Defending Constantine – The “Fall” View of History

After much delay, here is the second blog post regarding Peter Leithart’s book, “Defending Constantine – The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom”.  In this post I would like to deal with a primary pillar of Leithart’s debate with John Howard Yoder (and his various successors, notably Stanley Hauerwas) and his view of the proper relationship of the church and earthly (primarily political) powers.  This pillar is a sustained critique of Yoder’s view of church history.  This view is best characterized as a “fall” view of history.  The best way to characterize this view is as follows.

The church, in its beginnings, faithfully represented the teachings of Christ in its relationship to earthly powers, namely the Roman Empire.  It was a persecuted minority which stood as a witness of the power of Christ’s Kingdom over and against the dominant earthly powers and maintained a separate community.  At some point around the fourth century,  the church “fell” from its faithful witness by engaging the earthly powers more directly, becoming a power player within the structure and polluting the witness of Christ’s Kingdom.  Particularly in the Western world, the church has never really recovered.  Although there have been pockets of faithfulness in many times and places, the church as a whole has failed in its mission as a faithful witness and has fallen repeatedly for the temptation of temporal power, becoming oftentimes just as bad (or worse) than its more earthly counterparts in the power structure.  Although Yoder does not directly lay the entire blame for this on Constantine, for him Constantine is symbolic of this entire problem and terms this problem “Constantianism”.

One doesn’t have to use much imagination to see that variants of this kind of thinking is prevalent in much of the church in America today.  This is true certainly of those who share Yoder’s Anabaptist background and pacifist views.  This viewpoint looks skeptically on any significant Christian involvement in the political process.  But even those who don’t share this viewpoint can very much buy into this general outline of church history.  Many Protestants tend to view most of church history between the early, persecuted church and the Protestant Reformation as one long, nearly completely uninterrupted stretch of apostasy or near-apostasy.  Perhaps the best example of this line of thinking is found in Martin Luther’s famous writing, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.  Pentecostals and Charismatics tend to view church history similarly, with the added wrinkle of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in all of its fullness being curiously absent from the church for the better part of nineteen centuries.  Frank Viola and George Barna’s recent book, “Pagan Christianity” takes this even farther, basically treating almost all conventional church practices in present day America (including a salaried church leadership, most church buildings, worship and administrative practices) as un-biblical and borderline sinful innovations upon the pure original gospel of Jesus Christ. The imagery of this kind of thinking finds common cause with much of the prophetic language of the Old Testament, wherein the majority of Israel’s history was one of unfaithfulness with a common theme of a faithful remnant that perseveres throughout.  The question is, is this a correct way to view church history?  Leithart takes issue with this and builds a pretty convincing case that Yoder at least has a distorted view of the reality of the fourth century.  And while I think his case is convincing, it only serves to refute (at least in some ways) Yoder’s particular view of church history.  It doesn’t effectively answer the overall tendency of Christians to view history with some variant of this template.  The question of whether Yoder’s pacifism and view of Christian non-engagement with the earthly political process in a direct way is dealt with separately, but at this point is not the primary question at hand.  At this point, the question of the proper view of church history is the primary question.  What is the proper view?  A clue of this at least is found for me in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.  Which will be the topic of the the next post (which won’t take nearly as long).

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