The Church of the Empire versus the Christian Church of North Africa: 312-430 Ad

By Roach, Will | International Journal on World Peace, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Church of the Empire versus the Christian Church of North Africa: 312-430 Ad


Roach, Will, International Journal on World Peace


THE CHURCH OF THE EMPIRE VERSUS THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH OF NORTH AFRICA: 312-430 AD Terry Sullivan Denver, Colorado: Radical Christian Press, 2012 211 pages, index, bibliography, paper, $30.00

During a recent presentation at U.C. Berkeley, Princeton professor of African American Studies Cornell West commented, "Most of Christianity is Constantinian Christianity. m What did he mean? In his new book, The Church of the Empire^ the church historian and former New York Catholic Worker associate, Terry Sullivan, endeavors to give us an answer to this in his account of the fourth century transmutation of the primitive Christian Church into the comfortable Catholic Church we encounter during and after the reign of the Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD).

But Sullivan's book is more than a history report. He states where he is coming from 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."2 Church of the Empire's history takes on those who apologize for Constantine, such as the art historian Kevin Johnson, 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.3

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 realistic 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."4

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. "5 The Cross 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.6

Make no mistake, 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 cDonatisf Church and the 'Catholic' Church; the battle was between the Christian Church and the Roman Empire.7

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. …

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