John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE [Continued Conversation]

October 25, 2013 — 3 Comments

 

The book review that has gotten the most attention on our website by far is John Nugent’s review of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine.

 
We also published an initial response by Leithart.
 
The ensuing conversation inspired an issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review and the new book Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate (Wipf and Stock, 2013).
 
John Nugent offers here further thoughts on this conversation about Constantine.
 
 
 

DIFFERENT BUT NOT EQUALLY DEFENSIBLE:

A RESPONSE TO LEITHART’S DEFENSE OF DEFENDING CONSTANTINE


I am grateful to Peter Leithart for taking the time to thoughtfully respond to my review of Defending Constantine in the Mennonite Quarterly Review (vol 85, no. 4 [Oct 2011]: 643-655), which first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, and now appears in Constantine Revisited (Wipf and Stock, 2013). His response, which is as provocative as his book at times, helpfully identifies the differences between us. I am also grateful that he seeks to locate the core of those differences in our interpretation of Scripture. That is where I am most comfortable and where I think his interpretation is most vulnerable.
 
I think this conversation is worth continuing even three years after the publication of his book not only because Leithart’s thesis has been engaged in the Wipf and Stock collection, but also because interpretations of the Old Testament like Leithart’s continue to do a lot of problematic work in theology. In the recently released Zealot, for instance, Reza Aslan has taken a trajectory of violence out of the Old Testament to legitimate his portrayal of Jesus as a zealot who was willing to employ violence (120-122).
 
Here I engage Leithart’s response in roughly the same order as the points he makes. Unlike my first review essay, I focus more on interpreting specific Old Testament passages and motifs, and less on clarifying or defending the thought of John Howard Yoder. Though I continue to engage the problems I see in Leithart’s work, I remain appreciative of the respect he has shown my own work and that of others, even where our differences are the most profound. The proliferation of quick turnaround web reviews, with little to no peer feedback, is certainly souring the mood of theological discourse.

 

A Different Gospel

 
Before responding specifically to my review, Leithart addresses more broadly all four reviews of his work in the MQR, including those by Alan Kreider, J. Alexander Sider, and Craig Hovey. He does so by suggesting that we may have a different gospel from him. Then, perhaps sensing that this was a bit over the top, he backs off and suggests that we see a different trajectory for how the gospel plays out within Scripture and beyond. In his words, “Jesus is Lord, but how does He exercise His Lordship? What import does God’s kingship in Christ have for the conduct of human kings? Should we reason thus: Because Christ is king, kings will be Christian [Leithart’s position]; or thus: Because Christ is king, Christians need not be [his detractors’ position]. The good news is God’s triumph, but triumph over what or whom, and with what results?” (643-44). Leithart ends his response on a more irenic note by suggesting that our rival trajectories are not so different after all because they share a common telos: “to sum up all things in Christ, to bring all God’s people into the unity of the Spirit in the family of the Father. That union is a gift of the end, but it is a gift we eagerly await and pursue before and until the end” (655).


The antagonist in me suspects that Leithart got it right the first time. We may be operating with a different sense of what the gospel is. The ecumenist in me cannot deny that we share a different trajectory for how it plays out within Scripture and beyond. Some of that difference is indicated by the above quote. Leithart rightly acknowledges that the gospel is a gift we receive and “eagerly await,” but wrongly claims that it is something we eagerly “pursue” – if eager pursuit entails using this fallen world’s reins of power in Constantinian fashion to further kingdom ends. Jesus’ command to “seek [pursue?] first God’s kingdom” (Matt 6:33) was given in the context of the Sermon on the Mount where the kingdom is associated with the poor, the mourners, the meek, the peace-makers, and the persecuted (5:3-12); where the ethical demands of the Decalogue are ramped up to set God’s people further apart from the world as salt and light (5:13-48), not watered down to become the default position of all Roman citizens; where oppression is not met with armed retaliation but disarming love (5:38-42); and where enemy love separates believers from those whose affections are restricted to friends, family, or national kin (5:43-48).
 
The Old Testament prophets expected a new kind of kingdom after the deterioration of Israel’s failed foray into kingship like the nations, despite God’s warning against its inherent problems. They awaited a peaceful kingdom that had no use for military arsenal (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3; Ezek 39:9). They expected that God’s anointed one and people would attract all nations to themselves by their superior way of life, not subjugate them with the sword (Deut 4:5-8; Mic 4:1-3; Zech 8:23). Most of all, they expected that any judgment that would be meted out upon God’s enemies would be executed by God’s hand and not the Israelites as I develop immediately below.
 
 

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  • Fantastically helpful contribution to the ongoing conversation, John; thanks for writing it up, and thanks to Chris for publishing it here.

    Re: Cornelius, your assessment seems to resonate with that of Kavin Rowe’s in World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age

  • Nicely done, John. I think you make a powerful and coherent case for reading the Bible as a whole in a way that truly does see the culmination of the entire story in Jesus.

  • John Nugent

    Thanks for the lead, Brian.