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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thoughts on the Constantinian Shift

The uninitiated might think this blog is now venturing into the world of seismic geology based on this title, but alas I will be sticking with more familiar themes.  The Constantinian in the title refers to the Roman Emperor Constantine under whose rule the Roman Empire shifted to favoring, and ultimately making official, Christian faith, after three hundred years of disfavor and sometimes persecution.

Common Mennonite historiography holds that in Constantine, the church made a Faustian bargain (a deal with the devil) with the state, gaining the benefits that come with state favor, at the expense of being co-opted by the state as a tool for its competing agenda.  This view accurately reflects broad strokes of history, and is helpful in shaping our identity as Mennonites, but it also has some severe shortcomings that can impoverish our faith if we are not cautious in our embrace of it.

Some ten years or so ago, Notre Dame hosted a major academic conference on the work of John Howard Yoder.  After one of the sessions I came across Walter Sawatsky, history professor at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (of which I am a proud--in a Mennonite way--alum), who was beside himself at the tone of the discussion regarding this issue.  I remember him saying, "but we all come through Rome."  I have remembered that phrase.  We all come through Rome, meaning Roman Catholicism.

What Sawatsky critiques is the Mennonite tendency to think like the true and authentic church ended in the early fourth century with Constantine, then picked up again in January of 1525 when Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock in Zurich, as if the intervening 1200 years took place in an ecclesiastical black hole.  Peter Ochs argues in this recent book that for Yoder, the Golden Era of the church was limited to the primitive church of the first 125 years or so after Christ.  It is as if the 16th century Anabaptists, through sincerity, biblicism, and the power of the Holy Spirit, managed to pick up the lost thread of the Golden Era of the church, and revive its true narrative.  I suspect Sawatsky would call this nonsense or at least reductionistic.

The truth is far more nuanced.  Like it or not, the 16th century Anabaptists, and by extention 21st century Mennonites, were profoundly shaped by the 1200 intervening years which did not exist in a black hole.  The thread of church history linking the early church to the 16th century Anabaptists went through Hippo and Milan, Chalcedon and Nicea, Rome and Constantinople, Assisi and Aquino, Cappadocia and Canterbury. Even as the Anabaptists broke with Rome, they took most of their theological world view from the thought and practice of Christians who had gone before them.

What does this mean for us?  It means those 1200 years, for good and for ill, are our history.  It is disingenuous for us to dismiss the violent and unChristlike episodes of those years as somebody else's failure, but likewise we are able to claim the truly saintly figures of those years.  The rich history of music and worship is ours as well, as are the great thinkers and spiritual savants of those centuries.

To be sure, we look on the 1200 years through a unique Anabaptist prism, but we deceive ourselves if we pretend they are not relevant and distance ourselves from them.


Mike Garde said...

An important corrective, but also we need to claim our own heritage. We are generally liberal pacifists rather than Anabaptists!