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A Quest for the Historical Constantine?

Now this looks interesting—and inflammatory! Scot McKnight is beginning a review of a book about Emperor Constantine:

Peter Leithart, a polymath and a compelling thinker and writer, is laying down a challenge to the Anabaptists of this world and to the progressive Christians of this world — anyone who critiques Christendom, the nation-church connection that begins in earnest with Constantine and carried on for centuries.

This “Christendom” model has historically been anathema to many Protestants, particularly those of an Anabaptist/Free-church bent. Many in these camps imagine Constantine as one of the great failures of the church, the time when we gave up on a lot of the distinctively counter-cultural aspects of the Christian message in return for social respectability and political clout. It may come as a surprise to some that in Orthodoxy this emperor is hailed as “Saint Constantine,” remembered for bringing the period of official Roman persecution to an end.

Leithart’s book is called Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Here’s a statement of his thesis:

For all its flaws, though, I believe the project of Christendom — the project of seeking to reshape political and cultural institutions and values in accord with the gospel — is a direct implication of the gospel’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Yoder, to his great credit, argued that Christians are called to live in conformity with the demands of the gospel here and now, and he even imagined what a more faithful Constantine might have looked like. His imaginary Constantine resembled the real Constantine more than Yoder realized. Christians disagree on how achievable that project [Christendom] is. It is, of course, full of risk and temptation, like everything else. I have a difficult time understanding Christians who object to the premise of Christendom.

Can he pull it off? Personally, I have my doubts he’ll convince many who grew up with the view that the church fell into apostasy in the fourth century. But I look forward to Scot’s review.

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1 Comment

  1. Paula says:

    I think this is one of those “ends justifying the means” things. Surely Christians are to change the world, but by being “salt”, i.e. something that mingles in with what it is supposed to change. It was never meant to be institutionalized and thus change the world from the top down. As the book The Reformers And Their Stepchildren chronicles, the Constantinian approach is fraught with spiritual (and sometimes physical) peril.

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