Peter Leithart: Christian Empire, Christian Mission

Tue, 25/01/2011 - 16:05

In a chapter on “Christian Empire, Christian Mission” in Defending Constantine Peter Leithart challenges the view of John Howard Yoder—widely accepted amongst modern theologians if not amongst historians—that Constantinianism was a fundamental departure from the intention of Jesus and the New Testament. Leithart’s analysis suggests that it is not so far-fetched to see a theologically coherent development, embodied in the missional self-understanding of the early church, between the initial New Testament impetus and the eventual merger of church and state.

1. To my mind Leithart rather plays down the negative judgment of the New Testament on Greek-Roman paganism. It is not simply that in Revelation 13 the “bestial empire has turned demonic” (280). The notion that God will judge the pagan oikoumenē is quite widely indicated, not least in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Nevertheless, he is right to argue that the anti-imperialism of the New Testament is often over-stated: indeed, what we find is something that often looks much more like collaboration.

2. Subsequent Christian writers were in no doubt about the attendant evils of empire, idolatry and violence being foremost among them. Leithart quotes Tertullian (Apology 25): “the sacrileges of the Romans are exactly as many as their trophies; their triumphs over gods as many as over races; their spoils in war as many as the statues still left of captured gods”. But Tertullian, who preceded Constantine by a century, also wrote that “a Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome”, and expressed his commitment to the well-being of the empire “so long as the world shall stand—for so long as that shall Rome continue” (280-81).

3. Leithart follows W.H.C. Frend’s argument that Tertullian, while critical of Roman injustices and some outstandingly bad emperors, nevertheless upheld the ideal of a “Christian empire”. As Frend states: “Only when it turned from Jupiter to Christ would Rome deserve to become eternal” (282). Leithart finds evidence not only in Tertullian but also in Origen and Melito of Sardis that from as early as the second century Christians were beginning to imagine—unsurprisingly—the possibility of a Christianized Rome.

4. Yoder maintains that in the centuries after Constantine most mission work was carried out by a heterodox church. Leithart argues against this that although Constantine “envisioned a universal empire united in confession of the Nicene Creed”, he did not expect it to come about by means of “annexation into the Roman empire”. Rather he “seems instead to have envisioned a Christian commonwealth” (288). In the end, ironically, the conversion of the empire led to a loss of imperial identity and was a major factor in the decline of Roman power: “It loosened the bonds that many Romans felt to the empire, even as it strengthened their bonds to another city, another kingdom, one that spilled far over the limits of the empire” (292).

What the chapter suggests is that alongside the church’s opposition to Rome as empire corrupted by its worship of false gods, including the false gods of war, there was an early—perhaps a very early—sense that the empire might instead be ruled by Christ. There are profound tensions at work here, but it is not clear that they are to be resolved simply by repudiating Constantinianism in favour of what Yoder called a “Jeremian ecclesiology”.

The argument here becomes very interesting. In Yoder’s view the proper model for the church’s relation to empire is to be found in Jeremiah’s instructions to the diaspora community in Babylon:

Jews were to “seek the salvation of the culture” of Babylon by accepting their dispersion as a call to mission. They were to retain their separate identity by adherence to a peripatetic moral and liturgical life—they defined themselves by a “text which can be copied and read anywhere,” centered their worship on “reading and singing the texts,” established places of worship without priesthoods wherever ten households gathered, maintained their international unity by “intervisitation, by intermarriage, by commerce, and by rabbinic consultation,” found the “ground floor of identity” in “the common life, the walk, halakah,” and confounded kings and emperors “with the superior wisdom and power of the one authentic God.” There was no “Jewish emperor,” and they were not to hope for one; their leaders might be in king’s palaces, but it would be as “intermediaries” between “the community and the Gentiles.” (294)

This is an “invigorating” vision, as Leithart notes; and as “a historical thesis, it accurately describes the experience of the church in the first three centuries” (295). It is even a “key vision that should guide the twenty-first-century Christian response to empire in a world after Christendom”. But it does not tell the whole story. Jeremiah hoped for a renewed Davidic dynasty; Daniel prayed for a return from exile; there is no criticism of the programme of Ezra and Nehemiah; and Isaiah ‘goes so far as to designate the temple-building Persian emperor Cyrus as Yahweh’s “Christ” and “shepherd” (296). The biblical vision does not leave the people in perpetual exile.

I suspect that Leithart will explore the implications of this response to Yoder’s dismissal of the “standard account” in his final chapter on “Rome Baptized”. But I will note for now that it lends support to an argument that I have put forward a couple of times, which is that the people of God go through painful transition—through exodus, through exile, through persecution, through marginalization—in order to arrive at a renewed expression of corporate “new creation” existence. This diagram, taken from “Post-Christendom and the global church”, illustrates the sequence, but the point was also made in response to Alan Hirsch’s argument that the existence of the people of God is necessarily “liminal” (see “We have to go back, but not to square one”).

Christendom, arguably, in its limited, imperfect, and therefore quite realistic fashion, was an attempt to embody that “new creation” existence on an imperial scale. It was for that reason, I would suggest, a vindication of the early church, which suffered Roman persecution for the sake of the eventual demonstration that Christ was Lord and judge not merely over the emerging churches but over the oikoumenē. This, I think, was the missional purpose of these exceptional communities, which embodied in themselves the future rightness—the future public vindication—of Israel’s God.


Andrew, thanks for your labor on this site. They are very thought provoking.

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