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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