The rulers of the world bowed before Christ’s throne
by Ken Myers
“What claim has this ‘Christendom’, this millennium and a half of respectfulness on the part of Gentile lords, upon our interest now? Not the claim of revelation, certainly, which is the claim of Israel and the Christ. Nor even the claim of tradition, since tradition is continuity, and its claim is the claim of what has proved its worth by survival. We now have little continuity with Christendom; it is not our tradition anymore; its assumptions are alien to us. Its claim on us is simply that of witness. It attests, as a matter of history, the actual impact of the Christian faith on European politics, and it expounds this impact in its developed political reflections. Those who ruled in Christendom and those who thought and argued about government believed that the Gospel was true. They intended their institutions to reflect Christ’s coming reign. We can criticize their understanding of the Gospel; we can criticize their applications of it; but we can no more be uninterested in their witness then an astronomer can be uninterested in what people see through telescopes. And while no testimony to Christ can safely be ignored, this one lays claim with a special seriousness; for although it is no longer our tradition, we are its dénouement, or perhaps its débâcle. It was the womb in which our late-modernity came to birth. Even our refusal of Christendom has been learned from Christendom. Its insights and errors have fashioned, sometimes by repetition and sometimes by reaction, the insights and errors which comprise the platitudes of our own era.
“Christendom, then, offers two things: a reading of those political concepts with which Scripture furnishes us, and a reading of ourselves and of our situation from a point of observation outside ourselves but not too far outside. Either of these readings we are free to question or to doubt; but for neither of them can we find a ready substitute. The more the political character of Israel’s hope engages us, the more we need to know how it has actually shaped the government of nations. The more the problem of our own modernity engages us, the more we need to see modernity against its background.
“I use the term ‘Christendom’ (in keeping with a good deal of current discussion) to refer to a historical idea: that is to say, the idea of a professionally Christian secular political order, and the history of that idea in practice. Christendom is an era, an era in which the truth of Christianity was taken to be a truth of secular politics. . . . Let us say that the era lies between ad 313, the date of the Edict of Milan, and 1791, the date of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, though these moments are symbolic only, and others could no doubt be found that would do as well. In the course of this period, the idea of Christendom developed and underwent corrections and elaborations; sometimes it was taken to apply more, sometimes less. Yet the idea is always there, giving a unity to the whole era which entitles it to the name ‘Christendom’: it is the idea of a confessionally Christian government, at once ‘secular’ (in the proper sense of that word, confined to the present age) and obedient to Christ, a promise of the age of his unhindered rule.
“The rulers of the world have bowed before Christ’s throne. The core idea of Christendom is therefore intimately bound up with the church’s mission. But the relationship between mission and Christian political order should not be misconstrued. It is not, as is often suggested, that Christian political order is a project of the church’s mission, either as an end in itself, or as a means to the further missionary end. The church’s one project is to witness to the Kingdom of God. Christendom is a response to mission, and as such a sign that God has blessed it. It is constituted not by the church’s seizing alien power, but by alien power’s becoming attentive to the church.”
— from Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)