Although it is sometimes shallowly thought of as a victory, the imperialization of Christianity in the time of Constantine has had a darkening influence for 1,700 years. Many thinkers have referred to the fallout as the “Constantinian Temptation.” Thinking of it as a lens, Lee Camp has dubbed it the “Constantinian cataract” in Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003). Camp, whose book I highly recommend as exceptionally insightful, shows at many points how that cataract has affected vision negatively through the centuries.
Karl Barth, who resisted aspects of the Constantinian Temptation/Cataract with great fortitude from within Hitlerian Germany, said this to his former students, after his dismissal from an academic position for refusing to swear uncompromising allegiance to Hitler in 1934:
And now the end has come. So listen to my last piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and more exegesis!
It is a rather short quotation, and I don’t have its context, but I take from it that Barth was seeing that a truer orientation to textual exegesis can be a preventative medicine. Barth’s relegation to the ranks of the unemployed was directly related to the Hitlerian regime’s unwillingness to entertain dissent, and I think it’s curious and noteworthy that Barth chose the admonition to exegete as a response (“weapon”?). I submit that he likely recognized, at least at that point, that a physical victory—whichever side it should be won by—would be ephemeral. He seems to have been more deeply interested in things that would last longer.
I don’t know the extent to which Hitler controlled the Lutheran hierarchy and other churches in Germany, but any church-state alliance is bound to accomplish at least two things:
- make a bunch of people in the state angry
- sink the church into yet another iteration of Constantinian visual impairment
To connect Christianity to an empire (Roman, German, American, or any other) is, at best, to institutionalize it and to rob it of its origins, its intentions, and its power. Eschatological hopefulness must win out over temporal hopefulness.
When we are brought alive by faith, we know that our dying age—with its wars and exploitation and dehumanization, with its dictators and despots, with its popes and spiritual potentates—shall pass away; indeed, the judgment of God has already been passed upon it.
– Franklin Littell, “The Power of the Restoration Vision,” in The Primitive Church in the Modern World, ed. Richard T. Hughes.
The judgment of God is certainly a negative in this context: no hopefulness appears with regard to “dictators and despots” or anyone in positions of political power. Yet believers—no matter the particular millennial position espoused—may cast an eschatologically hopeful eye into the future for one reason: we know Who holds the future.