My latest YouTube video is now up. It’s a discussion of the medieval trajectory leading up to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1534. Mostly it’s about Constantine, Charlemagne, the Investiture Controversy (and thus Lanfranc, Anselm, William the Bastard, William Rufus, Thomas Becket, Leo IX, Gregory VII, King John, Innocent III), papal placements in prebends (and St Bernard and Robert Grosseteste), and King Edward III.
A friend queried on Facebook yesterday, “Whose politics look more like God’s? Jesus’ or Constantine’s?” This is a friend I know well enough to know that he’s not being actually anti-Constantine or anything like that, but, rather, trying to provoke us to think about Jesus.
Now, this friend tends to use the Revised Common Lectionary, yet when I was preparing for Sunday using the BCP/Sarum/pre-Vatican II Roman/pre-1980s Lutheran lectionary (remind me why we needed a different one to be “common”?), this was the Gospel for Trinity 23, Matthew 22:15-22:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (ESV)
In other words, the most famous “political” passage in the Gospels.
I have to confess I’m not 100% sure what “Jesus’ politics” look like. Perhaps this is the effect of evangelicalism — I see the ethical teaching as personal and have trouble applying, “Turn the other cheek,” to this-worldly politics. Nonetheless, I’m not sure how Jesus-y Constantine’s politics were after his conversion c. 312.
For example, Constantine used alleged “persecution” of Christians by his imperial colleague Licinius as a cause for war in 324. And then he used imperial power to make bishops abide by the Council of Nicaea (a council with which he himself didn’t necessarily agree). He gave tax breaks to Christian clergy. In 335, he decided to go to war against the Persian Empire to protect the Christians there from persecution. He closed pagan temples (maybe). He also probably had his son and wife assassinated.
All in all, Constantine was a Roman Emperor. He did things that one would expect of a Roman emperor — self-aggrandizement, assassination, and war among them. But are his Rome-focussed politics the politics of God?
It’s not as though the history of the church from Constantine to the wild free-for-all after the Reformation just accepted that a good, Christian king acts like an Old Testament king such as David or Josiah, or models himself after Constantine, or what-have-you. There is, actually, a tension in Christendom between the Gospel call to die for your friends and the temporal call to protect your borders.
Thinking on this, my mind naturally and immediately went to the teaching given to Lancelot by his foster-mother, the fairy known as the Lady of the Lake:
… understand this, that knighthood was not created and set up light-heartedly, nor because some men were originally more noble or of higher lineage than the others, for all people are descended from one father and one mother. But when envy and greed began to grow in the world, and force began to overcome justice, at that time all men were still equal in lineage and nobility. And when the weak could no longer withstand or hold out against the strong, they established protectors and defenders over themselves, to protect the weak and the peaceful and to maintain their rights, and to deter the strong from their wrongdoing and outrageous behaviour.
To provide this protection, they established those who were most worthy in the opinion of the common people. These were the big and the strong and the handsome and the nimble and the loyal and the valorous and the courageous, those who were full of the qualities of the heart and of the body. However, knighthood was not given to them frivolously, or for nothing, but with it a great burden was placed on their shoulders. And do you know what that was? Originally, when the order of knighthood began, a man who wished to be a knight, and who was accorded that privilege by right of election, was told he should be courteous without baseness, gracious without cruelty, compassionate towards the needy, generous and prepared to help those in need, and ready and prepared to confound robbers and killers; he should be a fair judge, without love or hate, without love to help wrong against right, without hate to hinder right in order to further wrong. A knight should not, for fear of death, do anything which can be seen as shameful: rather, he should be more afraid of shame than of suffering death.
The knight was established wholly to protect the Holy Church, for she should not avenge herself by arms, or give back evil for evil; and for that reason the knight was established to protect the Church, who turns the left cheek, when she is struck on the right.
Lancelot of the Lake, trans. Corin Corley. Oxford, 1989/2000, pp. 52-53.
The Lady of the Lake goes on to describe the knight’s arms and armour, giving each its symbolic, spiritual meaning, just as writers such as John Cassian do for the monastic habit. Interestingly, in a later stage of the same cycle of romances, the liturgical vestments of priests are referred to as “the armour of Holy Church” (or something like that).
What this shows us as we ponder the question of worldly politics and the kingdom of heaven is that Christians who can hold worldly power are profoundly aware of the ways in which imperial policy or knightly behaviour, or life at Court, or any number of circumstances are at odds with turning the other cheek.
St Martin of Tours chose to leave the Roman army in the 360s. Many other disciples of Jesus chose to remain soldiers.
Circling back to making these sorts of questions point us to Jesus, then. Real world politics is a messy business, and living in a representative democracy means I have rights and responsibilities other than just paying taxes and following the law. I can elect people, vote in referenda, and write letters to the powers that be.
When I exercise these rights and responsibilities, am I turning to the wisdom of Jesus, reflected even in the Lady of the Lake, seeking to serve the poor and outcast, or am I turning the wisdom of this world? That, I suppose, is the Jesus-y question for today, even if any actual vote cast may vary from Christian to Christian.
Today’s round in my ongoing promotion of my upcoming Davenant Hall course is a post I wrote for Davenant, looking specifically at the question of how the canon of Scripture came to be within the wider framework of, “Did Constantine really change everything?”
Every once in a while, a blogger has an idea that he or she would like to be true. Some of these thoughts remain unexpressed because one knows that there is insufficient evidence to argue for the existence of Sasquatch or of dinosaurs alive in Africa.* Sometimes, a blogger can’t help oneself and tries to push the evidence farther than it can go.
And, really, this is what we expect of blogs, right?
Well, I think bloggers should hold themselves to the same standards of truthfulness and accuracy that other writers do, whether journalists or academics. This doesn’t mean always being as rigorous about hunting down proper citations or always waiting to be a proper expert, but it does mean a certain amount of care, thoughtfulness, and caution.
Because, whether you’re blogging about video games or about race in American cinema or about Christian history or about Mormons — or whether you write professional in more formal fora on those subjects — what you are hopefully seeking to express is, in fact, the truth. Seeking to unpack it, whether from obscurity or obfuscation or empty rhetoric or confusion or whatever.
So, I recant, and I remove my most recent post about polytheistic intolerance, due to this comment from Richard Burgess:
Alas, not up to your usual standards. Syncretism generally avoided clashes between religions. Actions against some religions, like the Bacchanalians, were on social grounds, not religious. The Jews they generally tolerated, although every once in a while there were isolated bouts of exile or public violence against them. Actions against Christians arose, first, because they were a new religion, which was an oxymoron for everyone in the ancient world, and failed to participate in public cult (Rome insisted that everyone except the Jews participate in public cult to preserve the Pax deorum, which is really crossing the line from religion to politics and governance) and later it was for their intransigence, and their wealth, which have nothing to do with religion, per se. By the third quarter of the third century they had generally been accept into society. The Great Persecution was an anomalous rear-guard action to fight a war that had already been lost. Manichaeans everyone hated, but there weren’t that many of them and the Romans really don’t seem to have understood them, so for the most part they seem to have been the Roman version of ‘Commies’ that people were finding under every bed. I’m not sure how much really had to do with religion per se as it did with politics (the popes, like Leo, took up the hunt for Manichaeans after the emperors had given it up, and always seemed to find them when things got slow). Christians, on the other hand, in their zeal for uniformity, right from the beginning certainly precipitated and endured more internal and strictly religious conflict that any polytheistic groups, who never argued about the meaning of their god(s) or religious observances in the way Christians did.
It would be surprising to find any society suffered no religious conflict, but when you consider the enormous religious diversity of the Roman empire and the fact that we are talking about a period of, say, 500 or 600 years, the empire’s official tolerance toward just about every religion and its general lack of religious conflict is indeed an amazing, though by no means perfect, model that the modern world would do well to imitate.
My response to the very substantive first paragraph
Sadly for my last post, all true. Part of me wonders if intermittent persecutions of Christians might not have continued after Diocletian, but we’ll never know. I do know that intermittent persecutions of Christians and other minorities have been an occasional aspect of Indian/Hindu history, but — again — uncommon. And the Hindus, like the Romans, have not been 100% all for persecution for all time.
This fact, to turn back to the Romans, is a fact to be considered. When we hear, ‘Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire,’ we imagine that from Nero to Diocletian, every Christian everywhere feared for his or her life and was completely barred from normal public life, hiding in catacombs amongst the corpses of martyrs.
But, in fact, persecution was an intermittent affair for the first three centuries of Christian life, and not all of it was state-sponsored — the martyrs of Lyon were victims of mob violence, if you read the text closely enough. And when persecution was state-sponsored, its enforcement was not uniform, anyway — like any government policy, especially in the ancient world. And what it involved also varied — not necessarily death.
All religious persecution in the Roman world had a social and political element to it, whether Bacchanalians in 186 BC, or the various times Jews were kicked out of Rome, or the different persecutions of Christians, or the universal distaste the Mediterranean authorities had for Manichaeism.
How does the Christian empire compare to the polytheists?
In this regard, Christian rulers have not compared favourably to Roman polytheists/syncretists/’pagans’. This is why Anabaptist groups and Quakers have distanced themselves from state churches — this is why state churches did their best to prove Anabaptists and Quakers right by persecuting them.
The problem, as I see it, is this: Most people in the ancient world imagined that the right rites meant political success. If they didn’t actually believe it, they would at least act like it. When Constantine and his successors converted to Christianity (and, regardless of any ‘failures’ in belief and policy, I believe Constantine’s conversion was genuine), it became important for the Empire to gradually adopt Christian rites because otherwise God would be angry, and then all hell would break loose. (Maybe literally, maybe not.) As a result of this, the tables were turned on the polytheists.
Christianity has demonstrated itself to not be quite as well organised as most of us would like. We have the proto-orthodox, represented by Irenaeus, reacting with alarm at ‘Gnostic’-type groups who are seeking to separate themselves in some fashion as the true spiritual elite. But, worse than out-and-out heretics, that is, groups who use the name Christian but have very widely divergent visions of what that means from each other and what comes to be official orthodoxy, is schism. Novatianists are perfectly orthodox — Novatian’s writings on the Trinity are recommended reading. Donatists are also a problem.
We are busy excommunicating each other and deposing bishops and things long before 312, see.
When you combine this tendency towards intra-ecclesiastical regulation of belief and cult with the idea that the government has to make sure the rites are right, it’s a dangerous situation for those of divergent views.
This, at least, is my theory why Christians persecuted not just pagans and Jews but heretics and schismatics — thus regulating belief so much more closely than did the polytheists.
The second paragraph is also spot-on
Richard’s second paragraph is one with which I have long been in agreement. I will re-quote the final clause:
The empire’s official tolerance toward just about every religion and its general lack of religious conflict is indeed an amazing, though by no means perfect, model that the modern world would do well to imitate.
I think that love is the best way to bring people around to true conversion to orthodox Christianity, whether they are Mormons or ‘pagans’. I am also thoroughly supernaturalist in worldview so that I think true conversion is a matter of God’s activity in a person anyway. For these related reasons, I don’t think the church should force conformity on people outside (I also think there is a wide range of things upon which we within needn’t conform, either).
Freedom of belief is an act of love. It is also an act of protection by a government. I think the secular government should be neither religious nor secularist. It should favour Hindus, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, et al., without prejudice — both individuals and organisations. I cannot remember the subtleties right now, but I urge all Christians to read Miroslav Volf’s essay (I think the one about John?) that treats the subject in his book Captive to the Word of God. There you will see that, while not arguing for individual pluralism, there is a biblical case for pluralism in governance. (FYI: Don’t actually try to argue with me on that subject, though, because I am undoubtedly woefully inadequate.)
Anyway, I was wrong. Mea culpa. We should all think on the tolerant attitude of Romans towards those who worship and think differently — an attitude that in personal relations certainly had room for debate, so don’t worry about that!
*But, seriously, who doesn’t want that to be true?
This is the final post in a series on the messy reality of church history after Constantine wherein I have tackled both those who decry ‘Constantinianism’ for ‘polluting’ a ‘pure’ church and those who believe the conversion of Constantine was the greatest thing ever to happen. The other posts are listed at the bottom of this one.
And what, after all this, do I think about church life after Constantine?
I think that relations between the Church/Christianity and the secular government have always, before Constantine and after, a mixture of pleasures and pains.
The Post-Constantinian Pleasures
Legal existence and imperial favour are not always bad things! Christians could now meet freely and evangelise freely. They could expand the houses-turned-churches. They could publically build more purpose-built houses of worship (meeting in houses isn’t some sort of pristine vision for Christianity but a necessity for the persecuted).
Christians could now more easily pursue careers in the public service. Sure, this sometimes meant compromise. But it also sometimes meant finally giving Roman government a conscience when it came to things like disaster relief and aid for the poor (beyond Rome’s pomerium).
Indeed, giving government something of a conscience is probably one of the greatest benefits of the cozy relationship Christians now had with Rome and, later, her successor states and other non-Roman Christian polities throughout history. Christians with access to persons of power, who sometimes were persons of power, and access to wealth could provide their nations with hospitals and houses for the poor and lepers.
Because the monastic movement in all Christian societies had some level of official sanction by the Early Middle Ages (if not earlier), monasteries/lavrae/hermitages/priories/anchorholds became alternative ways of living beyond the secular world of warrior masculinity and domestic feminity, of survival for the poor beyond subsistence farming, of, indeed, places for the otherwise voiceless to be heard — think of the monastic women such as St Hildegard von Bingen who had the ear of powerful men or male monastics of humble origin such as St Bonaventure. The monastic movement was also a legitimised counterculture for young men otherwise destined for earthly power and glory, such as St Francis of Assisi.
Another source of great fecundity in the relationship between the imperia and the church was artistic culture. I cannot stand in Notre-Dame de Paris or St-Denis or Milan’s Duomo or Sant’Ambrogio in Milan or St Paul’s in London or Glasgow Cathedral and say, ‘What a shame the Church teamed up with the secular powers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.’ This legimation of Christianity in secular eyes has meant the preservation of our faith’s art. I am, as I write, listening to St Hildegard’s music; could this beauty have survived so intact if produced by a hounded, persecuted minority?
My research literally delves into the world of the mediaeval book. Canon law tomes are not, it is to be admitted, the most beautiful. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the Kingdom of Northumbria did not foster monasticism to allow the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Kingdom of the Picts likewise with Iona and the Book of Kells, or the Carolingians likewise and the over 7000 manuscripts that exist from their century and a half, two centuries, alone — most of them driven by the desire of the Carolingian monarchs to reform their society and church around the Christian Gospel.
Think: Michelangelo. El Greco. Hieronymous Bosch. Da Vinci. Fra Angelico. Pre-Raphaelites. Raphael. Bernini. Or: Late mediaeval Flemish altarpieces. Stained glass. San Vitale’s mosaics.
A lot of Christian writings would not have survived, if they’d even been written. What would we do without the City of God? Dante’s Divine Comedy? What if Pseudo-Dionysius’ works had all perished? Life without John Donne? Would someone like Gregory Palamas, so dense and hard to comprehend, have made the cut? Would Bernard of Clairvaux have gone into religious life with no monasteries for third sons? No Bede?
Without Constantine (or someone like him) — none of this culture.
That would be a lesser world, wouldn’t it?
There have been pleasures and benefits for Christianity and the imperium, real, substantive benefits. We cannot deny this.
But befriending the Emperor is kind of like befriending Two Face, isn’t it? For example, I’m in favour of St Boniface’s evangelising zeal. The early Carolingians supported his mission to bring Gospel and order to what is now Germany. But Charlemagne’s version of mission involved the forced conversion of Saxons whose options were baptism or death.
In Notker’s Life of Charlemagne we read of how Charlemagne induced Danish Vikings to get baptised by giving them gifts. One year, so many came they didn’t have enough white baptismal robes, and one Viking complained that his robe was shabbier than the one he’d got the year before! He protested the Charlemagne was getting stingy.
What does baptism even mean to that Viking or to the Saxons bathing before the Frankish sword?
Charlemagne is not the only ruler to evangelise by the sword. Both King Olaf Tryggvason (d. 1000) and King St Olaf Haraldsson (d. 1030) used this method to evangelise Norway. And, if Njal’s Saga has anything to say, the Olaf-sponsored missionary Thangbrand was not afraid of using violence to promote Christianity in Iceland.
It is said that in Latvia when the king converted he had everyone get baptised. They all went down to the river the next day to wash off their baptism.
The Christianisation of Europe, which brought with it a connection between the cultures of the North (from Iceland and Ireland to Estonia and Latvia to Russia) and the cultures of the classical Mediterranean, certainly tamed some aspects of life, although sometimes I wonder of some of the toning down of harsh aspects of law had more to do with Rome than with Jesus.
Mind you, sometimes Roman punishments and practices of law continued that Christians should have left behind, such as when Maximus the Confessor had his tongue cut out for espousing theology contrary to the imperial vision.
The Christianisation of Europe got a lot of people baptised. And many were sincere. But that was faith a mile wide and an inch deep. If these men were truly, deeply Christian, why did the Pope need to keep making up reasons to keep French nobility from killing each other? Why do Icelandic men keep the cycle of revenge, feud, honour killings, and the like after the conversion of the island in 1000? Why do people complain over and over and over again about the unholy, sinful behaviour of those on pilgrimage?
Finally, another problem arises when Europe starts meeting new people. The first priest in Canada is said to have uttered, ‘First these savages must be civilized, then they will be ready to receive the Gospel.’ An attitude that was hard to shake — for if everyone in Europe is a ‘Christian’, where does European end and Christian begin?
God never will never forsake us
In conclusion, however, I would like to state that God gigantic. He is bigger than Constantine, bigger than Quakers, bigger than Anglicanism, bigger than Charlemagne, bigger than bad missionaries, bigger than Gregory Palamas, bigger than the Great Schism, bigger than the Reformation, bigger than Icelandic sagas, bigger than everything good or bad the Church has done throughout history.
No matter how corrupt the institutions of the Church have become, and it has happened at different times and different places, God has remained faithful. And there have always been faithful Christians who are part of that Church, quietly going about holy lives or vivaciously calling for reform, whether Caesarius in 520, Boniface in 720, Francis in 1220, or Luther in 1520.
In any discussion of the true church going ‘underground’ after Constantine, or of a ‘Great Apostasy’, after which the official organisms of Orthodox Catholic Christianity persecuted true believers, the Inquisition must feature. The Inquisition must feature because it always (always) features in discussions of how wicked Christianity or Roman Catholicism or (at least) the Church in the Middle Ages was/is.*
The number one crime with which people charge the Inquisition is, of course, all those poor souls they burned at the stake.
And here’s the fun fact about the Inquisition: They never burned anyone at the stake.
Of course, we must admit that they handed people over to the secular authorities. And they burned the heretics at the stake. But the Inquisition? Nope. Not a one.
Mind you, they were at least accessories to burning people at the stake. Or were they?
Well, yes, they were, okay. But that’s not their main job. Their main job was not to go into your local village or town and say, ‘Bring out your heretics,’ set up a kangaroo court, and then hand the loveable wretches over to the secular authorities for the required burning.
Their job was to go into your local village or town and ask if anyone nearby was being heretical. And then they’d interview them, and, if they were good at their job, either get the loveable wretches to recant or proclaim them orthodox.
And here many people will say, ‘Ah, but look at the Catholic standards of orthodoxy! Have you ever seen The Catechism of the Catholic Church?’ But that’s not the standard they were holding people up to. According to a mediaevalist (with a real, live PhD) I know, who’s not a believer and so has no dog in this fight, the standard of orthodoxy was … well … the Creed. You know, this one.
Mostly, Inquisitors tried to get suspected heretics away from the stake.
In fact, places where we know people were oft getting burnt for heresy it is the eager activity of the local ruler (e.g. Richard II of England) not the Inquisitors that is the deciding factor.
Immediately, I hear the concerns. The church through her interaction with the powerful is still corrupted. Christianity can no longer be free and pure when the fear of the King keeps people in step. While I certainly disagree with putting people to death for heresy, I still believe in the Church policing the boundaries of belief. And she exercised her power to save people from those Kings.
This is really all I wanted to say about the Inquisition. Sorry I didn’t bring up the Spanish.
Next: My general thoughts about the relationship between the Church and secular authority down the ages.
*Then quickly the Crusades will be pulled in and the not mediaeval at all witch trials.
What makes the truth about life after Constantine messy is that amongst those targeted and hounded and tortured and excommunicated by the official organs of church and government are some orthodox Christians, people whose theology most of those who subscribe to the Great Apostasy/Trail of Blood theory as well as those of us (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Magisterial Reformation) who still see our spiritual roots in the Patristic and even Mediaeval era agree with.
Some of them are even saints.
The reason why these people make it messy is that they don’t fit the triumphalist reading that says everything was peachy keen with imperial favour, but they also don’t really fit the idea that the wicked Catholic Church was persecuting true believers, since the latter body often canonised these folks as saints.
St John Chrysostom (347-407), one of the most beloved Greek Fathers amongst evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics, died in exile, hounded day and night by imperial soldiers after a kangaroo court (the Synod of the Oak) found him guilty of heresy. His preaching and exegesis of scripture are solid and worth a read. His theology is impeccable. Yet he found himself exiled for heresy and only had his sanctity formally acknowledged by a very vigorous post-exilic and post-mortem PR campaign.
St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) always comes to mind in this regard as well. In the seventh century, as part of imperial attempts to reconcile Mono/Miaphysite groups (i.e. Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic) to the Orthodox Catholic Church, a heterodox idea developed called monothelitism, saying that, regardless of the two natures, Jesus had one will that governed the whole thing. Maximus pointed out that this negates the fullness and perfection of Jesus’ humanity. The emperor told him to shut up. He did not, so his tongue was cut out, and he was sent into exile. Not a poster-boy for either side, really. Messy.
St John of Damascus (676-749; saint of the week here) was not persecuted by the Church, although he was formally excommunicated at one of the iconoclastic church councils. The only reason he was not personally persecuted was, well, because he lived in Damascus, already a part of the Caliphate. However, had he lived within the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, he would have been the object of government persecution for his iconodule beliefs.
… and this post just crashed and burned.
Right before your eyes.
This is the part where audience participation comes in! Who else is there??
Who else who is revered now as orthodox was targeted either by the government or church in his’er lifetime? Obviously we are not not not trying to rehabilitate heretics. I thought of adding St Thomas Becket, but his case is very different from the other three above. St Jeanne d’Arc is also an interesting case, but also different (fun post I should write: St Joan Is Why I’m not Roman Catholic).
I think you get the point, though. The kindly eye of the government can turn sour quite quickly when the secular authorities decide that your brand of orthodoxy or outspokenness are not what they are looking for.