Augustine or Eusebius
April 15, 2019

The following is an excerpt from Against Christianity, published in 2003. It seems more relevant today, in the age of Trumpism, than it did when I wrote it.

Much popular Christian history operates in what may be called a “Eusebian” mode, treating America as the culmination of redemptive history.

Eusebius was bishop of Caesarea during the first half of the fourth century, a disciple of Origen, and a suspected Arian who helped to exile Athanasius. In his historical works, Eusebius sought to demonstrate how the gospel of Christ found its crowning fulfillment in the rule of the Christian Roman emperor. For Eusebius, Constantine was the greatest ruler in recorded history and his reign was “the culmination of human history.” For Eusebius, contemporary declarations of the “end of history” would have been old news.

William Carroll Bark, in his brief and penetrating book, The Origins of the Medieval World, noted that Constantine’s conversion filled some Christians with such boundless optimism about the future of Rome that they were “quick to link the welfare of the empire and its steady improvement with the victory of Christianity.” The disadvantage of this linkage was not immediately apparent, but once the fortunes of the gospel were tied to Roman political order, the collapse of the latter led to doubts about the sustainability of the former.

Augustine, by contrast, had the advantage of seeing the beginnings of the collapse of the empire firsthand. Remarkably, he also had the wisdom to learn from what he observed. According to Bark, one of Augustine’s major achievements was to destroy the "popular identification of the welfare of Christianity with the welfare of Rome. . . . he cut the tie binding together the fates of the Christian religion and the Roman state. . . . His accomplishment was to prepare the minds of his more thoughtful contemporaries and successors for the possibility of a change in the political state of affairs as they knew it, and to enable them to adapt themselves to this change."[1] 

Augustine knew that empires, all empires, are of the earth, earthy, and are destined to crumble to the dust from which they came. Augustine knew that only the church is a heavenly politeuma and that only the church is an imperium sine fine, because he knew that only the church has an undying ruler and that only the church has been ingrafted into the eternal community of the Trinity.

George Bancroft might be excused for hagiographic history, but we, like Augustine, have the dubious advantage of seeing the American system unraveling. The American church does not need another Eusebius to give uncritical adulation to American Constantines. What the church needs is a renewal of the Augustinian project. We need to disentangle the American story from the Christian story, and to insist on the preeminence of the latter.

     [1]Origins of the Medieval World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958).

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