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The Emperor’s New Clothes: A Review of Defending Constantine

The tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” turns on the question of how to see the emperor: is he clothed in garments befitting someone of his noble station, or is he parading in nothing more than his birthday suit, exposed as vain and conceited? Likewise, Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine turns on the question of how to see Emperor Constantine: is he the best thing to happen to Christianity since Christ, or is he a problematic figure who begins a pattern of collusion between church and empire that has shaped the church up to the present day? Given the title, it is no surprise that Leithart advocates more for the former than the latter.

Leithart gives three purposes that shape his work. First, he draws on numerous scholarly works to answer basic historical questions about Constantine: who was he? What did he accomplish? Did he truly convert to Christianity? How did Constantine think about faith and its relation to his role as emperor? Second, Leithart uses the historical survey to undermine John Howard Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism. And third, Leithart believes that Constantine can potentially serve as a model for contemporary Christian political theory and practice, especially in the global south. Although this third purpose is left largely to the reader’s imagination, the first two purposes are addressed at length. Given that Leithart’s historical work serves his more polemical theological intentions, I will begin there.

Leithart’s Constantine

Peter J. Leithart. Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Was Constantine genuinely converted to Christianity? Leithart answers yes, although he emphasizes that such an answer must take into account what it would look like for a fourth-century Roman soldier-turned-emperor to convert. Like Roman emperors before him, religion and politics were not two separate worlds but one integrated whole.

Constantine was no Machiavelli or Karl Rove, cleverly and cynically working Christian rhetoric in order to maintain and preserve power. Instead, like the pagan Diocletian before him, Constantine genuinely believed that worship of the correct god would ensure the peace and prosperity of Rome (152). Thus, Constantine was also no James Madison; his empire was not religiously neutral, but one in which Christianity was favored (112). In general, Constantine allowed a certain measure of freedom to non-Christians, but on occasion he persecuted those who were considered heretics, schismatics, and non-Christians.

The most significant and persistent aspect of Constantine’s reign, for Leithart, is the end he brought to sacrifice. As Augustine would point out nearly a century later, the earthly city functions by sacrificing to false gods in an attempt to ground its existence. This was certainly true of pagan Rome. Consequently, by refusing to offer sacrifices to pagan gods, Constantine undermined the foundation of Roman civic life and pointed to the church as the true polis in contrast to the pagan parodies. This was the beginning of something new, for Christianity was a “religion without sacrifice,” a communal but not a civic religion (40). Given Christianity’s rejection of sacrifice, it could not be easily assimilated to Roman political theology without “cracking the system wide open” (40). A new polis was being forged in the midst of the old.

Although neither baptized nor an official member of the church, Constantine called church councils, most notably Nicea, and played a large role in theological disputes and church politics from 312 onward (149). When it is convenient for Leithart to critique Yoder, he downplays Constantine’s involvement, but in his more quasi-Eusebian moments, Leithart trumpets Constantine’s role in bringing orthodoxy and unity to the church. Although Leithart criticizes Yoder and others who suggest (based on Eusebius’s reports) that Constantine overstepped his bounds in the various councils and controversies of his day (180), Leithart himself labels Constantine a “common bishop” (149) and argues that without his political skill and strength of personality, the bishops would probably not have come to a conclusion. As a result, “we should not underestimate Constantine’s achievement” at Nicea (170).

Constantine not only oversaw key theological developments, but he also initiated legal and civic changes that were significant in their intent, if not always in their application. The changes Constantine brought are nothing less than “Rome’s baptism,” a metaphor that Leithart employs throughout the book to signify the way that Rome’s army, empire, worship, cityscapes, law, and society all were being transformed under Constantine (238). Whereas some might see the interweaving of the gospel and civic law as a prime example of the misguidance of Constantinianism, Leithart sees it as the reign of Christ being made concrete with respect to the functioning of the civil order.

Constantine appears troublesome to modern liberal Protestants because they buy into a Lockean division between the interior and exterior, the religious and public. This strict dualism, as Leithart convincingly argues, is untenable (Leithart also recognizes that he and Yoder are companions on this point). For Leithart, the proto-Milbankian Constantine allows for more true freedom than does Locke, whose “doctrine of religious toleration deconstructs in practice into tyranny over religion” (144).  Although Constantine was involved in destruction of pagan temples, the exile of heretics, and the persecution of schismatics, he recognized what Locke did not, namely, that there is no such thing as a naked public square (139–45). The emperor must wear the clothes of some god, whether the Christian God, a pagan god, or the god of society itself (191). Although he does not turn a blind eye to Constantine’s faults and abuses, Leithart argues that the modern myth of religious neutrality has cast out one demon only to welcome seven more, for sacrifice has returned with a vengeance in the modern secular state, which has no god to sacrifice to but itself. So it is not Constantine’s age but the modern era that has produced the flow of human blood in unprecedented levels (340–41).

Although Leithart’s criticisms of Yoder surface occasionally throughout the book, his final chapters focus on providing an alternative narrative to Yoder’s account of Constantinianism. This difference is not merely about Constantine; it also entails a different understanding of Jesus, violence, and the church’s relationship to earthly power. Because Yoder claims that the church’s movement to accepting imperial violence and power entails a shift, Leithart sets about to prove that the church was never pacifist. As Leithart sees it, if he can prove diversity or ambiguity on the point of military involvement, he has falsified Yoder’s account of a Constantinian shift (259). At the same time, Leithart recognizes that Yoder acknowledged diversity and ambiguity in the second and third centuries (265). For Leithart, army service and justified violence are not wrong; rather, it is the idolatry inherent in the Roman army that is wrong. Thus, when the imperial liturgies were purged from the army, there was nothing intrinsically wrong about Christian participation (271). Given these factors, Leithart argues that the church did not “fall” into Constantinianism; Constantine purified the army and made possible Rome’s baptism.

This acceptance of war and violence fits with Leithart’s telling of the biblical narrative. Humanity was created, Leithart holds, to fight: “from the beginning, this Creator made men to participate in and prosecute his war. His goal in history is to train hands to fight” (333). The Old Testament is filled with the wars of Yahweh, Jesus is a David-like conqueror, and the church is commanded to take up the armor of God. So Leithart asks, “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). Leithart answers yes and then outlines how the politics of Jesus (as he sees them) would instruct rulers: it would teach them to prosecute wars justly, tell the truth, do good without hypocrisy, seek the common good rather than the good of one party or demographic, store up treasure in heaven rather than lose sleep over budgets or stock markets, and be willing to be the first to die in combat rather than sit safely at home. The real target of criticism is thus not Constantine but the modern state, which refuses to acknowledge the true polis of God and thereby absolutizes itself. The only remedy for this, Leithart argues, is for modern civilization to humble itself and come forward to be baptized, or, as Leithart seems to imply, rebaptized into Christendom.

Furthering the Conversation

Leithart openly admits that he is not trying to be even-handed but is painting Constantine in the most positive light possible, emphasizing the good and downplaying the bad in order to redress the generally negative view of Constantine (318). The most glaring weakness of Leithart’s work, then, is that he bases a polemical argument and constructive theology upon an admittedly biased historical portrait of Constantine. Consequently, Leithart’s suspect historiographical method places a large question mark next to the theological conclusions he might draw (the very sin of which he accuses Yoder).

Although Leithart’s historical portrait can be challenged, my concern is to defend the church’s status as a transterritorial body politic that rejects participation in the violence of earthly powers precisely because it is the end of sacrifice in Christ. To be a community that truly embraces the end of sacrifice is to embrace not only Jesus, but also the active shalom-seeking and nonviolence that comes with him. Given that Leithart takes Yoder to be the prime representative of this position, I highlight three areas where Yoder’s position differs from Leithart’s portrayal. All three areas indicate that the real point of difference is not the fourth century but the first.

Who was Constantine?

For Yoder, Constantine is a key historical figure, but he is also a type. Yoder clarifies that

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 [. . . .] Some of the systematic 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 the persecution of Christian dissent) took a century after him to be worked through. So when his name is used as a mythic cipher it would be a mistake to concentrate on his biography.[1]

In this way, Yoder argues that any account of Constantine must reject the idea that historical change happens overnight. Numerous factors were in play before and after Constantine, so to attribute too much to just one man ignores how history actually transpires.[2] This passage also illustrates how Leithart’s focus on Constantine misunderstands Yoder’s use of Constantine as a type in Christian history.[3] If one were to insert Ernst Troeltsch’s “Church type” or the term Christendom in most places where one reads “Constantinianism” in Yoder’s work, little would change. Thus, where Yoder and Leithart really have a debate is not Constantine but Jesus. Yet Leithart spends only about ten pages on the potential differences in biblical interpretation, interacts with no other exegetes, and does not substantially engage Yoder’s own biblical work or the biblical scholars on whom Yoder depends and interacts (many of whom were the foremost biblical scholars of Yoder’s day).

Leithart’s Constantine also may, in fact, not be much different than Yoder’s. Even with Leithart’s positive spin, he acknowledges Constantine’s many shortcomings: Constantine executed his wife and son (72); used brute force to fulfill his intense ambition for personal power, territory, and glory (96 and 236); and merged pagan and Christian symbolism, including the amalgamation of Christ with the sun god Sol (76 and 78). The problem here is not that Constantine is cynically using Christianity but that he sincerely believes and also sees this imperial behavior as somehow compatible with Christianity. Indeed, Leithart focuses on the question of Constantine’s sincerity in a way that misses the point. A president who believes truly and sincerely that there is no incongruity between Christian discipleship and the current duties of the commander in chief is more worrying than a president who is simply using religion as a tool to appeal to voters. That Constantine was a capable syncretist, merging Christianity with pagan imperial propaganda, or a capable civil religionist, merging Christianity with imperial ambition, seems to lend itself to Yoder’s analysis of Constantinianism, which focuses not on the subjective sincerity of the parties involved but on the objective alteration of the gospel that renders it compatible with the exercise of violence and carnal power.

“Fall of the Church” Historiography

How should we interpret church history? On the matter of historiography, Leithart charges Yoder with simplistically going along with an Anabaptist “fall of the church” narrative. According to Leithart, the sixteenth-century narrative about Constantine is “fixed and foundational” to everything that Yoder does (319). Yoder’s interpretation, according to Leithart’s reading, seems to be that God abandoned the church due to its Constantinianism (or, in the words of William Cavanaugh’s blurb on the back of Defending Constantine, “the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday”).  Thus, Yoder’s narrative not only castigates Constantine, but also “freezes time” in the first century (316, n. 20).

This interpretation of Yoder reads him through a preestablished and ready-made critique that magisterial Protestants often throw at the Anabaptist wing of the Reformation instead of listening to what Yoder himself says on the topic.[4] Although Yoder does refer to the “fall of the church,” he almost always does so in scare quotes to indicate that he is referring to a motif that Christians (and not just Protestant Christians) have used to highlight unfaithful developments in church history.[5] Leithart himself notes that many Christians—including Francis of Assisi, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Dante—have also employed a “fall of the church” narrative, which indicates that this is not just a peculiar Anabaptist malady (306–7). To treat Yoder as though he were a precritical biblicist or naive restitutionist ignores his numerous and nuanced discussions regarding church history, where Yoder consistently emphasizes two things: fidelity is possible and translation of the gospel is necessary. Do history and language shift and move? Yes.[6] Does the gospel need to cross boundaries and cultures? Of course; the Bible itself is evidence that the gospel is always already in translation.[7] The question is not whether we will translate (literally and metaphorically) the gospel. The question is whether we test that translation to see if we have rendered it faithfully in a new context. If faithfulness means anything, then infidelity does too. For Yoder, the biblical narrative (not Constantine) is fixed and foundational, and it reaches its apex in Jesus’s rejection of violence and embrace of cross and resurrection as the inauguration of God’s kingdom. Constantine is then read in light of that Archimedean point rather than vice versa.

So where is the real difference between Yoder and Leithart? Both would agree that the church is fallible (331) and that God’s presence and blessing can be withdrawn from some communities of the universal church. Leithart acknowledges that Yoder sees good things happening in the time between Constantine and the Reformation, so the difference cannot be that Leithart sees a flourishing church whereas Yoder thinks that the Holy Spirit took a 1,200-year break from involvement with the church (321–23). The real difference between Yoder and Leithart is not over whether or not the church is automatically faithful (it isn’t) or whether history has to move (it does). The real difference in their perspectives is whether Constantine represents a faithful iteration of the gospel.

The End of Sacrifice

For Leithart, the most crucial change enacted by Constantine was the end of sacrifice. Given that sacrifice was at the center of life and politics in Rome, Constantine’s act is the desacralizing of Rome. Leithart contends that “every polity has been a sacrificial polity. We are not, and we have Constantine to thank for that” (329). This overreaches a bit and seems to give to Caesar what belongs to God, namely, the credit for ending sacrifice.

The most surprising thing about Leithart’s “end of sacrifice” language is that he seems to unwittingly employ a split between religion and politics that he criticizes elsewhere. That is, he seems to think of a purely “religious” sacrifice of animals or oblations offered in the imperial cult that is disconnected from the political theology and practice of the empire (making his own stance “Lockean” in the very sense he earlier criticizes). Elsewhere, however, Leithart underscores the inherently religious nature of warfare: “War was no exercise of sheer power, no secular Realpolitik. War involved bloodshed, and bloodshed was always hedged about with ritualized taboos. Diocletian’s force constituted a ‘sacred retinue,’ and Constantine would have thought of his army in the same way. Armies won by divine intervention, and the victory of an army was the victory of the army’s god” (74). In other words, there is no such thing as secular warfare or a secular army, in part because “the sacrifice of barbarians and rebels maintained Roman honor” (236). The sacrifice necessary to maintain the empire is not merely the religiopolitical sacrifice offered to a god or the emperor; it is the religiopolitical sacrifice of the enemy and the outsider offered up in the name of honor, peace, liberty, and justice. Therefore, to argue that sacrifice ceases with Constantine is to demonstrate a truncated view of what counts as sacrifice.

Where Leithart’s account of sacrifice falls back into a Lockean split between religion and politics, Yoder’s does not. Yoder argues that when God allows for the taking of human life in the Old Testament (in Genesis 9 or the holy wars of Joshua), it is not under the rubric of “legal” or “political” punishment but under the cultic category of sacrifice. Leithart’s book would have been much more interesting had he engaged Yoder’s reading of sacrifice in the light of the entire biblical narrative. For Yoder, the Bible sees both animal and human blood as sacred (Gen. 9). All bloodshed is therefore either a proper or improper sacrifice because God owns the lifeblood of all living things. This is why the blood of animals is not to be eaten and why murder is such a heinous sin. Murder undoes the cosmos, so to speak, because it strikes down God’s image-bearer.[8] So in the Old Testament, “the killing of a killer is not a civil, nonreligious matter. It is a sacrificial act [. . . .] If there is killing, the offense is a cosmic, ritual, religious evil, demanding ceremonial compensation.”[9] God thus limits the human tendency to violence and vengeance by claiming all human blood as his own.

Furthermore, to think of killing as sacrifice is conceptually useful, especially when we remember Augustine’s point that the earthly city operates by sacrificing to false gods. Yoder also saw clearly the human propensity to offer up other persons as sacrifices to various causes, ideas, forces, and nations. The result, according to Yoder, is that “general labels like ‘freedom’ or ‘justice,’ ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism,’ ‘order’ or ‘humanism’ become positive or negative values in their own right, causes to combat for or to destroy. The modern word for this is ‘ideology.’ The biblical word that fits best is probably ‘idol.’”[10]

Given how Yoder sees sacrifice, the atonement is central to Yoder’s political theology of war and the earthly city. Sin requires expiation, and “it is the clear testimony of the New Testament, especially of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that the ceremonial requirements of the Old Covenant find their end—both in the sense of fulfillment and in the sense of termination—in the high-priestly sacrifice of Christ.”[11] Thus, the “death of Christ is the end of expiation.”[12] Once sacrifice has been understood not just in the narrow Lockean “religious” sense but in this broad biblical way, it is clear that Constantine did not in fact end sacrifice inasmuch as he continued to persecute and kill his enemies, both inside and outside the empire. What is worse, the sign by which he conquered should have been understood as the sign that the sacrifice of enemies is no longer needed. Sacrifice ended with the cross, and the transterritorial body politic that is the church needs to sacrifice no one to ensure its survival.

Indeed, Yoder is the more thorough-going Augustinian here, for all violence follows in the steps of Cain and Romulus, both of whom assume that the good must be seized from the brother by violence rather than shared. This is why Constantine is more dangerous than Diocletian: one must live either by Cain’s myth of scarcity and brother sacrifice or by the new Abel, whose blood cries out to God on behalf of his brothers.[13] Because judgment begins with the household of God, the main problem is not the earthly city that runs by sacrificing the blood of its enemies and children—Christians should expect that pagans will generally act like pagans. What we should not expect or tolerate is the perpetuation of sacrifice—of the enemy, of our soldiers, of our children—as somehow compatible with the Christ who declared, “It is finished.”

New Clothes

In baptism, we are asked to discard our old clothes and put on Christ. To Leithart’s credit, he recounts how Constantine waited until the end of his life to exchange his purple imperial robes for his white baptismal clothes, his imperial power for sole devotion to God. Even Constantine saw a “basic incompatibility between being an emperor and being a Christian, between court and church, warfare and prayer, the purple and white” (300). Whatever rose-colored glasses Leithart employs in reading Constantine, this stark admission stands out as a profound point: if Constantine baptized Rome, it was not as a minister of the gospel but as a servant of the empire. Although some of the content of Constantine’s civil and imperial religion may have changed after his conversion, the form was basically the same—how different from Jesus, who submitted to baptism at the beginning of his reign, rejected a kingship enforced by violence, took up the purple robes only with a thorny crown on his head, exposed and disarmed royal presumption on the cross, and offered himself rather than his enemies as a living sacrifice.


[1] Yoder, “Primitivism in the Radical Reformation: Strengths and Weaknesses,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 81–82.
[2] For Yoder’s account of how this shift was underway well before Constantine, see The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, eds. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter C. Ochs (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).
[3] For example, see Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 201, n. 3, and 209, n. 3.
[4] For example, see Yoder, “Anabaptism and History,” in Priestly Kingdom; “Biblicism and the Church,” with David A. Shank, in The Roots of Concern: Writings on Anabaptist Renewal 1952-1957, ed. Virgil Vogt (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 67–101; “Is There Historical Development of Theological Thought,” in Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2010), 223–35; “Primitivism in the Radical Reformation,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, 74–97; “The Restitution of the Church: An Alternative Perspective on Christian History,” in Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited; and “Thinking Theologically from a Free Church Perspective,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, eds. John D. Woodbridge and Thomas Edward Comiskey (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 251–65.
[5] Leithart (316, n. 21) refers to places where Yoder mentions the “fall of the church” in The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) and Priestly Kingdom. Upon examination, both of these references use scare quotes to show that Yoder is not using this term in a simplistic way (likewise, this is the case for nearly all of Yoder’s references in Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited).
[6] See Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, 200, n. 7.
[7] E.g., see Yoder, “‘But We Do See Jesus’: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth,” in Priestly Kingdom, 46–62.
[8] Yoder, “Against the Death Penalty,” in H. Wayne House and Yoder, The Death Penalty Debate: Two Opposing Views of Capital Punishment (Dallas, TX: Word, 1991), 128. This essay will be republished in The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John C. Nugent (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, forthcoming 2011). Readers interested in Yoder’s understanding of capital punishment, atonement, and sacrifice will find much of interest in this forthcoming book.
[9] Yoder, “Against the Death Penalty,” 127.
[10] Yoder, “The Spirit of God and the Politics of Men,” in For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 232.
[11] Yoder, “Against the Death Penalty,” 128.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Yoder, “Your Brother’s Blood,” in He Came Preaching Peace: Bible Lectures on Peacemaking (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985), 68.
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Branson Parler :
Branson Parler is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, MI. He has essays on John Howard Yoder in Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder (Herald Press, 2009) and Radical Ecumenicity: Pursuing Unity and Continuity after John Howard Yoder (Abilene Christian University Press, 2010). His forthcoming Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture will be published by Herald Press in fall 2012.
  • Andy Rowell

    Thanks Branson for this interesting reflection that demonstrates an excellent grasp of Yoder’s work and deploys it in creative ways in responding to Leithart.  Thanks also to The Other Journal for this forum for the dissemination of current creative cross-disciplinary theological work.  

    Warmly,
    Andy

  • http://www.rogerhaydonmitchell.wordpress.com Roger Haydon Mitchell

    Thanks for an excellent review, I shall certainly read the book in due course. The issue is, as you rightly emphasise, the nature of the gospel and the nature of God. While recognising the need for the gospel to be positioned in the centre of the political arena, which it was by Constantine, the issue is the nature of the gospel that is so placed. My own work suggests that it is impossible to disentagle a proper grasp of the impact of Constantine’s Christianity from the influential writings of Eusebius of Caesarea who was much more than the panegyrist he is often made out to be. From these it appears that a subsumption of the divine by sovereignty displaced the gospel Jesus, and far from ending sacrifice, reconfigured the sacrifice of Christ, the task of the church and much of subsequent theology into the legitimation of empire.
    This subsumption brought about the precise opposite of what research as varied as that of Horsley, Crossan and Reed, Howard-Brook and N.T. Wright has, in my view pretty conclusively, demonstrated the gospel testimony to be about.
    My forthcoming book provisionally titled “Church, Gospel and Empire – how the politics of sovereignty impregnated the West,” explores the genealogy of this subsumption and will shortly be published by Wipf and Stock.