Christendom and Church

If the history of salvation did not simply begin a long detour in the fourth century, we must be able to account for the continuity of the church before and after Constantine. We are accustomed to viewing the establishment of Christianity as the official creed of the Roman Empire as marking a radical break with the church's past, and it did. But there is a deeper continuity, insofar as the church had always thought of itself as a body with political significance. The Constantinian shift was not from other-worldly to worldly church, from Christ-against-culture to Christ-of-culture, from sect-type to church-type. Rather, the shift was in the way Christians read what God was doing in salvation history. Oliver O'Donovan's work is helpful not merely because it makes a positive account of Christendom possible, but because it makes the Constantin-ian shift explicable. Fourth-century Christians did not simply become drunk with power and move the church off its foundations. Many Christians now imagined that God had finally brought the governmental powers under God's rule, and thus the church's political task had changed - perhaps temporarily - from martyrdom to government (O'Donovan 1996: 215-17). Constantine was not the beginning of political theology, but rather represented a shift in Christian thinking and practice regarding how the kingdom of God was being made manifest in the world.

The long experiment with Christendom that followed Constantine finally and definitively crumbled in the twentieth century. The contemporary ferment of political theology can be understood as an attempt once again to reimagine what God is doing with the principalities and powers in the present age. The separation of the church from the means of violence is - I think rightly - generally accepted as a good. If we are not to build an account of Christendom on the abandonment of the church by the Holy Spirit, however, we need to say more than that Christendom is a diversion in the search for the proper form of the church. Constantine does not represent the mere "fall" of the church from some pristine state of righteousness, nor does Christendom represent an unfortunate intermingling of two essentially distinct things - theology and politics, church and state - that we enlightened people of modernity have finally managed properly to sort out and separate. What is lumped together under the term "Christendom" is in fact a very complex series of attempts to take seriously the inherently political nature of the church and its instrumental role in the integral salvation of the world in Jesus Christ. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the church was left holding the bag, as it were, and people turned to their local bishops as judges and protectors. As kingship developed, occasions for conflict between church and temporal rulers increased, primarily because kingship itself was viewed theologically as a scripturally and liturgically sanctioned office of order within the people of God. Conflicts between civil and ecclesiastical authorities were due not to the confusion of essentially distinct responsibilities but, on the contrary, to the inherent inseparability of church and politics (Tierney 1964: 1-11).

Nevertheless, although we cannot simply dismiss Christendom as some terrible mistake of the Holy Spirit, the ambiguities involved in Christian wielding of coercive power eventually brought the experiment of Christendom crashing to earth. In the Augustinian view that dominated the early Middle Ages, coercive government was not natural to human being, but with the Fall became necessary because of human sinfulness. As long as an eschatological focus could be maintained, it was possible to view the use of coercion by the temporal authorities as only temporarily necessary while we await the fullness of the kingdom of God to be realized in a new heaven and a new earth. Thus Augustine taught that the "earthly peace" enforced by coercion could be made use of by the civitas dei as something merely borrowed and temporary:

The heavenly city, or rather the part of it which sojourns on earth and lives by faith, makes use of this peace only because it must, until this mortal condition which necessitates it shall pass away. Consequently, so long as it lives like a captive and a stranger in the earthly city, though it has already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as the earnest of it, it makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered. (Augustine 1950: 695-6 [XIX. 17])

The difference between spiritual and temporal authority is a difference of time, not space; spiritual authority deals with the eternal, temporal authority with the provisional measures necessary between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. Politics remains projected onto salvation history.

With the waning of the Augustinian view and the rediscovery of Aristotle and Roman law in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, there begins the process of turning the temporal into a space, one that will eventually be seen as standing outside the church. Coercive government is endowed with permanence; it is not an unfortunate necessity based on the contingent reality of human sinfulness that awaits the consummation of Christ's kingdom, but rather a natural and inevitable feature of human society based on the intrinsically social nature of human being. According to Aquinas, it is "natural" for human beings to live in the society of many, but such a multitude would disintegrate "unless there were a general ruling force within the body which watches over the common good of all members" (Aquinas 1949: 5-6). This sense of the naturalness and permanence of coercive government is captured by the rise in the later Middle Ages of the terminology and reality of the "state," a static and permanent institution that stands separate from both ruler and ruled (Skinner 1978: 352-8). At the same time that temporal authority was thus losing its eschatological reference and becoming "spatialized," to use Catherine Pickstock's term (Pickstock 1998: 135-66), the temporal was also being redefined as a space essentially separate from the spiritual. In the investiture controversy, kingship was effectively stripped of its liturgical reference in order to safeguard the independence and superiority of the spiritual authority of the church. With the passage of time, however, this would prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for the church, because it set the stage for the rise of a self-sufficient and autonomous civil authority that would be sacralized on its own terms, quite apart from the church (Kantorowicz 1957; Cavanaugh 1998: 212-21).

The ambiguity and tension of the earlier Augustinian view of coercive power as an intra-ecclesial mode of restraining sin thus broke open into a complete split between coercive power and spiritual authority, or between power and love. In the modern era, the national state would arise as the autonomous bearer of lethal power over bodies, and the church would take its place as the caretaker of souls. Temporal and spiritual would come to occupy distinct spaces; the temporal referred to certain things - politics, business, etc. - and the spiritual to others - conscience, sacraments, and so on. Christianity would become interiorized as a "religion," and the modern distinctions between religion and politics, church and state, would become institutionalized in the secular nation-state. This process would be fully completed only in the twentieth century. Not coinciden-tally, the twentieth century produced a tremendous flourishing of theologies of the political, as Christians attempted to puzzle through the political implications of the Gospel after Christendom. The church has finally been freed from Christendom, from the ambiguities of the wielding of coercive power. We have not, however, been freed from the question of the political nature of the church. Political theologies are built on the recognition that we cannot submit to the privatization of the church. What role they leave for the church, however, varies greatly.

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