Defending Yoder: Part One—Responding to Peter Leithart’s Critique

Ted Grimsrud—May 29, 2011

When John Howard Yoder passed from the scene in 1997, I can’t imagine even his strongest supporters would have expected that his importance would have continued to grow in the realm of theological ethics as it has. I certainly didn’t. Once indication of Yoder’s importance is the presence of a recent book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010), with a clear agenda of trying to counter Yoder’s growing influence.

Leithart’s is a curious book. After I finished reading it, I tried to figure out how to summarize what precisely he is trying to do. And I have had a difficult time. I suspect there may be some hidden agenda at work, because Leithart simply does not give a clear statement of his own constructive concerns. And, though he seems to have some profound disagreements with Yoder and routinely slips in sharp words disparaging Yoder’s scholarship, he has not produced a simple hatchet job. Actually, when the smoke clears he has affirmed Yoder almost as much as condemned him. I would attribute Leithart’s less than total rejection of Yoder’s ideas to the fact that he actually did read Yoder with some care.

On the most obvious level, Leithart has made a case for present-day evangelical Christians drawing much more positive conclusions about the political career of ancient Rome’s first self-proclaimed Christian emperor. Most of the book is devoted to looking at Constantine’s rise to power and his long and, according to Leithart, successful rule, a rule that reflects Constantine’s authentic Christian commitment. But it’s not quite clear why this matters. In the end, Leithart admits that his “main interest in this project has been theological.” He writes that his “historical portrait has implied a political theology” (p. 306). But what precisely this “political theology” is remains quite vague, even as Leithart ends his book trying to articulate it.

Certainly one element of Leithart’s theology is that it is anti-pacifist. This explains his need to hold Yoder up as his main theological opponent (and I strongly agree with Leithart that if an evangelical theologian is going to pursue an overtly anti-pacifist agenda they need to account for Yoder). Unfortunately, Leithart does not actually make a case for his anti-pacifism; he only asserts it.

Remarkably, in his final pages, Leithart gives a quite credible summary of Yoder’s theological agenda in Yoder’s critique of what he called “Constantinianism” (pp. 309-17). In fact, if Leithart had started the book with this summary and then proceeded to challenge it with his historical reconstruction, this book could have made a good contribution. Strangely, though, the bulk of the book is unfocused and relies on cryptic shots at Yoder’s historical work without really engaging the substance of his critique. This is strange because in this final section Leithart shows that he does understand Yoder’s thought pretty well. Too bad he didn’t use this understanding to add clarity and focus to the earlier discussion.

Leithart’s reconstruction of Constantine’s career is interesting—partly in the information he provides and his benign interpretation of Constantine’s career. Leithart’s Constantine does come across as a relatively admirable character (relative, that is, to other Roman emperors). It seems that Leithart may rely a bit too extensively and uncritically on Constantine’s contemporary, the historian Eusebius, who certainly had an agenda is his account of Constantine’s life and career. Maybe Eusebius is a reliable witness, but Leithart should have tried to show us why this would be the case in face of the general stance by historians that tend to perceive Eusebius’s account of Constantine as more than a little tendentious.

However, probably more importantly, Leithart’s reconstruction is interesting because even if he is correct in his description of Constantine’s career, the Yoderian case would not be damaged. Yoder would not have to disagree that there were many admirable things in Constantine’s reign relative to other emperors to still make the anti-Constantinian argument.

In his critique of Yoder, Leithart draws heavily on the Mennonite scholar Alex Sider. I think both Leithart and Sider misunderstand the actual point of Yoder’s critique, though, by taking the Constantine reference too literally. Leithart acknowledges that Yoder is using Constantine more as a rhetorical reference than arguing that the problem is centered in this one historical personage. The rhetorical relevance of Constantine seems quite simple. Here is the first case of a world ruler himself embracing the label of “Christian” and invoking the support of the Christian God. Regardless of the details of the career of the historical Constantine, this embrace does change everything. Before Constantine, the Christian God was not linked with emperors. After Constantine and down to the present, the Christian God has been linked with world rulers and superpowers.

The issue with Constantine is not that he may have been an admirable emperor. Perhaps, as Leithart argues, he actually was. The issue with Constantine is that from his time on, God and top-down political power (including the use of state violence) are linked in a way they had not been before—with disastrous consequences for the witness of the followers of Jesus and with problematic consequences for the state as well.

Leithart’s argument for the authenticity of Constantine’s Christian commitment (which actually is not central to the bigger issues because Constantine himself could have been sincere but still effected the problematic “shift” as I just characterized it) is weakened  by two elements—he never clearly defines what he means by “Christian” in this context and he never accounts for Constantine’s failure to be baptized until he was on his dying bed.

It seems that Leithart defines “Christian” in relation to Constantine mainly in terms of Constantine being willing to invoke the Christian God (though the invocation seems to have been lacking theological content) and treating Christians well. Of course, one of the big issues in the background in this entire book is the meaning of “Christian.” More on this point shortly.

I am puzzled as to why Leithart does not even attempt to explain the significance of Constantine remaining unbaptized throughout almost the entirety of his career as a “Christian emperor.” It would seem that if it is important to establish the authenticity of Constantine’s own faith and to make the case for him as an exemplary Christian emperor, this hardly minor issue would have at least merited some kind of explanation. Heightening my puzzlement is how Leithart’s conclusion to the book invokes the theme of baptism (infant baptism) as a key metaphor for his constructive agenda. I will admit to being a bit bamboozled by this baptism talk in general. Leithart is quite opaque here in terms of what this metaphor actually signifies. But even more bamboozling is why, if baptism is such an important motif, the elephant in the room concerning Constantine’s own lack of baptism would not have been addressed.

The heart of the problem with Leithart’s book, though, beyond its lack of a coherent constructive argument, is his failure to take account of the heart of Yoder’s theological and ethical agenda.

Leithart clearly has read the most important book for understanding Yoder’s thought, The Politics of Jesus. But just as clearly, he did not grasp that book’s central concern—which is the central concern for Yoder’s entire life’s work. These are the money quotes from Yoder:

Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had political implications; nor a teacher of spirituality whose ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; nor just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity.  Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e., promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and political relationships.  His baptism inaugurates and his cross culminates that new regime in which his disciples are called to share.  Hearers or readers may choose to consider that kingdom as not real, or relevant, or possible, or inviting; but no longer can we come to this choice in the name of systematic theology or honest hermeneutics.  At this one point there is no difference between the Jesus of Historie and the Christ of Geschichte, or between Christ as God and Jesus as Man, or between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus (or between the Jesus of the canon and the Jesus of history).  No such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life. (52-3)

There is no general concept of living like Jesus in the NT (e.g., celibacy, type of work, rural life, way of teaching) ….There is but one realm where the concept of imitation holds – but there it holds in every strand of the NT literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms.  This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power.  Servanthood replaces dominion; forgiveness absorbs hostility.  Thus – and only thus – are we bound by NT thought to “be like Jesus.” (130-1)

The basic issue in the critique of Constantinianism for Yoder is that leaders like Constantine, regardless of the sincerity of their own personal piety and their desire that the Christian God bless their nation, tend to contradict the message of Jesus—acting as “lords over others” rather than “servants of all.”

What makes Yoder’s perspective so radical, though, is that he insists that the way of servanthood is political and it is the norm for the nations. Yoder insists that the way Jesus was misunderstood (in his own day and ever since) was not in thinking that he was political when he was not, was not in mistaking his talk about the “kingdom” as talk about this-worldly social ethics, but in assuming that his message of servant-ethics is not relevant for the real world. Jesus’ contemporaries, including his closest disciples (reflecting a “Constantinian” mentality!), assumed that the only way to be political was to take the way of domination. Leithart’s Constantine, no matter how exemplary he may be in embodying Leithart’s sense of what a “Christian” emperor would be like, still clearly makes the same mistake. That is, Leithart does not even try to make the case that Constantine did not follow a domination path.

Leithart does show some awareness of what makes Yoder so radical in his final chapter, but this awareness makes his failure to address this key point in relation to Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism even more problematic.

Leithart’s misreading of Yoder is compounded by a too-narrow understanding of Yoder’s pacifism. Again, The Politics of Jesus is the key text. In this book, Yoder does not overtly talk much about the principled refusal to take part in war. Rather, he presents pacifism as a much wider and deeper set of convictions, summarized in a nutshell as insisting that no cause, institution, or ideology should ever take priority over Jesus’ basic message of love, compassion, and hospitality.

Yoder sets up the basic set of issues at the beginning of Politics: Jesus did speak directly to social ethics and politics with this message of love, compassion, and hospitality. And, Jesus is the norm for all Christians at all times. Hence, all Christians at all times should have their social ethics determined by Jesus’ message. The big problem with Constantinianism—seen in Constantine himself, even as presented in the most flattering way possible by Leithart—is that it acts as if at times national interests, social “order,” the interests of power elites, religious institutions, and the like do provide occasions where Jesus’ message must be set aside.

It may be the case, as Leithart argues, that the true hero of the story of the first several Christian centuries, Augustine of Hippo, presented the case in his epoch-shaping book, The City of God, that the church needed to distance itself from too close an affiliation with the Roman Empire. But in a deeper sense, his embrace of the need to bracket Jesus’ ethics in the social arena, Augustine still embodies the worst aspect of the Constantinian project.

I do welcome Leithart’s book. I think many of the issues he raises are important, even if his way of raising them tends to muddy the waters rather than providing more clarity. I should also say that the book is well written, which is no small blessing. Hopefully, he will provide a useful impetus for better understandings of Yoder’s project—and even more, for better understandings of the calling  that people of good will have today to embody a peaceable politics. Even wrong-headed critiques can lead to good outcomes!

[In my next post, “Defending Yoder: Part Two—Earl Zimmerman’s account,” I reflect on the core insights in Yoder’s work drawing on the best study of Yoder’s thought, Earl Zimmerman’s Practicing the Politics of Jesus. Zimmerman helps us see where Yoder’s insights came from and how profound they truly are.]

10 thoughts on “Defending Yoder: Part One—Responding to Peter Leithart’s Critique

  1. Thanks for the review. It got me interested, and I found a few other reviews on the net…

    John C. Nugent’s review of came to a similar interpretation…

    “Yet the more Leithart’s charitable interpretation [of Constantine] is upheld, the more grounds Yoder has that Constantine represented the significant shift in ecclesial self-understanding that Yoder used his name to represent. This is because Yoder’s definition of Constantinian is not a statement about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the aims toward which they use such power. The shift Yoder labels “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do. It is a reversion to the problematic underlying dynamics of kingship like the nations.”

    Hauerwas also reviewed the book in the Christian Century, more sympathetically, and comments that Yoder anticipated some of the criticisms levelled against him, and has in fact at least acknowledged the possibility of an emperor Christian. (i’d like to know where… haven’t read enough Yoder yet.)

  2. Yes, I really liked Nugent’s review of Leithart. It’s here. And here is Hauerwas’s review.

    I think Hauerwas’s comment about Yoder imagining a “Christian emperor” is misleading in the context of his (affirmative) response to Leithart. Yoder perhaps could imagine a Christian emperor (though I am not aware of any place he states this explicitly in his writings—and I’ve read most, but not all, of them). But by Christian he always meant one who embodies Jesus’ way of servanthood and pacifism. So the “Christian emperor” for Yoder would be totally different than Leithart’s “Christian emperor” who would be quite comfortable with, e.g., “justifiable” war.

    1. I believe Yoder says something to that effect in his discussion of Constantine in Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution. But his point there was much different: An emperor could rule Christianly (as Yoder understands it–pacifist and all), but it would mean taking on many risk that would probably lead to the downfall of his/her reign. But since so many emperors did other things that led to the downfall of their reign, those risks shouldn’t count as an automatic strike against the logical possibility of a Christian emperor. In other words, his hypothetical Christian emperor is a polemic against actual emperors who claimed to be Christian but failed to rule that way.

      1. I agree, DC, that Yoder’s main point seems to critique “Christian” emperors, not to affirm that probability that a genuine Christian could actually be emperor. I think it is interesting, though, to wonder about the (admittedly highly unlikely) possibility that an authentic Christian emperor could exist. I think Yoder’s (undeveloped) notion of Jesus’ ethic going “with the grain of the universe” hints that such would be possible.

        Years and years ago, Yoder was the second reader for my MA thesis where I tried to bring together some Reformed thinking about creation with Anabaptist-type pacifism. Yoder didn’t seem too friendly with this attempt, but with him it was difficult to tell what he truly thought.

  3. Hi Ted,

    Thanks for this helpful review. I have not read Leithart’s book, though I have read a number of his other works, and I have met him a time or two and sat at dinner with him. He possesses an irenic personality and is quite easy to converse with. I understand that he and Hauerwas are scheduled to speak at a conference in California sometime soon about the book. I have a friend who is in grad school in Scotland who is coming back to the US to attend the conference and he studied under Leithart at New St. Andrews College in Idaho. I have a feeling, however, that my friend is more sympathetic to Hauerwas. Not yet having read Yoder, my sense is that many writers who reference Yoder seem to believe that Yoder renders all politics irrelevant to the kingdom task. However, what little I know of him leads me to believe that he very much believed that Jesus’ ethical teaching should be the primary focus of politics for the Christian (though not top-down power-of-the-sword politics), and that when the community of faith embodies the politics of Jesus, it shakes the world. Would that be a fair summation of that particular part of Yoder’s thought?

    1. Thanks, Jay. Your acquaintance with Leithart interests me. I have heard from several sources about his “irenic personality.” I am very curious about his college in Idaho and the movement that college and his church are part of. I don’t get the sense that that system as a whole is very irenic.

      I think you are exactly right in your summary of Yoder’s perspective. I truly do think the crux of things in these debates is the meaning of “politics” (which, of course, for Yoder [and me] is determined by one’s definition of “Jesus”).

      I’m looking forward to conversation when you do get a chance to read Yoder.

  4. It’s probably worth going back to Leithart’s 2003 book Against Christianity (Canon Press) in which he spends four chapters providing a cryptic yet fair account of the radical christian position in the spirit of Kierkegaard ending with a chapter entitled “For Constantine”. It was an intriguing read which left me trying to work out how he got from Chapters 1-4 and then produced Chapter 5.

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