Why Study the Past?

To be fair, not a lot of Anabaptists study the history of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. As one professor of mine comically noted, “that’s when everything went wrong!”

So the question remains, why study the past? (I have directly lifted this question from the title of a magnificent little book by Rowan Williams. I have no desire, nor the ability to compare my thoughts here with Williams skill and insight.) As a member of a tradition that evaluates the shifts of the church marked by the conversion of Constantine and the acceptance of Christianity as an imperial religion this question is much more specific. Why spend so much time on a age when we already think that so much went wrong?

Any answer to such a question should make a simple, though nuanced distinction. There is a difference between telling the story of what happened and making a judgement about the appropriateness of what happened. When John Howard Yoder, and other Anabaptist writers, summarize the events of what we often call the Constantinian shift they are making an assessment of those events. Basically, they are asking not what happened but whether what happened was good. The historian, on the other hand, tells the more fundamental story of what occurred, without (as much as possible) judgement. Ironically, the former work is dependent on the latter. 

As an Anabaptist historian of the Constiantian age I frequently struggle with the stories told by likes of Yoder. I am clearly sympathetic with the judgement, but do see how such stories are more rhetorical than they are true. Basically, the judgment clouds how the historical narratives are understood. The problem is, of course, that the wider theological claim is too easily dismissed by others as poor history, or barely supported by the historical record. 

This is not to say that judgement is not warranted, but those with a historical awareness have developed the skill of assessing what is in the record and what is a matter of current concern. In other words, I can narrate the changes of the 4th and 5th centuries, but I also realize that my judgement is constructed on the later implications of those changes— the investiture controversy of the Middle Ages, the Peace of Westphalia in the wake of the Thirty Years War at the dawn of the Reformation, and the cultural Christendom of the United States. My problem with the changes has less to do with the changes themselves, but with the ways they played out over the following centuries. 

More specifically, I think the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries have much to teach us as we experience our own cultural shifts. Not only were these centuries formative of much of Christian belief and practice, but the shift towards power seems to offer much to ponder as the Church slips from the privilege it gained. 

First, Constantine does not become Christian out of nothing. Certainly his mother’s engagement with Christianity has much to do with his acceptance of the faith. Yet, for a woman of such power and status to even play with the faith so persecuted means that the church was already rising in its own status long before 313. Even while the persecutions were under way under various efforts, the apologists tasks of legitimizing Christianity in the early centuries and the attractiveness of the Christian ethic spread the faith far beyond the poor or marginalized. Basically, good Romans were coming to the faith before Constantine made Christianity an official religion. 

This is not to say that toleration and acceptance were the only results of Constantine’s conversion. In the following years theologians, and even Constantine himself, began a process of synthesizing the Christian and Roman narratives. Piety, a key virtue for both cultures though defined in different terms, soon linked good Christians with good Romans. Even the council of Nicea, and Constantine’s later support of Arians, was a matter of imperial concern. The church could not be divided since the empire must be united. This was not just a political calculation by the Roman emperor, it was a theological claim based in both Christian self-understanding and Roman imperial religion. Division and conflict was a sign of the gods’ dissatisfaction with the empire. Writers like Eusebius of Ceasarea worked hard to pull the two traditions together in order show not just continuity but also a kind of Divine favor. Basically, what was promised in Christ’s return was coming to pass in the “Christianization” of Rome. 

In short, the logic of a people sojourning within a dominant culture shifted. Now the Empire was a fulfillment of God’s plan. It is not all that hard to imagine Christians of the time celebrating, even welcoming such changes. The threat of persecution was vanishing, and the there was no more need to fear reprisal by neighbor or govenor. Whether or not they agreed with the theological shifts exemplified in Eusebius, the peace of Constantine was a pleasant new reality. Why not welcome the culmination of cultural privilege?

That same logic of Imperial Christianity is still with us, even as the vestiges of cultural Christendom crumble. There are those who would claw their way back to the culture articulated by Constantine and Eusebius. There are those colonialists who would link evangelization, the sharing of the good news, with the spreading of political ideology. There are those who would see the nation-state remain a religiously legitimized institution, even if that religion is a kind of generic Christianity without the trappings of particular denominations. Though I’ll refrain from judging the intent of writers like Peter Leithart, who recently published a book with the glowing title of “Defending Constantine,” I do think his version of the story reflects this impulse. Even Leithart notes he is writing to confront the rhetorical historicism of the likes of Yoder and Hauerwas. Yet, it is striking that his portrait of Constantine is painted in decidedly democratic terms. In Leithart’s story Constantine comes across as the model of democratic virtue, tolerant and peaceful, concerned with the virtue of his realm, and working toward a balanced application of Christian values in the culture. Never mind the dramatic shifts in logic and practice, or the fact that culturally he remained the Augustus of the Empire and presider over the imperial cult. In short, the clear contradictions are glossed over in a kind of prefiguration of a Jeffersonian politician. 

Leithart asks the wrong question- was Constantine a Christian? Whether he remained fully Roman or tried to emulate and establish the faith of the early martyrs, the shifts in theology and practice matter more. Even with Leithart’s defense, we moderns must ask if these shifts were “good for the church.” Can they even be harmonized with the scriptural witness to Christ and the first Christians? Is it possible to see the faith as an Imperial Religion and still call Jesus Lord?

As Christian power and privilege wane, I think these shifts of the early centuries have much to teach us. From where did the assumption that Christianity and political power were best held together come? How might we untangle some of these assumptions that continue to be rolled out in the rhetoric of the Christian nation? How did we get here? And what do we do now that those assumptions are no longer culturally valid?

I have my own arguments to answer these questions, but it is first important to say that we, who are comfortable and welcome this next cultural shift, need to know the past. It is not enough to point to Constantine and proclaim “therein lies the problem.” Rather, we need the better story of how the theology, logic, and practice shifted, and how others of the time forged different ways even as Christianity took the throne. We need to understand Imperial Christianity in order to better tell the story of a Christianity as an alternative politic in our current time. By studying the past, even the outcomes of those happenings with which we so strongly disagree we better understand the logic and theology that we confront day to day, here and now. 

It isn’t so much about what Lord Acton famously said, that we might be doomed to repeat our past, but rather that we comprehend the thick portrait of who we are now by tracing the lines through the centuries. In other words, good theology is built on good history. 



Filed under Theology

4 responses to “Why Study the Past?

  1. Scott Holland

    A smart post, Josh, for any and all who find themselves asking what God might be doing not merely in the church but also in the world. Anabaptists, generally speaking, have had a high theology of the church and kingdom but a low theology of creation and culture. They have celebrated Christology at the expense of neglecting a nuanced theological anthropology and a robust cosmology.

    “Was Constantine a troubled soul or a troubled politician?” This is often posed as a rhetorical question by Anabaptist influenced professors and preachers assuming we know the answer. But like us, he was likely both. Even those of us with the most convinced theology of separation of church and state really don’t believe in the separation of spirituality and public or cultural life. This invites movement from ecclesiology to reflections on the possibilities of public theologies and theologies of culture.

    Many, many years ago when I was a pastor, not a professor, I composed a proposal for an Anabaptist public theology. The “Anabaptist” editors of American Mennonite and Brethren scholarly journals told me flatly, “Anabaptism would reject the quest for a public theology as flirting with Constantinianism.” However, the Canadian Anabaptist editors, late disciples of Marpeck, phoned me from Waterloo and quickly published me.

    Now, of course, over 25 years later, I teach “public theologies” at an Anabaptist-Pietist affiliated seminary as the joys of sects have faded and the churches are falling like dominoes across the country.

  2. Joshua Brockway

    Don’t you think Scott these weaknesses in cosmology and especially anthropology come from a lack of creeds? I am not for making any creeds normative, but the reaction against them seems to me to break off parts of the history and continuity. Instead questions from the body have to be raised from within the Brethren via cultural means, and then it takes some time to find out that the early Christians departed significantly from the Greek schools with a theology of resurrection.

    Ah, and the flirting with Constantinianism….. Too easily dismissed, and thus too easily repeated.

  3. Scott Holland

    If the creeds are understood as contingent, confessional summaries of theology rather than disciplinary codes, yes. However, they tend to become barriers to bio-historical theological construction. But then, non-creedal communions do the same with Jesus.

  4. Josh, ever the advocate for thick descriptions and kicking rhetorical crutches out from under intellectually lazy and/or apathetic church folk. I dig it…

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