Leithart’s “Defending Constantine” – an interesting idea

Constantine gets a bad press these days.

It’s all down to the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs, really.  When you are trying to overthrow an autocrat who justifies his rule by appealing to Constantine as the source of authority, then the urge to rubbish Constantine is going to be strong.  And we find just this sequence events during the agitation of the 1840’s.  Ever since, there has been this tendency to suppose that Constantine hijacked the church.

I myself have always been rather a non-combatant on this one.  I don’t find, in the primary sources, most of the negative myths spread about him.  So I was interested to learn that IVP Academic have brought out a volume on the subject, by Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (2010). (Amazon link)

Sadly the paperback is priced at £16, around $20, which is far too much for me to buy a book on a whim that I might never read again (and no, publishers do not send me review copies; and, most of the time, I am very grateful for that).

But if you have access to it, it may well be worth a read.  There is no reason why, in 2013, we should allow the politics of 1848 to determine how we look at one of the key figures of history.


12 thoughts on “Leithart’s “Defending Constantine” – an interesting idea

  1. I think that the hostile view on Constantine is not just determined by the 1848 politics. It also has a cause in our own world.

    Just like there are people who abuse Antiquity to prove that “the Bible was right”, which would allow them to dictate their own rules to modern society, there are others who abuse the distant past to prove that Christianity was, from the very beginning, very evil, so that Christian ideas can be eradicated from today’s world. To achieve this, the origins of Christianity need to be presented as “merely borrowing from other religions” and Constantine has to become a psychopath.

    I have respect for both visions on modern society. If people think they can make people happier by more or less Christian influence, that’s fine with me, and I am willing to listen to everyone’s arguments. But leave ancient history out of it.

  2. Interesting; I wonder if this negative view of Constantine influenced or was influenced by the restoration movement?

  3. Constantine is the one who forced the church to decide in the sham vote at Nicea that Jesus is God….everyone knows that. Sheesh. 🙂

  4. BTW, on the US version of Amazon, the Kindle version of this book is only 4.99! Way cheaper than on the UK site.

  5. I think it long predates the Restoration movement (we’re discussing the Dales Week / Downs Week etc movement here, I presume?).

    But I did a search in Restoration magazine for Constantine, and did get some hits.

    1. Vol.1, #5 (Nov/Dec. 1975), p.10. Hugh Thompson, “The stewardship of money”: “WHERE should they contribute? (i) NOT in the old pagan cultic places. e.g. Emperor Constantine ‘christianized’ a whole lot of
    pagan dates and practices such as the feast of Saturnalia on December 25th. (When much Kingdom cash is squandered!)”

    2. Unnumbered, (Nov/Dec. 1978), p.17: Hugh Thompson, “The church, not a mixture”: “The history of successive centuries of Church life often reeks with corruption — immorality, intrigue, inquisition (Roman and Protestant). No-one can honestly deny that many accepted church traditions were adopted straight out of paganism. The Emperor Constantine held the office of Pontifex Maximus — that is, High Priest of the Roman State religion. On his conversion to Christianity he immediately became Pontifex Maximus of the Church and continued the pagan forms of religion throughout the Empire in the name of Christ, thus violating the biblical principle given to Israel on entering Canaan to destroy all forms of pagan practices. Alexander Hyslop’s ‘The Two Babylons’ presents careful documentation on this whole subject that deserves far wider attention than it has generally been given.”

    There are 4 other passages (pardon me; other things to do). The general view is a willingness to believe that Constantine was sincere, but to deplore the effective contamination of the church with unbelievers as a consequence of his policies.

  6. I remember in the 70s hearing people in church express views much like Thompson’s. The “restorationism” I’m thinking of was that of the second great awakening in the US, in the early 1800s. The Campbellites wanted to restore early Christianity based only on the New Testament, for instance.

  7. I have spent a lot of time studying him. I went from trying to introduce him to Christians who had never heard of him, to viewing him with cautious observation.

    Even before the 19th century Christians were criticizing Constantine. In 1787 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, had this to say about what he perceived to be Constantine’s negative influence on the church. He speaks of “that fatal period when the Emperor Constantine called himself a Christian (Sermon 89:2, Works of Wesley, Vol 7, 1872)” and “that evil hour, when Constantine the Great called himself a Christian (Sermon 115:8, Ibid).”

    In his Sermon 66 he noted that “A wonderful instance of this spiritual blindness, this total inability so discern the signs of the times mentioned in Scripture, is given us in the very celebrated work of a late eminent writer; who supposes the New Jerusalem came down from Heaven, when Constantine the Great called himself a Christian. I say, called himself a Christian; for I dare not affirm that he was one, any more than Peter the Great. I cannot but believe he would have come nearer the mark, if he had said, that was the time when a huge cloud of infernal brimstone and smoke came up from the bottomless pit! For surely there never was a time wherein Satan gained so fatal an advantage over the Church of Christ, as when such a flood of riches, and honor, and power broke in upon it, particularly on the Clergy.” (Works of Wesley, Vol. 6).

  8. Well I think Wesley is right, but I also think that Constantine meant no harm, not realising the consequences of his actions (and neither did anyone else at the time).

  9. I agree Roger. I think he was guilty of something we are all guilty of at some point or another (exercising zeal without knowledge). The only difference is that he had billions of dollars at his disposal in his zeal. At different times I have mused over trying to compile all of the primary references to him and putting them on my website. That would be an big task however.

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