Surrounded By Constantinians

Constantine the GreatThere is some excitement in some quarters over the question of whether the United Reformed Churches confess the revised or unrevised version of the Belgic Confession. There is no evidence from the minutes of the URCs, of which I’m aware, that speaks to this issue. Further, there seems to be a lack of awareness that Article 36 of Belgic Confession has been revised since the late 19th century. Here is an account of how the Belgic has been revised. Part 1, part 2 (and a Heidelcast). Since the early 20th century most Reformed Churches have repudiated the notion that the magistrate should enforce Christian orthodoxy. Nevertheless, there are some Reformed folk who’ve given up on the experiment of civil-religious pluralism and who want to go back to Constantinianism, the arrangement whereby the magistrate establishes a state church and enforces Christian orthodoxy. Ironically, if we read the 4th-century decrees associated with the legalization of the Christian church in the Roman empire, they did not establish the church nor did they enforce orthodoxy or punish heretics. They made it legal to be a Christian and they restored property to Christians that had been stolen from them. The state did endow some churches and it didn’t take long before there was a church-state complex which we know as Constantinianism. By the high middle ages it was virtually impossible to tell the Pope from a King and often princes were prelates.

The Constantinian church-state complex began to break down in the 17th century but the assumptions behind it were powerful and continued well into the 20th century. It is the assumption of Constantinianism that often lies behind talk of Christian America or America as a Christian nation. It is fact that several of the colonies had established churches and it is true that there were, for a time, state churches under the US Constitution but there was not a federal church by design of the the founding fathers. Over time existence of state churches was challenged and they were disestablished by the early 19th century. As modernity leavened the culture, Christianity was gradually displaced as the reigning paradigm. Some scholars of American religion have argued that America was predominantly “Christian” only for a brief period in the 19th century. For more on this see the essay on Sister Aimee in Always Reformed. Today, though Americans are still either Deist or Theistic and many still think of themselves as Christians, few are probably able to give a coherent account of the Christian faith or worldview.

Many Reformed folk who advocate for a return to some version of Constantinianism don’t seem to be aware of how it developed, that it was historically conditioned nor do they seem to be aware of how it often it backfired on the Reformed Churches. Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), however, was aware and was quite right about it.

That the acceptance and carrying out of this principle almost always has returned upon the heads of non-heretics and not the truth but heresy has been honored by the magistrate.

One of the more ironic evidences for Kuyper’s claim is the martyrdom of the author of the Belgic Confession, Guy de Bres. He was put to death in 1567 by the state because of his Protestantism. He has opportunity to resist and he did not. He was committed in principle to Constantinianism and it took his life. If we have to choose between Kuyper and the Constantinian, right-wing, neo-Kuyperians, we should side with Kuyper.

The other day, WSC student Tim Graham pointed me to a link by Joe Carter and thence to an essay by James Kalb, in the Catholic World Report, which argues for a return to Constantinianism. Kalb understands exactly what that means. He uses that very language to describe his proposal. He writes:

The Gospel is the Gospel, and to mention it is implicitly to bring in whatever is necessarily connected to it—including the Church. With that in mind, the principled objections to a Catholic society don’t stand up to much thought. All men are unjust, except maybe a few saints, most actual Catholics put their main efforts into worldly goals, and harsh things could be said about the Church as a human institution. It is nonetheless right for believers to think of themselves and their communities and institutions as Catholic, even though there may be some less-than-saintly things about them.

The interesting thing is that this is virtually identical to the way the case for neo-Constantinianism is being argued: it’s a consequence of the Gospel. If we’re to be consistent with a Christian view of the world, we must say that the Christian faith touches (transforms) everything and that means that there must also be Christian government. Kalb is a Romanist and so he wants a Romanist government.

A Catholic society could, for example, be liberal and democratic in many ways. Liberal goals and institutions are often good, but only up to a point and not as the highest standard. So the judiciary could be independent, accused persons could be tried by jury, high officials could be chosen by popular vote, and there could be extensive freedom of discussion and belief. The point is that pure choice would be limited by the public good, as it always is in one way or another, but the public good would be determined in a Catholic rather than techno-hedonistic sense.

By “liberal” he doesn’t mean political leftist, as the word is frequently used today. Rather, he means something like pluralist or tolerant. He’s sketching a vision in which the neo-Con Reformed folk would be tolerated. One wonders how the neo-Cons Reformed folk like those apples?

Or we could pay attention to history and realize that there are good reasons why we don’t want to return to the bloody religious wars that plagued the West for so long. Does anyone really want to turn the USA into Northern Ireland of the mid-20th century? On principle our paradigm should not be the 4th or 5th or 13th centuries but the 1st century. As Kuyper reminded us long ago, that the NT is utterly lacking even a shred of evidence that the apostles ever expected the magistrate to establish a church or enforce Christian orthodoxy.

That the Lord and the Apostles never called upon the help of the magistrate to kill with the sword the one who deviated from the truth. Even in connection with such horrible heretics as defiled the congregation in Corinth, Paul mentions nothing of this idea. And it cannot be concluded from any particular word in the New Testament, that in the days when particular revelation should cease, that the rooting out of heretics with the sword is the obligation of magistrates.

There is much not to like about modernity but since the 18th century at least we have been able see the error of Constantinianism. Calvin and others theorized that the Lord has instituted two spheres, one spiritual and one temporal, in which he administers his sovereignty. They theorized, however, in the context of powerful, virtually inescapable Constantinian assumptions. For them, it was not a matter of whether there would an established church but which church would be established. A little more than a century after the Thirty-Years War (1618–48) we began to see that it might be possible to make public space a shared realm, where the magistrate is an umpire who relies on the perspicuous laws (“We hold these truths to be self evident”) of nature for his rule book and where citizens are free to live out their Christian faith according to the dictates of conscience without civil interference or establishment.

It may well be, in late modernity, that the pendulum has swung the other way, that Christian socio-political advantage has turned to disadvantage and that is bound to provoke a reaction. The return to Constantinianism seems to be part of that reaction but it is a mistake. Christians should be engaged with the prevailing culture. We have a right to be concerned about whether we are once again becoming scapegoats. Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life talked about the phenomenon of abusing Christians in the popular media.

The correct response, however, is not to seek to re-acquire civil power over pagans and papists but to be good citizens, keep the social compact, and to point them to the King whose kingdom is not of this world but whose kingdom is most certainly in this world and is manifested by believers in their daily lives and officially represented by those divinely established embassies where his Word and covenants signs and seals are administered.

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  1. As a former “Constantinian” who used to embrace a mild form of theonomy, I can say that Kuyper’s argument against Constantinianism from the observation that our Lord and His apostles never called upon the magistrate to enforce the true faith by the sword would be viewed by such Constantinians as an invalid argument from silence. After all, they would say, our Lord and His apostles lived in a historical and socio-political situation where they were in no position to make such a case (living as they did under the government of the pagan Roman Empire). I recall this kind of argument from silence being addressed and refuted often in the theonomic literature, and those of a transformationist, theonomic or constantinian mindset are not likely to be swayed by it.

    In my opinion the best avenues for reasoning with those of a constantinian persuasion include: Making a good exegetical case for the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom; seeking to explain both the unique redemptive-historical functions of the OT civil laws and the “preservationist” (as opposed to “transformationist”) role of non-theocratic civil magistrates; and pointing out (as you do in this post) the negative historical “fruits” of the constantinian paradigm (for example, the persecuting principle, religious wars, the damage such religious violence has done to the church’s gospel testimony, etc.); not relying upon questionable arguments from silence.

    • Hey Geoff,

      I agree that arguments from silence can be problematic but I find this one compelling because the NT does actually speak to how we are to relate to the civil magistrate, how the church is to advance her mission, how the gospel is to go forth, and to how the kingdom operates in the world. The fact that no where does the NT encourage believers to use civil power to advance the mission of the church, to spread the gospel, or to enforce orthodoxy is notable. After all, the apostle did speak to civil rulers and he never once even suggested it. Were we to think that magistrate should do such things, surely the apostle would have added just a line in Rom 13?

      For the purposes of the NT instruction to believers, which was intended to teach not just the first-century church but the church in all ages, there’s no reason that the apostles would not have said, “Look, I know things are difficult now but with the spread of the gospel they will improve and when they do…” but there is nothing of this sort. Indeed, the Revelation seems to have been written to address this very point, to say, “Look, things will sometimes be difficult between the ascension and return of our Lord. He’s a great story, told from a variety of angles, to describe the nature of our life in the interim.”

      Further, it’s compelling to me that the early post-apostolic Christians never taught or anticipated the Constantinian state-church complex. Constantinianism was never a matter of principle. We developed justifications after the fact, in light of the changing circumstances. Arguably, even though there were some benefits to the church, it led us down a 1500-year cul-de-sac, for most of which, the church began re-instituting Moses (a form of the sacrificial system) not only in its worship but also in its relation to the magistrate.

      I think we can agree on this point: in the absence of any clear teaching in or even any necessary (or possible) inference from the NT that the magistrate should establish the church and/or enforce religious orthodoxy, there are no possible grounds on which pro-Constantinians may accuse anti-Constantinians (e.g., Abraham Kuyper, that liberal!) of infidelity to the Christian faith.

  2. Didn’t read the whole thing yet, but watched the youtube; I don’t regularly listen to This American Life, but if others are familiar, I’d appreciate links to particular episodes that Glass may be referring to in terms of trying to provide more honest coverage of Christianity in America. For starters, here’s the Haggard/Prayer Shield episode mentioned…

  3. I think the issue boils down to a disagreement as to what laws are ceremonial and what laws are moral. Lots of study and work needs to be done. As Christians we are called to take every thought captive to Christ and to cast down reeasonings and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God. We are called to be holy in all manner of living. I know of only one place to go to find out what kind of behavior is holy. The civil magistrate will be judged by God`s reveled word, not some notion called “natural law”,as if God has two standards.
    For there to be a change in the political order, a change where God`s law is seen as true justice, regeneration needs to occur in the hearts of men and only then will a gradual transformation take place. Of course one`s eschatology will play a role on how they see there task.

    I loved Dr. Clark`s sermon yesterday morning….he presented the Gospel in crystal clear terms and words…AWESOME.

    Thanks for allowing me to speak. Psalm 119:160

    • Hi Ron,

      Thanks for the encouragement. To be clear the natural law is God’s law. That’s what Paul says in Romans 2:14–16:

      14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges bthe secrets of men cby Christ Jesus.

      Paul did not prosecute the pagans on the basis of their deviation from the 613 laws given under Moses but on the basis of the clear moral law revealed in nature and in their conscience. According to Paul, that law will convict them at the judgment. It’s a just basis because it’s known.

      The Reformed confessions refer frequently to natural revelation and natural law.

      Our Reformed theologians have taught the existence and abiding of the natural law.

      It’s God’s law. It’s not subjective. It’s objective and, according to Paul and the Reformed churches and theologians, we all know what the law is.

  4. For there to be a change in the political order, a change where God`s law is seen as true justice, regeneration needs to occur in the hearts of men and only then will a gradual transformation take place.

    Given how the HC says that not even those converted to God can keep the law perfectly and that even the holiest men have only the smallest beginnings of obedience, one wonders how the above sentiment, while very popular, isn’t pure religious fantasy. Does one generation of believers pass along their meager sanctification to the next (only the that small group called the holiest, mind you, since most of us aren’t, in which case not exactly overwhelming) so that there is some sort of cumulative affect on society? Or is grace really that stuff the medievals talked about, leaking out our fingertips and sanctifying all we touch in the civic and common order?

    It’s an appealing idea, this inside-out social transformation narrative. But it’s not obvious how it passes the tests of reality and abiding human sin. Even believers are part of the problem. The above suggestion seems like the socio-political version of personal therapeutic spirituality–sanctification easily translates into collective self-improvement. But the Christian faith isn’t therapeutic deism. For a more sober and edifying account about how the world actually works and how transformationalist notions are closer to sophomoric than sophisticated, see Hunter’s “To Change the World.”

  5. Dr. Clark,

    The implementation of the Establishment Principle into society by the church seems too often come down to God’s Law – especially the first table. Rom. 2:14-26 includes the whole of society being bound to this law – but how? If all are bound in the same way in all circumstances then the church should implement the means through the civil magistrate to keep it as it was intended. Such a Reformed Magistrate would allow no idol worship, no images, no profaning of God’s name, and keep the Lord’s day holy as a rule of law for society for all times.

    This principle would bear upon society “circa sacra” where the two ministries, church and state, keep true to their own sphere. Like the Reformed Covenanter’s apply their Two Sons of Oil doctrine in Zech. 4.

    However, if the two ministries in society do not act “circa sacra” in concord with one another the civil government would not be considered legitimate. Like in Hosea 8, “They set up kings, but not by Me; they made princes, but I did not acknowledge them.”

    Typically, I view the doctrine of the doctrine of civil magistrate in its unrevised fashion during the Reformation in this light. A good self-respecting Covenanter nowadays would not acknowledge Obama as a duly constituted magistrate. In other words, God did not set him up or acknowledge him apart from his temporal civil duty – he rules according to natural law not duly constituted. If he were an acknowledged magistrate duly constituted in the Reformed Religion he could rule according to the dictates of the first table for all his subjects “circa sacra” alongside a duly constituted national Reformed Established church. Not to mention the second table but this isn’t usually in question.

    But here’s the rub if you give credence to the Establishment Principle. The laws of magistrates are outward and civil. In Hosea’s day the kings were to be set up this way. We cannot now submit to the civil laws of Israel. The moral law had an outward civil duty attached to it in Israel upheld by their Magistrates or else God would not acknowledge them.

    Similarly, the Solemn League & Covenant of the three kingdoms set up a similar system to that of Israel. The moral law had outward civil duties attached to it.

    Until we properly understand the law/gospel distinction I do ot believe this issue can ever properly be reconciled. Whenever we attach outward law obedience or works as a compliance issue into society to bring about the terms of the gospel we effectually place ourselves back under the spirit of bondage which will only entice us more to sin, further corrupt society and diminish the finished work of Christ.

    • Zrim,

      I’m asking about this bit in italics

      For there to be a change in the political order, a change where God`s law is seen as true justice, regeneration needs to occur in the hearts of men and only then will a gradual transformation take place.

      I took that as a quotation.

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