Hauerwas’ Inner Constantine

  1. What is Constantinianism?
  2. Hauerwas: Constantine’s Mini-Me?
  3. So… what is a real antidote to Constantinianism?
  4. How is such a position possible?


I continue to struggle with Hauerwas’ sense that he is not “Constantinian”.

“Constantinianism” takes its name from the 4th C Roman emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337 AD), who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and set it on the path to becoming the empire’s official, state-sponsored religion. Under his successors, Christianity became deeply integrated into the political, legal, and cultural structures of Roman society. Eventually, in the late empire (and in its medieval successor states), state citizenship and Christian belief became virtually synonymous. The empire became viewed as the earthly mirror of the heavenly kingdom, and the ruler as God’s appointed representative on earth (under the tutelage of the clergy, of course!). Religious dissent became an offence against the state, and the divine mission of the state and the divine mission of the church were understood as inextricably linked.

Today, Constantinianism usually refers to any arrangement in which the church has become “established”. This means the church has become an official, privileged and public institution of society, generally with special protections and powers and enjoying some degree of financial support. In such situations, the church becomes, in effect (and sometimes literally), a department of state in charge of religion and morality. Its clergy are effectively (or literally) civil servants. The national identity is usually associated with church membership, and the Christianization of all elements of society is understood as an ideal to be striven for.

In return for such privileges, an established church provides the state with religious support and moral legitimacy. Historically, this might mean assuring that the correct cult is performed (critical for assuring military success, avoiding natural calamities, providing good harvests, etc.), praying for the state authorities, bolstering the national identity, legitimizing social structures, articulating and enforcing public morality, or supporting the ruling ideology (e.g. monarchy). The church might also become responsible for providing some social and even governmental services.

It is also possible to speak of Constantinianism where formal establishment doesn’t exist. Here Constantinianism is more of an attitude whereby churches conceive of themselves as responsible for the moral and spiritual welfare of the nation, and so still seek to direct the nation’s religious life. No longer part of the state apparatus, churches now attempt to play a role in the public square as an institution of civil society, using advocacy and moral suasion as a means to affect public policy and behavior. Underwriting these activities is the Constantinian belief that the transformation and improvement of the socio-political sphere are intrinsic to Christian theology – and that Christian beliefs provide the best, most responsible, and most effective foundation for socio-political advancement. In such an understanding, churches still conceive of their basic modus operandi as adopting and transforming – “baptizing” – the best of a culture’s moral, social, and political fabric. Often this type of Constantinianism is accompanied by significant providentialism: to take a classic example, American Christianity and American democracy are conceived as advancing together to usher in a new stage of human flourishing.

Constantine’s Mini-Me?

At first glance, Hauerwas appears to be radically opposed to such ideas. Under the influence of John Howard Yoder, and Anabaptist theology more generally, Hauerwas repeatedly rejects the idea that churches should integrate themselves into the structures and mores of their societies as a means of transforming those societies and advancing Christianity. For Hauerwas, such attempts always result in the dilution and “selling-out” of core Christian beliefs – particularly the commitment to radical non-violence.

Hauerwas believes that churches should instead serve “the world” (an important and omnipresent concept in Hauerwas) best by simply being themselves in the most genuine and authentic way possible. This means forming tight-knit and disciplined Christian communities where Christian ethics can be empirically practiced and enforced – where the divine law can be followed, pacifism made a reality, and virtue visibly increased. In short, Hauerwas believes that the church best fulfills its mission in the world by creating alternative polities/societies where true holiness can become manifest. Although he rejects the term “sectarian”, there is little doubt that his ideal Christian communities are distinct and separate from society as a whole – rather like the “old order” Anabaptist communities.

I would contend, however, that in this vision Hauerwas has not shed Constantine’s legacy nearly as much as he thinks. He has simply repackaged it.

The central instinct of classical Constantinianism is to permeate and transform the entire creation – to “swallow up” the world, to assimilate it, and to make every element of it Christian. Constantinians seek to turn the whole cosmos into the Kingdom of God here and now: “heaven on earth”. They believe that Christian holiness must and can be realized concretely in the human realm. They recognize, of course, that this can now be accomplished only imperfectly, but they nevertheless believe that the process and movement towards the concrete divinization of the creation is what really counts, and is what is essential for authentic Christianity. Critically, they believe this process of endless training or askesis must encompass not only the inner life of the person but also the broader social and political realms. Theology is thus intensely political by its very nature: it naturally finds expression not only in personal belief and morality, but in the very organization and structure of human society. Laws, social structures, cultural expressions, and political systems – everything can, and should be, Christianized. Ultimately, this vision is theocratic in the sense that all of society should be ruled by Christian beliefs, Christian morality, and, ideally, Christian people. It is also totalitarian in the technical sense of being “total”: everything is to become Christianized, private and public.

Hauerwas’ problem with all of this – at least as I read him – is essentially pragmatic: he thinks it hasn’t worked. In a nutshell, he thinks that the Constantinian attempts to assimilate the world into the church have backfired: the church has instead been assimilated into the world, and lost its critical particularity and essence. Christian society/polity, particularly in its pacifism, has been simply too radical for this type of large-scale assimilation.

Nevertheless, I think that Hauerwas in his heart of hearts still believes in this theocratic and totalitarian vision of human polity. He simply thinks that, to be effective, it has to be done on a much smaller scale. So his solution, like that of the Anabaptists before him, is simply to miniaturize it: to telescope this vision into small, elite Christian polities.

Hauerwas therefore advocates for the creation of micro Constantinian quasi-states – i.e. human polities which are thoroughly Christianized (= carefully regulated) in all aspects: cultural, political, moral, intellectual. Like an ideal Constantinian polity, these mini-states are meant to realize God’s kingdom here and now in a very concrete way. They are new Israels: God’s new elect people or nations (and here “nation” is understood relatively literally), journeying towards every more manifest holiness. Hauerwas does not, however, call these polities “states”; he calls them “churches”.

The only real difference between Hauerwas’ churches and classical Constantinian states is in how they interact with the “world”. Both think of the world as outside of the church, and in opposition to the church (so the church/world distinction is fundamental to both), and both ultimately hope for the salvation of the world. But classical Constantinianism thinks of the world imperially: the Christian state must “take over” the non-Christian world, conquer it, swallow it, transform it. Hauerwasian Constantinianism thinks of the world in terms of example and witness: the Christian state must be a “light on the hill”, a fortress of righteousness that will convert the world only by carefully maintaining and preserving its pristine holiness.

Another subtler difference – but very important – is that Hauerwas’ Christian church-states are more properly theocratic. Historic Constantinian states have almost always maintained an internal division between clergy and laity, church-as-one-institution and civil-government-as-another, with some division of powers. It’s been very rare for genuine priest-emperors or emperor-priests to emerge. In Hauerwas’ communities, however, any distinction between lay and ecclesiastical governance is much less clear. It is a bit complicated, since Hauerwas still sees his church-polities as co-existing with broader “worldly” polities, but within Hauerwas’ “church-states” church and community governance are apparently synonymous. Certainly it seems that Christians own their ultimate civil-political allegiance and loyalty to Hauerwas’ church-states, and therefore to their ecclesiastical (and, I guess, professorial?) leaders. Hauerwas’ churches certainly form very tight political-religious wholes. They suggest almost a Christian ummah.

So… what’s the real antidote to Constantine?

Hauerwas therefore at best represents a variant of Constantinianism. (This is not surprising given the late antique flavor of much of Hauerwas’ fundamental theology, as I’ve noted earlier.)

But what would an actual non-Constantinianism look like?

It is possible to counter Constantinianism much more profoundly, but to do so you need to identify more clearly the core theological axiom that animates the entire Constantinian enterprise: the conviction that salvation and ethical/political transformation are connected.

To slay the Constantinian beast – and not just domesticate it – you need to utterly sever this connection. You need to assert, with no equivocation, that as far as salvation goes – which means, as far as anything goes that really, existentially matters in the religious sphere – human ethics and human politics simply don’t matter. As far as salvation goes, human ethics is meaningless.

(To put it in Lutheran code, you must cleanly separate Gospel and Law, or justification and sanctification.)

When you sever this connection – which the Gospel of justification by grace alone does – the Constantinian enterprise collapses.

The rationale for creating highly controlled Constantinian polities – whether Constantine’s empire or Hauerwas’ “churches” – is the idea that it is religiously essential for the political and ethical life of Christians to conform to certain rules or norms. The Gospel is a law, and is a specific Christian politics. Therefore Christian life is necessarily about fulfilling and implementing divine ethical and political precepts. From this, the creation of Constantinian states follows as a matter of course.

But when you say that it is not religiously essential for Christians to behave in certain ways, in the private or public sphere, the whole thing unwinds. Ethics and politics might still be important, and Christians might advocate for distinctive positions, but their arguments no longer carry divine authority. Divine or religious necessity (and therefore power) is no longer attached to any form of Christian ethics or polity. Instead, when Christians argue for this or that ethical or political position, they understand that this is their human interpretation of what the consequences of salvation are. They understand that they are speaking as part of “the world”. They know that the Gospel itself is not at stake in such conversations – since the Gospel is quite beyond ethics or politics – so they know their discourse, although (they hope) inspired by God, is human. For them, political and ethical discourse is “demythologized”.

There are many consequences of this way of thinking. An important one is that Christians are suddenly able to function with full authenticity in a liberal-democratic and pluralistic political environment, since their voice is one human voice among other human voices.  But this is obviously impossible for any Constantinian, classical or Hauerwasian. Constantinians don’t believe they are (ultimately) speaking with human voices in the public square, so they can only make tactical accommodations for non-Christian voices. They can ultimately only convert others or separate from them, since to get polity/ethics wrong is to get the Gospel wrong – it is to get salvation wrong.

But how is such a position possible? 

This non-Constantinian vision, however, is almost impossible to comprehend unless you have a much more profound theology of sin – and a much more exalted idea of Christ – than is evident in Hauerwas (or Yoder.)

Constantinians like Hauerwas can never really accept that, as pertains to salvation, “all their works are rags”. Non-Constantinians, by contrast, realize that even their most exalted and virtuous works and communities remain as susceptible to sin and corruption as any other: when it comes to salvation, sin is a stain both inescapable and total, and renders all our works futile, political and otherwise. Christians don’t have a special leg-up before God in the salvation realm. Non-Constantinians might still allow that, in this world, we can speak of relative advances in virtue and human welfare – but, ultimately, before God, we know that our hearts remain dark, and all our works poisoned by selfishness, anger, despair, and so on. We are, in fact, ultimately condemned by our own ideals: our proclamations of mercy are made ruthlessly; our good works are made with expectations of reciprocity; our Christian communities become opportunities for control and harm; our love tends toward selfishness; etc. We always end up trapped by fear, death and the devil. In sum, we are always as much a part of “the world” as anyone else. So we must always look beyond our works, beyond this world, beyond ourselves, beyond our churches – however “virtuous” or “transformed” they may at times appear.

And so non-Constantinians, when they are speaking of salvation, of the Gospel proper, look to Christ alone. We believe that only Jesus is holy. Literally. Christians are not holy, the church is not holy, the scripture is not holy, nothing is holy but Jesus Christ alone. Only Jesus’ works save. Only Christ’s cross saves. There is thus no distinction between “church” and “the world”, but only that between Jesus and everything else, between Jesus and “the world” (and Christians are entirely on the “world” side of thing, of course!). And this means salvation can only be understood as a sheer gift of Jesus, with no reason or merit on our side at all. There is no half-way, no shades of grey when it comes to God’s gift of salvation. Whether sinful, or even if not sinful (if that were possible), our works mean literally nothing next to God’s gift. So with salvation there is no ethical/political process; no training; no transformation. There is no developing ourselves to make ourselves worthy. When it comes to salvation, all of these thoughts of process are in fact temptations – in fact, the temptation, to make ourselves become “like God”. No: salvation is God’s gift given to us, as humans, even in our inescapable sin. To stand before God we don’t need deification, we don’t need virtue, we don’t need Constantine’s empire, and we don’t need Hauerwas’ church. These are the “old man”, the flesh, the tendrils of our ancestral paganism. What we do need is but one thing, which we already have: Jesus. And that observation is the starting point of any real Christian ethics.

Up next: There’s Something Fishy about Hauerwas’ Idea of Church

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