What did the early church fathers think of empire?

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).

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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.

Interesting topic.

My gut reaction is that it boils down to context. The NT authors and early church fathers weren't against empire, just an empire where the wrong people were in control. The Kingdom of God that culminated the narrative of the NT story was an empire controlled by God through Jesus.

But I would argue that this type of thing is compelling evidence that the writings mainly reflect the ideas of the authors, who lived in a world in which empire (or rule by kings) had been the norm throughout history. It wasn't like Jesus, Paul or the church fathers debated a choice between Jeffersonian democracy and empire and decided that empire was the most suitable. The basic choices to them were empire or tribal rule (such as Israel) or anarchy.

The Jewish instinct was toward tribal rule, but being small and powerless compared to the surrounding powers, it left them continually vulnerable. Thus developed the idea of the Kingdom of God.

The bottom line is that the ideas and choices available to people back then shaped their views, and I wouldn't take those views as "gospel" (so to speak) to us today because we live in a vasty different world with different choices.

Agreed. Just to be clear, though, my argument is not that we take ancient models of rule and treat them as “gospel” (so to speak) today, but that the “bible-believing” church has to understand the part that these models played in the story which it tells about its origins and history.

When I made that comment about ancient models of rule, I was just riffing on the subject, I wasn't arguing against anything you said. I appreciate your attempts to put context into the bible and stimulate thinking.

@Andrew: Thank you for sharing. It does seem that the position toward empire was more nuanced than many scholars allow. I want to read this chapter now.

I agree with the other Brian. Thanks for sharing this - I read Porter's book on Verbal Aspect last year and had no idea that he has been working on a project like this.

I think another piece of evidence that may be help scholars to see a strand of acceptance of Empire within pre-Constantinian Christians would be the verve with which they immediately embraced Constantine's rule. For example, Eusebius' not only embraced the rule of a Christian Emperor, but in his excitement tied together the fates of church and state. The foundations of such moves had to be in place for them to happen so quickly after Constantine's conversion and domination of the West.

Finally, I appreciate you posting this review along with your thoughts on the book. It helps to contribute to the move to disabuse evangelicals of the idea distributed in part by Harnack, Gibbon, et al that Christianity declined and became hopelessly diluted after Constantine. I think that most of scholarship has moved beyond this view, but many of my evangelical friends, and the field of Biblical Studies, seem to be lagging a bit behind.

Doug in CO | Tue, 11/15/2011 - 20:53 | Permalink

It seems to me that this entire approach skips past the New Testament crisis itself which was the fulfillment to Israel under the Old Covenant of a Kingdom of God per Daniel 2 and 7, Isaiah 65-66, and others.  The disciples were asking when the Father would restore the kingdom to Israel in Acts in reference to those passages.  However, just like the Pharisees of the time the modern understanding of that would have been a religious, political, and military empire that dominated the others.  Christ had to take a moment to remind the troops that this wasn't the spirit of their kingdom.  Regardless of where you end up in this argument I suggest that it starts in the Old Testament promise of the kingdom, not with the Patristic fathers who lost almost all touch with Hebrew hermeneutic.

Doug, I’m not suggesting for one minute that we start with the fathers. But I would suggest that the restoration of Israel was the means to the end of Christ’s rule over the nations. The means of restoration, however, and the nature of Christ’s foreseen judgment of, and rule over, the nations are determined by the cross and resurrection. I think what we see is Israel’s God being justified in laying claim to the nations because his Son was obedient unto death.

Actually, Christ did no such thing.

When in Acts the disciples asked about the coming kingdom, Jesus most certainly didn't throw up his hands and say, "you knuckleheads, I've spent three years talking about an existential kingdom of the heart, and you all keep yammering on about real kingdoms. For the last time, the kingdom is inside you and if you don't get it right I'm going to have to find Paul."

Nope, when they asked when the kingdom he constantly talked about was coming, he said that he couldn't say when. He didn't dispute the spirit of their vision. His words confirmed their beliefs. 

If I could make a set of rules for bible study, no 1 would be that people living at the time have a better understanding of their world than people living at another period of history. The chances that we understand Jesus better than the people who lived with him and died for him is nil.

Tracy Fitzgerald | Wed, 11/16/2011 - 07:52 | Permalink


I am relatively new to your work having recently purchased and read (on my second read through now) your "The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Christendom." I have found the book and this blog challenging and enlightening. Don't know how much I might comment here (still trying to "listen" more than "talk"), but as a reading group I am engaged with is currently reading "The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Meaning of Paul's Rhetoric and Meaning" (from Polebridge Press), I am curious as to how you respond to those who claim that passages such as Romans 13:1-7 are interpolations into the text by later, more authoritarian minded and reactionary "followers" of Paul. Or can you recommend any posts here on your blog dealing with this question? Thanks for listening.

Tracy, thanks for listening in! I haven’t written anything about this particular question. Nor have I read The Authentic Letters of Paul (if anyone’s interested there’s a review here). I don’t see any reason to regard Romans 13:1-7 as a later interpolation. There is no textual evidence for this, and I think it fits the eschatological assumptions of the Letter well enough. My guess is that it is essentially an ad hoc response to issues having to do with the problem of differentiating the churches—not least in Rome—from Judaism at a time when Israel was increasingly seen as a troublesome entity.

Andrew -

As always a good and thought-provoking post.

I think some, such as voiced through the pen of people like Frank Viola (though he does go over the top), is the idea of a mass conversion overnight of an empire albeit an actual new birth reality (of course, it's only conjecture, not provable, but something considered from fruit that would follow). The fruit that would follow might be summarised in the implementation of some possible 'pagan' ideas into the church - what was the pulpit, pew, choir, cathedral, hierarchical structure of leadership, etc, in the early couple of centuries before Constantine and the Christianization of the empire?

Having said that, I don't embrace the full idea that it all went wrong about 2 and a half centuries after the 'pure' church of the NT period. And we are not commanded towards a committment to a 4th century 'structure' of church, as we are similarly not so much commanded to create a carbon-copy of 1st century church structure. But I think your average Joe Bloggs in the church would not feel wrongly about the Christianization of an empire, per se, but rather feel quite uncomfortable with seeing Constatine's Christianization of the empire as both good and the fulfilment of what the NT writers saw because of the reasons I mentioned above.

Scott, with respect to your last point, I wonder if it is not misleading to talk in terms of the conversion or Christianization of the empire, at least as far as New Testament interpretation is concerned. I think that the New Testament has a fairly precise and limited set of hopes, foremost among which is the hope that the God of Israel would be vindicated, acknowledged to be right and righteous, amongst the nations that for so long had opposed Israel. There is no attempt to imagine the social and political ramifications of this development.

Yes, couched in those terms and those terms alone, I think there does not have to be problems. It's when people start considering the bigger fruit of all that did unfold because of what happened with Constantine and the empire. It's hard for many to not take away bad impressions knowing some of the fruit that was bore. Still, we tend to push too much into the NT context, seeing it as telling us of a full heavenly utopia.

Brian MacArevey | Wed, 11/16/2011 - 17:25 | Permalink


Have you read Joerg Rieger's "Christ and Empire"? I think that he does a pretty good job of reconciling our anti-imperial sentiments of today with Paul's...but without overstating the case so as to present Constantinian Chrisianity as a complete abhoration.

Brian, I haven’t read the book but I will try to get hold of a copy. Heath quotes this paragraph in his chapter:

What is particularly interesting is not that Christians were influenced by the logic of empire-after all, the empire was like the air they breathed; what is remarkable is that some of them were able to recognize the ambivalence of empire and to develop resistance. Without achieving complete independence from empire-an illusionary goal then as now-some of the earliest theologies and Christologies managed to refuse conforming to the expectations of empire. (Rieger, Christ and Empire, 28).