Tuesday, September 29, 2020

In pursuit of an earthly kingdom. . .

The idea of a Constantinian shift is not new but it has been taken up and renewed in the modern day by Stanley Hauerwas, among others.  The tension between the kingdom in the world but not of the world and a kingdom which transcends the world is neither new nor easily resolved.  In antiquity the debate began about the value offered to the Church by access to the Emperor and the sanction of the imperial authority.  No one but a fool would suggest that the conversion of Constantine and his secular power has been anything but a mixed blessing at best.  At worst is the suggestion by some theologians and historians of antiquity that the political and theological consequences of the 4th-century Constantinian integration of the imperial government with the Christian Church has beguiled the Church and distracted her from her first mission.  

With the First Council of Nicaea the so-called Constantinian shift is dated. The term itself is probably best credited to the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.  His claim, however, and the whole idea of a  Constantinian shift has been disputed and by some rather big names.  Peter Leithart wrote a book to argue that while there was a "brief, ambiguous 'Constantinian moment' in the fourth century", there was "no permanent, epochal 'Constantinian shift'".   Defending Constantine is the name of Leithart's 2010 book to answer to Yoder.  Leithart argues that Constantine was a real Christian.

To put it bluntly, the whole idea is that when Christianity becomes mainstream it sacrifices its identity and its message.  The suggestion here is that the Church is weak and naive in contrast to the shrewdness of Caesar who woos the Church in order to make Christ to serve his own purposes.  I wonder if at the root of this is the whole fear that the mere idea of “Christendom” has been a bad thing for the Church.   

Integralism is a Roman Catholic theory about how the church should exercise political authority over earthly rulers.  The term has been used against the “modernists“ and any idea of a synthesis between Christian theology and the liberal philosophy of secular modernity.  The proponents of this Roman Catholic political integralism believe that all social and political action should flow from the faith and be shaped by that faith. What is common with the idea of a Constantinian shift and this integralism is a rejection of any separation of church and state.  What is at odds is whether the driver of this car is the state or the Church, with the Roman Catholics arguing, of course, that  Roman Catholicism should be the proclaimed religion of the state.

Now none other than Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has entered the debate with a book entitled A Gathering Storm:  Secularism, Culture, and the Church.  His argument is that liberalism has proven to be a failure, that its poisoned fruits have been a "caustic secularism" that is destroying our culture and undermining our very existence.  Mohler believes that it is up to Christiansto restore the Biblical foundations to the culture.  He is not without his critics for this evangelical version of integralism.

In a book review, Greg Forster calls out Mohler for swallowing lock, stock, and barrel the idea of this integralism.  Forster does more than simply defend liberalism.  He insists that its key ideas have been derived from Christianity, especially its views on universal human rights and natural law.  Foster posits these in medieval theology dating from the 12th century.   Mohler is charged with inciting a culture war that would, in effect, give birth to an evangelical Christian nationalism. 

I am not a fan of either Constantinian shift ideas or integralism.  I do believe that in the vacuum created by the fall of Rome, the Church did step in and became an imperial religion and I do admit that this has been the cause of no small problems for the integrity of the Christian doctrine and the life of the Church.  I am not at all suggesting that it was unavoidable but I am suggesting that it has created pendulum swings of power that have at least distracted the Church and her message and at worst have corrupted the Church and her Gospel.  I do believe that the great temptation of the government to harness the resources of religion for its purposes and the Church to control the state for her advantage has been hard to resist.  Now the whole idea is more tenuous than ever before.  Christianity was never meant to transform earthly institutions and not in the least to give new birth to the state.  

As a Lutheran I must admit that Luther, in a better position than most in this connection, has bequeathed to us a legacy of church and state ideas that have proven harder to hold when that state has shown its true colors and become an outright enemy of the Gospel.  Is there anyone who believes that Trump will do anything more than slow the press against orthodox Christianity?  Does anyone really believe that there will be some accommodation on marriage, gender confusion, abortion, or the labeling of the Gospel has hate speech?  We have had a reprieve but hardly more and it takes but a Biden and one term to undo whatever gains have been made.   We have no Frederick the Wise or John the Steadfast.   

Christianity began under persecution and conflict from a variety of sources but those who argue that Christianity was never meant to be ostracized or threatened by culture, the state, and the ever changing face of modernity are, I think, naive. The Gospel works on the person and is not some grand force of God to undo Eden's stain and rescue us from ourselves for a period of earthly triumph.  Every generation has faced this temptation and every generation that has remained true to the faith has had to abandon such ideas in order to survive.  In the end it is not he who triumphs but he who endures who will be saved.   

Early Christianity had little in the way of an institutional existence or window of stability. Churches were centered in the home, gathered around the bishop, to hear the Word read and preached and to receive the body and blood of Christ.  Everything else was risk and vocation was anything but comfortable (in an earthly sense).  At some point this was replaced with virtual security and with it came the opportunity to be attentive to the world around them in a way not possible before.  In the aftermath of COVID and in the flourishing of a progressive movement that challenges the very foundations of orthodox Christianity, the Church may lose the luxury of institutional security.  We may not be confined to our homes but we will be a kept people, kept from the public square and kept behind the closed doors of our churches.  The illusion of stability and a place at the table will give way to risk once again and, with it, we will have to decide whose we are.

The wreckage of time has given birth to good stories but no happy endings.  From Luther and his friendship with the Frederick and his heirs to the tattered rags of Constantine's Christian empire to the idea that America was a Christian nation, we have been all too willing to sacrifice dogma for the sake of influence and to give up the voice of the prophet to give comfort and aid to secular Zion.  Ours is a mission of survival for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel -- not for earthly gain or progress or political power.  

We have always had to hold our nose in the voting booth though sometimes the stink has been harder to mask.  Today is no different.  But we vote where we must for whom we must not for the sake of some better world but for the preservation of the Church and the freedom to proclaim the Gospel (including the good works toward neighbor that do make a difference).  We must always be cautioned to remember that today's political friends will become tomorrow's theological enemies.  This is not cynicism.  This is the reality of living in the world but not succumbing to it, in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom and not distracted by the idea of an earthly one.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article concerning Church and State.
I took degrees in Government and Politics in the 1970's and served in local government for 35 years. I also became a Deacon in 2007 and almost become a Pastor in 2018 before my health failed and LC-MS did away with the Deacon program. I read from your blog that you were never a fan of the Deacon Program and I am OK with that. Deacons, under Pastoral Supervision, were useful at 3 churches in Appalachia.
Your observations today that the church and the state have two very different roles are, from my experiences in both worlds, spot on. "Put not your trust in Princes" is very good advise. The church is concerned with our immortal soul and what Scripture reveals to us about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Politics cannot tell us how we should live our lives as baptized, Saint-and-Sinner, Sons of God in a world where Satan is loose and dangerous, knowing his time is short: only the church with the Confessions has any power to instruct us in what God's Word says.
After watching the volcanic, vulgar debates last night I despair for my country: is this the brightest and best we can do? I shall, as you say, hold my nose and vote this year and trust that God is in charge.
Your blog gives me great comfort everyday. Thanks. It is well with my tired, old soul.
Timothy Carter, simple country Deacon. Kingsport, TN.