‘Rescuing the Bible’ from ‘Constantine’s Church’

By “rescuing the Bible” I mean perceiving how non-pacifist theologians have pressed their own unChristlike perspectives onto Christians over millennia such that when the Bible is read through these false lenses, it appears disjointed, vague and legalistic and God appears “Janus-faced” (i.e. incredibly kind sometimes but incredibly severe at others).

I am using the name “Constantine’s Church” as shorthand for the nonPacifistic Church which grew out of the partnership forged between the Early Church and the Roman Emperor Constantine (and all subsequent secular authorities), called by some the  “Constantinian Shift“.  As Constantine was the first notable secular ruler to seek a partnership with the Church, I am using his name to describe the Church that resulted.  Alternative names include “civil religion” and “Caesaropapism” .

Assumptions

I will assume the following:

  1. Pacifism, as generally understood, and as understood by this blogger, is much more than a revulsion for violence, – everyone feels that when they experience or witness it (except when it satisfies their craving for revenge).  It may not be a perfectly adequate definition, but I think of pacifism at this point in my life as  the steadfast refusal to use any potentially lethal defense against any potentially lethal attack – and the spiritual maturity & theological convictions underpinning that refusal.    It is noted that to freely make such a refusal in the face of threatened death is an extraordinarily rare, and ordinarily impossible, response for a human being to make.
  2. A large majority of pacifists have attributed their own pacifism to Jesus and, what they describe as, His “clear” teaching in the New Testament. 
  3. The facts at point 2, above, presents at least a prima facie case in favour of the proposition that Jesus calls His followers to pacifism
  4. The Christian Church, even if it was once pacifist, is not now. The typical “orthodox” practice of the modern (nonPacifist) Church is to interpret Jesus’ teachings on non-retaliation as applicable in personal settings and to represent a very high ideal, which may in fact be rarely achieved; and to maintain that Jesus’ could not have meant His teaching on non-retaliation to apply to non-personal (e.g. national) causes;  and hence Jesus did not prohibit nations prosecuting just war, the intra-national maintenance of law and order or the participation of Christians in their nation’s armed forces.
  5. If the proposition at point 3 is true, then “orthodoxy” among Jesus’ followers (whom we’ll loosely call ‘the Church’) has changed from pacifism to non-pacifism at some time after Jesus’ ministry on Earth.

The Pragmatic Approach 

Some have made much of the fact that believers in Christ were soldiers according to both the N.T. or in Early Church history.  (e.g. Did early Christians serve in the army? ) Others (e.g. The Early Church and military service) focus on what Early Church leaders maintained was Christian (vs unChristian) in their extant writings. Whilst I find the latter approach much more convincing, I also think that to restrict ourselves to intellectual debating is to miss the boat.  I imagine that Pacifism probably grows from deep spirituality and conscience, before it is ever established on solid intellectual grounds.  Human beings are like this- why research a topic and risk having to change our minds in such an uncomfortable direction if we are happy with the status quo?  Probably no-one is entirely happy with the status quo in regard to the human history of warfare and violence – so a more pragmatic question is:  Are current arrangements (especially ethnic Churches backing state militarism via blessing & providing Christian soldiers & Police, chaplains, annual national commemoration services, etc.) – is this way of relating to warfare better than any other alternative?   

Most of my intended audience (moderate Evangelicals and Red Letter Christians) probably at least believe in pacifism as a noble sentiment and a powerful, saintly protest method as used by Gandhi* and Martin Luther King.  The emotional/psychological stumbling block for my intended audience is the practicality of the pacifist idea if the goal is to dissolve centralised government or to deprive the ruling elites of the ‘cannon fodder’ /fighters necessary to further their ambitions by violent means (as urged by Leo Tolstoy in his book The Kingdom of God within you) .  I imagine that my intended audience mostly consider the current situation better than the ‘power vacuum’ seemingly implied by pacifism, which would soon be followed by anarchy and forceful reimposition of (more oppressive) law & order.  Thus Jesus’ pacifism is still excluded from consideration by the modern mind, as it generally has been excluded by theologians for 1700+ years (with some notable exceptions who received or risked execution for heresy)!

So let me share with you an alternative that I believe is not ‘only’ Scriptural but pragmatic!  I envision that Christian pacifists can be a force for universal disarmament based on the efforts of Christian pacifist citizens.  This was not possible before Christian missionaries went to all the nations of the world but it is possible now.  As Christians of all nations are filled with the wonderful pacifist Gospel of Christ, they by word and deed in growing numbers, would make it harder for political leaders to justify, recruit and prepare for war (or to maintain their harsh, ineffective & expensive criminal justice systems focused on retribution rather than healing for all).   If Christians in all the nations of the world preached the pacifist Gospel of Christ to their fellow Christians, then I believe the Church would be renewed, refreshed and expanded whilst all nations together would move toward ‘beating their swords into plows’! i.e. there would be no ‘power vacuums’- only increasing international trust bought by the ‘blood’ and costly example of Christians (more on this later).

I believe that there are other pragmatic benefit to accepting that Jesus’ calls us to pacifism in the broadest sense of that term: 

  • the resolution of some major logical and ethical problems in Christian (‘orthodox’) theology and practice. 
  • enhanced personal transformation in the Holy Spirit
  • renewed knowledge of, and love for, our Heavenly Father
  • A Gospel with near original, world-changing potential
  • greater integration individually, spiritually and corporately
  • glory to God.

The Gamut of Non-Pacifist Theology

A central proposition of this website is that the current ‘orthodox’ gospel is wrong at many points.  I am suggesting that, because much ‘orthodox’ Church doctrine has been formulated over millennia on the basis of the nonPacifist stance at point 6. (above), it lacks coherence, grace and power.  To my extensive examination, the Scriptures and God’s action in the world only make great sense when Jesus is understood to be strongly pacifist.  

However, simply, becoming pacifist within current paradigms and categories is not enough.  We must rethink any interpretations of Scripture and any formulation of ‘orthodox’ doctrine, which may have been made on the erroneous belief that the New Testament sanctions violence in certain settings.   This means identifying, questioning and excluding biases we have inherited via our secular and sacred teachers and even, in significant degree, rejecting the dominant Gospel paradigm of the last 1500+ years of Western and Christian thought and history – a particularly stubborn paradigm, which thoroughly resists having the evidence explained, understood or accepted differently!  

So be prepared for hard thinking!  The paradigm I have been investigating for the last thirty years and which I share on this website will sound really weird in places!  Truth is often not offered to us on a plate as we luxuriate in epistemological comfort.  Rather we have to risk trekking through the unknown, hoping in faith to recognise the truth when we see it and falsehood when we look closely enough or tentatively try it.  The Holy Spirit of Jesus is our guide through confusion and deception – provided we are prepared to follow His leading of us into “all the truth.”   I feel I have been living and growing in the fullness of this paradigm for perhaps 6 years as I write this in 2016 and I think God’s Spirit testifies to my spirit that it is very good.

In writing about this new paradigm, I have tried to steer clear of the extremes of unjustified certainty on the one hand and of mere wishful thinking, on the other.  Where I can I want to quote others and give credit where it’s due (more work on this goal is pending).  I wish to be joined by a small army of theologians who can do the highly rigorous examination my suggestions, proposals and claims require to get traction in established churches for such a huge paradigm shift as I want to recommend.  (Actually, I see the changing tide in many views expressed by many writers who are rejecting penal substitutionary atonement.) In addition, perhaps God will raise up one or more new-wine-new-wineskin church denominations to pick up from where the Early Church left off.    

Jesus’ Different Way   

Jesus had a certain attitude to truth – one that He was willing to die for.  In contrast, when Jesus speaks of truth to Pilate in the gospels, Pilate seems to scoff as though truth is an unresolvable metaphysical question that is irrelevant to the all-important machinery of State:  “What is truth?” he asks without waiting for an answer.  Now imagine if Jesus regarded as truth only what was convenient for Him – or if He had compromised on truth when Satan tempted Him or later with Israel’s national leaders?  What if Jesus when brought before Pilate had made an alliance with the State, with its very different premises, goals and strategies – in order to safeguard His continuing involvement with the mission of God on Earth?  Inconceivable!  At that point, there would have been no “God’s Mission”!    In fact, God’s project was all about Jesus’ revealing to us that which is better than (physical) life itself (and how to get it) despite the usual, secular & violent ways of ordering life in this world!  How could a Jesus who refused to die have revealed that to us?  Without His choice not to worship Satan even if world domination was on offer …. and without His choice to die even an unjust, painful and humiliating death –  how would we have ever escaped the curse of making our own physical life our god or of believing terribly base things of our Father such as His seeming disinterest in social justice and His support for the status quo on Planet Earth?   

Or if Jesus, when handed over to sinners, had been so unable or so unwilling to “trust Himself to a faithful Creator” that, instead, He had destroyed those threatening Him (“in self-defence!”) – how then should we believe such metaphysical claims as:

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” -?

I believe that the radical faith of the first disciples allowed them to understand the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching with a great deal more clarity than the Church does today.  I believe that this clarity of revelation and immersion in Holy Spirit was a very large part of the “inspiration” that enabled them to write the New Testament so accurately.  They were so definite about many things, not because they were full of the usual prejudices of the day but because they were full of a pure Gospel that disarms worldly prejudices, which we need today as much as ever.   As hard a claim as it seems (or as hard a fact it would be, if true), I believe a certain attitude to death is indispensable to being able to hold onto the truth – the same attitude of welcoming death that Christ and His apostles had!

A metaphor – Fusion power

Physicists are trying to build a clean nuclear reactor that will generate electricity by fusing hydrogen atoms together. Whilst theoretically possible, a practical obstacle is how to confine and contain material in an ultra-hot plasma form.   Instead of a conventional, solid container (which would soon melt) physicists are using with some success a ‘magnetic bottle’, which sends the electrically-charged plasma around in a circle so it hardly touches the sides of the bottle).  Theoretically, the fusion reaction can produce enough power to generate the (electro)magnetic bottle itself and to do a lot of other useful work as well. 

Imagine, for a second, that a magnetic bottle failed during fusion for any reason.  The plasma will be suddenly released from its place and will burn or melt everything in its path until it cools down.  If one could recover the ‘ingredients’ afterwards, it would no longer be plasma but just gaseous hydrogen.  The hydrogen is still capable of producing energy through being burned (chemically) in oxygen but it will produce only a fraction of the energy it was going to produce via nuclear fusion.   

Let’s say the hot, fusioning plasma is a metaphor for Jesus’ original, pure Gospel – which releases amazing clean energy in great quantities, enough to radically change individuals and the world around them.   What is the magnetic bottle in the metaphor?  I think the magnetic bottle capable of housing and maintaining the Pure Gospel of Glory is an attitude to one’s own personal death – the very same attitude that Jesus had to His own death.  If, for any reason, the Gospel failed to produce in a believer a willingness to die to self and to this life, then that person will very soon no longer be able to hold the essential character and power of Jesus.  When the Church as a whole fails to emphasize the need to die to self and to this life in order to find True Life, then the Church, Herself, has lost the ability to contain the incandescent Truth.  After the cooling, there is is something left of the Truth that can be contained by the dogma and practices of the church – which still releases some power in combination with the ‘oxygen’ of the breath of God…. but the power and cleanness of this contaminated gospel is necessarily only a small fraction of the original Gospel. 

The Gospel shared at this website is, I believe, only credible or viable when approached from the perspective of pacifism – we can only ever recover and sustain the pure Gospel while we are willing to orient ourselves to enabled to become willing and prepared to die for it and for the One it proclaims.   It is a Gospel of Peace (& pacifism) which, maintains that death is actually a blessing, notwithstanding that the process of dying remains enormously difficult (for various reasons).  Death is a blessing since it is “far better” to go to be with the Loving One, Who loves us with an everlasting love!      

Whilst Christianity in the first three centuries after Christ showed signs of losing its power in some people (e.g. those who denied Christ under torture, or who fought in Caesar’s army), it was what the senior leaders of the Church did early in the fourth century (partly in ignorance, partly beguiled – like Adam in the garden!) that was calamitous for the Gospel.  The Church exchanged some of Her spiritual power/favour for some of the State’s physical power/favour.  The State would decriminalise Christianity and Christianity would take some direction from Constantine and otherwise support the Empire.   Win-win?  No – it was lose-lose. Both the Church and the world lost the real Gospel.  The big winner was Rene Girard’s ‘Satan’ as Jesus’ peace was replaced with more violence.   In my view, the partnership between Church and State under Constantine really contradicted Jesus’ example and teaching.   Rather than give Herself for the life of the world, as Jesus had done, the Church (leaders) chose to save themselves and their flock as though their ongoing survival on Earth was integral to God’s grace and mission.  As understandable as that is to our fallen minds, in so doing, I believe something fundamental died.  The Church lost much of its connection to Jesus’ Gospel.  To use the fusion metaphor (above) the bottle was broken and the plasma cooled. 

After Constantine called together Church leaders and insisted on them producing a definitive Christian creed (Nicea, 325 AD), the State began to enforce Church orthodoxy.  Those who challenged it were firstly exiled but in 385, Priscillian was the first Christian to be executed (!!) for ‘heresy’.  Although, the Nicene Creed contains nothing about eternal punishment for unbelievers, and although salvation-for-all was possibly the prevailing doctrine on ‘hell’ for the first 500 years  , Church ‘orthodoxy’ since then has been telling the flock that free-thinking was/is a sure road to post-mortem torment from God.  

The interpretation of “Hell”(Hebrew: Gehinnom – the valley of Hinnom) as post-mortem torment is one of the heresies, I believe, we must overcome from Scripture in order to rescue the Bible from Constantinian ‘fundamentalists’, past and present.  We must not be afraid to ‘examine the fruit’ and ‘test the spirits’. We must try to follow the Holy Spirit into all the truth even as we are wary of deceivers.   We must not let our forbears’ theology dictate how we see Jesus.  We must start our theology with Jesus in the Gospels and build our picture of God based on the life and teachings of the One Who came to show us the Father.  If we do that, I believe we will see that Scripture contradicts anti-martyrdom attitudes, hell as post-mortem torment and four other self-contradictory, non-pacifist heresies.  With these gone, I hope, the reader will see with me how consistent the Bible is about a loving God who calls us to joyful lives and peaceful deaths.   

Here are the six ‘heresies’ I dispute in this blog arranged in a sort of chronological order.  “Heresy” is the historical language of the Church for “belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine” or “opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted” (Oxford dictionary).  I don’t call people ‘heretics’ and I don’t call the following six dogmas ‘heresies’ in order to incite discrimination against those who hold them (that would be the way of top-down power structures, not the way of the bottom-up Kingdom of God).  I call them ‘heresies’ in order to link the debate with Church history for the last two millennia.  I call them ‘heresies’ because in my view they are “profoundly at odds with (the radical) orthodoxy” of Christ.  Here they are:  

  1. Anti-martyrdom / Death as tragedy
  2. Justice as retribution
  3. Just War Theory 
  4. Hell as post-mortem torment
  5. Atonement theory
  6. Imputed Righteousness.

I elaborate on them in the next page.

Next..

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