. He was no historian, not even a hagiographer, as much as a triumphalist propagandist. He was half-Christian in his theology, overly accommodating to Pagan influence and traditions of Rome and was a court sycophant. Constantine was merely a superstitious brute, Eusebius is a Bishop! If ever there is man who says “Lord, Lord” and is not known, it is he. He is Goebbels before Goebbels.

    Of course, the main question is whether there is anything called a “Christian State”. That Leithart has no proof of Biblically without misinterpreting the OT completely. It would be sad indeed that in 1700 years of “Christian Kingdoms” none are even remotely just and have caused unmeasured suffering across the globe. Reconstructionist/Dominionist/Nationalist strands of Christianity (I would even say apostate in essence) choke on Jesus saying that His Kingdom is not of this world. If you want to see hermeneutical gymnastics, look up their arguments for that.

    I’m even somewhat Reformed and would practice a form of Infant Baptism and find Leithart’s abuse of the concept odd. Is that what Jesus meant when He said to baptize all nations? If so, evangelical efforts have been in vain for the past thousand years!

    Good post Roger.

  • Reconstructionism often lays dormant in those who attach to the Reformed camp. It is there ready for the spark to be added. When I was at Westminster Seminary I was surprised by how many Reconstructionists were there and not a little unhappy at their place at the intellectual table. Old Testament Israel was seen as the best example of a nation state being ruled by the law of God and something to be emulated for our time, including its extreme sanctions. It was a head shaker to find that at a graduate level there were actually discussions going on about the death penalty for homosexuals. I suppose every theological system has its version of the crazy aunt in the attic. But not a few of the students were majoring in Rushdoony and company and bringing it regularly into class discussions. If you read Leithart’s blog, which I do, one can feel the trajectory, even though he seems capable of riding the wide open ranges of intellectual life. And if you read more about the seminary where he teaches, it becomes even more alarming. I know this sounds muckraking. And I seriously do not want to fling charges this way and that. But the trajectory makes me very uncomfortable. There are too many fantasies about a “christianized” society to make me feel comfortable about wanting to be there.

  • Bev Mitchell

    The convergence upon this general topic in some of this week’s blogs, podcasts is striking ( Jesus Creed, Pete Enns, Greg Boyd and here). Boyd’s text is Colossians 2:16-17, where Paul talks of the things of the OT being a shadow of the things to come (eg. the revelations encountered in the NT). Do have a listen to “Shadow of the Cross” and God’s Shadow Activity” at this site: http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon-podcasts
    Click High Quality Video to find the list.

  • John C. Gardner

    I think all of us should be careful historically about thinking that any governmental-church nexus has been wise or effective. Think of the Puritans who came for their own religious freedom but were willing to deny it to others. Remember John Leland who worked with Jefferson(an individual he admired but disagreed with theologically) on issues of separation of state and church. The first amendment is a positive in our country and we need to be involved in stopping evils in society rather than baptizing any government’s or ruler’s policies. A very thoughtful post.

  • Prof. Olson, you have been hitting the nail on the head, lately. Your recent posting on “grace-works” is spot on. Here too, you have identified the crux of the evangelical/catholic plight. Doesn’t the issue boil down to some wanting to create the kingdom in their own image? Wasn’t this the biggest complaint Jesus had with the Pharisees? The kingdom has come–but not yet all and in all–and Jesus is king. We cannot make the world become the kingdom any more than we could make ourselves the kingdom. The more we walk in God’s kingdom by loving God and so trusting Him completely by obeying Him according to kingdom principles (can you say, “grace-works?”), the more the members of Man’s kingdom will see it as desirable and righteous; and some will enter it. Putting it another way, if we continue to believe we can bring righteousness using unrighteous tactics–however expedient it might seem or comfortable it might feel–we are ultimately trying to save our own lives, and the lost world around us will come to the conclusion that God never really visited us. The worst thing that ever happened to the church was when it became the state power.

  • Philip

    Thanks for such a helpful review. I read Leithart’s book last year, but without a firm grounding in early church history / history of the Roman Empire, it was difficult to engage with some of the arguments and discern how accurate or fair they were. My only question regards your comment: “There is and always has been a type of Christian pacifism that believes God gives the sword (violent power) to the state but not to Christians. A Christian pacifist can be very glad the Allies won World War 2 without believing Christians are called to take up arms violently.” To be honest, I don’t understand how a pacifict can concede that something (violent power) is necessary while maintaining that it is inappropriate for Christian participation. Holding the “violent power is a necessary part of the world but Christians can’t be involved view” seems unsustainable to me.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see the problem. Many churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, have long held that ordained ministers/priests must not take up arms to fight and yet they believe in “just wars.” Some Anabaptists have simply extended that thinking to all Christians (as all are priests). God has raised up the church, the people of God, as a light to the nations–to show a better way than force and violence. But, to hold back evil, God grants civil rulers the ability to use godless weapons for order and peace among sinners. It’s a version of two kingdoms theology. Only Luther thought a Christian can live in both kingdoms at once (while denying priests the right to bear arms–he was harshly critical of Zwingli for strapping on a sword and going into battle to defend Protestant towns in Switzerland).

      • Philip

        This is a helpful explanation with helpful historical examples, and the two kingdoms theology is probably where I’m tripping up. I’m still struggling with it, and I should have been more precise with my concern: If part of our role as the light to the nations is to show a better way (a presupposition with which I thoroughly agree), how can we (assuming “we” are pacifists) be grateful when the unregenerate exercise a violent force which we believe further separates them from God? I guess in other words, I can think of no other action which Christians view as unregenerate / inconsistent with the Kingdom of God but for which they are simultaneously grateful. It seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition for me.

        • Philip

          p.s. Thank you again for the initial post and for taking the time to reply to my response. Blessings to you this Sabbath,

          • rogereolson

            You’re welcome. These are interesting questions.

        • rogereolson

          I was recently talking with the pastor of a Mennonite church and we talked a little about an Amish church not far away. I asked if they ever did anything together. She said no. One reason (she strongly hinted at) is that they, the Amish, will be glad if the Republicans win the next national election. Interesting. They don’t vote, but they care about the outcome. I don’t know how we could avoid thinking God is in charge of what happens in things like national politics and even wars. If I ever become a pacifist I will still rejoice when a bloody dictator is overthrown. The church is to be a community that shows the world the better, the ideal way of peace. But, in the world already separated spiritually from God, there are greater and lesser evils. Surely Hitler’s defeat was at least a mixed blessing and God had something to do with it?

  • Bev Mitchell

    So glad to see how many get it re this post and how clearly/firmly those sharing your concerns speak. What are we really up against here? How pervasive and firmly held is the contrary point of view? (Don Bryant provides a scary clue) Why don’t we hear more people speaking out as in this post? Should we expect to hear more?

    Our pastor this AM brought up Psalm 106:12-15 in a somewhat different context, but it serves in this context as well.

    “Then they believed His promise, and sang His praises. But they soon forgot his deeds; they would not wait to learn His plan. They were seized with craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the wasteland. He gave them what they asked for, then made them waste away.” Tanakh Translation

    It’s the part between the giving them what they want and the wasting away where much of history’s grief can be found.

  • Dwight Gingrich

    Very good post, and very good comments here! (I am biased; I am an Anabaptist–conservative Mennonite, to be precise.)

    Philip raised an interesting point regarding a pacifist supporting the state’s use of the sword: “I can think of no other action which Christians view as unregenerate / inconsistent with the Kingdom of God but for which they are simultaneously grateful.” We are not grateful when the state exercises their God-given freedom to promote sexually immoral lifestyles, racism, or child trafficking, so why should we be grateful if they wield the sword?

    Perhaps part of the answer is found in avoiding false parallels. As a Christian, I believe racism is categorically wrong–now and forever. Similarly, there will never be a time when it is right to commit adultery or to rejoice when others do so. But I am convinced that a biblical understanding of pacifism (or “non-resistance,” to use a term more traditional in my heritage and more closely tied to Jesus’ words) does not imply that vengeance is intrinsically wrong in the same way that racism and adultery are wrong.

    The Bible does not say that vengeance is wrong; rather, the NT says that individual Christians are not to take their own revenge; they are to “leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19). How does God express that wrath? Temporally, he often expresses it through the state: “It is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). (Of course, this passage is speaking directly of the rule of a government over its own citizens, not of one state waging just war against another. But OT passages about God using one nation to judge another would seem to suggest that there are theological parallels between the two situations.) Thus, I can be grateful when a state acts justly as a minister of God in carrying out vengeance against evildoers, even while (or especially because?!) I am not called to carry out that vengeance myself.

    If I remember correctly, Luther’s understanding of two kingdoms would say that an individual Christian can then function within the kingdom of the world (as an agent of the state) to carry out that justice. I am not convinced the NT leaves room for a Christian to do that. (See Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul’s language of us=Christians and it=governing authority, etc.)

    However, and this is a second answer to Philip’s question, several NT passages (especially Revelation, but also others) seem to indicate that after Christ’s return the saints will take part in judging the world and perhaps even joining Christ in co-executing God’s vengeance upon unbelievers. In God’s mysterious economy, this will then be a morally upright thing for believers to do–after God has closed the door of salvation for unbelievers, and after our own hearts are completely sanctified of all sin.

    At very minimum, Revelation 19 clearly portrays the saints rejoicing as God’s vengeance is poured out on the enemies of God. I think even now we experience a small foretaste of that rejoicing when we see the state exercising justice against evildoers, however tempered that rejoicing must be with sorrow over our own folly and with hope that our enemies may yet be saved.

    • rogereolson

      This is exactly what I have always thought the Anabaptist understanding of violence to be–that it is God’s prerogative and not ours and that he may use the state in that way, but we, God’s people, are to live by the Sermon on the Mount. I wonder how conservative Mennonites who hold this traditional view of “the sword” (as belonging to God alone who can give it to the state but does not give it to Christians) view people like Denny Weaver who seems (I may be wrong) to think Anabaptism requires belief that even God does not use violence.

      • Dwight Gingrich

        I have heard the name Denny Weaver but have not directly read his thoughts. I have, however, encountered friends in my conservative Anabaptist circles who question, not whether God uses violence, but whether Christ’s return will bring a change to the requirements of the Sermon on the Mount upon Christ-followers. In other words, some do not see any room, even in the age to come, for Christians to join Christ in ruling the nations, and who are very hesitant to even leave room as per Rev. 19 for believers to rejoice in the final judgment of the wicked. I think this is a misunderstanding of Scripture. The view you suggest of Denny Weaver is much more seriously wrong, for it undercuts the overwhelming biblical testimony of God/Christ as final Judge who will pour out unmixed wrath upon sin and sinners.

        • rogereolson

          Could you provide the names and titles of some authors/books that express the traditional Mennonite view of God, government and violence? When I first read J. Denny Weaver on “non-violent atonement” I wondered if he was expressing a traditional Anabaptist view or his own (and perhaps others’) non-traditional view.

          • Dwight Gingrich

            I am not that well-read on the topic. I just now scanned my half-dozen or so books on Anabaptist history and/or theology and would recommend one as the most helpful I possess: Anabaptism in Outline, edited by Walter Klaassen and published by Herald Press. It is a compilation of primary sources, with editorial introductions. Two of its 27 chapters address “Government” and “Nonresistance.”

            A few excerpts from editorial comments: “Government belonged to the kingdom of this world. Nevertheless, government, according to all Anabaptists, was appointed by God and performed a divine function whether it was benevolent or tyrannous…. It kept order by force in a world in which the spirit of Christ had not yet captured all hearts and made them obedient. This use of basic force was never disputed by Anabaptists.”

            Also of interest are editorial comments from the chapter on Eschatology: “…The suffering and martyrdom would be only temporary. After that would come the judgment when they would be rewarded for their faithfulness, and their enemies would receive their deserved condemnation. The Anabaptists were, for the most part, not free to retaliate against the attacks of their enemies. They could not always resist expressing a certain degree of satisfaction at the prospect of the torments which would come on their enemies at God’s hands.”

            A non-book source you probably are already aware of would be gameo.org (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online).

            Finally, here is a discussion of Denny Weaver’s non-violent atonement on an important Anabaptist online forum: http://mennodiscuss.com/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=9441&hilit=nonviolent+atonement


  • Jon

    I think Leithart has viewed church history through the prism of postmillennialism and, as Oleson points out, a qualified reconstructionism. It really makes no sense. When I think of the Constantinian situation and various similar possiblities that could yet arise, I see nothing desirable.