The idolatry of Christendom

Mon, 19/12/2011 - 01:44

It’s taken me a little while to get round to responding to a comment by Al Shaw regarding my argument that the main storyline of the New Testament effectively culminates in Constantine. Al writes:

One of my areas of concern is that you appear (to my mind) to place too high a view of the Constantinian moment in the history of the people of God, and even imply that it was in some sense a fulfillment of the gospel narrative of Christ’s vicory and reign over the nations.

I have addressed this very important criticism in a number of posts now, some of which are listed at the bottom of this piece. But it is an evolving argument, and I am happy to try to answer it again, though still only in a rather sketchy fashion.

1. The New Testament is written with a forward-looking perspective; its authors did not have the benefit of post-Christendom hindsight. I suggest that what they were looking forward to (in both senses of the expression) was an end to persecution, vindication for having taken the narrow and dangerous path leading to life, defeat of their enemies, the public confession of the Jesus as Lord across the classical pagan world from Jerusalem to the Atlantic, and probably the establishment of a new social order under the rule of Jesus and the martyrs. We have to be careful not to read modern disillusionment with imperial Christianity back into the New Testament. The problem that is addressed in the Bible is not empire per se but idolatrous empire—idolatrous not in some modern metaphorical sense but in the sense that the creature is worshipped instead of the creator.

2. At a colloquium with Douglas Campbell over the last couple of days my friend Chris Tilling put what I thought was a particularly useful question to Campbell and to Scott Hafemann, who had just offered a vigorous critique of Campbell’s understanding of the “righteousness of God”. Chris asked how the two “salvational-historical” accounts that we were hearing from Scott and Doug differed from each other. I have steered clear of using the “salvation-historical” label, partly because I’m unsure of its connotations within the history of research, but mainly because I don’t think that the biblical story is primarily a story of salvation. But Scott’s answer was helpful, nevertheless. He suggested that Doug’s approach minimalized the continuity between the story of Israel and the story that emerges in the New Testament whereas his own reading of—in this case—the “righteousness of God” maximalized the continuity between the old and the new. Doug seemed inclined to agree with this assessment.

It seems to me, however, that the more we highlight continuity with Judaism and the Old Testament, the more it becomes apparent that the future of the New Testament is conceived—albeit mostly in apocalyptic terms—as realistically and as historically as its past. In other words, I would argue that, whether we like it or not, the overthrow of pagan empire and the confession of Jesus as Lord to the glory of Israel’s God (cf. Phil. 2:10-11) is the proper completion of the story that begins with judgment on Babel and the summons of Abraham to be the beginning of a new humanity.

3. Al thinks that Christendom was essentially an “idolatrous development”. But I’m not sure that Christian empire was any more “idolatrous” in that sense than Jewish kingdom. Both were ambiguous representations of what it meant to be the people of God under real historical conditions. National Israel was a flawed monarchy under YHWH as king; Christendom was a flawed empire under Christ, to whom sovereignty over the nations had been delegated by YHWH. The church that has gone through the collapse of Christendom is now searching for a new “political” identity in the world under its king—and it will be no less flawed and ambiguous than what has gone before.

4. It seems to me that the tradition of dissent that runs right through Christendom effectively played the same role as the highly critical prophetic tradition in ancient Israel. It calls the people of God back to a standard of righteousness, it raises the prospect of judgment on a persistently rebellious people, and it generates enduring visions of renewal because God is faithful. The prophetic tradition never repudiated Israel as a political entity; it never sought to replace the nation that it so fiercely criticized with an “authentic” prophetic Israel. Both the Old Testament prophets and the radical counter-Christendom movements held the spiritual and moral high ground—that goes without saying. But I suggest that they did so for the sake of the whole community that claimed to live under the kingship of the creator God.

5. Al Shaw’s argument—or at least the anabaptist argument—that Christendom marked a “confusion of the nature of Christ’s kingdom and of the nature of the church” is probably too difficult for me to attempt to tease apart here. It occurs to me, though, that Christendom may be conceived as being the fulfilment of Christ’s rule over the nations without making that rule coterminous with the church. Perhaps the previous point needs to be modified slightly in a way that better preserves the distinction between the rule of Christ over the nations and the operation of the church as missional new creation.

Let me suggest tentatively that Christendom, understood as the nations of the former pagan empire that have come to confess the sovereignty of the God of Abraham and the patriarchs in the name of Jesus, should be—or should have been—clearly differentiated from the church as a benchmark of new creation worship and righteousness, as a royal priesthood for the sake of Christendom, as a prophetic community authorized to speak on behalf of the creator. This would be a way both to assert that Christendom was the fulfilment of certain key New Testament hopes regarding the status of Jesus and his followers and to deny that Christendom was the authentic people of God. This needs to be looked at more carefully, but I suspect it would conform rather closely to Jewish expectations regarding the relationship between a restored Israel and the nations.

6. None of this absolves Christendom of its sins.

Comments

Andrew - one or two comments on this.

The problem that is addressed in the Bible is not empire per se but idolatrous empire—idolatrous not in some modern metaphorical sense but in the sense that the creature is worshipped instead of the creator.

Your presentation of Christendom is that Christianity defeated idolatry in the Roman Empire. It may have defeated pagan idolatry, but did not defeat idolatry within the Empire (in the sense of eliminating it) as idolatry is defined in the NT - eg in Colossians 3:5. For Paul, the fundamental issue of idolatry is the demonic powers that lie behind it, not the outward expressions of YHWH versus false gods - since the false gods (represented in their images) were not gods at all - Galatians 4:8.

You go on to say of the Jewish kingdom and Christendom:

Both were ambiguous representations of what it meant to be the people of God under real historical conditions. National Israel was a flawed monarchy under YHWH as king; Christendom was a flawed empire under Christ, to whom sovereignty over the nations had been delegated by YHWH.

This seems to be bracketing Israel as a theocracy with Christendom as a theocracy fulfilling biblical prophecy (such as Daniel 7). I can't see any such equivalence in the NT, nor any suggestion that something like Christendom was a fulfilment of prophecy.

The problem your historical approach has created is that it denies, or at least renders ambiguous, the need to regard the teaching of the gospels as normative to future (beyond the 1st century) Christian practice. If there was no such ambiguity, there would be no question that Christendom, as defining the political set-up of Europe from Constantine onwards is not a good yardstick to be measuring the church or its pre-eminence during this period.

On the other hand, use the teaching of Christ in the gospels as a yardstick, and the church can be identified in multiple places and multiple times throughout the period, both within and without the Catholic church. The anabapists are close to the truth - though the truth is that they were not the exclusive bearers of the apostolic church mantle, by the yardstick of NT practice.

There was an interesting interview this morning by Andrew Marr with the former Canon Dean of St Paul's cathedral (who resigned during the Occupy furore), in which the latter was forcefully proposing that the church under Constantine had compromised belief in Christ, eg in the omission in the Nicene creed of the life and teachings of Christ (something that anabaptists have always pointed out). As the creed, so the church.

Also there was an interesting edition of 'In our times' (Melvyn Bragg and guests) on the early Christendom period last Thursday (Radio 4 podcast). Church and state were set against each other for much of this period, and neither, in their political forms, reflected well, if at all, on the faith they were supposedly bearing.

I simply don't think any careful analysis of the history of the period supports your interpretation. The outcome of the NT was not to be a compromised church, in the sense that the Jewish kingdom was also compromised. It was to be a church which rectified the compromises of national Israel under its monarchy. This is what we should be looking for as a fulfilment of the biblical narrative, not a tangential politico-religious project.

Colossians 3:5 actually makes quite a good synopsis of the analysis of pagan idolatry in Romans 1:19-32.

I can’t see any such equivalence in the NT, nor any suggestion that something like Christendom was a fulfilment of prophecy.

I have in mind a text such as this, which speaks of the rule over the nations that will be given to the persecuted saints, those who share in the reign of Christ:

The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. (Rev. 2:26-27)

But it also has to do, clearly, with how closely we understand the New Testament to continue along Old Testament trajectories.

If there was no such ambiguity, there would be no question that Christendom, as defining the political set-up of Europe from Constantine onwards is not a good yardstick to be measuring the church or its pre-eminence during this period.

The difference is that you take an idealistic approach to the nature of the church and I take a realistic approach. But I did differentiate in the post between Christendom as the rule of Christ over the nations and the church as a kingdom of priests, etc., within Christendom, which is much closer to your position.

So I take it you reject the Nicene creed now?

The outcome of the NT was not to be a compromised church, in the sense that the Jewish kingdom was also compromised.

Are you suggesting, then, that the church is not compromised by sin? Or are you just excluding corporate-political-social level sin?

It was to be a church which rectified the compromises of national Israel under its monarchy.

I would suggest that your ideal a-political church has simply adopted a different set of compromises. Above all it has compromised its relation to the biblical narrative, which is thoroughly political.

I think it's a bizarre take on history to regard the Roman Empire from Constantine onwards as an illustration of the victory of Jesus, and that this victory was primarily to do with the overthrow of paganism. Colossians 3:5 suggests that idolatry is more than worship of stone images, and expresses inner compulsions. Scripture also encourages us to look beyond outward forms to inner character and practice when assessing the validity of faith claims. In Revelation 13:11, the beast looked like a lamb, but spoke like a dragon, and this character issue is the problem of much that goes by the name of 'church' from Constantine onwards.  So it is entirely valid to frame the history of the church as between false and true expressions, and divergence or convergence between the two. 'Christendom' is inadequate as a carpet-bag term for all that went under the name of Christianity in this period.

I also find it slightly bizarre to take Revelation 2:6-7 as literally prescriptive for the practice of the church in the Roman Empire. Much of the conflict in the Roman Empire was a 'Christian' power struggle between church and state, rather than the victorious saints, as you describe it, ruling over the nations. If this is the NT trajectory, it is very far from anything that can be related to the teaching and practice of Jesus, who as the founder of the faith, surely has some say in the matter.

I'm not rejecting the Nicene creed, but I think it's interesting that the orthodoxy which the creed affirms seems to leave some gaping holes - and that a representative (Giles Fraser) of the church which regularly recites the creed was pointing this out. It was very convenient for the Constantine church not to insist on too close an observation of the teaching of Jesus - and I wonder where your position leaves us. How much, if any, of the teaching of Jesus should we observe - or was it only for his 1st century followers?

I find your definition of the church very confusing. On the one hand it is a kingdom of priests, which operates on one set of principles, and on the other it rules over the nations, as Christendom, where it operates on totally different principles. Even if this were true, where is that supposed rule over the nations today, if Christendom no longer exists?

It's a strange narrative you are developing, in which the church is flattened into just another form for the people of God, the Jewish kingdom having been one such form, with others maybe to come. My reading of the NT is that the church, as expressed in the NT, is the fulfilment of God's plan of the ages, the 'mystery' which was hidden but now has been revealed. I don't see anything there which suggests it is provisional, and that the Jewish kingdom was merely a predecessor, for which the church now provides just a historical alternative.

By the way, I was shocked to find I have contributed to at least 64 (now 65) separate posts and their threads on Postost since November 2009. I'm looking at whether anything I have said during these interminable exchanges is worth preserving for posterity. It's debatable. There was a brief flash of creativity when a new narrative struggled to find the light of day during an interlude in which I was sternly admonished by someone called 'Al' to keep to the rule of Strunk and White, and 'shut it'. 

Giles Fraser, the ex-Canon Chancellor of St Paul's cathedral (Start the Week/Andrew Marr -  Radio 4 19th  December) suggested that Christmas as a festival was largely an invention of the Constantine church, figuring large in the Nicene creed, encouraging church-building as monuments to its importance. In that sense, Jesus the inoffensive baby became more important to many than the Jesus of the challenging teaching and lifetsyle. These are current issues in the Occupy debate and the encampment outside St Paul's cathedral. Still, there's a place for wishing you and fellow contributors on Postost a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

 

Thanks for your response.

I shall have to ponder this further as I digest the turkey.

 

That is, if eating turkey at this time of year does not reveal all of my anti-Constantinian claims to be highly selective.... 

I appreciate Andrew's admission that this is a very complicated topic to tease apart.  Let me add another dimension:  The conversation here is assuming that the white European church (and its direct decendants) is the only church in question.  What about the rest of the world?  How much does Christendom represent them?  We're not the only game in town and are not the only history to consider.

 

Doug

My question would be: Where did the non-white European church come from? How much of it descended from New Testament Christianity by a route other than European Christendom? Who would argue that the global church today isn’t still profoundly influenced (and deceived?) by the western church?

Good questions.  I'd start by saying that the largest portion of the church in the first 700 years came from the Syriac Church of the East.  They basically evangelized from the Mongols to Ethiopia, and from Damascus to Bejing.  It's not clear if the evangelization of India (associated with the Apostle Matthew who died there) was strictly part of that church, though it probably was.  That church collapsed when the Muslims destroyed them.  At the same time there was an independent Christian tradition (not government aligned) in several pockets in Europe such as the Waldensians and eventually the Anabaptists.  These were not aligned with the European power structure, so I don't know how fair it would be to include them in Christiandom.  There is also the question of whether or not the Orthodox church would fit into the European Christiandom definition since they either followed a different and competing government (Greek and Russian) or were an independent movement with some influence by the Europeans (Ethiopean).  You also have the Coptics and similar smaller groups.  All of those churches were larger at some point in history and most of them were conquered by Islam or their parent governments were subdued by European Christiandom governments.

 

If your point is that the European sourced church is the largest we know today then I don't think anyone can argue with that.  But, other traditions have come and gone over the years, so I question how much of a crisis the collapse of the European church actually is.

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