Yoder on Constantinianism

I’m currently reading Chris K. Huebner’s A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, And Identity. In an essay called “Mennonites and Narrative Theology,” he provides an excellent summary of what Yoder did–and did not–mean by Constantinianism. Since I think that thinking through Constantinianism is one of the key tasks of the church today, I thought that I would post it:

Perhaps the most recurring theme in Yoder’s theology is his depiction and critique of “Constantinianism.” In short, Yoder argues that the history of Christianity must be read in light of a deep and lasting, though often subtle, shift that took place with respect to the relationship between church and world, and which he claims is best associated with the reign of Constantine. Whereas pre-Constantinian Christianity was that of a minority church existing in a world that was largely hostile toward it, Yoder claims that the Constantinian shift resulted in an alignment of the church with the ruling political regime of the day. In other words, Constantinianism represents a fusion of church and state, clergy and and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities, or the general continuity of Christianity with the wider world. As Yoder himself describes it, the structure of Constantinianism is rooted in the “basic axiom” that “the true meaning of history, the true locus of salvation, is in the cosmos and not in the church. What God is really doing is being done primarily through the framework of society as a whole and not in the Christian community.

It is important to recognize the sense in which Yoder identifies the Constantinian temptation as existing even in a supposedly post-Constantinian context, in which the church is officially separate from the state. Short of the actual institutional alignment of church and state, Yoder claims that Constantinianism continues where there is merely a formal identification of the church with the prevailing political establishment, as in American public discourse. It is equally present when the church is enlisted in support of a program of desecularization, as in the “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe and one hears echoes of Constantinianism where eschatological hope is construed in terms of the triumph of some future regime, as in certain Latin American neo-Marxist revolutionaries.

What is characteristic of all these strategies is that they compromise the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s cause in some way with the powers of the political establishment. Accordingly, Yoder calls for the church to resist such a Constantinian temptation by embodying the counter-establishment character and corresponding critical stance called for by the “politics of Jesus.” He maintains that it is only through its concrete presence as an alternative community that the church can truly serve as a witness to the world.

Huebner, A Precarious Peace (57-8)

Liturgy and Constantinianism

David Fitch excels in raising issues that need to be thought about, and has done so again with When Liturgy Goes Bad: Constantinian Liturgy in a Post-Constantinian World.

I am certainly someone who has been attracted to liturgy because of the emotionalism inherent within a non-liturgical free church tradition, where spontaneity bears a burden larger than I believe it can handle. But moving from (so-called) spontaneous worship forms to more liturgical forms might simply exchange one set of problems for another. This is particularly because established liturgies were largely formed in a period often dubbed “Constantinian” by those who follow the work of Yoder and Hauerwas. (Read a helpful brief on the Anabaptist critique of Constantinianism)

In short, the problem is that these liturgies make too many assumptions about the world we’re living in and the relationship of the church to power which range between unhelpful and destructive. I myself am still wrestling through these issues, and I’m glad that David has articulated them so succinctly. As always, problems and solutions are more complicated than choosing from two available options.

Here’s the opening couple of paragraphs from Fitch’s post:

I am a strong advocate of liturgical worship as the centerpiece for spiritual formation for missional communities. (As I wrote in the Great Giveaway) Over against the lecture hall or the feel-good pep-rally worship that has driven so much of Christendom evangelicalism, we gather to worship God as a holy transformative immersive engagement with God that shapes us for life with God and Mission.

Sometimes however, there is a danger in liturgy that must be discerned. We realize the inadequacies of modern evangelical worship practices for our day, and then we go immediately to high church practices (Anglican/Roman Catholic) and adopt high church liturgy as it is and impose it on a bunch of people who have no idea what we’re doing. In the process, our liturgy becomes inaccessible, foreign and imposed (in a Constantianian way which I will explain in a minute). And this is where I think most people get turned off to liturgy. This is why liturgy is incomprehensible to so many emerging types and they just reject it. Or, even worse, in a reaction to its imposed and inaccessible forms as found for instance sometimes in Roman Catholicism, emerging folk turn liturgy into trite new age experiential exercises. This is a problem for those of us who desire to go beyond lecture hall-ism and feel-good pep-rally-ism and proceed into the depths of encounter made possible via liturgical formation.

When Liturgy Goes Bad: Constantinian Liturgy in a Post-Constantinian World