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Professor Defends Constantine Before Baptist Skeptics


Barton Gingerich
March 27, 2012
The Institute of Religion and Democracy

Defending Constantine author Peter Leithhart outlined his defense of historic Christendom in a recent talk to Southern Baptist affiliated Union University in Tennessee.

Leithhart's March 5 talk at Union was called “The Metapolitics of Christendom: Constantine and the Transformation of Rome.” In his survey, he attempted to salvage the historically controversial Roman emperor’s reputation for the primarily Baptist audience. Leithart, who is Presbyterian, is Senior Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College in Idaho. Through his 2010 book, he is one of the vigorous challengers to the neo-Anabaptist movement's insistence that early Christianity was pacifist until corrupted by Constantine's conversion and support for Christianity.

Union University affiliates with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and relates to the Southern Baptist Convention. By some accounts, it acts as an undergraduate feeder school for Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY. The speaking event was co-sponsored by the campus’s Center for Politics & Religion and Institute for Intellectual Discipleship.

At first glance, it seems odd that a Baptist institution should invite Leithart. Holding degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and the University of Cambridge, Leithart is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In 2007, he was embroiled in the PCA’s “Federal Vision” controversy, where he drew fire for his understandings of baptism, salvation, and church membership. Detractors thought he was falling to sacerdotalism and baptismal regeneration, both of which are frowned upon by the Westminster Confession. The church tribunal found him innocent of heresy by unanimous vote. Regardless, Leithart is better known for his scholarship, especially his famous work in dismantling Anabaptist-slanted church history.

“The Christian life — Christian faithfulness — is a kind of improvisation," Leithhart declared. "There is a script I believe, but we don’t know it.” The theology professor explained: “We know the basic contours of the script, but what’s happening in our particular time and what our response is supposed to be in our particular time is not apparent to us. It’s something we have to react to.” He continued, “We can only do that if we have some sense of how we stand in that story…We are the heirs of a great deal of what Constantine started.”

Leithhart credited Constantine with helping to create Western Civilization. “One of the most important contributions [of Constantine’s reign]…was the metapolitical framework responsible for later western political development," Leithart observed. "It’s not necessarily a political theology. It’s not really a way for how religion works in politics.”

Leithhart warned about a “divergence” between history and popular literature regarding Constantine’s portrayal. Sources ranging from Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown to conspiracy-based movies paint the emperor as a power-hungry megalomaniac bent on harnessing Christianity’s influence to oppress all other opposition. Some conspiracists like Brown even claim Constantine imposed the Nicene Creed and the doctrine of Christ's deity. Leithart remarked that renowned 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt was the first to paint Constantine not as a converted Christian but as a cynical politician. Anabaptists use his reign to mark when the Church fell to the corruption of “empire.”

“One of the key issues that has plagued Christians is his conversion and the meaning of his conversion,” Leithart noted. “All the objective signs we can see show that he did indeed change loyalty.” Leithart pointed to the Edict of Milan. He observed, “All of the property that had been confiscated from the churches up to that point was returned, but by that edict he did not end the persecutions. The persecutions had already ended…From that time on, Christianity was the legal religion. Later on, it became more than a legal religion to an established religion.”

Leithart thought that Constantine showed “a certain level of sophistication” with the Bible and theological precepts, which allowed him to be “guided by a very basic political theology.” According to his research, Leithart believes Constantine had “a very keen sense that he is accountable to God as an emperor. He has a keen sense that God is the ultimate judge. Jesus Christ is his judge.”

Constantine "also has a very keen sense that this judgment and God’s scrutiny of him is not just going to happen at some last judgment [and] that he is going to be evaluated at some point in the distant future" Leithart surmised. "He is constantly being evaluated, he is constantly being tested, and if he pleases God, then God the judge will decide in his favor when he goes up against different enemies.” The lecturer obviously found this sort of reasoning quite problematic and recognized it as a flaw for the emperor.

Leithart tried to save Constantine from the misunderstandings of Anabaptist theologians Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas: “It’s because of this that Constantine is constantly aware of the unity of the Christian church…the church is God’s own people…disunity displeases God…It’s a theologically driven political position.” Contrary to the accusation of authoritarianism by critics, Leithart argued, “Constantine doesn’t enforce that unity, but he facilitates it.”

Constantine had a goal of conversion over time to make a Christian consensus, not just the imposition of one religion for the unity of the empire," Leithart said. His policies encouraged toleration of pagans and Jews. Church leaders sometimes pushed back against any perceived government encroachments and would continue to do so on through the Middle Ages. Leithart cited the example of Athanasius’s multiple exiles. For Anabaptists, “[F]ollowing Constantine the church becomes accommodated to power and becomes a cheerleader to power.” Leithart disagreed: “I don’t believe that’s the case even in the time of Constantine.” Skeptics claim the emperor manipulated the famous Nicene Council to author the now universally-accepted creed. Leithart countered: “Portrayals of him presiding over the council are historically unfounded.” Instead, Constantine would sit in and listen to debates on occasion.

Leithart presented what he considered positive Constantinian contributions. First, the emperor introduced legal reforms. At the time, civil courts lay at the whims of status and money; the powerful could exploit the system’s required court fees to bankrupt their opposition. Constantine allowed for an appeal to ecclesiastical courts, which were free and overseen by bishops, who were less susceptible to bribes. Post-edict Christianity also allowed for a fresh idea of community which was not dependant on the individual polis. Also, Constantine was the first emperor to recognize that humanity had not reached its end of history in Rome but has an eschatology found in the Church. Finally, he helped end the culture of sacrifice, removing the slaughtering of animals as a required civil religion. Leithart worried that the modern age replaced Constantine’s accomplishments with nationalist re-readings of the Bible, substituting the country as the object of hope rather than the church. In the post-Reformation era, religion has become privatized and divided, thus removing the true universality of the church.

Some of the professors in the audience were still uncomfortable with Constantine. Leithart himself added, “Constantine has many flaws, as a person and as an emperor.” As Baptists, the instructors expressed a loyalty to a stricter separation of Church and state. One of the main purposes for credobaptism is to cull out as many nonbelieving tares from congregational membership as possible, assuring a truly “pure” church body. Any collusion with the state as a sort of public religion shared in common with the community is seen as a betrayal of this temperament. This stance sometimes forces some Baptists to characterize 1200 years of church history as a great mistake.

Leithart reassured some of the skeptics in the mostly Baptist audience: “The kings are under Christ, and it’s the Church’s job to call them out on that.”
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