Response to Timothy J. Furry

See also Review of Peter Leithart’s, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom

[1] I am grateful to Timothy Furry for his careful and generous review of my book, and to the Rev. Michael Shahan for the opportunity to offer a brief response. Since Furry’s main criticisms concern my (mis)treatment of Yoder, I focus my attention there, doing my best to keep my rhetoric under control. I take up Furry’s criticisms in the order he presents them.

[2] First, theology and history. In my book, I claimed that Yoder’s theology is “deeply bound up with an account of Christian history” and thus if the history is wrong it “sets a question mark over his theology” (Defending Constantine, p. 254). This does not imply that Yoder believes we “must get our history right before we do our theology,” as Furry characterizes my argument. It is simply to say that history and theology are almost impossible to disentangle, in Yoder’s work more than in many theologians’. To the specific point: “Constantinianism” plays a massive role in Yoder’s theology, and it is an historical (and theological!) phenomenon. Demonstrating the fragility of major features of Yoder’s account of early church history drives a wedge or two into the fissures in his theology, though I agree that historical arguments do not make the whole edifice crumble.

[3] Furry claims that for Yoder theology is “first philosophy” and therefore “logically precedes historical inquiry” (12). I wonder if that is accurate. For myself, I do not say that theology “logically precedes” history, since Christian theology centers on the Son of God incarnate in history. If every historical account implies a theology, it is equally true that every theological account implies a history. Theology is not a foundation for an account of history; it is that account. In my reading, Yoder, Barthian that he was, worked with similar assumptions about the mutual embedding of history and theology.

[4] Second, Marcionism. Furry is not alone in charging that I bandy about the “Marcionite” charge so recklessly that I knock vases and delicate figurines off the mantelpiece. The critics have a point. I have been introduced to Yoder’s extensive writings on the Old Testament only since writing Defending Constantine through the work of John Nugent. Nugent makes it clear that Yoder understands Jesus’ teaching on non-violence as the fruition of Israel’s history. According to Nugent, Yoder’s aim was deeply anti-Marcionite, as he aimed to overcome the dichotomy between Old and New and demonstrate their unity. Were I to rewrite the last chapter of my book, I would make use of that material. Still, I am not convinced by Yoder’s treatment of the Old Testament history leading to Jesus. I have recently dealt with this at more length in a response to several reviews of my book in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, and I repeat only a few points here.

[5] Yoder takes the Exodus story as normative for Israel, and the lesson is, Israel need “do nothing” to be delivered from slavery or see their enemies laid low. Yahweh will do it. That is a fair description of the Exodus, but it is not a constant of Israel’s history. If anything, as the Old Testament progresses, Israel is called to take more responsibility for her own protection and order, rather than less. At Sinai, Yahweh gives detailed commandments to govern Israel’s social and economic life, but Israel’s kings, though expected to study Torah (Deuteronomy 17), are not provided with a blueprint for Constitutional Monarchy from the mountaintop. In the exilic and post-exilic period, further, Israel becomes more dependent than ever on imperial patronage and protection, and, if Luke’s account is to be believed, the early Christians are also regularly protected by Roman officials and soldiers. The Biblical accounts, both Old and New, undermine Yoder’s and Nugent’s simplistic contrast of “top-down, coercive” Constantinianism with “bottom-up, nonviolent” faithfulness.

[6] Third, on pacifism and passivity. My reference to passivity in Defending Constantine was not intended to characterize pacifism per se and as a whole, but was a response to Yoder’s specific argument from the “do nothing” stance that Israel takes in the Exodus. I acknowledge that pacifism is not passivity. Pacifists aim to obey the Sermon on the Mount, which, they know, is not a manifesto of non-resistance but a demand for effective Christlike resistance. Pacifists make an essential contribution to public discourse when they creatively explore non-violent responses to threats. Precisely because they do not endorse passivity, they keep just war advocates honest, especially about the criterion of “last resort.”

[7] Finally, on liberalism. I agree with Furry that secular liberalism is one of the greatest threats to the church, and I would be (somewhat) relieved to see the church full of votaries of the Order of St. Stanley. Implicit in my critique of Yoder, however, is my conviction that for all their anti-liberalism they have not escaped liberalism. There is an incoherence in the work of Hauerwas, Yoder, and others who would defend the church as polis but reject the idea of a Christian civilization and a Christian political order. Hostility to Christendom is hostility to social consensus, but this hostility amounts to an attack on the church herself. As Oliver O’Donovan has argued, modern fears that all social consensus is coercive are based on “a radical suspicion of society as such and the agreements that constitute it.” Suspicion about “society as such” and the inherently “coercive” nature of consensus also rules out the possibility of the church: “If any social agreement is potentially coercive and to be justified only by the needs of the civil order, then the agreements which constitute the church, with which many disagree, are coercive and unjustifiably so” (Desire of Nations, p. 222). Even if exception is made for the church, opposition to consensus implies that societies outside the church cannot have an overarching narrative except through coercion. But that implies, in turn, that “worldly” society is impervious to the gospel, that it is unchangeably and permanently secular, violent, dominated by the libido dominandi. And that, of course, is liberalism. To put it provocatively, the choice is between secular liberalism and some version of Christendom.

Peter J. Leithart

Peter J. Leithart is the Senior Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho.