Douglas Hayes's Reviews > Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom

Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart
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Christians today know that something has changed in our relation to the world in the last couple of centuries. We know that we no longer are in a position of leadership or even broad influence in the broader culture. But we are torn as to why this is true, or even if this is a good or bad thing. Is it even a part of our mission as the Church to lead culture in an explicitly Christian manner, or has Christ instructed us to be content with being a sub-culture within a culture?

Peter Leithart’s, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, is an attempt to address these questions in a manner that takes seriously the Great Commission, the history of the last two thousand years, and the ongoing theological reflections of various Christian thinkers on the subject.

Since Constantine was the first (in a long line) Christian ruler that tried to rule as a Christian, historians, theologians, political philosophers and social scientists begin with him. Among most academics today (both Christian and otherwise), Constantine has become an almost iconic symbol of all that has been wrong about Christian involvement and leadership society, and is now associated with what is called “Constantiniansm.” Leithart’s aim is to not only provide a fresh look at Constantine in his historical context (biography), but to present a polemic to the prevailing negative attitude toward Constantine and the Christendom that follow in next thousand years (and into the modern period). One of his aims is to “contribute to the formation of a theology that does not simply inform but is a social science.” His final and most important purpose is very practical: “I have found that, far from representing a fall for the church, Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice” [and general cultural engagement by Christians].

One of the fascinating things that Leithart demonstrates is that the ancient world, from beginning to end, was bound up with sacrifice (both animal and human). With Constantine, the world was forced to come to grips with the Gospel (i.e. good news) of Christ and the implications of the finality of His self-sacrifice. Only the sacrifice of Christ and our participation in that sacrifice can free the world of the tyranny of paganism.

I’m not one to read the end before the beginning – but I can, in good conscience, recommend that people may want to read the last two chapters first so as to be assured of the value of reading such a careful and academic work. For, indeed, the journey through Defending Constantine is well worth the time and effort it is to get to the end.

Of note is the fact that one of those whom Leithart takes to task in the book, Stanley Hauerwas, has written a very positive review of Defending Constantine. Hauerwas wrote:
“Leithart has written an important book that does more than help us to better understand the complex human being who bore the name Constantine…Leithart has done his historical homework. As far as I can judge, he uses the best scholarship available to develop an engaging biography of Constantine as emperor and human being…I am primarily interested in Leithart's primary interest- which is to provide a critique of Yoder in the hope that Christians will recognize that they have a more robust political theology than Yoder could provide.”
The review is available here: http://www.faqs.org/periodicals/20101...

I cannot possibly recommend this book too highly. It is a must read for anyone serious about Church history, the theology of Christian mission and involvement in society.
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