How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Some notes on Jesus, Constantine, and violence

Read time: 5 minutes

Christ with Constantine IX and Empress Zoe, Hagia Sophia (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I have addressed the troubling longer term historical implications of my reading of the New Testament in a number of posts, some of which are listed below. But the question has come up again, so here’s another go at outlining a response to the charge that Constantine and Christendom were a very poor realisation of the kingdom of God.

1. We cannot draw a line between Jesus and the Old Testament; therefore, we should not expect the future envisaged by Jesus and the apostles to be so different from their Jewish past. The scriptures saw the hand of God in acts of violence.

2. Jesus believed that the violent destruction of Jerusalem within a generation was not only inevitable but directly attributable to YHWH as an act of divine punishment. We are naturally very uncomfortable with all of this, but I don’t see anyway of getting round it.

3. Biblical faith, in my view, is not idealistic or utopian. There is some hyperbole, perhaps, but the prophetic-apocalyptic vision is essentially realistic. So short of the final new creation, sin and violence remain an inescapable part of the experience of the people and of the government of God.

4. Paul believed that he had been given the task of proclaiming the lordship of Jesus from Jerusalem to Spain (Rom. 15:19, 24) in the expectation that eventually—in the terms of Isaiah 45:22-23—the nations that currently opposed God’s people would confess the Son of God as Lord. In other words, he was proclaiming the coming annexation of the Greek-Roman world for the God of his fathers. Remarkably, this is what happened.

5. Christendom happened because growing numbers of people across the empire rejected their pagan background, began to serve the one living God of the apostolic preaching, and waited for his Son from heaven to deliver them from the wrath that was coming on the pagan world. It was the result of a huge sea-change in religious and moral culture. What Constantine did was a consequence of that, a political recognition that history was on the side of the churches, not a cause of it.

6. If the New Testament vision, grounded in Old Testament hopes, was of a new civilisation or new empire that worshipped the one true God and honoured his Son, then it was out of the question that this new social-political order would be entirely just and peaceful.

7. So here is a key question: is the New Testament vision of the kingdom of God essentially historical, as in the Old Testament, or is it supposed to transcend history? My argument is that “kingdom” language always presupposes the nasty messiness of history: government is necessary only where there is internal injustice and external threat. That is the whole point of the frequent recourse in the New Testament to Psalm 110:1 to explain the significance of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God. There will be no kingdom in the new creation because there will be no more sin and no more enemies.

8. Jesus expected his disciples to forswear violence. The saying about taking a sword with them in Luke 22:36 is not an exception. The historical process that would bring in God’s rule, through his Son, over the nations of the Greek-Roman world would happen not through violence and coercion but through patient testimony and integrity of lifestyle and practice. That is why so much is said about suffering. It is why, following the overthrow of idolatrous and corrupting Rome, the martyrs would reign with Christ throughout the symbolic thousand year period of world history.

9. During this thousand year period, the extreme Satanic power that inspired Roman opposition to the Lord and his Anointed and to his people is confined to the abyss, but the fact that Christ and the martyrs reign in heaven at the right hand of the Father is another expression of the relevance of Psalm 110:1: it presupposes the continuing presence of hostile opponents to the priestly-prophetic work of the church, including, of course, the last enemy, death.

10. Christendom is not to be confused with the church. Christendom is nations going about the business of being nations (social and economic development, criminal justice, security, etc.) on what I suppose are really binitarian grounds: there is one God, not many, and he has made Jesus, who was executed by Rome, judge and Lord at his right hand. I exclude the Spirit because nations cannot dispense with law.

11. The church, on the other hand, as a dedicated community, was supposed to function as the priesthood that would represent and manage the “worship” of the nations. The church functioned on trinitarian grounds because it walked by the Spirit and not by Torah.

12. I presume that Jesus’ injunction against using violence remained in force, in principle, for a priesthood that ministered in his name, though the relation of the priesthood to the warring societies in which it was embedded was obviously complicated.

13. The “established” status of the church was unavoidable in societies which confessed Jesus as Lord. But that shouldn’t have led to the suppression of a prophetic voice and a critique of power. Unfortunately, this usually happened through dissidence, not through official channels.

14. In the post-Christendom world the church in all its forms is a redundant priesthood, its services are no longer required by the nations. We are having to work out new and unorthodox ways of relating as God’s priestly-prophetic people to the aggressively secular-humanist social matrix in which exist. But we still operate according to the rules and values of Jesus—though social violence (as opposed to domestic violence) is probably the least of our problems.

Matthew | Fri, 08/06/2021 - 12:09 | Permalink

Thanks for this Andrew.  In my experiences of late, there are segments of the evangelical church as well as Anabaptist traditions that are very much against the actions of Constantine and who take a very non-violent, pacifist stance in all matters of faith and life.  I suppose if I am understanding your viewpoint correctly, although God has and does use societies, rulers, etc. to bring about God´s will sometimes in a violent fashion, the church is still called to emulate and live the teachings of Jesus Christ, which includes non-violence?  Might this be one takeaway from your rather comprehensive outline?

Finally for today, can you please offer up a link to something you may have written about the final installment of the end of history and what that may or may not look like?  Will we ever be at a place that looks like Revelation 22?

Yes, I think that the people of God learned progressively from the exile onwards (Isaiah’s suffering servant, the persecuted saints of the Most High in Daniel, etc.) that YHWH could be served with integrity in a crisis only through weakness and suffering, not through violence. Jesus self-consciously epitomised that intuition and called others not to fight or retaliate but to take up their crosses and emulate his faithfulness unto death. I see no way in which the church has escaped from that obligation over the course of time since then.

My argument about the future is that the New Testament has three eschatological horizons in view: the destruction of Jerusalem, the overthrow of pagan Rome and conversion of the nations, and a final judgment and renewal of all things. I think that John intended the first descent of the holy city into a new heaven and new earth, following a final judgment, to be understood literally as a transcendent event, not as a metaphor for renewal (Rev. 21:1-8). But the second descent, confusingly, is a reference to the presence of the church throughout history (Rev. 21:9-22:5). See the posts listed here.

See also “New Testament eschatological texts categorised by horizon” and the posts that come up in the sidebar with it.

Thank you, Andrew; this is helpful.

”.. YHWH could be served with integrity in a crisis only through weakness and suffering, not through violence”

I much prefer this view as a paradigm for the present churches, but I’m a little uneasy about the possibility that this does not follow necessarily from your interpretive methods. Granting that the NT story of Jesus is not a timeless answer to a universal human problem, but rather an historically contingent response to the specific problems then facing the people of God, it seems to me very possible to conceive that under different historical circumstances (circumstances in which the “we” of Romans 5 were not “still weak”, for example), violence on the part of those people of God could be regarded to be appropriate to the circumstances. 

This isn’t a criticism of the your approach, just a worry that this aspect of your conclusions might not be stable in every setting that the churches find themselves. On this side of the pond, weakness and nonviolence look, from my perch, to be disdained by significant portions of the church, and I don’t see a compelling argument from within (what I understand of) your approach that could persuade them otherwise.

…it seems to me very possible to conceive that under different historical circumstances (circumstances in which the “we” of Romans 5 were not “still weak”, for example), violence on the part of those people of God could be regarded to be appropriate to the circumstances.

Do you have anything particular in mind? Churches in Europe directly supporting the fight against Nazism?

Strictly speaking, the New Testament renunciation of violence only takes us as far as Christendom. When the church is persecuted in this long period of eschatological transition, the only path open to it is the path of Christ-like suffering:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom., 12:19–21)

Jesus modelled the means by which his followers would make the difficult journey down a narrow path to the age to come.

The New Testament doesn’t give much guidance as to how the successful church should relate to the state as a powerful and violent actor once the new order was in place. So a good part of Christendom theology was preoccupied with that problem.

The New Testament simply does not give us the answers—to that and to a host of other problems.

Do you have anything particular in mind?

The “present application” concern that most worries me is the political project that seems to underlie the alliance of parts of the US churches with the less overtly unsympathetic of the two duopoly parties. The goal seems to be instantiation of a righteous order through political power (though the goal for many “in the pews” might be more modest, so simply feel “safe” in a cultural environment that is perceived to be hostile). There is also a vocal but numerically small minority within US evangelicalism that seems to be arguing in the direction of normalizing OT cultural practices and even instantiating OT civil law in present statutes.  

One of the things that I find very appealing about your approach is that it refocuses attention away from the stereotypical Evangelical pre-occupation with individual post-mortem fate toward concerns that are more of the character of “under the sun” or “tending the garden”, which I think is right — “serving the Creator’s interests” as you often put it. 

Back to the question of historical contingency and its implications — had Israel been strong enough to throw off, and keep off, the Roman yoke — in analogy to the victorious campaigns of Joshua, or of David, or of the Maccabees — presumably that’s what would have happened. Jesus’ mission to save Israel, or a remnant thereof, would have looked very different, if it were needed at all.  

It seems to me that on this view, Jesus’ nonviolent methods could be argued to have been situationally appropriate, but not a timeless example that binds the consciences of believers. Your example of Christian resistance to Nazi tyranny is a good one; I worry that present day “resistance” could easily become “oppression” of outsiders who don’t submit to a cultural order imposed, if that were to happen, by the churches.

Thanks ever so much Andrew.  I really appreciate the time you have taken to respond to my questions.  Q and A, and then Q and A again, and then yet again, is how I process things :-)

So if God brings judgement at various times and in various was in historical, cultural, and geographical contexts, even if the church maintains a posture of non-violence, doesn´t God still play the violence card?  I mean even if one interprets Revelation keeping literary genre and symbol in mind, the way things end there is still very violent; still retributive.  Nations are violently judged and those nations contain people.  I´m still uncomfortable with all the violence Andrew.

The real violent judgment of God is there all the way through the Bible—from the flood through, at least, to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. We can’t wish it away.

I’m not sure judgment on Rome in Revelation 14-19 is conceived in literally violent terms. An idolatrous and vitiating civilisation is overthrown, but the agent of destruction, in the end, for all the bloody language, is the Word of God.

We could also argue, perhaps, that this final defeat of pagan empire, with the decisive imprisonment of Satan in the abyss, brings the whole prophetic-apocalyptic narrative cycle to an end. A “final judgment” against Jerusalem followed necessarily by a “final judgment” against Rome results in the long hoped for rule of Israel’s king over the nations of the ancient pagan world, to the glory of Israel’s God. Then perhaps a new eschatological “logic” kicks in, at least for as long as Christ is confessed as Lord by those nations—so that the wars of Christendom are not part of the biblical judgment paradigm.

We might then ask whether the overthrow of Christendom by the forces of secularism amounted to a non-violent divine judgment on a corrupt and complacent church.

But with the close of the “kingdom” cycle we are now redeveloping the story on a global stage, and arguably we have come full circle. The impending climate emergency looks in many ways like the flood narrative. The causal connection between human excess and environmental destruction makes it less blatant an act of divine violence, but even in modern terms it appears as a “judgment” on unrestrained consumption.

The biblical testimony is consistently that the God of justice is somehow present in the large events of history, for better or for worse—not absent, not indifferent. I rather think that we need to recover something of that perspective. If we are still a priestly-prophetic people serving the living creator God, do we not have to find a credible way to say that he is again playing the violence card?

Thanks Andrew.  You make a very good argument.  That said, it seems that the narrative-historical interpretive model, in this sense at least, is just another version of the fire and brimstone gospel that I jettisoned some years ago.  Ultimately God is going to judge the pagan nations and in order to avoid that wrathful judgement one should be part of the protected people of God — the church.  Is this the kind of message we as Christians really need or want to be proclaiming?  I´m not sure we can ever find a credible way, at least to the ears of the unbelieving who detest evil and violence, of saying that God is once again playing a violence card.  I want to find a credible way of announcing that God, even in what seems to be violent and retributive judgements, is ultimately all love and not the author of evil or violence.

Ultimately God is going to judge the pagan nations and in order to avoid that wrathful judgement one should be part of the protected people of God—the church.

I certainly wouldn’t put it that way. If we intend to think of ourselves as a people of God in continuity with the biblical people of God, I presume the same conditions apply: we are called to serve as a selfless and faithful priesthood, we are required to provide a benchmark of righteous and godly living for the nations, and we can expect trouble if we fall short of the standards of that calling.

Yes, the story says that God will safeguard his people in times of crisis but if we play by the rules. In the current period of global “eschatological” crisis I’m not sure I see the church playing by the rules—setting an appropriate benchmark of right and godly living by which the world will evaluate the claims that we make about the sovereignty of the creator God, who is the God of history. Substandard churches will burn up, literally and figuratively, in the coming “day of fire” (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15); they will be washed away, literally and figuratively, in the coming floods.

Perhaps the point then is that it is the church, not the world, that needs to hear a message about the God who will allow his creation, the natural order, to wreak violent revenge on modern humanity.

And in the grand scheme of things, isn’t there some “justice” in this, a judgment, a correction, a recalibration, an inexorable putting things right? Is it really enough to say that God is ultimately all love? After all, the Bible ends with a final judgment, not a final love in.

Thanks so much Andrew.  Just one more thought comes to mind right now.  Might we say that 1 Cor. 3:10-15 points to a restorative, purifying fire rather than a fire of judgment?

What I think Paul is referring to here is not judgment but persecution—though I guess the two go somewhat together. He expects a time to come when the churches that the apostles are founding and nurturing will be severely tested. Churches that are not built on the foundation of Christ, who suffered, died, and was raised to life, and are not built out of durable materials will not survive.

Refinement is not what he is getting at here—he is concerned about whether an apostle’s work will ultimately prove worthwhile. But a passage such as Daniel 12:10 illustrates the link between persecution and refinement: “Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly.” And we read this in 1 Peter 1:6-7:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Thanks so much Andrew.  The time you have taken over the last week or so to help me understand the narrative-historical interpretive model is greatly appreciated.  It seems, though, if one accepts the narrative-historical model as the most appropriate way of understanding the biblical revelation, then everything we see in the scriptures must then be interpreted and understood through that lens.  What if the initial premise, though, is wrong?  What then of the conclusions we are drawing?  What happens next year (or the year after) when yet another new and improved way of interpreting the Bible is presented to the church?  Can it really be that most (if not all) of what many church traditions hold to be true doctrinally speaking must be tossed into the bin?  I suppose for me, in the end, I want to submit to my Lord Jesus Christ and follow his ways throughout my life while avoiding the temptation to bow to any one interpretive paradigm.  Maybe I am really making things too simple, but it may be the only way I can survive.  I remember when I first met the teachings of N.T. Wright when I was coming out of a very fundamentalist evangelical space.  I was so impressed!  I had finally found the truth!  Then Andrew Perriman came along ……. :-)

When you ask, “Is this the kind of message we as Christians really need or want to be proclaiming?” this touches me very personally.

  1. Christians have shamed the God of Israel by painting him as locked in unforgiveness from the fall of Adam to the death of Jesus.  Such a doctrine, even in its mitigated forms, has always stood in contradiction to the lavish experience of forgiveness described in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the parables of Jesus.  Christians have, accordingly, proclaimed a false and misleading god to the Jews, and the Jews were right to reject it entirely.  Since this falsehood is so intimately associated with Jesus, it remains unclear whether God could appoint Jesus as the moshiach of Israel in the end times without giving a false witness to an abhorrent misrepresentation of God. 
  2. According to Matthew Gospel, Jesus anticipated that his disciples would some day “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:27f).  How could the disciples of Jesus be expected to properly judge or guide Israel if they have been poisoned by a doctrine that “salvation is only found in the name of Jesus” and that “salvation consists in applying to Jews the merits Jesus earned dying on the cross”?  One could assume, of course, that the Twelve would openly challenge such false doctrines.  In so doing, however, the Twelve would be setting themselves up against the long-standing beliefs of Christians and, accordingly, risk being rejected as “true disciples of Jesus.”  Given this terrible ambiguity, it remains unclear whether God would grant the Twelve any significant role when it comes to Israel in the world to come.
  3. The Church must also struggle with Elie Wiesel’s charge that “any messiah in whose name men are tortured is a false messiah.”[i]  Thus, in humility and in truth, Christians must wonder whether the long history of Christian harassment, intimidation, and torture of Jews does not entirely preclude God from giving Jesus any significant role in the future of Israel.  One can speak glibly of Jesus as being Jewish and sinless and the Son of God; however, this does not remove the fact that the name of Jesus has been historically tainted by the pain and horror of millions of Jews tormented in the name of this Jesus.  Wiesel recounts his own story:

            As a child I was afraid of the church . . . not only because of what I inherited‑-our collective memory‑-but also because of the simple fact that twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, Jewish school children would be beaten up by their Christian neighbors.  A symbol of compassion and love to Christians, the cross has become an instrument of torment and terror to be used against the Jews.[ii]

Just as it is impossible to contemplate that God would use former S.S. officers to keep order during the final judgment, so too, it remains unclear whether the God of Israel could be so crass and insensitive as to allow the Crucified Savior to be the final judge of Israel.

So, with you, I ask, “Is this the kind of message we as Christians really need or want to be proclaiming?”

Your brother, Aaron,

[i].           Elie Wiesel, The Oath (New York: Random House, 1973) 138.

[ii].          Elie Wiesel, “Art and Culture after the Holocaust,” Auschwitz‑-Beginning of a New Era? Ed.Eva Fleischner (New York: KTAV, 1977) 406.

Thank you Aaron.  Your post has helped me to continue thinking through the thorny bits of Christian theology and its history.  I deeply regret the anti-semitism embedded in the history of the church.  While I cannot apologize for those who lived before me, I can apologize for myself; for being blind for so long to just how hurt Jewish people have been by the story of Jesus as told by many corners of his church.  That said, I am not certain how to reconcile the teaching of Jesus Christ regarding his uniquenness with a universal message of love and acceptance of all people, even Jewish people.  I am simply a work in progress Aaron.  I hope you can understand that.