Theological versus Historical Questions

I have alluded here and there to what I think is the urgent question of Christendom itself. I think it would be good for me to spell out in more precise detail what exactly is the question of Christendom and how we might go about discussing it.

First, I think it would be necessary to distinguish between the theological question of Christendom from its historical question. When people talk about Christendom, the debate inevitably becomes, Crusades! Inquisitions! Superstitions! Compulsory tithes! Bad! Or Gothic Cathedrals! Medieval Art and Music! Good!

As important, interesting, and even necessary, as those questions might be, those do not deal with the question of the theological principle of Christendom. Even if I believed in making presentist judgements about the past (and I don’t), the evaluation of the empirical “goods” and “bads” of Christendom is still not really our present concern, they are more properly the task of the historian. Admittedly there would be some problems distinguishing the historical question from the theological question, if for no other reason than that there is only one Christendom we are familiar with and that is the European. So in that sense, the question of Christendom is intrinsically bound to its history. (The Nestorian Church of the East is an exception to this rule which we shall come back later).

With that cleared up, we need to define the range of phenomenon we consider under the scope of “Christendom”. My conception of Christendom is actually broader than most people’s, something which comes from reading the Proto-Protestant blog.

Defining Christendom

Most people conceive of Christendom as the idea of an “official” religion or national/established Church. However, Christendom is broader than that. Christendom is basically the phenomenon of the visible Church as a *legal corporation* with a distinct civic existence recognised by the civil authorities. Christendom did not therefore start with Theodosius. It truly and properly began with Constantine who gave the church civic and legal recognition as legal corporations endowed with “legal personhood”.

Now, it is clear from the Scriptures, and even the ante-Nicene Fathers, that there is no real warrant for the idea of Christendom in this sense. St Paul never tells the church to incorporate themselves with the state or register with them. There is no sense of the Church as a legal corporation with a continuous existence above the particular persons who compose it, capable of purchasing properties, having a treasury, being staffed with corporate executives, etc. But then again, no Christian could have anticipated the Constantinian Revolution and the dramatic change of fortunes there for the Church.

The question therefore becomes, what really is the theological basis for Christendom? Why does the visible Church need civic existence or incorporation?

Some Particular Arguments to Consider

I am admittedly rather slanted against Christendom. I shall therefore raise some justifications and give a reply to it.

One main argument would be that the Church needs civic or corporate existence because without it we can’t redeem civilisation or the commonwealth, etc.

This argument needs some careful examination.

First, the person obviously does not think that civilisation is dependent upon the civic presence of the Church. Civilisation has existed long before Christianity and therefore it isn’t contingent upon the civic existence of the Church. Now it maybe that European Civilisation, as we understand it today, needs Christendom, but what does the narrow existence of one particular geo-political entity have to do with the Church wherein there is neither Jew nor Gentile nor Chinese or European? If European civilisation can’t survive without Christendom (a rather big IF and a highly contentious claim), too bad for European civilisation then. It would be weird to ground a theological principle upon its use for propping up a historical contingency.

In fact, there seems to be some positive arguments against so grounding civilisations on Christendom. Philip Jenkins in his book about “Lost Christianities” or those churches outside the pale of Christendom, writes:

When Christians traveled beyond the Roman frontier, they had to leave the protection of the empire, but the very fact of imperial power could be a mixed blessing. Already by the third century, Persia had a substantial Christian presence, concentrated in the south of the country, along the Gulf. Once Rome became Christian, the link with that foreign government made life difficult for Christians living under the rule of the rival superpower of the time. (From the third century through the seventh, Persia was ruled by the powerful Sassanian dynasty.) The Persians responded by executing hundreds of bishops and clergy in a persecution at least as murderous as anything ever inflicted by pagan Rome: in the fourth century, the Persians killed sixteen thousand Christian belivers in a forty-year period.

By “establishing” Christianity with a certain particular political or civic power, the Kingdom which is not of this world becomes bogged down with the disputes of this world. Constantinian establishment of Christianity may have meant comforts for Roman Christians, but it meant the destruction and entropy of Christians who did not live under the Roman Empire who suddenly found their faith caught up in worldly politics. Theologically, it threatens to narrow the scope of Christianity to that which exists only within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, it made it into a “Roman thing” to the exclusion of all other civilisations.

Another argument would be that there is no way to have civic piety without Christendom and official recognition of the visible Church. This argument has much to commend it, in so far as we are all convinced that sacred piety has a rightful place, if not at the very foundations, of any commonwealth.

Let us assume that via natural revelation, it is possible for civic rulers and commonwealths to recognise God as the foundation of all creation and their commonwealth. Before Christendom this was already extent. Chinese Emperors already offered public prayers to Heaven long before Christendom. Indonesia today still entrenches God as the foundation of the state in their constitution. Let us say that atheism is rightly censured by the state (even John Locke argues for this).

Still, it is not easy to see how does Christendom fit into all these. As far as I can see, unless we have a commonwealth composed only of Christians, it is difficult to see how can the state take the additional step of recognising, not only God, but also Jesus Christ and the Gospel without there being some levels of civic exclusion for non-Christians. The alternative is an officially deistic commonwealth. But then, ex hypothesi, we assume that God can be recognised without Christendom. So it is difficult to see why do we need Christendom for true civic piety.

A different argument, and a much more subtle one, is that while we need neither Christendom for commonwealths to recognise God, nor for civilistions to exist, but Christendom, in indirect and very subtle ways, have brought about many benefits for civilisation. The purification of idolatry and superstition, the creation of hospitals and universities, etc.

This argument has much to commend it. Only a vested secularist can deny the visible benefits of Christendom. However, this question does veer towards the “historical” question end.

The theological question is whether or not civilisations needs Christendom for all that. Can civilisation, without Christendom, eventually develop those those things as well? It is difficult however to argue about counterfactuals. Another angle would be, do we need Christendom for all that or do we simply need Christians? Granted that Christians do rightly serve as civil servants and take up civic offices and duties, do we need to do them as part of a visible Christian corporation, or is it enough simply to serve as citizens of the commonwealth, grounded upon natural law known to both Christians and pagans, yet with the proper understanding of it as enlightened by the Gospel?


The question boils down to, does the church need to have a distinct recognisable civic existence to purify civilisation? Or rather, denying the donum superadditum, the church does not need to take up a distinct civil existence along side the natural institutions, but merely restores and purifies the pre-existing ones qua innocuous members of the civic realm subjectively enlightened with the true understanding of those civic institutions and the natural law by the Gospel?

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