Scot McKnight has been looking at Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Scot doesn’t sound too impressed at the outset by Leithart’s thesis, and much of the comment has been from scandalized Anabaptists.
Scot quotes this paragraph from the book, and I have to say that from one point of view at least I think Leithart is absolutely right:
For all its flaws, though, I believe the project of Christendom—the project of seeking to reshape political and cultural institutions and values in accord with the gospel—is a direct implication of the gospel’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Yoder, to his great credit, argued that Christians are called to live in conformity with the demands of the gospel here and now, and he even imagined what a more faithful Constantine might have looked like. His imaginary Constantine resembled the real Constantine more than Yoder realized. Christians disagree on how achievable that project [Christendom] is. It is, of course, full of risk and temptation, like everything else. I have a difficult time understanding Christians who object to the premise of Christendom.
Most of us now look back on Christendom as a spiritual, moral, social and political failure. But whether it should have happened or should have happened the way it did is really neither here nor there. It did happen; we cannot simply disown it, much as the Anabaptists would like to; and it is now more or less defunct.
It is important that historians assess Constantine and the whole Christendom paradigm with some detachment from the massive modern prejudice against imperialism. But to my mind, what is interesting in the paragraph quoted is not vaguely revisionist account of Constantine that it suggests but the argument that the ‘project of Christendom… is a direct implication of the gospel’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord’.
Things look rather different when we look forward from the standpoint of the early church. My argument in The Future of the People of God is that Paul’s systematic announcement to the Greek-Roman oikoumenē—his gospel—is that God has made Jesus Son of God and has given him the nations as an inheritance, that Jesus has acquired lordship by a means directly contrary to the blasphemous self-aggrandizement of pagan rulers, that by this man God will sooner or later judge the empire in the same way that he judged the Egyptians or the Assyrians or the Babylonians, and deliver his harassed people from persecution. This establishes a coherent narrative-historical trajectory that, I think, has to come to earth in the conversion of the empire to Christianity.
To make it clear, this is not all that the New Testament has to say about the future of the church or of the cosmos, but I would say that most of its teaching, one way or another, is directed towards this telos. What happened subsequently is really beyond the purview of the New Testament—the writings have nothing to say about the history of European Christendom, its eventual collapse, or what comes after that. But by reading it in this way, we are able to recover the concrete narrative centrality of a people called to live in the world, under the turbulent conditions of history, as God’s righteous humanity.
What I think Christendom stood for, under the imperial paradigm, symbolically and politically and certainly fallibly, sinfully, was exactly that possibility. On the one hand, it embraced the full scope of human social existence; on the other, it embodied in its largest symbolic structures the vindication of the God of Israel through his Son Jesus—it was, as Leithart says, an attempt to ‘reshape political and cultural institutions’ in accordance with the ecumenical recognition that Christ has been given the name which is above every name.
Old Testament Israel was a flawed representation of new creation and of the sovereignty of the one Creator God on a national scale, in the midst of and frequently oppressed by powerful empires. European Christendom was a flawed representation of new creation and of the sovereignty of the one Creator God on an imperial scale, with the resources to project those realities around the globe.
The fact that this imperial scale paradigm is now disintegrating from the centre outwards suggests that the people of God is again in transition, searching for a new modus vivendi amid the nations and cultures of the world—a new but no less flawed way of representing in our corporate existence the possibility of new creation and the sovereignty of the Creator.