Saturday, August 22, 2009

Musings on 'Constantinianism'

A few days ago I was reading Shane Claiborne's inspiring book, The Irresistible Revolution. I love Shane. He's a great guy doing really good things in the world and for the church. But as a historian of early Christianity and as a theologian, I had to sit up in my Amtrak coach seat a bit when I read this footnote on page 106:
For many, the fourth-century reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, marks a significant point in church history. With the messy marriage of imperial power and the Christian cross, the Jesus movement shifted from persecuted to persecutor. Constantine flung open the door of the church to the rich and powerful, but it was at a great cost. Repentance, rebirth, and conversion were exchanged for cheap grace, and the very identity of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus was lost. People joined the church in droves, but Christian disciples were hard to come by.
This is a sentiment common to many young theologians, especially students. But it is marvelously simplistic. That should not need saying, and yet it does. Certainly the Edict of Toleration, and the later complete approbation of Christianity by Constantine is one of the most (if not the most) pivotal time in the history of Christianity in the world. Just as certainly 'the marriage of imperial power and the Christian cross' was 'messy'. Can we be so certain that cheap grace abounded, or that 'true' disciples of Jesus were in short supply? Can we be so sure that Eusebius' assessment of the triumph of Christianity is not just as accurate? Without Constantine would Christianity have gone the way of our Eastern (monophysite) brothers and sisters (for which, see Philip Jenkins wonderful new book, The Lost History of Christianity)? Would we have Bibles to lead us into the simple Way?

All of this ignores one simple fact: the churchis not ever and always bound to one form, not even the forms of the earliest communities. We have enough information about the misunderstandings of the original Twelve in the gospels, and the infelicities of certain Christians (even Peter and the agents of James) from Paul's letters, to know that the earliest communities were not perfect in the way, either, and that there was plenty of power-grabbing even then (in Corinth, for instance). Neither did it shy away from imperial language (kyrios, basileia, oikonomia) to describe its purposes and goals. This was not anti-imperial rhetoric, but counter-imperial rhetoric. Constantine was merely fulfilling the language used by the earliest communities by attempting to realize that kindgom on earth. Although that was perhaps a foolishly conceited move, 'constantinianism' was not an Antichristic act of evil, so much as a (perhaps ill-devised, ill-advised) radical gesture of faith. Talk about sinning boldly!

More importantly still, we should not forget that although it looks significantly different both from the Gospel-Acts portrait of the earliest communities and from the communities of ordinary radicals today, Jesus still showed up, and the people in the churches were still Christians--ugly, sinful, redeemed, beautiful Christians. Repentance, rebirth, and conversion were actually replaced with repentance, responsibility, and confession. Who are we to judge so quickly the unusual decisions of Christians from uncommon and unfamiliar times?

Why is this at all important? We American Christians (along with all 'first-world' Christians) live in Constantinian times, whether we like it or not, and we have inherited the same responsibilities with which they were saddled. We have political, economic, and social power. We must decide what to do with it. Will we bury it, hide it in a hole in the ground like the unwise servant (Matt 25.24-29), or will we sin boldly, learning from the mistakes of our Byzantine Roman forbears? Their problems are our problems (complacency, the reconciliation of power and love, the threats of social collapse and its implications for the faith). We need to acknowledge the Constantinian church because we cannot go back to Acts, but we must not repeat the sins of Constantinian church. If we fear and ignore the Constantinian church by our maledictions upon her, it may indeed be our fate to become her, with all of her many sins.


millinerd said...

You're not alone.

Tony said...

It was not Constantine but Theodosius who made Christianity the imperial religion (in the 380s, way after Constantine's time, and after an attempt by Julian the Apostate to restore paganism in the empire). Constantine was responsible for its toleration in the so-called Edict of Milan; and it is true that the Church became a privileged entity during his rule. But Constantine retained some of the trappings of paganism (he kept the title "Pontifex Maximus" for example) and allowed the pagan deities to exist.

Andy said...

Thank you for cleaning up the details. This is all, of course, true. My point is that the "trappings of paganism" (though I might question your choice of the word 'pagan' here) had already long since found their way into Christianity, and that those 'imperial' Christians should not therefore be judged as inauthentic or unfaithful Christians by whatever standard we choose now to use. Although Constantine certainly used Christianity to his own designs, I find it as implausible that he somehow 'corrupted' Christianity (either by not being an authentic Christian himself or by simply being ignorant of the effects his approbation [which need not be official to be actual] of Christianity would generate), as Reimarus' conjecture that the apostles stole the body of Jesus and published a bold-faced lie that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The imperialization of Christianity (if we can so speak) began long before Constantine, and continued long after him--indeed, as you point out, it was not official until Theodosius. I have many problems with the simplistic reduction of Christianity's political problems to the shoulders and administration of Constantine, which then serves to generate an entire anti-empire (whatever that means in our current context) theological matrix from which is developed what I believe to be an incompletely responsible Christian ethic. I hope you agree.

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