Politicized Christology in Christianized Politics: “Constantinianism” of “Right” and “Left”

Flickr: CreativeCommons 2.0
Flickr: CreativeCommons 2.0

This is a guest post to get us thinking about political discourse as Christians. Thanks to Darrin W. Snyder Belousek for this great guest submission!

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In a recent essay at The Week, Damon Linker responds to several writers in First Things who lament the triumph of “secular liberalism” and the demise of “civic Christianity” in American politics, evidenced acutely by the (anticipated) victory of same-sex marriage in the arena of constitutional law at the Supreme Court.  Linker writes:

“I’d like to suggest that they should get over it — that, rightly understood, Christianity can be most fully itself when it relinquishes political and cultural rule, when it ceases to identify itself so closely with any particular political order…

“It is a perennial Christian temptation — one growing out of that most distinctively Christian doctrine, the bodily incarnation of God — to sanctify (and to see God embodied in) the political order that prevails at any given moment of history.”

I agree with the overall trajectory and tenor of Linker’s argument—not because I am a theological liberal who is skeptical of the church’s ethical teaching, but precisely because I am an orthodox confessing Christian.  The quest to see Christ embodied in a particular political order, which has been dubbed “Constantinianism” by theologians, should be seen as a distortion of Christianity.

That said, I think Linker’s analysis does not go deep enough.  He writes:

“Whether in the Middle Ages or the contemporary United States, it is a betrayal of Christian ideals to give in to the incarnational temptation. In mistaking one particular political community for the city of God that always lies beyond any earthly city, it makes eventual disappointment inevitable.”

Linker’s critique, which echoes Augustine, is correct as far as it goes.  His Augustinian critique, however, needs to be supplemented with (if you will) an Ephesian and Athanasian critique.  Yielding to the “incarnational temptation” gives way not only to political disappointment but also to ecclesiological corruption, soteriological deviance, missiological confusion, and, ultimately, Christological error.

First, Constantinianism points toward a corrupted form of the church: if Christ can be embodied in a particular political order, then the politeia (political community) can supplant the ekklesia (church community) as the unique sacrament in and through which the soma Christou (body of Christ) is fully present in history (cf. Ephesians 1).

Second, Constantinianism suggests a deviant doctrine of salvation: if Christ can be embodied in a particular political order, then we can make salvation for ourselves through works by the accomplishments of our activism or by identifying with our causes rather than receive salvation from God through faith by the grace and peace of the cross (cf. Ephesians 2).

Third, Constantinianism leads to a confused mode of mission: if Christ can be embodied in a particular political order, then the church can fulfill its commission to make known “the wisdom of God” by promoting our “agenda for America” rather than proclaiming “the mystery of Christ” revealed through the gospel (cf. Ephesians 3).

Ultimately, Constantinianism requires an erroneous doctrine of Christ.  In the 4th C. Christological debate surrounding the Council of Nicaea, it was not the “high” Christology of Athanasius (the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and so ontologically equal with the Father and ontologically superior to all creation) but rather the “low” Christology of Arius (the Son is the firstborn of creatures and thus ontologically equal to creation and ontologically subordinate to the Father) that was amenable to Constantinianism (the sanctification of the imperial order a la Eusebius).

If, on the one hand, Christ is “begotten not made” and so has eternal supremacy over all creation (per the Nicene Creed), then Christ as Lord stands in judgment over every political order such that no political order within creation can ever claim to instantiate the reign of Christ.  Every political order within creation necessarily falls short of Christ’s reign precisely because Christ, though incarnate, is no mere creature—and thus no mere creature, not even the highest of the “rulers and authorities,” can ever share the place of Christ as Lord of all. Thus, the “high” Christology of the Nicene Creed is actually anti-Constantinian at the same time as it is anti-Arian.

If, on the other hand, we seek to merge the rule of Caesar with the reign of Christ and so sanctify the rule of Caesar as the will of God (per Constantinianism), because we cannot credibly elevate Caesar to the status of Christ (“begotten”), then we must demote Christ to the status of Caesar (“made”). Thus, the Constantinian project requires that we make Christ a creature elevated by God to first status in creation under God, parallel to Caesar a creature elevated by God to second status in creation under Christ, so that we can then link the throne of Caesar with the throne of Christ. That is, Constantinian politics requires an Arian Christology.

The irony here is that conservative Christians who would otherwise insist on maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy, by desiring to see Christ embodied in American politics might actually be (unintentionally) tinkering with a new-age variant of ancient heresy.

An even bigger irony, in my view, is that I see much the same coming from American Christians on the political left, including some “social action” Evangelicals and “peace-and-justice” Anabaptists, many of whom see themselves as opposing the “theocratic” tendencies of the Christian “right.”  Many on the Christian “left” seek to directly translate (their interpretation of) the gospel into progressive policies and thereby effectively reduce Jesus to liberal ideals (“tolerance,” “inclusion,” etc.).  Accordingly, we often hear from the Christian “left” claims of this form: “Jesus was for <fill in liberal ideal>, therefore we should support <fill in progressive policy>.”  Consequently, when the Christian “left” is faced with skepticism from other Christians, we often hear responses to this effect: “If you don’t support policy X, then you are not a true follower of Jesus.

The Christian “right” and the Christian “left” of American politics are BOTH susceptible to variants of Constantinianism, whenever either implicitly identifies the success of its political agenda with the furtherance of Christ’s reign.  In doing so, each in its own way reduces Christ to a particular set of political norms and thus each in its own way is a variant of Arian Christology. The common implication of both “right” and “left” variants of Constantinianism is that, because Christ is reduced to a particular set of political norms, Christ no longer has eternal supremacy over every political order and thus cannot stand in judgment over those particular norms.  Having reduced Christ to politics, many American Christians on the political left cannot imagine Christ standing in judgment over its vision of “social progress” the same as many American Christians on the political right cannot imagine Christ standing in judgment over its vision of “American power.”  To put it succinctly: Christ the Lord is reduced to Christ the partisan.

Orthodox Christianity rejects every politicized Christology that would demote Christ from Lord over every political order into a partisan of this or that set of political norms.  Christians, as “Christ-like ones,” should take a critical stance toward every political order, especially if it claims to be “Christian.”

So, if you cannot imagine Jesus passing judgment on your favored political agenda (whether of the “right” or of the “left”), then you just might be a new-age Arian after all.

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Darrin W. Snyder Belousek teaches philosophy and religion at Ohio Northern University and is the author most recently of The Road That I Must Walk: A Disciple’s Journey (Cascade Books 2014).

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  • This article echoes much of the thinking behind my article in the book “A Living Alternative”. Thanks, Kurt, for sharing this.

  • Ken Steckert

    “Constantinian politics requires an Arian Christology.” Really? The Christology of Arius was orthodox for the previous 200 years; just not stated as clearly perhaps as Arius did. That Arianism was deemed unorthodox had everything to do with politics – Constantinian politics to use the term of this article. Had Arius won the day instead of Athanasius it too would have had to do with Constantinian politics. From my understanding of the first 500 years of church history, what became orthodox from the time of Constantine on was always impacted greatly by politics. The arguments of orthodoxy were minimal until then as the energy of the church primarily had to do with survival because of waves of persecution.

    Along the lines of your previous post on hell, there is mention that different perspectives will be presented by those who hold them instead of by those holding different understandings. I think much more has been made of Arianism that what its originator (not Arius; but someone before him, perhaps Thelopholis in the second century) made it to be. With the Christological view, now called Arianism, of many for 200 years of church history, there was much love and commitment to following Jesus by loving as Jesus loved, many among the martyrs of the faith.

    To borrow from Greg Boyd (he uses John Calvin as an example for his part in approving of the execution of Servetius) – which is the greater heresy, the Christology of Arius (and many who preceded him) or the manner in which he was treated by being exiled, not being allowed to take sacraments the rest of his life, and the joy “orthodox Christians” had when he died?

    As for the general idea of the article, which I understand to be that politicizing Jesus and following Jesus are in opposition to each other, I agree.

    • choctaw_chris

      I can’t say I fully follow your argument as I’m too ignorant regarding church history. But I think I can see where you’re going. I would have to agree that errors occur at both ends of the political spectrum but not for the same reasons. The conservative church is riddled with dominionism and while it apparently holds a high view of Christ it does tend create a Jesus in its own image, thus invoking a worse heresy than it supposes of the liberals. I personally believe that those on the left tend to have a greater reverence for their Christ, not demanding a ‘personal’ saviour.

      But if the conservatives demand too much of their Christ, the liberals demand too little. In both respects Jesus becomes a political tool and the Bible, merely a facilitator. The delicious irony is that those on the far right who reckon Obama to be the antichrist, make the President an antichrist by insisting on the USA being a Christian nation.

      • Ken Steckert

        I agree with you, and overall agree with the article.

        I went off a bit (ok a lot) on a tangent here that has truly nothing to do with the message of the article. Arianism is considered dangerous heresy, yet 2000 years ago it was a common way of thinking about Jesus – and it did not mean people were any less committed to following Jesus as a result. Whether one believes Jesus is God from eternity past or that Jesus was created by God and subordinate to God (as Arius and many before him believed), I do not believe is crucial to whether one will follow Jesus and trust that Jesus is the “express image of God” as written by the writer of the book of Hebrews. While I still believe Jesus is God (which is all I have been taught), I can also understand how a person can find within the Bible that Jesus was subordinate to God – there is a reason it was a dominant belief in the church for a period of time. I do not see how Arianism has anything to do with Constantinian politics as the council rejected Arianism and the church becoming a power-over religion starting with Constantine continued unabated even though the “high view” of Christ won the day and is the orthodox view of east and west to this day (there is something they have in common!).

        Back to the message of the post – here in America we are results-driven instead of love-giving. And from what I see the church as a whole is not an exception, but with our actions show full support of this mindset. My understanding of Jesus – Jesus did not come to change the world, but to love the world! And there is a huge difference between the two.

        • choctaw_chris

          Its interesting that of the 4 Gospels only in Mark’s disputed text does Jesus say, in his commission, that those who don’t follow him will be condemned. Its the same text that encourages some to toy with snakes. Jesus didn’t come to win territory, create a cult or a club, he came to win hearts and minds. His commission wasn’t to push people into the kingdom but to convince them that it made perfect sense.

          Through the centuries the church has used fear, intimidation and exclusion to either persuade or force people to become and act as Christians. When challenged it fortifies and arms itself (a natural reaction). Yet Jesus’ message, over and over, was to yield – give ground. Jesus didn’t fight for the cross, he yielded to it.

        • Andrew Dowling

          “I can also understand how a person can find within the Bible that Jesus was subordinate to God – there is a reason it was a dominant belief in the church for a period of time.”

          You’re actually understating it; it was THE Christology of the Apostles of Jesus . . .Jesus himself says as much in several of the Gospels that God is above Him. The obscure “eternally begotten . . light from light” philosophical sophistry of Nicaea would’ve sounded like Chinese to the early Jewish followers of Jesus.

          • Ken Steckert

            Andrew – I am dogmatic about close to nothing. By faith I believe in Jesus being “the express image of God” which to me means having the complete character of God. To what extent Jesus was God I no longer find is really that significant. The question I find of the most significance is “Do I believe in Jesus enough to follow Jesus as he lived and taught?” Along the thought of this post, do I believe that the character of God is fully expressed in Jesus enough so that I am not working according to kingdom-of-world-politics but according to kingdom-of-God-politics which is that of love for all, including my enemies, so that I am laying down my desires, and physical life itself if necessary, because I am trusting that is the power of God. Am I willing to love just to love, not to change or convert. That is what I see as the foundation of the politics of Jesus, which I believe is the politics of God.

            Perhaps because I have been so indoctrinated with Jesus being “fully God” and how passages such as John 1 are used to support this belief, I find in the Gospels reasons to come to the orthodox beliefs of today and why they would say the apostles believed according to today’s orthodoxy regarding Christology. However, as for the past few years I have sought to read the Bible as if in a vacuum (does not mean I do, but it does cause me to remove the preconceived thoughts to a much greater extent) to see how I would understand it if it were any other book, I am inclined to believe like you that they believed Jesus was subordinate to God, and from what we read in Acts and church tradition, their commitment to follow Jesus was at great cost of comfort and life on earth itself. One result of this for me personally is that most of what are called “heresies” do not bother me. What I find more troubling is the focus on “right beliefs” instead of “Jesus looking love.”

  • henbeatsfox

    Drop the mic and walk away, Kurt. Perfectly said!

  • otrotierra

    A fantastic commentary, Kurt. How radically unpopular!

  • Matthew

    Excellent post Kurt. Thank you for pointing out that both left and right Christians can fall into this. This is something that I think needs to be said. Too often many Christians base their faith on political doctrines rather than living into a Christian life. Politics has a tendency to be the end-all-be-all of everything. Christianity teaches us that it is not politics, ie the pursuit of power, that is the foundation of life, but rather Christ.

  • David Kitz

    Well reasoned. Salvation does not come through a political party or a political agenda, but through Christ alone.

  • berryfriesen

    Within the context of this blog and its values, this essay’s definition of the term “political” reminds me of a strawman. No, not quite, because there are many Christians who hold precisely the author’s (Kurt? Darrin?) definition, but still, on an Anabaptist-oriented blog, can’t we acknowledge that “political” is a much broader term than the way the author uses it?

    Are Roman Catholics political when they administer hospitals that refuse to do abortions? Are the Amish political when they refuse to participate in state-oriented rituals? Are Mennonites political when they facilitate the resettlement of illegal entrants? Was the Apostle Paul political when he told the people in the Corinthian assembly to stay away from civic festivals and banquets?

    Are anarchists political?

    Once we adopt a definition of “political” that is appropriate to what we see in the New Testament, this talk about “the incarnational temptation” is transformed into “our incarnational calling.” After all, Jesus came to save the world.

    • Darrin Snyder Belousek

      Berry, thanks for your comment. I’m the author.

      As you can tell, this is a deliberately provocative piece–and thus the un-nuanced notion of “politics” operative here is narrowly tailored to pointedly address a certain phenomenon in contemporary Christianity. As I think you’ll recognize, this “political shoe” does fit some Christians, on both “left” and “right,” including (I hasten to emphasize, based on my observations over the years) some progressive Anabaptists (and hence why one might think the piece is appropriate for this blog).

      That said, yes, we can and should think of “politics” in a sense appropriate to the very kinds of activities to which you point–namely, the distinctive activities that are native to and characteristic of the “body politic” we call church. The church (and the eucharist within the church) is the only visible reality (other than Christ) that the NT ever identifies with the “body of Christ.” Thus, I think (and I think we agree), the “incarnational calling” is the calling of Jesus’ followers “to be the church”–to become the body of Christ– a “political” calling that belongs properly only to the church but which the church lives out on behalf of and for the sake of the whole world. This calling becomes an “incarnational temptation” whenever we seek for some other body to displace the church as the unique sacrament of Christ’s body in the world–that is, the visible sign of God’s love for the world’s salvation through the grace and peace of Jesus–by identifying the success of this nation or that ruler or this party or that policy as the visible sign of God’s intention for the world’s salvation.

      • berryfriesen

        Actually Darrin, I couldn’t “tell,” but perhaps that’s on me rather than you. In any event, I appreciate your clarification.

        The Constantinian perspective takes seriously one of the core biblical assumptions — the pilgrimage of nations (as Isaiah spoke of it) to the mountain of YHWH. Anabaptists know about this assumption, but we are a marginal people with marginal aspirations. So we give the grand scope of biblical salvation little attention other than to say that we model things for broader society which it sometimes emulates.

        When Anabaptists read your second paragraph above, I wonder what they perceive you to be saying. “The church is the only visible reality that the NT ever identifies with the ‘body of Christ’.” Yes, that sounds right. When the early church voiced its affirmation that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess,” what understanding of “church” did they have in mind? Was it something like we marginal Anabaptists have in mind? Somehow, I don’t think so. When the writer of Ephesians explained that through the church the “rulers and authorities” would learn “the wisdom of God,” what did s/he mean? Probably something bigger and broader than what your paragraph communicates.

        To put it all another way, the Constantianian perspective takes seriously the biblical assumption that salvation happens within human history. If Anabaptists were to take this seriously, how would we describe it? In our book, “If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible,” John K. Stoner and I briefly speak of this as a “subculture” (see page 337) that is a power within broader society. James C. Scott, the lifelong student of the politics of the oppressed, speaks of it as hidden acts of resistance.

        I do agree with what you are trying to do with your essay if it leads (for example) to us renouncing any further interest in whether the next Commander-in-Chief of the US-led empire is a Republican or a Democrat. But that’s because Jesus’ way of running the world doesn’t entail top-down power, not because our mission as his church isn’t political.
        .

  • Nelson

    Many Christian leaders (pastors, theologians, etc.) seem to ignore or have forgotten what the word ecclesia meant in its original Greek content, i.e. town meeting. In other words, the church of Jesus Christ is a new politics. We, disciples of Jesus, God’s Anointed King, are ambassadors and stewards/administrators of the Kingdom of God. Our allegiance is due solely to God’s Kingdom. We don’t live in a country and get assimilated into its politics, baptizing them. We rule the country we live in as Jesus rules — with love and service and self-sacrifice in the power and wisdom of the Spirit for the glory of the Father.

  • Mark

    Great article Kurt, well done.

    I am one of the foot soldiers in the camp of what you might consider the “Religious Right” and indeed, we have gotten way too caught up in Americanism and many have seemed to have lost their understanding that our citizenship is in heaven with our Savior as ultimate Ruler. Thus it is a misnomer to say we’re “American Christians” and instead should be content with simple “Christians.”

    This has been the problem of the Dominion Mandate having, I believe, been infused with evangelical political activism. Further, when coupled with other Christian Reconstructionist rhetoric, what is birthed is the typical “Take Back America” and we need to “restore a Christian nation” type of strident and sometimes militant language from what would otherwise be well meaning people.

    Please clarify one thing for me if you will. In light of the problems of Constantinianism that may have infiltrated the ekklesia engaged in political activity in America, you’re not suggesting that Christians should not engage are you? I’m assuming your concern is how we engage, am I assuming too much in that regard?