Peter J. Leithart
Jesus inaugurated Christianity; Constantine inaugurated Christendom. This is a story that needs telling again.
In Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, author Peter J. Leithart has written an important book about this story for Anabaptist thinkers.
Important books are rarely one-dimensional, and there are at least three facets to this book. At the most basic level, it tells a key story. The twilight of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christendom is a very big deal. It ranks with the Reformation in defining who we are.
The scope and speed of this transition are hard to fully grasp. A possible modern equivalent might be the 1989 collapse of Communism in the USSR. Apparently without warning, the guiding paradigm of a world power collapsed and was replaced. But Soviet communism was only 70 yearsold, whereas Rome had been a world power for 400 years.
Leithart begins his narrative with the infamous Emperor Diocletian, explaining the Diocletian persecutions so well that the first section of the book could have been called “Defending Diocletian.” It is fascinating, but the book’s weakness is the skill of the storyteller. Good stories need good storytellers, and this tale is much better than its teller. Nevertheless, anyone who reads it will be amply rewarded for the effort.
In AD 303, Diocletian instituted the last great wave of persecutions against Christianity. In AD 312, on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky. In AD 313, the Edict of Milan restored freedom and property to Christians, and a Christian emperor was sitting on Caesar’s throne. The speed of this transition is breathtaking.
For Anabaptists, the story is particularly important because, as Leithart writes, the Radical Reformation put Constantine at the centre of everything that had gone wrong in the previous 1,000 years. This set the Anabaptists dramatically apart from the Magisterial Reformation. The Radical Reformation was not merely a break from Roman Catholicism, but a radical revoking of Christendom itself; the breaking of the bond between church and state.
Anabaptists who want to understand their roots actually need to know the story of Constantine. This is especially true for contemporary Anabaptists. Anabaptism is popularly called the theology of “post-Christendom.” If this is true, and I believe it is, we must understand what Christendom actually is. Leithart makes the case for Christendom.
Finally, this is an important book for modern Anabaptists because Leithart takes direct aim at one of the most revered Anabaptist theologians of our time, John Howard Yoder. He challenges Yoder’s version of the Constantinian fall of the church, and sets about “to break apart what Yoder has put together.”
Yoder rewrote Anabaptism for the modern palate. He did this by, on one hand, attempting to adjust the Anabaptist view of politics to make room for Christian politics. On the other hand, Yoder attempted to preserve the Anabaptist critique of Christendom.
Leithart challenges Yoder from the Christendom perspective.
The first attack is on Yoder, the historian. Point by point, Leithart challenges Yoder’s narrative of Constantine’s motivation. Was he a shrewd politician who read the times well and simply changed one religion for another in the service of the state, as Yoder claims? Or was he a man of sincere, deep, and informed faith, bringing his profound gifts and his moment in history together under the lordship of Jesus? Leithart argues persuasively for the latter. He does not gloss over the dark sides of Constantine – of which there are many – but builds his case carefully, if dramatically: “Constantine is less a theocrat imposing Christianity than Billy Graham issuing an altar call.”
Leithart’s claim that Yoder was – in the case of Constantine– a poor historian is bold. Yoder was a scholar among scholars; only the most technically equipped readers will be competent to assess Leithart’s challenge. Even Yoder scholar Stanley Hauerwas reserves judgment on this point, but notes that Yoder did not have the benefit of modern scholarship. While I am not a scholar, I am familiar with many of the primary texts and find this defense weak. The primary texts are ancient and accessible, if mostly unread, by moderns. On this count, I find Leithart persuasive.
But Leithart’s argument goes far deeper. This book “is not intended to be a Big Book of Quibbles.” No, Leithart claims, Yoder’s problem goes far beyond a misreading of details; Yoder has constructed an argument that doesn’t work historically or biblically. “The New Testament does not, in my view, help Yoder.” For Anabaptists this is the most serious charge Leithart makes. What elevates the book beyond a list of historians’ nitpicking is the claim that Yoder’s critique of Christendom is biblically flawed.
Ironically, I believe Anabaptists need to read this book most closely where Leithart and Yoder agree. “I think Yoder is correct,” Leithart writes. “If there is going to be a Christian politics, it is going to have to be an evangelical Christian politics, one that places Jesus, his cross and his resurrection at the center…. Perhaps he lost the historical argument but wins the theological one.”
Yoder challenged his inherited Anabaptism in his book The Politics Of Jesus. Here, he tried to demonstrate a controversial merger of the gospel and politics. I believe he was wrong in this – there is no Christian politics any more than there is a Chrisitan physics, biology, or economics.
In summing up, Leithart makes an interesting statement: “Through Constantine, Rome was baptized.… In the end it all comes round to baptism, specifically to infant baptism.” It is a tantalizing statement. To create a “politics of Jesus,” one must also redefine baptism.
Until reading this book, I found it odd that Yoder’s Anabaptism was so attractive to pedobaptism theologians like Hauerwas. Isn’t believer’s baptism the core of Anabaptism? If Leithart is right, it explains how such an attraction could occur and also why Yoder needs to be read more carefully and critically by believers church theologians.
The best that a short review of a complex book, dealing with a complex and controversial topic, can hope to achieve is to pique interest. I hope I have done so. This book brings forward much to be discussed – but it must also be read.