“Trial and Error”
A Yoderian Rejoinder to
Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.
By John C. Nugent.
Paperback: IVP Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Constantine on Trial
Those looking for another excuse to dismiss John Howard Yoder are sure to find it in Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Though Leithart takes Yoder quite seriously, those less familiar with Yoder’s work may be left with the unfortunate impression that he was a sloppy thinker, blinded by the pacifism of a naïve tradition, and ignorant of the complexities of history. I am sure this is not Leithart’s intention. Leithart, however, does intend to start a “fight” (10) and his admittedly polemical tone sometimes borders on patronizing his primary foe along with his Anabaptist heritage. This should not detract readers from hanging in there with this rather long work. Some of its most stimulating suggestions come near the end. Leithart’s well-crafted and articulate case deserves more than a series of brief reviews; it requires substantive rejoinders both to his historical portrait of Constantine and his theological critique of Yoder. Though no one can speak for Yoder, least of all me, I will nonetheless enter the fray by presenting Leithart’s basic case and evaluating its polemic against Yoder and those who share similar convictions about faith, history and social ethics.
Polemics aside for the moment, Leithart’s task is ambitious: to write a life of Constantine, to rebut popular caricatures, to demonstrate that Yoder’s work on Constantine is wrong both historically and theologically, and to make a case for Constantine as a viable model for Christian political practice (10-11). This task is complicated by the nature of the extant resources. Leithart’s preferred source is Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine who adoringly portrays him as God’s providential instrument in ushering in the millennium. Leithart grants that Eusebius’ work is replete with exaggerations, contains accounts of questionable historicity, and intentionally omits incriminating material (228). Nonetheless, it remains the earliest and most comprehensive account available, so Leithart makes extensive use of it. He makes less use of the account of Zosimus, a late fifth century pagan who portrays Constantine as a violent ruler who was politically motivated in the worst sense of that term. Beyond this, Leithart had access to an oration of Constantine, published legal decrees, coinage, letters, and miscellaneous excerpts preserved among Eusebius’ writings. This situation is hardly an ideal one for a historian or a theologian.
The title of Leithart’s book gives a sense of his strategy for dealing with this difficult historical material. Consistent with his aims, Leithart plays the part of a defense attorney in a court setting. The last several decades of historians and theologians (e.g., Jacob Burkhardt, James Carroll, Stanley Hauerwas and, of course, Yoder) play the role of prosecuting attorneys who have been overly critical of Constantine and unfairly suspicious of favorable testimonies in the primary sources. It seems, to Leithart, as if they have sought only to find fault. As defense attorney, Leithart tasks himself with finding innocence or at least explaining fourth century details to make his clients’ actions more defensible. Making extensive use of Eusebius, he brings forward as many positive testimonies as possible. Evidence that does not support his case is either ignored, chalked up to exaggeration (126), or creatively re-interpreted with the help of more sympathetic secondary sources (227-230). Though this kind of reading is sure to encourage constructive historical work insofar as careful historians are spurred on to revisit the primary sources neither to prosecute nor to defend Constantine, Leithart’s book is not that kind of work.
Leithart’s biography of Constantine may be summarized as follows:
* Constantine sincerely believed that he had converted to Christianity and subsequently became a “missional emperor” who ended the unjust and horrendous persecution of Christians, united the church by healing divisions, and spread God’s truth throughout the world (ch. 4);
* Constantine practiced religious toleration, and all actions that critics cite as evidence that he pressured people to convert—including his prohibition of sacrifices, renovation of pagan temples into basilicas, repressive anti-pagan legislation, threats to punish Jewish converts, and persecution of heretics—are best interpreted as efforts to create a favorable environment in which all citizens are encouraged to embrace Christian faith (chs. 5-6);
* Constantine’s successors—especially Theodosius—escalated violence against pagans and relegated the church to a department of the state; yet they should not be interpreted as a continuation of the religious-political trajectory established by Constantine so much as a departure from it (ch. 6);
* Constantine convened, attended, and contributed to the doctrinal formulas of the Council of Nicaea with no intentions of meddling inappropriately, bolstering imperial unity, or promoting a self-serving political agenda; rather, he recognized the bishops’ collective authority in matters pertaining to faith and sought to unite the church for the sake of witness (chs. 7 & 8);
* Constantine used legislation to reform (or baptize, to use Leithart’s term) the Roman empire according to Christian standards by extending clergy exemptions, outlawing gladiatorial contests, protecting the weak, reinforcing traditional Roman social distinctions, and exhorting pagans to abandon false religions and sacrifices in order to worship the true God (ch. 9);
* Constantine extended justice to all persons by establishing laws that protected the poor, appointing Christians to ruling positions, and expanding the authority of bishops to include local judicial responsibility (ch. 10);
* Constantine claimed to have banished and removed every form of evil throughout his reign in order that the human race might observe the holy laws of God, but his rhetoric did not match the reality; more realistically, he infant-baptized the empire and such baptism marks the beginning of a process rather than its full realization (ch. 11); and, lastly,
* Constantine’s decision to bring bishops with him on his final campaign against Persia indicates his desire to win their approval, enjoy their companionship in service to God, and join them in offering prayers to the God from whom all victory proceeds (ch. 11).
I leave it to competent historians to evaluate Leithart’s historical construction, but for the purposes of this review I am going to suspend my historical misgivings and grant that his depiction of Constantine is accurate. I do so because I believe that Yoder’s notion of a “Constantinian shift” and its implications for ecclesiology, ethics, and historiography stand even if Leithart’s portrait of Constantine is true in all of the above regards. The balance of this review therefore focuses on Leithart’s claim to have successfully dismantled Yoder’s position and replaced it with a more viable one.
Yoder on Trial
As he indicates in the preface, Leithart did not intend merely to defend Constantine in this book; his defense of one man’s legacy serves as the basis of his prosecution against the legacy of another: the late Anabaptist scholar John Howard Yoder. An important part of Yoder’s social ethic and ecclesiology is his critique of what he calls Constantinianism: the fusion of church and state most evident in the church’s willingness to use the empire or state’s coercive power structures—particularly the sword—to assist in the church’s mission. According to Yoder, this shift in the church’s self understanding began in the second century, gained momentum under Constantine, thrived under Theodosius, found its culmination in the crusades, and keeps re-appearing throughout ecclesial history in new forms. Central to that shift is the fusion of church and society. Unfortunately, Leithart fails to appreciate the true basis for Yoder’s Constantinian critique and therefore lodges accusations against him that do not stand under careful cross-examination. I present and evaluate five such accusations below (there are, however, more). Since the first one comprises the central argument of Leithart’s book, it receives far more attention than the others. I conclude by raising an important question that those who reject Leithart’s proposal must answer if they are to provide a complete alternative.
Accusation One: Yoder is Wrong about Supposing a Constantinian Shift
Leithart’s most fundamental accusation against Yoder is that there was no “Constantinian shift” in the Yoderian sense of a fundamental change in the church’s self understanding. Leithart does acknowledge that the church experienced a significant upgrade in social status in the fourth century: thanks to Constantine, Christians went from being a persecuted minority to an acceptable and eventually preferred religion in the eyes of the emperor and wider society. He also agrees with Yoder that elements of this shift began before Constantine and culminated after him, but he disagrees that they signaled a substantive departure from New Testament Christianity. Leithart’s logic is simple: the church did not change its self-understanding because we see evidence in both the New Testament and late second and early third centuries that at least some Christians had always embraced the empire and its sword.
Leithart argues that these examples are sufficient to undermine Yoder’s schema because he believes that it is based on an Anabaptist “fall of the church” historiography that relies on the conviction that the early church for the most part conformed to a pacifist interpretation of the New Testament. For Constantine to truly represent a “fall,” Yoder must demonstrate that the early church reached the uniform pacifistic ecclesial heights from which he accuses the later Constantinian church to have fallen. Consequently, all Leithart has to do in order to falsify Yoder’s schema is to prove that the evidence is ambiguous and that the early church exhibited a diversity of views as to whether its members could bear the imperial sword (255-260). If he can do this, he believes, Yoder’s entire historical paradigm breaks down and his Free Church ecclesiology and pacifist ethic are compromised.
One need only turn to the gospels, Acts, and a few late second century documents to find such evidence. In Matthew 8:1-13, Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:39, Luke 3:14 and Acts 10-11, Leithart argues, we have accounts of converted centurions both by Jesus and John the Baptist, none of whom were asked to quit their jobs. Between the New Testament and the late second century we have no evidence of the church’s position, but after then we have clear evidence of Christians in the Roman military. For example, Tertullian’s polemical anti-military writings presuppose that there were Christians who had embraced military service. Why else would he have had to make his case so emphatically? From this evidence Leithart concludes that (a) Christians first endorsed military service in the New Testament, (b) at least some Christians served in the military in the second and third centuries, and (c) this trend increased dramatically in the fourth century after Christians were encouraged to serve in that capacity and when the end of pagan sacrifices and other imperial idolatries made it possible for believers to do so without compromising their faith. There was thus no shift in the church’s theology, but only in its political position and opportunity (278). Yoder was so blinded by Anabaptist bias that he could not see the evidence in front of him.
According to Leithart, Yoder’s notion of a shift is further discredited by his assessment of the Middle Ages. Leithart argues in chapter 14 that when Yoder illustrates the legacy of Constantinianism he skips from the fourth century to the Renaissance and Reformation, thereby overlooking the medieval period. Moreover, in the several places in which Yoder discusses the Middle Ages, he offers a more nuanced reading that presents them as being relatively good when compared with the eras before and after. Pockets within the church were “good” insofar as they preserved a strong sense of the church’s otherness from the world. By Leithart’s reckoning, immediately after Constantine, Eusebius and Theodosius exhibit an unhealthy submission of church to the empire. Yet they represented a departure from the way of Constantine that did not last long. It was corrected by Augustine and finds no expression in the Middle Ages. It only reemerges much later among the Protestant nationalist churches. Though Leithart applauds Yoder’s critique of these Protestant movements, he interprets the medieval gap in Yoder’s Constantinian narrative as another internal inconsistency that undermines his “fall of the church” historiography (323-24).
In sum, Leithart accuses Yoder of failing to demonstrate that Constantine represented a shift both away from what came before him and toward what came after him. But does this accusation hold up under cross examination? Here are four reasons why it does not.
1. Leithart misidentifies the basis of Yoder’s historical interpretation
The most significant problem with Leithart’s first (and perhaps weightiest) accusation against Yoder is that he misses the actual basis of Yoder’s position and, in so doing, fails to engage his account where it is actually falsifiable. Even if Leithart’s New Testament exegesis stood under cross-examination (and I demonstrate below why it does not), he would still be wrong that Yoder’s identification of a Constantinian shift depends on a “fall of the church” historiography that requires the early church to have uniformly embraced a pacifist, anti-imperial stance. There is no doubt that Yoder affirms the basic Anabaptist notion of a “fall” within the church, though he nuances his articulation of that fall in numerous places and distances his position from more naïve explanations of the church’s fall (cf. my introduction to Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder). Having said that, Yoder bases his identification of the Constantinian shift as apostasy not on Anabaptist history but on his interpretation of the entire biblical narrative—especially the Old Testament. The New Testament is not the beginning of Anabaptist pacifism according to Yoder, but the culmination of God’s formation of a people that began with Abraham. In over twenty works devoted to Old Testament themes, Yoder sets forth an interpretation of the biblical story in which God moves his people away from a Constantine-like posture and toward one of non-imperially-aligned service in and to the world. According to this interpretation, the monarchy of Israel represented the original Constantinian-like shift in the shape of God’s people and a detour away from the social shape that God bequeathed to his people in Torah.
Nonetheless, God did not abandon his people after they embraced this monarchical or “Davidic” detour (a typological use of David that is sure to frustrate Leithart). He stayed with them and their kings, worked through a system that he identified as fundamentally flawed, and patiently waited it out. Furthermore, this detour was not retroactively accredited by God on grounds that, like Constantine, David (a) used monarchical resources to minimize external opposition to God’s people, (b) healed divisions and unified God’s people, (c) submitted to the spiritual authority of religious advisors, (d) offered praise to Israel’s God alone, and (e) framed all of his imperial activities as service to God. Even though the Israelite monarchy brought about much good, God regarded it as structural rebellion against his reign and allowed it to crumble under the weight of its own inadequacies. The terrible atrocities that typified Israel’s life prior to the monarchy, as recoded in the book of Judges, take nothing away from the fact that God interpreted Israel’s request for a king like the nations as a rejection of the politics he ordained for them in Torah and a culmination of the lesser forms of rebellion that typified Israel’s life after their departure from Egypt. According to Yoder, God separated his people from imperial entanglement and then began to permanently reconfigure them as a people who should never pursue such entanglement again. That process began with the Jewish diaspora of Jeremiah’s time and was endorsed by Israel’s messiah, who rejected the temptation to revive “empire like the nations” in favor of a people whose mission was itself diasporic: to fill the earth with communities that reflect God’s kingdom as an alternative to the various kingdoms that would preside over the lands in which they lived. This non-imperially-aligned posture was made structurally permanent when God opened this mission to Gentiles and broke down the wall that separated all ethnic groups. This means that all Christians from that point forward would have more kinship with fellow believers in other nations than with nonbelievers in the host nations or empires in which they lived. To enter their host nations’ military apparatus would thus entail a willingness to potentially kill Christians in other nations or empires when they find themselves at odds with their empire or host nation. This is only a fraction of Yoder’s Old Testament narration. I present and engage its fuller contours with supporting Scriptures in a forthcoming article in the Journal of the Religious Ethics (Mar 2011) and in the forthcoming book, The Politics of Yahweh (Cascade Books).
My point is this: Yoder’s interpretation of Constantine is rooted in a robust reading of the full biblical narrative. This reading establishes the criteria by which he evaluates Constantine’s legacy and finds it shifting away from the biblical trajectory. This is evident in Yoder’s claim, when discussing the notion that the church had lost its way, that “the first dimensions of the loss to become visible are precisely those traits of early Christianity tied to the Jewishness of the gospel” (Jewish Christian Schism Revisited, 107). When the church began marginalizing its Jewish roots, which Yoder sees happening among the early Christian apologists, they lost sight of key lessons that God’s people learned from Abraham to Jesus that may have enabled them to resist fusing gospel ends with imperial means. This loss need not have begun in the second or fourth century for Yoder’s position to stand. It could have happened immediately after the revelation of God’s purposes in Jesus, just like Israel’s golden calf incident happened immediately after God revealed the Decalogue to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. Had Yoder found evidence for Christian abandonment of an imperially non-aligned posture in the late first century, he would simply have shifted the beginning of the Constantinian trajectory back a century.
The astute reader might retort that Yoder’s biblical narration is only a projection of his Anabaptist “fall of the church” historiography. Though this assertion is certainly possible, it is not what we find in Yoder’s writings. Instead, we find that the relevant portions of his Old Testament interpretation, particularly the monarchy, is dependent upon and corroborated by the exegesis of first rate Bible scholars, including John Bright, Norman Gottwald, Walter Breuggemann, Frank Cross, Gerhard Lohfink, George Mendenhall, Gordon McConville, Millard Lind, Rainer Albertz, and others—the overwhelming majority of whom are not Anabaptists. Critics of Yoder’s thought must therefore be careful not to patronize him by assuming that everything disagreeable about his work must be the naïve reflex of his Anabaptist roots. Anabaptists, too, are capable of the sophisticated interpretation of the Scriptures, and their work like that of everyone else must be engaged on its own terms. If Leithart wants to truly engage and falsify Yoder’s work, he will therefore have to falsify the pivotal points of his complete biblical narration.
2. Leithart misreads the New Testament
Even if Leithart overreaches in saying that Yoder’s position relies upon the pristine purity and absolute pacifist uniformity of the early church, he is right that Yoder’s position falters considerably if it can be demonstrated that Roman soldiering was embraced as a viable form of following Christ within the New Testament itself. Leithart’s interpretation of the conversion of Roman soldiers must therefore be seriously engaged.
To begin with, none of the four gospel passages Leithart cites are “conversion” accounts as he calls them. In Matthew 8, Jesus heals a centurion’s servant and acknowledges what great faith the centurion demonstrated in believing that Jesus possessed such great authority that he could heal from a distance. In Matthew 27:54 and Mark 15:39, the centurion at the foot of the cross confesses that Jesus is the son of God. In Luke 3:14, John the Baptist prepares soldiers for the coming messiah and kingdom by telling them not to extort money and to be satisfied with their wages. We are not told in any of these passages that these men repented from their sins, received baptism, and from that point forward sought first God’s kingdom with their time, energy, and resources. Of course, as one who spoke to these soldiers before Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist was not logistically capable of converting them to Christianity but could only prepare them for the Messiah who was to come. This, too, cannot be regarded a conversion account. All that these accounts demonstrate is that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church regarded centurions as people who were capable of great faith. Yet this faith never led to conversion, so one may not assume, as Leithart does, that had they actually converted they would have God’s blessing to continue serving in the military. This case for the non-conversion of these Gentile soldiers is strengthened by the Apostle Peter’s claim, in Acts 15:14, that God first accepted Gentiles as his people with the conversion of Cornelius’ household, which took place after Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost.
Since Cornelius was a Roman centurion, his conversion Acts 10 is Leithart’s strongest piece of evidence. It is important to note, however, that Luke frames this account as the first instance of a Gentile conversion—not a soldier’s conversion. The logic and emphasis of his account is that since God poured his Spirit upon Gentiles in the same manner that he originally poured it upon the Jews (Acts 2), God must approve of the conversion of the Gentiles. The significance of this event cannot be overstated; it signaled an epochal shift in salvation history. This is certainly how the Apostle Peter interpreted these events after having been prepared to do so by his thrice-repeated vision of unclean animals. When he saw that Gentiles had received the spirit just like the Jews, Peter immediately had them baptized. We are never told in this passage, however, what had to change about the life of Cornelius and the various members his household. We are not even told that they ever repented from anything. This is because the aspects of their former lives that they had to leave behind are not the point of this account. We should not assume, however, that the centurion and his household were sinless and that nothing needed to change about how they lived. It is likely that such changes were left out of the account lest they detract from what is most important about this account: the creation of a new humanity that is neither Jew nor Gentile.
Thus, in their New Testament contexts, Leithart’s anti-pacifist prooftexts only tell us that soldiers and Gentiles are persons who were capable of great faith and thus viable candidates for conversion. Without the support of these texts, Leithart’s case for continuity between the New Testament and Constantine crumbles and the front end of Yoder’s narration is left standing. According to that narration, the New Testament teaches the pacifist way of Christ for God’s people, some Christians started abandoning that way as early as the late second century, and this tendency increased greatly in the time of Constantine.
3. Leithart mistakes Yoder’s depiction of the Middle Ages
What about the backend of Yoder’s narration? Leithart claims that Yoder cannot point out anything Constantinian in the Middle Ages, but this is flatly contradicted by a wider reading of Yoder. Here I cite one example from Yoder: “The Roman and Eastern forms of Catholicism, when they speak of one another as ‘apostate,’ date that fall from grace with their breach of hierarchical communion with each other. When Magisterial Protestantism sought a date for [the] fall of the church, it was found somewhere after the fifth century, so that the ancient creeds could all be retained. Anabaptism found the root still deeper, at the point of that fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination” (Royal Priesthood, 89). Far from exculpating the medieval period, Yoder identifies two events in which Constantinian sensibilities appear to have peaked. Yoder acknowledged, however, that those extreme expressions do not tell the whole story and so he clarifies that this period contained within it various resources for resisting them. Rather than appreciate Yoder’s refusal to interpret this period monolithically, for which Leithart chastises Yoder in reference to Constantine, he abstracts it from Yoder’s other statements and marshals it against Yoder’s narration. Leithart has switched to the role of prosecuting attorney, selectively appropriating evidence so as to engender a guilty verdict over against evidence of innocence.
4. Leithart misunderstands what Yoder means by “Constantinian”
Though Leithart often appears to understand exactly what Yoder means by “Constantinian,” the evidence he gives for why Constantine himself was not “Constantinian” in a Yoderian sense does not falsify Yoder’s use of the term. As he tells the story of Constantine’s life, Leithart goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Constantine was not a pagan who pretended to be a Christian and simply used a thin veneer of Christian religiosity for political gain. Rather he depicts Constantine as a sincere believer who increasingly strove to order his reign according to Christian principles and to spread the gospel throughout the world. This much is evident in the bullet-pointed summary above. Yet the more Leithart’s charitable interpretation is upheld, the more grounds Yoder has that Constantine represented the significant shift in ecclesial self-understanding that Yoder used his name to represent. This is because Yoder’s definition of Constantinian is not a statement about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the aims toward which they use such power. The shift Yoder labels “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do. It is a reversion to the problematic underlying dynamics of kingship like the nations. Those underlying dynamics did not become wrong for God’s people only after they began misusing them; they were always wrong for God’s people and always will be prior to Christ’s return. It remains wrong because the reason God set apart a people for himself was so he would have a witness in the present world to the world to come—a coming world whose security, justice, and economics are not dictated by human rulers who subsume all aspects of societal life under their imperial jurisdiction and whose citizenry is not constricted by ethnic or geographical boundaries.
So when Leithart argues that Emperor Constantine was a sincere Christian who used imperial power to heal and unite the church, spread God’s truth throughout the world, outlaw sacrificial practices, turn pagan shrines into basilicas, uphold and expand the authority of bishops, and promote believers to positions of worldly power so they may join him in protecting the weak and promoting the good, he is baptizing God’s people into “empire like the nations.” That Constantine did all these things with sincere Christian motives, that Christians in his empire extolled him as their champion, that bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations, and that the church found a way to incorporate all these developments into its strategy for carrying out God’s mission all meant that the days of God ordained, missional, non-alignment with the imperial powers were ending. This is certainly an ecclesial shift away from the biblical trajectory as Yoder sees it.
Does the fact that Constantine ended the persecution of Christians negate this? Not necessarily. An act can be both good for the church and bad for the church simultaneously. The monarchy is Yoder’s precedent. Yes, it stabilized Israel and unified it structurally in a way that made the Philistine threat go away permanently, but it also shaped God’s people in unhealthy ways that left the biblical historians framing the rise of the monarchy in negative terms. This does not mean that we cannot agree with Leithart that Constantine did much good. Yoder frequently noted that the role of kings according to Scripture is to use their power to see to it that the good are rewarded and evil punished. To the extent that Constantine did this, he was acting like a good king, but not necessarily a good churchman. Nor does the fact that Constantine converted and started using Christian language in his addresses, strove for church unity, and built numerous basilicas negate his role in the Constantinian shift. Yoder’s case for a shift is that Christian aims are now sought after with all sincerity using imperial means. This is precisely the fusion of church and state that Yoder decries.
Accusation Two: Yoder is Constantinian in His Historical Methodology
In good polemical form, Leithart seeks to turn the tables on Yoder by demonstrating that he—and not Constantine—is the true Constantinian. Yoder exhibits historiographical/ methodological/ epistemological Constantinianism by denying Constantine a carefully nuanced, sympathetic reading and by accepting the biased accounts of cynical historians. Instead of following his best historiographical insights and keeping an open-handed view of history, Yoder seizes the levers of history and forces Constantine into his predetermined Anabaptist “fall of the church” grid.
This accusation does not stand, of course, if Yoder is right about the Constantinian shift and if his interpretation of history is based less on a rigid Anabaptist revision of history and more on a robust interpretation of Scripture. When Leithart speaks of Yoder’s best historiographical insights, I suspect he is speaking about the methodological approach Yoder champions in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. Yet in that work what Yoder means by maintaining an “open” disposition toward history is not exhibiting openness to interpreting developments that one deems unfaithful according to biblical standards as if they were actually viable expressions of faithfulness; instead, it means not assuming that the way things turned out is the way they had to turn out. For example, the fact that Christians and Jews eventually parted ways, Yoder argues, does not mean that it was inevitable that they would do so. With reference to Constantine, an open view means that Constantine did not have to use imperial power to advance the gospel, but could have done otherwise. Yoder is not betraying this historiographical insight if he is right about the biblical story and if Constantine was truly instrumental in the ecclesial shift that Yoder names after him.
This accusation also does not stand if it can be demonstrated that Yoder was more nuanced in his use of the term “Constantinian” than Leithart allows. Though Leithart grants in multiple places that Yoder qualifies his use of the term, he nonetheless perseveres in his accusation that Yoder denied Constantine a nuanced reading. However, as the following quote demonstrates, Yoder could hardly have nuanced his reading of Constantine’s role in the “fall of the church” any further without abandoning his conviction that Constantine did, in fact, play a part:
It is also important to note that the beginning dilution of messianic specificity began at the very beginning of Christianity and began to be spelled out intellectually in the second century. This should protect us from the oversimple notion that the big turn did not come until the fourth century. Yet, it is clear that the largest portion of the later case for primitivism arose then. Between the third century and the fifth, the relationship between the church and the world was profoundly redefined, in ways that raised the notion of restoration to a qualitatively new level. We look to that change, then, as representative, prototypical, but not as the whole for the reason renewal would be needed.
It is a mistake to think that the change associated in legend with the name Constantine has to do principally with the relationship of church and state. For the sake of my present assignment, I shall be pursuing the church-state theme, but that is only one facet, and perhaps not the most important, of what was transformed.
It is also a mistake to focus our interpretation of the change, as legend has done, on the man Constantine, as if he were the only major actor. Constantine was in fact a larger-than-life figure; the orders he gave did in fact reverse the course of history with regard to the place of Christianity in the empire. Yet his coming to be seen as a savior figure, as an inaugurator of the millennium, was not his work alone. He was decisively abetted by the mythmaking capacities both of popular culture and of Eusebius of Caesarea. Some of the systemic changes that Constantine as a mythic figure symbolizes for the historian (such as Christians’ believing that God favored the empire against its enemies) had begun before he came along, and some (like the legal prohibition of the pagan cult or of the prosecution of Christian dissent) took a century after him to be worked through. So when his name is used as mythic cipher it would be a mistake to concentrate on his biography. (“Primitivism in the Radical Reformation: Strengths and Weaknesses,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes, 81-82)
This quote demonstrates that Yoder’s use of the term Constantinian was, in fact, carefully nuanced and that Leithart did not properly nuance Yoder’s own understanding of the church’s “fall.” Throughout his book, Leithart attributes Yoder’s misunderstanding of the church’s fall to his Anabaptist historiography, but as this quote and other writings demonstrate, the core problem for Yoder was the church’s quite early “dilution of messianic specificity.” When the church began severing its Jewish roots, it began losing its sense of continuity with Old Testament Israel, which rendered it vulnerable to being transplanted into alien soil (as opposed to speaking and living out the gospel in many cultures in contextually appropriate ways that are true to its biblical roots).
Even so, since Yoder strove to be a careful historian, should he not have identified Theodosius or Eusebius as the namesake of this shift in ecclesial self-understanding? Theodosius went much further than Constantine to subordinate Christianity to the empire, and Eusebius narrates this shift more charitably than any other figure in world history. The answer is no, and for biblical reasons. The author/editors of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings, often called the Deuteronomistic historian(s), had the challenging task of bringing into a coherent framework an unwieldy account of over forty kings who reigned over two closely related kingdoms. To simplify matters, they chose two representative kings to serve as reference points. David represents kings who observed right worship of Israel’s God (by bowing to God alone and disallowing high places to compete against God’s sanctuary) and Jeroboam represents idolatrous kings (by bowing to other gods and sponsoring illicit high places). These choices were appropriate because David was the first king to worship God properly and because Jeroboam sponsored the golden calf tradition that led to rampant idolatry in Israel. Yet David is not identified as Israel’s best king, Josiah is; Jeroboam is not identified as Israel’s worst king, Manasseh is. Why did the biblical authors not choose the kings who most identified the spirit of their typologies? Perhaps because, for the purposes of theologically instructive historiography, the earliest, most public and transitional representative is the most appropriate.
Accusation Three: Yoder is Constantinian in the Emphasis He Places on an Emperor
Yoder’s narrative is Constantinian, Leithart argues, in that it places so much emphasis on Constantine that it makes him the central and most determinative figure in world history. A truly non-Constantinian historiography, Leithart continues, would dispatch Constantine quickly and recount world history primarily in light of God’s more determinative future kingdom, as Augustine does in The City of God.
As Hauerwas notes in his Christian Century review of Leithart’s book, Yoder would certainly not want his chosen historiographical foil (Constantine) to play an inordinately large role in the meaning of Christian history. To do so could give the appearance that the powers and principalities could wrest control of world history from God. God’s control of world history is the basis of Yoder’s commitment to nonviolence. Christians need not wield the sword precisely because God is able to control the direction of world history without their help.
It is clear that this not what Yoder is doing when one recognizes that Yoder’s ecclesial historiography cannot be separated from his Old Testament narration. I call it an “ecclesial” historiography because it focuses on Yoder’s understanding of the changing shape of God’s people throughout world history. It does not encompass all the components of history, the Bible story, or even Yoder’s historiography. We could just as easily set forth his salvation-historical or eschatological historiography in terms that would make the central role of Christ more evident. For convenience’s sake, I set it forth in terms of five stages:
1. Formation of a People: from Abraham to Judges
2. Deformation of a People: from Monarchy to its Collapse
3. Re-Formation of a People: from Jeremiah to the Early Church (centering on Christ)
4. Re-Deformation of a People: from the Apologists through the Reformation
5. Re-Re-Formation of a People: from the Radical Reformation through the Contemporary Free Church Tradition
There are all sorts of ways to quibble with this historiography, especially if one is not favorably disposed toward the Free Church tradition. It is certainly not comprehensive and it requires a fair number of explanations and disclaimers. For instance, Yoder’s conviction that the Radical Reformation framework for ecclesiology is the most faithful to Christ’s intentions for his people does not lead him to believe God has somehow withdrawn from ecclesial traditions that have rejected that reform or that those who embraced it have remained faithful to it and have not departed from God’s intentions in other ways. Rather, what I hope these stages make explicit is that, for Yoder, Constantine and the “specter of Constantinianism” are not the center of Yoder’s historiographical framework. Yoder may be faulted for a lot of things, but failure to make Christ the center of his thought in all areas is not one of them. It is understandable, however, that those who read Yoder’s work with an eye toward his treatment of Constantine may deduce that he plays a disproportionately large role in Yoder’s thought.
A careful reading of Yoder shows that Christ brought about the most fundamental change in world history and that a Christological reading of the biblical narrative is the key to whether Constantine was a departure from Christ’s work or a culturally appropriate extension of that work. If Yoder’s biblical narration is correct, Constantine is a departure and Leithart is making a monumental mistake.
Accusation Four: Yoder is a Poor Exegete of Jeremiah and Ezra
Leithart joins a host of scholars in accusing Yoder of poorly interpreting the shifts represented by Jeremiah and Ezra. Yoder makes Jeremiah out to be the harbinger of permanent diasporic existence for God’s people despite the fact the Jeremiah himself hopes for and anticipates a return to Jerusalem. Then, when Ezra and Nehemiah take leading roles in that return, Yoder dismisses them as politicking elders who are trying to recapture the golden days of the monarchy, which God brought to a decisive end. Leithart calls this bad scholarship, even anti-canonical, and shows that Yoder is inconsistent inasmuch as he claims Daniel, Joseph, and Esther as examples of diasporic flexibility, but not Ezra and Nehemiah. Why not just say that different circumstances required different responses?
Several scholars have objected to Yoder’s thesis of a Jeremianic turn on grounds that Jeremiah could not possibly have imagined himself to be heralding the end of palestinocentric existence and the beginning of diasporic mission (e.g., Cartwright, Kissling and Ochs). Yet for Yoder, what Jeremiah imagined is not the point. Yoder is neither a professed Jew who reads Israel’s history primarily in light of subsequent rabbinic development, nor an Old Testament scholar who locates the text’s full meaning in authorial intent. He is a Christocentric biblical realist who reads all of Scripture and history in light of the definitive revelation of God’s purposes in Christ and his church. Several canonical developments shed important light back onto the book of Jeremiah such that the significance of his ministry was greater than what he realized. For example:
* When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13-21).
* Jesus did not reconstitute Israel as a palestinocentric community but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4:21-24; Acts 1:8).
* Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25-27).
* Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens were committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matthew 5:38-48, 28:19).
* Previously scattered Jews as far back as Jeremiah formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:17, 14:1, 17:1-3).
* The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1, 2:1) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Philippians 3:20).
For Yoder, these developments must not be ignored when assessing Jeremiah’s legacy. The strength of his position lies not in sixth-century prophecy and history, but in the first-century revelation of God’s purposes through the Messiah, the Holy Spirit, and the church. From Yoder’s perspective, we ought to ask not only what Jeremiah thought he was saying to sixth-century Jews, but also what God is saying through him to post-Pentecost Christians. Leithart makes a similar move when he grants that Constantine was accomplishing more for God’s purposes than he may have realized (331).
Yoder’s interpretation of Ezra and Nehemiah are less defensible. Several observations should be made, however, before scholars pass judgment on a few lines from one essay in a section titled “Further Testing” (“See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in Jewish Christian Schism Revisted and For the Nations). First, it should be noted that Yoder was not suggesting that the canonical books of Ezra and Nehemiah were wrong in any way. Bible books often preserve a record of events in which God’s people do various things against God’s will. Yoder is likely testing the possibility that the books themselves were presenting Ezra and Nehemiah ambivalently. Charges that his critiques were anti-canonical, then, are overstated. Second, Yoder’s questions about the legacy of Ezra and Nehemiah were open questions for him. This is likely why he placed them in a section that he calls “Further Testing.” Yoder had not found a satisfactory way to integrate the return from exile into his overall biblical narration, so he started a conversation that he would not live to finish. His inability to finish it does not mean his overall narration crashes on its inability to deal with Israel’s rebuilding and refortification. As I argue elsewhere, it could be emphasized that, whereas it was crucial that many Jews scatter throughout the world in preparation for the Gentile mission, it was equally important that a certain number of Jews retain their identity as Jews in the Promised Land so the Messiah could fulfill the prophecies regarding their gathering and sending “from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Although this oversight on Yoder’s part weakened his narration and has rightly elicited criticism, it does not compromise his fundamental thesis that, from the beginning, God had been shaping his people in preparation for the messianic era and missionary work of the church.
This still does not answer the question of why Yoder spoke so favorably about Joseph, Esther, and Daniel, despite the fact that they occupied influential positions in world empires. One reason could be that these individuals were taken into imperial custody, presumably against their wills (Joseph sold as a slave, Esther taken into a pagan king’s harem, and Daniel exiled from his homeland). God nonetheless used their reluctant placement within the empire to serve his sovereign purposes (Daniel goes out of his way to show that he’s not one of the gang in Daniel 1 and Joseph and Esther only learn in retrospect that God was planning to use their captivity for his providential purposes). They found themselves in places they did not strive to be and they made no effort to make those empires Jewish by converting them to Torah or recruiting them to serve the unique purposes for which God set apart his chosen people.
Accusation Five: Yoder is Blind to How Jesus is Relevant to Governing Authorities
Toward the end of his book, Leithart begins sketching his constructive proposal for how Christians ought to relate to empire in a fallen world. He supports it with a highly speculative interpretation of the biblical story wherein God’s people “grow up” throughout Scripture and are given greater responsibility. Whereas in the Old Testament, God fought for his people, by the New Testament God’s people are commissioned to join the fight. Of course, the spiritual weapons God gives them are superior to those of the world. However, Leithart explains in a move that is designed to overturn the pacifist interpretation of the New Testament that “if the Lord lets Christians wield the most powerful of spiritual weapons, does he not expect us to be able to handle lesser weapons? If he has handed us a broadsword, does he not assume we know how to use a penknife?” (336) My point here is not to critique Leithart’s problematic a fortiori argument but to engage what he does with the specific teachings of Jesus. Rather than deny the relevance of Jesus’ radical demands to imperial life, he enumerates nine ways that they apply to rulers (338-39):
* Turning the other cheek teaches emperors not to wage war for purposes of retaliation and defense of honor.
* Rulers should learn to settle disputes quickly with their adversaries in order to diffuse disputes before they escalate.
* Rulers should not look at women lustfully, but should stick to their jobs and be faithful to their wives.
* Rulers should be honest and speak the truth even when it hurts.
* Rulers should not perform acts of charity simply to be seen by others.
* Rulers should love their enemies, do good to all, and punish offenders only out of love for both victims and their persecutors.
* Rulers should not worry excessively about budgets and store up heavenly treasure through acts of charity.
* Rulers should rule as those who will be called to account regarding how well they treated the naked, hungry, and imprisoned.
* Rulers may even be asked to endure a cross for the sake of righteousness.
The “politics of Jesus” is thus highly relevant to imperial life. But Yoder could not see this, according to Leithart, because his pacifism blinded him.
This accusation is perhaps easiest to dismiss. Yoder agrees not only that Jesus’ teachings are relevant to all people, but also that Christians have a responsibility to proclaim the implications of Christ’s lordship to all people, including rulers. Conspicuously absent from Leithart’s bibliography is Yoder’s most complete statement of the church’s relationship to the state: The Christian Witness to the State. Yoder explains there, as well as in his capital punishment writings and in numerous places where he addresses vocation, that the way of Christ is relevant to all aspects of life. No public sphere is free from his reign; all are made subject to him as he sits enthroned at God’s right hand. The way of Christ is relevant not only to church life, but also to banking, housing, practicing medicine, and governing. Yoder and Leithart agree that the way of Christ is relevant to all vocations and that Christians are best positioned to proclaim what it looks like there; they disagree about whether participation in certain vocations is consistent with Christian faith. (For more on Yoder’s doctrine of vocation see my article in Radical Ecumenicity).
An Interesting Question Raised by Defending Constantine
A thorough, though far from exhaustive, cross-examination has cast a long shadow of doubt over the notion that Leithart had exposed a fundamental flaw in Yoder’s ecclesiological, ethical, and historical project. But he does raise an interesting question that those who disagree with him still must answer: What should an emperor like Constantine have done after being converted? Should he have quit his job? The Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7 that believers should remain in the station in which they were called. Zacchaeus did not quit his job upon conversion, but reformed it radically in light of Christ. Should Constantine have attempted to do the same? Is there evidence in this book that this is what Constantine did? Removing false worship from imperial life was a move in the right direction, but using imperial power to take away the freedom God gave pagans to be pagan is a different matter. One wonders, however, whether Zacchaeus was able to keep his job. What happened to him when his superiors came calling and he was not able to pass along their customary cut? Was he praised, fired, imprisoned, executed? What would have happened had Constantine used his position to accomplish the more moderate role that God has ordained for the state according to Scripture? We will never know, because that is not what happened. That may not have happened because, as Leithart notes, many of the good bishops and leaders had been martyred and the church was not as strong has it could have been to give Constantine proper instruction about his role. Of course a more fundamental question that Leithart raises without truly answering is: why did Constantine not seek baptism until shortly before death? Was he keeping his options open? Trying not to offend the pagans? Expressing a sense of humility or unworthiness? Did the bishops forbid it? Did Constantine believe, like Yoder, that a Christian had no business running the empire (as Leithart playfully suggests, 300)? Or did he believe, also like Yoder, that an emperor had no business using his position to seek first God’s kingdom?
In Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart gives us a lot to think about and perhaps even “fight” about. In bringing fresh perspectives to stale conversations, he has invited us to revisit the biblical and historical evidence to verify if it really says what we have always thought it says. In doing this, he has done the academy and the church a great service.
John C. Nugent is Professor of Old Testament at Great Lakes Christian College (Lansing, MI). His wrote his Ph.D. on the relevance of Yoder’s Old Testament narration for ecclesiology, a revision of which is scheduled to be published by Cascade Books as The Politics of Yahweh (2011). He is the author of several articles and the editor of Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder (ACU Press, 2010) and The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder (Herald Press, 2011).
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!