Monday, October 26, 2009

Ellul on Constantine


"After his victory at Milvian Bridge, faithful to his promise, Constantine favors the church from which he has received support. Catholic Christianity becomes the state religion and an exchange takes place: the church is invested with political power, and it invests the emperor with religious power. We have here the same perversion, for how can Jesus manifest himself in the power of dominion and constraint?" (124)

Ellul goes on to say that this alliance between the church and the empire is essentially a capitulation to the temptation which Jesus refused, the offer of the kingdoms of the world by the devil.

But granted that the power of God is manifested and perfected in weakness, granted that wisdom is manifested and perfected in fools, granted that God displays his riches through poverty, etc., is there no place for vindication in history this side of the final judgment? In other words, can there be no resurrection in history for God's people before the final resurrection? Does God never give earthly authority and influence and even power to His people? Yes, the answer may come back, but only in weakness, only in suffering, only in giving up power. But, I retort to myself, that's not what Jesus has done. Jesus did give up his life, he did humble himself for a time but this was so that He might be granted all authority and power. When He ascended into heaven He did not refuse the throne on grounds that power was only found in weakness.

We can ask this question from the other way around: will heavenly/eternal glory still be manifested in weakness and suffering after the final resurrection? Of course it is now, but what about in the eschaton, when death has been swallowed up in victory? Doesn't the removal of every tear from every eye imply that the cross is finished/completed in history and that the human race may enter that final rest? Or will our crowns not really be crowns? Is there a complete inversion of values and no resurrection?

So didn't Jesus assume authority and power over all the nations of the earth after His resurrection and in His ascension? How has Jesus not himself capitulated to idolatry? And if the answer is that He has gone about attaining this power in the *right* way, how was a couple of centuries of persecution and martyrdom not a sufficient cross to bear for the infant church? Why can't Constantine (for all his miserable failures) be an answer from God, a vindication, a resurrection in the middle of history that points, however faintly, to that final glory?

Maybe Ellul would grant this and still complain; I don't know. He goes on to enumerate all the ways political alliances can and tend to compromise the church, and I'm happy to acknowledge lots of what he says there as all too painfully true. I just don't see how we can conclude even with all the mud in the water how it makes sense to throw the baby out as well.

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