Peter J. Leithart: Defending Constantine. The Twilight on an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.

This book is an odd one: on the one hand, it is definitely worth reading, and I learned a lot from it. On the other it is completely absurd in many of its central purposes, and it IMO fails completely in what it sets out to do.

Well, of course, that depends on what one considers the book to be about. If it is a book about Constantine the Great it is good, important even, since it deepens the picture of the man many of us have, and gives good insight into the messy process of the Chrisianization of the Roman Empire. If, on the other han we take Leithart’s contention that the book intends to show that Yoder is wrong, than it fails in a spectacular fashion.

Why? Well, first of all, Yoder never makes Constantine into the villain that Leithart claims he does. Yoder is very clear that ”Constantinianism” began before Constantine, that it was not initiated or willed by him and that it became prevalent long after him. And the weird thing is that Leithart concedes this. Still there are numerous places in the book where Leithart says ”Yoder claims A, the truth is B” where what Yoder actually says is much closer to B than to A. In other words, Leithart sets out to prove Yoder wrong and ends up proving him more or less right. Weird indeed.

This pertains to the part about Constantine. But apparently Leithart did not feel this was enough. So he adds a chapter on whether the pre-constantine church was pacifist, where he grossly overstates his case (he claims that there is no way of knowing if the writers that we know of are representative of the whole church, which is I guess true, but it would be strange indeed if only texts representing a minority position would have survived.) The weirdest chapter of all is one where he ”questions” if the early church at all is to be understood as being against the empire. His most important argument here is the apologists that claim that the Christians are no threat to the empire. Leithart does not bother to think about why members of a persecuted church would have a reason to say something like that. Weird indeed.

For a more in-depth review check out Hauerwas’s review (very sly) or this article by Mark Thiessen Nation.

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