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Posts Tagged ‘AgainstChristianity’


The final chapter of Leithart’s book is entitled “For Constantine” and I found this the most challenging chapter to read because of my prior bias against Constantinianism and Christendom.

Leithart begin by saying that the Church is to be a counterculture and to be on a subversive mission of converting the existing culture. He then drops the bomb: “Unless we renounce Christianity, we will have no Christendom.” Which leads inevitably to the question: “But do we want Christendom?” Given that, for better or for worse, “Christendom happened”, the ultimate question then is: “Was it a big mistake?”

I have always sided with the likes of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and Rodney Clapp in affirming unequivocally, “YES!” But I am determined to give Leithart a fair hearing. He does start out by admitting that Christendom embodied the gospel imperfectly and “produced its share of evils and injustices … in the name of Christ.”  And he acknowledges that there is no “disagreement whether the end of Christendom is a good thing; it is a good thing.”

The issue, rather, is whether a Christian civilization that extends beyond the Church is in itself a false path. Hauerwas clearly thinks that it is — his book After Christendom? bears the subtitle, “How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas” … Rodney Clapp is more straightforward: “Constantinianism … is a theological and missiological mistake.” (A Peculiar People: The Church As Culture in a Post-Christian Society; IVP, 1996; p. 30)

He then clarifies further by asking if the Church’s mission should include “the hope of forming Christian culture in wider society”.

He proceeds to outline some benefits of the Constantinian project, one of them being urban renewal of cities that were characterized by “enormous strife, chaos, and crime”. In his book, Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes: “Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships”. By the Middle Ages, this “urban renewal” resulted in a growing intellectual life devoted to understanding the Word and the world; development of Western law based on principles of the Scriptures; daily lives were regulated and shaped by the rituals of the Church; and the Church tempered some of the excesses of warlords and kings. And of course, art, music and literature were indelibly stamped with biblical and liturgical influences.

After a prolonged engagement with Yoder via the latter’s The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics As Gospel, Leithart turns some of Yoder’s analysis against him. For example, what if Constantine was more faithful to the gospel? Can the gospel not influence and shape politics or are we conceding politics as an autonomous secular sphere, immune from the gospel? Must power only be capable of wielding in a worldly manner?

So long as the Church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly “political” reality, a polity of her own, the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands. … The introduction of the Church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls. This necessarily forces political change, ultimately of constitutional dimensions.

The king can recognize (however grudgingly) the Church as a prophetic voice, in which case, this may result in some form of Christendom.

The king may try to suppress the Church, in which case he will be exposed as a totalitarian dictator. A clash will be inevitable.

The king may tolerate the Church but try to police the boundaries of the Church’s sphere of influence. Inevitably this will lead to an unavoidable clash.

On the other hand, if the Church appears preaching Christianity, the king is entirely capable of stealing the rhetoric and story and ideas of the Church to buttress his power. [think America] … Or, political powers may simply force Christianity into the private sphere …

Ultimately, hostility to Christendom is hostility to social consensus, but this hostility is also an attack on the Church. As O’Donovan has argued [in The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political TheologyCUP, 1999], modern suspicion about the dangers of consensus as the basis for government (the fear that consensus is coercive) are based on “a radical suspicion of society as such and the agreements that constitute it.” But a suspicion about “society as such” and the inherently “coercive” nature of consensus also rules out the possibility of the Church …

This is quite clearly a variety of hyperliberalism. And it is fully consonant with the heresy of Christianity, for it implies that the Church cannot be a polity organized by a common story, sharing one hope, one faith, submitting to one Lord.

OK, so Leithart almost has me nodding in agreement so far, but then he deals out this low blow: “Infant baptism is the nub of the issue: Baptist and Anabaptist advocates of the ‘voluntary church’ are the ones whose baptismal theology is a theology of conformity with the values of the world — because Baptist theology is Christianity.” It is hard for me to respond to this because I’m not exactly clear what he is driving at. Is he in disagreement with the “voluntary” conception of Church as understood by the “free church” tradition? Just because one holds to credobaptism rather than paedobaptism, one is “conforming” to the “values of the world”?!

In any case, he draws from the book of Revelation to indicate the clash between the city of God and the alliance of Jerusalem (“the harlot”) and Rome (“the beast”) as the political powers that oppose the Church. Of course, we know the ending, so we can have the confidence to be the Church.

For further reading, here are just a few books that come to mind:

Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP Academic, 2010)

Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Zondervan, 2009)

Stuart Murray, Church after Christendom (2005)

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Transformation of life, including social and political life, is not an “implication” of the gospel … but inherent in the gospel, because the good news is about transformation of life.

So begins Chapter 4, “Against Ethics”, of Peter Leithart’s book, Against Christianity which we have been reflecting on. With 2 Cor. 1:18 as the backdrop, he argues that Paul insisted that “there must be a correspondence between life and message, … between speech in daily life and speech in the ekklesia.” For Paul, “the first and chief defense of the gospel, the first ‘letter of commendation’ … is not an argument but the life of the Church conformed to Christ by the Spirit in service and suffering. A community of sinners whose corporate life resembles Christ — that is the Church’s first apologetic.”

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Against Christianity 5

Chapter 3 of Peter Leithart’s book that we’ve been engaging with is entitled “Against Sacraments”.

Mary Douglas has written that “One of the gravest problems of our day is the lack of commitment to common symbols.” However, Leithart feels she doesn’t go far enough; he would argue that the resistance to and rejection of rituals “is a defining characteristic of modernity.” Among the reasons that could be given for this, the first one he gives is “the modern celebration of novelty”, noting the change in how the word original had shifted to mean “fresh and new, having no relation to the origin”. This semantic shift seems to epitomize the “sea-change in mentality” that came with modernity, “an ideology committed to novelty, to spontaneity, to the now.”

Ritual, with its atmosphere of ancient authority and its (apparently) bland repetitions, was out of step with modern consciousness. Moderns would rather die than do it over again.

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“The Bible never mentions theology. It does not preach theology, nor does it encourage us to preach theology. … Theology is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its chief effects is to keep Christians and the Church in their proper marginal place. Theology is gnostic, and the Church firmly rejected gnosticism from her earliest days.” (more…)

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Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003)

Philippi benefited from its status as a Roman colony, and consequently, civic pride ran high amongst the Philippians, who were “proud of being Roman citizens and protective of Roman custom”. It was no small matter then, when Paul came proclaiming the gospel in Philippi, calling for the people to submit to another Lord and Saviour instead of Caesar. Not surprisingly, Paul and other Christians were viewed as subversives (cf. Acts 16:20-21) of the polis and of the Empire itself.

Throughout his epistle to the Philippians, Paul employs the language of koinonia, ecclesia, and commonwealth, words that are laden with socio-political meaning. Paul employed koinonia to express his partnership with them in the gospel, including sharing in his trials, joy and suffering (1:5, 7; 2:17-18; 4:14) and concretely in the exchange of gifts (4:15). One must bear in mind that, unlike modern society, friendship in ancient Greco-Roman society “was often a quasi-public institution”; therefore, “the Church as a community of friends” would be viewed as an alternative polis.

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Against Christianity 2

Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003)

“We have made the Church strange and alien to the world, as if she were of a completely different order than the institutions of common social and political life. Paradoxically, the result of this estrangement has been to reshape the Church into the image of the world.

The Church is strange: she is the creation of the Father through Word and Spirit, the community of those united by the Spirit with the Son, and therefore brought into the eternal community of the Trinity. …

But she is ordinary: the Church is made up of human beings … Only by insisting on the Church’s ordinariness can we simultaneously grasp her strangeness.

Churches on earth are outposts of that heavenly Jerusalem, anticipations of the final city, joined in a mysterious way, especially in liturgy, with the heavenly city. … Heaven is in our midst, and we are in the midst of heaven. …

Though weakened in modern Christian usage, the Greek word koinonia began its life as a political term. … The city (polis) is the highest kind of koinonia, a political koinonia [according to Aristotle]. … According to the apostles, the Church also forms a koinonia because [of] …  a common sharing in Christ and His Spirit … Within the Church Paul attempted to establish an economy of gift-exchange, a chiasm of gift, reception, and return gift that replicated the eternal communion of love in the Trinity. …

Paul did not attempt to find a place for the Church in the nooks and crannies of the Greco-Roman polis. The Church was not an addition, but an alternative to, the koinonia of the polis.”

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As you may have guessed from reading this blog, I love books that are contrarian and controversial. In Against Christianity, Peter Leithart says that his “book is theological bricolage and lurches at many points toward a form of theological haiku … At its best, haiku glances at the familiar from an awkward angle; it presents what we normally approach straight-on from the side or underneath or inside out and helps us to see it, in a flash, as something wholly new.”

My decade long hiatus from Christianity and the Church was salutary, a necessary process of distanciation, detoxification and destabilization, allowing me now to see afresh with new eyes and embrace doubt and differences. Therefore, I totally love the haiku analogy as a way of discerning truths beyond simplistic ideas and false dichotomies.

The Bible never mentions Christianity. … Christianity … is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians and politicians … to keep Christians and the Church in their proper marginal place.

Christianity is the heresy of heresies, the underlying cause of the weakness, lethargy, sickness, and failure of the modern church.

Leithart notes that Christianity is often understood as a “a set of doctrines or a system of ideas” but that the Bible never envisions an abstract Christian belief system isolated from the life of the Church and subject to logical and scientific scrutiny and synthesis, and compared with other belief systems.

Furthermore:

(1) The Church is not a a people united by common ideas, ideas which collectively go under the name “Christianity.” …

(2) The Bible, in short, is not an ideological tract and does not teach an ideology. …

(3) The Christian is not a a natural man who has become religious.

(4) Christian community … is not an extra “religious” layer on social life. The Church is not a club for religious people. …

(5) Christianity is biblical religion disemboweled and emasculated by (voluntary) intellectualization and/or privatization. …

(6) Christianity is institutionalized worldliness … worldliness that has become so much our second nature that we call it piety.

With respect to (1), the New Testament does contain a set of teachings that the Church adheres to, but being of “one mind” (Phil. 1:27) includes shared attitudes, aspirations, hopes, as well as “habits of thought, action, or feeling.” In short, Ephesians 4:4-6:

one body
one Spirit
one hope
one Lord
one faith
one baptism
one loaf [1 Cor. 10:17]
one God and Father of all

Sometimes, Christianity is defined not simply as a set of beliefs, but also practices. While this is more complete, it still falls short because these beliefs and practices are seen as “religious” beliefs and practices over against “secular”, “political” or “social” beliefs and practices. Hence point (3) above: conversion is nothing less than a participation in a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and to be a Christian is to be “human in a different way …. to be refashioned in all of one’s desires, aims, attitudes, actions, from the shallowest to the deepest”.  That is to say, an unbeliever is “badly and wrongly formed” and therefore needs salvation in order to be “reformed and transformed into the form of Christ” and be made whole. Leithart memorably expresses this as not merely installing a new “religious program” in our current operating system, but rather, installing a new operating system altogether.

With respect to point (4): “The Church is a way of living together before God, a new way of being human together.” Salvation is nothing short of a new social and political reality; that is, conversion is “turning from one way of life, one culture to another … the beginning of a ‘resocialization,’ induction into an alternative paideia, and ‘inculturation’  into the way of life practiced by the eschatological humanity.”

With the advent of modernity, religion was privatized and Christianity is the “Church’s adjustment of the gospel” leading to Leithart’s charges in points (5) and (6).

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