Posts tagged with: Orthodox Church

Since its inception, the Journal of Markets & Morality has encouraged critical engagement between the disciplines of moral theology and economics. In the past, the vast majority of our contributors have focused on Protestant and Roman Catholic social thought applied to economics, with a few significant exceptions. Among the traditions often underrepresented, Orthodox Christianity has received meager attention despite its ever-growing presence and ever-increasing interest in the West.

This call for publication is an effort to address this lacuna by engaging such a rich and long-standing tradition. Submissions are welcomed in a variety of forms: they could be historical, critically engaging the thought and context of one or more particular figures influenced by the Orthodox Christian tradition (such as Vladimir Solovyov, Sergey Bulgakov, Nicholas Berdyaev, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) or assess the impact of significant events in the history of the Orthodox Church; they could be exegetical, seeking to carefully interpret often perplexing texts of various writers or to bring to the fore the economic thought of various official documents such as The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church or various Patriarchal encyclicals from any of the Orthodox Patriarchates; they could be comparative, comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between Orthodox economic thought and other Christian traditions; or they could be constructive, seeking to synthesize the thought of various writers and documents into a coherent and relevant whole or seeking to creatively engage economic problems and their popular solutions from the point of view of Orthodox theology and anthropology.

For example, is Vladimir Solovyov’s critique of abstract individualism and collectivism in The Justification of the Good an Orthodox analogue or precursor to economic personalism? How economically tenable are Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s various ecological, social, and economic statements? To what extent does The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church encourage a freer and more virtuous society? Does Orthodox theology significantly engage the natural law tradition? Could the economic thought of sometimes not-so-Orthodox writers of the Eastern tradition be improved upon by being adapted to a more historically Orthodox perspective? Given the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church, to what extent can one form Orthodox social and economic thought based upon the historic canons and councils of the Church?

In addition to articles, the Journal of Markets & Morality also welcomes translation proposals for our Scholia and Status Quaestionis sections, early modern or premodern texts for the former and more recent texts of the last few centuries for the latter, preferably those which have never before been translated into English. Indeed, to this day our only Orthodox contribution to the Journal has been a translation of Sergey Bulgakov’s “The National Economy and the Religious Personality” by Krassen Stanchev for our Status Quaestionis section, Volume 11, Issue 1 (Spring 2008).

For more information, or to submit a paper or translation proposal, see our submission guidelines.

The Journal of Markets & Morality is a peer-reviewed academic journal published twice a year—in the Spring and Fall. The journal promotes intellectual exploration of the relationship between economics and morality from both social science and theological perspectives. It seeks to bring together theologians, philosophers, economists, and other scholars for dialogue concerning the morality of the marketplace.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, an Orthodox Christian organization that provides information about “ancient Christianity and its deep roots in Africa,” is holding a conference Aug. 26-28 in the Detroit area. In a story in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper about the upcoming conference, a reporter interviewed a woman by the name of Sharon Gomulka who had visited an Orthodox Church several years ago on the feast day of St. Moses the Black (or sometimes called The Ethiopian). She watched “as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man.” They were reverencing the image of the saint.

“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka told the paper. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”

Well, they’re Christians as she later came to find out. Historian Christopher Dawson reminds us in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (1960) that the Church’s origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and its expansion further East, points to its universal nature:

The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.

Similarly, the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes it terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cyprian and above all St. Augustine.

While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia, under strong Oriental influence.

Dawson’s reflections should not be taken as a mere historical curiosity. This history speaks to what the Church is, and has always been. All the more reason to be alarmed at the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East — communities that have in many case been continuously rooted in these lands since Apostolic times. The Christians in Kirkuk, Iraq, have been targets of bombers in recent weeks. “This is only happening because we are Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako. “Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”

Historian Philip Jenkins in books such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (2008) has worked to deepen English-speaking Christians’ awareness of these ancient roots in places like Syria, India and China.

In a 2008 interview with, Jenkins was pessimistic about the hard-pressed Christian communities in the Middle East, whose populations are rapidly dwindling:

By far the largest change is in the Middle East, the region between Persia and Egypt. As recently as 1900, the Christian population of that whole region was almost ten percent, but today it is just a couple of percent, and falling fast. Particularly if climate change moves as rapidly as it some believe, the resulting tensions could reduce Christian numbers much further. Egypt would be the most worrying example here. Might that 1,400 year story come to an end in our lifetimes?

Europe is nothing like as serious an issue. The number of active or committed Christians certainly is declining, but the churches don’t face anything like what is happening in the Middle east. There is no plausible prospect of a Muslim regime anywhere in Western Europe, or of the recreation of the social order on the lines of Muslim law. Realistically, people of Muslim background will constitute a substantial minority of the European population, rather than a majority, and it is far from clear that most will define themselves primarily according to strict religious loyalties. European Christianity may be in anything but a healthy state, but Islam need not be its greatest cause for concern.

Matters are very different in other countries of Africa and Asia, where Muslims and Christians are in deep competition. We could imagine wars and persecutions that could uproot whole societies.

If there’s one thing that these Christian communities have experience with in the last 2,000 years, it’s wars and persecutions. Jenkins might be wrong about extinction, but there’s no question about decline. According to another estimate, the Middle East’s Christian population shrank from 20 percent to 10 percent during recent decades. Yet, the surest way to speed the decline, or realize extinction, is for the global Church to ignore the plight of their brothers and sisters in this part of the world.

More history from Jenkins, echoing Dawson:

During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.

By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy … Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.

The miraculous post-Soviet revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, all but destroyed by the end of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s, is one of the great stories of 21st Century Christianity. This revival is now focused on the restoration of church life that saw its great institutions and spiritual treasures — churches, monasteries, seminaries, libraries — more or less obliterated by an aggressively atheist regime. Many of the Church’s best and brightest monks, clergy and theologians were martyred, imprisoned or forced into exile. Yet, plans are now underway to build 200 churches in the Moscow area alone.

The Church’s renewal is set against Russia’s steep population decline and grave social ills including alcoholism, the disintegration of the family, what amounts to an open season on journalists, and an immense and growing corruption problem at all levels of government and society. Building new churches is one thing; getting believers to fill them and then effect a social transformation by following the Great Commandment will be a more difficult climb. “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved” — St. Seraphim of Sarov.

It is perhaps impossible to comprehend, without having lived through it, the depths of destruction and despair that Russia had sunk to under the Soviets. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 essay “Live Not By Lies” and you begin to comprehend, albeit at a great distance, something about a system that destroyed tens of millions of people:

Things have almost reached rock bottom. A universal spiritual death has already touched us all, and physical death will soon flare up and consume us both and our children — but as before we still smile in a cowardly way and mumble without tongues tied. But what can we do to stop it? We haven’t the strength.


The public face of the Russian church is lately, for much of the global media, an Oxford-educated bishop who is also a composer of music, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk. His web site is here. As the director of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, he is a much traveled spokesman for the largest and most influential Orthodox Church in the world with more than 150 million members. Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg included Hilarion in what he referred to as Pope Benedict’s “creative minority.”

Christianity Today deputy managing editor Timothy C. Morgan interviewed Hilarion on the bishop’s recent trip to Washington. Here’s an excerpt and, following that, some recent links to interviews where Hilarion talks about a unified Christian witness on social problems. Finally, a link to his condemnation of Stalin as a “monster.”

CT: What role can the Russian Orthodox Church play in world evangelization?

Hilarion: Christ created his church not just for private use but also for missionary purposes, and the church has a missionary imperative that must be embodied in the concrete forms of preaching and evangelizing.

Some say you can be a practicing Christian in your home and your family, but you should in no way exhibit your Christian commitments in your public life, especially if you are a politician. I believe that a Christian should be a Christian everywhere. And if he is a Christian and a politician at the same time, then his political agenda should be motivated by Christian values.

In our country, some people say the church exists in order to provide certain services to people when they need them: to baptize children, to marry couples, to organize funerals, and to do services in the church.

I believe that the role of the church is much more inclusive. For example, very often nowadays our church will publicly express positions on what’s happening in the country.

Some people ask, “Why does the church interfere? It’s not their business.” We believe that the church can express its opinion on all aspects of human life. We do not impose our opinions on the people, but we should be free to express them. And people will have to choose whether to follow or not to follow, whether to listen to what we say or to ignore it.

CT: Church leaders worldwide are challenged by secularism and Islam. Which do you see as a greater threat to global Christianity?

Hilarion: Secularism.

If we speak about Islam (and of course if we mean moderate Islam), then I believe there is the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity. This is what we have had in Russia for centuries, because Russian Islam has a very long tradition. But we never had religious wars. Nowadays we have a good system of collaboration between Christian denominations and Islam.

The picture is different in many other countries, and recently, even the European Parliament publicly recognized that Christians are persecuted and discriminated against in many countries, including in Islamic countries. This is a problem we have to address. Yet I believe that on many essential points, especially in many aspects of moral teaching, Christianity and Islam are allies, and we can cooperate in those fields.

Secularism is dangerous because it destroys human life. It destroys essential notions related to human life, such as the family. One can argue about the role of the church. One can even argue about the existence of God; we cannot prove that God exists to those who don’t want to believe that God exists. But when the difference in the world outlook touches very basic notions such as family, it no longer has to do with theological truths; it has to do with anthropological issues. And our debate with secularism is not about theology; it’s about anthropology. It’s about the present and the future of the human race. And here we disagree with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly, and we believe that it destroys something very essential about human life.

Further reading:

An alliance of faith
Moscow Patriarchate calls for strategic alliance with Catholic Church
Interview with Russia Today

Archbishop Hilarion on Christian Unity
‘We should not pretend we are close to solving this problem’
Interview with National Catholic Register

Metropolitan Hilarion thanks Catholics for their active assistance rendered to Orthodox believers abroad
Interview with Interfax

Address by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations to the Annual Nicean Club Dinner (Lambeth Palace, 9 September 2010)
Web site of the Dept. of External Relations, Russian Orthodox Church

Russian archbishop’s censure of Stalin as “a monster” makes waves
By Sophia Kishkovsky, ENI

Over the last several years I find myself more and more being drawn into conversation about religion—specifically, Orthodox Christianity—and economics. Originally, my interest in the economic side of the conversation was minimal. Embarrassing though it is to say now, I only took one economics class in college and while I got a “B” I was an indifferent student of the subject.

Thanks to personal friendships I’ve discovered the work of economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich A. Hayek—two dominant voices in the Austrian School of Economics. Even here though my interests were, initially at least, not so much in policy as methodology; unlike the quantitative and empirical approach I studied in college, the Austrian school conceives of economics more along the lines of the qualitative approach at the center of human science movement. This qualitative approach to economics has resulted in some interesting, and to my mind extraordinarily helpful and insightful, research into religion by scholars such as Laurence Iannaccone and Rodney Stark.

Among other things, the economic study of religion helps us understand why pluralism is good for religion in general but to the disadvantage of some religions in particular. Ironically, the free market in religion harms those liberal religious communities who value cultural pluralism and economic liberalism (in the contemporary American sense) but are suspicious, and even overtly hostile, to economic capitalism. On the other hand, those religious traditions that resist cultural pluralism and contemporary liberalism—but who often, though not universally—favor a free market approach to economics are the main benefactors of the free for all that characterizes the American religious landscape (see for example, Iannaccone, 1994).

Through this, circuitous route, I have lately come to an interest in economic public policy. Unfortunately such an interest is usually greeted with something less than enthusiasm—at least when (as in my case) you are an Orthodox priest. At the risk of making a gross generalization, clergy are typically as ignorant of economics and business as economists and business people are of moral theology and the ascetical tradition of the Church. Since I’m trading in stereotypes already, I would say that discussions between theologians and economists break down quickly since—intentionally or not—theologians assume economists are wicked even as economists assume that theologians are ignorant. Representatives of the two disciplines rarely understand each other because they rarely have even a basic grasp of the other academic discipline and the kinds of questions and concerns that its scholars seek to address.

This is why three small books published by the American Enterprise Institute are so welcome. The books (P. Wehner & A. C. Brooks, Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism; A. J. Pollock, Boom & Bust: Financial Cycles and Human Prosperity; S. F. Hayward, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World) are part of AEI’s Common Sense Concepts series. They’re all short—each took just an afternoon to read—introductions to basic ideas in economics. What is especially important is that they do this in a way that takes seriously Christian moral concerns. Meant primarily for college students and written from a broadly Evangelical Christian perspective, singularly and together they offer a good ethical and practical defense of democratic capitalism.

That said though a defense of the American model of democracy and of the free market, these works do not allow either politics or economics to drive the conversation. Rather both are examined soberly in light of “merely Christianity.” I think the authors would all acknowledge, as Wehner and Brooks do explicitly in their book, that “capitalism, like American democracy itself, is hardly perfect or sufficient by itself” (p. 8). Both require “strong, vital, non-economic and non-political institutions—including the family, churches and other places of worship, civic associations, and schools—to complement,” sustain and (when needed) reform them.

But this symphonia is impossible without “an educated citizenry.” Such an education must be more than technical—essential though a sound technical foundation is. To fulfill the vision sketched out in these three books assumes that we possess personally what Peter Kreeft (1992) might call the “soft” virtues “such as sympathy, altruism, compassion” as well as the “hard” virtues of “self-discipline, perseverance, and honesty.” Like technological skill, personal virtue alone is insufficient. We need not only healthy, robust and vibrant families and churches, but also a political culture that supports and abides “by laws, contracts, and election results (regardless of their outcome). Without these virtues, capitalism [and democracy] can be eaten from within by venality and used for pernicious ends.”

Why are personal virtue and the rule of law essential? Because:

…capitalism, like democracy, is part of an intricate social web. Capitalism both depends on it and contributes mightily to it. Morality and capitalism, like morality and democracy, are intimately connected and mutually complimentary. They reinforce one another; they need one another; and they are terribly diminished without one another. They are links in a golden chain (p. 9).

As both an Orthodox Christian and a social scientist, seeing democratic capitalism in this way helps me understand how the ascetical and liturgical tradition of the Church can make a contribution to American civil society.

Especially for St Maximos the Confessor and St Gregory Palamas, the ascetical struggle does not extinguish desire (i.e., self-interest) as much as does purify it. As St Augustine argues, prayer, fasting and almsgiving teach me to order rightly the different elements of my life in light of the Gospel; asceticism points me beyond myself to Christ, helps me to love Christ, and in Christ to love my neighbor. Just as asceticism purifies my desires, the Church’s liturgical tradition provides me with a sense of the larger, eschatological context within which I live my life. Apart from such an eschatological experience, I will invariably and necessarily succumb to the temptation to take and make ultimate “the cares of this life” rather than to lay them aside as we hear in the Cherubic Hymn.

If Wehner and Brooks are correct, capitalism and democracy are “part of an intricate social web.” Understanding this social network requires not only personal virtue and just laws, but the eschatological vision that we receive in the sacraments and which we constantly accept and embody in the ascetical life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Work Cited:

Iannaccone, L. R. (1994). “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5), pp. 1180-1211.

Kreeft, P (1992). Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

The following is a devotional on the meaning of Easter, or Pascha, from Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom. More from Bishop Angaelos may be found on his blog. Also see “Copts welcome Easter amid hope, fear and determination to fight for rights” on Ahram Online.

On the Resurrection

Key verses: 1 Peter 4:12-13

As we celebrate the commemoration of the glorious feast of our Lord’s Resurrection on Sunday, we must never lose sight of the fact that as victorious as this resurrection is, it would never have come about without the apparent defeat of the cross.

In looking at the first epistle of Saint Peter throughout these devotionals, I could not help paying particular attention to his message in verses 12 and 13 of chapter 4: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” This is the true essence of the Christian joy.

Bishop Angaelos

Christianity carries within itself, its message and its life a strange paradox. Our Lord insists that we are free, victorious and called to a greater life, but at the same time, over the past centuries we have seen so much persecution and affliction. How can this be victory? It is simple. It is just as St Peter said. It is within the fullness of this suffering that we are both part of and celebrate the fullness and the victory of the Resurrection.

We look around the world today and see so much conflict and unrest, and as we also look at our Christian brethren around the world we still see, even 2000 years after Christ Himself walked this earth, that there are people who are still persecuted as He was and lose their lives as He did. One might then say, ‘He is risen but they are not’ and this is what I want to reflect upon with you today. He indeed is risen, but what of those still persecuted today?

I want us to place ourselves with those disciples who ran to the tomb on Sunday morning, stooped down and looked within, only to be faced with a strange vision of angels standing within the tomb. We must also reflect on what those angels said. As the disciples looked in, the angel had a very clear question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5-6).

As Christians we must stop looking for Christ among the dead and we must start looking for victory through death. 

As Christ is risen, and as He has given us hope in that very same Resurrection, so we too must always look beyond the cross and the tomb. When our Lord spoke to his disciples, He said to them they would be sad, weep and lament, but He also said that there would be a day in which He would return to them and restore their joy, and that joy no one would ever take away (John 16:22).

He also said very honestly and openly to them, hiding nothing of what they would experience, that they should expect to find tribulation in the world, but in my own mind, he would have looked at them gently with a smile, a victorious smile, and continued, “But I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

We are the disciples of the One who has not only overcome the world, but has overcome death itself. Today let us rejoice in our suffering, knowing that this will only lead us to rejoicing in the very real resurrection, one after which there will be no more suffering, pain and persecution, but only the beauty that comes from the presence of our Lord in His glorious kingdom.

Source: Christian Publishing & Outreach

Metropolitan Jonah

Julia Duin, a veteran religion reporter, has written a profile of the embattled leader of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Jonah, for the Washington Post weekend edition. She does an admirable and fair job of not only telling us about this American-born bishop but explaining why his short tenure has sparked so much controversy within the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. (Let me bring to your attention, right away, that Jonah is our plenary speaker on June 16 at Acton University.)

The metropolitan’s outspoken stances on issues like marriage and abortion, and his desire to operate from a base in Washington, has sparked a palace revolt in the OCA. As Duin puts it:

Jonah’s move to Washington strikes at the core of the traditional Eastern Orthodox reluctance to be on the front lines of the culture wars, much less political conflicts. The religion’s 1 million American adherents, who remain split into 20 separate ethnic groups, are more likely known to the general public as sponsors of bazaars featuring Slavic or Mediterranean food, crafts and dancing than as societal firebrands.

“Orthodox Christianity tends to be heavily theological and more concerned with matters of doctrine, liturgy and belief than evangelical Protestants and certainly the conservative Christian right,” said Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a senior fellow at the Utah-based Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy. “They’re wrestling with how to find this balance between Christianity and activism, which makes it difficult for them to speak with a unified voice on social policy and foreign affairs.”

But Jonah sees American Orthodoxy at a crossroads where the choice is either to remain in ethnic enclaves and be irrelevant or jump into the stream of culture and politics and make a difference. He dreams of Orthodox Americans speaking out “as a conscience for the culture.” They would have clout in Congress, advocating for persecuted Orthodox around the world, such as the Egyptian Copts. They would stand equal with evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning and euthanasia.

Fr. Gregory Jensen, a writer for Acton News & Commentary and contributor to this blog, says the battle that Jonah is waging goes beyond polemics on “hot button” issues. On his Koinonia blog, Fr. Gregory says the real fight is whether or not the Orthodox Church will proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square. I agree with his assessment wholeheartedly.

Fr. Gregory:

Especially in the historical centers of American Orthodox experience, what is unique to the person or the parish has often been minimized if not ignored and even rejected. Our managerial approach to Church polity has historically often confused communion with conformity and consensus with capitulation to the group. And it has done so to the detriment of the individual believer (clergy AND laity), parish and diocese. To those who have become conditioned to think of Church life as a zero sum game (which more often than not means “I” lose and “they” win) an entrepreneurial approach, that is to say an unapologetic evangelical approach that embraces an explicit proclamation of the Gospel in the public square, would be terrifying. We are wrong when we think that new people, new ideas, can only come at our expense.

So I’m clear, this fear is understandable but wrong and based in a Satanic lie and must not be allowed to take hold in our hearts, in our parishes or our dioceses.

Yes, there is a power struggle in the OCA and really in all the Orthodox jurisdictions in America. I would even suggest that this conflict is being played out internationally among all the Orthodox Churches and it is happening for the same reasons we see it in America—we’ve adopted an implicit zero sum model of Church that confuses position with self-aggrandizement. But in Christ power, ecclesiastical or civil, is always in the service of others and His promise to us is that we will spread to the ends of the earth and always overcome the powers of sin and death.

Read “Metropolitan Jonah goes to Washington” in the Post.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We’ll have the Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty online later this week and you won’t want to miss it. Subscribe here. We’re previewing the issue on the PowerBlog with a book review that, because of space limitations, had to be shortened. This post publishes it in full.

Constantine and the Great Transformation

Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart (IVP Academic, 2010)

Reviewed by Johannes L. Jacobse

The argument that the lifting of the persecutions of early Christians and the subsequent expansion of the Christian faith led to a “fall” of the Christian Church is more widespread than we may believe. Academics have defended it for years. Popular Christianity, especially conservative Protestantism, takes it as a truth second only to the Gospel.

Towering over this argument is Constantine the Great. When Constantine faced the final battle that would determine if he became Rome’s new emperor, he saw a cross shining in the sky above the sun and heard the words, “By this sign conquer.” He took it to mean that divine providence chose him to be the emperor of a new and undivided Rome. His soldiers went to battle with a cross painted on their shields and won. The persecutions stopped. Christianity was the new religion of the empire.

But is the collective wisdom accurate? Is it true that the fourth century represents decline? No, argues Peter J. Leithart in his new book Defending Constantine.

Emperor Constantine (Byzantine mosaic ca. 1000 from the Hagia Sophia)

“Constantine has been a whipping boy for a very long time and still is today,” Leithart begins. The historical and theological consensus identifies Constantine with “tyranny, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, apostasy, and heresy.” Constantine, the conventional wisdom goes, was a “power hardened politician … a hypocrite who harnessed the energy of the Church for his own ends … a murderer, usurper, and egoist.”

This opinion has its roots in the work of John Howard Yoder, a prominent pacifist and “probably the most influential Mennonite theologian who ever lived,” Leithart argues. His influence is far reaching and includes such prominent names as Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University among others. “In Yoder’s telling, the Church ‘fell’ in the fourth century (or thereabouts) and has not yet recovered from that fall. This misconstrues the theological significance of Constantine … ”

Challenging Yoder’s thesis is not the only reason Leithart wrote the book but it certainly is the most compelling. Leithart believes Yoder’s pacifist preconceptions distort the historical record to such a degree that they blind us to the inherent moral power of the Christian faith to transform and elevate human culture. The pacifism of Yoder and like-minded disciples, Leithart argues in so many words, is nothing less than a debilitating emasculation of the Christian faith. (more…)