The Church of the Empire versus the Christian Church of North Africa 312-430 A.D. By Terry Sullivan. Denver, Colorado: Radical Christian Press, 2012, 211 pp., available on CD from https://radicalchristianpress.org/default.aspx ($30.00, paper).
During a recent presentation at the University of California-Berkeley, Professor Cornel West (2011) commented, “Most of Christianity is Constantinian Christianity.” An excellent interpretation of that remark is provided in The Church of the Empire, authored by church historian and former New York Catholic Worker associate, Terry Sullivan. In the volume, Sullivan provides an account of the fourth century transmutation of the primitive Christian Church into the Catholic Church during and after the reign of the Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD). But Sullivan’s book is more than a history report. He states his standpoint in the very first sentence: “The secular Christianity which was established by the worldly church of the Roman Empire is the enemy of Christian society which must be built upon the true Christian morality that was preserved, revived, and renewed in the underground church” (p. 1). Church of the Empire’s history takes on those who apologize for Constantine, such as the art historian Kevin Johnson (1994), who writes:
Two candidates for emperor, Constantine and Maxentius, were about to meet in a decisive battle at the Milvan Bridge in 312. The night before the battle, Constantine saw a bright vision in the sky: a great cross with the legend “in this sign you shall conquer.” Grateful for the divine aid, he took an interest in Christianity, supporting it with gifts of land and treasure, building immense churches and presiding at synods of bishops in his palace. (p. 201)
In refuting the imperial version of history, Sullivan uses the letters of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and other early sources as he guides us through a picture of the political marriage (or affair) between the Christian church and Constantine’s ambitions. The canvas for this portrait is North Africa and its primitive bishops, the most notable of them being the establishment antagonist Donatus (d. 355). Both sides in this conflict (as well as Sullivan) use the word “satanic” to describe their opponents and their ends. On one side we see the new establishment Christians refer to the followers of Donatus as “sons of hell.” On the other side is the condemnation by Tyconius (370–390 AD) of the establishment Catholics as: “Evil priests working with the kings of this world. Relying on royal favor they have renounced Christ. . . They confess and speak through their works that, ‘We have no other king but Caesar’” (p. 85).
Where previous generations of African Christians had seen the Emperor and his officials as personifications of the devil, Augustine told the Donatists “There is no braver soldier of Christ than the Emperor” (p. 85). The cross symbol became a military standard and “the Prince of Peace was turned into the war god of an evil empire,” as Sullivan summarizes in quoting John Henry Newman:
For the first time, the meek and peaceful Jesus became a god of battle, and the Cross the holy sign of Christian Redemption, a banner of bloody strife. This was the first advance to the military Christianity of the middle ages, a modification of the pure religion of the Gospel, if directly opposed to its genuine principles (pp. 29-30).
The Church of the Empire is trying to get us to look behind the curtain of Augustine’s theological speculations and see, as the book puts it, that, “The Emperor’s adoption of Bishop Caecilian of Carthage [311 AD] was the beginning of a long battle between the Christians of North Africa and the Imperial Forces behind the new state church. The battle wasn’t between the ‘Donatist’ Church and the ‘Catholic’ Church; the battle was between the Christian Church and the Roman Empire” (p. 16). We are invited to look not only at the great civil war that ended with the Battle of the Milvan Bridge but at the many rebellions that went on in North Africa before the war. Later in the midst of the great theological councils, Constantine is seen as continuing the war by laying out a system where bishops are deposed, bought, or made Roman officials such as judges. In this system, corruption and absenteeism ran rampant; the charge of theological error became a good way for Augustine to push enemies aside, or get rid of them altogether. In this imperial church, three thousand bags of gold could buy a lot.
For those who yelled, “Don’t Take the Money!” like Donatus, the remedy of the imperial church became the charge of heresy. This was made a crime punishable by torture or death. It was at this time that the disconcerting birth of “police Christianity” reared its holy head with armed Roman enforcers and the picture of the Virgin Mary, “Mother of Battles”, leading the way. This militant Mary regularly appeared thereafter as Johnson (1994) shows in his discussion of the Battle of Lepanto. At Lepanto, Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire met in 1571. The rosary was invoked to gain the help of “Our Lady of Victory.”
The author argues that in its early years and later, “A primary mark of the true church was that it was persecuted for its adherence to the Christian faith” (p. 4). In this regard, he quotes both Bishop Donatus, “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?” and also his successor, Bishop Parmenian (385 AD), “What have Christians to do with Kings, or Bishops with the Palace?” (pp. 22, 85). Sullivan contrasts this with the religious persecution of Caligula, which was imitated by Constantine. This persecution, he says, became a mark of the false church.
The killing of Donatist bishops and the destruction of their villages led to the division of African Christians that has permanently divided them into two rival churches. Pleas that “Christ was a lover of unity” have carried no weight with those who rejected an alliance with “pagan magistrates and soldiers” (p. 66). Church of the Empire asks “If your dinner guest takes out a revolver and shoots your child, do you sit down after dinner to debate a point of theology with him?” (p. 66). Along the same line, Jeff Dietrich (2011) comments in his new book, Broken and Shared, “The Empire wants to extract the maximum wealth possible, and the religious elite have a theology that, rather conveniently, supports that project” (p. 65).
From the perspective of Church of the Empire, the founding saint and poster child for the Constantinian Church project is Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s own letters are used to show how the new establishment Christianity was made into the lawful religion. About this, the author offers Augustine commented, “For many have found advantage (as we have proved, and are daily proving by actual experiment) in being first compelled by fear or pain, so that they might afterwards be influenced by teaching” (p. 100). Besides pain or fear, terror or compulsion, or a fine of ten pounds of gold, Augustine promoted with the new laws the taking of Donatist property:
The Emperor, as you know, in that case decreed for the first time that the property of those who were convicted of schism and obstinately resisting the unity of the Church should be confiscated…Everything, therefore, that was held in the name of the churches of the party of Donatus, was ordered by the Christian emperors, in their pious laws, to pass to the Catholic Church, with the possession of the buildings themselves (Augustine, as quoted in Sullivan, p. 45).
If one did not like the new laws, there was no use complaining.
In his debunking of Hippo’s imperial bishop, Sullivan emphasizes selectivity, inconsistency and inaccuracy concerning historical events. In some of his writings, Augustine questioned the fact violence was used against the Donatist bishops, such as being thrown off cliffs and down wells. In other writings he confirms the acts of violence, and even praises the violence used by the imperial forces, “The Catholics were able to take full advantage of the favor of the Imperial Government…command of the armies in Africa was in the hands of pro catholic officers” (p. 84). Sullivan concludes: “Augustine believed that the union of Imperial military power and police power with the Christian mission was ordained by God. He believed in Constantine’s miracle. And he was the architect of the new theology” (p. 120).
A problem with Church of the Empire is that it sometimes falls into being a polemical essay with unclear and unsupported generalizations. Without documentation he asserts that Augustine fabricated scripture (p. 110). Sullivan should have examined the first century text of Saint Paul if he wanted to prove his point. At another he claims, “It is apparent that groups which were once authentically Christian such as the Franciscans or the Quakers or the Catholic Worker movement can change dramatically for the worse over time” (p. 3). Among the unclear terms he uses are “the modern secular church” and “Kennedyism.” Without documentation, he states that the City College system of New York has declined because of open non-competitive enrollment and then mentions that mostly Hispanic people entered this system.
It is opinions and generalizations like this that damage the credibility of his important research on Augustine and Catholic Church history. At times he seems to throw the baby out with the bath water as in his conclusion, where he rejects Vatican II’s engagement with the modern world. We are left wondering who he considers worthy and not part of “the pagan mob.” On the other hand, he holds up as positive Franz Jaggerstatter, a German who was killed by the Nazis for refusing to join the army as well as fathers of the primitive church such as Tertullian and Cyprian (third century), and the pacifism of the early Christian church, as documented in the scholarship of Adolph Harnack, C.J. Cadoux, and Jean-Michel Hornus. Also on the positive side, in his last chapters, he offers us an overview of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the apostles, while criticizing how this power is deformed by being reduced to static things and rituals. Along the same lines, he reviews Jesus’ teachings on the world as found in scripture. In this his claim that Augustine directly rewrote scripture is not documented, but he does show how such writings were manipulated in Augustine’s rhetoric.
For Sullivan “Constantinian Christianity” is what Revelations 19:19 describes as the beast, “And I saw the beast, and all the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered together to make war.” As Dietrich (2011) points out, “Central to this perverse transformation was the image of the cross, which under Constantine became both the static instrument of Christian self-affirmation and the idolatrous symbol of deadly state power that murdered all who would not accept its salvific efficacy” (p. 56). In the end Sullivan, quoting Luke 4:5, gives us a startling reflection, “Then the devil took Him up and showed him in a second all the kingdoms of the world. I will give you all this power and all this wealth.”
Dietrich, Jeff. (2011) Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Los Angeles: Marymount University Press.
Johnson, Kevin. (1004) Why Do Catholics Do That? New York: Ballantine.
West, Cornel. (2011) Race, Inequality, and Student Activism. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley: December 2, 2011. C-Span Video Library, Available at https://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/302979-1 (accessed 17 January 2012).
Reviewed by Will Roach
Loyola Institute for Ministry
Loyola University, New Orleans