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Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom Paperback – October 24, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Leithart (Deep Exegesis), a pastor who teaches at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, takes aim at the received wisdom that Constantine's establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire was a political co-optation that made the church the creature and justification of the imperial state. He reads the original ancient, the seminal secondary, and lots of other sources to contend that Constantine was a believer and a conciliator who sought theological agreement for the political stability it brought. Contra the influential interpretation of Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, Leithart maintains that when Constantine is understood in historical context, his disestablishment of pagan religion opens a place for a Christian understanding of sacrifice and of the significance of the kingdom of God. His provocative view deserves examination. Besides his peers, general readers with a close knowledge of early church history will appreciate his well-supported argument, and anybody whose understanding of early church history comes from The Da Vinci Code needs to read this. (Nov.)
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". . . this work should serve as a welcome redress of the often one-sided debate regarding Constantine and Constantinianism." (Britton W. Norvell, Restoration Quarterly, 55:1 (2013))

"This book is a must read for anyone assaying to deal with Constantine in the foreseeable future; it is a valuable correction of the tendentious views that frame the first Christian emperor. Leithart’s work is a welcome contribution to Constantine scholarship and should find its place in responsible library collections. Scholars will want to get their own copy, and many classes will be enriched by the addition of this book to the list of required readings." (James R. Payton, Jr., Calvin Theological Journal, November 2012)

"In Defending Constantine [Leithart] has done the historian, theologian, church leader, and layman a great service by providing an enjoyably readable historical-theological-conceptual look at this critical era of church history." (Michael Philliber, Touchstone, January/February 2012)

"Defending Constantine demonstrates the enduring relevance of the "Constantinian moment" of the fourth century. While recent scholarship has focused mainly on the negative results, Leithart swings the pendulum back, reminding us of all the good that God brought about from this contested period of history." (Trevin Wax, Christianity Today, March 2011)

"Here is an excellent scholarly and fair treatment of Constantine." (Christian News, November 15, 2010)

"This erudite work will be of interest to academic seminarians and theologians, as well as those seeking a historically sound Christian interpretation of Constantine." (Matthew Connor Sullivan, Library Journal, December 2010)

"Leithart has written an important book that does more than help us to better understand the complex human being who bore the name of Constantine. . . As a pacifist I could not want a better conversation partner than Peter Leithart." (Stanley Hauerwas, Christian Century, October 19, 2010)

"For a generation that thinks it approves of those who challenge the conventional wisdom, it can come as quite a shock when someone actually does it. In this book, Peter Leithart takes up the daunting challenge of defending Constantine, and he does it with biblical grace, deep wisdom, profound learning and scholarship that has let the clutch out. This is a magnificent book." (Douglas Wilson, senior fellow of theology, New Saint Andrews College, Idaho)

"An excellent writer with a flair for the dramatic, Peter Leithart is also one of the most incisive current thinkers on questions of theology and politics. In this book, Leithart helpfully complicates Christian history, and thereby helps theologians recover the riches of more than a millennium of Christian life too easily dismissed as 'Constantinian.' If the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during that period, we must find ways to appreciate Christendom. Any worthwhile political theology today cannot fail to take Leithart's argument seriously." (William T. Cavanaugh, Research Professor, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago)

"There have been of late a splurge of populist history books damning Constantine the Great as the villain of the piece. Almost without exception they have drawn their picture of this most complex and complicated of late-antique Roman emperors from secondhand, clichéd and hackneyed books of an older generation, adding their own clichés in the process. Constantine has been sketched luridly, as the man who corrupted Christianity either by financial or military means. At long last we have here, in Peter Leithart, a writer who knows how to tell a lively story but is also no mean shakes as a scholarly historian. This intelligent and sensitive treatment of one of the great military emperors of Rome is a trustworthy entrée into Roman history that loses none of the romance and rambunctiousness of the events of the era of the civil war, but which also explains why Constantine matters: why he was important to the ancient world, why he matters to the development of Christianity (a catalyst in its movement from small sect to world-embracing cultural force). It does not whitewash or damn on the basis of a preset ideology, but it certainly does explain why Constantine gained from the Christians the epithet 'The Great.' For setting the record straight, and for providing a sense of the complicated lay of the land, this book comes most highly recommended." (John A. McGuckin, Columbia University)

"Too many people, for far too long, have been able to murmur the awful word Constantine, knowing that the shudder it produces will absolve them from the need to think through how the church and the powers of the world actually relate, let alone construct a coherent historical or theological argument on the subject. Peter Leithart challenges all this, and forces us to face the question of what Constantine's settlement actually was, and meant. Few will agree with everything he says. All will benefit enormously from this challenge to easygoing received 'wisdom.'" (N. T. Wright, University of St. Andrews, Scotland)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic; 53507th edition (October 24, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830827226
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830827220
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #210,254 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Peter Leithart's latest book, "Defending Constantine," should, in my opinion, be considered THE Christian Book of the Year. "Defending Constantine" is a stunning work of scholarship on a closely related collection of issues that are among the most important in Christianity: the life of Constantine, the meaning of Constantinianism, and the radical transformation of the world that took place while he was Emperor. Leithart's work is especially impressive because he has taken on a host of scholars who have so thoroughly denigrated Constantine and "Constantinianism" that it is a truism among most Christians that Constantine was bad for the church and still is. In this scholarly contest, Leithart clearly has proven himself to be the more careful and insightful scholar. It is a work that particularly appeals to me as an Anglican priest, school teacher, and professor of Religious Studies, but it should also be read by every thinking Christian. Despite the lofty themes Leithart tackles, he writes in wonderfully clear English prose.

If you read one book on Christian history, Christianity and politics, or Christianity and culture this - this book should be the one: it's THAT good! Don't let the academic topic of the book fool you: this book has radical implications for every thinking Christian and every church.

"Constantine," as Leithart reminds us, "has been a whipping boy for a long time, and still is today." His name is identified with tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy. While experts in the field of early Christianity now believe that Constantine was a genuine Christian who earnestly tried to apply his faith to his role as Emperor, many other scholars and laymen incorrectly continue to claim otherwise.
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I have been wanting to read this book ever since I heard of it. What a terrific idea, topic, book title. Defending Constantine! Someone needs to do it. I'm a Mennonite, but became a medievalist in part because I got uncomfortable with the historical narrative my denomination keeps telling: the church fell at Constantine and rose again in the Reformation. Having read Leithart's really excellent entry on Kings in the Brazos Theological Commentary series, I figured he'd bring clear and compelling prose, dazzling leaps of insight, new perspectives, a charitable reading of an emperor whom my denomination has consistently read uncharitably. And--so far so good. Leithart does write well, and he does have my denomination's problematic church-historical narrative squarely in his sights--and its authoritative exponent, John Howard Yoder.

But the problem with the book, it seems to me, is that it's a little bit of a bunch of things. It's part historical narrative; indeed, most of the chapters start out with an account of a particular section of Constantine's life or the Roman background. It's part historical argument; Leithart objects to how many scholars, Christian and non-Christian, have attacked Constantine. And it's part theological argument. Each of these has some really nice insights, but ends up unable to convince, and that's too bad, because I really would like to be convinced of some of this.

The historical narrative seems straightforward. In fact, sometimes it just reads like summary. This happened, this happened, this happened, then this happened. What emerges is a problem with sources that lies underneath some of that smooth narrative.
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With Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart has written a well-researched, well-balanced biography on a controversial character in history. Christians don't like Constantine because he combined too much state with church, and non-Christians don't like him because he combined too much church with state. Poor Constantine is left homeless. Leithart, however, attempts to make sense of the controversy and give Constantine credit for his accomplishments within a historical context.

Leithart's nicely footnoted work presents a convincing case for Constantine's genuine conversion. Constantine, having no model of a post-advent, Christian, civic ruler, brought about remarkable cultural changes. Leithart specifically focuses on the end of sacrifice. Moderns think sacrifice is something found only in a secluded, jungle tribe, but in fact, sacrifice was a cultural norm prior to Constantine. In addition to reviewing the Roman history, Leithart attempts to put Constantine's reign in a larger context of Christian history. God has a purpose for His church. The impact of His church in history is more evident by studying characters like Constantine.

Admittedly, Leithart's book is over this home-schooling mom's head at times - especially as the book turns from history to polemic. The shortcomings are really mine, however. He didn't translate all his Latin phrases, and my high school Latin is rusty. He also refers to a variety of Christian movements that I struggled to keep identified. A glossary for groups like Sabelians, Nestorians, Meletians and Donatists might have been helpful to those of us who aren't as well versed in church history as perhaps we ought to be.
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