In 335 AD Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, was forcibly exiled by decree of Constantine, the first emperor of Rome, to be a self-confessed Christian. The main charge against Athanasius? Refusing to welcome deniers of the Trinity, especially Christ’s full divinity, into the fellowship of the churches under his care. Athanasius had labored among the churches in Alexandria from perhaps as early as his teenage years, seeking to preach and teach the word of God to them accurately. Then, in his mid-to-late thirties, he experienced the first of what would eventually be five periods of exile. His times in exile were theologically fruitful, for he wrote many of the books for which he is still celebrated as a theological titan. Nevertheless, he spent at least fifteen years of his life in exile for defending the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and refusing to acquiesce to the emperors’ demands to allow heretical thinkers fellowship within the church: exiled from the congregation he loved deeply, and a congregation that loved him in return.
The kind of authority that Constantine had, and that many civil authorities had in his wake had, is an authority that twenty-first century proponents of “Magisterial Christian Nationalism” seek to defend as within their God-given rights as magistrates. Magisterial Christian Nationalists would argue that civil authorities have the power, in principle, to call synods and councils in which church authorities (bishops, pastors, professors of theology, etc.) seek to clarify right doctrine in contrast with false doctrine. And, the civil magistrate has the authority to enforce conformity to those councils.
Stephen Wolfe, for example, argues that “the Christian prince” has the authority to, among other things, “call synods in order to resolve doctrinal conflicts and to moderate the proceedings. Following the proceedings, he can confirm or deny their theological judgments; and in confirming them, they become the settled doctrine of the land. But he considers the pastors’ doctrinal articulations as a father might look to his medically trained son for medical advice. He still retains his superiority.” This short article seeks to consider Wolfe’s proposal from a historical viewpoint: what was the outcome of Christian magistrates taking on themselves the enforcement of “true” versus “false” doctrine?
1. Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022), 313.
Throughout the Church’s history, when magistrates claimed the authority to adjudicate “true” versus “false” doctrine, it ended with many genuine Christians being persecuted.
History is an arena in which we can observe how certain ideas have affected the societies in which they were taught. Because we have the record of the past, we can consider the potential ramifications that instituting those ideas from the past might have on our own culture. Though the historical evidence is never the final burden of proof for whether an idea from history is worth reclaiming in our own day, nevertheless we ought not neglect the past as it unquestionably chastens whether we accept these ideas.
Christianity experienced waves of persecution from its founding to the early 300s. Around 300 AD, it suffered through what is called “The Great Persecution” under then Emperor Diocletian, who oversaw the most prolific and organized persecution of Christians that the church had experienced to that point.
But when Diocletian abdicated the throne, the quest for power fell to four men, among whom was Constantine. According to the historian Lactantius, Constantine received a vision in 312 AD of the “heavenly sign of God,” the Greek letters Chi and Rho, and he blazed the symbol on his men’s shields. After a decisive military victory in the wake of this vision, Constantine became co-emperor—and the imperial court of Constantine embraced Christianity.
Constantine saw it as his moral obligation to promote Christian teaching. He wrote to the Persian king Sapor, “I have myself seen the vengeance of God wrought upon the persecutors. I am convinced that the greatest safety and prosperity will be enjoyed everywhere when God through the pure and righteous worship of the Christians and from their agreement concerning the divinity shall deign to draw all men unto Himself.”
2. Quoted in N. H. Bayne, Constantine the Great and the Christian Church (London: H. Milford, 1929), 26–27.
Constantine, for his part, embraced Christian culture and put it at the center of his policy. He had an African Christian tutor for his son. Roman currency soon began to bear the Christian cross. He oversaw the construction of extravagant churches paid for from the tax coffers of the empire. The gladiatorial games, at which many Christians had been martyred, were outlawed in 325 (though the Western provinces refused to comply with the order). Constantine even recognized Sundays as a holiday, bringing the empire in line with the Church’s weekly liturgy. He even began to institute moral law in line with Christianity such that divorce laws were narrowed.
3. Peter Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria: His Life and Impact (Fearn, Ross-shire, U.K.: Christian Focus, 2019), 30–31.
When the power to adjudicate right doctrine versus wrong doctrine is entrusted to the civil magistrate, and when the power to enforce church fellowship in light of that doctrine is also in the magistrate’s hands, there may be brief glimpses of positive fruit. But Christians ought to be deeply wary of governing authorities claiming spiritual authority when we consider how the claims have affected the church in history.
Even within Athanasius’s own life, in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) the effects of entrusting the magistrate with authority of doctrine in the manner of Magisterial Christian Nationalism were clear. Constantine, the same emperor who placed Christianity at the center-piece of his governing agenda, is the same emperor who ordered Athanasius exiled in 335. Supporters of Athanasius were sometimes treated as violently as they had been under pagan emperors, and pastors loyal to Athanasius were also exiled. Adding insult to injury, many of the Arian bishops who had been deposed as a result of the Council were reinstated to their bishoprics, one even becoming Bishop of Constantinople within the next decade. To add further confusion, one later emperor during the life of Athanasius persecuted both Arian heretics and Nicene Christians!
4. Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria, 102.
The Arian heretics who denied that Christ had a fully divine nature united to a fully human nature were a major proportion of Roman society, especially among the higher echelons of society. Athanasius refused to grant communion to Arian bishops in his region. “The heresy which attacks Christ,” he wrote, “has no communion with the Catholic church.”
5. Athanasius, Against the Arians, 60.1
Given the events of his life, Constantine’s primary concern was not theological fidelity, but peace and concord within an empire that had faced major political upheaval in the two hundred years. Even within Constantinople itself, Gregory of Nyssa, a contemporary of Athanasius, reported how volatile the city was with controversy surrounding Arius and his followers: “If in this city you ask a shopkeeper for change, he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about the quality of bread, the baker will answer ‘The Father is greater, the Son is less.’ And if you ask the bath attendant to draw your bath, he will tell you that the Son was created ex nihilo.” New Testament Scholar F. F. Bruce noted pointedly, “Athanasius stood for principle at any price; Constantine for concord at any price.”
6. Quoted in Barnes, Athanasius of Alexandria, 52.
7. F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (1958 ed.; Exeter: Paternoster, 1976), 309.
Christians can be grateful that when Constantine came to power, the official policy of persecution of Christ’s Church largely ended. We can be grateful that he placed more constraints around divorce, and we can also recognize the good that sprang from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which Constantine allowed to convene and even funded. All that being equal Christians are right to be chastened to think that reinstating a Christian magistrate in line with Constantine is a wise course of action given the events of Constantine’s own life and the generations of “Christian” rulers who came after him.
With the sole goal of maintaining faithful Christian doctrine on the Trinity, Athanasius for decades faced down heretical teachers within the church and governing officials outside of the church who overstepped their authority. So often, he seemed to stand alone as a defender of Nicene Trinitarian Orthodoxy, so much so that he is often celebrated as Athanasius contra Mundum or “Athanasius Against the World.” Why? Because he recognized that human beings dead in sin could only be reconciled to God if the Redeemer was fully God and fully Man.
Sadly, Athanasius isn’t the only example to share this experience: the English Puritans, French Huguenots, Dutch Puritans (like Jacobus Koelman), and Baptists in America around the time of the Revolution were all persecuted by political authorities who considered it their duty to enforce “true” doctrine. The civil authorities in all these cases, including Constantine against Athanasius, considered it their duty to wield the sword of the state on behalf of maintaining concord against the alleged rabble rousers, all of which had credible claims to being genuine Christians.
Far too often throughout Church History, the pattern has been this: a magistrate is given authority in the religious sphere to enforce true doctrine and punish false doctrine, and within a generation (if not in the same generation), that authority is used to persecute genuine Christians for their refusal to treat the civil magistrate as the final authority in their lives. As earthly rulers continue to impose secular and irreligious values upon Christians today, it may appear that “Christian prince” is an improvement. And yet, history reminds us, a twenty-first century “Christian prince” with extraordinary political power may not be such a good idea after all, given the historical evidence.
Kevin DeYoung observes of The Case for Christian Nationalism, “Considering the real-life aims of the book, it would have been nice to know where Wolfe’s version of Christian Nationalism has been implemented and whether it has proven successful at promoting a commodious life as an analog of heaven.” On this, we can speak confidently: when authorities are handed authority to declare right from wrong doctrine and to suppress those they deem heretical, the consistent pattern has been that many genuine Christians have fallen in their crosshairs. At minimum, this forces us to question having that kind of authority at all, if not reject this kind of authority for today. We ought not, then, neglect the overwhelming consensus of history from Constantine to today by seeking to crown a Christian prince.
8. Wolfe himself acknowledges in a footnote that “experience over centuries might make the Christian students of history wary of this civil power. I share that concern. But I state it here not to insist that all civil rulers everywhere exercise it but to simply affirm that civil rulers have this power and, at appropriate times, can exercise it” (Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, 313).
In his early-to-mid sixties, Athanasius was forced into exile for the fourth time. He was banished from Egypt entirely, with the possibility of execution by the pagan emperor Julian. As Athanasius fled down the Nile in a boat to escape, his pursuers approached him, but did not recognize him and asked, “How far off is Athanasius?” Athanasius is said to have responded “Not far.” He was able to escape, for which we can thank God and His kind providence. Athanasius, for his part, doesn’t seem to have been terribly bothered by the ordeal, as he said of his fourth exile that it would be “a small cloud which will soon pass.”
9. Theodoret, Church History 3.5
If the evidence of church history is anything on which to base our confidence, proponents of Magisterial Christian Nationalism seek to bring that cloud back over the heads of faithful believers. And while a Christian prince may bear short term gains for Christianity, history shows that he would likely bring about long-term harms for true Christians like Athanasius.