In these post-Christendom, post-imperial, post-colonial, anti-capitalist times it is unsurprising that we are uncomfortable with the notion that the conversion of the Roman empire under Constantine was somehow an appropriate fulfilment of New Testament expectations regarding the reign of God.
For mainstream evangelicalism, of course, the rise and fall of empires is no more than a distraction from the central kingdom task of saving souls. Someone had to put Jesus to death, so it might as well have been the Romans. But towards the other end of the political-religious spectrum many are convinced that the apostles were anti-imperial demagogues before their time—well, at least, covert anti-imperial demagogues.
A concluding chapter to a collection of essays on the New Testament and empire, however, deftly thrusts a stick into the spokes of the fast-peddling scholarly enthusiasm for anti-imperialist re-readings.
The book is called simply Empire in the New Testament, edited by Stanley Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall. The first two essays consider empire in the ancient near east from an Old Testament perspective. The remaining essays all essentially pursue Warren Carter’s line that the “Roman Empire comprises not the New Testament background but its foreground” (90), arguing in different ways that the narrative of Jesus’ death, resurrection and enthronement amounts to a direct challenge to or subversion of imperial power.
In his response in the final chapter Gordon Heath looks at the attitude of the early church fathers towards empire. He approaches the issue not as a biblical scholar but as a historian—and I would suggest, on reflection, that a major part of the problem with New Testament interpretation at the moment is that it is being done by theologians and not by historians.
Heath thinks not only that the anti-imperial orientation of the New Testament has been overstated but also that there is a strong element of support for the empire in the writings of the early fathers that must call into question the view that Constantine was a massive aberration.
The typical “decline paradigm” in church history is that the church lost its pristine purity after Emperor Constantine’s profession of faith and the subsequent Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. As noted above, contemporary scholars assume and claim that the New Testament writers were opposed to empire. But were the earliest Christians as anti-empire as recent scholars claim? And was the supportive posture towards the empire after Constantine that much of a shift from the attitudes of the earliest church fathers about the empire? This response argues that, if the church fathers are any indication, in both cases the answer is no. (262)
He suggests that the widespread use of military metaphors in early Christian writings indicates that “there was not an outright rejection or condemnation of Roman imperial military life” (264). The early church fathers appear to have been in two minds about military service—and in any case, the refusal to shed blood was not a rejection of empire as such. There is plenty of evidence that they believed the emperor to have been ordained by God. Irenaeus argued—against the Gnostic demonization of worldly powers—that earthly rule as they knew it “has been appointed by God for the benefit of nations. Cyprian prayed for the success of imperial armies. Origen argued that Christians exercised a “priesthood”, engaging in spiritual warfare on behalf off the empire. “In this regard,” Heath remarks, “there was a co-ordination between the pax Romana and the pax Christiana” (267).
Tertullian, who was more radical than most, believed that Christians should pray for the empire because it was holding back a “mighty shock impending over the whole earth”:
We have no desire, then, to be overtaken by these dire events, and in praying that their coming may be delayed, we are lending our aid to Rome’s duration. (Tertullian, Apol. 32)
Where Tertullian drew the line was at the point where reverence for the emperor became idolatry. He is happy to argue in his Apology 33 that “on valid grounds I might say Cæsar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him”. But he insists:
I place him in subjection to one I regard as more glorious than himself. Never will I call the emperor God, and that either because it is not in me to be guilty of falsehood; or that I dare not turn him into ridicule; or that not even himself will desire to have that high name applied to him.
At the same time, the early fathers believed that God would judge Rome, not least for acts of violence committed against his people. “Cyprian echoed these sentiments when he declared that the certainty of future divine vengeance made the Christians patient in the midst of persecution” (272).
But the clearest resistance to empire in the early church came in the form of martyrdom, and here Heath accepts the leading conclusion of the preceding chapters: “the New Testament writers challenged the imperial authority’s claims of ultimate loyalty, and in this regard were successful in inculcating convictions that would lead to the martyrdoms of the second, third and fourth centuries”. But the point to grasp is that it is idolatrous imperialism, not imperialism per se, that provokes this extreme form of Christian opposition.
What is noteworthy is that while we may see these refusals to con- fess Caesar as Lord as examples of anti-empire sentiment (and certainly the Roman authorities did), the church fathers did not. As Swift notes, the critical issue for the early Christians was not imperial power, but the issue of idolatry. And when “the issue of idolatry was solved at the time of Constantine … the principal source of opposition to the state was removed.” (275)
From his survey of the early fathers Heath draws four conclusions regarding the relationship between church and empire (275-79).
- The church fathers “continued the trajectory of the New Testament writers when they unanimously refused to worship any Lord but Jesus”, but this should not be “confused with an anti-empire attitude”.
- The fathers express a “remarkable degree of sympathy for the empire”, though this was always in tension with their rejection of violence and idolatry. Heath comments here on the tendency of modern interpreters to read “late twentieth century anti-imperial sentiments” back into the New Testament writings.
- With regard to Paul’s notorious exhortation to submit to the governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7 Heath suspects that the church fathers “would have been quite surprised at our inability to see the relative benefits of Roman rule”.
- Contrary to the prevailing post-Christendom view that Constantinianism amounted to a disastrous reversal of early Christian ideals, Heath suggests that the conversion of the empire “was not so far-fetched or such a radical departure from earlier years”. Again quoting from L.J. Swift’s The Early Fathers on War and Military Service, he writes:
In fact, much of what was necessary for a Christian empire was expressed long before Constantine: belief in a divinely appointed emperor, obedience to the state expected, support for imperial victories on the battlefield, and the conviction that there was a providential role for the state to benefit the church. As Swift notes, “The change that occurred [with Constantine’s conversion] represents a major shift rather than a reversal in Christian thinking, a shift that was made possible by earlier ambiguities and disagreements concerning the use of coercion and made necessary by the altered political circumstances in which Christians now found themselves.” (278-79)
This general argument, I think, lends some support to my contention that in historical effect the main arc of New Testament eschatology lands at the conversion of the empire.