Monday, 25 August 2014

Defending Constantine, by Peter Leithart



Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, Peter Leithart, 2010 InterVarsity Press



For many people of different religious opinions, Constantine is treated as a sort of moustache-twirling villain. For heretics and the followers of cults, Constantine is the guy who changed the sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, came up with the idea of the soul surviving death, introduced the Trinity and got people to celebrate those dreadful pagan feasts Christmas and Easter. Yet even many who are closer to orthodoxy regard Constantine as a baddy. When my father explained to me when I was a child the reasons for rejecting Catholicism, he did so with reference to Constantine. For him and many Protestants, Constantine marks the point at which the church went wrong. Many Christians, theologians among them, regard Constantine as introducing an unhealthy relationship between church and state. Pacifists blame him for leading Christians to accept the necessity of violence and war. Many doubt whether Constantine's famous conversion was really sincere.

In this book, revisionist Protestant Peter Leithart painstakingly addresses some of the myths about Constantine. He paints a new picture of Constantine as a rather decent chap, quite sincere in his Christian faith and introducing a new and positive age of Christian dominance. This is not a hagiography; Leithart is able to acknowledge and interact with Constantine's very real flaws and faults, but he places them in the context of his era.

This is a very scholarly work. Leithart looks closely at the original sources and interacts with the main authorities on the late Roman Empire. However, despite the level of scholarship, it is very reeadable and engaging. He does a fantastic job of bringing both Constantine and his age to life in the reader's mind.

The writer that Leithart interacts with most often is Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, who views Constantine as bringing an end to the church's pacifism and establihing a new imperial and militaristic Christianity. Leithart argues that the church's pacifism was not necessarily uniform, pointing out that pacifism can only be established for certain in a few Christian writers in the Ante-Nicene era. Furthermore, many of the Ante-Nicene Christians had entertained positive views of the Roman Empire. He also addresses the charge that Constantine established a new norm of intolerant Christianity that persecuted pagans, Jews and heretics.

In a very grisly chapter, Leithart describes in detail the horrors of the tortures inflicted on Christians by the Roman Emperors prior to Constantine. He suggests that the scholarly critics of Constantine have not done a very good job of taking into account this persecution in their evaluation. The early Christians had a very good reason for welcoming a Christian emperor and it is a little glib for Christians today worshiping in freedom and safety to blame them for this.

One issue that Leithart does not really address is that of Chiliaism. Some writers argue that a Premillennial eschatology was dominant in the Ante-Nicene era and that the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity had a role in shifting eschatological views away from Chiliaism.

This is a book that I would very much recommend to all who have an interest in both the Roman Empire and church history.

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