Constantinianism equals Gnosticism?

I have been reading through Nathan Kerr’s (another really cool guy I met in Rome) new book Christ, History and Apocalyptic. It is extremely thought provoking. He engages three theologians- Ernst Troeltsch, Karl Barth, and Stanley Hauerwas. I am somewhat at a loss as I have not read enough Barth or Troeltsch. I have read some Hauerwas. I would need to read more Barth and Troeltsch to really understand Kerr’s critiques, but the points he raises in general are very interesting.

I was especially struck by a discussion of “Constantinianism” on page 116. Kerr is referencing R. Reno’s articulation of what “Constantinianism” consists of according to Hauerwas, which is the opposite of what I think is conjured up in most people’s mind when they hear the term “Constantinianism.”

From the book:
As Rusty Reno describes it, ‘Constantinianism’ for Hauerwas (a protean term in his writings, to be sure) boils down essentially to a matter of the ‘spiritualization’ of Christianity. Constantinianism names any ‘attempt to make Christianity intelligible without that set of habits called the church’. ‘Thus,’ Reno explains, ‘a “Constantinian” is anyone who would make the church invisible and weightless. Assumptions and practices are “Constantinian” if they disembody rather than solidify Christian identity.’ This spiritualization of the church creates a political power vacuum, which is left to be filled only by the state: the state itself comes to define and determine the bounds and meaning of those aspects of our lives most central to the shaping of our socio-political identity, while ‘Christianity’ carries out a concern for the human ‘soul’ in a way that more or less buttresses the ideological legitimization of secular state Power.

I have not finished the book, but it seems clear that Kerr wants us to think about this area somewhat differently than as noted here, but he seems to be in basic agreement with this sense of what being “Constantinian” means, unless I misunderstand him (which is extremely possible.) Putting that aside for now, when most people hear the words “Constantinianism” I think they associate the term with the embodiment and solidifying of the Church or Christianity within the forms—political, cultural, social—of the prevalent society.

It seems to me, then, if we take Hauerwas’s conception (as outlined by Reno) as accurate- “Constantinianism” is what happens when gnosticism is the reigning paradigm.

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1 Response to Constantinianism equals Gnosticism?

  1. nate kerr says:

    Darrell:Your concluding observation that Constantinianism is what happens when Gnosticism is the reigning paradigm is both insightful and also very suggestive. If I were to put Reno’s point another way, I would expand it to say that Constantinianism occurs as an <>idealization<> of the church with respect to a particular political, social, cultic, or political identity. This does not mean that the church is not “visible” and not concerned with a certain institutional “solidity” within Constantinianism. However, I think the point about disembodiment is to suggest that this visibility is rendered “epiphenomenal” with respect to a more originary and transcendental reality. In other words, “visibility” does not equal “embodiment,” especially as the visible church is representative of a more hidden “spiritual” and “invisible” reality. That dichotomy between the visible and invisible is the docetic heresy, which of course is closely tied to gnosticism. And I think this dichotomy also privileges the intellect and knowledge over the will and action in helpful ways, which also sharpens the gnostic charge.Though I’d like to hear more about what you mean when you mean when you speak of gnosticism as “the reigning paradigm.”


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