What do I think of Peter Leithart’s book published by IVP Academic? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
If you want to go see a bad guy in secular history, you go with Hitler. If you want to see a bad guy in religious history, you go with Constantine. If anything has gone wrong in church history, somehow it’s connected with Constantine. Everything went wrong with him. From the average internet skeptic, you’ll hear that Constantine dominated the Council of Nicea or chose what books would be in the New Testament or changed the date of the Sabbath.
Historically, there are real questions about Constantine. Did he really have a conversion? Was he just an opportunist? What about the claim that he murdered his own family? Was he just a showman?
These are real questions.
Leithart takes an interesting look at these questions. He starts the stage not with Constantine but with what went on before Constantine. What was the state of the Roman Empire and how did that lead up to Constantine? Then once he got into office, what happened? How did he handle the Arian controversy? How did he handle the donatists?
Leithart also looks at the impact that Constantine had. What is the relationship between the government and religion? Does Jesus really have anything to say about how a country is run? Does Christianity have anything to say about a Caesar being a Christian?
What about questions of pacifism? Were Christians serving in the Roman military before Constantine came along? Was the church pacifist and then when Constantine came they became more hawkish? Leithart looks at this question as well.
If Constantine did not cause a major theological shift, did he cause any shift? What was the world like pre-Constantine and what is it like post-Constantine? Has Christianity been forever damaged because of the actions of Constantine?
It’s important to note that this is a defense of Constantine. While Leithart wants to show that many of our viewpoints on Constantine are just wrong or not very fair, this does not mean that Constantine was a Messiah. The case is not being made that we should start speaking about Saint Constantine. It is just being said that we should seek to understand Constantine in his historical and social context.
I do wish there had been more on other issues. It’s important that Leithart does respond to scholarly objections, but more and more in our day, we need responses to non-scholarly objections as well. Leithart does rightly speak on Nicea and show that Constantine did not dominate it, but it would have been nice at this point to have shown that a lot of popular myths about Nicea are just myths. These are the myths that the Sabbath was changed at Nicea or that the canon of the New Testament was decided at Nicea. The scholars might not really discuss that seriously, but that does not mean it’s not what the average Christian hears regularly.
Overall, this is an interesting read. It will definitely give you some to think about. If you want to see if there could be any good from Constantine, then get this book and see what Leithart has to say.