Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Yoderian Rejoinder to Peter J. Leithart's Defending Constantine

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Yoderian Rejoinder to Peter J. Leithart's Defending Constantine

Article excerpt

Constantine on Trial

Those critics looking for another excuse to dismiss John Howard Yoder and the Free Church tradition are sure to find it in Peter J. Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. (1) Though Leithart takes Yoder quite seriously, readers who are less familiar with Yoder's work may be left with the unfortunate impression that he was a sloppy thinker, blinded by the pacifism of a naive tradition, and ignorant of the complexities of history. I am sure this is not Leithart's intention. Leithart intends to start a "fight" (10) and his admittedly polemical tone sometimes borders on patronizing not only his primary foe, but also the Anabaptist heritage, and all theological traditions that interpret the church-empire merger as an unfortunate development in the self-understanding of God's people. This should not deter readers from persisting with this rather long work. Some of its most stimulating suggestions come near the end.

Leithart's well-crafted and articulate case deserves substantive rejoinders both to his historical portrait of Constantine and his theological critique of Yoder and the position he represents. Alan Kreider's essay in this collection focuses on the former; this essay focuses on the latter. Though no one can speak for Yoder, least of all a non-Mennonite like myself, I will nonetheless enter the fray by presenting Leithart's basic case and evaluating his polemic against Yoder (and, by extension, all who share similar convictions about faith, history, and social ethics). (2) Though Leithart challenges the work of multiple historians and theologians, I focus only on Yoder because that is where I can most constructively enter the conversation, and because Leithart claims that the main polemical target of his book "is a theological one" (10) and that most of his theological argument "is directed at Yoder"(11). (3)

Leithart's task is ambitious: to write a life of Constantine, to rebut popular caricatures, to demonstrate that Yoder's work on Constantine is wrong both historically and theologically, and to make a case for Constantine as a viable model for Christian political practice (10-11). This task is complicated by the nature of the extant sources. Leithart's preferred source is Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine who adoringly portrays him as God's providential instrument in ushering in the millennium. Leithart grants that Eusebius' work is replete with exaggerations, contains accounts of questionable historicity, and intentionally omits incriminating material (228). Nonetheless, it remains the earliest and most comprehensive account available, so Leithart makes extensive use of it. He makes less use of the account of Zosimus, a late-fifth-century pagan who portrayed Constantine as a violent ruler who was politically motivated in the worst sense of that term. Beyond this, Leithart had access to an oration of Constantine, published legal decrees, coinage, letters, and miscellaneous excerpts preserved among Eusebius' writings. This is hardly an ideal situation for a historian or a theologian.

The title of Leithart's book (which was not his idea) gives a sense of his strategy for dealing with this difficult historical material. Consistent with his aims, Leithart plays the part of a defense attorney in a court setting. The last several decades of historians and theologians--for example, Jacob Burkhardt, James Carroll, Stanley Hauerwas, and, of course, Yoder--play the role of prosecuting attorneys who have been overly critical of Constantine and unfairly suspicious of favorable testimonies in the primary sources. To Leithart, it seems as if they have sought only to find fault. As defense attorney, Leithart tasks himself with demonstrating Constantine's innocence, or at least furnishing fourth-century details that make his client's actions more defensible. Making extensive use of Eusebius, he brings forward as many positive testimonies as possible. …

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