Church and Empire

Church and Empire March 4, 2009

According to Thomas Heilke, “the church under Constantine is ‘imperialized,’ and made ‘subservient’ to the interests of the empire.”

That judgment rests partly on factual errors (e.g., Constantine took charge of the church’s affairs, administered church discipline, decided on orthodoxy by presiding at Nicea). But it also rests on a basic misperception of Heilke’s own argument and data.

Prior to Constantine, he says, the ruler was “an agent with a specific role that is in accordance with good social order.” In the Eusebian/Lactantian ideology of Christian empire, by contrast, the ruler becomes a “representative of cosmic order” suhc that “earthly rule imitates the heavenly.” One doesn’t have to defend Eusebius and Lactantius to see that as precisely the reverse of what Heilke claims: That ideology doesn’t make the church subservient to the empire, but fits the emperor and his empire into a Christian cosmic framework.

Summing up Voegelin’s analysis of Christendom, he notes that “Secular rulership, as begins to emerge in the panegyrics of Eusebius and Lactantius, becomes an explicitly Christian function, so that by the ninth century, the ‘royal function’ has been integrated ‘into the order of the charismata.’” Again, that’s a church “takeover” of empire rather than the opposite.

He relies on Yoder to suggest that the church’s mission was nullified by Constantinianism. After Chalcedon “relegated Nestorianism to Persia and Monophysitism to Abyssinia, thus identifying the concepts of ‘heretic’ and ‘barbarian,’” the church effectively turned over the expansion of Christianity for a millennium to the heterodox.” Insofar as the Constantinian church had a mission at all, it was identified with the mission of imperial expansion.

Several responses. First, a Roman empire that sees itself as having the mission of expanding the borders of Christendom can be faulted; but it can’t be faulted for subordinating the church’s mission to its own. Again, it is much more that the empire begins to see itself as an agent of the church’s mission. Second, the notion that heretic and barbarian are somehow identified can’t really be sustained. As Yoder knows, the revived Holy Roman Empire was made up of Franks, i.e., barbarians. In a post in the last few weeks, I summed up Momigliano’s argument that it was precisely the blurring of the distinction of Roman/barbarian that permitted the church to guide the West through the collapse of the empire.

Finally, the notion that the “Constantinian” church was not involved in mission between the 5th and 15th centuries is absurd. Eastern and far Northern European peoples converted in large numbers between 500 and 1000. Was Ireland part of the empire? Sweden? The Slavic tribes? Russia? Does Yoder’s “Constantinian” thesis make sense of Boniface, Cyril and Methodius, Ansgar?


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