Leithart rises to Constantine’s defense

Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of ChristendomDefending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leithart’s arguments are always thought-provoking. He synthesizes scholarship about the conditions from which Constantine emerged and about his life and rule in order to argue against the notion that the church “fell” when Constantine converted. Especially in view is John Howard Yoder’s writing about this subject, which Leithart considers more sophisticated than most other criticisms of Constantine’s effects on the church. Leithart shares with Yoder the idea of the church as the true city, the city of God’s people, but Leithart’s understanding is very Augustinian, opposing Yoder’s pacifism and his sense that the church mostly capitulated to Roman and Germanic influences.

Leithart really emphasizes the significant inroads against pagan sacrifice and pagan religions made under Constantine, as well as the more Christian public space that he helped to create and highlighted the importance of the replacing of constant pagan sacrifice with the finished sacrifice of Christ. I also enjoyed learning a bit about Lactantius.

Leithart also points out the significance of the Antonine Constitution of 212. To get more tax revenue, the emperor Caracalla made all non-slaves citizens of Rome, mostly to get everyone on the tax rolls. I had always seen this presented as the final stage in the gradual expansion of citizenship that the Romans had allowed since their early days of conquest in Italy. The Romans saw citizenship as something that could be expanded, in stark contrast to the refusal of Greek city-states to extend it even to other Greeks.

Leithart highlights a different effect, though. The Antonine Constitution made the empire one city (as opposed to “a commonwealth of cities,” to use Peter Brown’s phrase) with all of the religious significance that entailed in the ancient world. This meant that religious dissent was treasonous, and set the stage for the empire-wide persecutions of Christians by Decius, Valetinian, and Diocletian.

All of this means that Leithart has a lot of interesting things to say, especially toward the end, about modern church-state relations.

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