Friday, May 28, 2010

What does God have against us?

This is an interesting question that has come up in the course of my studies of the Book of Revelation in the context of some talks I am preparing for my Youth Group on discerning the will of God.This question deals with the phrase "I have this against you", which is oft repeated by the Lord in His letters to the seven churches found in Rev. 2-3. After greeting each local church and commending them for their fidelity, He calls to mind their sins and says "I have this against you." Consider the following verses:

  • "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first" (Rev. 2:4)

  • "But I have a few things against you; you have some who hold the teaching of also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then" (Rev. 2:15).

  • "But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess..." (Rev. 2:20).

So Scripture very clearly says that God has things "against" these churches. Since these are churches that God is speaking to, it is evident that, at face value, God can be "against" believers if they are unfaithful, which at the very least should be an admonition for us to remain in God's favor!

And yet, if we turn to the Epistle to the Romans, we see a very different statement, where St. Paul assures us that God is for us, not against us:

"And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:28-31)

Since Paul is speaking here of those He "foreknew", those who are "justified" and "glorified", we may presume he is speaking of the Church. Speaking of the Church he says "If God is for us, who can be against us?" The implied answer is "nobody." Why? Again, the implication is because God is always for us and never against us. How could God be "against" His own Church? How could Christ be "against" His Bride? "No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of His body" (Eph. 5:29). So we seem to have a contradiction - St. Paul teaches that God is for us, not against us, and that because we are His Body, the Bride of Christ, for this very reason does Christ cherish and nurture us rather than being "against" us. Yet St. John tells us very plainly that in some cases, God can be "against" the Church.

An easy answer would be to say that God is for us if we are righteous but becomes against us when we sin, since the instances mentioned in Revelation clearly deal with sin. I don't think this answer really does the issue justice though; is God really so fickle that He pledges eternal devotion to us, as a husband does a wife, but that the second we make a mistake He suddenly becomes "against" us? In some ways yes. If we commit a mortal sin, we know that we put ourselves outside God's grace; if we were to die in that state, we would find God "against" us in that we would face exclusion from heaven. But apart from the case of the sinner who actually dies in mortal sin, is the disposition of God rightly said to be "against" the believer when he commits a sin? Can God ever really be "against" a baptized believer?

One could of course try to say that one ceases being a "believer" or one of the "faithful" when they commit a sin, but this would be a Manichean view of the Church as a community of the "perfect", such as adopted by various Calvinist communities throughout history. No; the words of Christ that He has something "against" someone are addressed not to people in the world, but to the Church. So, again, can God ever be "against" a baptized believer?

Of course, if we start with St. Paul's statement that God is for us, we ought to assume that this is an absolute statement with regards to the Elect; that is, God is always for us, not just when we happen to be on the straight and narrow, but even if we screw up. If there could be windows or segments of time when God was not for us but against us, then Paul would not have been able to boast rhetorically "who can be against us?" The structure of the sentence implies that God is always for us. If nothing else, the parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us that even if we flee from God and become mired in sin, God is still "for us", still on "our side." Did the father suddenly become an enemy of the prodigal once he left home? Is the father's disposition such that he becomes against his own son when the latter leaves but then changes his disposition when the son returns? On the contrary, we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son a fatherly love that is ever for his son, even when the latter wanders.

If God is always for us, then it follows that when it says that He has things "against" us that it cannot mean in a literal sense that God has turned against us, just like those who believe in penal substitution assert happened when God the Father allegedly "turned his back" on our Lord while He suffered. But what other way can we take Christ's phrase in Revelation that He has things "against" different churches?

We know that when we speak of God changing His dispositions towards us, it is really an anthropomorphic way of saying that we have changed. Since God is simple and changeless, He cannot "get mad" and then "calm down" afterward; when we speak of God being angry when we sin and then being restored to His friendship, this assuaging His anger, we know that it is not as if He was sitting there in heaven all blissful until we sinned and then we disturbed His peace and made Him angry; rather, our language and ways of speaking metaphorically about God's changing passions are really descriptions of our changing relationship with Him. When we say God was angry with us when we sinned but now we are in His favor, we are not describing the whims of a Persian potentate but are rather explaining that we ourselves have changed our relation to Him - we have gone from a state of deprivation of sanctifying grace (being under God's "anger") to a state of possessing sanctifying grace (being in God's "favor"). But it is we who have changed, not God.

So, when God lists things He has against us in Revelation, He is not calling them to mind for His benefit, but rather for ours. When God, who is perfect, says to a man, "I have this against you," is He not rather saying, "You have done this against Me?" Remember, the Holy Spirit, our Lord tells us, plays an important role in "convicting" us of sin (John 16:8). When God speaks to us, it is often to awaken our own consciences to our need for His grace, especially in the case of those in the Church who, as in Revelation, think they are spiritually mature when really they are weak. "You have the name of being alive, yet you are dead" (Rev. 3:1). "You say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing;' not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked" (Rev. 3:17).

When God asks Adam, "Where are you?" He does not ask because He doesn't know where Adam is; He does it so Adam will realize that he is estranged from God. Likewise, when God lists all the things He has "against" us, it is because He wants us to understand the things we have against Him - and in thus knowing what we have done against God can we truly repent, for it is necessary to admit our sins in order to be restored to grace. If we do not see this, we are hypocrites and liars  and "the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).

God is our Father. He sent His Son to atone for our sins by making a perfect sacrifice of Himself on the cross. Out of this sacrificial love was born the Church, the Bride of Christ, for whom our Lord ever intercedes at the right hand of the Father. Even when we sin, though we lose God's grace, God doesn't stop loving us or alter His fundamental disposition of mercy towards us, just as the father of the Prodigal Son did not cease loving the prodigal or ever stop being "for" him. When God mentions in Revelation that He holds things "against" us, it is not He who is compiling a hit list against us, as if he is our political enemy, but it is His way of showing us what we have done against Him, and even then always with a view of bringing about repentance, as our Lord says in Revelation: ""But I have a few things against you; you have some who hold the teaching of also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then" (Rev. 2:15).

I think this is a biblical and orthodox solution to the problem; of course, much hinges on what we mean by God being "for" or "against" somebody, but I think this explanation solves the problem without getting bogged down in semantics. I'm sure you will all let me know if this is heresy or not.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

St. Bede the Venerable

Today is the feast of St. Bede the Venerable, one of my favorite saints of the Church. Bede, a Doctor of the Church, was born in 672 in Northumberland and lived his whole life in this region in the vicinity of the monastery of Jarrow, where he was to spend all but seven years of his life. Bede was dedicated to God at the tender age of seven as an oblate at a time when the custom of dedicating children to the monastic life was widely practiced. Bede describes his own upbringing in the last chapter of his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People":

A the age of seven I was, by the care of my relations, given to the most reverend Abbot Benedict, and afterward to Ceolfrid, to be educated. From that time I have spent the whole of my life within that monastery, devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures, and amid the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the Church, it has been ever my delight to learn or teach or write.

Thus did St. Bede labor for the remainder of his life in the scholarly work of a monk, toiling away in the scriptorium at Jarrow, copying and explicating the Sacred Scriptures. Though remembered primarily by medievalists as a historian for his history on the English Church, Bede considered himself first a Scripture scholar and a scribe whose job it was to make known the wisdom of the Scriptures. He says:

From the time of my admission to the priesthood to my present fifty-ninth year, I have endeavored for my own use and that of my brethren, to make brief notes upon the holy Scripture, either out of the works of the venerable Fathers or in conformity with their meaning and interpretation.

St. Bede toiled endlessly in the tedious but monumental work of a monastic scribe, according to tradition, working even until the very hour of his death on the vigil of the Ascension in 735. The day he died the saint was still busy dictating a translation of the Gospel of St. John. In the evening the boy Wilbert, who was writing it, said to him: "There is still one sentence, dear master, which is not written down." And when this had been supplied, and the boy had told him it was finished, "Thou hast spoken truth", Bede answered, "it is finished. Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father." And thus upon the floor of his cell singing, "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost" and the rest, he peacefully breathed his last breath, according to the account of Cuthbert, his beloved disciple.

St. Bede is a wonderful example for the modern Church, for just as he labored to bring the light of Christ to the people in the midst of the Dark Ages, so is our world, which is plunged into an age darker than anything Bede could have known, in need of the light of Christ.

One of his most beautiful prayers:

And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear forever before Thy face. Amen.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Why "dialogue" will never win converts

Why has "dialogue" as a model for interaction between Christians and other religions failed to produce any fruit? Undoubtedly because in a model of interaction between the Church and non-Christian religions that is based on "dialogue" and "meaningful exchange of experiences" there is a misplaced emphasis on learning about one another rather than on the salvation of souls. For a long time I thought this failure of the dialogue approach was a strategic blunder; i.e., I thought it was poorly thought out, untested in Christian history, prone to engender confusion and all in all was just a bad idea. While maintaining all of these things, I now see that any approach to non-Christian religions that is based solely on "dialogue" as its cornerstone is not only strategically a bad move but is actually antithetical to the spirit of the Gospel and is doomed to failure essentially and innately. One who chooses to pursue the route of "dialogue" by that very fact ensures the failure of their efforts.

This thought came to me while reading Josef Pieper's book Tradition: Concept and Claim, which is not so much about the theological or ecclesiological concepts of tradition but rather tradition in the broader, philosophical sense. Pieper points out that Tradition is too often defined as the simple handing on of information from one group to another; this is the definition one gets of tradition in secular dictionaries of sociological college courses that study "folklore." Yet, Pieper says, this in itself cannot be tradition, for otherwise such things as simple reporting would be considered tradition: a reporter goes out and gains information and conveys this information to an audience, yet nobody would claim that tradition has taken place. The same could be said for a scholar publishing a work on an historical epoch. I can write a book about ancient Rome and  pass on the knowledge of ancient Rome to a third party reader via the book, but I am not really passing on a tradition, just knowledge.

One difference, of course, is that Tradition doesn't just pass on knowledge, but passes on knowledge in its cultural context. But the critical distinction needs to be placed on the recipient of the tradition. When a true act of tradition takes place, someone passes on the tradition to a recipient, who assents to it and makes it his own. Pieper says of the act of receiving tradition:

"[This] is what the act looks like, in which the activity of tradition first reaches its goal and is consummated, by means of which alone someone "is part of a tradition" and participates in it. This is reception in the strictest meaning of the term, hearing something and really taking it seriously. I accept what someone else offers me and presents to me. I allow him to give it to me...Taken all together, this means that accepting and receiving tradition has the structure of belief. It is belief, since belief means accepting something as true and valid not on the basis of my own insight. but by relying on someone else" (Pieper, Tradition: Concept and Claim. St. Augustine Press, 2010.pp. 18-19).

According to Pieper, the act of "receiving" a tradition is akin to an act of faith - when receiving a tradition, one is put in a disposition of humility, receiving as a gift something being given by another (hence the verbs about something being "passed on" or "handed down" in relation to tradition). To accept what is handed down is not to just understand facts; rather, it is to assent to and receive the tradition, thus making oneself "part of the tradition" and the next line in the chain. In fact, it is only in assenting to the tradition and becoming part of the tradition that one can even fully understand the tradition.

Here is where the problem with dialogue comes in. The entire Christian message -call it the Gospel, the Good News, the Faith, the Teaching, whatever - is, in its most essential form, Tradition. All throughout the New Testament and the Fathers, the Gospel is spoken of as something that is received and then handed on; i.e., a Tradition, something that is given and that as a tradition demands assent. It is not a set of facts given out for one to ponder, but a tradition that is given and that the recipient must actively receive. Consider these verses and how the Faith is portrayed as a tradition:
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us, according as they have delivered them unto us... (Luke 1:1-2).

For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures: And that he was buried: and that he rose again according to the scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread... (1 Cor. 11:23).

And the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men who shall be fit to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).

Therefore, brethren, stand fast: and hold the traditions, which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle (2 Thess. 2:15).

In all these verses we see that the Gospel is essentially a Tradition. So he who would really know the Gospel and enter into it must not only learn about it but receive it as a Tradition. But in a situation where the Gospel as tradition is replaced by dialoguing "about" the Gospel, we see that the message is robbed of all its power and vitality because we are no longer seeking to pass on a tradition but to simply relate facts and experiences. No matter how weighty our facts or how compelling our experiences, these can ultimately never produce conversions or belief because the essence of what the Gospel is has now been removed. Without the element of "handing on and receiving" that St. Paul sees as central to the Gospel, how can we be surprised if efforts at simple "dialogue" do not produce conversions? Indeed, they are incapable of doing so, just like a car with its engine removed is no longer capable of transporting anybody anywhere.

When we approach non-Christians from a position of dialogue (versus handing on a message that demands assent, that actually asks something of the hearer), we are merely telling facts and experiences about the Gospel without even preaching the Gospel to them. This is infidelity to the call of Christ and unfair to the hearer, who has a right to hear the Word of Life from the Body of Christ.

Given that this approach has been a dismal failure, we see that the proponents of dialogue have tried to rework the entire notion of Christian missions to say, in effect, "That's okay that our dialogue-based model has not produced any conversions, because we're not really trying to "convert" people anymore anyway. We just want to share mutually validating experiences enriched through dialogue about the contributions our respective faith communities make to our spiritual growth." In other words, they failed to find gold and covered it up by claiming they were never looking for it in the first place. Dialogue-based approaches have failed to win souls for Christ and it is now denied that winning souls is even a goal. That's too outmoded and based on an "ecclesiology of conversion." How medieval.

Is there a place for dialogue? Of course. Every evangelical encounter starts as dialogue, but i(and this is the distinction) t is a dialogue that goes someplace - that leads from the conveyance of facts to the proposition that the hearers take some of concrete action on what they have heard. St. Paul might begin his sermon on the Areopagus with a dialogue about the comparative merits of Greek religion, but this only serves as a springboard to lead him into the essential message - the preaching of the Gospel, where he warns them that God will no longer overlook their ignorance, that He demands all nations repent of their sins because God has fixed a Day of Judgment, and that this Judge will be none other than Jesus Christ. What St. Paul certainly does not do is tell the Greeks how great their paganism is and then encourage them to continue to worship their false gods and petition then for worldly favors like "peace on earth." This is the difference between limp-wristed dialogue and real, Spirit-filled preaching that leads to repentance, conversions and baptisms.

The real place of dialogue, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us in the introduction to the Summa (I.Q.1,art.8), is to establish common ground with somebody so as to delineate the parameters of the debate. But that this dialogue should lead to a disputation, with the express purpose of coming to a conclusion, is never questioned by St. Thomas. When we do dialogue with someone, it is to establish our common ground; to know basically from which angle we have to deliver the Gospel message. But to dialogue endlessly without ever delivering the message is to not only fail to fulfill the mandate of Christ to preach to every creature, but is also a failure to even properly use dialogue as a tool, since it substitutes for an end what is only a means.

So long as dialogue and "mutual enrichment" are treated as ends in themselves, no pagans will be moved or impressed with the Catholic Faith. They will only further look down on us for compromising our principles and will continue to siphon off weak members of the Body of Christ who no longer know why they call themselves Christians. I highly recommend Pieper's short and very readable little book on Tradition for a refresher on what Tradition is and how it is handed on. But let us all in the meantime remember St. Paul's malediction in 1 Corinthians and make it our own: "Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sacral Kingship: Two Traditions (part 2)

Here is the second installment of my 2005 senior thesis on Catholic kingship that I began posting last week. Thanks for the feedback so far! (Click here for part 1).

I do know that all of these chapters will suffer from being too broad; being that I was somewhat limited by time and length, and I was not able to develop them as much as I would have wanted. This is perhaps most true in today's post, which is the most speculative and theoretical chapter of the work and probably the easiest to find gaps and holes in the argument. I basically make the case that the east had its own tradition of authority and the west its own distinct way of viewing authority. In the antique world, these traditions were opposed to each other. But in Christianity, which was born of Asia but became European, the eastern and western traditions are fused together successfully - the result is the Catholic monarch, who is certainly not an eastern despot but is also far removed from the republican-democratic traditions of Greece and Rome.

I look forward to your feedback. Footnotes can be found at the end of the post, which I recommend you browse also because they have some interesting supplemental information.

Chapter One: Two Traditions of Power

In the European political tradition, two ideologies of power have been predominant; namely, that of the west (the Greco-Roman, and later Germanic, traditions) and those influenced by the east (the Mesopotamian-Egyptian model). In the western tradition, power comes up from below, from the people. In the Greco-Roman civilizations, this power is vested in any number of assemblies or magistrates; in the Germanic cultures, it is vested in the tribal assembly or warrior band. By contrast, power in the eastern model is seen as descending from above, coming down from the gods and being bestowed on a single individual, be he a pharaoh, Persian king or just some local priest-king of a city-state. This conception of power held true even in the Far East, where the Emperor of China was also the “Son of Heaven.” In Christianity, a unique union of these two ideals of authority arises. Coming out of the Middle East as it did, it possessed by its nature an eastern and autocratic ideal of kingship. However, when it took hold in the Roman west and amongst the German tribes, the classical and Germanic tribal ideals of kingship entered as well, blending with the eastern ideas. The result was the Christian monarchy of the Middle Ages. The following sections may seem like a digression, but an understanding of them is essential in order to understand where the Christian monarch of the Middle Ages got his ideas of kingship.

Eastern Models

In the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, the prevailing view of authority was that it was a divine right that was given from above. The ruling monarch was chosen by the gods for the task of kingship; if he was part of a dynastic government, then he was chosen even from birth for lordship. The authority was vested in the very person of the king, not just in his office. An example of this is the Egyptian Pharaoh. In the Old Kingdom, the very person of the Pharaoh was believed to be the incarnation of Horus on earth (later in the Middle Kingdom, it was modified and the Pharaoh became the son of Re and mediator between men and the sun god).1

This idea of authority being vested in the person and not just the office is a crucial distinction between the eastern and western models. The fact that the authority was vested in the person himself meant that it gave divine sanction to the ruling monarch’s whims, which tended to give authority in the Middle East a very arbitrary character. A king might command anything, no matter how cruel or mad, and expect the submission of his subjects. Mesopotamian scholar Jean Bottero comments on the relationship between the king and subjects in the ancient Near East:

"Subjects had no other purpose in life than to obey their king and his representatives, and to provide those rulers, through their constant labor, with what they needed to lead an opulent and leisurely life, free of all worries and thus free to govern their people with a view to their prosperity."2

The structure was that of a social pyramid, with the monarch at the top vested with supreme authority sanctioned by the divinities of the city-state (Mesopotamia) or centralized nation (Egypt). Everybody else existed in the pyramid to obey and serve him. Given this view, it is not surprising that pyramids and ziggurats, which seemed to typify this social system, were first devised in such cultures.

This arbitrary nature of authority in the eastern model is evident in many examples from antiquity. A well known story from Persia is the account of King Xerxes ordering his men to give the Hellespont three hundred lashes as punishment for a storm which destroyed his bridge across the channel. “You bitter water,” he cursed the strait, “your lord lays on you this punishment because you have wronged him without a cause…for you are of a truth a treacherous and unsavory river.”3 Evidently, this Persian monarch considered himself not only King of Perisa, but lord over nature as well. The Median King Astyages is said to have killed and cooked the son of one of his officers, Harpagus, and served the stewed boy to his own father for dinner. When Harpagus realized what the king had done, he merely bowed and said, “Whatever the king did must be right.”4 The Biblical stories of the Babylonian and Persian periods further attest to the arbitrary nature of authority as well as the exalted idea of the ruler in the ancient Middle East. King Nebuchadnezzar ordering all his subjects to worship a golden image on pain of death, Darius’ interdict forbidding prayer to any god but himself, and King Ahasuerus of Persia’s law punishing with death anybody who entered his court unbidden are all examples.5 “The king,” says Bottero, “was…all powerful in the land…he was capable, on a whim, of reducing them [his subjects] to nothing, or of heaping good things upon them, provided he was moved enough through offerings, ostentation, and requests.”6

This divine authority wielded by the Middle Eastern monarch should not be conceived as being some kind of tyranny imposed on an unwilling populace from above, though the ancient Middle Eastern monarch certainly had the power to tyrannize his people if he wanted; rather, it was a system that the people themselves assented to and adhered to rigorously. The response of Harpagus to King Astyages of Media is a telling example of how the average person viewed royal authority. On the sadistic murder of his son, he only responds, “Whatever the king did must be right.” The Middle Eastern monarch did not have to impose his authority on the people tyrannically as someone like Caligula or Commodus did, because the cultural mentality of Middle Eastern culture rendered the populace more than willing to accede to his authority voluntarily. There was very little dividing the gods from the king, and a king who won renown by performing great deeds could be assured not only of the homage of his subjects, but of their adoration and worship.7

While looking at eastern models, the ideology of kingship in ancient Israel is worth studying in some depth since it contributes so much to later Christian views of kingship and authority. The system of kingship takes on a peculiar form in ancient Israel because of its monotheistic faith. The ancient Israelites would never make the mistake of equating their temporal king with a god, for there was only one God who was so far beyond mere mortals that any equation of Him with even the greatest of kings was a terrible blasphemy. Nor would the Israelites, with their strict moral code, approve of the idea that “whatever the king did must be right.” Israelite kings were expected to fulfill strict moral obligations; if they did not, they were censured by the scribes and prophets.8

That is not to say, however, that the Israelite conception of kingship was fundamentally different from the Persian, Mesopotamian or Egyptian views. Royal authority was still something supernatural that descended upon the king from above. The Scriptures are replete with such examples of this ideal of sacral kingship. Right from the first time Israelite kings are mentioned, in the Mosaic code, the king is presented as someone “whom the Lord your God will choose.”9 The exemplar of biblical kingship is found in the stories of David and Solomon in the books of Samuel and I Kings. These exemplars can be contrasted with the biblical type of the wicked king, Saul, who reigns just prior to David.

In all cases, kingship is conferred upon the would-be monarch by the act of anointing with oil. This symbolizes that the king has been chosen by God; the oil, administered by a prophet (later a priest) is a type of sacramental sign that symbolizes the Spirit of God resting upon the king. This is a mixed blessing: it at the same time gives the king sacral-royal power to rule with authority given from God and also binds the king to strictly obey the precepts of kingship set down by God. Blessings follow if the king is pious and obedient to the Lord; if not, curses befall the kingdom and it is torn from the hand of the rebellious monarch.

The biblical perspective on kingship is clearly in line with the other prevailing models of the ancient Middle East in its emphasis on the king being chosen from above. Consider the stories of Saul and David. Saul is the king who is tall, strong and handsome, the natural choice of the people. Thus when the people clamor for a king in I Samuel 8, Saul is a natural choice. Yet the Scriptures seem to condemn the selection of this first king of Israel. The motion of the people for a king is presented as a rejection of God’s lordship. God tells Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but have rejected me from being king over them.”10 Nevertheless, God accepts the “democratic” will of the people and gives them Saul to be their first king.

By contrast, David, the man after God’s own heart, is the complete opposite of Saul. Unlike Saul, he is small, weak and unimpressive. He is not at all a king that would be chosen by popular vote; even Samuel fails to recognize David and instead believes that one of his older, larger brothers is the Lord’s chosen.11 David is in every way a man chosen not by human wisdom but by God and receives a different kind of authority than Saul. While Saul is rejected by God as soon as he sins ( I Sam. 15), David is promised by God that He will establish his house forever and will never cease to provide an heir from David’s line ( II Sam. 7), even though David committed a greater sin in the Uriah affair than Saul had by not destroying some Amalekite cattle! The nature of their kingships is different. A close inspection of the anointing narrative of each king reveals this. Saul is anointed with a vial, a man-made object, while David is anointed with a horn.12 This seems to indicate that Saul’s authority, symbolically portrayed by his anointing, was given him by man; hence, the vial, a man-made object. This is born out by Saul’s own testimony. When he sins and is confronted by Samuel, his excuse is that “I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.”13 On the other hand, David is anointed by a ram’s horn, something not man-made, which seems to indicate that his kingship is entirely from God and not due in any part to human consensus.

One theme that is constant throughout the chronicles of the Israelite kings is the idea of rewards and punishments. If a king is pious and obedient, like David, he can expect temporal blessings from God: security at home, influence abroad, wealth, healthy heirs and the destruction of enemies. However, if the king is faithless, like Saul, then he can expect curses: internal rebellions, defeats at the hands of foreigners and the premature death of his heirs, leading subsequently to the end of his house. When Samuel confronts Saul for his disobedience, he tells him, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you from being king…The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day.” 14 This connection between sin and the collapse of the kingdom is reiterated again and again throughout the Scriptures. Later, in the book of I Kings, God tells Solomon, “Since …you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you…”15 It is in the person of Solomon that the blessings and curses of sacral kingship are seen most clearly, for he is both extraordinarily faithful and very wicked during his long reign. On the one hand, his virtues set the bar for all future Christian kings from Constantine to Charlemagne and Alfred. He excels in wisdom, is well versed in God’s word, builds the holy Temple of Jerusalem and receives honor and tribute from foreign nations. On the other hand, he burdens his people with harsh taxes, sacrifices to foreign gods and greatly multiplies both his wealth and his harem.16 In these vices he is the type of the good king gone bad and receives from God the punishment due to an unfaithful king: the “tearing” of the kingdom out of his hand.

The king receives a mighty grace from God. The Book of Proverbs goes so far as to say that the decisions of the king are “inspired” by God.17 The Book of Ecclesiastes warns that it is wrong to wish the king harm, “even in your thought.”18 Because the king receives such great graces from God, it is especially heinous when he turns to wickedness, like Solomon. Essential to Israelite (and all ancient Middle Eastern) political thought is that the fate of the nation is bound up with the person of the king. If the king is very wicked, he curses not only himself but brings his curse upon the entire nation. When Manasseh sacrificed his children to the pagan god Moloch, God was so outraged that even the righteous reforms of King Josiah were unable to dissuade the Lord from punishing Israel, and the Babylonian Captivity resulted, which the Scriptures explicitly affirm was the punishment for the sins of Manasseh.19

So, to sum up the eastern models of kingship: First, the authority to reign comes from the gods/God, down from heaven and rests upon the monarch. This ideal is sacramentalized in several cultures by the act of anointing, whereby the king is symbolically chosen by the gods and given their authority to rule in their name. Secondly, this authority rests with the person of the king (not just his office), which authorizes and potentially “divinizes” every act of his will as a sacred and royal command.20 Thirdly, because of this emphasis on sacred kingship, any authority coming from popular consensus is suspect. The people are simply an “undifferentiated mass”21 who cannot be trusted. King Saul explains his sin by saying, “I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” The prevalent social structure was that of a pyramid with the king supreme at the top supported by an “inchoate mass of subjects”22 whose job it was to support him and his bureaucracy. This is not an active act of tyranny on the part of the monarch, but a system found in the east from time immemorial and bound up with Middle Eastern cultural tradition. Finally, a just and pious king can be expected to receive temporal blessings of the gods upon his realm and (in some cultures) deification after death. The wicked king can expect his kingdom to suffer. This is the idea of rewards and punishments, in which the fate of the nation is inextricably bound up with the king. In Babylon, Egypt and Persia, a king’s “goodness” is his legal equity and his piety to the state gods; in ancient Israel, it is his morality and adherence to Mosaic law.

Christian kings, seeing themselves in light of Old Testament kings like David and Solomon, will pick up several of these ideas. There will be a particular emphasis towards the eastern model in the reigns of the earliest Christian monarchs, the Emperors of Byzantium. Later, western kings will adopt a version of kingship that was more of a mixture between the eastern models and the Greco-Roman model, which will be examined in the next section.

Western Models

Ideas about government and authority were drastically different in the west, in those lands lying west of the Bosphorus. In antiquity this region was shaped by Greco-Roman civilization and it is to the governments of Greece and Rome that we must now turn.

The Greco-Roman ideology of power sees authority not as something that primarily comes down from heaven as a gift of the gods to the person of the monarch, but as something that comes up from the consensus of the people and is vested in an office, not a person. An example of this is the Roman legend of the patriot Cincinnatus. Called from his farm to help save a beleaguered Roman army, he accepted the authority of the dictatorship, saved the army and routed the enemy, then promptly resigned his dictatorship to return to his plow. This popular, though legendary, example demonstrates how the power was vested in the office of the dictator, never in the individual person.

This power is given by the assent of the state and the gods are called upon by the people to bear witness to the authority wielded by the magistrate. In the previous section, the model of the pyramid or ziggurat was proposed as an analogy to the Mesopotamian/Egyptian style of government. In the west, a more fitting model is the Greek temple. The structure is composed of several columns, each equally bearing the weight of the roof. Again, it is fitting that a structure such as the Greek temple should have emerged amongst a people who viewed authority as something coming up from below, granted to the magistrate by the public.

The Greeks and Romans alike found a distaste for kingship early on. Many of the Greek city-states were ruled by tyrants, such as Pisistratus of Athens or Pheidon of Argos who were different from kings only in name, until the 6th century BC when they began to be overthrown and driven out by a series of popular revolutions. After this, the Greek city-states began to adopt the democratic governments that the classical age is remembered for. This advent of democracy was especially powerful in Athens. In Rome, according to tradition and some scant archaeological evidence, a dynasty of Etruscan kings was overthrown sometime around 509 B.C. and replaced by the Republican form of government that Rome operated under successfully for almost five hundred years. The experience of Greece under the tyrants and Rome under the Etruscans bred a hearty dislike of the idea of power being vested solely in one individual.

The very names that the Greeks and Romans chose for their governments emphasizes how different their view of the state was from those views in the east. In Greek, demokratia means “power of the people.” Likewise, the Latin phrase for Republic, res publica, can be literally translated to mean “the public thing” or the “thing of the public.” In both cases, it the people who are seen to be the foundation of the authority of the state.

On some levels, it is uncertain how the Greeks and Romans came to these forms of government. The historical acts and political drama behind their developments is clearly visible, but where these peoples got their political ideology from is uncertain. It is easy to see the laws of Solon, the administration of Pericles, the Sexto-Licinian Compromise and the publishing of the Twelve Tables and to attribute the development of Greco-Roman popular governments to such acts, but it is difficult to say where the Greeks and Romans first developed their penchant for representative government was behind these acts of legislation and assumed by them. The easiest answer, but also the most dissatisfying from a historic viewpoint, is that the Greeks and Romans had an innate sense of justice and law that they manifested in their social and political structures. Historian of antiquity Michael Grant seems to adopt this view and says of the early Romans:

"It is impressive that a people at such a relatively early stage of development were so clearly able to disentangle law from religion, deriving the sanction of their legal pronouncements not from any divine or wholly or partly legendary lawgiver, as so many of their predecessors in other places had done, but from a sense of justice and equality, still narrow, yet already strong."23

Both cultures placed high value in social justice and in the moral quality of the individual, especially of the magistrate. The Greeks prized a virtue they called arête, which originally meant “warrior prowess” but came to be understood in terms of diplomatic excellence exercised in any of the many public assemblies that dotted ancient Greece. Likewise, the Romans valued virtus. Like arête, virtus was originally a war term and meant “manliness.” But in time it came to have a broader application and can be rendered accurately as “virtue” by middle-Republican times and denoted excellence in both war and government. These characteristics were seen by the Greeks and Romans as essential to any magistrate. If a government was to be by the people, then the people had to be good people.24

With such ideas, acts of the Greeks and Romans were always viewed communally. It was never an individual alone who acted, but the community who acted out its will through the agency of the individual. Herodotus and Thucydides recount in their writings the very public nature of Greek government. In the Persian War (Herodotus) and the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides), whether or not to go to war or make an alliance was decided by furious debate in the assembly hall, after which a vote was taken. Even military matters, such as where to move a fleet or when to attack were put to a vote amongst military commanders. Any act of authority had to be sanctioned by the citizenry. Thus, “acts of state were attributed not to a personified polis but to the community-for example, not to Thera but to “the Thereans,” not to Sybaris but to “the Sybarites,” The emphasis is on the plurality.”25 In Rome, likewise, official acts are and monuments are sanctioned by the Senatus Populusque Romanus, “The Senate and the Roman People.”

The will of the people was expressed in any number of assemblies in the Greco-Roman world. Athens had its Council of 500 and its older Areopagus Council, while Rome had the Curial Assembly, the Centurial Assembly, the Council of the Plebs and of course, the Senate. Though membership in these councils was restricted to citizens (which usually meant free male landowners who possessed over a certain amount of wealth) to the exclusion of many other members of society, these assemblies provided the creative outlet for the development of politics and law. By being a citizen, a man was seen as possessing a kind of common interest in the good of the state. Unlike the modern man, who believes in communal responsibilities and individual rights, the Greeks and Romans believed in communal rights and individual responsibilities. Because it was a communion of citizens who formed the state, the citizen was entitled to certain benefits from the state, mainly through its legal advantages. The making of laws, judgment of courts and matters of war were all left up to the discretion of the citizen body. When the citizens came together in the assembly, their authority was supreme and their word was law.

Unlike in the east, the assembly did not receive this authority from the gods, but from the people. But the gods did have a role to play as a kind of supernatural legal “witness” to the laws enacted by the assemblies. New legislation was often proclaimed in the local temple (such as the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome) and accompanied by sacrifices. This represented a kind of oath between the gods and the state; the state promised that its legislation would be fair and equitable to the citizens and the gods promised to uphold the state so long as they were propitiated by the appropriate rites and the practice of pietas-devotion to the gods, family and the state. This ensured the good faith (fides) of the magistrate and the pax deorum, which was the peace and blessing of the gods upon the state.26

Essentially, like much in the Greco-Roman world, the relationship between the gods and the state was like a legal contract, akin to a Roman patron-client agreement.

To sum up the western model: First, the authority to rule came not from the gods but from the collective consensus of the people, not understood in terms of the masses but in terms of the land owning male citizenry. Secondly, the authority and will of the people was vested in any number of elected citizen assemblies who undertook the task of governing the state. Levying taxes, making laws, regulating trade and waging war were all public matters decided by the assemblies. Third, magistrates were chosen from out of these assemblies, in whom was vested authority by virtue of their office, not their person, as in the east. The Greeks and Romans possessed an innate valuation of certain virtues that they believed made for good magistrates, such as arête and virtus. Finally, the proper governing of the state under worthy magistrates ensured peace at home, good will between the state and its people (fides) and the blessings of the gods (pax deorum).

The Problem of Integration

Christian Europe would work hard to integrate its rich Greco-Roman past into its culture. While Biblical heroes such as David and Solomon were the exemplars for medieval Christian kings, classical role models of virtue like Leonidas of Sparta, Marcus Atilius Regulus, Cato the Censor and Augustus were never far from the memory of those who were educated enough to read the Greek and Latin classics.27 Christian monarchs tried, intentionally and unintentionally, to successfully blend the eastern Biblical ideology of kingship with the classical western models they had inherited from Greece and Rome. Thus Charlemagne was seen not only as a new David, but also as a new Augustus.

It took the creative impulse of Christianity to unite these two ideologies of power into one system. The ancients were never able to do it effectively. The ancient Greeks, though warring incessantly against themselves, united and battled furiously what they considered to be the threat of Persian despotism under Xerxes. Alexander, though he succeeded to unite Greece and Persia where Xerxes had failed, faced a considerably greater struggle in his attempts to jointly rule the Greeks and Persians. As ruler of Persia, court protocol demanded the prostration, proskynesis, of all who approached him. But as King of Macedonia, court protocol forbid such acts of flattery as the worst form of syncophancy and there was always tension between the Macedonian and Persian elements of Alexander’s entourage.28

In the Roman world, Marc Antony fancied a union between Rome and Egypt in the person of Cleopatra, but was despised at home for it. Anti-Antony propaganda of the time condemns him as an effeminate Egyptianizer of the manly Roman state.29 Later Roman rulers like Diocletian attempted to introduce eastern ritual into the Imperial court protocol, but at the expense of thoroughly destroying any remnants of Republican modesty that earlier emperors like Augustus, Vespasian and Trajan had exhibited. Throughout the ancient world, all attempts to find a way to implement both eastern and western ideas of power and government failed until the advent of the Catholic kings of the Middle Ages. How Christianity revolutionized the ideologies of power in the ancient world, harmonized them and formed them into the institution of the Christian monarchy will be taken up in the next chapter.


1 Jan Assman, The Mind of Egypt, Translated by Andrew Jenkins (Metropolitan Books: New York, 1996), 184

2 Jean Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Translated by Teresa Lavander Fagan (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2001), 103

3 M.I. Finley, The Portable Greek Historians (Viking Penguin: New York, 1959), 97

4 Stuart & Doris Flexner, The Pessimist’s Guide to History (Avon Books: New York, 1992), 7

5Dan. 3:1-6, 6:6-9; Esther 4:11

6 Bottero, 114

7“Superior abilities, functions, prowess, and merits could, without affecting their true nature, place…humans rather close to the edge so that they were induced, more or less consciously, to cross over it, thus becoming ‘divinized.’” Ibid., 64

8 The Israelite “Law of the King” appears in Deuteronomy, where the king is forbidden three things: the multiplication of wives, gold, and chariots (Deut. 17:14-20). Solomon will violate all three precepts.

9 Deut. 17:15

10 I Sam. 8:7

11 Ibid., 16:1-13

12 Ibid., 10:1, 16:3

13 Ibid., 15:24

14 Ibid., 23,28

15 I Kings 11:11

16 Ibid. 3:1-15,26; 6:1-38; 10:1-29; 11:1-8

17 Prov. 16:10

18 Ecc. 10:20

19 II Kings 21:10-15; 23:26; 24:1-4

20 This is still true in ancient Israel, even though the kings had a stricter ethical code than say Assyria or Babylon. The value placed on the person of the king is revealed in the accounts of how David refused to strike down Saul, even when he had lost God’s favor, because he was “the Lord’s anointed” ( II Sam. 1:14). He even has the man who killed Saul executed (v. 15). This is similar to the accounts of Alexander executing the men who had assassinated Darius III, though the latter was his enemy. Since sacred authority rested with the king, it was a sacrilege to strike him down, even if he deserved it.

21Assman, 51

22 Ibid.

23 Michael Grant, History of Rome (Michael Grant Publications: London, 1979), 66

24 Thomas F.X. Noble, Barry S. Strauss, Duane J. Osheim, Kristen B. Neuschel, William B. Cohen, David D. Roberts, Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment, 3rd Edition, vol. A (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 2002), 73, 149

25 Ibid., 75

26 Grant, 19

27 St. Augustine spends a considerable amount of space in Book I of the Dei Civitas praising the virtues of M. Atilius Regulus, a hero of the Punic Wars, though grudgingly admitting that his virtue came from the worship of the pagan gods. He says of him, “Among all their heroes, men worthy of honor and renowned for virtue, the Romans have none greater to produce.” St. Augustine, Dei Civitas, 1.15,24

28 For the hostility of the Macedonians when Alexander attempted to introduce proskynesis amongst them, see Mary Renault, The Nature of Alexander (Pantheon Books: New York, 1975), 172-178: “The image of the Oriental was linked in [the Macedonians’] minds…to the cruel caprices of despotic power slavishly endured, of which the prostration [proskynesis] was a symbol.”pp 177-178

29Grant, 200-201

Monday, May 17, 2010

Christ's Ascent into Heaven

A question from a reader on the literal understanding of Christ's Ascension:

How would you respond to someone who argued like the following. "To ancient people, God lived in the sky above the clouds, and therefore, the story of Christ's Ascension depends on this pre-scientific view of the heavens." If we were to say that heaven is some kind of alternative dimension, why did the disciples see our Lord moving physically up?

This is a common question posed by skeptics who attempt to cast our Lord's Ascension in mythic terms. It seems daunting until we realize that it actually confounds two separate factors; once we distinguish these two from each other, there is really no difficulty answering this challenge.

To begin with we must admit two points right off that the orthodox Catholic must adhere to: First, that Christ truly, literally and physically rose into heaven in the sight of His disciples. Second, that heaven is not a physical place within the confines of this universe; i.e., you can't get to heaven by moving far enough in a certain direction, just like you can't get to hell by digging under the earth. 

These two truths seem to be in opposition, however. We must admit that Christ physically ascended, but we also must admit that one cannot get to heaven by ascending. What is the answer?

The answer of the skeptics is that the Ascension didn't really happen, because to say Christ "ascended" into "heaven" is to canonize a pre-scientific and unture view of the world - heaven as "up in the clouds" and hell as under the earth. These skeptics will usually say the Ascension is the final hallucination to the farce they call the "Easter Event" which is nothing other than mass delusion on the part of the disciples.

Obviously this cannot be so; but, if we admit that one cannot just literally fly up into heaven, then why did the disciples see Christ going up?

We have to disentangle two things here: the physical lifting up from the earth and the going "into heaven" to sit down at the right hand of the Father. It is true that, in the ancient world, most persons viewed the heavens in the sky as the abode of the gods. Even though the Jews of the Old Testament would not have had a theology that viewed God as literally living in any one place (if they did, it would have been in the Temple, not in the sky), nevertheless there is a strong association in the Old Testament of the sky with God's dwelling, inasmuch as the all the good things God sends (rain, snow, sunlight, etc.) come from the sky, and so the sky, but also the mountaintop, are seen to be "closer" to God than the ground or the depths. In fact, in the Old Testament the "depths" signify distance from God (Psalm 130: De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine..)

So, yes, we can admit that for the Israelites at least, God-heaven would have been associated with the sky, even if they knew He did not "live" there - just as the depths or the deep places of the earth were associated with distance from Him. And it's not unthinkable that persons would associate the sky with heaven; this is a common assumption that we still make today, even if only in a symbolic manner.

What about Christ's "going into heaven"? All of the pivotal moments of Christs's earthly life are hidden, and this is no exception. His Incarnation, hidden from the eyes of men and so mysterious and profound that we cannot fathom what it "looked like" for Him to suddenly be there in the womb of the Virgin with no act of fertilization by a sperm. Think of His Resurrection - returning to life alone in the tomb; what did it look like? Certainly more than just Him getting up, for it was also a glorification and a transformation, something witnessed by nobody. Likewise, His Ascension is secret and hidden. C.S. Lewis says the Transfiguration is an "anticipatory glance" at what will occur with the Resurrection and Ascension. We could also think of the mystery of Mary's Assumption.

How can I say this when it was very publicly done in front of the disciples? Christ's physical lifting off of the ground and going up into the air was witnessed by many, but this lifting up was not in itself the fundamental act of the Ascension; the Ascension properly is what happened after Christ was parted from them by a cloud, when He "entered heaven" and sat down at the right hand of the Father. The first part of the Ascension was witnessed by many, but fundamental act Ascension itself was hidden from their sight.

And why was it hidden? Because just as His birth, Resurrection or other things like the creation of the world out of nothing, we cannot fathom what it would have looked like. It is not a movement from one place to another or a simple qualitative change but something miraculous, wonderful and mysterious: the translation of Christ from this world and its laws and restrictions to the state of glory that is rightfully His.

So we must not confuse the lifting of Christ off the ground with totality of the Ascension itself - it is part of the Ascension, but not the essence of the Ascension, just as the essence of Christ's sacrifice is not the nails or the scourge but the unblemished offering of Himself to the Father.

When Christ physically ascended into the air, He did it because He knew that His disciples (and all persons who would later hear their preaching) would understood what He meant by this act. He knew that all people would understand that this act meant that He was leaving the world and returning to the Father - but we must not confuse the physical act of rising with the act if returning to the Father. This second act occurred hidden from human eyes, after He was taken from sight by a cloud - and we can have no inkling of what this looked like. He Ascended bodily into the air before men to manifest His power and demonstrate that He was leaving the world, but how He actually left the confines of this world is something mysterious and hidden that we cannot understand.

What sort of confusion could there have been had Christ said, "I am returning to my Father now" and then disappeared into a cave, walked down into a river or vanished into a forest? When He Ascended, He knew that this was a undeniable sign of His exaltation - and that all men would know what He meant by this act.

This really is no different than Elijah's being taken into heaven. Every Christian believes Elijah was assumed into heaven; no Christian really believes one needs a physical vehicle like a chariot in order to get there. Of course, nobody brings this up as much with Elijah since there is more of a predisposition against historical-literal interpretation when it comes to the Old Testament.

So, as long as we don't think the essence of the Ascension is restricted to the physical lifting off the ground, but understand that the rising, like Christ's walking on water, was a sign that pointed to a more profound truth (Christ "sitting down at the right hand of the Father") then we should have no problem affirming the literal truth of the Ascension without having to make it dependent upon a pre-scientific view of the world. Certainly Christ took this pre-scientific view into account when He ascended, but the Ascension does not depend upon a pre-scientific view, nor does a modern, scientific cosmology preclude us from believing in the literal Ascension.

I hope this helps. But in case it doesn't, here is what C.S. Lewis said about it:

All the accounts suggest that the appearances of the Risen Body came to an end; some describe an abrupt end about six weeks after the death. And they present this abrupt end in a way which presents greater difficulties to the modern mind than any other part of is true that if we wish to get rid of these embarrassing passages we have the means to do so...Can we simply drop the Ascension story? The answer is that we can only do so if we regard the Resurrection appearances as those of a ghost or hallucination. For a phantom can just fade away, but an objective entity must go somewhere - something must happen to it.

"The records represent Christ as passing after death (as no man had ever passed before) neither into a purely, that is negatively, 'spiritual' mode of existence nor into a 'natural' life such as we now know, but into a life which has its own new Nature. It represents Him as withdrawing six weeks later, into some different mode of existence. It says - He says - that He goes 'to prepare a place for us.' This presumably means that He is about to create that whole new Nature which will provide the environment or conditions for His glorified humanity and, in Him, for ours. The picture is not what we expected - though whether it is less or more probable and philosophical on that account is another question. It is not the picture of an escape from any and every kind of Nature into some unconditioned and utterly transcendent life. It is the picture of a new human nature, and a new Nature in general, being brought into existence. We must, indeed, believe the risen body to be extremely different from the mortal body: but the existence, in the new state, of anything that could in any sense be described as 'body' at all, involves some sort of spatial relations and in the long run a whole new universe. That is the picture - not of unmaking but of remaking. The old field of space, time, matter and the sense is to be weeded, dug and sown for a new crop. We may be tired of that old field: God is not.

If you click here, you read the rest of this important chapter from Miracles in Google Books; it's actually better than the stuff I quoted above. Or, if you have a copy of Miracles, check out Chapter 16 ("Miracles of the New Creation", pgs. 253-260 in the Harper Collins edition.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

St. Thomas on the Ascension of Christ

Unless you live in the dioceses of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark or Philadelphia, today is the liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven. What could I say about this most glorious and mysterious conclusion to the earthly ministry of our Lord? Rather than attempt any words on this mystery, I give you the exposition the Angelic Doctor, who reminds us that Christ's Ascension was the second part of His exaltation, the first being the Resurrection (just as Christ's death and burial are two parts of His humiliation):

According to the Apostle, the exaltation of Christ was the reward for His humiliation. Therefore a twofold exaltation of Christ had to correspond to His twofold humiliation.

Christ had humbled Himself, first, by suffering death in the passible flesh He had assumed; secondly, He had undergone humiliation with reference to place, when His body was layed in the sepulcher and His soul descended into hell. The exaltation of the Resurrection, in which He returned from death to immortal life, corresponds to the first humiliation. And the exaltation of the Ascension corresponds to the second humiliation. Hence the Apostle says, in Ephesians, 4:10, "He that descended is the same that ascended above all the heavens."

However, as it is narrated of the Son of God that He was born, suffered, and was buried, and rose again, not in His divine nature but in His human nature, so also, we are told, He ascended into heaven, not in His divine nature but in His human nature. In His divine nature He had never left heaven, as He is always present everywhere. He indicates this Himself when He says: “No man has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). By this we are given to understand that He came down from heaven by assuming an earthly nature, yet in such a way that He continued to remain in heaven. The same consideration leads us to conclude that Christ alone has gone up to heaven by His own power. By reason of His origin, that abode belonged by right to Him who had come down from heaven. Other men cannot ascend of themselves, but are taken up by the power of Christ, whose members they have been made.
As ascent into heaven befits the Son of God according to His human nature, so something else is added that becomes Him according to His divine nature, namely, that He should sit at the right hand of His Father. In this connection we are not to think of a literal right hand or a bodily sitting. Since the right side of an animal is the stronger, this expression gives us to understand that the Son is seated with the Father as being in no way inferior to Him according to the divine nature, but on a par with Him in all things. Yet this same prerogative may be ascribed to the Son of God in His human nature, thus enabling us to perceive that in His divine nature the Son is in the Father Himself according to unity of essence, and that together with the Father He possesses a single kingly throne, that is, an identical power. Since other persons ordinarily sit near kings, namely, ministers to whom kings assign a share in governing power, and since the one whom the king places at his right hand is judged to be the most powerful man in the kingdom, the Son of God is rightly said to sit at the Father’s right hand even according to His human nature, as being exalted in rank above every creature of the heavenly kingdom.
In both senses, therefore, Christ properly sits at the right hand of God. And so the Apostle asks, in Hebrew 1: 13: “To which of the angels said He at any time: Sit on My right hand?”
We profess our faith in this ascension of Christ when we say in the Creed: “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, 240).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sacral Kingship: Introduction (part 1)

I hope you all can help me out with something. I've decided to go through my 2005 thesis on sacral kingship that I wrote at Ave and clean it up a bit, perhaps make it more scholarly and worthy of publication at some point in the future.

To this end, I have decided to post the whole 95 page thesis on this blog, but only piece by piece. Every now and then I'm going to throw up a chapter for your perusal. Please let me know if you think anything could be added, certain points made stronger, certain arguments that are too weak, etc. Basically, I'm just looking for feedback.

Below is the introduction, explaining the concept of the paper and setting out the scope of the project. It was written in the Spring of 2005, so I hope it doesn't sound to juvenile. But that is the sort of thing I am wanting to tweak. Citations can be found at the bottom of the post. Enjoy.

Power from on High
Theocratic Kingship from Constantine to the Reformation

Introduction: Medieval Integration of Faith and Life

From the victory of Constantine as sole ruler of the Roman Empire in AD 324 to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the Christian world was united firmly under the rule of a succession of Catholic monarchies. This is an incredibly long period of time. Consider that the European world was only under the aegis of Roman power for 700 years at the most, from Rome’s rise as a Mediterranean power around 202 BC after the Second Punic War to the demise of the western empire in AD 476. Except for a brief period of overlap in the years between AD 324 and AD 476, Europe was ruled by Catholic monarchs for almost 1200 years, five centuries longer than it had been ruled by Rome. For century after century, Europeans of all walks of life conceived of society and the power of the state in Christian terms. Authority came from God and was personified in the king to whom they swore fealty. By swearing fealty to the king, they were swearing fealty at the same time to God and affirming their place in the political institution that came from Him.

The institution of Christian monarchy developed slowly, emerging from the scattered pieces of the Western Roman Empire and giving order to a world that, by all exterior considerations, had completely broken down. This Christian monarchy proved to be one of the most dynamic social creations of the Catholic Church. The concept of the Christian monarch endured firmly throughout the tumults of the Middle Ages, but also allowed itself to be modified over time, all the while preserving its integral character. It was only with the tragic division of the Reformation that the nature of Christian kingship was drastically altered and began to decline; 1789, 1848 and 1917 were the final blows that put Christian monarchy decisively in the history books for good.

Where did the Christian monarchy come from? How did the vision of the Christian monarch change over time? These are the questions that this study will deal with. This is not meant to be a narration of the political deeds of individual monarchs, or of the social development of the institution as a whole (although elements of each will be touched on). Rather, this study is meant to be an inquiry into the specific ideology behind the concept of the Christian monarch. This inquiry will necessarily employ political and social elements, but it is first and foremost a study of the image of power on the theoretical level and how that image changed over the centuries. But anyone who is familiar with medieval history will know that issues on the theoretical level could very easily erupt violently into the arena of royal and ecclesiastical politics, as they often did.

It is difficult today, in light of two hundred plus years of secular materialism and the expunging of God from the political sphere, to understand how ideology and power interacted in the Middle Ages. Images such as those of Constantine calling and presiding over an ecumenical council, Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow at Canossa to obtain absolution from the Pope, or Henry VIII debating passages of Deuteronomy with his government ministers seem alien and foolish to the modern mind. Any 21st century President or Prime Minister who engaged in such enterprises would be mocked, ridiculed and told to keep his faith “private.” But the medieval man knew of no such thing as a private faith, and had he heard of such a notion he would have regarded it as the worst hypocrisy. Modern man might praise a political leader that managed to keep his private religious views distinct from his legislation, but Dante, that medieval poet par excellence, submerged such people in the eighth circle of Nether-Hell, wearing forever the leaden cloak of the hypocrites.1

The point is that there is a divergence in the modern world between faith and life that did not exist in the Middle Ages. This is due mostly to the dynamic nature of the Christian religion. It would not be much of an overstatement to say that post-Roman European civilization was a creation of the Catholic Church. Besides revolutionizing religious thought with its doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, it completely reorganized and revitalized European civilization as a secondary effect. Wherever Catholicism went, it structured society around its principles; whenever it came into contact with barbarian tribes where civilization had not yet reached, such as among the Irish and the Franks, the result was a wholly unique Christian culture. Because of the revolutionary nature of Christianity, it could not help but transforming civilization. Christ’s commands to spread the good news to the ends of the earth and to do good to men ensured this transformation. Things such as hospitals, universities, Gothic architecture, charities for the poor, the chivalric ideal and the art of the Renaissance were all creations of the Catholic Church, directly or indirectly. The contributions of the Church to civilization become even greater if one were to count all the advances made by Catholic monks throughout the ages, from Dionysius Exiguus (500-560) who developed the anno domini method of dating, to Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who pioneered the science of genetics. When all the innovations that arose as a result of monasticism are figured into the equation, the contributions of the Church to society become truly immense and unfathomable.

The intellectual position that made all these achievements possible was a thoroughgoing integration of faith and common life. Since faith was actually taken seriously, its practice had ramifications in secular life. Therefore not only strictly religious functions, like weddings and funerals, but also secular occasions like the construction of a bridge or building, the harvesting of the crops or the christening of a ship also became religious functions, complete with ceremonial blessings. It only followed that this integration should take place also at the highest level of the state. This is the ideological foundation of Christian monarchy.

What exactly is Christian monarchy? It has taken several forms throughout the centuries. This paper will focus on the period from Constantine up to the Reformation. The Christian monarch of this period was the head of a complex social hierarchy, which went down from him though the nobles, merchants and finally to the serfs. The image of power was somewhat similar to the political arrangement. The authority to rule came from God, who vested it in the king. The king ruled by God’s power and by His grace. As the personification of the kingdom, the king’s relationship to God was especially important. The belief of the time was that a godly king would bring blessing to his people while a sinful one would incur judgment. An example of this can be taken from Asser’s Life of King Alfred, which dates from around the 894. There, Alfred’s exile in the swamps of Somerset is attributed to a sin he committed against hospitality in refusing to aid some friends in need. By contrast, Asser attributes the victory of the English over the Danes at the Battle of Ashdown to the pious prayers of King Ethelred at Mass. Asser aptly sums up the entire theology of the Christian monarch with one statement: “The faith of this Christian king availed much with the Lord.”2

The grace of God to the nation was mediated through the king, much as the grace of God given to the individual was mediated through the Church. The identification of the king with divine authority went so far that disobedience to the king was usually seen as ipso facto disobedience to God as well. This system seemed to work fairly well, but problems arose when the two chief instruments of grace for the individual and the kingdom, Church and King, were at odds with each other. Who was the believer to have primary allegiance to, and where did the jurisdiction of each come to an end? These struggles dominate the history of Church and state in the Middle Ages and account for much of the development that took place within these two institutions during that time.

Finally, a distinction must be drawn between the Christian kingship of the Middle Ages and that of the early modern era. Christian kingship endured past 1555 and had several centuries of vitality left before it finally got thrown out for good after World War I. Even Queen Elizabeth II, at her coronation in 1952, swore to uphold the Christian (albeit Protestant) religion. But there are several important differences between the Christian monarchies of the Middle Ages and those from the 16th century onward.

Medieval monarchy was theocratic monarchy in the truest sense. The kingship and the church were the two authorities that God had established in the world, the latter to reign over the spiritual sphere, the former over the temporal. Oftentimes the distinct spheres of influence of each authority were blurred, but a few common points can be established. First, all authority came from God and all in authority were responsible to God for the just exercise of it. Secondly, the Church and the King (or in the high medieval period, the Emperor) were the supreme authorities on the earth. Finally, the authority of each was mediated to the common people by a complex hierarchy. In the case of the Church, it was the institutional hierarchy and religious orders coupled with the Catholic economy of sacraments, penance and good works. In the order of kingship, it was through dizzying mixture of nobles, lords, dukes, earls, ealdormen, thegns, reeves, barons, counts, knights, vassals, peasants and all men of means who bound themselves ultimately to the king through the system of fealty, which secured the bond of a man to his lord by sacred oath. The two orders of Church and Kingship functioned, in theory at least, harmoniously. The good king was also the pious king who served the Church, and the faithful Churchman was the one who humbly obeyed the God-ordained sovereign. By the cooperation of the two, the faithful were provided with all the means, both temporal and spiritual, they needed to live happy lives and attain to their final end. Life in the Middle Ages is rife with such examples of Church-State cooperation. To use the example of Alfred again, the King decreed in his law that disputes over the ownership of property were to be heard in the presence of a bishop and that any man who violated his oath, as part of his punishment, was to do whatever penance was prescribed by the local ordinary.3

A decisive change takes place in the nature of Christian kingship following the Reformation.4 Though they used different models, Henry VIII of England and the German princes who broke with the Church both inaugurated a new era of Church-State relations: that of state dominance over the Church and of the insistence that the first loyalty of a person ought to go to the state. This was the germ of what would grow into the idea of absolutism, as personified in the 17th century by Louis XIV.

The differences between absolutism and theocratic monarchy at first seem minuscule, but are very fundamental. While in the theocratic model it is authority that descends to the king from God, in the absolutist model it is not authority but power that is given to the monarch. Authority is connected with the idea of responsibility, to God first, then to the Church and the nation as a whole. A theocratic monarch, by the very nature of his authority, was also bound to Christian morality and piety. An absolutist ruler felt constrained by no such demand and envisioned his authority in terms of raw power.

Another essential difference is the systematic way in which the absolute monarchs did away with the mediating bodies that had played so crucial a role in the Middle Ages. The practice of subsidiarity, which had been taken for granted in the Middle Ages, was phased out in favor of state centralization under the absolutist monarch. Guilds, state funded or privately backed ecclesiastical charities and all such independent bodies were dissolved, transformed, or reigned in under the authority of the monarch. The traditionally quasi-independent noble landowners became agents of the state, in the case of the Prussian Junkers quite literally.5 In its political theory, the absolutist model is almost a kind of Christianized reversion back to the Pharonic idea of kingship and absolute power. However, much of this power existed in theory and not in practice; no absolutist monarch, except perhaps the Russian Czars, exerted the kind of arbitrary power over life and death that a figure like Rameses III or Xerxes did. Nevertheless, absolutism represents at least an ideological, if not practical, regression back to this pre-Christian notion of kingship.

To sum it up: the dynamic institution of Christian monarchy arose from the rubble of the western Roman Empire and proved to be the dominant political model in the west for the next 1200 years. Behind it was an ideology that integrated faith and life, insisting that good kings be good Christians and that good Christians be loyal to the king. Disputes over where the authority of King and Church ended characterize the major political and ecclesiastical issues of the Middle Ages, but the stability of the Christian monarchy and the dynamism of the Catholic religion ensured that the institution of monarchy survived intact, though altered somewhat. By the 1600’s, however,  latent nationalism and emerging ideas about the absolute authority of the state rendered the institution crippled irreparably. Traditional “theocratic” Christian monarchies declined in favor of newer “absolutist” models, which did away with the principles of subsidiarity and of responsibility to the Church in favor of state domination of the Church. The nature of these monarchies ultimately proved inadequate in dealing with the rising tides of liberalism and they all crumbled finally, in 1789, 1848 and 1917.

This work will focus on the formative period of Christian monarchy, the “theocratic” period, from the ascent of Constantine to the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. However, it is first necessary to take a brief look at how several seemingly contradictory ideas of power in pre-Christian times were fused by Christianity in person of the Catholic King.

1 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto 23 (Penguin Books Edition, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers. London: 1949)
2 Asser, Life of King Alfred, Translated by L.C. Jane, M.A. (Cooper Square Publishers: New York, 1966) 27, 39
3 Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England ( Longman: London & New York, 1998), 268
4Secular rulers exercising disproportionate influence over Church affairs did not start with the Reformation; it had a healthy tradition going back to Edward I of England, Frederick II and Henry IV of Germany and even to Justinian. The difference is that after the Reformation era, what had previously been the personal actions of a few rulers became a dogmatically defined doctrine of state (cuius regio eius religio) and many secular lords tried to do away with Church mediation entirely, insisting that the King ruled by God’s grace alone and was not responsible to any earthly Church or ecclesiastical official.
5 The full-scale conversion of Junkers into the Prussian officer corps began in with King Frederick William I around 1717. (Anthony F. Upton, Europe: 1600-1789. Oxford University Press: New York, 2001), 254