Obedience of Rulers

One of the most extensive and penetrating responses to the Yoder-Hauerwas attack on Constantiniansm is found in Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of Nations, in a chapter entitled “The Obedience of Rulers.” O’Donovan defines the word “Christendom” as “a historical idea,” specifically “the idea of a professedly Christian secular political order, and the history of that idea in practice.” He also says that Christendom was an “era,” in which “the truth of Christianity was taken to be the truth of secular politics.” That era began in 313, and ended in 1791, with the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Government was “confessionally Christian,” simultaneously “secular” and “obedient to Christ.” “Secular,” it is clear, doesn’t mean “free from Christ’s Lordship,” but rather refers to institutions and practices that are “confined to the present age.” Even this needs to be qualified, as O’Donovan claims that the obedience of rulers contains an eschatological promise, a sign “of the age of his unhindered rule” (195).

O’Donovan sees the obedience of rulers not as a contradiction of the church’s core mission but rather as a “response” to that mission. Though the “church’s one project is to witness to the Kingdom of God,” yet Christendom is a sign that “God has blessed” that witness because Christendom involves rulers responding to that witness by bowing before Christ: Christendom “is constituted not by the church’s seizing alien power, but by alien power’s becoming attentive to the church” (195).

The church’s mission of witnessing to the kingdom, further, does not get “derailed” by the rulers’ response of obedience. At its origins, the church saw itself as structurally and redemptive-historically distinct from the state; they belong to different ages. This “vis-à-vis” takes different forms when rulers submit to Christ; in Germanic Christendom, it takes the form of “a single, homogeneous society with twin foci of authority,” but even here we see “a series of attempts to reassert the missionary vis-à-vis by establishing further differentiations within Christian society.”

According to O’Donovan, then, Christendom is not an age when the church fails in its mission; rather, the medieval and early modern church “was perpetually preoccupied” with its missionary challenge: “The question which created the turbulence of church-state relations in the West was how the sign of Christ’s victory could be protected against subversion, which would leave the church in a Babylonian captivity to its own Christian rulers.” What Augustine identified as the “greater and more perilous temptation” that arose after Constantine’s conversion was “to see the conversion of the rulers as achieved and complete, and to abandon mission” (196-197).

O’Donovan goes on to elaborate these points under several headings. First, the obedience of rulers is understood as a sign of God’s victory, and particularly of the rout of demons. Second, while Eusebius appeared to identify the age of Constantine with the Parousia, the church later drew back from this and came to see that the emperor was part of the old order of things. In doing so, they redefined both the eschatological and institutional boundaries of church and state.

That meant, in part, that the church judged its own governors and handled its own affairs; the ecclesiastical sphere became “a public sphere” (199). On the other hand, the emperor was hardly free from the church’s jurisdiction. Ambrose’s confrontation of Theodosius shows that the church had assumed “the task of judging judges,” and thus “began the slow work of reforming the criteria of earthly justice, marking certain acts of retribution as out of bounds.” Over time, justice came to have “a new, evangelical content” (201).

Third, there was a shift after the conversion of Constantine from a two-cities theology of the church to a two-swords, or two-government system. This was further elaborated in the Carolingian reformulation of the Gelasian dictum; rather than “two there are by whom this world is ruled,” the Carolingians said “two there are by whom the church is ruled” (DN, 203). The whole society had become ecclesia. Through much of the medieval period, the church asserted the supremacy of her spiritual authority, but with the Fransciscan Spirituals and Renaissance writers like Marsilius of Padua, that authority was confined to a moral authority located in the ministry of the word, a prelude to the modern privatization of the church and her authority. Late medieval and modern theology undermined the earlier stress on the obedience of rulers.

On O’Donovan’s reading, then, the critique of Constantinianism is not only a deviation from the Christian tradition, but a recent one.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.