Thursday, October 26, 2017

Church and Empire

Today, liberals love to talk about the “separation of church and state” as being something great, something which ended religious wars in the western world and which they take sole credit for. The more atheistic liberals think this is good because it prevents the state being dominated by organized religion and the religious liberals like it because it prevents the churches from being dominated by the government. In this regard, the religious liberals have a powerful arsenal to defend their case by pointing to the state churches of northern Europe which preach a pale, so watered down as to barely qualify as Christian form of Christianity and which practically no one attends as opposed to the United States where, while still rapidly declining, church attendance is comparatively robust. However, the problem with both arguments, though the atheistic liberals in particular, is that no separation of church and state really exists in the western world, even in America. To go even further, such a thing has rarely existed even from the beginnings of Christianity.

In virtually every major religion, church and state have almost always been very closely linked if not, in some cases, one and the same. This is true in Confucianism, Shinto in Japan, Buddhism in places from Mongolia and Tibet to Thailand and of course it is also true in Islam. Traditionally, it was true of Judaism, in a way even more so than in Islam as it was a religion, a way of life and a people. For Christianity the proponents of the separation of church and state usually point to Christ’s command to, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” as some sort of “proof” that Christianity uniquely requires a separation of church and state. Of course, that is both silly and nonsensical as religion tends to be about setting standards for what is right and wrong, what is good and evil and obviously no one is going to be okay with thinking that the way they do things is good but that the way the government does things is evil. In historical terms, Christianity did not remain separate from the state in the slightest for very long at all.

Emperor Constantine the Great
Christianity first became a legal religion, recognized and tolerated by the state, when Emperor Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan in 318AD. One only had to wait until 380AD for Christianity to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire by the order of Emperor Theodosius I. Yet, even before that happened and to be a Roman was to be a Christian, church and state were not kept separate at all. Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, saw Church “interference” in the state with the Emperor changing Roman laws to reflect Christian morality such as by abolishing death by crucifixion, ending gladiatorial games and making Sunday a day of rest. Likewise, the Emperor also intervened in religious matters, most significantly by calling the First Council of Nicaea which famously produced the Nicene Creed which provided a simple definition of what Christianity was and what all Christians were expected to believe. It is also important to remember that all of this was done well before Emperor Constantine had actually been baptized as a Christian himself (something he waited to do until he was on his deathbed).

It is evidence of how far modern Christianity has drifted from its original, traditional, roots that all of this is mostly unknown to modern Christians but the Roman emperor was seen as an extremely significant, even essential, figure for the Christian religion. The early Christians and Medieval Christians certainly understood this which is proven by the long tradition, today almost completely unknown, of prophecies, visions and other miraculous events concerning the Roman emperors. Regular readers will know as I have talked about these before such as the Emperor Augustus being revealed a vision of the birth of Christ, the Emperor Tiberius being moved to forbid any persecution of the Christians or the Emperor Marcus Aurelius putting a halt to such persecutions after witnessing a miracle in battle called down by Christians within his army. There was even a legend in the Middle Ages that Pope St Gregory the Great had momentarily resurrected Emperor Trajan in order to baptize him and spare this model ruler from the torments of Hell.

Emperor Basil I
As I have said before, whether one believes these stories or not is irrelevant to the central point. If you do believe them, obviously the Roman emperors had a spiritual significance for Christians from the very beginning, of both the Roman Empire and the Christian religion. However, even if you do not believe them and think they were invented later, that they were invented still shows just how significant the Christians of the early Church and Middle Ages considered the imperial line to be. The emperors were not seen as purely secular figures with no connection to religious matters. It is worth remembering that, after the Council of Jerusalem, the first seven Ecumenical Councils of the Church were called not by the Pope or some eminent Patriarch but by the Roman Emperor, indeed, all seven were called by the Eastern Roman Emperor. Likewise, the eighth Ecumenical Council was called by Emperor Basil I as well as the Pope, the ninth (Lateran I), called by the Pope after the “Investiture Dispute”, dealt with the imperial role in appointing bishops so that, even when church-state relations had been bad, there was still no getting around the fact that the emperors were major figures in the Christian religion. Lateran I was also attended by the King of France whose position, likewise, was inseparable from the faith of his country.

The fact that the Investiture Dispute happened in the first place is evidence of the fact that church and state were not separate and that no one could imagine them fully being so. This occurred during the imperial reign of the Salian Dynasty but was to come up again, in a way, during the subsequent reign of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty. Emperor Frederick I (Frederick Barbarossa), feeling himself affronted by Pope Alexander III, earned the eternal wrath of the Catholic Church by taking the side of Anti-Pope Victor IV against him. However, he had initially tried to remain neutral, advised the bishops in his lands to do the same and refused to recognize either papal claimant, calling for a council to be summoned to decide the matter. When Alexander III refused on the grounds that the pope cannot be subject to the decisions of a council (and being rather unpopular likely fearful of the outcome), it was only then that Emperor Frederick gave his support to Victor IV. He did this because of the long history, again, going back to Constantine, of the Emperor being so significant a figure in the Church. In his view, if the Church could not sort out its own problems, the Emperor must step in to decide the issue.

The coronation of Charlemagne
This was the root of the problem, however, as the popes did not wish to be subject to a council or any other authority, nor did the emperors wish to agree to the idea that they owed their crown to the pope who could then take it from them if the pope so wished. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, such disputes, were effectively political and not of a religious nature really. In the earlier times when councils were called by the Roman Emperor, and when even the popes were regarded by the eastern emperors as being one of their subjects in secular terms, these councils dealt with heresies or other questions of a religious nature. For the Roman Pontiffs and the German monarchs of the “Holy Roman Empire”, on the other hand, politics was usually at the root of the issue. That being said, any political dispute could always be cast in a religious light even if for no other reason than that it came down to a question of authority and as the pope could always cite that the law of God was above the law of man and that he was the sole arbiter of the law of God, his ruling on any matter at all had to prevail and so he made any issue a religious issue simply by being involved in it.

Although doctrinal disputes certainly exist, it is also true that a major foundational reason for the very existence of two distinct versions of the Christian religion, one eastern and one western, is due to the fact that the Western Roman Emperor was eliminated and only the Pope remained whereas, in the east, the Emperor carried on being the one expected to maintain discipline in the Church, summon councils and so on as had been the case before. When a new version of the empire was revived in the west, with the coronation of Charlemagne, it was initiated by the pope and later disputes arose because what the pope had given, the pope felt entitled to take away, in addition to the fact that he had gained land, subjects and political power and was thus a political player for the first time. The popes, though they tried, could never have the same sort of disputes with the eastern emperors given that their reign extended back to the original Roman Empire, predated the papacy and was not therefore in the gift of the pope to give or to take away. What neither ever did was to presume you could have one or the other and still have traditional Christianity as it had been handed down to them.

Emperor Justinian
Even when Pope Gelasius I (492-6) first tried to define the limits of the two powers, “which govern the world: the sacred authority of the bishops and the imperial power” it was at a time when the western half of the Church was displeased with the eastern half and while this was later used in the Middle Ages to bolster the papal case against the German rather than Byzantine emperors and could be considered a prototype of the ‘separation of the church and state’ argument, the fact which should be most obvious is that the pope was admitting that the imperial authority was a given, that it had its limits as he saw them, but it was there nonetheless and could not be denied or disregarded. Not long after, the issue of imperial authority was at the root of one of the earliest, if not the very first, contested papal elections with one faction more loyal to the Emperor in Constantinople and wanting reconciliation and the other more comfortable with the Gothic kings and wishing to maintain their ground in the east-west dispute. Many of the Roman/Italian nobility wanted to reconcile with the east while the lower classes tended not to. This was all the more noticeable when the Latin and westward-looking Justin came to the throne in 518, followed by his nephew Justinian in 527, who brought back the flavor of the old Roman Empire and served to highlight the Germanic origins and habits of the Gothic kings.

This period, specifically because it was so troubled, inadvertently highlights the importance that the imperial monarchy had for the Church. Whereas the Gothic west had largely fallen under the sway of the Arian heresy, King Theodoric the Great being an Arian, the east remained more solidly of the old faith. Pope John I, though old and frail, was dispatched to Constantinople to persuade the Emperor to stop being so harsh and discriminatory toward the Arians. Imagine that for a moment, the Roman Catholic Pope went to the Byzantine Emperor to plead the case of the Arian heresy! How successful he was seems to be somewhat in dispute, some accounts saying he did get the Emperor to back off the Arians somewhat, others saying Justinian committed to nothing substantial and sent him home. In any event, it did Pope John little good for King Theodoric had him arrested soon after returning, fearing that he had been plotting with the Emperor against him to retake Italy and the frail, old pope died in captivity. Nonetheless, there was some balance, there was recourse if one side got out of line.

Coronation of Emperor Otto the Great
The benefits of this arrangement were certainly seen in the time leading up to and around the year 1000 when the Church, certainly in the west, had become infamous for its corruption and depravity, yet this was also when great monarchs provided an impetus to change. It was the time of High King Brian Boru of Ireland, King St Stephen of Hungary, Emperor Otto the Great of Germany, St Vladimir the Great the Grand Prince of Kiev who converted the Russians, King Canute the Great of Denmark and King St Olaf II of Norway. At a time when the papacy had sunk to its lowest point, it was the pressure of Emperor Otto III which brought a pious and determined man to the Petrine Throne (Sylvester II, also the first French pope). Had it been left solely up to the clerical leadership of the time, Christendom would likely not have survived as so many of them had become far too weak and corrupted. Some may, perhaps, find something familiar about this situation.

I have said before and will go on saying that for the majority of Christian history none of the faithful would have been able to imagine having Christianity without an emperor as an integral part of the picture. I am also firmly convinced that it is no coincidence that Christianity is in such a sad state today when an emperor or even anything of the sort has been absent for so long. The enemies of all I hold dear about western civilization certainly recognized that taking down the imperial power would aid in taking down the spiritual power as well. This is not, however, to say that they are solely responsible. If everything had been working as it should have been, I don’t think they would have stood a chance. In the west, the papacy certainly did a great deal of damage to the traditional hierarchy for the sake of politics only to find that not long after the empire ceased to exist in any way other than a name the papacy itself no longer had much real influence either, having frittered it away by constantly shifting positions. Now the spiritual authority of Christianity is, I think, in real danger of being lost and there is no emperor to come to the rescue as in the days of Otto III.

Emperor Valentinian II
Hopefully, the above will demonstrate one more reason why Christians should take monarchy seriously and not see it as something set apart from religion. Even if your monarch is far from the Christian ideal (as most are these days), rest assured that this is nothing new. Even when Julian “the Apostate” tried to restore Rome to paganism, it did not cause Christians to abandon the idea of having an emperor. Christianity was a product of the Roman Empire, Christ was born in the reign of Augustus, died and was resurrected in the reign of Tiberius, and so it went with His followers. St Paul preferred to appeal to Nero rather than place his fate in the hands of the Jews and, according to Josephus at least, Nero’s wife may have been a Christian. The religion won recognition under Constantine and became the official religion of the empire under Theodosius. For some, reading the funeral oration of St Ambrose of Milan for Emperor Theodosius or Emperor Valentinian II may be enough. We can see there and in numerous other ways that from the beginning, Christianity, born of the empire, was seen as being inseparable from it and the empire inseparable from the faith. If those early Christians were right, it can only then mean that the majority today are very wrong to say otherwise.

More along these lines:
The Tiburtine Sybil & Imperial Prophecy
Christ and the Emperor Tiberius
Christian Empire

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