What if they ask? What if they listen?

The following two posts excerpt from my response to Mark Thiessen Nation and Vigen Guroian, who critiqued my Defending Constantine at a session at the recent AAR national meeting in San Francisco.

My response can be summed up with two questions, one for Vigen and one for Mark. To Vigen, my question is “What if they ask?” And to Mark, my question is, “What if they listen?” The force of these questions will become clear as I go. Let me begin with Mark, in more familiar Western territory.

Mark informs me that I don’t believe what I say I believe when I say I believe that Israel and the church are poleis . (Strangely, this is not the first time this year I’ve been told I don’t believe what I think I believe.) At first my disbelief in a political ecclesiology “seems clear” to Mark, but then he wraps it more hesitantly in a “perhaps” and an “it appears that.” Mark goes to the extreme of telling me what I believe because he can see no other explanation for my attempt to unite a (professed) belief in the inherent sociality of the church with support of Constantine and Christendom. I must believe that Israel becomes a genuine polis only when she conforms to the pattern of the surrounding nations, and that the church reaches its “full flowering” as a political reality only with the conversion of Constantine. I must believe the church becomes political only when “one of us” takes control and rules in the “normal way.” For “Why else is it logical to [Leithart] to move from what he has said in the first 120 pages of Against Christianity to Constantine and the beginnings of Christendom, which apparently is to him the logical flowering of everything he has been saying?”

Yoder is the true ecclesial politician, or political ecclesiologist, because Yoder guards the political character of the church by rejecting any and every union with the world’s political structures. In Yoder’s view, the “pertinent fact about the new state of things after Constantine and Augustine” is that “two visible realities, church and world, were fused.” As a result of this fusion, “worldly powers are largely left to define the ‘public’ realm for everyone”; the emperor is not conformed to Christ but Christ reconceived in the image of the emperor; Christianity is “consigned to a chaplaincy function” defined by something other than the gospel; and eventually Christian convictions that conflict with the dominant ideology are reduced to private “values.” For Yoder, Constantinianism cannot but wreck the church as polis. If Yoder is right, then my position is incoherent. I am trying to synthesize faithfulness and apostasy.

To this there are several lines of response. History first.

Let me begin by clarifying a point that Mark mentions. It is true that I describe Constantine as a “model of political practice.” As I make clear in my detailed account of Constantine’s period of rule, however, Constantine was not a model of political practice in every respect, not , for instance, his relentless, ambitious, and bloody pursuit of supreme power in Rome. He was a model of Christian political practice when he decreed that litigants could transfer cases from civil to ecclesial courts, which opened a realistic possibility for justice for the poor and poorly-connected; when he established freedom of religious practice alongside clear preference for the religion he believed to be the Truth; when he acknowledged the authority of bishops and when, in his better moments, he left the church to work out its own conflicts; when he acknowledged the bride of Christ as Queen, and did homage. Constantine’s Christian political thought and practice was internally contradictory, full of imperfections. He could be cruel and he had the blood of several relatives on his hands. Still, I am convinced that we have much to learn from the policies he adopted for the empire and in relation to the church.

My second historical point is a broader one. I do not believe Yoder or Mark accurately describe Western Christendom’s actual shape. Did the clergy of Western Christendom become cheerleaders to powerful brutes? Many did. Did power corrupt the church? In many sad cases, yes. That is hardly the whole story. After a period of fusion between church and empire, the Pope and emperor struggled during the latter part of the Middle Ages to define the public realm. [1] Gregory VII certainly did not cede definition of the public to the emperors and kings. Even before the Investiture Controversy, churchmen used their moral and disciplinary tools to get rulers to conform a standard of political justice that they believed was Christian. Some churchmen – honored as saints – remembered their vocation to witness to power. I doubt you could convince Theodosius, or Emperor Henry IV, or King John or Henry II of England that the church served a meekly supportive “chaplaincy function.” “Who will rid me of this low-born cleric?” is a question that rings down the ages.

Vigen chides me for skipping Byzantium. The scolding is deserved. I can think of several bad reasons for the oversight – ignorance, sloth, parochialism, haste. I can think of no good reason. In classic Orthodox fashion, Vigen claims that my debate with Yoder is slanted by our common Western assumptions. Asking the question “Did church and world get fused?” assumes a Western juridical understanding of the church, in which church and state are conceived of as competing institutions at the same temporal level. According to Schmemann, from whom Vigen draws his summary of the Byzantine theology, there is no static or spatial division of church and state, but a temporal-eschatological dualism of church and world. The world with all its structures and institutions is good, but it becomes demonic when it is disconnected from its source and end in God. To treat the world as “secular,” as an end in itself, is the very definition of original sin. But the world is not condemned to remain imprisoned within its own cramped eschatological horizon forever. The church is in the world as a presence, as the sacrament of the coming kingdom, and the gospel that the church proclaims aims at the redemption of the world, which is to say, its reorientation toward that Kingdom.

This eschatological perspective is the foundation of Byzantine political theology. In Schmemann’s words, “as everything else in ‘this world,’ the state may be under the power of the ‘prince of this world” . . . yet, by ‘accepting’ the Kingdom of God as its own ultimate value or ‘eschaton,’ it may fulfill a positive function.” The state is Christian just insofar as it recognizes “its limit”; the Christian state refuses to become an absolute value, an end, the end, and acquires genuine value in subordination “to the only absolute value, that of God’s Kingdom.” [2] Though Byzantine symphonia involved the church’s administrative and juridical “surrender” to the empire, this concession depended on the empire’s prior acknowledgement of the Truth of the church’s proclamation. In theory if not always in practice, the church made its peace with the empire when, and only insofar as, the empire began to care for the church and submitted to the Lord Christ and His Kingdom. Even after peace was made
, the church continued to fulfill its vocation as a presence “to reveal, manifest, and communicate the Kingdom of God.” Neither Schmemann nor Vigen ignore the flaws in this system. Vigen names specifically the Byzantine overconfidence that “the worldly instrumentalities of the state” could be transformed “into ligaments of the kingdom of God.” Yet, over time the church’s submission to the empire turned inside out to become the empire’s submission to Jesus. [3] The world, also the Byzantine state, was “Christianized” since, with the conversion of Constantine, the empire acknowledged (in Meyendorff’s words) that the “ultimate goal of creation” was “anticipated in the mysteries of the church.”

I have deep sympathy with much of this portrait, both theologically and historically. I can think of nothing more lovely or true than Schmemann’s mantra, “this world is the matter of the kingdom.” Historically, Vigen is exactly right that “Constantine conceded to the church full and exclusive authority to offer the non-bloody Eucharistic sacrifice that would replace pagan sacrifice, which makes Byzantium, if I understand Vigen and Schmemann rightly, an historical example of a “fusion” of church and empire in which the church did not lose her political soul. The Byzantine Christianization of political life does not represent the kind of fusion of church and world that Yoder attacks, since the church remained independent as the sign of the Kingdom of God, which is what she was even before her alliance with the empire.

Vigen thinks the success of my project depends on whether or not “we can accurately understand Constantine and Byzantium through Augustine.” I can give only the slightest beginning of an answer to that challenge, but I am sure that an Augustinian account of Byzantium, and of the Byzantine Constantine, will be a critical account. Augustinian Westerner that I am, I do not believe the so-called “juridical” issues can be dispensed with so easily as Schmemann and Vigen want. (If I had the wit and time, I would attempt to deconstruct the dualism of “eschatological” and “juridical.”) Vigen criticizes me for making too strong a distinction between church as cult and as polis. I agree that the church is both, and I agree too that Constantine himself was a “Hellene in statecraft” who thought of himself as Pontifex Maximus over all cults, including the Christian. Constantine’s statecraft, however, didn’t determine the outcome. In dealing with the church, whether as fulfillment or as “institution,” Constantine dealt with an utterly unique social reality that could not be pressed into the slot vacated by pagan sacrificial cults without busting the slot all to pieces. He knew not what he did.

This is why I think Vigen and the Orthodox writers he depends on make too global a distinction between the church as presence and as power. I do not mean merely that the presence of the kingdom in the church’s mysteries is the power of all powers, the power of the coming kingdom anticipated by the Spirit now in this world. In addition, I mean that after the state acknowledges Jesus the Lord and finds its ultimate end in the Kingdom, the church retains her role as prophet and teacher. Meyendorff claims that the church’s role was to “witness to the anticipated presence [of the kingdom] in the midst of the fallen world” and not to promote political reform. But a Christian emperor continues to rule, and some acts are more in keeping with the emperor’s baptism than others. Shouldn’t the church tell him which is which? And if the emperor acts in egregious violation of his baptism, shouldn’t the church exclude him from the Eucharistic assembly? And if the church does that, hasn’t the church become a potestas , and just because her Eucharistic presence must be guarded? Let me offer a less extreme example: I mentioned above that one of Constantine’s edicts allowed civil cases to be appealed to ecclesiastical courts. With that decree, Constantine helped solve a structural injustice that had long confounded Roman emperors. Though we have no direct evidence, I can imagine Constantine consulting bishops about the problem and getting their help in formulating his decree. Here is my question for Vigen, and it is an honest one, not a debate-trick: In the Byzantine political theology you offer, does the church have anything to say to kings who inquire how they can best serve the kingdom that is their end? Or, to put it differently, What if they ask?

We have sailed to Byzantium on a ship from Hippo Regius. Our guide doesn’t like everything he sees. But in any case it’s time to return to home port. The trip has been useful because the eschatologically qualified political theology of Byzantium has provided some tools for trying to convince Mark that I believe what I say I believe. The church is a presence and a sacrament, and also a polity, God’s polity, the true polity, in this world. That is what she is . At present, and for the foreseeable future, she is surrounded by polities of other sorts, and the church’s polity exists not for herself but for the sake of the others. The church witnesses, and by her witness calls the nations to accept the Truth that the church’s eschaton is the world’s end. The church’s witness reaches its fulfillment as rulers and nations acknowledge the Truth that is uniquely embodied in the church’s corporate political life. Rulers and nations that acknowledge the Truth are, or ought to be, changed by it. Tutored by the church, which is the city, God’s city, they seek justice and peace. Christian civilizations in its various forms – Western Christendom or Byzantine – is the product. From Schmemann we learn that the logic that connects a political ecclesiology with Chrsitendom is a Eucharistic logic. The church in its Eucharistic liturgy is the now of the not-yet, but the Eucharist points to the destiny of the creation as such. When the early church’s trajectory is seen in this eschatological framework, the often testy Constantinian alliance of church and world is seen to be the fruit of the church’s mission, as both are united, in their very different registers, in faith in the Kyrios of heaven and earth and hope for His Kingdom.

I can turn Mark’s question around: By what logic do Yoder and Mark conclude that the witness of God’s own polity will be forever ignored by the rulers of this world? By what logic do they assume that God’s own gospel, proclaimed in the world, will fall forever on deaf ears? By her words, her love, her Eucharistic joy, the church witnesses. My question to Mark is, What happens when the other polities begin to notice? What if they listen?

It’s in this sense that I am willing to affirm that Constantine is the “flowering” of the church’s hopes, also the hopes of the martyrs, though I think it the “first” (or nearly first) rather than the “full” flowering. It is not because the church waited to become a polity until a Christian realist assumed the imperial throne. Rather, it is because God had promised that through the church’s witness and life as God’s city He would bring kings under the Kingship of Jesus. In Scripture, kings are singled out as specific objects of the gospel message. Psalm 2 – the most widely quoted Psalm in the New Testament – proclaims the installation of Yahweh’s Davidic Son as king on Zion, and then urges the kings of the earth to do Him homage (Psalm 2:10). Psalms (68:29; 72:10-12; 138:4; 148:11) and prop
hets (Isaiah 49:7; 49:23; 60:3, 10-11, 16; 62:2) regularly held out the hope that the kings would come to the brightness of the Messiah’s rising. Scripture ends with a vision of the “kings of the earth” doing just what the prophets predicted – bringing their glory into new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24). This is not a subjection of church to world, but the opposite: Jerusalem doesn’t come under the rule of kings, but kings move into the New Jerusalem and join its inhabitants. This is the promise to Abraham: “Kings shall come from you.”

[1] See the general sketch of this history in Christopher Dawson, “Church and State,” in Medieval Essays .

[2] Church, World, Mission , p. 31.

[3] Church, World, Mission .

"FYI our Uniting Church of Australia has its Pitt Street Uniting Church led by a ..."

Canon and Church
"I quite agree. But our knowledge of Jesus comes from the narrative traditions which were ..."

Canon and Church
"If God is indeed real and good then anyone whom does not teach good is ..."

Canon and Church
"Why use Paul (just some guy) as your measuring stick. His philosophy was entirely different ..."

Canon and Church

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!