Greg Boyd on Constantine’s influence on Christianity

Thanks to Richard Beck for directing my attention to Greg Boyd‘s 4th of July sermon, in which he decries the pagan influence that Constantine had on Christianity. Watch the video and then check out my comments below.

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Now, the main thing that you need to know about this video is that Boyd is wrong. Could I make that any more clear?

To develop that assertion a little more, let me offer  few additional comments:

  1. The church was not all pure and innocent before Constantine, and it wasn’t all corrupt and guilty after. Any time you hear somebody setting their narrative up with such clean distinctions, they are almost certainly wrong.
  2. Christians did not suddenly move from images of the crucified Jesus to the victorious Jesus at the time of Constantine. You can find both images before and after Constantine.
  3. Boyd’s claim that God would “rather be slain by his enemies than slay his enemies” is a great portrayal of God’s love and grace on the cross, but fails to take into account the rest of the biblical narrative in which God clearly demonstrates that he will not allow the rebellious to undermine his plans for the world (cf. Revelation).
  4. Boyd draws way too simplistic a distinction between the church before Constantine, which lived a beautiful, countercultural lifestyle of love, and the church after Constantine, which was all about power and coercion. Again, that simply is not historically accurate. At the very least, it fails to take into account the fact that the church was beginning to develop a more nuanced understanding of the church/state relationship even before Constantine came along. And, more importantly, it fails to consider the ways in which the church continued to resist and reject a simplistic wedding of church and state even after Constantine. Boyd’s narrative simply does not hold up to historical scrutiny.
  5. I’m not even going to comment on Boyd’s claim that the church “didn’t mind” being slaughtered because this life is “just a prelude to the real thing.”
  6. I could go on, but I won’t.

Now, to be fair (even though I don’t want to be), I should acknowledge that some of Boyd’s points are legitimate. I think the church absolutely should strive to imitate the love and grace of God as demonstrated on the cross. Although God will come and defeat his enemies in the end – ushering in his Kingdom and accomplishing his purposes – the Church is never called to accomplish any of these things for him. We are ambassadors of the Gospel, not “soldiers” of the Kingdom. And, the Church was unquestionably faced with temptations and challenges after Constantine that were new and that it was relatively unprepared to handle. But, it did not simply capitulate to the challenges nor did it surrender its distinct identity anywhere along the way. Did the Church make mistakes? Yes. And, it always will. But God remains faithful.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 21, 2010, in Historical Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’ve a soft spot for Greg Boyd, but he really does lose touch with historical complexity here. As modern Christians, we need more nuanced judgments on Constantine and his legacy. On the one hand, he made Christians the establishment, and within a generation or so they were persecuting their rivals. But on the other hand, his reign brings Christian principles to bear on the Empire, leading to the end of gladiatorial combat, animal sacrifice and various other practices that a pacifist like Boyd deplores. He should read Peter Leithart’s new book, Defending Constantine, which is more historically serious that the caricatures one finds in Hauerwas or Yoder.

  2. I once referred to one of my teachers in Seminary as having “the gift of over-simplification. That sort of thing does seem to be going on here with Greg Boyd. The shift from Church as persecuted and misunderstood minority to Church as established and state authorized was huge, and certainly had implications for Christian thinking and for Christian history.

    Is your objection here that he has over-stated and over-simplified the issues or do you see something more substantive here? In your view, is this a contrast that needs to be nuanced or rejected?

  3. Good question Craig. It was pretty sloppy of Boyd to have said the thing about living for the next life, therefore they “didn’t mind” being killed. And it doesn’t fit with what I’ve heard from him, either.

    But I certainly think Constantinianism is a serious problem with the church, and I think Marc here has done a bit of oversimplification himself in this post, coming awfully close to a false equivalency re: the faithfulness of the church (there were some who were faithful, and some who were more susceptible to re-interpreting the church’s mission as more “accepting” of the state, or even in cooperation with the state. I don’t see that the history indicates an even balance there. I do see a distinct shift in the popularity of an idea of Christians “having permission to kill for the state” (in that it is much more difficult to find early church fathers who did not reject participation in war. Constantine “populafrized” and “baptized” this notion). This is true to such an extent for American Christians that it is often difficult to tell whether they are more interested and passionate about “defending America” than they are in how the church manifests itself. I remember a story by a religion reporter at the Southern Baptist Convention noting how the most emotional moments for the participants was when they sang “America the Beautiful” after Condi Rice had addressed the convention. Not matters of theology and being the church, but “America” brought the most depth of feeling. I have noticed the same thing myself. More people pause and stand at attention and take off hats, etc. for the National Anthem at sports events than church atendees during prayer at a worship service, and more dirty looks are given to those who don’t stop in their tracks and pay homage than are given to people who get up and leave during the benediction so they can get to their cars.

  4. The main point I was trying to make in the post was historical. When assessing the significance of Constantine, one really needs to look closely at what changes actually took place after his conversion and how much of this he was uniquely responsible for. I think a good argument can be made that even before Constantine the church had become a significant force in the empire and its continued growth would have eventually led to a rethinking of its understanding of church/state relations even without Constantine. And, the conversion of any emperor would have resulted in an immediate reconsideration. It’s important to remember that very little of the early church writings were on church/state as such, but on church and pagan state. That’s a very different issue that needs to be nuanced accordingly.

    So yes, the main point that I was trying to make is that Boyd (like many others) oversimplifies the narrative by making Constantine the dividing line between a relatively pure, peaceful, and missional church before and a corrupt, violent, institutional church after. There are elements of all of those both before and after.

    Now, having said all of that, I do think that the church made a number of unfortunate decisions as it navigated its new situation (I think we need to work much harder really to understand their situation before labeling their decisions “mistakes”). And, given everything that it had to deal with at the time, I don’t find that terribly surprising. But, I don’t think that they were as compromised or as co-opted as Boyd suggests. Even Augustine had a much more nuanced understanding of church/state relations that Boyd suggests, and though he did (unfortunately) authorize the use of state force in church matters, it was only after considerable struggle and angst. I think it would be far more appropriate to see these individuals as godly men and women trying to make the best decisions they could in impossibly difficult circumstances. We can and should assess their decisions critically, but we should also do so charitably.

  5. Dale, I actually agree with much of what you say about the “Constantinian” danger of mixing Christian identity and national identity like we see in a lot of conservative evangelicalism. As a Baptist with deep sympathy for (some of) the Anabaptists, I’m no fan of state churches. But, I do like church history and I think Constantine and the church of his day has gotten a bum rap too much of the time.

  6. John, I’m just getting into Leithart’s book and I’m planning to post a review when I’m done. I’m having to read it cautiously since (as this post demonstrates) I’m already somewhat sympathetic to his argument. But I’m enjoying it so far, which is no surprise since I think Leithart is always a joy to read even if you don’t agree with him.

  7. Marc,

    Thanks for the replies. While I would agree that if Constantine hadn’t done it, then someone would have, he got the distinction, since he was the first to “nationalize” Chriatianity (at least the first significantly large empire to do so). He is also singled out since the “Roman empire” became the “home” of the church heirarchy. I consider myself to be with Stanley Hauerwas on this one. If you haven’t read him, he is one you won’t want to miss.

  8. Marc,

    One to check out from Hauerwas is “After Christendom?: How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas”

  9. Dale, thanks for the interaction. I have read some of Hauerwas’ work, but I have to admit that he’s been on my list of people that I need to do more with for too long now.

    As I’ve been reflecting on this a bit more, I think another concern I have with criticisms of the “Constantinian shift” is the tendency to talk about all subsequent developments as though they resulted directly from this. And, this leads to rhetoric that make sit sound like if we could just undo the shift, we’d be fine. But, I think we’d be better off recognizing that Christians in every age and every culture struggle with the question of how their Christian identity relates to their national/cultural/ethnic identity. And, there will always be a temptation to conflate them. We can see signs of this struggle even in the NT texts themselves. So, rather than talking about a “fall” of the church at Constantine, let’s look at the difficulties that they faced and the answers they came up with, learning from their example (both positive and negative) as we struggle with the same questions in our own time.

    • “…the tendency to talk about all subsequent developments as though they resulted directly from this.”

      Right. It becomes too easily reductionistic. In fact, you could actually level the same kind of historical narration at Boyd. e.g. “A mega church embodies the very aspects of imperialism and victory that you decry. It is the logical outcome, ecclesially, of Constantinianism.”

  10. Marc,

    I guess there’s no way to separate this out now. Constantine was the pivotal one that created the “tangent” we are on now (kind of like the Back to the Future “tangent” in Part Two, where they couldn’t go into the future from where they were….I guess we’re talking here about going back to the “pivot point”(ie Constantine, in our case)…..but we don’t have a Time Machine either. Historically, I don’t think it’s so OFF LIMITS to do this. Just like the Communications change that happened after the Printing Press. Constantine represents a point not from which EVERYTHING results, but a cultural shift that shot off many tangents , which then diverged and divided again at the Reformation, and again , for us, at the point of “The New World” and multiple times more in the offshoots and results of the American colonial experience, frontier, and then back out to the world as the U.S became the global power. I don’t think we’re talking BLAME here as much as a shift in thinking, and the permission to think this way.

    • True, we don’t want to go off on speculative tangents and try to develop some theory of how things would have gone if only…. So, the only thing we can do is look at history as it actually unfolded. And, there’s no question that Constantine played an important part in that story. I think “shift in thinking” is a good way of describing what we’re talking about, though I would still describe that shift very differently from Boyd and its significance very differently than Boyd.

  11. If you want the best representative of Boyd’s thinking, skip Hauerwas and read Yoder (which is where Hauerwas got it). And if you want actual history, read Leithart’s new book “Constantine,” which deals directly with this type of thinking. Also, Stark notes that by the time of Constantine, one could statistically (he is a sociologist after all) guess that almost half the empire was Christian. Constantine was just a good politician (“Cities of God”).

    I dare to say that Boyd, et al. are committing a source fallacy (I think, I get my fallacies mixed up sometimes). I’m all about studying the history of the church, but at some point if you are going to argue for the right-ness of a position, where it came from doesn’t matter.

    At the end of the day:
    Christians killing people = bad
    Blaming it on Constantine = irrelevant
    Living like Jesus anyways = duh

    Also, for further reading: Robert Louis Wilken, “In Defense of Constantine,” First Things 112 (April 2001): 36-40.
    and
    http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/the-polemical-nonsense-about-constantine-a-follow-up-on-peter-leitharts-new-book-defending-consntantine/
    http://gratefultothedead.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/another-layer-of-the-onion-imperial-accommodation-all-bad/

  12. Yes, Leithart’s new book: Defending Constantine, etc. challenges both the work of Hauerwas and Yoder. Simply a fine new read and conclusion on Constantine!

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