He was a good one

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

Recently I finished Peter Leithart’s book, Defending Constantine. It is a scholarly work that describes how Constantine operated as emperor. It begins as a biography, explaining the setting of ancient Rome and how Constantine came to power. After the biography, Dr. Leithart approaches the questions many have raised over the years about the rule of Constantine. He provides a good summary of the sources on Constantine’s life and discusses the disagreements among historians with erudition. However that is not the primary focus of the book. The focus is to answer an age-old critique.

Constantine is one of the most hotly debated figures in history, especially church history. Many appreciate him with little to no qualification; others despise the name itself, associating it with the rise of Roman Catholicism and persecution of Christians. For most, he is a shrouded figure. We don’t know what to believe and what not to believe.

One of the most prominent figures to criticize Constantine was the late Dr. John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s argument goes like this: the church was full of power when it was persecuted; when the persecution stopped and the church gained favor with the earthly government because of Constantine, it fell. This argument rests on a very simplistic view of history. Nevertheless it has gained traction over the years among Evangelicals, while it has always been popular among minority, Anabaptist denominations. It also rests on a pessimistic eschatology: the Church started strong but will grow weaker and weaker until tribulation and then Jesus will establish the millennial kingdom on earth.

It is against Yoder’s criticism that Dr. Leithart takes aim. In addition to the biography, he tells the story of how Constantine improved the life of the church. It’s not that the emperor didn’t have flaws; he did. But the best point Dr. Leithart makes is that despite his sins, Constantine attempted to rule as a Christian emperor. This was no small feat and the emperor didn’t take it lightly. To name a few accomplishments, he:

• Stopped the persecution of Christians
• Ended the Roman sacrifical system
• Encouraged church unity through calling councils
• Used his position as a bully pulpit to encourage Christian morality among the people
• Gave religious liberty to various groups, pagans and Christians included
• Worked to end gladiatorial games

And these are just a few. Now what about his persecution of the Donatists? What about his killing his wife? What about …? The only thing I will comment on here has to do with his treatment of the Donatists (the rest of the answers you’ll have to read for yourself). This all depends on whose story your are reading. If you are a Donatist, the wicked king swooped down and mercilessly killed many for being different. On the other hand, sometimes, just sometimes, politics creep into these arguments. When there is a rebellion in a land, emperors want it stopped before it disrupts the peace of the empire. We don’t know what all was going on in North Africa, politically speaking, that led Constantine to do what he did. Dr. Leithart presents enough evidence to at least help us understand where Constantine was coming from in making the decisions he did.

For anyone who has questioned what we should think about Constantine, Dr. Leithart’s book is a necessary read. Whether you like Constantine, it’s necessary to be informed rather than speak from simplistic ideas that have little basis in reality.

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