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

October 25, 2013


[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0830827226″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”” width=”107″]Page 2: John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE

A Different Daniel
Before specifically engaging my review and then Kreider’s, Leithart aligns the biblical trajectory with his historical interpretation of Constantine through a specific interpretation of Daniel 7. In this chapter, “one like a son of man” appears in the clouds and receives the kingdoms of this world as an eternal possession (v. 13). Leithart identifies this descending one with God’s people, which is supported by verse 27. He next moves into the New Testament to identify Jesus with this “son of man” and then further into church history to associate the fulfillment of Daniel’s vision with Emperor Constantine’s kingdom. In the Roman Empire’s embrace of Christianity, according to Leithart, God’s people received the gift of the kingdom in a tangible way. After supporting this with a brief exposition of Psalm 2, where God’s anointed inherits the earth and dashes the kings of this world to pieces, Leithart claims, “If the Gospel’s trajectory is toward the saints’ sovereignty of the oikoumene, then Constantine is not a betrayal of the Gospel but, in some degree, its fulfillment” (645).
The problem with this interpretation is that Leithart uses Daniel in an entirely decontextualized way that not only misses the point of Daniel but actually makes the opposite point of Daniel. Most scholars agree that Daniel was written to address the second century brutal persecution of Israel under the reign of Greek ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes. During that time, the Jews were divided as to how they might respond to these persecutions. Should they follow the Maccabean route of armed revolt? Should they flee to the desert to escape? Should they ally strategically with the Greeks by adopting enough of their pagan practices to appease them? Or should they remain radically faithful to the point of death in hopes that God will vindicate them?
Daniel’s answer is clear: like faithful Jews during the reign of Babylon, God’s people must not revolt, flee, or compromise, but remain radically faithful to the point of death. Their hope was that God alone would save them. More specifically, God will save them without human help. In the vision of God’s kingdom that replaces various world kingdoms in chapter 2, we are reminded twice that God’s kingdom comes from outside the realm of world kingdoms and is carved “not by human hands” (2:34, 35). In chapters 1, 3, and 6 Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael are saved from the kings of this world by God’s hand alone. Chapter 7, which is most germane to Leithart’s claim, continues this theme. Even though the horrific beast that represents Israel’s oppressors boasted arrogantly and killed many innocent Jews, the son of man does not come to defeat the beast. Rather, the Ancient One dispatches the beast before the son of man arrives and receives the kingdom (vv. 11-14).
If the son of man is to be identified with God’s people, as Leithart suggests, this account is quite clear that they have no role in subjugating the enemy. They simply receive the kingdom as a gift from God. This trajectory continues to the end of the book. When chapter 8 recounts the end of God’s enemy, it says, “Without warning he shall destroy many and shall even rise up against the Prince of princes. But he shall be broken, and not by human hands” (v. 25). The book ends with a three-chapter description of parallel events. This time, it only mentions that God’s enemy comes to a sudden end on his way back home to answer reports of trouble. No humans rise up to defeat him, least of all God’s people. The only Jews who are mentioned are those who die faithfully and will rise from the dead at the end of days (ch. 12). In sum, the point of Daniel is that God’s must people must resist the urge to overthrow the pagan empire or to compromise their convictions to find favor with it. Instead, they must remain faithful to the point of death, trust that God will bring victory without their help, and remain hopeful that whoever does not experience vindication in this life will do so in the next one. Far from undermining Yoder’s interpretation of the biblical trajectory, the book of Daniel is one of its strongest supports. I discuss this at greater length in The Politics of Yahweh (140-45).

[ The John Howard Yoder Index ]

The same can be said of the end time visions of Ezekiel and Revelation. In Revelation, the saints play the part of martyrs and God achieves victory and inaugurates the kingdom without human assistance. In Ezekiel’s foreshadowing of this “Armageddon” battle of Revelation, God’s people live securely in their land without feeling the need for walls to protect them (38:8-12), presumably because God is their protector. God then uses them as bait to attract Gog of Magog and his hoard of international allies (13:14-23). Gog takes the bait and goes after God’s vulnerable people. But before they can reach them, God destroys them without the Israelites’ help. Their only role is to wait for God’s victory, gather and burn the fallen enemies’ weapons (not stockpile them in anticipation of a future invasion), and then bury the enemies’ bones outside of their sacred land (39:1-16). These examples get at the issue of how God’s people participate in God’s reign, a point that is important to Leithart. The “kingship” of God’s people is seen in their recognition that they are God’s stewards, not the King himself. The lordship of God’s people comes through their acknowledgement that God alone is Lord. Jesus drives this point home definitively when he expressly forbids his followers from exercising that lordship like the nations (Matt 20:25-28; Luke 22:25-27).
More than Leithart realizes, this theme is not the exception but the norm among Old Testament prophets. In Habakkuk, it is God who avenges Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem. In Nahum, God fells Nineveh without the Israelites’ help. In Joel, God’s people mourn and fast until God drives away their unnamed invaders. In Jeremiah, they are instructed to submit to the reality of Babylonian occupation and learn to live under their rule until God one day delivers them. They receive no instruction to revolt in order to achieve their own independence. In Isaiah, Israel’s kings lose terribly when they rely on their own strength or on strategic alliances with other nations. Most importantly, 2 Isaiah provides a God’s-eye view of Israel’s appointed role among the nations, which leads to Leithart’s next claim.

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

  1. 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

  2. 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.