Thursday, October 21, 2010

Christendom is not the Problem: Triumphalism Is

In my book, Rethinking Christ and Culture, I fell into the trap of practically (not in theory, but for all intents and purposes) equating Christendom with Triumphalism.

Triumphalism is a perversion of Christendom; it is bad politics arising from heretical doctrine.

Triumphalism means the assimilation of the State into the Church in such a way that the authority of the State is wielded by Church officials to the discrediting of the Church and the detriment of society. Triumphalism arises from the fatal relaxation of the eschatological tension between this age and the next age, the age of the Kingdom of God. Triumphalism carried far enough leads to totalitarianism.

The eschatology of the early Augustine, as is shown by Robert Markus in his magisterial Saeculum: History and Society in St. Augustine, was influenced by the Eusebianism of the age of the Theodosian settlement, which fostered Triumphalism. The dominant eschatology saw the current age as "Christian Times," an era in which biblical prophecy was being fulfilled before the very eyes of the astonished world. The conversion of Rome was seen as the beginning of the coming in history of the Kingdom of God.

As Markus shows, Augustine gradually worked himself free of this eschatology in the process of writing biblical commentaries, especially on Genesis, between roughly 395 and 410 AD. Thus, he was prepared to respond to the crisis following the sack of Rome in 410 when many pagan Roman refugees flooded into North Africa blaming the conversion of Rome to Christ for the disaster.

The eschatology of the mature Augustine emphasized that we live "between the times," that is, between the first and second comings of Christ in a kind of suspension of "salvation history." This is the period of the Church evangelizing the world in fulfillment of the Great Commission, but the Kingdom which appeared in the person of the King, Jesus Christ, remains future in terms of its fulfillment. We live in the Kingdom already, yet the Kingdom has not yet fully come. So we journey through this world as pilgrims, citizens of the city of God yet still in search of that city. One day the city of God will come to earth but this will only occur after the return of Christ.

There is thus an eschatological tension in Augustine's thought between the present age and the future age, the age of the inaugurated kingdom and the kingdom come in its fullness, between the already and the not yet. Our situation is that we live after the coming of Christ and during the reign of Christ, yet not every knee bows and not every tongue confesses at this point in history. So we pray as our Lord taught us: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Triumphalism pulls the future kingdom back into the present and supposes falsely that the rule of God is already manifest on earth through the Church. This leads the Church to suppose falsely that it has the authority to abolish the doctrine of the separation of powers between Church and State (between Priest and King) and reunite them in one sacralized entity called the State Church, which is really Leviathan.

Triumphalism is the perennial temptation of Christendom. It has reared its ugly head numerous times in the history of the West, but it represents a deviation, a perversion, a heretical degradation of the true heritage of Christendom, which deserves to be known best not for the Triumphalistic deviation, but for the doctrine of the Two that is the true fruit of Augustinian thought.

Next: Christendom is not the Problem, Secularism Is


Gordon Hackman said...

This is a very helpful distinction that for me solves the dilemma of embracing what is good about Christendom and Western history on the one hand, while also incorporating the useful insights and critiques of a more Hauerwasian type of view on the other. Too often, in my opinion, what is seen in theological discussion these days, is a facile dismissal of Christendom as having been utterly wrong and harmful, while failing to recognize anything that might have been good about it and the legacy of the Christian West.

Craig Carter said...

I'm glad you find this distinction helpful. The dilemma you speak of is a huge one for many people today and it certainly has been for me.