Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 3

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?

I started reading through your comments on Constantine but I only had access to the Google preview, so couldn’t read your conclusions! {both laugh} So obviously, with Constantine, in one sense he stopped the persecution of Christians, which was a relief, but on the other hand, as far as I can tell, he still had to play two roles: as the Emperor—who was a military man—and as a Christian. Do you think that had a positive or negative influence on Christianity?

Suddenly Christians have gone from being persecuted, to basically having the power of the State, and Constantine being a military leader, whether or not he was a Christian (I assume he was but I don’t know). But how do you think that played out? Do you think it did make Christianity sort of go in a negative direction when it came to militaristic things and violence, or do you think it didn’t really have a big impact?

Well certainly it had a big impact. But I think there’s a few different ways of narrating it.

There’s the John Howard Yoder way of narrating it, where it’s a fall of the Church. The Church was relatively peaceful and the church was a kind of visible contrast of the rest of the world before Constantine and then the churches becomes very worldly after Constantine and the church is no longer visible because it’s blended into the world, and we use acts of violence, and so on.

Then there’s the Peter Leithart way of reading it, which read it as the fulfillment of all the promises of God, or the Eusebius way of reading it, where God has been chastising the Christians through the persecution, only in preparation to give them the sword. So that we can wield the sword justly.

William Cavanaugh (as are all the quotes below)

Yeah… {in an unconvinced tone}

I don’t really buy either one of those.

Stanley Hauerwas was my dissertation director and so clearly I have been influenced by the Yoder kind of reading. I think a lot was lost when the Church began to wield the sword but I don’t think that you can read it as an Anabaptist would and read Church History as just the Holy Spirit abandoned the Church in the fourth century.

Yeah, that seems a bit too much.

Yeah, and the real Church survives only in small remnants.

I think instead of a kind of fall narrative of the Church, what we need to do is read Church History in the way that Yoder reads the Old Testament, which is kind of pedagogically. There’s a movement going on there, by which the people of God are being led towards greater and greater understanding of what God wants of them and that’s the way he looks at the all the passages about the conquest of the Holy Land, Joshua, and so on. Yoder looks at those incidents and says we shouldn’t impose a kind of moral reading on them and condemn them for unfaithfulness but read them as a faithful Jew would’ve—seeing them as kind of the way that God has miraculously saved His people and that God is ultimately in charge of the means of violence and that we should not take those into our hands.

I think that kind of reading the Old Testament is the way we ought to read Church History as well. We’re not always very clear about what we’re doing, we go through different historical periods where we’re trying to kind of discern what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ and we learn things along the way and something that we may have learned from the whole experience of Constantine is that when the Church wields the sword it’s not very good for the gospel, for anyone, but to narrate it just as a kind of fall into unfaithfulness is going to far. This was pretty much what the Church was hoping and praying for, that the persecution would stop and that the Emperor would become a Christian and so the Emperor becomes a Christian, what do you say? “Well, that’s great but you need to find a new job!”

{Both laugh} That’s easy for us to say!

Yes, it’s very easy for us to say. “There’s an opening at the bakery down the street…”

5 thoughts on “Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 3

  1. Pingback: Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 2 – Reforming Hell

  2. Pingback: Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 1 – Reforming Hell

  3. Pingback: Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 4 – Reforming Hell

  4. Pingback: Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 5 – Reforming Hell

  5. Pingback: Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 6 – Reforming Hell

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