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.