Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 373 pages.
Peter J. Leithart’s recent book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, is not uncontroversial, especially among those who have inherited a particular reading of “Constantinianism” from prominent Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder. What might be the purpose of defending an era fraught with conquest and violence? In a promotional blurb, William Cavanaugh suggests that “[i]f the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during [Constantine’s reign], we must find ways to appreciate Christendom.” Certainly this is Leithart’s primary task—to revisit the contested history of the empire and the church in the time shortly before, during, and after Constantine’s reign.
Leithart begins his enterprise with a detailed account of the history of the Roman Empire in the century leading up to Constantine, beginning with Emperor Diocletian. He describes the short-lived peacetime under the Tetrarchy (rule of four Caesars) and the conflict, corruption, persecution, and bloodbaths that emerged thereafter. This gives the reader a sense of the form of Principate politics, the kind of world Christians and pagans were living in at the time. A similarly careful account of the empire under Constantine’s reign sits in stark contrast. Leithart addresses a variety of questions including the person of Constantine, his edicts and laws, his relationships to the church and bishops, as well as to pagans and other Caesars. Leithart’s primary purpose here is to put forward a more nuanced reading of history in which the union of Church and Empire (in Constantine’s Christian reign) is not regarded as somehow a priori evil. Such a reading essentially undermines Yoder’s rendering of Constantinianism as a “fall” from the true, pre-Constantinian church. By contrasting the politics of the Principate with those of Constantine, Leithart shows that the so-called “conversion” of the empire to Christianity brought with it a great deal of good, which must be given due consideration.
In one sense then, Leithart’s thesis can be summed up as an argument against Yoder’s account of Constantinianism. Yoder’s critique rests on the notion that the union of church and empire marks a “fall” from a prior pacifist ecclesiology to one that can no longer be faithful because of its collusion with the empire. In order to make his rebuttal, Leithart must show, first of all, that the church prior to Constantine was not unequivocally pacifist, and second, the Constantinian capacity for faithfulness. The early church displays the ambiguity of its position on military involvement in the variety of positions taken by prominent writers such as Origen, Lactantius, Tertullian, and Eusebius. Leithart entitles the argument for the possibility or capacity of faithfulness under Constantine “the end of sacrifice.” The Pagan Roman Empire believed that its security and prosperity were determined by capricious gods and therefore demanded constant sacrifices to please and mollify them. The Pagan religion was a bloody one. Moreover, the Christian minority was severely persecuted by previous emperors; their commitment to monotheism and refusal to sacrifice suggested infidelity to Rome. Constantine’s adoption of monotheism therefore catalyzed a dramatic change in the politics of religion. The Christian God he worshiped did not demand sacrifices, and the prosperity of the city was affirmed through God’s providence in Constantine’s victorious battle against Maxentius following his “conversion.” The greatest accomplishment of the new Christian Empire was doubtless the considerable reduction of bloodshed achieved by simultaneously calling for an end to pagan sacrifices and the persecution of Christians. The end of sacrifice was only one symptom or sign of the destructive effect Constantine would have on the Roman Empire. Leithart argues further that it is important to note that the “Constantinian shift” was not a subjection of the church under the rule of the empire, what one might today call the secularization of Christianity. Rather, it was the Roman Empire that was effectively “baptized” or Christianized. Surely this is a piece of “Constantinian” history that contemporary Christians can appreciate—or perhaps not.
While the society Constantine creates on the basis of Christianity is certainly preferable in many ways to that of the Principate, the new Christian Empire lacks an essential ecclesial distinction. For Yoder, method is the problem as much as substance. Leithart’s argument is made by drawing our attention to the remarkable changes in society that Constantine’s reign brought about (e.g., the Edict of Milan, which affirms religious freedom and the restoration of possessions to the churches). This is not sufficient for Yoder. The problem is that in the process of Constantinianization, the church becomes too comfortable in its new position of power. It takes a posture of empire (though not the Roman posture), of rule and control. Yoder submits that this is an ecclesial idolatry.
Leithart’s greatest strength is his thorough historicity and refusal to caricature his opponents. He goes to great lengths to outline several of Yoder’s arguments for the reader, taking into account his Anabaptist tradition, how Yoder makes his arguments, and their aim or the implications thereof. Leithart raises important questions about the relationship between theology and history, suggesting that Yoder’s work perhaps loses some of its rigor and validity by separating a theological critique of Constantinianism from the historical Constantine. However, Leithart and Yoder seem to be talking past each other at some crucial points. Leithart’s argument remains one in which faithfulness, discipleship, and ethics are primarily conceived of within worldly structures and powers though they are “Christianized.” For Yoder, faithfulness turns upon a church/world distinction in which the former bears witness to a reality that is radically other than (but not separate from) the ways of the world. It is this distinction that Leithart either does not understand, or to which he simply fails to attend.