A wee note on Christology and the Constantinian arrangement

In Hoc Signo Vinces

Perhaps no dominical injunction has been rendered by christological elaboration more difficult in Christian practice, personal and corporate, than Jesus’ supposedly simple distinction between the proper claims of Caesar and God. (G. H. Williams)

Amid pressure from Nazi defenders for a ‘positive Christianity’, Erik Peterson, in his essay ‘Kaiser Augustus im Urteil des antiken Christentums’ (1933), argues that despite the persecutions in the early centuries of the Christian community, there was – from Luke through Quadratus, Melito of Sardis, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Orosius – a somewhat positive evaluation of the Empire. And in his book Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie im Imperium Romanum (1935), Peterson further develops the claim that there existed something of a convergence of interests between pagan and Christian monotheism, a convergence which illustrates how positive evaluations of the Empire in terms of the Logos, and related notions in the Ante-Nicene period, ill-prepared the Christian bishops for handling the vastly enlarged risks and opportunities that lay before them. As G. H. Williams (who was, of all the odd creatures to be, a Unitarian) has noted in a fine article on ‘Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century’, this meeting of interests at first betrayed the bishops into championing ‘an uncritical acceptance of political support, until at length a fully understood Trinitarianism proved itself capable of resisting the exploitation of Christian monotheism as a means of sanctioning political unity and securing social cohesion’.

John Heartfield - O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Bent are Thy Branches, 1934

At the centre of this discussion lies the question of christology; more particularly, an ancient debate, as Williams has shown, between first ‘the Catholic insistence upon the consubstantiality of the Son and the championship of the independence of the Church of which he is the Head’, and second, ‘between the Arian preference for Christological subordination and the Arian disposition to subordinate the Church to the State’, correlations much obscured by the fact that Christological orthodoxy was at first defined under the presidency of a sole emperor and following a half century of controversy manufactured by another. Yet, as Williams proceeds to note, ‘all who have worked through the fourth century have sensed some affinity between Arianism and Caesaropapism on the one hand and on the other between Nicene orthodoxy and the recovery of a measure of ecclesiastical independence’. He continues:

In insisting that the God of Creation, of Redemption, and the Final Assize is essentially one God, the Catholics were contending that the Lord of Calvary is also the Lord of the Capitol. But for this very reason the typical Nicenes were unwilling to accommodate revelation to reason purely in the interest of enhancing the cohesive value of Christianity for the Empire. In contrast, the Arians, having a comparatively low Christology were pleased to find in their emperor a divine epiphany or instrument or indeed a demigod like Christ himself. Thus the Arians were more disposed than the Nicenes to accept the will of an emperor as a canon and to defer to him as bishops, because the canons, tradition, and scriptural law centering in the historical Christ could not possibly in their eyes take precedence over the living law (nomos empsuchos) of the emperor ordained by the eternal Logos.

Aliens in the Church: A Reflection on ANZAC Day, National Flags and the Church as an Alternative Society

Hagia Sophia - Mosaic of Christ with Constantine IX and Zoe
Hagia Sophia - Mosaic of Christ with Constantine IX and Zoe

‘There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters — God and Cæsar’. So was Tertullian’s response (in On Idolatry 19) to a question he posed of ‘whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments’.

My recent return to the Antipodes (after only 3 years) has been met with something of a shock at what I observe to be a distinct revival of patriotism in this part of the world symbolised not least in the hoisting of national flags. I can only interpret this as a public confession that the soul of the nation is distressed. Holding this thought, I remember once hearing (on tape) the great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamenting that the saddest day in ecclesiastical history was when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. (Of course, it may been different if Constantine had turned out to be a different kind of Emperor, but that’s not my point here). At the time, I wondered if this was a bit of an overstatement (a brilliant preacher’s rhetoric beclouding more constrained reflection on what is only one of millions of possible ‘saddest day’ candidates), but he was certainly onto something: that the Church’s jumping into bed with and baptising nationhood with its programs and events – such as Anzac Day – serves to highlight yet again that there is literally all the difference in the world between discipleship and citizenship, that with or without the third verse the Church cannot in good conscience sing the hymn ‘I vow to thee, my country’, words which were rung out at many a recent Anzac Day service. (And while I’m on Anzac Day services, let me tout that the Church can only faithfully recall the deaths that war has claimed if she does so as part of her proclamation against all war.)

The Church betrays its witness to the one Word of God when she includes a national flag among – or alongside – her emblems of worship. Nationalism and patriotism are always idolatrous enemies of a jealous Lord who tolerates no rivals. To see a national flag displayed in a place of Christian worship is to witness a message as scandalous and confusing as to see an ATM machine in a ‘church foyer’. Moreover, to witness (or to participate in) what Lesslie Newbigin described as ‘the Constantinian trap’ is to observe (and/or to participate in) the greatest of public failures – the denial of the Church’s font, table and pulpit, its raison d’être and its catholicity in the world. It is to preach that the greatest thing in the world – the Church – has become a chaplain of the State and its violent machinery. Paul Fromont recently gave voice to similar concerns by drawing upon Stanley Hauerwas’ writing as that concerned with ‘liberation’. For Hauerwas, he writes, this typically centres on a two-fold dynamic: (1) The liberation of the church from its captivity to agendas, values and practices intrinsically alien to its character and calling; and (2) liberation (in order to) restore the church to be and act as what [Hauerwas] terms a ‘free agent’ of the Kingdom appropriate to God’s agenda of the salvation of the cosmos and its re-creation (cf. Rev 21:1; Rom 8:22). I recall Hauerwas’ words from another context: to ‘worship in a church with an American flag’ means that ‘your salvation is in doubt’. Patriotism is no Christian virtue. (See Hauerwas’ Dissent from the Homeland, p. 184). The problem in Germany during the 1930s and 40s wasn’t that German Christians draped the cross with a Nazi flag; it was that they draped the cross with a flag full stop. Christian communities ought remove all national flags from their places of worship, and to do so at least as publicly as when they were first placed there. The removal should be accompanied by a public prayer of confession for despoiling the Church’s witness to its Lord, and to its own catholicity.

Flag flying in front of Cologne Cathedral, 1937
Cologne Cathedral, 1937

Against those who contend that the Church’s role is to baptise those creations of common good that the State concerns itself with, William Cavanaugh, in his brilliant essay, ‘Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good’ (Modern Theology 20/2, 2004), observes that Christian social ethics more often than not proceed on the false assumption that the responsibility for promoting and protecting the common good falls to the State. He avers:

The nation-state is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces, but rather originates and grows over against truly common forms of life. This is not necessarily to say that the nation-state cannot and does not promote and protect some goods, or that any nation-state is entirely devoid of civic virtue, or that some forms of ad hoc cooperation with the government cannot be useful. It is to suggest that the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and services that never quite provides value for money. The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division. The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At its best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order – mail delivery is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The Church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state. The Church must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence. The Church needs, at every opportunity, to “complexify” space, that is, to promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. (pp. 266–7)

Cavanaugh contends that by regarding the nation-state as responsible for the common good, ‘the Church’s voice in such crucial moral matters as war becomes muted, pushed to the margins. Just war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the Church to grapple with questions of violence. The Church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association”, whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the Church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians can kill, and not abdicate that authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual’ (p. 268). That is why one appropriate Christian witness might be the refusal of those who reside in States where funding goes to pay for the machinery of aggressive war to withhold a percentage of their income tax commensurate with the State’s war budget. (Here I have in mind Yoder’s essay ‘Why I Don’t Pay All My Income Tax’).

While the Church shares some cultural space with the world, it is not an institution alongside others, and it exists for the propping up of none. The Church, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, is both ‘an alternative world unto herself’, and a participant in the Spirit’s ‘subversive mission of converting whatever culture she finds herself in’. And the Church participates in the second only as she lives authentically as the first – i.e. as she embodies an alternative Societas determined by its own jealous Servant-Lord and shaped by its own unique narrative. Christendom can never undertake this mission because it can only propose ideas or offer the Church as a ‘new sort of religious association’, essentially no different to a local lawn bowls club. It does not form an alternative city, a ‘new, eschatological ordering of human life’. ‘Constantinianism … is a theological and missiological mistake’ (Rodney Clapp).

If Leithart is right that the mission of the Church involves the converting of culture then, as I intimated above, this can only happen as the congregation of Jesus lives uncompromisingly under a different economy and politic. The consequence of such living will inevitably provoke a declaration of war by the gods. History is indeed the battle for worship, as the Book of the Revelation bears witness to.

Anyway, back to the issue of the flag. Few have named the stakes as cogently and as carefully as Karl Barth, with whose words I bring this post to a close:

[The] combining of the Word of Jesus Christ with the authority and contents of other supposed revelations and truths of God has been and is the weak point, revealed already in the gnosis attacked in the New Testament, at almost every stage in the history of the Christian Church. The prophecy of Jesus Christ has never been flatly denied, but fresh attempts have continually been made to list it with other principles, ideas and forces (and their prophecy) which are also regarded and lauded as divine, restricting its authority to what it can signify in co-ordination with them, and therefore to what remains when their authority is also granted. Nor is this trend characteristic only of early and mediaeval Catholicism. It is seen in Protestantism too, from the very outset in certain circles, even in the Reformers themselves, and then with increasing vigour and weight, until the fatal little word “and” threatened to become the predominant word of theology even in this sphere where we might have hoped for better things in view of what seemed to be the strong enough doctrine of justification. It needed the rise of the strange but temporarily powerful sect of the German Christians of 1933 to call us back to reflection, and at least the beginning of a return, when the more zealous among them, in addition to their other abominations, awarded cultic honour to the portrait of the Führer. The overthrow of this whole attitude, and its provisional reversal, was accomplished in the first thesis of Barmen which is the theme of the present exposition. But there are other Christian nations in which it is customary to find a prominent place in the church for national flags as well as the pulpit and the Lord’s table, just as there are evangelical churches which substitute for the Lord’s table a meaningfully furnished apparatus for the accomplishment of baptism by immersion [or, one might add, that most holy of contemporary ecclesiastical furniture – the data projector and its accompanying screen]. These externals, of course, are trivial in themselves. But as such they may well be symptoms of the attempt which is possible in so many forms to incorporate that which is alien in other prophecies into what is proper to that of Jesus Christ. If these prophecies are prepared for this – and sooner or later they will make an open bid for sole dominion – the prophecy of Jesus Christ asks to be excused and avoids any such incorporation. If it is subjected to such combinations, the living Lord Jesus and His Word depart, and all that usually remains is the suspiciously loud but empty utterance of the familiar name of this Prophet. “No man can serve two masters” (Mt. 6:24). No man can serve both the one Word of God called Jesus Christ and other divine words’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. G.W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 101–2.