Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Confusion of Constantine, part 1

I've begun reading Peter Leithart's "Defending Constantine", and that will probably occasion a series of posts out of me. Today I want to launch off on a related tangent and give something like a short redemptive-historical account of political theology in my own understanding.

If you've heard me preach on the theme of 'A Kingdom of Priests', you'll have the genesis for this structure. In 1 Peter, Exodus 19, Genesis 1-3, and Revelation 1 we have the interweaving of two roles, two spheres, that of dominion (kingship) and priesthood (sacral representation). What this means in the Garden is that Adam & Eve bear God's image to rule in his place, and re-present his presence in Eden. The absence of mention of what lies extra-Garden leads me to conclude that Genesis 1-2 contains a kind of proto-mission, that without the Fall unfallen Humanity would have extended God's rule and presence co-terminously with a spread of the Garden until the two covered the earth.

The Fall, obviously, introduces a rupture into that, but the missio Dei that follows bears a strikingly similar pattern, but now shifted in to the key of the OT. Here we see God constitute for himself a nation, starting with Abraham in Gen 12, but culminating in the Passover-Exodus-Sinai movement that truly defines Israel. In Exodus 19:1-6 we again see this dual dominion and priesthood idea, and now Israel plays that role to the world, exhibiting God's presence and exemplifying God's rule.

It's very important at this point to understand that the OT Covenant Community holds two elements that later appear distinct. That is, for Israel there is no real division between the national/political, and the spiritual. To be saved is to be an Israelite. To become a believer is to become an Israelite. The worshipping community is the nation. In the Old Testament the notion of separation of 'church' and 'state' is so nonsensical as to be ridiculous.

The story of Israel is, in many real terms, the story of Israel's failure. The remnant of 'true' Israel is whittled down, until there is one man standing. Jesus embodies the remnant of Israel, *is* Israel, and ultimately fulfils what it means to be King and Priest. In Christ, then, God works to bring his dominion and presence to all creation, and a counter-movement is begun in the gospels that points to the end (in Revelation) when all creation will be under his rule and experience his presence in the Lord Jesus.

Also begun in Jesus is the re-constitution of a new Israel. But at this point something truly novel occurs. The national/political dimension and the spiritual aspect are severed. The church, as this new covenant community, 'translates' several OT categories into a 'spiritual' key. For example, the church is composed of members of all the nations. To enter the church no longer requires the assumption of a singular national/ethnic identity. The church, while in many respects a 'nation', it bears none of the marks of nations - it lacks an earthly territory, it lacks an earthly king, it lacks an earthly military force; and yet it certainly is a kingdom, it has constituents, it has a king. Whereas in the OT community the ultimate act of judgment is the death penalty, in the NT community the ultimate act of judgment is not physical punishment, but spiritual death in the form of excommunication.

And so post-Ascension there exists a new 'political' body in the world that continually confuses. The church as a kind of 'polis', or even 'imperium', continually causes problems. It's primary problem-causing factor is that States tend to absolutise themselves, and allegiance to Christ is trans-national and already an absolute, so that Christians will always be suspect of disloyalty. Indeed, it's true to say that Christians are always potential traitors to earthly empires. At the same time, the very doctrines of the New Testament place Christians in submission to all earthly powers, and they have surrendered the 'weapons of the nations', so that earthly nations *ought* to have nothing to fear from believers. The fear that empires have of Christianity is (almost) always misplaced.

The New Testament does not, I would go so far as to say cannot, imagine a reality where Christians are in political ascendancy. It is too far removed from the 1st century situation. That's one of the reasons Christians disagree so much about post-New-Testament politics. The position I'm outlining here sets up at least a trajectory though, in viewing the Christian church as a real but unique political entity that is radically different to all earthly nations, and by nature in constant tension with those empires.

In the next part I will speak about how the reign of Constantine 'confuses' this reality, why it does so, and how its effects linger to this day.

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