Yea Constantianism! Part 2

Yea Constantianism! Part 2

In our last post, the argument was made that the Church benefited from its relation with the State following the conversion of Constantine. But not everyone concludes that the resulting engagement between Church and State were good for the Church. For example, Mennonite theologian John H. Yoder famously contended that those golden fruits only distract us from their rotten source. According to the “Yoderian” view, the incidental goodness flowing from Constantinianism was all the more dangerous since they disguised the fact that an alliance with political power could only fundamentally corrupt the Church’s identity. On this view, the great temptation of Constantinianism was to see the true meaning of history in the world and not in the Church. Thus, Christianity’s witness to the lordship of Christ requires that it “resist the Constantinian temptation by embodying the counter-establishment character and corresponding critical stance called for by the ‘politics of Jesus.’”

This view strenuously insists that Christians remain clear of political involvement, except to critique, resist, and rebuke from a distant but undeniably pure moral high ground because the Church’s evangelical mission can only be accomplished through the distance it maintains from the corruption and deceit of the political establishment. The Christian is to be in, but not of, the world, so the alliance with the Empire is the Church’s disastrous decision to be both.

Yoder’s condemnation preempts a consequentialist response that would justify the unholy alliance on the basis of its beneficial effects. Robert Louis Wilken, in his essay in First Things cited in Part 1 of this Post, avoided this trap by his defense of Constantianism on the nature of the Church. He challenged the premise that an alliance of Church and political power is per se a fundamental compromise of her identity. Consider the following formulation of Yoder’s argument:

1. Anything that compromises the identity of the Church is negative for the Church.

2. Constantinianism compromises the identity of the Church.

a. The identity of the Church requires that it maintain its distance from and purity of the political order.

b. By collaborating with Constantine, the Church allies itself with the political order and essentially confesses that “the true meaning of history, the true locus of salvation, is in the cosmos and not in the church.”

3. Thus, the Church-Empire alliance is negative for the Church.

A consequentialist defense of Constantinianism would grant (2), but deny (1). Wilken, however, grants (1) and rejects (2) on the grounds that the argument does not appreciate that the Church by its nature is a culture-forming religion, one whose involvement in and responses to political realities must be as complex as the cultures she inhabits—without, however, losing her distinctive identity.

[Image “Baptism of Constantine” courtesy of Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]