Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom

Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom

by Peter J. Leithart


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We know that Constantine

  • issued the Edict of Milan in 313
  • outlawed paganism and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire
  • manipulated the Council of Nicea in 325
  • exercised absolute authority over the church, co-opting it for the aims of empire

And if Constantine the emperor were not problem enough, we all know that Constantinianism has been very bad for the church.
Or do we know these things?
Peter Leithart weighs these claims and finds them wanting. And what's more, in focusing on these historical mirages we have failed to notice the true significance of Constantine and Rome baptized. For beneath the surface of this contested story there emerges a deeper narrative of the end of Roman sacrifice—a tectonic shift in the political theology of an empire—and with far-reaching implications.
In this probing and informative book Peter Leithart examines the real Constantine, weighs the charges against Constantinianism, and sets the terms for a new conversation about this pivotal emperor and the Christendom that emerged.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780830827220
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Publication date: 09/24/2010
Pages: 373
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Peter J. Leithart is a senior fellow at New Saint Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, and a pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow. He is the author of several books, including Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture and Solomon Among the Postmoderns.

Table of Contents



1 Sanguinary Edicts

2 Jupiter on the Throne

3 Instinctu Divinitatus

4 By This Sign

5 Liberator Ecclesiae

6 End of Sacrifice

7 Common Bishop

8 Nicaea and After

9 Seeds of Evangelical Law

10 Justice for All

11 One God, One Emperor

12 Pacifist Church?

13 Christian Empire, Christian Mission

14 Rome Baptized


Author Index

Subject Index

What People are Saying About This

William T. Cavanaugh

"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. In this book, Leithart helpfully complicates Christian history, and thereby helps theologians recover the riches of more than a millennium of Christian life too easily dismissed as 'Constantinian.' If the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during that period, we must find ways to appreciate Christendom. Any worthwhile political theology today cannot fail to take Leithart's argument seriously."
William T. Cavanaugh, Research Professor, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago

Douglas Wilson

"For a generation that thinks it approves of those who challenge the conventional wisdom, it can come as quite a shock when someone actually does it. In this book, Peter Leithart takes up the daunting challenge of defending Constantine, and he does it with biblical grace, deep wisdom, profound learning and scholarship that has let the clutch out. This is a magnificent book."
Douglas Wilson, senior fellow of theology, New Saint Andrews College, Idaho

N. T. Wright

"Too many people, for far too long, have been able to murmur the awful word Constantine, knowing that the shudder it produces will absolve them from the need to think through how the church and the powers of the world actually relate, let alone construct a coherent historical or theological argument on the subject. Peter Leithart challenges all this, and forces us to face the question of what Constantine's settlement actually was, and meant. Few will agree with everything he says. All will benefit enormously from this challenge to easygoing received 'wisdom.'"
N. T. Wright, University of St. Andrews, Scotland

John A. McGuckin

"There have been of late a splurge of populist history books damning Constantine the Great as the villain of the piece. Almost without exception they have drawn their picture of this most complex and complicated oflate-antique Roman emperors from secondhand, clichéd andhackneyed books of an older generation, adding their own clichés in the process. Constantine has been sketched luridly, asthe man who corrupted Christianity either byfinancial or military means. At long last we have here, in Peter Leithart, a writer who knows how to tell a lively story but is also no mean shakes as a scholarly historian. This intelligent and sensitive treatment of one of the great military emperors of Rome is a trustworthy entrée into Roman history that loses none of the romance and rambunctiousness of the events of the era of the civil war, but which also explains why Constantine matters: why he was important to the ancient world, why he matters to the development of Christianity (a catalyst in its movement from small sect to world-embracing cultural force). It does not whitewash or damn on the basis of a preset ideology, but it certainly does explain why Constantine gained from the Christians the epithet 'The Great.' For setting the record straight, and for providinga sense of the complicated lay of the land, this book comes most highly recommended."
John A. McGuckin, Columbia University

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Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Mphilliber More than 1 year ago
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.