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 4: John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE

I have dedicated so much space to spelling this out because it explains what is going on with Joseph, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. In each of these instances, God’s people find themselves somewhat “entangled” with other empires. But note the nature of that entanglement: in each case God’s people accept that they are under the thumb of a pagan empire and make no effort to overtake it or convert it to Judaism. In none of these cases did God’s people intentionally infiltrate the political structures to baptize (or circumcise) them. Rather Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery against his will and was providentially elevated to a position of power to avoid the extinction of God’s people due to famine. Esther was acquired like property by a pagan king in a woman-demeaning “Miss Persia” sort of pageant and was likewise providentially used to save God’s people from extermination by Persian decree. Daniel (and his friends), Ezra, and Nehemiah were all exiles who were forcefully removed from their land and made to serve another nation’s imperial agenda. None of these Jews wished to grow up to be servants of a foreign king so that they may use their royal power for good.
Ezra and Nehemiah in particular were the fulfillment of the posture set forth in the Servant Songs. It was too small a thing for the servant of the Lord to defeat Babylon and refortify Israel in its own land. This is a job that world rulers could accomplish. The Persians were those rulers. They sponsored the Jews’ return to their land, appointed overseers for their major rebuilding projects, and sometimes protected them while they did so. All of this was part of standard Persian foreign policy. They permitted many exiled peoples to return to their homelands, refortify their cities, and reinstate their preferred legal and religious order. They hand-picked Ezra and Nehemiah for those jobs precisely because they were Jews who had proven themselves to be trustworthy while in exile and could be relied upon to serve Persia’s interests in their native lands. The divine hand was at work in all of this insofar as God intentionally sought to reestablish many Israelites back in their land—but precisely as vassals to a foreign king. This would disabuse them of the notion that if they could only get back to their land they could get their own king back and things would return to normal. It also paved the wave for the Messiah who would be sent to Palestine to gather God’s people and equip them for their global mission. It was thus providential that God would use Persia to accomplish this end. But it was not the accomplishment of God’s people by their own power. They could not do it without God, which was not remarkable, and they could not even do it without Persia, which was extremely humbling. They could not be truly independent as was the ultimate goal of pagan kingdoms.
In short, these examples support Yoder’s conviction that with Jeremiah God began to reshape Israel into a new form that would culminate in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated. Of course, not all people embraced this reshaping. The Maccabeans tried to reclaim the kingdom by force and reinstituted an Israelite monarchy, but those efforts did not last and were already implicitly critiqued in Daniel. Nor did this reshaping mean that all Jews after Jeremiah considered themselves pacifists. So it is little wonder that Nehemiah and Mordecai’s crews were willing to strap on swords for defensive purposes and to accept Persia’s armed escort. One gets an entirely opposite picture, moreover, from Ezra. He declined Persia’s offer of an armed escort—considering it a poor witness to the reliance upon God that he had previously professed (Ezra 8:22). Nor did any part of Ezra’s leadership style exemplify rulership like the nations. Instead he studied the law, lived the law, taught the law to others, fasted, tore his clothes, and wept until God’s people came to their senses and repented of their wicked ways (7:10; 9:3—10:5). Lumping Ezra and Nehemiah together does not help Leithart’s case as much as he supposes.

[ The John Howard Yoder Index ]

Leithart therefore overreaches when he claims, “Had Yoder captured the biblical trajectory, we would expect Jews to renounce the sword in the post-exilic situation, and refuse imperial support for their rebuilding. In the Bible we find the opposite” (648). On the contrary, this is exactly what we find in Daniel and Ezra. Furthermore, Yoder’s interpretation does not have to find the instant transformation to a pacifist ethic that Leithart thinks it requires. There is genuine continuity in a trajectory where God’s people go from being (a) a people like the nations with their own king and standing army, to (b) a people without their own king and army who accept that the sword now belongs in the hands of the nations and believe that God sometimes permits them to use it defensively as permitted in Torah, to (c) a people whose Messiah has come and claimed to fulfill the Torah in such a way that violence is no longer appropriate for God’s people. It was no longer appropriate because they would not lord over others like worldly rulers do, would never avenge themselves, would love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, would make themselves at home among all nations as exiled witnesses and therefore no longer possessing a specific land to defend by the sword, and would trust that the world would not fall to pieces if they did not wield the sword to bring the guilty to justice since God already has at hand plenty of pagans who consider it their noblest aspiration to do so.
That the New Testament letters continue this trajectory, as well as the official teachings of the early church prior to Constantine (see Kreider’s article in MQR 85 or Constantine Revisited), further accredits Yoder’s biblical trajectory. This trajectory is not falsified if some believers fail to submit to Christ in all things and continue to seek a name or livelihood for themselves by joining the Roman military. The New Testament provides ample evidence that many early Christians found it difficult to forsake worldly ambitions (e.g., James, 1 Peter, and 1 Corinthians), yet this did not keep James, Peter, and Paul from continuing to hold up Jesus as their normative standard.

CLICK HERE to continue reading on Page 5


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.