Concluding thoughts on messy Christian history after Constantine

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

Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum
Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum

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.

Notre-dame de Paris
Notre-dame de Paris

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.

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

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.

The Pains

Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)
Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)

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.

Part One is here. Part 2a is about the Late Antique targets for the regularisation of official orthodoxy; Part 2b is about the mediaeval targets. Part 3 is about the orthodox targets of official Christianity. Part 4 is about the Inquisition. I also wrote an excursus on the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Advertisements

The Inquisition and Messy Church History

This is the latest in a series on the Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History. Part One is here. Part 2a is about the Late Antique targets for the regularisation of official orthodoxy; Part 2b is about the mediaeval targets. Part 3 is about the orthodox targets of official Christianity. I also wrote an excursus on the Synod of Whitby in 664.

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.

The Orthodox victims of powerful Christians in the messy, post-Constantine church

(Whew! Long title.) This is part of a series of posts on the messy reality of Church History After Constantine. The others are: The Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History, Church After Constantine 2a: The Late Antique Targets, and Church After Constantine 2b: The Mediaeval Targets, with An Excursus on the Synod of Whitby, AD 664.

John Chrysostom before exile

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.

Like St Athanasius, great champion of Nicaea, as mentioned in the first of this series (and saint of the week here).

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.