Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What happened when the Roman world gained a Christian leader?
What events happened to bring this leader, Constantine, to be Augustus of both east and west? What consequences happened for the Roman world? And, perhaps most contentiously, what happened to Christianity as a result of the change? Within a couple of decades, churches went from being persecuted under Diocletian to receiving official support from Constantine.
The answers to these questions have many implications for how we express history, politics, theology and theological politics.
Leithart’s book – to oversimplify – shows that a lot happened! The range of events and implications, however, are so complex that they should not be reduced to cliché summaries (eg. ‘The church fell in the fourth century’).
Each chapter of Defending Constantine is a fascinating essay on a particular angle of the history of events or theological implications of that history. At first, I found it hard to discern where the book was going, overall. Yet it all came together in the wonderful final chapter, ‘Rome Baptized.’ At the start of this chapter, Leithart summarises his conclusions about Constantine the man and emperor. Then the majority of the chapter considers Constantine’s lasting effect on Rome (and on politics). In Leithart’s terms, Constantine desacrificed Rome and baptised Rome.
Through the whole work, a constant sparring partner is John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s theological politics casts a long shadow over much contemporary thinking about society, but I am not able to say how fairly Yoder has been represented. Leithart treats Yoder with great respect: with some deep agreement, but equally with points of profound disagreement. Defending Constantine could serve as a follow-up to study of Christian social ethics or (as in my case) a spur to reading Yoder and others in this field.
It’s also worth nothing that this book has a most useful bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
Conclusion: for its history and for provoking thought on theology and politics, recommended.