I’m currently reading Chris K. Huebner’s A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, And Identity. In an essay called “Mennonites and Narrative Theology,” he provides an excellent summary of what Yoder did–and did not–mean by Constantinianism. Since I think that thinking through Constantinianism is one of the key tasks of the church today, I thought that I would post it:
Perhaps the most recurring theme in Yoder’s theology is his depiction and critique of “Constantinianism.” In short, Yoder argues that the history of Christianity must be read in light of a deep and lasting, though often subtle, shift that took place with respect to the relationship between church and world, and which he claims is best associated with the reign of Constantine. Whereas pre-Constantinian Christianity was that of a minority church existing in a world that was largely hostile toward it, Yoder claims that the Constantinian shift resulted in an alignment of the church with the ruling political regime of the day. In other words, Constantinianism represents a fusion of church and state, clergy and and emperor, Bible and sword, God and civil authorities, or the general continuity of Christianity with the wider world. As Yoder himself describes it, the structure of Constantinianism is rooted in the “basic axiom” that “the true meaning of history, the true locus of salvation, is in the cosmos and not in the church. What God is really doing is being done primarily through the framework of society as a whole and not in the Christian community.
It is important to recognize the sense in which Yoder identifies the Constantinian temptation as existing even in a supposedly post-Constantinian context, in which the church is officially separate from the state. Short of the actual institutional alignment of church and state, Yoder claims that Constantinianism continues where there is merely a formal identification of the church with the prevailing political establishment, as in American public discourse. It is equally present when the church is enlisted in support of a program of desecularization, as in the “people’s democracies” of Eastern Europe and one hears echoes of Constantinianism where eschatological hope is construed in terms of the triumph of some future regime, as in certain Latin American neo-Marxist revolutionaries.
What is characteristic of all these strategies is that they compromise the lordship of Christ by identifying God’s cause in some way with the powers of the political establishment. Accordingly, Yoder calls for the church to resist such a Constantinian temptation by embodying the counter-establishment character and corresponding critical stance called for by the “politics of Jesus.” He maintains that it is only through its concrete presence as an alternative community that the church can truly serve as a witness to the world.
Huebner, A Precarious Peace (57-8)