The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.
Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.
But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.
“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”
This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”
Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith.
Rescuing the historical narrative from the strictures of a Yoder-like pacifism is no easy task. Pacifist ideas hold tremendous moral power because they appeal to an unblemished definition of personal virtue. It enables the pacifist to occupy a moral high-ground that is virtually unassailable. Who, after all, really wants violence? And who, in defending the necessity of violence, does not feel the heat of the pacifist’s disapproving stare?
The culture surrounding the early Christians was often violent. But the violence, while often senseless, still has a cultural and thus comprehensible context. Violence was endemic in pagan culture. It often was seen as divinely ordained. It’s the historian’s task to uncover, define, and describe it for us. It takes real work to describe it properly and the reader must labor to understand it. When the narrative has to throw off the strictures of pacifism and other anachronistic preconceptions, the task is even harder.
Rescuing the historical narrative then requires two things. First, the modern animus against violence must be seen for what it is: a moralistic precondition imposed on the text and fundamentally a-historical. Second, a new narrative free of the precondition has to be written; history needs to be rediscovered. This requires an able historian who is also a good writer.
Leithart accomplishes both. First he is very clear in his purposes and approach. He pulls no punches, couches nothing in euphemism, and makes no appeals to false virtue. Second, Leithart has the novelist’s gift for description and detail. He captures the native lyricism of the language. The book is a joy to read.
Review by Johannes L. JacobseGoogle+