I will first preface this by saying that I am anti-Sacralist. Sacralism is where any empire or culture becomes fused to the Kingdom of God. It is when Christians take the form of a particular culture and that becomes the norm. We can see this with Latin or Greek culture fused to the Church in the West and East, respectively, during the Middle Ages. We can see this under the British Empire where Christianity and Englishness were at once the same thing. Today, the same phenomenon is occurring with America. Christianity becomes part and parcel with English, democracy, right-wing politics and capitalism.
Constantine is the head figure of this fusion. He was not solely responsible for the collusion of Church and State, where bishops sat the Emperor’s table as governors for his provinces. You can see the cracks forming long before, where a plea for tolerance became begging for some semblance of power. The Gospel of Jesus can be mutated under fire, it is a difficult and dangerous road to be faithful to the message. Dangerous precedents were set that made it easier for manipulation. Ignatius’ plea for churches to back their elder (or elders) strictly made monarchy acceptable for bishops.
Irenaeus’ argument for apostolic succession, with regards to purity of teaching authority, helped fight the pagan gnostics but it opened a dangerous precedent over the apostolic witness that was found in Scripture. With persecution always around the corner, and general social disgust with the Christians, an endless debate with the Gnostics on an authority they would reject (what the Scriptures plainly say) was bolstered by the naming of names. Its an effective out in an argument with high stakes. But ends don’t justify the means, and this was a mistake Irenaeus would regret if he saw ahead.
Some might not agree with my interpretations, but I’m trying to show how the road was paved for an Emperor to dominate the Church. Let me say that, for the sake of unity, I agree with the formulation in the 39 articles:
It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word.
Whether or not this sort of generosity applies to inter-congregational relations (as in structures for one church to be united with another) is something I’m not sure on. Anyway, my point is I’m not blasting some of the early Church for having metropolitan bishops or particular traditions (lower case). I’m just saying when these became so codified that the door for a man like Constantine opened, he took it.
However, none of these I find a sufficient reason on why the Church so easily sold out for power and glory. Then it hit me like a brick. John Howard Yoder, an anti-sacralist par excellence, wrote this regarding the Arian conflict:
“[Arius'] theology fit the empire. If you lower your concept of Christ, then you can raise your vision of the emperor because the Logos was both in Jesus and the emperor”
It hit me like a sack of bricks. Arius’ error was symptomatic of an entire age of thinking inside the Church. The conflict over the status of Christ was what let the doors opened to this sort of collaboration. Now before you cut me off, and say “Whoa, hold your horses pal! Didn’t Augustine have a high Christology and advocate the supression of the Donatists? Didn’t Martin Luther see Christ as Lord and wanted the peasants slaughtered by the princes?”
If this was your rejoinder, you would be correct. However, I would argue that the fact that Augustine and Luther advocated what they did was a contradiction in their prior thought. Augustine’s and Luther’s high Christology went hand in hand with their two-kingdoms view. That while there were little kingdoms of men, they would fade and be judged by the only True Lord. By advocating what they did, they went against their prior thought. They were both flawed giants, both loving Christ immensely, but suffering, as all men do, from the errors of the times. Augustinian was trying to be a good churchman, the Donatist theology would destroy the sacraments and could lead to Pelagian moralism. Luther was barely surviving as is. Not only would he be reluctant to destroy his only friends, but he was German. Part of the Reformation’s fire was the mass resentment by Germans to Italian dominance. Rome put a boot on all German peoples, from the Alps to the Baltic, in the form of tithes and crusades. Here was a chance of escape. Luther, while not motivated by crass ethnic conflict, as seen in his writings, was a man of his times. I’m not excusing their behavior, just explaining it. Thankfully, Christ is their savior.
Another example, to wedge in my point more, is Athanasius. He had a high Christology, but would end up calling for the government to suppress heretics for the sake of the Church’s health. He never wrote anything like “City of God”, so he has no comprehensive formulations. I’m not going to argue from silence, but he seems to go flat in either direction. He was apart of the Council of Nicaea, but he fought the Empire when Arius’ theology was accepted and Athanasius was chased out of his native Egypt. However, to run contrary to him, is while Athanasius had a high christology, he lacked in a particular area. He spoke much of glory and little of the cross, not that the cross was totally absent in his thinking. However, there was an optimism that the Church was on the rise, the pagan cults would crumble, and the world would be at peace.
Sadly, he was flat wrong. Augustine, perhaps thankfully, was not left to blissful triumphalism as the Empire crumbled in his lifetime. Athansius’ did not have the fullness of the cross before him when he spoke of Christ’s glory. His focus on victory left out the suffering involved in it, the hard road in cross bearing. It’s paradoxical, and Athanasius certainly understood paradox, but his focus on the Incarnation at the expense of the cross left a hole in a realistic understanding of the curves of history. Again, not everyone would agree with my interpretation and I’m not a scholar of Athanasius.
Anyway, the overall change of glory theology and lowering Christ through it, became an insidious virus in the Church. In the histories of the Church, the biggest being from Lactantius and Eusebius, this view rang on every page. As Jean-Michel Hornus, a French Church historian put it:
“Eusebius and Lactantius took temporal power and victory as a sure sign of God’s grace and defeat as a sign of rejection. This surely is precisely the opposite of the gospel message”.
This message could creep up, and did, because Jesus had lost his prominence. Arius’ theology was a symptom of this. Jesus as Lord could be denigrated into a mere creature, and the Emperor elevated to a comparable level. He could approach that reality of being “Vicar of Christ”, and in the East, where Constantinople had become an icon of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Emperor was treated as Christ Himself!
Now besides just losing our status as pilgrims and letting power-politics dominate the Church, the sense of mission was also subsumed. Since the Church was swallowed by the culture and it became tied to it, conversion of the “enemy” became a means of conquest. Rightly so, kingdoms opposed to Rome, like Persia, became wary of the Christians. Sadly, that led to the persecution of Persian Christians as a 5th column from the Caesars on the Bosporus. Here Yoder speaks again on the effects of Christology:
“The development of a high Christology is the natural cultural ricochet of a missionary ecclesiology”
That is to say, when Christology is high, it is a sign that the Church is missions focused. Now he puts it the other way (loss of Mission -> low Christology -> Constantinianism), and he is much more antagonistic to Augustine and Luther because of it. Either way you shake it, taking Christ down from the Suffering King, Crucified and Risen Lord, to something less will invite the Church’s loss of mission and absorption by culture and state.
Whether it is framing Christ as a tool, a mere means of solving sin, of the “god behind the back of Christ” (as T.F. Torrance would phrase it) which is dominant in American evangelicalism, or whether it is in Unitarian or Arian rejection of Christ’s divinity, there is the loss of pilgrim identity. Another possibility is in Christ losing His very humanity as the Servant Lord. The last one seems to be rarer, but look again. When we assert Christ as mere King of Heaven, and a functional dismissal of Christ’s command to “go and do likewise” by thinking His commands are impossible to obey, we are apt to obey earthly kings and wring ourselves free from His teachings. He said “If you love me, you will obey my commands”. We lose Christ when we don’t see His life as a political leadership (i.e. that what He teaches effects how we operate in society, in the ‘polis’ or city).
The mission to outreach suffers because we tie our hopes to the success of Rome. If our Empire dominates, if our culture flourishes, then we make disciples by that very act. People will conform to our way of life, which means adopting our religion. Christ becomes a mere icon of the State. This is a denial of the catholicity of the Church and also that this Kingdom is not of this world. It becomes a Christian form of Islam, Mormonism or Zoroastrianism: a state religion with one god, a cultural mission and a prophet attached whose teaching is respected. Yet, Jesus is not a mere prophet, but King of Heaven and Earth, the very I AM who spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and led him and his people through the desert as a pillar of cloud and fire.
Ultimately, as with most posts, I believe that every teaching of the Church must find its ground in Christ. Otherwise, mission will begin to slip away as we snuggle into bed as a function of culture or state. There is a form of Christianity that does this, and it is not faithful. Much of that has lost its candlestick. Even if you don’t agree with my conclusions or interpretations, I think we can still agree about this very centrality of Christ. If He is lowered, we have nothing but sentimentalism and worthless theism.