Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review: Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom

Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating book. One of these I think merits actually half a star plus, but I cannot bring myself to give it five — please do not hold that against me, as I find my use itself of stars shifts with time and humour.

Essentially it is a probing critique of John Howard Yoder’s anti-Constantinanism. While I myself am a critic of what one could call Constantinianism, this book would seem to challenge me, and it did, but not as I expected. Which is an index of a good book, when it actually surprises one positively.

He has to spend quite some effort delineating what Yoder understood — yes, the man is dead, so it is a pity Leithart wasn’t quite around at the time to initiate a public debate — by Constantinism, which is not quite my concept. So Leithart’s critique of Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism did not constitute a direct challenge to my own convictions; yet the book retained my interest because it mainly exhonerates Constantine, or at least enables us to understand him better, by a very balanced picture of Constantine himself and his times, correcting Yoder’s partisan & partial reading, while leaving open the door for better, more focused criticism.

Where it really lost the fifth star was only in the last pages of the final chapter, tellingly called ‘Rome baptized’, where Leithart’s ‘Federal vision’ leanings appear as given, which may make sense for adepts of the new perspective on Paul, for Iconodulics and the so, but will be baffling for the Evangelical reader, even the Reformed one that happens to have had no interest in the Federal vision.

In a series of baffling references:

He never explains what he means by ‘every baptism is a infant baptism’, which while probably meaning that all neophytes are babies in the faith, just waves away the very serious Radical Reformation (Anabaptist &, later, Baptist) challenge to the late Antiquity innovation of baby sprinkling;

He seems to say we should avert apocalypse, which may be related to some version of Postmillenniarism (I don’t know his position actually) but on the face of it sounds quite anti-Biblical, as we are to expect Jesus’ return, the sooner the better;

He seems to endorse Augustine’s baptismal regeneration convictions, which is a really big red flag for Biblical Christians, being the most radical, even heretical, extreme of the wide range of ideas broadly identified as Federal vision.

A very minor quibble is when he never explains why, in modernity, ‘there is blood, more… than ever… than any ancient tyranny would… and all of it human.’ I assume it is a reference to abortion, but I am baffled none the less.

Finally, he avoids the elephant in the room: Yoder’s having being posthumely discredited for having been a molester. But that is another issue.

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