Defending Constantine

All the participants in the big debate on natural law seem to have wearied of the discussion all at once, which suits me fine, as I’ve been having to attend to other things lately.  Meanwhile, Peter has posted the second installment of his series over at Wedgewords, outlining what he sees as the eschatological and ecclesiological problems of the “neo-Anabaptism” of which he considers me to be a fine specimen.  This discussion will no doubt be carried on for some time to come, and I hope to soon have leisure for further posts on natural law and the place of the Church vis-a-vis the political.  Meanwhile, though, I wanted to draw attention to one of the finest recent contributions to this whole field of discussion (ecclesiology-meets-political-theology): Peter Leithart’s brand new Defending Constantine.

In some ways a sequel to his just as provocatively titled Against Christianity (2003), but couched in the form of a historical narrative (thus showcasing Leithart’s ability to range widely across writing genres and scholarly disciplines), this book seeks to shatter all the silly myths about Constantine the man and the “Constantinianism” he stands for, and in the process, provide a new compass for a post-Christendom political theology.  As America’s Christian publishing houses have long been busy churning out criticisms of Constantine and Constantinianism, this book had the potential to be something of a bombshell, and it seems to be having the desired effect.  Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most renowned peddlers of anti-Constantinianism, recently reviewed it in the Christian Century.  

After beginning with the acknowledgment that “Asking me to write a review of Peter Leithart’s defense of Emperor Constantine may seem like asking the fox to inspect the henhouse,” Hauerwas goes on to acknowledge that, aside from the excellent historical work in the book, the theological task–critiquing Yoder’s account of Constantinianism–is powerful and persuasive, and one that Yoder himself would have taken seriously.  Hauerwas rightly recognizes that Leithart, unlike many critics of Yoder and Hauerwas, is a very appreciative critic, who grants many of their fundamental premises, but then refuses to follow their oversimplifications.  He concludes the review by saying, “As a pacifist, I could not want a better conversation partner than Peter Leithart.  God is good.”  

Other endorsements have come from N.T. Wright, who says, “Few will agree with everything he says. All will benefit enormously from this challenge to easygoing received ‘wisdom,” and from William Cavanaugh, another political theologian in the anti-Constantinian tradition.  Cavanaugh says “An excellent writer with a flair for the dramatic, Peter Leithart is also one of the most incisive current thinkers on questions of theology and politics….Any worthwhile political theology today cannot fail to take Leithart’s argument seriously.” 

Of course, if this sounds like an infomercial, it pretty much is.  This book is near and dear to my heart, as I had the privilege of helping to index it, and more importantly, as I had the privilege of studying under Leithart during the time he was working on this, and having many fantastic discussions with him about the issues involved.  

So, go buy this book! 🙂 

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