Writings: All Writings

A Yoderian Rejoinder to Leithart's Defending Constantine

Englewood Review of Books

Author: John C. Nugent

12/01/10+ Share

A critical review of Peter J. Leithart's Defending Constantine that focuses primarily on his theological critique of John Howard Yoder and, by extension, all who share "Anabaptist" or "Restorationist" views of faith, history, and social ethics.

In Defending ConstantineThe Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, Peter Leithart argues that Constantine the Great has been mishandled by historians and theologians who have failed to appreciate his positive contributions to Christian faith. In particular, he hopes to show that Constantine is a model for Christian involvement in world governance and political affairs.

To make this case, Leithart realizes that he has to go through the most formidable theological opponent to this view: John Howard Yoder. To that end, he seeks to undermine both Yoder's historiography and his social ethic, which Leithart argues is dependent upon it. If he can surmount Yoder's interpretation of early church history, beginning with the New Testament Scriptures, he will have pulled off a veritable coup in theological and ecclesiological studies.

Despite premature celebration in the blogosphere, Leithart failed to secure the theological victory for which he hoped. Though he may have succeeded in introducing a more nuanced view on Constantine to the theological world, his critique of Yoder and the position he represents misses the mark on several important issues. The aim of this article is to introduce readers to the basic contours of Leithart's argument, to set forth his case against Yoder, and to explain why it falters in fundamental ways that dull the impact of the theological punch it seeks to pack.

NOTE: an expanded version of my article with more adequate documentation is published alongside three other reviews in The Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 4 (Oct 2011): 551-73. Those looking for a rebuttal to Leithart's historical work will want to read Alan Kreider's masterful article in the same volume. Concluding this edition of MQR is Leithart's substantial response to the articles of Kreider and myself.

Read the article at the Englewood Review of Books website