Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart
I was very glad to be given (as a Sinterklaas present) a copy of Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter Leithart.
Peter Leithart teaches at New Saint Andrews College and blogs at www.leithart.com. The primary aim of this book seems to be to use solid scholarship to counter what others have called the “Darth Constantine” theory – and I think Leithart succeeds in this aim.
Constantine is the one on the RIGHT.
Leithart concludes that Constantine was a genuine convert to Christianity, but also a man of his times. In particular, Leithart suggests that Constantine shared with pagan emperors the belief that the empire’s future hung on divine favour, and that this may have partially motivated Constantine’s intervention in intra-Church conflicts.
Leithart also suggests that Constantine had a genuine vision – perhaps a sun halo (p. 78).
Leithart argues that initially Constantine made substantial concessions to the pagan majority of his subjects (leading his soldiers, for example, in a monotheistic prayer that was not specifically Christian – p. 105), but gradually moved the Empire towards official Christianity. Constantine’s conversion, according to Leithart, shows particularly in the names and symbols which initially VANISHED (such as those of Jupiter), as well as in the actions that Constantine took when he became more secure in his position.
This coin (from the year after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge) showing the “Unconquered Sun” may hint at Constantine’s vision, and may also have been calculated to limit offense to Christians (cf Mal 4:2). However, such coins eventually vanished too.
Leithart takes the Good Friday Oration of Constantine to be genuine (p. 91), and an indication of what Constantine really believed:
|“That light which far outshines the day and sun, first pledge of resurrection, and renovation of bodies long since dissolved, promise, the path which leads to everlasting life—in a word, the day of the Passion—is arrived, best beloved doctors, and ye, my friends who are assembled here, ye blessed multitudes, who worship him who is the author of all worship, and praise him continually with heart and voice, according to the precepts of his Holy Word....”|
I was surprised to discover how much legislation Constantine introduced in favour of women and the poor. When you realise that he was essentially inventing a theory of Christian government as he went, he really did an amazing job.
The later parts of the book respond to John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite critic of Constantine. I found this less interesting, since I was never even slightly convinced by Yoderianism.
For another (hostile) review see here (and Leithart’s rejoinder).