Defending Constantine: the failure of imagination

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I am increasingly coming to the view that a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament will sooner or later be seen to have significant implications for how we understand the transition that the church made in the fourth century from persecuted minority to privileged imperial religion. For the most part, theological opinion today holds that Constantinianism was at best a regrettable compromise and at worst a catastrophic departure from New Testament Christianity. I think that an important strand of New Testament prophetic thought has in view—quite concretely and realistically—the ending of the persecution of the early church, the defeat of paganism, and the public, empire-wide acknowledgment of Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords”. The exegetical argument does not amount to an exculpation of Christendom—and it is certainly not a call for its reinstatement. But I do think that an evangelical theology needs to re-examine the modern prejudice against Constantine and the Christendom paradigm, and to consider other ways of integrating the transformative event into its self-understanding.

If anyone is willing to set out on this revisionist journey, Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom is an excellent place to start. I plan to review the book in piecemeal fashion, here jumping in at the point where Leithart first takes issue with the influential argument of John Howard Yoder that ”Constantinianism” was a “heresy”—a “disavowal and apostasy”—that has created a gap between biblical Christianity and the modern church (175).

Leithart is not blind to the contradictions, ironies and injustices that marred the difficult merger of church and state, but he thinks that Yoder’s account of what happened to the church in the fourth century is seriously misleading and in places “outright false”. Yoder misrepresents the contrast between the “hardy heroic church of the martyrs” and the “accommodated post-Constantinian church” (178). For example, there is evidence that the process leading to baptism was more, not less, rigorous after Constantine. Yoder misreads both Eusebius, who, for all his enthusiasm for the new state of affairs, maintained a certain independence of church and state and did not believe that Constantine’s victory inaugurated the millennium, and Augustine, who wrote City of God in order to “distinguish the Roman peace from the peace of the kingdom” (180). He also “makes questionable claims about the relationship between Christology and politics in the fourth century”—it cannot simply be argued, Leithart claims, that the heretics were always on the side of a prophetic biblical truth while the supposedly “orthodox” had sold out to empire. It is interesting to see that Stanley Hauerwas agrees with much of Leithart’s analysis.

But perhaps the more interesting part of Leithart’s critique of Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism, at least in this section of the book, is its lack of historical imagination or empathy, its failure both historically and theologically to understand the particular realities of the transition.

More fundamentally, Yoder utterly fails to grasp the motivations and passions of fourth-century actors…. For all his interest in martyrs and the suffering church, Yoder makes virtually no effort to enter into the mentality of beleaguered Christians or to understand the relief they felt at the gradual realization that Constantine was on their side and he was going to be there for a long time. I have not found in Yoder a single word of gratitude to Constantine for keeping Roman officials from killing Christians for being Christians. I have not found a single word that shows any effort to get under the “psychic skin” of bishops (like Eusebius) who witnessed Christians being roasted alive and then witnessed Constantine kissing the empty eye-sockets of a persecuted brother. Yoder shows little sign of trying to understand why the bishops answered the question “Where should the emperor sit in Council?” the way they did. (181-182)

Leithart concludes the section by stressing the unprecedented nature of the problem with which both the emperor and the church were confronted. On the one hand, a Christian emperor had to work out how to reconcile his political responsibilities with his conviction that the security and integrity of the empire were firmly in the hands of the one true God; and on the other, a victorious church, convinced that the faith of the martyrs had been vindicated by the conversion of Constantine, had to work out how to “integrate the emperor into the church” (183).

What interests me especially in this, however, is the alignment of this natural sense of victory and vindication with the hope widely expressed in the New Testament that the suffering community of the saints would eventually be vindicated or justified in the presence of the Son of man following judgment on an aggressive pagan power.

peter wilkinson | Sat, 01/22/2011 - 12:50 | Permalink

Andrew- before you get going on this review/commentary, and to render redundant future interventions from myself, may I say that the 'either/or' trap of evaluating church history (either the post-Constantinian church was right or the post-Constantinian church of the excluded doughty martyrs was right) is helpful to nobody. In my post on 'The inheritance of the world', I was careful to note that the post-Constantinian picture is, at the least, very complicated. Even Augustine, who discerningly distinguished the lasting city of God from temporary city of Rome, was a supporter of 'Roman' methods of coercion when it came to dealing with dissent.

I am however, wishing at the outset to raise a question over any proposal that the church which developed under Constantinian toleration represented the triumph of Jesus as Lord over imperial Rome, and that this fulfilled a NT narrative line. That this proposal is flawed is apparent on two counts: 1. The post-Constantinian church never consistently reflected the Lordship of Christ, if we are to take Christ's teaching as any sort of basis for evaluating the church; 2. The meaning of the Lordship of Christ was never anyway couched in terms of kingdoms which could be identified with systems of human government.

The flaw at the heart of the 'Christendom' proposition is that the kingdom of God became too closely associated with the Roman Empire, and began to adopt the vices of the empire which had been apparent before Christianity became its official religion. This development is anyway one which you have already criticised as a Eurocentric model which was exported to the rest of the world. Which viewpoint are we to have? Post-Constantine as the triumph of Jesus as Lord, or post-Constantine as an oppressive colonial system which is now (thankfully) in its death throes, and needs to be deconstructed, starting with its theology?

The complexity of the picture is that church and state were always in an uneasy tension throughout the period following the adoption of the Christianity as the imperial faith. Equally, the idealised church of doughty dissenting martyrs did not always carry the pure flame of primitive Christianity. However, I think far too little attention has been paid to the dissenting church in pre-reformation histories, as if the reformation had begun with Martin Luther, and not, for instance, Peter Waldo, Jan Huss, Simon Menno, John Wycliffe and church movements before these figures on the one side, or the monastic movement, Celtic Christianity, Saint Francis on the other.

What would Paul (let alone Jesus) have done? I suspect he would have been a prophetic voice into the imperial and dissenting church, calling each to a function which was meant to reflect fuller realities to come, and while this would always have a present outworking, their boundaries and spheres of operations would never be confined to the purely here and now. Paul did not conceive a purely political outcome to the Christ/Caesar conflict. 




Peter, you really should get your own blog. This is all very good material and it’s wasted in the comments section. For now I will simply respond with:

1. Leithart is not arguing that Constantinianism got it right and neither am I. No church has ever consistently reflected the lordship of Jesus. The dissenters were rarely paragons of virtue. The film Luther is one of the few films that I have found genuinely heartbreaking. There have been some outstanding exceptions, but they are just that. In 500 years time people will look back in horror at the accommodation of the modern Western church to unrestrained materialism, one or two exceptions notwithstanding.

2. Leithart recognizes the tension between church and state and defends the early bishops for attempting to maintain that tension under extremely complex conditions.

3. As long as Christ is lord over a people and not merely over the sphere of personal spirituality and morality, there is a political dimension to that lordship, virtually by definition. It has been the failing of modern evangelicalism not to recognize that.

4. It is hazardous for us, from our modern perspective, to pass judgment on how the ancient church felt it had to give expression to that political dimension.

5. It seems to me fully in keeping with a contextualized historical narrative to recognize both that the conversion of Rome was an event of momentous theological significance, the fulfilment of central New Testament hopes, and that the socio-political embodiment of that significance was bound to decay over time.

But I’m not expecting you to agree with this.


James Paternoster | Tue, 01/25/2011 - 00:58 | Permalink

Thanks for the post!

This one sentence was confusing on first read:

But perhaps the more interesting part of Leithart’s critique of Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism, at least in this section of the book, is its lack of historical imagination or empathy, its failure both historically and theologically to understand the particular realities of the transition.

It's Yoder's anti-Constantinianism that lacks historical imagination, right? not Leithart's critique?

Hi, I am from Australia.

In Truth and Reality you can not even account for your own seeming appearance here.

And yet you presume to know how the history of the world unfolded. Forgetting of course that Reality is an unexplainable Mystery full of multi-dimensional space-time paradoxes.

And why does everything have to turn out to be Christian?

Especially as four billion living-breathing-feeling human beings are not Christian. As indeed are none of the countless billions of heart-sensitive living-breathing-feeling non-human beings that live on this planet.

Personally I think you should seriously study the set of essays available via this reference.

Jim Hoag | Wed, 02/16/2011 - 01:37 | Permalink


Hi Andrew,

Good article by David Fitch who says he proposes Yoder’s "Jeremian ecclesiology" as the way forward for missional church; "What Yoder got right according to  Leithart": Hope you get time to read it, be interested in your take.


Thanks for the link, Jim. I agree that the Jeremian model makes sense for a church in exile or for a missional church that understands itself to have been called to the margins in some sense. I’m not sure Fitch has fully understood Leithart’s argument about Jeremiah. At least, I would underline the point that Jeremiah is advocating a transitional “ecclesiology”. So if it is legitimate insight that the people of God is again in transition, the question also has to be asked: What are we transitioning towards? Fitch rejects the possibility of returning to Christendom, quite rightly. But there may be other ways of conceptualizing the “return to Jerusalem”. How do we embody what it means socially to be “new creation”, a people restored around in the living God, in right relation with one another?

Good stuff Andrew, You said, "I agree that the Jeremian model makes sense for a church in exile...". Interesting that I missed the whole "exile" context in Jer.29:4 and was so ready to accept Jer.29:4-7 as a kind of final word on current missional strategy without continuing to consider, "other ways of conceptualizing the return to Jerusalem". If you get inspired, sure would like to hear more on your ideas around "the return to Jerusalem". Thanks again.