Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow. This is the first time I've decided to intentionally wait over two months before reviewing a book.
To get all the boring yet essential stuff out of the way: Leithart is brilliant. This is not really news to any of my classmates; it's like saying "Obama is president." Yeah. We know that. But to those of you who haven't had the privilege of taking Theology from the guy who was being published in theological journals before I was born and would still manage to smoke me in basketball, allow me to inform you: Leithart is brilliant. Secondly, he's not lazy, and not only has he written about as many books as I've read, but he reads a few thousand per week and never forgets a word of them. This is the only explanation. I think he's a vampire. Or at least the Count of Monte Cristo.
I distinctly remember one all-night study group that I had in which we, foolish delinquents that we were, walked past Leithart's office to go get coffee at midnight. He was sitting there instructing his computer on the finer points of supra vs. infralapsarianism and its effects upon the reconciliation of the soteriological and ecclesiological disparities in Augustin's De Trinitate and City of God (or playing minesweeper; it's really hard to say), and, when our study group finally realized that we had no hope of remembering which route was taken by Darius and which by Xerxes and had settled for the somewhat less productive task of drawing a fleet of planes bombing the very accurately detailed (hail Everardus) British Isles, we decided to go for a walk to clear our heads. This was about two am, and Leithart was still in his office, either in the running for the theological equivalent of the nobel prize or setting a new record time for the "experienced" category. When we walked by his office again at four, he was still there, without appearing to have moved, but wearing a different shirt and tie: he had gone home, slept, showered and come back in to school between two and four am. He then led morning prayer at six-thirty, which was when I decided to give up on life and start taking my computer games more seriously.
Anyway, this book is by Leithart, which is a very good thing. However, even his tremendous ethos (think reputation) may not manage to drive so much as the title through the emotional antagonism that the vast majority of the church has toward Constantine. I had no such hesitation, as, on the one hand, I don't believe that Shakespeare is Shakespeare, or that AIDS is caused by an STD, or that our last president was stupid, or (no stoning me allowed) that our current one is evil, and on the other hand, I could easily believe that Leithart and Constantine were good friends back in the day, when Leithart was young and foolish, so I was eager to believe the best of Constantine. Plus he has an awesome name. However, I and my kiddie-pool enthusiasm weren't quite prepared for the tsunami of Leithart's nearly exhaustive knowledge of the subject. In some ways, this book reminded me of his Brazos commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, in which half of the book is spent interacting with other authors of differing opinions. There is no shortage of authors antagonistic toward Constantine, charging him with everything from brilliant and cynical statesmanship to being a rather dense tool of the devil to having extremely poor penmanship, and Leithart has to spend almost the entire book exhuming him so as to exonerate him before he got to the dessert: the last chapter: the baptism of the world.
I'll not even attempt to summarize in a book review what took a man such as Leithart an entire book to lay a foundation for, and forty pages to expound. Allow me to simply say this: I'm not actually as twitterpated about Leithart as I make myself out to be. I believe him to be tremendously brilliant, but there are actually several points upon which, I flatter myself, I disagree with him. Probably I don't even understand the issues that I disagree about, and lack the intelligence to comprehend, let alone defend my position, but so be it; I can only do what I can with what I was given, though I'm usually too busy eating kettle chips and reading Dilbert to do even that, so I operate on a different plane than men such as Leithart. However, this book was a sledgehammer. Had I loathed Leithart's very existence (which is impossible to do once you've met Smith, or at least heard him play piano), I still would have been thoroughly shaken. Had I ignored every argument that he made to lay the foundation for his final argument, I still would have been stunned by the breadth and the implications of it.
All of this to say that Leithart's Defending Constantine had a greater impact upon me than any other book I've read this year, and opened an entirely new way for me to view the world. It is a tremendous book, and very well worth the read.
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