Monday, January 11, 2010

Yoder, Constantinianism and the Church

Following on from Graham's post about Christendom, I thought I would post something on the related but not necessarily identical notion of 'Constantinianism'.

In “The Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” John Yoder elaborates on a problem that he sees as endemic to the ambiguities of Christian faithfulness and the widespread failure to take up the discipleship call of Jesus. It is a theme that pervades Yoder’s writing. The ‘Constantinian’ problem derives its name from the first ‘Christian’ emperor Constantine who encouraged and received close cooperation between the Church and the civil powers. It is not Constantine himself who is named as ‘culprit’ for this turn of events since the trend was in evidence earlier than his reign, yet he is seen as a kind of paradigmatic figure of this kind of relationship between Church and Rulers. There was an earlier ‘incipient Constantinianism’.

Yoder’s process of deconstructing this problem of addressing the whole of society as though they were Christians is enabled through the series of contrasts that he draws between the primitive Christian understanding and that which became entrenched after Constantine’s time. A new ecclesiology resulted when the visible minority of convinced believers was subsumed in the religiousness of the social whole and made invisible. A new eschatology resulted from locating God’s primary action in the world through the powers, the new ‘servant of the Lord’. A new universality appeared that dealt with “Everyman” as he or she happened to be. A new metaphysic developed to account for the practical dualisms that emerge from such political arrangements.

Yoder recounts how, all too often, the effect of such an approach (as a trade-off for having some civil power) was to create a two-tiered ‘Christian’ ethic. There is firstly the standard ‘lowered’ for the ordinary person, a ‘mere morality’ of ‘goodness’ that asks for honesty where ‘realistic’ and conscientious attention to one’s social standing or ‘vocation’. Typically, such an approach seeks justification, again, in terms of ‘wider wisdom’ such as ‘nature’ or ‘creation’. Whatever the appeal, the effect is typically the same: the radical intervention of Jesus is relativised and minimised.

Then there is the higher calling for the especially enthusiastic who have the leisure or opportunity to put aside the ‘realities’ of the everyday and pursue the perfectionist vision of Jesus. But, as Yoder always seeks to remind us, the vocation to discipleship is not an option and ought not to be thought justified by an analytical split, say between justification and sanctification. Christian ethics, properly understood, in Yoder’s view, means addressing first the community of disciples and not ruling out the ways that ‘Christian ethics’ can speak more widely.

According to Yoder, this ‘Constantinian’ problem persists even though it has metamorphosed through history. Yoder’s task was to unmask this distortion and then to revision church and world in the light of the New Testament.

In his Stone lectures at Princeton, Yoder consolidated a number of earlier themes in scattered occasional articles to articulate more systematically an authentically Christian social vision that centred around the ecclesial community rather than the society at large but which turned the tables on H. Richard Niebuhr by suggesting that the Anabaptist vision and ecclesial practices were the true transformers of culture. Beginning with a section from the Church Dogmatics IV/2, Yoder claims that Barth is perhaps the only mainline theologian “for millennia” to take seriously as the “starting point for ethics” the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord: a confession that the Christian community makes but which the ‘civil community’ does not. It is the “only necessary dualism” for social ethics.

Christian social ethics begins with the exemplarity of the ekklesia as foretaste/model/herald of the kingdom. The embodiment of the Christian social practices in the Christian community means the kingdom is more than promise and implication since it has already begun by grace. In Barth’s terms, it means that social ethics, practices and institutions as the world sees them, have ceased to be the “last word.” There are instead new possibilities: “not merely in heaven, but on earth, not merely one day, but already.”

The Christian community in its own ‘order’ sets forth toward providing an exemplary social practice, provisional as it may be. It does not constitute another realm from the wider society or ‘the State’. In Yoder’s words: “The people of God is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.” Both ekklesia and State are public, outward, bodily, and historical. Further, they both fall under the lordship of Christ.
“What believers are called to is no different from what all humanity is called to. That Jesus Christ is Lord is a statement not about my inner piety or my intellect or ideas but about the cosmos. Thus the fact that the rest of the world does not yet see or know or acknowledge that destiny to which it is called is not a reason for us to posit or to broker some wider or thinner vision, some lower common denominator or halfway meeting point, in order to make the world’s divine destination… more acceptable or more accessible. The challenge to the faith community should not be to dilute or filter or translate its witness, so that the ‘public’ community can handle it without believing, but so to purify and clarify and exemplify it that the world can perceive it to be good news without having to learn a foreign language.”
The old 'sectarian' charge cannot properly apply when  this is understood. In Yoder's words:
“This should suffice... to state the confessional and christological logic of the claim that the order of the faith community constitutes a public offer to the entire society.”
If we do not take the vocation of the Christian community seriously to be an alternative but parallel society, planted in the midst of the present order, our witness will be reduced to a vapid recommendation of 'values'.