Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Relationship of Church and State in the time of Eusebius and Augustine

Eusebius didn’t believe in the separation of Church and State. He was a prominent member of the “little circle of court clerics who helped to school Constantine in Christian ways and to shape an image of him for contemporaries and for posterity.” [Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion, from Paganism to Christianity, page 22]

Eusebius dates, c. 260 to c. 340, overlap Constantine’s rule, c. 306-337, surely one of the most important times in church history. In our modern times it is anathema to advocate the combination of Church and State, but if we attempt to put ourselves back in Eusebius’ situation we probably would have agreed with him. Christians had been hounded, persecuted and martyred off and on since the time of the apostles, but now the most powerful person in the world had become a convert. If we had an opportunity to mold him, what would we do? It wouldn’t do to tell Constantine that Church and State should be separated. That wouldn’t have meant anything to him. His conversion from all we know was genuine. He wanted to help the Church grow, so why not let him?

“. . . his adhesion to Christianity from 313 onwards was not to be doubted. Its most enduring manifestation was in open-handed patronage. Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, though this is often said of him. What he did was to make the Christian church the most-favoured recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favour. An enormous new church of St. Peter was built in Rome, modeled on the basilican form used for imperial throne halls such as the one which survives at Trier. The see of Rome received extensive landed endowments and one of the imperial residences, the Lateran Palace, to house its bishop and his staff. Constantinople, begun in 325, was to be an exclusively Christian city . . . Legal privileges and immunities rained down upon the Christian church and its clergy. The emperor took an active part in ecclesiastical affairs, summoning and attending church councils, participating in theological debate, attempting to sort out quarrels and controversies.” [Fletcher, 19-22]

And if we somehow had an opportunity to talk to Eusebius during this period, could we talk him into a belief in a separation of Church and State? I doubt it. Eusebius was an historian. He knew how bad the Church had it during earlier times and how good Constantine was making it for the Church during the time in which he lived. We would have no evidence to present him of the evils we would be trying to warn him against.

It was Augustine who would make the argument for this separation, but not the argument we moderns might expect. When we read his presuppositions they are hard for a modern Christian to accept. He was influenced by Monasticism. “Monasticism offered, or demanded, a manner of life in which individualism had to be shed. To be ‘of one heart and of one soul’ within a community, to have ‘all things common’, was not simply to follow the example of the apostles commended in Acts iv. 32: it was also to be liberated from the insidious temptation of private cares, selfish anxieties. Such liberation offered the possibility to humans of building a heavenly society upon earth. The monastic vocation was a call to a new way of apprehending, even of merging into, the divine.”

Augustine, if he could be brought forward in time, would be appalled at our definition of the separation of Church and State. Why bother to separate, he might ask us, since he could see so little difference? The Reformers were influenced by many of Augustine’s arguments, but not this one. They found no justification for Monasticism and no reason not to influence the State if they could. Augustine’s arguments can’t easily be set aside, even if we reject Monasticism, but the separation of Church and State that we recognize today began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. One might say that we in the West learned how to be tolerant of each other’s religion the hard way. We fought each other for thirty years and got tired of it. That’s not quite the same as saying that we suddenly became enlightened, but it will do.

There are Christians today who worry that we in the West have gone too far in the other direction, that is, that whereas in the past the church had power over the State, now the State is assuming an inhibiting power over the Church. Organizations, especially the ACLU, are going through State and Church activities much as Rudolf Bultmann went through the New Testament, rejecting this and that as they see fit. The Western Civilization and the Christian Church grew together as an integral unit, but some now feel they can pull the Church out and cast it aside. Most of the time (at least here in the U.S.) most of us know how to be both Christian and citizen. The two don’t need to be in conflict. Of course most of the Church in the U.S. isn’t resisting ACLU inroads. They may complain a bit, but that are too used to getting along with the State to make a fuss. Would we “make a fuss” if the State went too far, whatever we might mean by that? I think so. The “Spreading Flame” may have grown dim, but it isn’t out.

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