We are now up to the third chapter on my thesis on Christian sacral kingship, in which I examine how Christianity both altered prevailing concepts of political authority in the Mediterranean world and fused the older traditions of power, both eastern and western, in the new relation between Church and State, Sacerdos and Imperium. As always, I welcome comments and critiques.
Chapter Two: The Christian Revolution
The reason the pagan world could never integrate an eastern, “theocratic” view of kingship with the western, “popular” view of authority was that, from a pagan standpoint, the two systems were mutually exclusive. For those peoples of the eastern lands who were accustomed to autocratic rule, the idea of giving power to the people seemed like the height of folly. To the Greeks and Romans, the idea of absolute authority coming from the gods could not but imply arbitrariness, despotism and tyranny. The Greeks and Romans could never adequately conceive of an authority whose sanction to rule came straight from the gods/God, but whose power was mitigated and mediated into something other than despotism. This was the function the Christian Church would play. But what was so revolutionary about Christianity politically? Jesus had not been the first preacher of a coming kingdom, nor was He the last. What was different about His message that changed the face of ancient political power?
In the New Testament
Paradoxically, the fact is that Christianity was able to alter the way mankind viewed politics because it had so little to say about politics. The Gospels come with no indication of any sort of ideal political state. If philosophers were to turn to the Gospels and Epistles to find out whether an autocracy was better than a democracy or how much authority a king should have, they would be very disappointed, for the New Testament says very little on the subject. The most significant, and indeed only, passage in which Jesus addresses the issue is when he teaches His disciples to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”1 This answer is perplexing, because it is at once an answer and the evasion of an answer. He gives this injunction, but does not delineate what is Caesar’s and what exactly is God’s. Where does the authority of the one sphere end and the other begin? Where do they meet? The whole tumultuous history of Church and State relations throughout the Middle Ages is an attempt to answer these questions.
The only other statements about temporal rulership in the New Testament are found in the works of St. Paul, who briefly discusses the topic in his famous treatise on Christian political life in the Epistle to the Romans. There he explains that the Christian is obliged to obey those in government as they obey God, because all temporal authority comes from God. “For,” he writes, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted from God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and…will incur judgment.”2 Jesus Himself seemed to hint at this same idea when He said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me had it not been given you from above,”3 implying that even the authority that Pilate was abusing in order to crucify the Son of God was itself from God. The view of temporal authority alluded to in the Gospels seems then to be that all authority, even when it is abused, comes from God and must be respected as such.4 This is manifest in Paul’s frequent commands, carried on by subsequent generations of Christians, to offer up prayers for those in authority.5
Two things are revolutionary about the strikingly simple view of political authority presented in the New Testament. First, it is a religious philosophy that does not have a corresponding idealized political structure to go with it. This is a true novelty, for the ancient world rarely produced religions that were not state religions and never really produced gods unless they were state gods.6 The Old Testament had the Law of Moses, but also the divinely instituted Kingdom of David under the house of David centered around Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon. Yahweh, though Creator of all mankind, was primarily the Lord God of Israel, a national God. The old Roman religion, centered on the worship of Mars and later Jupiter, was a civic religion entirely. The numerous deities of the city-states of Mesopotamia, from Uruk to Lagash were likewise all civic in nature; not to mention the highly state oriented view of religion in Pharonic Egypt. The otherwise abstract minds of the Greeks likewise identified the gods with state and community. Even in the skeptical age of Socrates and the Peloponnesian War they still identified their gods with the welfare of the state to such a degree that the defacing of some Hermae statues in Athens was taken as an act of treason against the state and the general Alcibiades was sentenced to death in absentia; several other Athenians were actually executed for similar crimes.7 Plato, too, had a ready made model state, put forward in his Republic, to go with his religious philosophy. All of these pre-Christian religions were also state systems and cultures. Though it is not within the scope of this work, we could also cite Islam as an example of a religious system that is also a political system. Christianity was revolutionary in that the Gospel did not come with a corresponding state system set up to go with it. It certainly had its foundation in the culture of the Jews, but the Church itself was like a chameleon that was able to take on the cultural trappings of whatever society it found itself in. This was the key to its unity and the reason why it alone has managed to become a truly world religion in a way that cultural-religions like Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, paganism and even Judaism never could.
The second innovative thing about Christianity was that, unlike Old Testament Judaism, it asserted that all authority, unequivocally, came from God. Being that it is an historically eastern religion, this is not surprising. But in the specific context of Christianity’s Jewish origins, it certainly is. Jews had always believed that the authority of the king came down from God, but only their king; the kings of the Gentiles were a different matter altogether. A Jew and a Christian could both easily assert that King Solomon was a king anointed by God and ruling Israel with God’s authority, but no pious Jew would have put forward the idea that the authority of persons like Antiochus IV Epiphanes or Emperor Caligula (both who committed outrages against the Jewish nation) came from God. This is contrasted greatly with the image Eusebius gives us of the Christian faithful, praying for the Emperors Diocletian, Galerius and Licinius even as the latter subject them to the most monstrous tortures. In short, the Christian revolution universalized the idea of the authority of the king coming from God. It was no longer just the authority of the Jewish king, or just the Pharaoh, or only the petty priest-kings of this or that Mesopotamian city-state, but all authority that descended from God. This idea, at least theoretically, made any type of Christian nationalism (akin to the Jewish type rampant in Judea from the time of Augustus to the time of Hadrian) an impossibility. Since every king held his authority from God, every king equally had a right to respect and honor; Christians were to give “respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due…Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”8 This ideal of the universal divine origin of all authority did much to establish the early medieval idea of sacrosanct kingship.9 In the earliest centuries of the Church, this honor would have been reserved to the Roman Emperor alone, the only "king" known in the west. Yet, as the Middle Ages progressed and national kings asserted their power against that of an ever weakening Roman (and then Holy Roman) Empire, this teaching on the authority of kings was applied to all in authority. "A king is an emperor in his kingdom," went the popular saying of the Middle Ages.
Render to Caesar
Christ’s command to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” was relatively easy to fulfill in the early centuries of Christianity. The world of the Church and the secular world of Rome were divided by a deep chasm. Christians generally fulfilled Christ’s precept in two ways. On the positive side, they were submissive to the laws, paid their taxes in due time, showed fitting honor to the civil magistrates and performed social works of charity. On the negative side, they usually refrained from military service, tried not to make use of the Roman courts,10 stayed out of civic positions early on, remained aloof from the circuses and spectacles, and were conspicuously absent at civic religious services, where sacrifices were made to the state gods, the emperor, and the “Genius of the Roman People.”11 Later, many retreated from civic life all together and went into monasteries. It was generally pretty clear cut where the dividing line was between the City of God and the City of Man, and Christians could easily steer clear of the latter if they had enough fortitude to turn their back on the culture of their day.
This is attested to by the fact that the Church Fathers of the ante-Nicean period spent very little time writing on matters of state and politics. By the time of Emperor Septimius Severus (r.193-211), Christianity had become more entrenched and Christians were taking up civil posts in the government; yet even then few Christian authors of the time address the issue of Church-State relations. The one exception perhaps is Tertullian, who dourly complained from the harsh deserts of North Africa, declaring that “no official position in the state ought to be held by any true Christian.”12 Most Church Fathers of the time were writing treatises against heresies (Irenaeus), exegetical works (Origen), or catechetical materials (Cyril of Jerusalem). The question about where the temporal and spiritual spheres met and ended remained untouched since Church-State integration was not a lively issue in the days of the persecutions.
The advent of a Christian Emperor changed this arrangement and threw endless complexities into the question of how a Christian was supposed to relate to the secular state. It was easy to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar's and to God the things that were God’s, but what was one to do when Caesar and God were on the same team? The ascension of Constantine as sole emperor in 324 ushered in a new era of ideology regarding the relations of Church and State. His embrace of the faith following the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 has provided grounds for endless speculation among historians about his motives; modern popular history tends to see his conversion as a political convention with little personal conviction done in order to secure power, using the Church as his tool.
Two common errors must be refuted in dealing with this topic. One is to believe that the post-Nicene Church was largely a political construction of Constantine made to serve his personal agenda, whose clergy were subsequently knavish goons ready to act on his every beckon call. Some of the more unscholarly of Protestant historians hold this view, which tends to transform the Catholic Church into just another Roman institution created by Constantine. The second common error is to assume that the Church, once invested with political clout, began to pander to the idols of power and money and stopped criticizing the establishment in exchange for imperial patronage.
Contrary to those who see the post-Nicene Church as a tool of Constantine created by him to serve his purposes, it is evident that the structure and hierarchy of the Church were intact and functioning well before the advent of Constantine. Though his ascension increased prestige of the Church greatly, there was very little alteration to the structure or organization of the Church during the Constantinian period; if there was a change, it was certainly not done by Constantine.13 Changes in organization certainly would come later, but they were long after the period of Constantine and instituted equally by the Church and State. It is often emphasized how zealous Constantine was in supporting Christianity and stomping out paganism, but what is often under emphasized is how enthusiastically the Church supported Constantine and flocked to his cause. Christians had labored many long years under godless emperors and were quite willing to openly praise the first Christian emperor as a new David or a new Solomon. It seemed like a new golden age was dawning, ushered in by Constantine.
The second error, that the Church relaxed its preaching of the Gospel in exchange for wealth, prestige and power, is refuted by a look at the ancient practice of parrhesia. In contrast to the pre-Constantinian fathers, who wrote little about politics and generally derided those in authority as godless, it now became the standard in ecclesiastical circles to praise the emperor as a friend of God and at the same time pay close attention to his political actions. After all, one had to make certain that the emperor was not also giving an upper hand to heretics, pagans or Jews. Not only did bishops gradually come to pay close attention to imperial affairs, but they began to speak their mind to the emperors freely when the latter might be tempted to enact a piece of legislation that the bishops thought was less than Christian. This boldness of speech came to be viewed subsequently as a right and prerogative of the clergy, called parrhesia in the east. For example, St. Ambrose boldly says to the usurper-emperor Eugenius in 393, “I have no fear telling your majesties, the emperors, what I feel with my own conviction,” and later says of the emperor Theodosius I, “I did not hesitate to speak with him face to face.”14 He cites Psalm 118:46, “I was not ashamed to speak in the presence of the king,” as justification for his considerable license in speaking to the Imperial Majesty. In the same letter to Eugenius, Ambrose strictly censures the Emperor for giving large donations to supporters who were pagans, saying, “The imperial power is great, but consider, O emperor, how great God is…You are indeed the emperor, but you must all the more submit to God.”15 When pestering Theodosius about the way he handled a synagogue burning affair, Ambrose bluntly opens the body of his epistle with the statement, “It is not fitting for an emperor to refuse freedom of speech or for a bishop not to say what he thinks.”16 No one of any rank under Caligula or Domitian or even better emperors like Trajan and Severus, would have ever been permitted to take such a tone with His Imperial Majesty; this was something new.
A great example of this freedom of speech exercised by clergy in the presence of the emperors comes from the life of St. Athanasius. He had the boldness to track down Constantine himself while the emperor was out on a hunting trip and stand in the way of his entourage, refusing to move until the emperor allowed him to vindicate himself before his Arian accusers. Constantine himself recorded his amazement at Athanasius’ boldness:
As I was entering on a late occasion our all-happy home of Constantinople, which bears our name (I chanced at the time to be on horseback) on a sudden the Bishop Athanasius, with certain others whom he had with him, approached me in the middle of the road, so unexpectedly as to occasion me much amazement….I did not however enter into conversation with him at that time, nor grant him an interview…but gave orders for his removal, when with increasing boldness he claimed only this favor [i.e., that he should be allowed to plead his case before the Emperor]…17
This new air of boldness to speak on the part of the clergy was something quite different from the imperial flattery and proskynesis that Diocletian required of his attendants (and that lay people were still required to pay to the Christian emperors).
This idea of parrhesia, the freedom and duty of the clergy to speak freely with and even rebuke the Christian emperors, disproves the commonly held assumption of modern history that the Church slavishly pandered to the imperial will, part out of servile fear and part from a hope of gaining influence. On the contrary, from the very beginning of the Middle Ages the trend is the Church and the bishops knocking heads with the leaders of state, continually beseeching and imploring the temporal authorities to obey the Gospel and respect the rights of the Church. The Church and State were like an old married couple who bickered constantly, the Church playing the part of the nagging wife, the State of the sometimes disinterested husband. The relation of the bishops to the Emperor in the age of Constantine is indeed complex, but it was certainly not one of knavish servitude nor one of arrogant independence. The Church was ready to praise Constantine, but not pander to him. It was eager enough to applaud his legislation that favored Catholics, but equally eager to condemn his acts that favored Arians. The Church was more than willing to laud and acclaim a pious and God-fearing Christian ruler, as the Christians of the fourth century welcomed Constantine and the Israelites of the eleventh century B.C. welcomed David. At the same time, the Church was always ready to step in and rebuke a king who had acted wickedly, as Ambrose did when Theodosius massacred the people of Thessalonica and Nathan did when David killed Uriah.
Very early on, during the reign of Constantine, Christian writers and imperial propagandists began to merge the ideas of the eternal Roman Empire with the eternal reign of God. The two were never totally confused (as in ancient Egypt where the Pharaoh was first the incarnate Horus and later the divine son of Ra) but they were integrated.18 Had not the book of Proverbs said, “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord”?19 All that the reign of God and the reign of the Emperor needed to integrate was a point on which they could meet, a fulcrum on which the two sides could balance. That crux was military triumph.
This goes back to the very beginning, to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Though the reported vision of Constantine, the cross emblazoned with the words “In this sign thou shalt conquer” (In hoc signo vinces) was later applied by ecclesiastics like Eusebius to the spiritual triumph of Christianity over paganism, its initial context was that of a military victory. Constantine certainly took it this way, and ordered the chi rho sign painted on all his soldiers’ shields. The victory of his forces that day seemed to confirm that the Christian God was not only the true God, but the God who ensured military victory. The first fusion of Church and State functions was a military one. Thus, from the very beginning the idea of the pious Christian ruler was connected with the idea of military glory. This connection would prevail over all Christendom, from the Byzantine east to the remotest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
The Christian message had revolutionized the way men thought about government. No longer was God seen as a state god bound up with the interests of a particular people, as Jupiter Capitolinus, Athena Parthenos or the Lord God of Israel, but as a God who was God of all peoples and thus all authority, even corrupt authority, got its mandate from Him. This lack of a nationalistic emphasis enabled Christianity to flourish in whatever culture it took root in and prosper under whatever governor or emperor happened to be in power at the time.
The early Christians respected all authority as coming from God and prayed for their rulers, even bad ones. The advent of Constantine and the subsequent Christianization of the Roman Empire complicated the relationship, but the two remained separate entities and were not merged but integrated. The post-Constantinian Church was obedient to the Christian emperors, as it had been to all emperors, but enjoyed a new boldness (parrhesia) to evaluate their acts in light of the Gospels and criticize them accordingly. This duty fell largely to the bishops. With its insistence that all authority was not of human origin but came from God, as well as its degree of responsibility and accountability that it required of Christian rulers, Christianity became the perfect synthesis of the older, pagan political traditions of the east and the west and thus accomplished peacefully what Xerxes, Alexander, Caesar and Diocletian had been unable to do militarily or politically. In its emphasis on the authority of the ruler coming straight from heaven, it preserved the best qualities of the eastern theocratic monarchies. In its utilization of the body of bishops as a kind of ecclesiastical senate that had the ear of the emperors and enjoyed a considerable amount of free speech (parrhesia) with him, it also provided an outlet for the continuation of the western, senatorial tradition based around the assembly to continue. After all, the Greek word for Church, ekklesia, is the same word used for assemblies of the Greek city-states. In the Christian Church, the representative assemblies of the west were finally able to coexist with the sacerdotal monarchs of the east.
As Church and State gradually grew used to existing side-by-side, certain ecclesiastical rights were introduced into political functions, so that specific state rituals also became Church rituals. The first aspect that the two institutions were able to converge on was that of military triumph. The idea of the pious Christian emperor as Victor was most popular in the east, where imperial custom prevailed much longer than in the west, which was becoming increasingly germanicized. It is to the post-Constantinian emperors of Constantinople that we must now turn.
1 Matt. 22:21
2Rom. 13:1-2 (see also Tit. 3:1, I Pet. 2:13-17)
3 John 19:11
4 As in the example of David, refusing to strike down Saul even when he had both the right and the opportunity (I Sam. 24:1-22; 26:1-25).
5 I Tim. 2:1-2. Eusebius reveals how seriously Christians took this command to pray for those in authority when he says that the Christian communities of Asia Minor offered up prayers for the welfare of the Co-Emperor Licinius (319) even when he was in the process of pursuing a savage campaign of persecution against them. Eusebius calls this act of praying for rulers the “ancestral custom” of the Christians (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 10.8).
6 Not unless one counts the deities of sky and earth, such as Gaea, Cybele, etc. But these most ancient of deities probably represent the remnants of a primal religion left over from before such a time as there was organized states. But once ancient cultures civilized and urbanized, the gods they developed were always state gods.
7Thucydides, History, 6.27-28,61
8 Rom 13:7; I Pet. 2:13-17
9 One result of this is that assassination of monarchs was a relatively rare occurrence in the Middle Ages. Most medieval kings met their ends peacefully. By contrast, a majority of the final Roman emperors died unnatural deaths.
10 Following St. Paul’s injunction of I Cor. 6:1-8: “When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?…I say this to your shame…brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?”
11Michael Grant, History of Rome (Michael Grant Publications: London, 1979), 304
12 Grant, 307
13Some might object that the Council of Nicaea was called at Constantine’s request, and that this constitutes a major change in the Church at the hand of the Emperor. But though the Council was certainly pivotal, it only reaffirmed what had been the orthodox position all along and proposed no novelty.
14 St. Ambrose, Letter 57
16St. Ambrose, Letter 40
17William Thomas Walsh, Saints in Action, (Hanover House: Garden City, NY, 1961),191
18Jan Assman, The Mind of Egypt, Translated by Andrew Jenkins (Metropolitan Books: New York, 1996), 184