Does Christianity Need Christendom To Thrive?

John Millbank is a theologian and the leader of an influential school of thought known as Radical Orthodoxy. Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology was published 20 years ago by Millbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward. According to R. R. Reno, the Radical Orthodoxy project seeks to synthesize the insights of French Post-Structural Theory (i.e., Deconstructionism; E.g., Jacques Derrida, 1930–2004; Michel Foucault, 1926–84) with a

Christian perspective that will supersede and replace secularisms both modern and postmodern. Their goal is to uncover a “new theology,” new because it renounces the mediations and compromises of so-called modern theology.

They want to turn Postmodernism against itself by using it as a vehicle to return to, as Reno observes, “Augustine’s vision of heavenly peace, made effective in the dynamic and binding power of divine purpose, that shapes Radical Orthodoxy’s reflections, not Nietzsche’s violence wrought by an omnipotent will-to-power. “

It is a great, perennial debate whether universals (“the one”) or particulars (“the many”) are more fundamental to existence. In the Medieval period there were two competing theological schools organized, in part, around this question. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) argued for the priority of universals and for an identity between names and things. In class I summarize this point of view with this slogan: “We call things what we call them because they are what they are.” We call a chair what we do because it has the essence of chair-ness. There is a real relation between the name and the thing. In the 14th century, this view was strongly criticized by the nominalists, who argued that the relation between names and things is a mere convention, i.e., it is made up and can be changed at will. Today, the deconstructionists say that everything is merely a construct, a convention to be de-constructed (and remade).

The marriage debate is a good example of how this debate plays out socially. Someone with a more realist bent argues that marriage, by definition, by nature is the legally recognized union between a man and a woman. The nominalist (or deconstructionist) argues that the idea that marriage is limited to males and females is a mere social construct to be taken apart (deconstructed) and “revisioned” into a more inclusive social construct. Since we made it, they argue, we may re-make it in our own image. We are gods, as it were. For Derrida et al words do take on fixed meaning but that happens through the exercise of power—this theory is why it is so difficult to have a civil conversation these days. Every time a traditionalist says “x is true” the postmodernist accuses him of seeking to “impose” a view or otherwise exercise power. Ironically, under this theory power is being regularly wielded by the state and other institutions seeking to impose “diversity,” whereby dissenters (e.g., think of a bakery that refuses to cater a gay wedding) which is really a form of conformity. We see this when universities ban conservative speakers in the name of “diversity.” Reno explains. According to the Deconstructionists, words “have determinate meaning, and therefore retain influence in our lives, argues postmodern theory, because their meanings are enforced by the exercise of power.” If the reader is familiar with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), this should sound quite familiar.

Millbank et al want to use deconstructionism to deconstruct postmodernity, to go back to universals grounded in the nature of things. They want to go back to Plato or rather to neo-Platonism, which undergirded a good bit of what Aquinas assumed about the nature of things. They want to go back to universals. Reno says,

Radical Orthodoxy hopes to recover Neoplatonic metaphysics as an explanation for the glue that holds the world together. Something can be what it is—a unit of semantic identity or meaning, a person, a social practice—and at the same time depend upon and reach toward something else. Or more strongly, something is real only in and through this constitutive dependence and fecundity. For the Neoplatonist, you, or I, or the value of my moral acts, or the meaning of this essay, are as emanating from and returning to the One.

One expression of “the one” is community and participation in community. Millbank wants to “to substitute a Christian and participatory account of the glue that holds the world together for the postmodern and violent one.” This works itself out in a vision of society. Recently Millbank tweeted:

Christianity in Europe has declined since the Fifties when it was starting to revive because of catastrophic theological and ecclesial delusion. Mainly that Christianity can be thinned out, privatised and separated from a truly Christian social and political project: Christendom. For if Christianity is seen as something just private and marginal then no one understands what it is nor its relevance. The Church is the real ultimate polity and mediator of cosmic governance which works through mediated and continuous mutual atonement.

With the very brief bit of background provided above we can see the significance of what Millbank is saying. As an American (and thereby somewhat biased culturally against the very idea of “Christendom”) and a historian, I was struck by the assumptions behind and dichotomy implied in these tweets.

I quite doubt that Christianity was starting to revive in Europe in the 1950s. We might argue that the evangelical movement, composed of Anglicans (e.g., J. I. Packer, John Stott) and dissenters (Martyn Lloyd-Jones), in the UK was flourishing in the 1950s but the rest of the church was flagging and had been since World War I. We agree, however, that European Christianity was beset with a “catastrophic theological and ecclesial delusion,” Modernism, which devastated the church there just as it devastated the so-called Seven Sisters of the Mainline in the USA.

I understand the limitations of Twitter (280 characters per tweet) but one frequently see’s Millbank’s juxtaposition between “Christendom” and “privatised” Christianity. There is, of course, an alternative: God’s “twofold government” (duplex regimen) of the world. Under this doctrine, God sovereignly rules over all things but administers his sovereign rule in two distinct spheres, the sacred and the secular (the common realm, shared by believers and unbelievers). Since Calvin articulated these distinctions some things have changed. When he wrote it, he laid the theoretical basis for an application that he himself did not foresee. He assumed Christendom, the state-enforcement of religious orthodoxy, to which Millbank seems to want to return. Proponents of Christendom seek to trade the state enforcement of Deconstructionist orthodoxy for a renewed Christendom.

This writer wonders, however, whether people realize the role that Christendom had in producing the current state of affairs? Perhaps we might not have a reigning Postmodern, deconstructionist orthodoxy had we no Christendom to start? After all, as Darryl Hart has been reminding us for years, Christianity came into the world without a state-enforced Christian orthodoxy. Christianity was not imposed by the state until Theodosius I in 381. In the supreme example of what the U. S. Supreme Court would call, in Lemon v Kurtzman (1971) “excessive” entanglement of church and state, the church became, effectively, an arm of the state. Through the Middle Ages, Christianity spread through missionaries and through the agency of civil magistrates. The culture became nominally Christian and Christianity, in too many places, became nominal.

The Americans would eventually, formally, gradually renounce Christendom in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet, despite the death of Christendom in the New World, Christianity has, relative to Europe anyway, flourished whereas it has languished in the Old World. Arguably, Europe moved from the state-church to no church. The church was so identified with the culture that when the culture was rejected the church was rejected with it.

This is all quite ironic because one of the most persistent pleas of the earliest Christians was to be allowed to distinguish religion (and the church as an institution) and culture. The pagan Romans had a state-religion. The Christians were martyred in the 2nd and 3rd centuries because they refused to bow the knee to the state-religion. They asked for permission to be able to worship Christ and to be law-abiding citizens but the Romans demanded outward conformity. Ironically, it is they who actually privatized religion because they did not demand that the Christians actually believe that Caesar is a god nor did they demand that the Christians actually believe in the Greco-Roman pantheon. They demanded, however, that the Christians observe public religion for the sake of public order. The refusal of the Christians to cooperate infuriated them. The Greek and Roman critics of the Christians called them “haters of humanity” because they were so stubborn and so willing to die for Christ.

It was when Christianity became “public,” when whole villages were “converted,” i.e., when the state religion was changed over night, when the ruler converted to Christianity, that the public witness of Christianity was dramatically altered. Christians had hitherto engaged society as resident aliens, as the writer to Diognetus put it c. 150 AD. When Justin Martyr defended the faith to the pagans, he did not argue that Christianity ought to be imposed as the state religion. He only asked that the Christians not be murdered for refusing to honor Caesar as a god—most Romans knew Caesar was not a god— and for refusing to worship the pantheon. He argued that the Christians were good citizens, that they kept the Roman civil laws and that they kept their own, biblical laws. Indeed, the discipline among the Christians was so strict that he promised the pagans that were a Christian found to have violated civil law he should be left to the church to discipline him, who would discipline him more harshly than the pagans would.

The Christians engaged the outside world. Some were active in civil government. Others were teachers and many were ordinary workers and slaves. They did not truly privatize their faith but neither did they seek to impose it by force upon others. There is no evidence at all in the New Testament nor in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that Christians wanted or sought to make Christianity the state-religion. They understood that the Mosaic state-church was a temporary arrangement that had ended with the death of Christ. Barnabas, Justin, and Irenaeus explicitly recognized that the Mosaic covenant was temporary and illustrative of Christ—not a pattern for civil life after Christ.

Indeed, when in 311 and again in 313, Christianity was recognized and legalized it was not made the state religion in the empire. Property was returned to the Christians and Galerius asked the Christians to pray for him (just in case there was something to their religion). Constantine made Sunday a holiday—he did not invent the Christian Sabbath. He funded a few church buildings—to which the Christians would have done better to decline politely.  Christianity was attractive, in part, because the Christians were distinct from the prevailing culture. In the letter to the Diognetus (c. 150), the writer argued that the Christians had some things in common with the pagans (language, dress, food) but they were distinct in religion and in ethics, the way they lived. The Christians shared everything but not their wives (chapter 5). In contrast to the pagans, the Christians did not leave their children on the stoop to die of exposure. Other Christian writers noted that, unlike the pagans, the Christians did not practice abortion. They lived quietly. They irritated the pagan businessmen for what they did not do: buy meat from the butcher to offer to the idols.

The Christians did not hide from the world but neither did they seek to “transform” it through social programs. They announced the existence of a transcendent, multi-national, multi-ethnic kingdom, which did not impose  by force, whose King was crucified and risen on the third day. That King has a multitude of angels but he did not call them to save him from the cross. His Kingdom required him to die, to be raised, and to ascend to the right hand of power. There he reigns and by his Holy Spirit effectually calls, through the public preaching of the gospel, his elect to new life and to true faith. That Spirit is sanctifying his people and they seek to live quiet and godly lives (1 Tim 2:2), as good citizens, keeping their “conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when the pagans speak against them, the pagans “may see” the “good deeds” of the Christians “and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12; see also 1 Pet 2:13–21).

The realists and the nominalists, the Platonists and the Deconstructionists, are both wrong. We need the one (universals) and the many (particulars). There are universals. Marriage is what it is because God has instituted it in nature. This world is not essentially random, chaotic, and meaningless. There is order. It has meaning but it is also true that Christians live in two spheres simultaneously and it behooves us not to confuse them. We seek to be good citizens in both spheres, to honor the king appropriately and to serve Christ the King by not confusing passing civil societies for the Kingdom of God.

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  1. I’m not sure one must employ Foucault or Derrida to return to reality and truth. Francis Schaeffer stood on the reality of antithesis = objective truth, the objective reality of truth versus falsehood, good versus evil. He coined the phrase True Truth to speak to the fuzzy-minded world of eternal truth grounded in the triune, eternal, living God. It seems to me that when one entertains novel ideas, one is easily led astray. The church fathers, those who hammered out creeds and confessions, those faithful to orthodoxy and the faith given once for all to the saints, had no need of post-modernism turned on itself.
    If, however, Reno et al. speak of using the techniques of modernism and postmodernism to prove their utter folly, I suppose that is an age-old debating technique. I am uncomfortable with turning it into a titled movement.

    • Lola,

      Reno is not advocating Deconstructionism or Radical Orthodoxy. He is simply reporting on it. It’s a good survey and worth reading.

      I agree, we do not need Deconstructionism to get back to truth. We should follow Tertullian: “I will contest the ground of my opponent’s appeal” and “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

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