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Posted October 14, 2011
In case you've missed it, the pressure is on to toss Constantine and his program into the rubbish bin and to disinfect our hands of his infectious disease. The push has been coming from several different arenas for some time, from Anabaptists to Anglicans to Academicians. With all the punches and jabs, it appeared that it was going to be a smashing knockout. But the match is not over. Into the ring has stepped a new reading of Constantine that may very well turn the bout into overtime! Peter J. Leithart has thrown into the match a stirring piece that will likely unsettle the presumed success of the anti-constantinians for years to come. His new paperback, "Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom" is a rugged and rambunctious 342 page work worth the time-investment, and will merit hours of valuable discussion.
Though "Defending Constantine" is primarily focused on the Emperor's program, the first five chapters build steam laying out the background behind the rise of Constantine. This sets up the sitz im leben of the Church, Constantine and the actions that will unfold. The next seven chapters (6-12) unpack various aspects of the Emperor's changes, and their application. The material here is rich, stout, and will keep the attention of most readers.
On of the more delightfully testy sections was Chapter 12 "Pacifist Church?" Here Leithart goes toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with Yoder, whom he has been tussling with all along. He takes on the notion that the earlier church was pacifistic, as Yoder and his Anabaptist clan have propounded for decades. The author challenges this dogmatic opinion on several different levels, but primarily by showing that at the best, only a small portion of Church theologians and leaders might have been pacifistic, but that many were not necessarily of that frame of mind. Christians enlisting in the Roman military, for example, had been going on for many decades long before Constantine was even known or rose to power. The reason this is important for the writer, is that it strengthens his case that Constantine's conversion and enthronement did not pollute the church, or cause it to "fall". That "pacifism" was not necessarily nor provably the ethic of the earlier church, and cannot be used as an empirical gauge that substantiates the apostatizing decline of the Church. Leithart's argument helps to explode the Anabaptist/Restorationist claim of a "pristine" early church that went really bad for the next something-hundred years.
In the final two chapters of "Defending Constantine", there are remarkable and paradigm-rattling surprises in store for the reader in this section, material that will likely cause most folks neck trouble from nodding vociferously in agreement and disagreement almost simultaneously!
Leithart has done the historian, theologian, church leader, and layman a great service in "Defending Constantine" by providing an enjoyably readable historical-theological-conceptual book on this significant stage in the Church's history. As I came to the last page and closed the book, I couldn't help but find myself vocalizing my gratitude for what God had done for His Church in converting and raising up Constantine. I thoroughly recommend this book.
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