Against Christianity and For Constantine:
One Heresy or Two?
Mark Thiessen Nation
Introduction: The Heresy of “Christianity”
Although this paper will focus on some specific critiques of Peter Leithart’s thoughtful and well-researched book, Defending Constantine, I want to begin by naming striking similarities between Leithart’s project and the primary target of his polemic, John Howard Yoder. Leithart himself identifies some overlap between his position and Yoder’s in Defending Constantine. However, these similarities are stated even more clearly and provocatively in Leithart’s 2003 book, Against Christianity.
The first 120 pages of Against Christianity are remarkably Yoderian. There is also a wonderfully provocative freshness of expression in the book that is rhetorically perhaps more akin to Stanley Hauerwas than to Yoder. In a phrase, the book was claiming, as Yoder had already in 1964, that the church is a polis. The alternative to this understanding, Leithart says in various provocative ways, is what has become “Christianity.” In fact, Leithart claims that standard-issue North American Christianity has become heretical. How so? “Religion is private: This is the heresy of Christianity in a nutshell.”
Christianity, as a religion, argues Leithart, has reduced the Christian faith to a belief system—to merely “religious” beliefs and practices over against publically relevant convictions that animate political, secular and social practices. Thus, “Christianity is biblical religion disemboweled and emasculated by (voluntary) intellectualization and/or privatization.” Within this privatized understanding words like “salvation” are at most only tangentially related to the church; they are fundamentally words about one’s private experience. But of course even if such theological vocabulary were more deeply connected to the church, the understanding of “church” itself has been domesticated. Church has been reduced to a merely religious entity, assuring us that it has nothing to do with a public social existence. To fill out his claims further, Leithart offers chapters on theology, sacraments and ethics, showing how the dominant language related to each of these terms—in the context of standard modern understandings—colludes in the privatization, the spiritualizing of religion, thereby rendering what goes by the name of “Christianity” innocuous.
So, what is the alternative according to Leithart? It is that the church is a polis. And what does this mean? It means, on the one hand, that salvation is inherently social; that is to say, “the Church is that social form of salvation.” Since salvation is inherently social this means that those who are members of the body of Christ embody a way of life peculiar to the salvation made available in Christ. Therefore, “to be a Christian means to be refashioned in all of one’s desires, aims, attitudes, actions, from the shallowest to the deepest.” “If one is a Christian at all, he or she is (however imperfectly) a Christian from head to toe, inside and out.” All of this implies, in terms of ethics, that “transformation of life is not an implication of the gospel but inherent in the gospel, because the good news is about transformation of life.”
Furthermore this entails that the church as a social body is also a public assembly—as should be apparent in the very word ecclesia. Thus the church is by definition secular, social and political. It is not some private “religious” club but rather an assembly of those whose lives are formed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to proclaim and live the gospel is to be political.
With all of this understood, we will realize, insists Leithart, that the real “competitors” to the Church are not just other religions but nation-states, international bodies, Americanism, and any other ideology that embodies alternative beliefs and practices in the public realm. Here is Leithart at the end of his first chapter:
“The gospel is the announcement that the wall is broken down and therefore the Gentiles are welcomed into the community of the new Israel on the same basis as the Jews; thus the gospel is sociology and international relations. The gospel is the announcement that God has organized a new Israel, a new polis, the Body of Christ, and that the King has been installed in heaven, at the right hand of the Father; thus the gospel is politics. The gospel is about the formation of one body in Christ, a body in which each member uses his gifts for the benefit of all, in which each member is prepared to sacrifice his own for the sake of others; thus the gospel announces the formation of a Christian economy in the Church.
The gospel announces a new creation.
The gospel brings nothing less than a new world.
If we are going to stand for this gospel, we must stand against
John Howard Yoder could easily have written these words, as well as many of the other paragraphs in the first 120 pages of this book. So, what happens between these first four chapters and the last one, which is entitled “For Constantine”—a chapter which is, as it were, a précis for Defending Constantine?
Clues that help to answer this question can be found in the opening paragraphs of Leithart’s response to the critics of his book, Defending Constantine in the October 2011 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. Leithart began by arguing that the central issue dividing his critics and himself was a disagreement about the gospel. Two paragraphs later he modified that claim by saying that the disagreement was not so much about the gospel itself but its trajectory. Some comments from Yoder will help us to see that it is both and that ecclesiology is crucial for understanding the link between the two.