Richard Davis

PhD (Divinity) Research Proposal

PhD (Divinity) Research Proposal

Richard Arthur Davis

Proposed Thesis Title The Changing Nature of Church-State Relations from Constantine to Globalisation


This topic deserves research because with terrorism and the rise of fundamentalism the temptation of many will be to use the state apparatus to crush political religion, or to rid the world of secular humanistic influence. Often ignored in these debates, however, is the realpolitik dimension of the state, over which people fight, not realising that it may not be so potent after all. There is a body of thought that nation states are becoming of secondary importance to corporations and multilateral organisations when it comes to important policy decisions.


I will build on the scholarship of Alistair Kee, Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O'Donovan and Nigel Wright and others who have examined the longstanding impact of the so-called conversion of Constantine in 312AD. My research will take the critique of Constantinianism and Christendom into the modern era through an investigation of the doctrine of the state. The Constantinian temptation is seen in many aspects of the church's life today, in theologies of violence, the public policy agenda of the church and the use of the state for the advancement of the church's mission.


It is taken more for less granted these days that the church has a duty and a mandate to be involved in social and political activity, without necessarily getting into party politics itself. This belief transcends the left-right political spectrum. The post-Christendom western church no longer aspires to temporal power but retains the hope of influencing the state and public morals. Hence the church's engagement with secular power is often more about having influence than it is about having a prophetic voice.


Where engagement in politics in treated as unproblematic the terms of engagement of the church are in today's liberal society on liberal terms. Taken more or less for granted is the legitimacy of the state or form of government, which is not without ideological pre-supposition. This can be understood as the sphere of engagement. The doctrine of the state that underpins much of the church's action in the public sphere is often taken for granted without being examined thoroughly. It is one purpose of this thesis to bring to light the unspoken assumptions of the church in taking a public role. I propose to examine the historical development of the doctrine of the state and to attempt to look at its future, given that the church and state appear to be in decline in the face of secularisation and globalisation.

Proposed Thesis Breakdown

The Temptations of Christendom

From the conversion of Constantine the Church has been tempted to get into alliances with the state for a number of reasons. Such alliances can range from formal establishment to cooperation in the provision of social services. Introductory sections will review the literature on Constantinianism and Christendom and develop a theoretical framework for the chapters to follow.


From a theological perspective a church that embraces statism risks displacing faith in the Reign of God with faith in the state. This may be because there is the belief that the state can bring about the Kingdom of God, if only the state would listen to the church and its social policy pronouncements. It is commonplace for the church to support the state in its endeavour to make a just, peaceful and equitable society, and even more common to believe that the state can achieve these things. Thus Nigel Wright defines Constantinianism as "that alliance of church and state which while passing for an extension of the church's mission actually obstructs its fulfilment." These temptations are dependent on the state apparatus and a justification of the church's role in engaging with the state.

Doctrines of the State

The justification of the church's alliance with the state is based on various doctrines of the state, based on scripture and tradition. Aligned with this, it will be argued are doctrines of the church and its role in society. There is, therefore a dialectical relationship between church and state and not a universal set of principles for church/state relations. This is one argument of the thesis and one that will provide critical tools for considering other issues.


A central theme here is to what extent Jesus confronted the state and in what way his engagement with the Roman Empire is normative for Christians engaging the states in which they live. Authors such as Cullman (1957) and Storkey (2005) may be read to suggest that the state that Jesus encountered has similarities with us and therefore there are political lessons for us. Yet there are many differences in the political arrangements between then and now and the degree to which these authors an being anachronistic will be examined.

Christendom and Social Issues

The state has been used in various ways by the church to advance certain aims, often with negative effects.


One of the earliest impacts of Constantine on Christian theology was the turn from pacifist ideas and a change in theology towards one that not only accepted violence but glorified it if it served the Kingdom of God. In this decade, The Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence, it is highly relevant to review the current state of the theologies of violence and what they owe to the Constantinian influence.


Another element of the church's relations with the state in Christendom was mission. That the state should support the church in its mission was taken for granted by the state and by the church. Missionaries have been used by the state for its own ends, sometimes to the detriment of the mission. Of particular interest here is the debate between theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Oliver O'Donovan. Were Christians "attempting to further the kingdom through the power of this world" as Hauerwas claims? Or as Oliver O'Donovan says, "That is not what Christians were trying to do. Their own account of what happened was that those who held power became subject to the rule of Christ."


Along with the rise of the modern state we witness increased state action in society. The rise of the welfare state, in particular, was supported by the church in large measure, realising that private charity alone would barely meet the huge needs of the poor in an industrialising world. In this section I will examine the temptations of the Church to promote its own public policy agenda.

The Church, State and Ethics

A further area of statist thought by the church is that the state can legislate morality and advance Christian ways of life. This area has particular contemporary relevance, with the transformation of traditional marriage and the proposed recognition of same-sex marriage being just two examples. Now with increased pluralism in the West, claims that "Christian morality" is normative for everyone can only be expected to be taken seriously by a small minority of Christians. Politicians are exhorted to listen only to secular arguments and nowadays most churches base their cases against the evils of gambling and prostitution on secular grounds rather than the overtly religious.


In accepting the legitimacy of the state and its liberal democratic polity and acceptance of liberal political the church seems to accept the role of the state in promoting Christian social aims. Here the differences between Moltmann and Hauerwas, highlighted by Rasmusson (1995), bring out some issues to be pursued. He cites Moltmann as one who sees the "state or superstate" as "the primary agent of justice" while Hauerwas argues that "the agency of the state is only one component in the processes of social change." Furthermore he bemoans the fact we tend to think primarily in statist terms in advancing social change - a key critique of the church in his ecclesiology.

The Future of Church-State Relations

The church in the nation-state is one that often has a relationship with the state and one in which one shapes the other. With the decline of the state this relationship will inevitably alter. Another important factor is the eclipse of the state by multi-lateral organisations and corporations.


The apparent decline of the state has not lessened the church's enthusiasm for using the state to advance its values and mission. This thesis will examine the claim that the state is in decline and what effect this will have on the areas of violence, mission, welfare and morals. It has been argued that the nation state has been eclipsed in recent times through globalisation and is becoming increasingly irrelevant (van Crevald, 1999).


I will examine the truth of this statement as it impacts the Church's ability to achieve its own goals as the era of Christendom has shaped them. Some international forces are limiting the possibility of state action, even if it wishes to act. For example, the adoption of structural adjustment programmes and the desire for international competitiveness are claimed to limit the welfare state's ability to survive. In censorship, a further example, the internet and convergence of media technology makes censoring objectionable (or banned) material very difficult to enforce through law.


Another way of looking at the issue is that with the end of Christendom Constantinianism is also at an end. One should not confuse Constantinianism with Christendom, as some have done, but this waning of the influence of the Church – it could be argued – only makes the temptation of Constantinianism more attractive as the Western church tries to grasp on to anything that will keep it afloat. This is what Yoder has named "neo-Constantinianism". Some might argue that the church needs to be big and strong to regain influence in society. But as Nigel Wright (2000) warned "The Decline of the churches in the West should not lead to the conclusion that the 'disavowal of Constantine' is an antiquarian discussion."


What is the future of the doctrine of the state? Is the state really in decline, rendering church/state alliances redundant and of historical interest only? Or, is there a new loci of power emerging in the world, that of the corporation and multilateral agencies? Alternatively the claims that the state is in terminal decline may be overstated. Due to the possible scope of such a project I will concentrate on specific examples from history, as those mentioned above, that offer insights into statism and the alternatives available to the church now. Certainly the church will need to find ways of being in the world that do not depend on the support or defence of the state.

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