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Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom [Paperback]

Peter J. Leithart
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Product details

  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (Nov 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830827226
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830827220
  • Product Dimensions: 22.5 x 15.3 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 498,522 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent work out of left field 8 July 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Excellent work of a much maligned person Constantine is shown as a person rather than the icon some may want
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3 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just Came Through the Door 30 Sep 2011
I just received this book in the door. I haven't read past the first chapter yet, and probably won't until I have finished reading Towards a Fuller Vision: Pt. 1: My Life and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church - a Short History, by Brahana Selassie.

I was firmly in the camp of those who despised everything Constantine and saw him as a monster who was used by Satan to creep into the lukewarm Church of the 4th century and corrupt her. This then (supposedly) left no room for the true "Kingdom Christians", and so they were either forced out or left of their own accord to start the "Pilgrim Church", an extreme Protestant ecclesiology which E. H. Broadbent (of Plymouth Brethren persuasion) popularized in his book PILGRIM CHURCH HB

I have been on a long spiritual journey and there have been many difficult questions to answer along the way, and some answers I am either not totally comfortable with or have not found yet. One of those answers has been Constantine's role in the Church. There can be no doubt that his role in the Church did more to alter her course perhaps more than at any other time in history. Perhaps only Luther would come close in the effect one man has had on the course of Christian history. The split between East and West during the Great Schism in 1054 was devastaing too, but no one single person can pinpointed there. What has divided Christian thought through the years has been what exactly Constantine did, and why. What were his motives? One book I have but I have not yet read is called
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128 of 137 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE Christian Book of the Year 9 Oct 2010
By Fr. Charles Erlandson - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Peter Leithart's latest book, "Defending Constantine," should, in my opinion, be considered THE Christian Book of the Year. "Defending Constantine" is a stunning work of scholarship on a closely related collection of issues that are among the most important in Christianity: the life of Constantine, the meaning of Constantinianism, and the radical transformation of the world that took place while he was Emperor. Leithart's work is especially impressive because he has taken on a host of scholars who have so thoroughly denigrated Constantine and "Constantinianism" that it is a truism among most Christians that Constantine was bad for the church and still is. In this scholarly contest, Leithart clearly has proven himself to be the more careful and insightful scholar. It is a work that particularly appeals to me as an Anglican priest, school teacher, and professor of Religious Studies, but it should also be read by every thinking Christian. Despite the lofty themes Leithart tackles, he writes in wonderfully clear English prose.

If you read one book on Christian history, Christianity and politics, or Christianity and culture this - this book should be the one: it's THAT good! Don't let the academic topic of the book fool you: this book has radical implications for every thinking Christian and every church.

"Constantine," as Leithart reminds us, "has been a whipping boy for a long time, and still is today." His name is identified with tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy. While experts in the field of early Christianity now believe that Constantine was a genuine Christian who earnestly tried to apply his faith to his role as Emperor, many other scholars and laymen incorrectly continue to claim otherwise.

In "Defending Constantine," Leithart audaciously sets out to redeem the reputation of both Constantine and Constantinianism. In both of these tasks, Leithart succeeds admirably. He defines his tasks, more specifically, as being four-fold: to write a life of Constantine, to rebut the popular caricatures of Constantine, to redeem the notion of Constantianism, and to demonstrate that Constantine provides a model for Christian political practice. It is safe to say that anyone who succeeds to a large degree in these tasks has written a magisterial work. "Defending Constantine" is just such a work.

Leithart's history of Constantine is good, but the real virtuoso nature of the book begins with his discussion of whether or not Constantine was a genuine Christian or not. Leithart's unequivocal (and correct) answer is "Yes." One of the reasons we misunderstand Constantine is that we import our own cultural and historical expectations into Constantine and his time. This is an important and recurring theme throughout "Defending Constantine." In this case, false views of the way conversion really works have led some to deny that Constantine was ever a Christian. But Leithart demonstrates how Constantine constantly appeals in his writings to the Christian God who is the heavenly Judge and who, in history, opposes those how oppose Him. Constantine also demonstrated a genuine and sustained desire to protect the Church - not from political motivations (although they were likely also present) - but from a genuine desire to see the Church remain pure and united.

Another common damnation of Constantine is based on the notion that he meddled terribly in ecclesiastical matters and acted, apart from the bishops, as the defender of Christian orthodoxy. Once again, Leithart has done his homework and dramatically, though graciously, dismantles Constantine's critics. There is no evidence, contrary to assertions by scholars such as Burckhardt and Carroll, that Constantine ever acted as the final authority in church matters. In dealing with the Donatist controversy, Constantine deflected responsibility to the bishops assembled in Rome. Constantine refused to be seated at the Council of Nicea until he was invited by the bishops. It's true that he facilitated the work of the Church's councils by calling them and providing venues, but these and the legal recognition of the conciliar decisions were unavoidable in the political and cultural situation of the time. Constantine not only did not dominate the discussions at Nicea: he also did not formulate the final creed nor sign off on it.

Leithart's discussion of Constantianism is also excellent. He defines it as "a theology and ecclesial practice that took form when the church assumed a dominant position in Roman society. Constantianism is "the wedding of power to piety, the notion that the empire or state, the ruler of civil government rather than the church, is the primary bearer of meaning in history." Leithart reserves his most withering and sustained attack for the Anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder, on this point. He shows that Yoder misrepresents the facts and has an axe to grind that comes from his presupposition as an Anabaptist that the church had been in a state of apostasy from the fourth to seventeenth centuries.

If this popular hypothesis were true, we would expect to see dramatic evidence of decline in the lives of Christians and their godly effect on Roman culture. But the opposite is true. In the first place, the bishops refused to be reduced to mere chaplains of the Empire. Second, it was at the instigation of Constantine that the gladiatorial shows and other immoral public entertainments were reduced and eventually abolished. Constantine's legislation looks very much like the kind of legislation Christians should desire the civil magistrates to enact. Constantine removed previous Roman penalties against the celibate and the childless. He extended the rights of women, removing deprivations such as loss of property and double standards for divorce. He discouraged sex with slaves and was the first in Roman history to legislate against rape. In turn, all of these reforms fostered a new kind of Christian masculinity that relied less on sexual prowess, victory in battle, and political power. Constantine also provided for many laws that elevated true justice and protection for the poor, including children who were exposed, orphans, outcasts, and slaves. He issued laws that enabled slaves to be liberated, as well as those to ameliorate slave conditions (for example, trying to keep slave families together). Finally, in the area of law, Constantine began the "Christianization" of the law, not by legislating for the Church but by giving the Church freedom to be itself, build its own buildings, erect its own legal structures, organize its own system of conflict resolutions, and to carry out its own sanctions.

Leithart concludes his magnum opus by refuting three related errors concerning Constantine and Constantinianism: the early church was uniformly opposed to Christians serving in the Roman army; the earliest Christians opposed the Roman Empire; the Roman Christians so identified the Church with the Empire that they ignored or despised the barbarians. In each of these three cases, Leithart demonstrates conclusively that the attitudes of early Christians were ambiguous and not uniformly anti-Empire as Yoder and others have assumed.

As if all of this weren't enough, Leithart saves the best for last. He argues brilliantly that what Constantine actually did was to "desacrifice" Rome in order to establish it upon the true sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Constantine enacted a "baptism" out of the world of Rome, and so he eliminated the competing Roman sacrifices: those associated with senatorial decisions, military victories, and the emperor. Instead, it was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that became the founding sacrifice of the new city, the eschatological city. As with our individual baptisms, the consistent and holy implications of this baptism of the Empire would have to be worked out, imperfectly, in history.

"Through Constantine, Rome was baptized into a world without animal sacrifice and officially recognized the true sacrificial city, the one community that does offer a foretaste of the final kingdom." Breathtaking stuff!

Leithart is a fair and careful scholar; however, I wish he'd offered more evidence for the negative sides of both Constantine and Constantianism. Both are present in the book, but only in minor ways. This is a forgivable oversight, due to the complexity of the task Leithart has already taken on.

This is a book that will explode in your mind and then in your soul! You owe it to yourself to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest this book. Sit back and enjoy the ride as Leithart skillfully and artfully articulates a more edifying way of thinking about Constantine, the church, culture, and our lives. This is one book that deserves 6 stars!
74 of 82 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars this is a peculiar book 20 Mar 2011
By Mennonite Medievalist - Published on
I have been wanting to read this book ever since I heard of it. What a terrific idea, topic, book title. Defending Constantine! Someone needs to do it. I'm a Mennonite, but became a medievalist in part because I got uncomfortable with the historical narrative my denomination keeps telling: the church fell at Constantine and rose again in the Reformation. Having read Leithart's really excellent entry on Kings in the Brazos Theological Commentary series, I figured he'd bring clear and compelling prose, dazzling leaps of insight, new perspectives, a charitable reading of an emperor whom my denomination has consistently read uncharitably. And--so far so good. Leithart does write well, and he does have my denomination's problematic church-historical narrative squarely in his sights--and its authoritative exponent, John Howard Yoder.

But the problem with the book, it seems to me, is that it's a little bit of a bunch of things. It's part historical narrative; indeed, most of the chapters start out with an account of a particular section of Constantine's life or the Roman background. It's part historical argument; Leithart objects to how many scholars, Christian and non-Christian, have attacked Constantine. And it's part theological argument. Each of these has some really nice insights, but ends up unable to convince, and that's too bad, because I really would like to be convinced of some of this.

The historical narrative seems straightforward. In fact, sometimes it just reads like summary. This happened, this happened, this happened, then this happened. What emerges is a problem with sources that lies underneath some of that smooth narrative. The things he says may be true, but as an academic I see things that I've been trained to think are warning signs of wobbly scholarship. Leithart, frankly, relies on secondary sources. In a way, that's OK. He uses very good secondary sources, the Peter Browns and R. A. Markuses and Timothy Barneses of the world. Several times, though, he cites one source for a whole paragraph, borrowing in lump sums, at the mercy of his creditor. And a historical argument, in order to be convincing, needs to engage primary texts. There, he's simply not a scholar of late antiquity. He often cites primary texts as quoted in secondary texts. This means he hasn't gone to the primary texts, hasn't read the excerpts in context. Nor does he, early and systematically, explain his methodology for using primary texts--doesn't acknowledge, for instance, the problems with using Eusebius as literal history until well after he starts citing Eusebius in footnotes. Does he know Latin? Hard to tell. Even though there's a substantial Latin passage in one footnote, untranslated. That seems to have slipped past an editor. In short, Leithart has done a lot of reading, but his authority comes from his ability to pick apart other people's arguments, not as much from what he has gleaned from primary sources. What he's saying may very well be true--I just can't tell. His section on Constantine's laws really does dig into Constantine's language--a good solid section.

The historical argument is emergent, and what I mean by that is, it's buried in chapters and crops up here and there, toward the end of chapters or sections, unsystematically. Part of this may be because the tone of the book falls somewhere between scholarly and popular. Perhaps a popular audience needs a summary of the historical facts before the argument even begins to make sense. But a scholarly audience has to read through his evidence without knowing what argument it's intended to prove. It's a polemic-led argument, not thesis-driven. It's frustrating to have to look for his buried argument, or to read a series of rather dry facts and not know what point they're serving.

And when he goes after Yoder at the end, it's the prime example of this argumentative inversion. The agenda of this book comes clear at the end. We've been thinking that Leithart objects to Yoder's historical treatment on Constantine, but he's after Yoder's theology, and is interested in Yoder's history primarily insofar as it supports Yoder's theology. Thus the theological argument seems incompletely assimilated to the rest of the book, or, in an idiom, tacked on. And oversimplified, far too brief, as he himself admits when introducing his theological alternative that occupies the last ten pages of the book: "What I can say in this brief space is inadequate, but I must say something" (333). Of course, as a Mennonite I'm going to find his argument that the Bible is wholesale anti-pacifism hard to swallow, but he seems to throw away any power to convince when he begins the conclusion of his last chapter with what appears to be the thesis of his book: "In the end it all comes round to baptism, specifically to infant baptism" (341). This comes out of nowhere. Just asserting it, not even bothering to justify it, feels like giving up on persuasion. He's staked his theological and ecclesiological argument on a certain presupposed account of baptism that he does not explain in this text and that by definition alienates an Anabaptist (Mennonite) tradition. As he's said several times of one of Yoder's points, this is rhetorically odd (even if it is true).

This book is what it is. Leithart I think knows what it is, doesn't apologise for its weaknesses but often acknowledges them. It's what he had time, expertise, and interest for. So, don't read it to be convinced of its truth, but follow its footnote trails, and seriously consider its suggestions. It's an account of Constantine and the theological implications of his conversion that has a great deal of truth. Exercise discernment of various kinds, and you'll find good things. I'm intrigued . . . but I wish it were stronger.
35 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Constantine Defended 15 Nov 2010
By A. Smith - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
With Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart has written a well-researched, well-balanced biography on a controversial character in history. Christians don't like Constantine because he combined too much state with church, and non-Christians don't like him because he combined too much church with state. Poor Constantine is left homeless. Leithart, however, attempts to make sense of the controversy and give Constantine credit for his accomplishments within a historical context.

Leithart's nicely footnoted work presents a convincing case for Constantine's genuine conversion. Constantine, having no model of a post-advent, Christian, civic ruler, brought about remarkable cultural changes. Leithart specifically focuses on the end of sacrifice. Moderns think sacrifice is something found only in a secluded, jungle tribe, but in fact, sacrifice was a cultural norm prior to Constantine. In addition to reviewing the Roman history, Leithart attempts to put Constantine's reign in a larger context of Christian history. God has a purpose for His church. The impact of His church in history is more evident by studying characters like Constantine.

Admittedly, Leithart's book is over this home-schooling mom's head at times - especially as the book turns from history to polemic. The shortcomings are really mine, however. He didn't translate all his Latin phrases, and my high school Latin is rusty. He also refers to a variety of Christian movements that I struggled to keep identified. A glossary for groups like Sabelians, Nestorians, Meletians and Donatists might have been helpful to those of us who aren't as well versed in church history as perhaps we ought to be. He also spends a good deal of time refuting the misconceptions of a Constantinianism promoted by John Howard Yoder, a theologian of whom I've never heard or read. I know I missed a good bit of Leithart's concluding thesis, but regardless, it was good to read a history that tries to get beyond dry facts and delves into the greater purpose and impact of a character in history.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting but deeply flawed book 30 May 2011
By T. Grimsrud - Published on
This is a curious book. After I finished reading it, I tried to figure out how to summarize what precisely Leithart is trying to do. And I have had a difficult time. I suspect there may be some hidden agenda at work, because Leithart simply does not give a clear statement of his own constructive concerns. Clearly, one of his big concerns is to undermine the growing influence of the late Mennonite theological ethicist John Howard Yoder.

Yet, though Leithart seems to have some profound disagreements with Yoder and routinely slips in sharp words disparaging Yoder's scholarship, he has not produced a simple hatchet job. Actually, when the smoke clears he has affirmed Yoder almost as much as condemned him. I would attribute Leithart's less than total rejection of Yoder's ideas to the fact that he actually did read Yoder with some care.

On the most obvious level, Leithart has made a case for present-day evangelical Christians drawing much more positive conclusions about the political career of ancient Rome's first self-proclaimed Christian emperor. Most of the book is devoted to looking at Constantine's rise to power and his long and, according to Leithart, successful rule, a rule that reflects Constantine's authentic Christian commitment. But it's not quite clear why this matters. In the end, Leithart admits that his "main interest in this project has been theological." He writes that his "historical portrait has implied a political theology" (p. 306). But what precisely this "political theology" is remains quite vague, even as Leithart ends his book trying to articulate it.

Certainly one element of Leithart's theology is that it is anti-pacifist. This explains his need to hold Yoder up as his main theological opponent (and I strongly agree with Leithart that if an evangelical theologian is going to pursue an overtly anti-pacifist agenda they need to account for Yoder). Unfortunately, Leithart does not actually make a case for his anti-pacifism; he only asserts it.

Remarkably, in his final pages, Leithart gives a quite credible summary the theological agenda reflected in Yoder's critique of what Yoder called "Constantinianism" (pp. 309-17). In fact, if Leithart had started the book with this summary and then proceeded to challenge it with his historical reconstruction, this book could have made a good contribution. Strangely, though, the bulk of the book is unfocused and relies on cryptic shots at Yoder's historical work without really engaging the substance of his critique. This is strange because in this final section Leithart shows that he does understand Yoder's thought pretty well. Too bad he didn't use this understanding to add clarity and focus to the earlier discussion.

Leithart's reconstruction of Constantine's career is interesting--partly in the information he provides and his benign interpretation of Constantine's career. Leithart's Constantine does come across as a relatively admirable character (relative, that is, to other Roman emperors). It seems that Leithart may rely a bit too extensively and uncritically on Constantine's contemporary, the historian Eusebius, who certainly had an agenda is his account of Constantine's life and career. Maybe Eusebius is a reliable witness, but Leithart should have tried to show us why this would be the case in face of the general stance by historians that questions the veracity of much of Eusebius's account of Constantine.

However, probably more importantly, Leithart's reconstruction is interesting because even if he is correct in his description of Constantine's career, the Yoderian case would not be damaged. Yoder would not have to disagree that there were many admirable things in Constantine's reign relative to other emperors to still make the anti-Constantinian argument.

I think Leithart misunderstands the actual point of Yoder's critique, though, by taking the Constantine reference too literally. Leithart acknowledges that Yoder is using Constantine more as a rhetorical reference than arguing that the problem is centered in this one historical personage. The rhetorical relevance of Constantine seems quite simple. Here is the first case of a world ruler himself embracing the label of "Christian" and invoking the support of the Christian God. Regardless of the details of the career of the historical Constantine, this embrace does change everything. Before Constantine, the Christian God was not linked with emperors. After Constantine and down to the present, the Christian God has been linked with world rulers and superpowers.

The issue with Constantine is not that he may have been an admirable emperor. Perhaps, as Leithart argues, he actually was. The issue with Constantine is that from his time on, God and top-down political power (including the use of state violence) are linked in a way they had not been before--with disastrous consequences for the witness of the followers of Jesus and with problematic consequences for the state as well.

Leithart's argument for the authenticity of Constantine's Christian commitment (which actually is not central to the bigger issues because Constantine himself could have been sincere but still effected the problematic "shift" as I just characterized it) is weakened by two elements -- he never clearly defines what he means by "Christian" in this context and he never accounts for Constantine's failure to be baptized until he was on his dying bed.

It seems that Leithart defines "Christian" in relation to Constantine mainly in terms of Constantine being willing to invoke the Christian God (though the invocation seems to have been lacking theological content) and treating Christians well. Of course, one of the big issues in the background in this entire book is the meaning of "Christian." More on this point shortly.

I am puzzled as to why Leithart does not even attempt to explain the significance of Constantine remaining unbaptized throughout almost the entirety of his career as a "Christian emperor." It would seem that if it is important to establish the authenticity of Constantine's own faith and to make the case for him as an exemplary Christian emperor, this hardly minor issue would have at least merited some kind of explanation. Heightening my puzzlement is how Leithart's conclusion to the book invokes the theme of baptism (infant baptism) as a key metaphor for his constructive agenda. I will admit to being confused by this baptism talk in general. Leithart is quite opaque here in terms of what this metaphor actually signifies. But even more confusng is why, if baptism is such an important motif, the elephant in the room concerning Constantine's own lack of baptism would not have been addressed.

The heart of the problem with Leithart's book, though, beyond its lack of a coherent constructive argument, is his failure to take account of the heart of Yoder's theological and ethical agenda.

Leithart clearly has read the most important book for understanding Yoder's thought, The Politics of Jesus. But just as clearly, he did not grasp that book's central concern -- which is the central concern for Yoder's entire life's work. Here are two key quotes from Yoder's book:

"Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had political implications; nor a teacher of spirituality whose ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; nor just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity. Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e., promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and political relationships. His baptism inaugurates and his cross culminates that new regime in which his disciples are called to share. Hearers or readers may choose to consider that kingdom as not real, or relevant, or possible, or inviting; but no longer can we come to this choice in the name of systematic theology or honest hermeneutics. At this one point there is no difference between the Jesus of Historie and the Christ of Geschichte, or between Christ as God and Jesus as Man, or between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus (or between the Jesus of the canon and the Jesus of history). No such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life." (pp. 52-3)

"There is no general concept of living like Jesus in the NT (e.g., celibacy, type of work, rural life, way of teaching) ....There is but one realm where the concept of imitation holds - but there it holds in every strand of the NT literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion; forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus - and only thus - are we bound by NT thought to 'be like Jesus.'" (pp. 130-1)

The basic issue in the critique of Constantinianism for Yoder is that leaders like Constantine, regardless of the sincerity of their own personal piety and their desire that the Christian God bless their nation, tend to contradict the message of Jesus -- acting as "lords over others" rather than "servants of all."

What makes Yoder's perspective so radical, though, is that he insists that the way of servanthood is political and it is the norm for the nations. Yoder insists that the way Jesus was misunderstood (in his own day and ever since) was not in thinking that he was political when he was not, was not in mistaking his talk about the "kingdom" as talk about this-worldly social ethics, but in assuming that his message of servant-ethics is not relevant for the real world. Jesus' contemporaries, including his closest disciples (reflecting a "Constantinian" mentality!), assumed that the only way to be political was to take the way of domination. Leithart's Constantine, no matter how exemplary he may be in embodying Leithart's sense of what a "Christian" emperor would be like, still clearly makes the same mistake. That is, Leithart does not even try to make the case that Constantine did not follow a domination path.

Leithart does show some awareness of what makes Yoder so radical in his final chapter, but this awareness makes his failure to address this key point in relation to Yoder's critique of Constantinianism even more problematic.

Leithart's misreading of Yoder is compounded by a too-narrow understanding of Yoder's pacifism. Again, The Politics of Jesus is the key text. In this book, Yoder does not overtly talk much about the principled refusal to take part in war. Rather, he presents pacifism as a much wider and deeper set of convictions, summarized in a nutshell as insisting that no cause, institution, or ideology should ever take priority over Jesus' basic message of love, compassion, and hospitality.

Yoder sets up the basic set of issues at the beginning of Politics: Jesus did speak directly to social ethics and politics with this message of love, compassion, and hospitality. And, Jesus is the norm for all Christians at all times. Hence, all Christians at all times should have their social ethics determined by Jesus' message. The big problem with Constantinianism -- seen in Constantine himself, even as presented in the most flattering way possible by Leithart -- is that it acts as if at times national interests, social "order," the interests of power elites, religious institutions, and the like do provide occasions where Jesus' message must be set aside.

It may be the case, as Leithart argues, that the true hero of the story of the first several Christian centuries, Augustine of Hippo, presented the case in his epoch-shaping book, The City of God, that the church needed to distance itself from too close an affiliation with the Roman Empire. But in a deeper sense, i.e., in his embrace of the need to bracket Jesus' ethics in the social arena, Augustine still embodies the worst aspect of the Constantinian project.

I do welcome Leithart's book. I think many of the issues he raises are important, even if his way of raising them tends to muddy the waters rather than providing more clarity. I should also say that the book is well written, which is no small blessing. Hopefully, he will provide a useful impetus for better understandings of Yoder's project -- and even more, for better understandings of the calling that people of good will have today to embody a peaceable politics. Even wrong-headed critiques can lead to good outcomes!
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Read! 14 Dec 2010
By A. Morgan - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Constantine, his `alleged' conversion to Christianity and his rule as a Christian, or at least pro-Christian emperor has been a source of debate for a long time. There are many who see Constantine as a shrewd political operator who used Christianity as a way of solidifying his support and rule of the empire. There are others who think that he had a real experience of God and that he straddled the Christian faith, holding onto much of his paganism but also adopting some Christian practices. Still others (of which I am one) see the question of whether Constantine was a convert to Christianity as up for debate, but that the effects of Constantine's rule - the legalization of Christianity, and it's elevation to the State religion of Rome as having a negative effect on the Church both in the 4th century and continuing to today.

Peter Leithart's book Defending Constantine is a superb addition to this debate. Leithart vigorously defends (maybe too much) Constantine, answering the critics and at the same time seeking to show that Constantine was a positive and indeed vital addition to the history and development of the Church. Leithart reminds the critics of Constantine that they must assess him in light of the fact that lived in the fourth century and the decisions and actions he took have to be seen in light of that context. The bottom line is that for Leithart, the Church fared well under Constantine and that those critics who have attacked Constantine have simply got it wrong and have misread major church figures like Eusebius and Augustine.

Leithart does not engage with some important scholars, such as Alistair Kee (Constantine Verses Christ) who argues that Constantine's intervention in the church was not because of his Christian commitment but because the unity of the empire was at risk and John Eadie (The Conversion of Constantine), who argues that Constantine was trying to appease the Christian God and not necessarily worship him, which can be seen in the dualism that Constantine showed by banning private divination (punishable by death) and yet public divination was encouraged in the temples.

However, this book is a wonderful read - informative, challenging, well argued and very enjoyable.

Highly recommended.
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