Over at The Anxious Bench David Swartz of Asbury University calls our attention to an ongoing debate within evangelicalism over whether the earliest Christians were pacifists. Much of this debate surrounds the 2010 publication of Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. It seems that many pacifist-minded anti-Constantinians are rushing into print to counter Leithart's argument, which is directed against neo-Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder and his disciples.
Swartz sorts it all out for us. Here is a taste:
The rebuttal to Leithart is on. The book immediately sparked lively conversations online here and here andhere and here. The October 2011 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review offered quick and substantive responses from four critics. John Nugent argued, in a theological vein, that God calls his people away from imperial identities—whether that is Roman, German, or American—to lives ‘of vulnerability, trust, and service to all those created in God’s image.” Alan Kreider offered a historical criticism, contending that Leithart’s sources on Christian participation in the military were sparse and questionable compared to evidence against involvement in state-sponsored violence. Constantine’s reign did indeed signal a fundamental shift: “from the gestalt of early Christianity to another gestalt—Christendom.” Responding in the same MQR issue to this battery of criticism, Leithart was unrepentant. “Because Christ is king,” he wrote, “kings should be Christians and exercise their earthly dominion in a righteous manner.” Leithart raised the stakes theologically. “The rub,” he declared, is that “we do not agree on the Gospel.”
The debate continues as a small avalanche of books rolls off the press. Last year Ron Sider released The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment. Also in 2012 Wheaton professor George Kalantzis published Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service. And now Goshen College’s John Roth, author of Choosing Against War, is releasing a more direct rebuttal of Leithart entitled Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder, and the Constantinian Debate. It is an edited volume featuring an impressive lineup of Anabaptist theologians and ethicists including Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Thiessen Nation. Together, these books argue, in the words of Kalantzis, against “recent scholarship [that] accepts as axiomatic that there was ambivalence among the earliest Christians. . . . I do not believe that such a conclusion is borne by the literary evidence.” They marshal writings by Pliny the Younger, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Lactantius, and others. Jesus Christ, they say, inaugurated “a new call to non-violence, unrecognizable by the culture around them, for it took the form of civil disobedience as the mark of a transnational community bound together with the bonds of baptism. A community that honored Caesar by disobeying his commands and receiving upon their bodies the only response a state based on the power of the powerful could meet—an imitation of Christ.” The bottom line: “With remarkably univocity they speak of participation in the Christian mysteries as antithetical to killing, and the practices of the army.”