Defending Constantine

Church and Empire

By C.H.Featherstone, Thursday, March 17, 2011

One of the things Pete Leithart is trying to do with his book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, is to question Mennonite John Howard Yoder’s ideas on the “Constantinian Deal,” the arrangement between the church and the imperial state that Emperor Constantine is supposed to embody.

Leithart doesn’t directly question Yoder’s theology. Rather, he says Yoder gets the history of the early church wrong, and the nature of the “Constantinian Deal.” Leithart states at the end of chapter 11: “At every point Yoder can point to evidence to support his claims, and at times he provides a provocative new framework for addressing a question. As I demonstrate in the following chapters, however, his claims are, as historical claims, sometimes questionable, sometimes oversimplified to the point of being misleading, sometimes one-sided, and sometimes simply wrong.” If Yoder “got Christian history wrong, that sets a question mark over his theology.”

I do not yet quite know what it is that Leithart is attempting to do with his book. It has been a fascinating read, and I am just about to start with chapter 12, “Pacifist Church?” Leithart outlines what is at stake today theologically and ethically at the end of chapter 11:

Still, it was an empire, and there’s the rub. If it an empire, no matter how Christian the emperor might be, it is not good.

So, at least, is the widespread opinion among Christian thinkers. Yoder and other theological critics of Constantine have three main criticisms of Constantine and Constantinianism with regard to his imperialism. First and foremost, Constantinianism simply is the identification of nation or empire with the purposes of God. By misidentifying the location of God’s action in history–which Christianity assigns to the church, but Constantinianism assigns to the price, the empire or the nation–Constantinians operate on the premise “the one nation or people of government can represent God’s cause in opposition to other peoples who, being evil, need to be brought into submission.” [Leithart is quoting Yoder.] This is ecclesiological and eschatological “heresy”–ecclesiological because the church gets absorbed into some worldly system, eschatological because the eschatological community, the church, gets absorbed into the realm of this world (empire) and because the eschatological order is dragged forward into the present age. As a result of the collapse of the church’s independent identity and [merger] of Romanitas with Christianitas, the mission of the church was, after Constantine, profoundly distorted.

I think Leithart sums things up well here, even if he doesn’t agree with this. At best, nationalism confuses where God acts in the world, and how God acts — in the nation, through acts of national glory. Acts of national violence and sacrifice become in and of themselves redemptive, and are viewed that way. (A good example of this is the e-mail making the rounds equating the sacrifice of American soldiers for “freedom” with the sacrifice of Jesus for salvation.) At its worst, nationalism is idolatry, a false religion that substitutes the nation for God as God. Granted, Yoder is a Mennonite, a theologian in a church that has significant problems with the state and a church which is rooted in the Radical Reformation, which itself was almost militantly anti-statist. (Lutheranism could use a great deal more anti-statism, and could stand to learn a thing or three from the radicals, as Lutherans are far too comfortable with the state, its means and ends.)

This is especially an issue with Americans, who as a powerful people convinced of and obsessed with their virtue and giving their nation-state an almost religious significance (a key element of most Conservative American Christian churches is the belief that God has formed a covenant with the United States of America — a covenant for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever), are inclined to view their nation and its purposes as synonymous with that of God’s. The United States of America isn’t so much a a nation as it is a confessional church (our creed is the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address)* with a flag and an army. It has been my experience that all God and Country “Christians” tend to put country first, as if God only exists to legitimize the actions of the state. Especially in the making of war and the enforcing of laws.

Progressives are not immune to this. The whole notion of progressive politics is one in which the nation-state still comes first. The nation is the sanctified community of God in which the call for the poor is expressed, in which justice is to be realized, in which compassion shown. The United States of America is the entity to which God speaks when God demands justice and mercy. The nation, for progressives, is still a confessional church with a flag and an army.

I cannot, and will not, speak to the nationalism of others for two very important reasons. First, Americans are uniquely powerful as a people and a nation, and thus are able to act upon our deluded fantasies of self-righteousness in ways others are not. I do not know how the people of Uruguay would act if they were powerful, but they aren’t, and so their nationalism is not so likely to beguile them or lead them into acts of mass destruction.

Second, I’m an American, and the only nationalism I am compelled to support is that of my country. (Though some would insist I also support Israeli nationalism.) So it’s going to be the nationalism I will criticize most harshly.

# # #

* Actually, there’s more to the American “creed” than that (Supreme Court rulings, for example, some speeches and essays), and the political dispute between “right” and “left” in this country is essentially a theological dispute over hermeneutics, how one reads, interprets and synthesizes ideals and promises about government from the credal documents. or or

Permanent link to this article:

1 comment

  1. No, I don’t mind you cross posting these at all! Thank you for doing so!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.