The Gospel Versus Constantinian Commonsense

Resurrection marks the end of the inevitability of death and the commonsense strategies for gaining life based on death and violence. That is, nonviolence is not simply a footnote in Christian understanding but it is the recognition and realization that the death and resurrection of Christ opens up the possibility of a new reality which is no longer controlled by death. What people can know about God and humanity, apart from resurrection, turns out to be profoundly mistaken due to the very specific way that the logic of death constrains this understanding. As James Allison points out, this involves more than a mistaken understanding, but is wrong as it is actively involved in death.[1] If the fullness of the gospel necessarily involves freedom from this mistaken logic of death what are we to make of a Constantinian Christianity which betrays this core value of the gospel?

Apparently, it never occurred to anyone to challenge Constantine with the fulness of the gospel, and suggest that he sell everything, stop being the emperor, acknowledge King Jesus and lay down his sword. No one seemed to have pressed Jesus words upon him about hating his own life in order to become a true disciple. No one apparently taught Constantine about the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and being a servant to all. No one explained to him that for its first three hundred years the church had so repudiated violence that Christians were not allowed to serve in the army. Perhaps the opportunity was too great and so the harder part or the core of the gospel was set aside, not just for Constantine, but for the church in general, so that a new sensibility arose and even a new way to interpret Scripture (one can turn their cheek spiritually while doing otherwise bodily, one can both love and kill their enemy, according to Augustine, as inward spirituality is not thwarted by outward violence, and attitudes are more important than acts).

 The church began to accommodate evil practices so as to achieve a greater good. Violence, power, and worldly empire became a vehicle for the gospel and what went unnoticed is that the gospel became a vehicle for violence, power, and worldly empire. The willingness to accede to the necessity of evil as a tool in bringing about righteousness brought about a new neo-platonic reading of the Bible, in which it is presumed God is establishing his Kingdom by utilizing the political power of this world. Where early Christians had recognized Rome as the evil empire, they were now part of Rome, and it seemed impossible to pose the possibility that “we ourselves have become evil.” Yet, isn’t this the required entry point into Christianity. It is not simply that we begin with recognition of personal sin and evil but recognition that our entire world – religious, political, and moral – needs to be changed up in order to enter the Kingdom of God.

For example, Saul went through all the requirements, religious and legal, so that he might arrest and bring bound to Jerusalem any who were teaching the insurrectionist religion of the Way. It was not only legally clear, but it was common sense that this new religion was dangerous both religiously and politically. This was the consensus of all the leading Jewish authorities, as is evident in their arrest and persecution of the first Christians. The first lesson of Christianity is that common sense, even that based on religious and legal conviction, is subject to common delusion. The presumption that the good guys and bad guys are easily discernible is the first challenge Christianity poses. Yet, this original challenge to commonsense was overwhelmed by the Constantinian shift.

Where we find the Bereans searching the Scriptures to test even the apostolic word (Acts 17:11), the Constantinian shift would include the notion that what is known by a shared commonsense must coincide with the Bible. It was presumed that God was now placing Christianity in a new position in regard to earthly power. Isn’t it clear that it is God’s work in history to use Rome as his instrument to propagate the gospel? It might have seemed indelicate to point out that Constantine may have been using the Christian religion for his own political purposes, and it is still apparently a sort of indelicacy to suggest that the Donatists and Arians were not simply a heretical challenge but an ethnic and political challenge to the Empire. To raise such issues endangers not simply the political decisions of Rome but the choice of the church to accede to Rome, to hold councils and make theological as well as structural decisions for the church, only as Constantine and Rome allowed.

No one needed to go to their Bible to justify the Constantinian shift and it seems not to have occurred to anyone to challenge Constantine. No one told him that if he wanted to be a Christian, he would have to undergo the same repudiation of the world as everyone else. No one thought to say, if you want to be a servant of Jesus this must be your first priority and being a politician, a warrior, and using violence are ruled out of court. No one suggested he might consider relinquishing the throne so as to serve the true King, and by not challenging Constantine the church became Constantinian. The church accommodated Constantine and not the other way round. Instead, it was presumed the evil empire had become the good empire and all any good Christian needed to do was be a good Roman. The questioning of common sense, which Christianity originally demanded, became a near impossibility and with this impossibility commonsense trumped the Bible. But this was only made possible where it was presumed there is a natural revelation, a commonsense intelligibility, which became the new frame through which the Bible was interpreted. No one needed to go to their Bible to justify abandoning nonviolence, the view held for centuries. Likewise, cooperation with state purposes was exchanged for a radically subversive relation to the state (a radical subordination which challenged the legitimacy of the state through martyrdom), such that a new ethic (neo-platonic dualism) and new epistemology (commonsense understanding – truth by consensus) displaced the fairly straightforward notion that Jesus provides an alternative knowing.

Of course, this new ethic and epistemology is actually the old way. The ethic of empire is the ethic of the city state is the ethic grounded in nature is the ethic grounded in the self. The knowledge of good and evil, natural epistemology, what we know to be obviously true, became synonymous with a totality of culture which was presumed to be biblical. Or to state it more precisely, what was biblical was presumed to fit into a totality of understanding. Jesus was inserted into an already existing understanding and interpreted accordingly, rather than founding a new understanding. This may have been so gradual and so overwhelming as to have been unconscious. For Augustine the just war tradition and Roman legal tradition constituted something like a natural understanding. He was caught up in the current of history which seemed to be, if only for a short period, the new way God was making himself known.

Retrospectively we should be able to question this “natural legacy” which has been handed down to us, not simply to reject it, but to recognize something radical happened.  For something as basic as the shift from a near complete rejection of military service for Christians to the requirement that all Roman soldiers must be Christian, and the accompanying shift from a rejection of violence to its acceptance, reflects a completely different reading strategy. It was not that suddenly it was understood that Jesus allowed for violence and military service, but commitment to Jesus’ teaching was now mitigated by stronger commitments and his teaching was relegated to a different plane or a different dimension (spiritual, future, etc.). The circumstance which could turn killing, stabbing, shooting someone in the face (in more recent terms), into work fit for a follower of Christ, clearly reflects that an entirely different epistemology is at work with a different set of overriding commitments.

To suggest that these new stronger commitments are not reflected in the focus and decisions of the early church councils, without question, is simply more Constantinianism. The church that takes the decisions of the councils as an unquestionable authority is, without reflection, accepting the commonsense approach which was assumed and which guided the councils. To equate the decision of the councils as Holy Spirit guided, as is done in mainline churches, may or may not be a swallowing of mistakes in the details but the larger question is if it is a blunder in regard to the way God works in the world. Are the councils guided by the Spirit of peace if they have relinquished a basic commitment to peace? Even should the answer be yes, isn’t it the case that certain subjects are foreclosed for debate if perceived to challenge the empire (pacifism, the role of power, the church and the sword, etc.) while other subjects will be open for debate because they may indirectly serve the purposes of empire?

Roland Bainton notes that there were no less than seven contestants for the throne which Constantine finally acquired, but part of this acquisition was at the same time through the manipulation of the empire through religion. The various candidates were utilizing policies of persecution or toleration for Christianity as a political instrument, and inevitably the Christians gravitated to their champion, Constantine. “He could the more readily be accepted by the Church because already in the popular mind a fusion was taking place between Rome and Christianity as over against the barbarian and the pagan.” In this struggle no one questioned or perhaps felt the impropriety of Christians themselves taking up arms and of the cross being inscribed on instruments of war. Constantine even counted himself a successor to the martyrs in assuming that the martyrs had commenced with their blood what he had completed with his sword. The Roman peace, the Pax Romana, was equated with Christian peace and it was assumed that the prophecy that swords would be beaten into plowshares was now fulfilled by dent of the Roman sword. “The religion of the one God and the empire of one ruler were recognized as having been made for each other” and one empire and emperor could now be added to the confession of one faith, one lord, and one baptism.  A unified empire will function around a unified religion, and isn’t it noteworthy that the enemies of the empire, even if Christian, were also deemed heretics and classified with the barbarians? Bainton notes that theological divisions fused with already existing rifts within the social structure so that in the West the Donatist controversy in northern Africa pitted the Berber and Punic against the Latin elements and in the East the Christological controversies set the Copts, Syrians, and Armenians against the Greeks.[2]

To imagine it was only theological considerations at play in the early church councils would seem to overlook the fact that the overwhelming theological consideration – ethics, the role of church and empire, the role of violence, was not up for debate. At a minimum, might one consider along with J. Denny Weaver, that the image of God that emerges from the councils, by excluding nonviolence, might have a skewed image of God. “Recall that the formula of Chalcedon proclaimed Jesus as ‘fully God and fully man.’ With awareness of the nonviolent character of the reign of God made visible in the narrative of Jesus and expressed in narrative Christus Victor, I simply ask, ‘What is there about the formulas of Nicea and Chalcedon that expresses the character of the reign of God, in particular its nonviolent character?’ ‘What is there about these formulas that can shape the church that would follow Jesus in witnessing to the reign of God in the world?’ Answer: virtually nothing.”[3] He concludes, it is only “the church which no longer specifically reflected Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence and his rejection of the sword that can proclaim Christological formulas devoid of ethics as the foundation of Christian doctrine. The abstract categories of “man” and “God” in these formulas allow the church to accommodate the sword and violence while still maintaining a confession about Christ at the center of its theology.”[4] Anselmian theology, Calvinist theology, transactional theology, substitutionary atonement, to say nothing of notions of a violent God endorsing violent Christians, would seem to be the direct result. A result not so much, perhaps, of what the councils included but of what they excluded.

This exclusion served the purpose of allowing for the return to a “natural theology” or a commonsense understanding. But as Allison points out, “The resurrection of Jesus was not a miraculous event within a pre-existing framework of understanding of God, but the event by which God recast the possibility of human understanding of God.”[5] The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus exposed this pre-existing commonsense understanding as profoundly wrong. It was and is wrong in its involvement with death and it proves itself wrong in a return and continued involvement with this death dealing logic.

[1] James Allison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), pages 115-119.

[2] Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation (Nashville: Abingdon Press,1990), 85-100.

[3] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, Second Edition (Kindle Locations 1592-1593). Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1604-1606.

[5] Allison, op. cit.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.