Peter Leithart’s Response to John Nugent’s “Yoderian Rejoinder”

Peter Leithart’s Response to John Nugent’s Rejoinder.?

[ CLICK HERE to read John Nugent’s original review… ]

18 December 2010

First of all, my thanks to the editor, Chris Smith, for inviting this response, and to the reviewer, John Nugent, for his careful and generous attention to my book.  It represents just the kind of vigorous, fraternal debate I hoped my book would generate.  I am glad to see that Nugent recognizes that I take Yoder’s work seriously.  Let me reiterate what I said in the book: Yoder is a deeply challenging theologian and I have found his work highly edifying, if sometimes infuriating.

In my response, I follow the order of Nugent’s review.  My comments are necessarily, but somewhat regrettably, brief.

One general comment at the beginning: The flaw in Nugent’s review is that he reads my book as more or less entirely a polemic against Yoder.  It is not.  I let loose on multiple opponents who have many different sorts of complaints against Constantine.  If my book suffers distortions because I took up a solicitor’s stance Defending Constantine (not my preferred title, by the way!), Nugent’s review is blinkered because he set out to write Defending Yoder.

Accusation 1:
Yoder is Wrong about Supposing a Constantinian Shift

Point 1:Leithart misidentifies the basis of Yoder’s historical interpretation”
I was encouraged to see Nugent highlight the biblical questions at stake in this discussion, since those issues are for me central.  I look forward to Nugent’s fuller treatment in his forthcoming article and book, but from his brief summary of Yoder’s reading of the Old Testament, I can see some of the places where I disagree.  Monarchy was not, as Nugent says, a “detour” from Torah, since Torah explicitly prophesies of and provides for monarchy (Genesis 49; Deuteronomy 17).  (I’m tempted to say, Those who oppose monarchy to law, have you not read the law?)  It’s a monarchy far different from the monarchies of the Gentiles, but a monarchy nonetheless.  If David was a “detour,” further, it is odd that the prophets again and again hold out the hope that Israel would return to the “detour” (Isaiah 9:7; 16:5; 33:15-26; Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25).  It is also difficult to see how the diaspora weaned Israel from “imperial entanglement,” since the diaspora left Israel more entangled with empire than ever.

Point 2:Leithart misreads the New Testament”
Nugent may be right that I overstate the evidence of the New Testament in talking about the “conversion” of Roman soldiers, but he minimizes the impact of these texts, and the challenge they pose to pacifists.  Would Yoder have given the advice that John the Baptist gave the soldiers who came to him for baptism?

Point 3:Leithart mistakes Yoder’s depiction of the Middle Ages”
Nugent misses my point about Yoder’s construal of the Middle Ages.  I do not claim that Yoder finds no fault with the Middle Ages; he was a Mennonite – fault with the Middle Ages is part of the package.  The point was that he recognizes – quite rightly, as I emphasized in the book – that the medieval period had resources of resistance to Constantinianism, and that he argues, quite explicitly, that the most egregious forms of Constantinianism arise in the modern period.  Since Yoder links Constantinianism as a heresy to social and political circumstances, I find it odd that Constantinianism would be at its worst when the social and political circumstances that gave rise to it have vanished.

Point 4:Leithart misunderstands what Yoder means by “Constantinian”
I am quite aware that correcting the historical record concerning Constantine himself doesn’t do much damage to Yoder’s thesis.  But, as noted above, Yoder wasn’t my only target in the book, and much of the material in the early chapters was addressed at others.  Whether or not the church defected from Christ in the era of Constantine depends on whether Yoder is right about the biblical trajectory that I questioned above.  As for fusing church and state: Constantine may have sought such a fusion, but I think the church was more resistant than that, and my book provides evidence of the church’s resilience.

I am happy to see that Nugent is willing to agree (or at least, willing not to disagree) that “Constantine did much good,” but I am intrigued by the absence of any such concession from Yoder.  Perhaps Yoder too gave qualified commendation to Constantine somewhere.  I have not found it.

Accusation 2:
Yoder is Constantinian in His Historical Methodology”

I agree that a Christian historian cannot have a disposition “open” to unfaithfulness, and I never imagined that this is what Yoder meant.  My complaint against Yoder’s history of the period is that he failed to attend to the constraints and possibilities that were available to Constantine and to Roman Christians of the fourth century.  He never entered sympathetically into the world of fourth-century Christianity, certainly not into the world of a fourth-century Christian emperor.  I didn’t quote the passage Nugent cites, but I quoted similar statements where Yoder explains that one should not treat Constantine as “the only major actor.”  I made it clear throughout my interaction with Yoder that he recognized that “Constantinianism” predated Constantine.  Yet I persist in believing that Yoder “denied Constantine a nuanced reading,” and when I ask why a subtle thinker like Yoder would lose some of his subtlety at this point, I keep bumping up against a univocal Anabaptist narrative.

Nugent’s biblical defense of Yoder’s symbolic use of Constantine’s name is helpful.

Accusation 3:
Yoder is Constantinian in the Emphasis He Places on an Emperor”

Though Yoder’s scheme of biblical has some useful aspects, I do not agree with his view of the shape of church history.  And I wonder how Nugent’s denial that Yoder taught that “God has somehow withdrawn from ecclesial traditions that have rejected that reform” squares with Yoder’s charge that the churches have been in the grip of a fundamental “heresy” or are guilty of “apostasy.”

Accusation 4:
Yoder is a Poor Exegete of Jeremiah and Ezra”

I would like to explore Nugent’s arguments here, but much of his response is tangential to my book.  I raise only one specific question: While it is true that none of the high-placed Jews mentioned attempted to convert the Gentiles to Torah, it is not so clear that they were not recruiting them to assist in God’s purposes for Israel.  Cyrus supported the rebuilding of the temple, and Nehemiah requested the king’s support in rebuilding Jerusalem.  These empires, it seems to me, did very much what Constantine did, and the Jews were grateful for the imperial support they received.

Accusation 5:
Yoder is Blind to How Jesus is Relevant to Governing Authorities”

Nugent calls my interpretation of Scripture as a story of maturation “speculative.”  I thought I was simply restating Galatians 4.  He seriously misrepresents my argument about the “politics of Jesus.”  I commend Yoder precisely for recognizing that Jesus’ teaching applies to everything, and I expect Yoder would have supported virtually all of the points I make on pages 338-339.  I was addressing a different question, a question that poses more of a challenge to my own tradition than to Yoder’s: What do those who do not accept Yoder’s pacifism do with the teachings of Jesus?  Privatize them?  Neutralize them?  Ignore them?  I agree with Yoder: None of these options is faithful, and what we need is to call rulers to be hearers and doers, to build on the Rock.


Nugent says that Constantine ought not have taken away pagans’ freedom to be pagan; in my book I argue that he did not do this, but rather pursued a policy of “concord” that permitted non-Christian religious while tipping the balance of imperial power in the church’s favor.

I end where I began, with gratitude to the editor and reviewer, and a hope that the debate will continue until we reach the full unity of the faith and grow up into Christ.

Peter J. Leithart
New St. Andrews College
Moscow, Idaho

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