The problem of Constantine: it depends on your point of view

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I have argued both in The Coming of the Son of  Man and in The Future of the People of God that the foreseen clash with Greek-Roman paganism and the suffering and vindication of the early church constitute the determinative trajectory of Pauline eschatology. Jim Hoag points out, however, that to see the conversion of the empire as the climax of this trajectory is nothing if not ironic—and that it appears to clash, for example, with Greg Boyd’s passionate attacks on a modern “Constantinian” church that can be so easily manipulated into sanctioning violence and injustice. The clip from one of Greg’s sermons is well worth listening to.

So Jim asks: ‘where do you believe Boyd is on point and where do you think he is at variance from your ideas that this victory over Rome was what it meant for “the kingdom of the world to become the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ”?’

Now, it seems to me that Christendom—or Christendom as it is popularly understood—is an embarrassment for the church regardless of how we construe New Testament eschatology. It cannot simply be dismissed as an aberration (see also “Scot McKnight on Peter Leithart’s defence of Constantine”). The decline of the church in Europe after fifteen hundred years is not so obviously evidence that Christendom was a hollow victory—here I disagree with Greg. Global Christianity by and large, from Latin America to China, is what it is because of European Christendom, because of the power and influence that Christianity had through its alliance with imperial and state power.

Having said that, I agree with pretty much everything else that Greg says in this clip, given the perspective from which it is said.

I entirely agree that the kingdom of Christ is about power under rather than about power over. The power of pagan Rome, which was the power of the sword, was eventually overturned through the sacrificial love of those who acknowledged the lordship of Jesus.

I agree that there has to be a prophetic distance between the community that exists under the authority that was bestowed on Jesus and the kingdom of the world. Greg has done more than most to highlight the complacency and incongruity of the American church’s relationship to political power—and he has done it more courageously than most.

I agree that the church in the early centuries grew and overcame by imitating Christ literally through martyrdom—indeed, I think that the New Testament argues specifically for this.

I agree that after Constantine an unhealthy alliance developed between the church and the state, and that in many respects an authentic Christian witness was preserved only by the various dissident movements that Greg mentions. (I would differentiate, however, between the internal prophetic witness of these groups and the corporate historical existence of the people of God under Christ as Christendom. In effect, it is the same distinction that we find in the Old Testament between wayward national Israel and the internal, marginalized witness of the prophets.)

And I agree that the church needs to own up to—indeed, to narrate—the terrible ironies of its bloody history.

But I think, nevertheless, that some sort of victory in historical terms over the Greek-Roman world is envisaged in the New Testament; and I don’t see how we can avoid identifying this victory with the conversion of the empire and the ending of persecution. This was the vindication of those who for three centuries had proclaimed to pagan Europe that the god of Israel was the one true God.

I think that Christendom effectively repeated the “mistake” of the Jews when they demanded a king who would constitute their existence as a kingdom. When given the opportunity the people of God chose for themselves an emperor who would constitute their existence as an empire. Christian Europe aspired—in its flawed, historically contextualized way—to embody in itself at the ecumenical level the possibility of a just new creation, reconciled to the one Creator God.

In the end, empire failed ethically and spiritually in the same way that kingdom failed, only on a more spectacular scale. But the good intention was that the corrupt degrading worship of the ancient gods, which was a thoroughly public and political business, should be replaced by the thoroughly public and political worship of the holy and righteous God of Israel (worship sufficiently transformed to be acceptable to Gentiles).

This paragraph from Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom shows how the conversion of Constantine, for all its latent ironies, was seen at the time as the culmination of a fundamentally biblical militancy—the victory of YHWH over the gods of the empire through the Christ-like suffering of the martyr church:

We should not underestimate the fierce mood of Christians in the fourth century A.D. For centuries, the churches had consisted of small, compact groups, tensed against the outside world. These groups had recently emerged from widespread persecution. It was not a situation likely to breed tolerance of others. Furthermore, as we have seen in the case of the martyrs, Christians made sense of their world in terms of a clash of gods. The power of Christ was pitted remorselessly against the malevolent power of the demons who lurked behind the façade of traditional polytheist worship. The unexpected conversion of Constantine in 312, and his subsequent support of the Church, seemed to be a triumphant vindication of this militant view of the world. By patronizing the Church, Constantine had wished to gain the support of the God of the Christians. Whether he wanted to foster renewed religious violence (this time, by Christians against pagans) is another matter. But the Christian bishops thought otherwise. For them it was now or never. They considered that they had won the right to finish off the struggle with the gods. (73)

The point is this: the conversion of the empire represented a massive victory for the Christian worldview over the old unjust, immoral pagan order, and it was directly and exclusively attributable to the power of the cross—to the self-giving and loving way of obedience to YHWH, of faithfulness, pistis, that was willing to be subjected to imperial violence in the confident expectation of eventual vindication. In that respect, and as a matter of historical fulfilment, it conforms precisely, in my view, to the hopes associated with the parousia in the New Testament.

That is a pre-Constantinian perspective, which of course is the perspective of the New Testament. How it looks from a post-Constantinian perspective—from Greg Boyd’s perspective, for example—is another matter. But the problem we have as modern interpreters is that we find it very difficult to grasp the contingency and realism and the consequent short-sightedness of the biblical narrative. We instinctively absolutize or idealize language that, for all its apocalyptic extravagance, is meant to refer to the mundane realities of historical experience.

The language of biblical prophecy is the language of political transformation, and I see nothing in the New Testament that fundamentally redirects it towards the supra-historical. So we have to find ways to account for Christendom in terms of the biblical narrative and the prophetic interpretation of the history of the experience of the people of God. Modern systematic theologies are largely ahistorical in character and not up to the task.