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 6: John Nugent on Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE

Yet it is only irrelevant if one finds it unnecessary to base an important theological and ethical claim upon a depth level reading of one’s supporting passages. This is especially so if it is the only New Testament proof one has that Christian soldiering is part of the New Testament record itself, which is a key part of Leithart’s argument against pacifism in Defending Constantine. It is extremely relevant to know what had to change as a result of Cornelius’ conversion if Leithart wants to make the point that it proves that God condones Christians staying in the military as those willing to kill for the empire after being converted. All this account tells us is that, before his conversion, Cornelius was a Gentile Centurion who was seeking God. Since Jews who did not follow Jesus were divided on the exact relation between the sword and God’s people, it is not surprising that a God-fearer, who was not officially incorporated into the covenant community anyway, would not have been taught that quitting his job was mandatory and that God would not have disqualified his capacity for faith on such grounds.
Then why mention at all that Cornelius was a centurion? It could be that centurions, like prostitutes and tax collectors, would have seemed so at odds with Christian faith by virtue of their occupations that Christians would be tempted to bypass them as they went about evangelizing. Luke therefore identifies his profession to make sure that Christians did not exempt them from a fair hearing of the gospel, which is good news for them as well, provided that they repent and seek first God’s kingdom from that point forward like everyone else. Luke, who authored both the Gospel that bears his name and Acts, was especially concerned to highlight the gospel’s pertinence to typical Jewish outcasts.
That people in the military are capable of seeking God and that God would welcome their search does not mean that after they truly find God in Jesus, God will continue to tolerate that way of life after their conversion. The fact remains that while the New Testament shows that servants of the Roman Empire were capable of faith and that some of them came to be followers, it does not demonstrate that once converted, such persons continued to do the parts of their job that went against the teachings of Jesus. We are not told how Cornelius’ life changed (nor the Philippian jailor or Ethiopian Eunuch, who fall under a similar category); we are told about Zacchaeus. He served the Roman Empire, but once he converted things changed dramatically for him. He had to go back and make things right with all the people he had wronged, and he had to offer half of his possessions to the poor. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7 and Peter in 1 Peter 2-3, people who find Christ in stations that as Christians they would not have chosen to begin with (e.g., people married to unbelievers or enslaved to them) should not quit, but should remain as witnesses to the way of Christ. The result may be the conversion of their heathen “superior,” who would then have to make radical changes as well. But they might also be rejected, as in the unbeliever who decides it is too much trouble to stay married to a disciple of Jesus. In such cases, according to Paul, believers are free from those bonds (1 Cor 7:15).
One wonders what happened to Zacchaeus after his change. Eventually he would have had to report to his superior who would likely expect to receive the normal inflated cut that resulted from Zacchaeus exploiting his position for material gain. How will he receive Zacchaeus’ confession that he will little to pass along from now on because he stopped robbing people and thus has less to pay forward to his patrons? Maybe he gets fired. Maybe he stays a tax collector who brings the totality of what it means to follow Jesus to his profession and is either tolerated by his superiors or wins them over. Yoder makes clear that he finds it possible for believers to serve the state in various capacities; only they must never set aside any part of what it means to follow Jesus as they do so (cf. Radical Ecumenicity, ch. 7).

I am sure Leithart could go on to cite more examples that appear to contradict Yoder’s trajectory, but I am equally confident that a closer reading would reveal them to be just as spurious. I find no exegetical grounds for his claim that “As he grows up, Yahweh’s son Israel learns to fight from his Father, Yahweh the Warrior” (647). As the Old Testament story tells it, Israel learned this from the nations, was being urged by God to unlearn it all throughout the Old Testament, was reprimanded for not learning this with the toppling of Jerusalem and the monarchy, was structurally reconfigured so as not to be able to wield the sword with much success beginning with the exile, and was taught explicitly by the Messiah that the business of revenge and self-defense would make them unfit for their mission to join him in overcoming evil with good.
Finally, Leithart returns to the question of what Constantine should have done had he genuinely converted (650). In my previous review I suggested that he could have followed Zacchaeus, by following Jesus in all things, until he got assassinated for not furthering the Roman Empire the way its ambitious leaders would have expected him to. Let me also suggest that he could have resigned. Like the woman caught in adultery, to whom Jesus said “Go and sin no more,” he could have realized that there was no way to seek first the kingdom of God and the interests of the Roman empire. The concern is not that Rome’s gods would have continued to guide Rome, which is the way of things anyway—the gods of Mars (war) and Mammon (money) never left the empire’s center even after its quasi-conversion. The concern is that Rome’s gods ended up guiding the church. Nonetheless, God remains sovereign over the nations and could have used another pagan king like Cyrus to replace a hostile policy against God’s people with a more neutral or tolerant one. Perhaps Constantine’s peaceful resignation and subsequent commitment to seeking first God’s kingdom would have impressed upon his successor the desire to do so.
Leithart is a keen thinker with some good points, but he makes them in service to what may be a different gospel after all. To the Pharisees who did “spiritual” things to impress fellow humans, Jesus said “they have received their reward in full.” Grasping after worldly power is not structurally different from grasping after human praise (Matt 6:5). If specific persons want to grab the scepter, fine. But that is all they may get. In the meantime, God’s people are called to genuine conversion to a different kind of power and a better resurrection (Heb 11:35).
John Nugent is a Long Island native and Professor of Old Testament at his alma mater, Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing, Michigan.  He is author of the 2011 Englewood Honor Book, The Politics of Yahweh, and Founding Editor of The JH Yoder Index, a researching tool that enables users to identify where Yoder writes about specific topics, Scriptures, and persons.

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.