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.

A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift

“The accession of Constantine terminated the pacifist period in church history.” Roland Bainton

If peace of the pacifist kind, as defined by Jesus and as taught by the church for its first 300 years, is central to the gospel, in what sense can it be said that Christianity survived the Constantinian shift? Roland Bainton traces small remnants of pacifism throughout church history, but the overwhelming sense is that the flame of the true teaching of Christ flickered only slightly, if at all, for long periods of church history. Since we are located on the other side of this shift in a period as Constantinian as any other, it may be difficult to recognize the contrast between Christianity before Constantine and the Christendom that came after. But as many are turning from the church in protest at the ugliness of the Christian religion it may be the opportune time to point out that the religion and teaching of Christ have been all but erased by the Constantinian form of the faith. Here in summary fashion is a delineation of the difference Constantinianism wrought upon the Christian faith. (While the shift brought about by the man Constantine is partly in view, the shift begins prior to his conversion and some one hundred years after his death.)

1. A different authority: Church councils came to bear a new authority which continues in both East and West. Constantine called himself the bishop of bishops and he applied his pagan assumptions about the place of priests in the empire. Not yet baptized, Constantine determined the phrasing and was the decisive voice at the Council of Nicaea in determining questions surrounding the Trinity. As John Howard Yoder points out, his primary concern in determining doctrinal issues, as with later emperors, was what was best for the empire. The presumption was that the church must speak with a unified voice on doctrinal questions and the council presumed to be that voice. The rise of the centralized leadership vested in the pope can be attributed to the unfolding of the same Constantinian logic in which there is a singular head and voice for each realm of power and this singularity is presumed to be unifying.

2. A different ethic: Where Christians refused military service prior to Constantine, subsequent to Constantine Christians were not only favored but it was required (by 436) that soldiers be Christians. There was not only an abandonment of nonviolence but there was no longer the resource in the New Testament for ethics, as this was a new situation, so there was a turn, by Ambrose and Augustine, to the Roman heritage, especially Cicero, to work out a new form of the Christian ethic for those serving Rome.

3. A different worldview: Augustine’s Neo-Platonism and the rise of Constantine would cement the duality that presumed God was using the emperor to do some things and Christians to do other things. There is the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana, and the peace of Christians, which were thought to complement one another. It is from this period that a notion like that of Robert Jeffress arises, that Jesus in not fit to be Caesar or president. Should the ruler be Christian he must employ something other than the ethic of Jesus to rule, as the world is split and Jesus’ ethics pertains to the private portion of that world. The soul/body split necessary for a violent Christianity became the norm.

4.  A different definition of Church: Under Theodosius, who became emperor in 379, an edict defined the one true Catholicism as Trinitarian believers in communion with the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. The Council of Constantinople confirmed that those who were less willing to forgive the apostate (the Donatists) or those with an alternative view of Christ (the Arians) did not have the support of the state and therefore were not part of the church. Augustine believed that the state had to force the heretics (he quotes Jesus, “Compel them to come in”), the Donatists, to comply to the edict and eventually their property was confiscated and their meetings banned. State support determines the boundaries of the church through state power.

This clear delineation of who was counted out was aggravated by the fact, that unless you were a Donatist or Arian or a barbarian, everybody was Christian (except a few Jews) no matter the level of objective commitment to Christianity. So, Augustine declared the true church was now invisible as the visible spectacle offered no hint of a subjective commitment. This leads to the notion that most people counted as Christians were not considered saved.  The church is to be found primarily among the priests, authorized by other priests, so that the sequence of ordination coming down from Jesus through the bishops and through those authorized to perform the sacraments, most clearly demonstrated the presence of God. Even priests and bishops though, may not be elect as they can be hypocrites and so the invisibility of the church is nearly complete. This means that the visible form of Christianity can be described in non-New Testament ways, as Neoplatonic dualism divides the visible and invisible realms nearly completely.

5. A different definition of state: Rome became a “Christian state” as it transitioned from the persecution of Christians to the imperial requirement of one Christian norm for all citizens. People were still free to be non-Christians but they would suffer disadvantages and they had no alternative public worship. This would have subsidiary effects on most every aspect of Christian doctrine, as being baptized and remaining in communion involved both church and state.

6.  A different understanding of church/society relations: The story is told that Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine agreed to split between them the realm of the empire and the realm of the church so as to work in support of one another. The practical result was that church government fell into the hands of civil government, and the one who bore the sword would determine who became a bishop.

7. A different meaning of baptism: Because of the new relationship of church and state becoming a Christian and becoming a citizen were fused, so that infant baptism (historians cannot agree upon its origins) became universal – no citizen should be left unbaptized. Neither citizenship nor church membership were voluntary.

8. A different set of rituals: To accommodate the 90 percent of the population who had not been Christian prior to Constantine pagan rituals, such as spring fertility celebrations, could be celebrated under the auspices of Passion and Easter. Christmas is usually considered to be the best example, though its origins are more obscure, of an incorporation of a pagan celebration into the church. The cult of the dead, seemingly the universal religion presuming the dead hear and answer prayer, was given a Christian flavor. These new celebrations arose with Constantine as an attempt to take in what was already being observed and celebrated.

9. A different theology: The church would undertake a reinterpretation of troublesome parts of the Bible inveighing against violence (the sermon on the Mount is for the individual acting in private) and would focus on obscure passages to illicit the possibility for violence (the cleansing of the temple, Jesus command to get a sword, etc.) and there was a relinquishing of notions of the possibility of perfection (not possible as government would always be necessary to constrain sin), and sin is inescapable and Original and thus infects all upon conception, and gradually a new meaning would be given to the death of Christ (divine satisfaction rather than Christus Victor – the implications of which were less than flattering for the emperor – Satan’s earthly representative). Augustine’s notion of the church invisible came with a new doctrine of election, he presumed about 5% of the population of Rome might be elect and saved. No one could be sure who might be included in that 5%, as God’s election is secret (we are not far from Calvin’s double predestination).

10. A different idea of history: Prior to Constantine the singular fact for Christians was their life and experience of the body of Christ, while after Constantine they would have to take it on faith that there is a church (as it is invisible). Before Constantine it was presumed that God is at work in history but it was not clear how, while after Constantine it was a fact that God governs history through Rome and the emperor. As Yoder concludes, the eschatology of the New Testament had been turned upside down.[1]

Protestantism is not going to escape the Constantinian shift, but if anything, aggravates it in its dependence upon particular princes and city states to preserve the new form of the faith. As a result, notions of just war, the role of church and state, especially with Luther’s notion that God is doing one thing with the hand of state and another with the hand of the church (clarifying Augustine’s two cities), will accentuate the problem of violence. Augustine’s Constantinian faith created a dualism that continues in Protestant notions that perfection is for another world and what counts now is the inner faith. While there is a reaction against the authority of the pope and a turn to the authority of the Bible, the Bible will be made to serve, in an unbalanced manner, as the corrective to the authority invested in pope and emperor. At the same time, the continuation of just war theory indicates that the New Testament is still relegated to a limited role: Jesus did not command or permit the sort of moral understanding entailed in the theory. Common sense, natural theology, human reason, in spite of Luther’s protests against the theologians of glory, will continue as a parallel authority.

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[1] Throughout I am following John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (pp. 57-65). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.