Constantinian shift

changes in Christianity associated with Constantine the Great

Constantinian shift is a term used by nontrinitarian Christians, as well as Anabaptist and Post-Christendom theologians, to describe the political and theological aspects of the 4th-century process of Constantine's integration of the imperial government with the church.

After Constantine ... there is no longer anything to call "world"; state, economy, art, rhetoric, superstition, and war have all been baptized. ~ John Howard Yoder
When Satan offers to give him all the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus refuses, but the church accepts. ~ Jacques Ellul


  • After his victory at the Milvian Bridge, faithful to his promise, Constantine favors the church from which he has received support. Catholic Christianity becomes the state religion and an exchange takes place: the church is invested with political power, and it invests the emperor with religious power. We have here the same perversion, for how can Jesus manifest himself in the power of domination and constraint? We have to say here very forcefully that we see here the perversion of revelation by participation in politics, by the seeking of power. The church lets itself be seduced, invaded, dominated by the ease with which it can now spread the gospel by force (another force than that of God) and use its influence to make the state, too, Christian. It is great acquiescence to the temptation Jesus himself resisted, for when Satan offers to give him all the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus refuses, but the church accepts.
    • Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (1982), G. Bromiley, trans. (1986), p. 124
  • The combination of Christian truth and political power led to the creation of the complex that we know so well. … The emperor endows the church handsomely, helps it in all that it does, aids it in its “mission.” The church supports the emperor’s legitimacy and assures him that he is God’s representative on earth.
    • Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (1982), G. Bromiley, trans. (1986), p. 124
  • It is frightening to see how easily the church accepts all this. Hardly had it achieved peace before it itself began to persecute. … It commenced the persecution of heretics, and primarily, of course, those who contested the truth and validity of this alliance of empire and church.
    • Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (1982), G. Bromiley, trans. (1986), p. 125
  • John Howard Yoder makes the striking observation that after the Constantinian shift the meaning of the word "Christian" changes. Prior to Constantine it took exceptional courage to be a Christian. After Constantine it takes exceptional courage not to be counted as a Christian. ... After the Constantinian establishment, Christians knew that God was governing the world in Constantine, but they had to take it on faith that within the nominally Christian mass there was a community of true believers. No longer could being a Christian be identified with church membership, since many "Christians" in the church had not chosen to follow Christ. Now to be a Christian is transmuted to "inwardness."
  • Cultural elites in countries that dominate peoples have adapted subject people’s religion for their own purposes.
    • Richard A. Horsley, Religion and Empire: People, Power, and the Life of the Spirit (2003), p. 12
  • The Church had acquired a protector, but it had also acquired a master.
  • Woe to the Christian Church when it will have been victorious in this world, for then it is not the Church that has been victorious but the world. Then the heterogeneity between Christianity and the world has vanished, the world has won, and Christianity has lost.
    • Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity (1850), as translated by H. and E. Hong (1991), p. 223
  • It is impossible to enumerate how thoroughly Catholicism today is saturated by middle-class reasonableness; one need only recall how even baptism—once the most powerful expression of the church’s opposition to the state, a symbol of entry into a spiritual countercommunity, a mystical adoption, less the bearing of a name than being led by means of a name on the first steps of one’s inner way—is today bound up with middle-class record-keeping: with the identity card, the need for an enduring characterization resting on the firm distinctions of compelling reason; which means that being a person is made impossible by the “individual,” that incalculable spiritual and intellectual destiny that tears away the protective covering of the soul’s anonymity and drives it to mindlessly repetitious, merely defensive expenditures of energy and renders inaccessible to it everything it might do if it did not always first have to look after a person.
    • Robert Musil, “The Religious Spirit, Modernism, and Metaphysics” (1913), B. Pike and D. Luft, trans., Precision and Soul (1978), pp. 21-22
  • From the time that the heads of government assumed an external and nominal Christianity, men began to invent all the impossible, cunningly devised theories by means of which Christianity can be reconciled with government. But no honest and serious-minded man of our day can help seeing the incompatibility of true Christianity — the doctrine of meekness, forgiveness of injuries, and love — with government, with its pomp, acts of violence, executions, and wars. The profession of true Christianity not only excludes the possibility of recognizing government, but even destroys its very foundations.
    • Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894), Ch. X
  • For the early Church, "church" and "world" were visibly distinct yet affirmed in faith to have one and the same lord. This pair of affirmations is what the so-called Constantinian transformation changes (I here use the name of Constantine merely as a label for this transformation, which began before AD200 and took over 200 years; the use of his name does not mean an evaluation of his person or work). The most pertinent fact about the new state of things after Constantine and Augustine is not that Christians were no longer persecuted and began to be privileged, nor that emperors built churches and presided over ecumenical deliberations about the Trinity; what matters is that the two visible realities, church and world, were fused. There is no longer anything to call "world"; state, economy, art, rhetoric, superstition, and war have all been baptized.
    • John Howard Yoder, "The Otherness of the Church" (1961) in A Reader in Ecclesiology (2012), p. 200
  • Pre-Constantinian Christians had been pacifists, rejecting the violence of army and empire not only because they had no share of power, but because they considered it morally wrong; the post-Constantinian Christians considered imperial violence to be not only morally tolerable but a positive good and a Christian duty.

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