Defending Constantine? A Critical Engagement of Peter Leithart

& Uncategorized.

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.[1]  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.[2]

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.[3]  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.[4]  How so?  “Religion is private: This is the heresy of Christianity in a nutshell.”[5]

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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[13]  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.

A Second Heresy of “Christianity”?

In his seminal essay, “The Otherness of the Church” Yoder said: “The most pertinent fact about the new state of things after Constantine and Augustine is not that Christians were no longer persecuted and began to be privileged, nor that emperors built churches and presided over ecumenical deliberations about the Trinity; what matters is that the two visible realities, church and world, were fused.”[14]  If Yoder spoke with the same rhetorical flare as Leithart does, perhaps Yoder would have described this as a second heresy.  That is to say, when one conflates, and thereby confuses, church and world, the worldly powers are largely left to define the “public” realm for everyone, including Christians.  And thus the public, social dimensions of the “gospel” will likely lose their moorings in the gospel of Jesus Christ (at least in certain important ways).  And public vocations, such as those of (now “Christian”) emperors, will be shaped not by the gospel of Jesus Christ but rather by the previous worldly definitions of such vocations.  As a consequence, religion is, eventually at least, consigned to a chaplaincy function within a society that is (again, in important respects) defined by something other than the gospel.  And thus the Christian theological and moral understandings that conflict with the dominant understandings are eventually rendered as private “values.”

Is it possible that Leithart has committed this second heresy, which is perhaps a variation of the first?  For what is at stake here is the gospel—which as Leithart’s formal commitments would have made clear, is inherently social.  Thus, what is also at stake is  ecclesiology.   What seems clear is that Leithart does not really believe that Israel, and later, the Church—in the context of “the [pagan] nations” that surround them—truly is a polis.[15]  Or to be a bit more specific, perhaps he believes that Israel—once it has become like the other nations—fits the bill, but not the church.  Or, at least not the church in its infancy, and thus in the New Testament and in its pre-Constantinian state.  It appears that the church is not, for Leithart, really a polis until and unless it has aligned itself with those who—on worldly non-Christian terms—are already in positions of truly “public” power.  Why else would it be plausible for him to see Constantine and the beginnings of Christendom as the logical flowering of what he argued in the first 120 pages of Against Christianity?

So perhaps what Leithart really meant in the first 120 pages of his book, Against Christianity, is that the New Testament erected expectations that would only be realized with Constantine, who is after all, according to Leithart, “a model for Christian political practice.”[16]  For, as Leithart sees it, it really took a “Constantine” who could wield power in the “normal way” and “is one of us” to realize the vision named in the New Testament—and thus truly to make the church a polis that mattered.

When Yoder, on the other hand, said formally similar things regarding the New Testament, what he meant was that a “politics of Jesus” was being articulated as a way of life for the Christian community from Matthew to Revelation, with the expectation that this politics would be, albeit imperfectly, embodied by the followers of Jesus from the outset.  Moreover, Yoder began a project of naming the specific theological and moral contours of this politics.  He was specific enough, following the lead of the various strands of New Testament literature, that one could thus see the trajectory of what would be faithful to “the politics of Jesus.”[17]  Therefore, with the specifics in mind, one could discern what trajectories—in theology, ethics and ecclesiology—are, in an ongoing way, faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And fortunately for us, Yoder’s project has been amplified and the details spelled out by many who have been influenced by him or simply saw the same things he saw.

The central challenge I would lay before Leithart is to go through the New Testament at least as thoroughly as Yoder and help us to see the specific theological and ethical contours of the gospel politics named there so that we can discern with him how this trajectory leads to the claim that Constantine is “a model for Christian political practice.”  So far as I know Leithart has not yet done anything like this.[18]  Thus I will shift my focus to what he has done in Defending Constantine.

First, however, it will be helpful to briefly describe the nature of Yoder’s central essay on Constantinianism, namely “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics.”[19]  This polemical essay was a creative attempt to introduce a paradigm shift within the field of Christian social ethics.[20]  That the essay and its influence are largely responsible for Leithart writing this book shows that it has been quite successful.  Yoder was trained in historical theology.  Although he had read more than the average amateur in the field of early church studies as they related to this set of issues, he was, nonetheless, an amateur.  Almost thirty years ago when I asked Yoder what church historian might confirm his claims, he pointed me to Alan Kreider.  Since then Kreider has written numerous essays and a small book that confirm the basic contours of Yoder’s argument, while nuancing and even challenging some details of the claims.[21]  All of this is to say, that I do not turn to Yoder for detailed historical confirmation of his arguments.  I would look instead to professional historians specializing in the relevant historical periods.[22]

But what can be said briefly about the historical claims made in Defending Constantine?  Here, I will limit my comments to Leithart’s chapter “Pacifist Church?,” his overall portrait of Constantine, and his appreciation of Augustine.

[To respect copyright laws, now that this essay is included in a book that is in press, I have only included a portion of it here.  My essay, along with something like a dozen others, is included in the book, Constantine Revisited, edited by John D. Roth, to be published by Pickwick Press, either later in 2012 or in early 2013.]


[1] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010).  This essay originated as a lecture presented as a part of a panel discussion of the book, sponsored by the Christian Theological Research Fellowship, the American Academy of Religion meeting, November 20, 2011, San Francisco, California.

[2] Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).  Emphases in any quotations from this book are Leithart’s.

[3] John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964; new footnotes added 1977; reprint Herald Press, 2002), 17-8.

[4] “Standard-issue North American Christianity” is my attempt to add a bit of nuance to what I suppose Leithart might mean by “Christianity.”

[5] Against Christianity, 78.

[6] Against Christianity, 17.

[7] Against Christianity, 32.

[8] Against Christianity, 15-16.

[9] Against Christianity, 97.

[10] Against Christianity, 35-36.

[11] Against Christianity, 34.

[12] Against Christianity, 40.

[13] Peter J. Leithart, “Defending Defending Constantine: Or, The Trajectory of the Gospel,” 85 (October 2011): 643-655, here 643-4.

[14] John Howard Yoder, “The Otherness of the Church,” in The Royal Priesthood, ed. Michael G. Cartwright (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 57, emphases mine.

[15] I was reminded that this claim in Scripture is really clear by reading the relevant chapters recently in: Charles Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 469-612.

[16] Leithart, Defending Constantine, 11.

[17] See John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2d ed.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994).  Of course one could also reference various other writings by Yoder.

[18] As I write this I am aware that Leithart has written over two dozen books, several of them on the New Testament.  It does not appear that any of them do what I am asking for.  But I have only read three of his books.

[19] The central essay in question is: John Howard Yoder, “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” in The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 135-147, 209-212.  Now one should also consult: John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, ed. Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker  (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 42-74 and John Howard Yoder, “War as a Moral Problem in the Early Church: The Historian’s Hermeneutical Assumptions,” in The Pacifist Impulse in Historical Perspective, ed. Harvey L. Dyck (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 90-110.  And of course there are many other scattered references.

[20] In his response to Kreider’s critique of his book in the October 2011 issue of MQR, Leithart, in addition to rallying alternative evidence, mentions that certain omissions or framing of arguments served a polemical purpose.  If such rationales can be justifiably used in relation to a 370 page book, how much more in relation to a brief essay?

[21] See, e.g., Alan Kreider, “‘Converted’ but Not Baptized: Peter Leithart’s Constantine Project,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 85 (October 2011): 575-617 (included in the present book).  Also see: Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, International, 1999), as well as a number of essays on the early church and violence.

[22] I say “periods,” plural, because Yoder’s claim is about a trajectory across time, with many variations.  Certainly the realities in the medieval period vary significantly from the period of the Renaissance and Reformation, which vary from the modern period since the sixteenth century.  And there are variations from place to place, etc.


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3 Responses to “Defending Constantine? A Critical Engagement of Peter Leithart”

  1. Jeremy Byler

    Thanks for posting this essay here. I have not read this book by Leithart but I have enjoyed reading what you have to say about it. Lately I have been reading the Jewish-Christian Schism Revisted and I have been taking in the critiques of Peter Ochs. I have just read Och’s chapter on Yoder in his book “Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews” and I am wondering if you see similarities between Leithar’s and Och’s objections to Yoder. I wonder if the scandal of the cross is at the heart of the matter for both. Because of Yoder’s “valorizing” of the Jeremaic model of Judaism and Yoder’s framing of Jesus within this model, Ochs consider’s Yoder a be “non-nonsupersessionist”. What I think is at the root of naming Yoder a “non-supersessionist” is the reality that the Jermaic model of Judaism ends up being the same critque on ancient Maccabean Israel and mondern day Zionism that Yoder has leveled on the Constantinian Church and Ochs perhaps doesn’t like that. I am not sure if I am reading that correclty or not. If I am, however, it seems that it is perhaps similar to Leithart’s objection to Yoder’s Constantinian critique of the Church.

    Thanks again for the blog!