27 March 2015

Constantine Defended and Revisited

Leithart's "Defending Constantine" instantly became popular in the realm of Christian Right academia. We live in a time that historical events such as The Crusades are being revisited, run through the filter of Dominionist Revisionism and robustly defended. It hasn't happened yet with the Inquisition, but give it some time.

Actually, the defense of Constantine implicitly supports the notion of the Inquisition but that's for another discussion. In the meantime not a few admirers of this book also support modern day versions of the Inquisition like the McCarthy hearings and blacklist. Some even call for a return to such measures.

While Constantine isn't always praised in Evangelical circles... he certainly wasn't when I was growing up, even though I was raised to embrace the Christian Right... nevertheless the basic assumptions of the Constantinian project are accepted.

Leithart is to be praised because he consistently follows through on the implications, doesn't shy away from them and recognizes that political leadership means warfare and that a "Christian Leader" if we grant him the term for the sake of argument, means a Christian War Leader.

Leithart's Christ is not the Christ of Scripture. I say that not as a theological liberal who views Christ as a type of Gandhi and finds the idea of a coming Judgment to be abhorrent. I say this as a follower of Christ who understands the nature of the Spiritual Kingdom and our call to suffer as martyr-witnesses in This Age. The Triumphalism of Leithart is only to be understood in light of the Second Coming and in a context in which sin has been eradicated. A Postmillennialist like Leithart looks for the Church to bring in a millennial golden age, a Church through the force of cultural transformation to all but eradicate sin. Through culture and legislation (and presumably the Spirit) the reign of Christ will be brought to bear on This Age. Christ returns after the world has been Christianized... again a term and concept I would argue is the result of abstract philosophical commitment and speculation, not the fruit of New Testament exegesis.

I've always found it ironic that Calvinists, believers in Total Depravity would embrace such a vision of Christianization. I too embrace Total Depravity and believe there's no Scriptural warrant for this view. They would argue the Spirit will effect this change. The same Spirit inspired the New Testament and provides a very different interpretation of the Old Testament than they will grant or receive and nowhere is there any suggestion that sin will in any way be diminished before Christ's return or through the cultural efforts and/or political expressions of the Church.

Like the Dispensationalists they prioritize the Old Testament and its prophetic visions over and against the New Testament and its interpretation of them. In their systems The Old Testament interprets the New rather than vice versa. Rejecting the Apostolic hermeneutic they insist (like the Dispensationalists) that a future chiliastic kingdom is the destiny of the Church. The Dispensationalists believe this promise to be centered on Israel of the Old Covenant. The Postmillennialists rightly believe The Church is the New Israel and the inheritor of its promises but it wrongly believes that not only will the Church conquer Palestine, it will politically and culturally conquer the whole world. One camp believes the political millennium will be based on the Jews, the other on the Church but their basic assumptions are the same. They both embrace a politico-cultural doctrine of the Kingdom.

Both schools seek prophetic fulfillment apart from the Christocentric teachings of the New Testament. Both reject the New Testament's teaching that all the Old Testament promises, types and symbols point to and find their fulfillment in Christ (2 Cor 1.20).

Both camps insist that prophecies such as are found in Isaiah 2 and Psalm 2 find fulfillment prior to the Eschaton, and are not pictures, promises and exhortations of the Heavenly Reign but an earthly kingdom and political order.

While Dispensationalism separates the Church from Israel it at least has a way of categorizing Scripture and relegating 'problem' passages. Leithart's Postmillennialism is forced to resort to Preterism which effectively renders much of Revelation and many other "pessimistic" New Testament passages to be obsolete. With this comes sweeping reinterpretations of passages such as John 18.36 where Christ declares His Kingdom is not of this world. Apparently what Christ meant was that his cultural-political Kingdom would not be formed in a worldly manner? The fighting that Christ rejected in the passage was apparently meant to be later embraced and doctrinally enshrined. The Sermon on the Mount wholly incompatible with the social ethics of this system is all but explained away, sometimes in outrageous fashion.

The Postmillennial (and almost always Dominionist) system, is very closely related to the implicit assumptions that have always governed Roman Catholic cultural theology... the theology of Christendom has been forced to philosophically speculate and develop such extra- (and thus un-) Biblical concepts such as Just War Theory and the complex of ideas that form the notion of Christian Statesmanship. To this extent much of Leithart's exposition and historiographical work is an exercise in question begging. The paradigm is assumed and viewed as vindicated by history.

Dissident groups such as the Waldensians, authors such as Chelcicky and others in the Middle Ages argued the Church had fallen with the ascendancy of Constantine and his new order. Even though the forged Donation of Constantine was not proved spurious for many centuries, the theology was a reality and put into practice and merely reflected what had already become a reality since the time of Theodosius. The Christians of the Middle Ages rejected this power paradigm and rightly identified the Pope as antichrist and many recognized Rome as the false harlot church prophesied in Revelation. The false Church had synthesized itself with the Roman state and its attempted medieval reconstitution.

Leithart wishes to defend Constantine but also spends a great amount of time attacking modern day critics of Constantine, the contemporary voices which advocate the idea of the Constantinian Shift and The Fall of the Church, especially that of the Mennonite John Yoder.

Yoder argued the Church fundamentally changed with what happened at the time of Constantine. Constantine was the beginning of a long trend that resulted in the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and the cultural paradigm known as Western Christendom. The Reformation in no way abandoned this but inadvertently planted the seeds which lead to its downfall.

Yoder argues the early Church was largely pacifistic and the embrace of the state changed the Church's attitude toward violence and warfare, power and money and just about every other area of ethics. Yoder who died in the 1990's was deeply affected by the Vietnam War and the response of the Church to this great tragedy that not only led to millions of deaths in Indochina but ripped apart American society. He was critical of the war and the theology which led many Christians to support it.

The implications of the Church embracing the state were stark to the Medieval Dissenters and in the post-Reformational era groups like the Anabaptists and Quakers have maintained the critique though not always as purely as what we find in some of the earlier Hussite and Waldensian groups.

The history of the Early Church is sloppy and often confusing and not a few liberal and unbelieving historians have sought to exploit this in our own day. While we reject the notion of "Christianities" we will accept there was a great deal of diversity. Those of us who hold to the notion of a "Shift" believe it happened in stages and there was a significant downgrade during the roughly fifty year period between the Decian and Diocletian persecutions. There were Christians in the army, some church buildings were appearing, bad forms of worship and doctrine were becoming widespread, viz., the world was entering the Church. Christianity was spreading rapidly and becoming popular and while growth is to be celebrated, to those of a Remnant mindset a superabundance and cultural popularity can also be a sign of trouble on the horizon and a warning of compromise at work.

And then the final and perhaps greatest persecution broke out in 303 and raged until the Edict of Milan in 313. Constantine ended the persecutions and no doubt it was a glorious day, but with it came great danger. His subsequent actions opened the floodgates, the world entered the Church and the by the end of the century Rome was persecuting non-Christians and the Roman Empire was being confused with the Kingdom of God. In its joy and triumph the Church let down its guard, forgot its mission, largely began to abandon its identity, and for the sake of gaining and maintaining cultural ascendancy substituted Christ's Kingdom of the Cross, the Spiritual Kingdom for the might and glory of Rome. It was broadly speaking an apostasy. The Church was deluged with pagan rites and superstitions, governed by worldly wisdom and pragmatism and transformed into something that had a form of godliness but denied the power thereof.

Leithart argues from history, (often using rather dubious court historians like Eusebius) that Yoder paints an inaccurate picture of the Early Church. It was not pacifistic and no significant shift took place during the time of Constantine.

He's right, the picture of the Early Church is mixed and this is especially true as we draw nearer to the time of Constantine. In addition there are always exceptions to what was generally the rule. Pacifism wasn't universal, but some of Leithart's arguments are in bad form and under examination seem manipulative and dismissive of what was a prevalent testimony and nearly general consensus.

The argument against the shift is rooted in the fact that there weren't that many voices protesting it. While also true, it in no way diminishes the argument for the Shift or Fall of the Church.

In fact that's the whole point. Advocates of the Shift believe a massive apostasy took place, not an out-and-out denial of Jesus Christ but a practical denial of Him and the Kingdom. The Church embraced a new kingdom, that of Rome and a new messiah in the personage of the Emperor and later on in the West, the person of the Pope. We can use the same kind of arguments as Leithart and suggest such voices were largely silenced and erased from the historical record. But in truth it is likely that the vast majority of Christians blindly and even joyfully went along with the changes.

Leithart argues that all he has to do is cast doubt on Yoder's reading of history and the entire notion of the Constantinian Shift will fall.

This is dubious to say the least, and at its worst it can be labeled as deceitful.

Leithart is enough of a historian to know that history cannot be read like a mathematical formula. It's highly subjective, difficult, complicated and must be contextualized. Context is deeply difficult because there are many facets to that issue alone. The whole question is one wherein it's difficult to make any kind of absolute case one way or another. There's always a different read. History does not stand alone but must always be interpreted and the questions of interpretation (historiography and prolegomena) are paramount. How do we interpret history? And more poignantly, how do we interpret Church History?  

Yoder's argument which echoes the arguments of those who had gone before was not rooted in historical narrative. It's theological and a case of Biblical theology interpreting history and historical theology. That's the issue and it is the one Leithart mostly avoids. When he does treat it he does so in a superficial manner and engages in a good deal of question begging.

Within a few pages of his work it was quite obvious what direction he was going to take. The theology would be set aside or assumed and Leithart would focus on trying to win the historical argument.

The problem is it's not a historical issue, or at least history doesn't determine the right or wrong of it. Inconsistencies and diversities in the Early Church do not negate that fact that in 313 something new happened and before Constantine was dead the Church was on a different trajectory.

Leithart like many Roman Catholics and liberals believes in development, progress and elaboration. The New Testament is but a starting point, not a theological norm for the Church throughout the age.

While he still might adhere to Sola Scriptura he is in fact quite hostile to it and this was the fundamental difference between the Medieval Dissidents and Rome and some are beginning to realize despite the slogans, the Protestant Reformation was less than faithful in this regard either. Protestantism took a reactionary turn before the first generation had expired.

Those interested in these issues would do well to pick up "Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate" edited by John Roth.

I was quite pleased to see that right from the start some of the contributors recognize the nature of the problem behind Leithart's defense of Constantine and criticism of Anti-Constantinianism. By focusing on history Leithart in many ways misses the real issue at stake.

That said the book was in other aspects disappointing. There was much that was missed, many unhelpful tangential arguments, and several essays that I found to be erroneous in their assumptions and arguments. Many of the authors argued from the standpoint of Anabaptist ecclesiology and only added to the confusion. One does not need to be Baptistic to question the Constantinian model and I would argue the introduction of Baptistic theology only clouds and confounds the issues.

Nevertheless I was glad to have purchased the book and glad to see there are those who would question (in whatever capacity) the assumptions of one such as Leithart.

As some readers will already know I actually sympathize in many respects with the theology of Federal Vision with which Leithart is often associated. I appreciate their Biblicism when it comes to questions of ecclesiology and soteriology. At that point my concurrence ends. They are all committed Constantinians, Postmillennialists and not a few envision this paradigm coming to fruition through the framework of Theonomic Reconstructionism.

Essentially they are good and zealous Calvinistic Anglicans, or at least ought to be. However of all of the names associated with the movement Leithart is the one I have least appreciated. Many would express the exact opposite sentiment, even those who don't appreciate Federal Vision. He is the one figure in the movement they find intriguing.

I am interested in reading his later work on America as something between Babel and Beast but based on the reviews I am pretty sure where he's going with that. Probably more profound than the ill-informed and inept approaches of popular teachers like Grudem and Mohler, and rightly critical of confusing America with the Kingdom, Leithart still looks for political Christendom as the means of Kingdom advancement. Despite offending many with his critique of Americanism, his criticism doesn't go near far enough. Just reading the reviews I can already tell his view of American history is something of a whitewash.

While he may have moderated from earlier positions and in fact appear moderate when compared with some of his fellows there is an overarching Monism to his thought that I would argue is fundamentally at odds with New Testament Christianity.