Christianity did not take over the empire because Constantine converted to it. Constantine converted to it because it was taking over the empire.
The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland
In this post, we will see the beginning of the differences in the concept of governance and government between what we know today as the East and West of Christendom – between the Greek and Latin.
Until this point, in the first three centuries of Church growth and development, the foundations had been laid for a highly developed civilization. Christian culture carried with it a strong sense of identity – much more so than the pagan civilization before it and around it. The Incarnation was instrumental in this, as it brought a living experience into the world.
With Constantine, Christianity was given legal standing, along with other religions of the empire. He formally ended persecution of Christians and passed several laws that reflected Christian cultural values. Crucifixions were abolished as a form of execution; gladiatorial shows were ended, given the history of these with Christians.
While he did not abolish slavery, he did ban its most abusive features: the master could no longer murder his slave without consequence – in other words, slaves had protection from arbitrary killing. He established the city that would bear his name, but officially named New Rome. The city would not have pagan temples, but Christian.
His most enduring act would be to call together the empire’s bishops to Nicaea in 325, to resolve the question of Christ’s identity. An Alexandrian priest would claim that Christ was a great man, but not divine. This priest, Arius, was the source of the doctrine known as Arianism. This issue was to be resolved.
He would also execute the son of his first wife, and shortly thereafter, his second wife. The circumstances are unknown, but it is speculated that the second wife accused his son of attempting to seduce her; after having him killed, perhaps Constantine came to learn it wasn’t true. Finally, he would honor his mother in a way no pagan emperor had done, renaming her home town in her honor.
All this is background to perhaps the first hint of what made the outcomes relative to governance different in Eastern (Greek) Christendom vs. Western (Latin) Christendom. Not that the split was evident yet – obviously, we are still early in the fourth century; cracks did not begin to develop until later and the final, official religious split not until the eleventh century. But the story can begin to be told.
We have seen how traditional Christianity assigned a redemptive purpose to the world. …The Church was therefore given a ministry of sanctifying the world.
Many areas of human life, therefore, became subject to this effort: not only the relationship of marriage, but other social and economic relationships; the time of the calendar and the space of physical worship; art and language, especially when used in worship; even the Greek letters chi and ro, when joined together to honor Christ.
Could not that realm of human culture and civilization known as government, then, also participate in the sanctification of the world? With Constantine’s conversion, even this part of the creation now came within the scope of the Church’s cosmic ministry.
Of course, it is too early in the story to draw a sharp distinction between this idea and that which formed later in the West – where the Church and the Emperor, while complimentary, moved in different circles and kept a check on the other’s authority. But this statement sure sounds monopolizing.
Whatever these concerns, that he freed the Christians from official persecution was a welcome event in the lives of Christians in the Empire. Looking back on this event where Christianity and the Emperor would begin to unite might cause us some difficulty today, but had we been alive (and Christian) during that time, I suspect it would have brought nothing but relief – even joy.
Strickland notes that it is among modern Protestants “who regard the rise of the Christian state to be a betrayal of the Church’s true vocation.” I have heard such criticisms in some corners of Protestantism, yet I also see many Protestant denominations that wish to use the state in manners that they feel just. I guess I could say the same for many Catholic and Orthodox as well, which might be consistent with the picture Strickland is painting.
In any case, through Constantine the Empire would end its bloody “sacrifices.” What more or greater could be sacrificed than the Son of God having offered Himself on the Cross? Certainly a good thing, as long as the Christian state holds to its sacramental foundation. What happens if / when it loses this foundation (as we could certainly argue has been increasingly true since the Enlightenment)?
It degenerates in what [Peter Leithart] calls “nihilistic politics.” In modern times, he observes, secularism prevents the state from honoring a higher power, whose existence it rejects either formally or in practice.
Nihilistic politics is an appropriate way to describe our current condition. The state requires a sacrifice to it, in the form of public devotion and submission. Or worse, when sacrifice is demanded in the name of the proletariat, the master race, or (in Strickland’s words), the “autonomous individual” (and he is right on that last point).
But I will take issue with Strickland and Leithart, at least from what I gather here. By definition, there can be no higher power than the state – it is the monopoly on power, authority, and “legitimate” use of force. To believe that a “Christian” state would somehow not succumb to ignoring, when convenient, any higher authority is to ignore the reality that all men are fallen. A monopoly, when made up of human beings, will, sooner or later, stop worrying about any higher authority above it.
Which comes to my understanding of governance in the Western side of Christendom: as designed and when it was at its best, the Church and the king kept a check on each other, neither allowed a monopoly of authority. It didn’t always function this way, but this is what was expected. There was no “state” until after the Reformation – at least not in the sense we use the word today.
So, returning to Byzantium:
This was not, emphatically, a relationship between “church and state.” There was no actual relationship between Church and state at this time because the state was part of the Church.
Strickland points to the time of the Great Schism (in the eleventh century) where this distinction became possible in the West. I will add: what it became, in the West, is nothing like how we view the phrase today. While in medieval Europe, the two realms maintained a check on each other, today we have the opposite – and the opposite of what Strickland describes in Constantinople: one could argue that today, for the large part, the church is under, if not part of, the state!
The word used by Strickland is symphony: where the Emperor, as head of the state, was expected to rule in harmony with the bishops. Within this framework, he would issue laws, raise taxes, support the clergy, and suppress heresies. Kind of like today, but with the relationship flipped. Strickland notes that this idea of symphony, while not always practiced perfectly, held in the East for a millennium.
The likely issues should be obvious: while the Emperor should be subject to intervention by the bishops, this almost never happened – but, it did occasionally happen, which, it seems, was at least an improvement over pre-Christian Roman rule.
Very early on, two distinct visions of the Christian state were offered: the first, from Eusebius of Caesarea, and the second – a century later – from Augustine of Hippo.
Eusebius lived at the time of Constantine, in a world transformed from the persecution of Christians to one where Christians held equal standing. His vision was one of heavenly immanence, resting “on the conviction that the world is good insofar as it is the creation of the transcendent God.” Perhaps Paradise was just around the corner.
Yes, the Emperor was great, but God is the Great Sovereign – sovereign even over the human rulers. The head of the well-ordered state is the Christian ruler – the Emperor – caring, above all else, for the salvation of his subjects.
But more than this, as a member of the Church, he actually participates sacramentally in the restoration of the cosmos. [He is] to imitate “his Divine philanthropy by his own imperial acts.”
The Emperor was subject to divine law, but the bishops were subject to the Emperor. One ruler, one authority. This was the vision of Eusebius.
A century later, Augustine. He offered two overlapping societies: one the elect; the other, attached purely to worldly ends. Augustine had a century to see how the monopoly authority of the Emperor could go bad, doing harm to the Church as a result. Further, he saw Rome fall – important to him as he lived on the North African coast. He witnessed the world’s brokenness, even with Christianity in a leading role.
A more pessimistic outlook than that of Eusebius, but more aligned to the Pauline doctrines about sinful passions – and, in my opinion, more aligned to reality when it comes to monopoly authority. True societal peace must await the end of time.
The City of God, however, is not disconnected from the world; its role – its duty – was to judge society and also be the source of its renewal. It was this purpose that would energize Christendom in the coming centuries.
It is one role that the church must play today, and is uniquely suited to play. Unfortunately, it has, for the most part, abandoned this work.
While Strickland does not say it directly, it seems to me here we find the roots of the division of the East and West when it comes to governance structure. While I am not well versed in the political history of Eastern Christendom, the idea that the church is under the Emperor rings true for me. While I can’t say with certainty that it follows, we certainly know today that Orthodox Churches are, for the most part, national churches – Greek, Russian, Armenian, etc.
I anticipate that this will be further developed as I work through this volume.