Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine; The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, by Peter J. Leithart ★★★★★
Constantine has received serious criticism from the time of his rise to power up to the present. Many claim that Constantine represents the downfall of the church, and the compromise of Christianity with the world. Numerous authors have argued over the course of many texts how Constantine was responsible more than any other person for the rise of a Christianity foreign to the sermon on the Mount. Constantine has earned the disapproval of both secular liberals, such as Gibbon, as well as Christians, such as John Howard Yoder, in his Politics of Jesus. Many recent writings, such as “Truth Triumphant-The Church in the Wilderness” base an entire theology on the corruptions of Constantine, and many have been misled by failing to truly understand what Constantine did in favor of the Christian church. This book provides not only a historical review of Constantine, but also acts as a critique of Yoder and others, pointing out how Yoder is oftentimes seriously inaccurate as to the history of Constantine as well as the early church, and when the history is ambiguous or unknown, Yoder forces an interpretation of history most fitting with his thesis. In the end, the anti-Constantinians seem to entirely miss the significance of what Constantine accomplished not only for the church but also for society in general. Leithart reminds us the church under persecution prayed for an end to persecution, and for the rise of a Christianized government. They got exactly what they prayed for. Yoder finds it intolerable that a Christian could ever be involved in government, and so dismisses the conversion of Constantine as a fraud. Yet, Leithart argues that even in the words of Christ, there is a strong political statement being made. After Constantine, world leaders were held by a different standard, a Christian standard, that simply did not occur before Constantine. Thus, though Constantine had some serious faults, many of his actions, like the killing of his wife and son, remain inexplicable since we simply don’t have the records to suggest why Constantine did what he did. Constantine is criticized by Yoder for maintaining a military, as he should have been a pacifist. Yet, Yoder is entirely hypocritical, in claiming that government serves a function under God and that certain enforcement of laws and defense is necessary. This is a thick book, not so much in terms of the number of pages, but in terms of the dense quantity of information and argument provided by Leithart. It would be a challenge to offer an inclusive summary of all the gems this book has to offer, and suggest anybody interested pick up a copy and read it.