Defending Constantine? A Critical Engagement of Peter Leithart

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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.


All Things to All People?

& Uncategorized.

In some ways I see my ministry for many years as being “all things to all people.”  But not everything I write speaks to everyone.  That is understandable for many reasons.

I am writing this just now because I will soon be posting two things that will appeal to rather specific audiences.  I am, for instance, soon posting an academic lecture I presented last November (in a somewhat shorter version) at the American Academy of Religion meeting.  This annual meeting is a gathering of nine to ten thousand people (well, it is when it coincides with the Society of Biblical Literature, as it does currently).  This is a meeting mostly of those who teach Religious Studies or Biblical Studies in institutions of higher education. There are hundreds of sessions.  Mine was presented in a session that dealt with a newish book called Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart.

A friend of mine tells me that  posts on blogs should really be no longer than 750-1000 words.  I’m sure he’s right.  But I also know that some academics post much longer essays.  That is what I will be doing when I post my essay on Defending Constantine.  Also, since this essay is slated to be published sometime over the coming year, I will remove it when it is published (or a bit before; I’m still learning).

Also in coming weeks I will publish some reflections on “The Purposeful Plan,” a document intended to help provide guidance for the Mennonite Church, U.S.A.  I realize this set of reflections may have little relevance to non-Mennonites.  Although I think in an illustrative way it might.  Opinions on that would vary.

Naming What Unites Us

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The well-known theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer met Karl Barth, a theologian that had deeply influenced him, for the first time in July of 1931.  He loved his lectures.  But even more he was taken with Barth the engaging conversationalist over dinner.  He reported on the conversation in a letter to a friend of his, Erwin Sutz.  “He is really fully present,” said Bonhoeffer.  “I have never seen anything like it nor thought it possible.”  He mentioned in the letter that Barth was concerned about Bonhoeffer’s over-emphasis on grace.  Barth said that Bonhoeffer “was making grace into a principle and was bludgeoning everything else to death with it.”  Ever since first reading this letter I have wondered if Bonhoeffer would have written The Cost of Discipleship if he had not had this conversation with Barth.

Whether it was this exchange that spawned the idea or something else, I’ve come to realize that Bonhoeffer’s problem was hardly unique.  I have come to believe that one of the things that goes wrong in many conversations that relate to moral issues—especially contentious issues, though not just them—is that we too often over-emphasize ONE thing.  We do this either because this one thing matters a great deal to us or it simplifies matters.  But the simplification too often over-simplifies, reducing something genuinely complex to something simplistic.  Thus we too effectively bludgeon “everything else to death with it,” that is with the ONE over-emphasized word, concept or point.

Therefore I wrote an article for the most recent issue of The Mennonite, the official magazine for The Mennonite Church U.S.   It is called “Naming What Unites Us.”

Yoder’s Legacy Will Continue: I Can Die in Peace (Discussing Three New Books on Yoder)

& Yoder.

Stanley Hauerwas is the most famous convert to pacifism John Howard Yoder ever made.  Hauerwas tells the story of how he discovered Yoder in a bookstore at Yale.  There in the late 1960s he found a mimeographed copy of Yoder’s 1957 essay on Barth that became the 1970 book, Karl Barth and the Problem of War.  He was immediately taken with Yoder’s sophisticated analysis, but resisted some of the implications.  When Hauerwas joined the Notre Dame faculty a few years later he sought out Yoder, met with him and took away a stack of unpublished writings and was on his way to having his theology and life transformed.  The stack included writings that became The Politics of Jesus.

In the first edition of the first volume of his systematic theology, Ethics, Jim McClendon, my doctoral supervisor, says: “Nineteen seventy-four, I believe, was the year I read John Yoder’s Politics of Jesus.”  This is his way of signaling that Yoder also transformed his theology, culminating in the way he approached the task of writing a systematic theology.

My own story is that I became a pacifist within a year of becoming a Christian in a General Baptist church.  I registered as a conscientious objector in 1971.  Something like five years later I read The Politics of Jesus, followed within the next couple of years by three other books by Yoder.  As I see it Yoder helped me to begin to integrate my theology with my ethics.  Having become conscious of, and actively engaged in, issues related to peace and social justice, it was through my reading of Yoder (along with a growing list of authors) that I was helped in integrating my convictions with my life in the church—and discerning how that life related to my witness in the world.  As I see it now, Yoder set me on a theological path that I have been on consistently since the mid-1970s.  In other words, I was becoming an Anabaptist (and many years later, a Mennonite).

That beginning part of my journey—in the Christian faith and a little later with Yoder’s writings—was a long time ago.  I would later study with Yoder, read most of his writings—the most central ones many times—and become a friend of his.  I decided to write my doctoral thesis on him, which was published as a book.  I have edited or co-edited several of his books. And I have now written more than a dozen essays, and about as many reviews, directly related to Yoder’s work.

I’ve been aware for some time that the stories of Hauerwas, McClendon and my own are hardly isolated cases.  Yoder has been of similar importance to many.  And in fact, in recent years, his influence has only increased. I am incredibly grateful personally for this.  I’ve also seen it as a part of my vocation for some time now to perpetuate the influence of Yoder (and Hauerwas, which is a story for later).  Since I attempt (mostly) to keep up on the vast secondary literature on Yoder’s writings, I am keenly aware of various readings and appropriations of Yoder.  In fact within the last decade or so it has been interesting to watch the varied—and competing—streams emanating from Yoder’s writings.  In the midst of this cacophony of readings of Yoder, I have seen it as a responsibility to honor Yoder by keeping alive what I believe are the core—crucial and revolutionary—insights of his. This sometimes requires offering critiques as well as pointing readers to very helpful writings.  This is the reason for this post.


Celebrating Biblical Commentaries

& Books.

Students who have had me as a professor within the last six years or so are probably aware that my very favorite commentary on any book of the Bible is Matthew: A Commentary, 2d ed. by Frederick Dale Bruner (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004; paper 2007).  This massive, two-volume commentary is, so I would argue, in a league of its own.  Now, it should be said that I have a large set of commentaries and, in fact, have updated a bibliography of commentaries several times over the last decade.  I know commentaries fairly well.  And I know massive commentaries rather well.  But Bruner’s is different.  Unlike most commentaries of its size, it is not filled with minutiae, details that might interest lexicographers or historians but would bore many preachers.

Repeatedly Bruner’s rich spiritual reflections usher the reader not only deeply into the theological meat of the text, but also, to the attentive and prayerful reader, often into the very presence of God.  He has a way, in almost every set of reflections, of bringing to life the clarion call and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  At times he reminds me of Karl Barth, other times of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He has the passion for grace of a Luther and the commitment to serious discipleship of a Menno Simons.  Or put differently, discerningly mining twenty centuries of a rich interpretive tradition, Bruner seeks again and again to hear the active voice of a living God speaking afresh through the text of Matthew’s Gospel—attempting with his considerable gifts to convey it to the reader.

One of the reasons I am posting this now is because I am going to use my blog to alert readers to important books.  For any who have not heard me say it in class here: “buy Bruner’s commentary on Matthew.”  It not only will enrich your preaching; it will enrich your soul.  (And I should say—to those who use the lectionary—that I always see if there is serious overlap between, say, the Gospel of Mark and Matthew; if there is, with an awareness of the differences, I use Bruner as my commentary of choice even when preaching from Mark.)

However, I am writing this now because a significant event transpired last week.  For over ten years I have been waiting for Bruner’s commentary on the Gospel of John, actively for more than a year.  (Following a brief conversation with Bruner in the library of Fuller seminary well more than a year ago, he graciously sent me the pre-published version of his comments on John 13, so I could consult them as I revised an essay I had written for The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics on footwashing.)  I now hold in my hands the long awaited 1281-page The Gospel of John: A Commentary by Frederick Dale Bruner (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012).  Though I have only read his comments on a couple of passages thus far, I still feel confident in saying: “buy it, BUY IT!(more…)

Walter Brueggemann, Take Two

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The following long quote that opens a recent essay by Brueggemann reminds me of why I have loved his writings over the years:

“As the Holy One of Israel, [YHWH] consecrates his people to obedience and service and separateness from the ways of the nations; as King, he rules the world with justice and the peoples with his truth; as Father, he exercises his power and authority, yet with compassion and love; as leader on the way, he guides his people on its way through history; as teacher, he grasps the pupil by the hand and instructs him, and subjects him to his firm but merciful discipline.  It is this God to whomIsraelis urged to listen, the God who granted the inspiration and motivation to obedience in the glad good news of liberation from slavery and who provided the basis for allegiance and fidelity in the covenant at Sinai.

“Amidst all the feverish preoccupation with riches and power and comfort; all the bustling commercial activity and the ever-rising prices; the building of fortifications for defense and of fine houses for the privileged; the elaboration of cultic observances with their sumptuous festivals and celebrations, their pilgrimages and rites, their music and choirs, and, withal, the syncretism with the cults of nature and prosperity—amidst all there was one voice that was stifled and repressed.  It was the voice ofIsrael’s covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.  But was it stilled?  Not quite!  For there were prophets in the land to sound the cry of protest and outrage, repeating with the urgency born of faith and memory and holy awe, God’s categorical and insistent ‘thou shalt not.’”

(James Muilenburg, Brueggemann’s former teacher, quoted in “”Vision for a New Church and a New Century: Part I: Homework Against Scarcity, “ in The Word That Redesribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship by Walter Brueggemann, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 157.)

This wonderful, theologically rich quote points more than anything else to God—the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And yet, knowing that this God is in a covenantal relationship with Israel, Muilenburg (and thus Brueggemann quoting him) also names the faithfulness required of those in covenant with this God.  (However, Brueggemann’s essay that supposedly unfolds from the quote is both less rich theologically and less holistic in its claims.)

Reiterating what I said in my last set of reflections, I want to continue to point Christians, including preachers, to Brueggemann’s writings, especially his commentaries.

However, in recent years I have been less taken with Brueggemann than in the past.  Perhaps this is in part simply because I have read a lot of his writings; he is often repeating himself these days.  But I think it is more than that.  I have become clearer about some of my criticisms, a few of which I will name.  All of them are interrelated. (more…)

Walter Brueggemann, Take One

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Noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann is speaking this week during our School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, where I teach.  Something like ten years ago, while I was director of the London Mennonite Centre, London, England, I wrote a few paragraphs about Brueggemann basically for in-house use for our book service, in order to promote Brueggemann’s books.  I happily did this because I believed what I wrote:

No one writing on the Bible is more consistently provocative, interesting, challenging, and imaginative than Walter Brueggemann. I imagine there is no Scripture scholar in America who sells more books or informs more sermons. For those Christians who yearn for serious, biblically informed engagement with our contemporary world there is no one more stimulating to read than Brueggemann. The man rarely writes a boring page. He is thoroughly knowledgeable as an Old Testament scholar–not to mention reasonably informed on theology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and several other fields–and yet he writes with such verve that he is a joy to read.

One of the most famous American preachers once said at a conference on preaching that if there was only one book every preacher should have, it was Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms. I would almost go so far as to say that if there is any one author every preacher should have in her (or his) library, it should be Walter Brueggemann. Any preacher who does not use Brueggemann as a companion in preparation of sermons is cheating herself and her congregation! (more…)

Anabaptist Nation? “True Evangelical Faith”

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A former student suggested “Anabaptist Nation” as the name of my blog.  There are various reasons I’m fine with that name.  However, I begin this blog with the most famous quote from Menno Simons, the sixteenth-century Anabaptist whose name was adopted by one of the groups that has carried on the Anabaptist heritage.  I follow this brief excerpt with the full paragraph from which the excerpt is drawn, thus appropriately complexifying the excerpt, beginning to locate the brief quote in a larger theological context.  The whole paragraph is a wonderful set of challenges to live with.  The excerpt and the paragraph from which it is taken begin, in various ways, to name some of my central passions today. 


“For true evangelical faith is of such nature that it cannot lie dormant, but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love . . . it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it returns good for evil; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes. . . it binds up that which is wounded; it heals that which is diseased and it saves that which is sound; it has become all things to all people.  The persecution, suffering, and anguish which befall it for the sake of the truth of the Lord is to it a glorious joy and consolation.”