Church and State Part Two: Caesaropapism

This is the second installation in a series of articles in which I present my view of church history with a focus on the relationship between church and state. In my last article, I covered the early church. Today I cover Constantine and caesaropapism. In the next installation, I will cover conflicts between monarchs and popes of the middle ages.

As soon as the church gained a foothold into the government through Constantine, its dynamic with the state became much more complicated. While a government could be opposed to the church, the church could still have an important and necessary role in that government. Constantine originally granted the church (and other religions) freedom from persecution, [1] but his personal conversion complicated the pagan emperor-based religion of Rome, and his unification and standardization of the church through the First Council of Nicaea signaled a trend of political involvement with—and not against—the church. The First Council of Nicaea set forth the main defining doctrines of the church, but it also inevitably called out the heresies, particularly the Arian heresy. While the church had previously dealt with these issues by internal debate, they were now set as official doctrine, an act that would alienate the “true” church from other professing “Christians.” This trade-off kept the church from the internal division along doctrinal (and, perhaps, cultural-racial) lines that largely characterized the church as early as Paul, but it also became the first time that the church found itself rejecting others in a unified, well-defined fashion. In finding its own shape, the church had to set its own boundaries and limits.

The Chi-Rho symbol, the cross which Constantine saw in his dream which ultimately led to his conversion. Constantine popularized this symbol within the church.

In any case, the early church was delighted at not only Constantine’s abolition of persecution, but also at the gravity of his own conversion story. Eusebius saw Constantine’s involvement almost as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, the deliverance of the promise of hope that so many Christians had held onto for the past three centuries. Eusebius jumps from Biblical quotes to imperial ordinances, in ecstatic joy at the release from persecution and the new trajectory the church would take because of Constantine. One of these decrees was an imperial letter calling for 3,000 folles to be given to Caecilian, Bishop of Carthage, from the coffers of the state. In addition, he set forth a specific purpose for this money: “to see that it is distributed among all the persons named above according to the schedule supplied to you by Hosius.” If 3,000 folles would not suffice for this task, Caecilian could ask Heraclides “for any sum,” and Heraclides would “transfer it to you [Caecilian] without question.” [2] Constantine’s conversion and personal devotion to Christianity as emperor of Rome not only freed Christianity from the oppression of the government, but put it on the pedestal of imperial favor. It remained a religion for the poor; even as the church went through the changes led by Constantine, Saint Nicholas was setting precedents of generosity towards those in need. The model of the rich using their privileged positions to give to the poor remained the same, and it was in this model that Constantine as emperor of Rome operated when he used the government’s coffers to fund the church of Carthage. With the release of persecution and the comfortable, unified position Constantine put the church in, Christianity grew across the Roman Empire—from five to thirty million—but it also began to change from an oppressed religion into an established, defined religion. [3] Although self-inflicted pain and other methods were taken to replace the pain of martyrdom that was so central to the plight and creed of Christianity, nothing could replace the true martyrdom that took place under the Roman emperors that preceded Constantine.

Constantine’s conversion was celebrated from the very beginning, and, as such, his own Christianity had little time to mature. Some pagan elements inevitably carried over into his faith. Although he certainly did not approach the level of divinity, he did become, in a sense, the leader of the church, even as he took the initiative to unify it. This established for the first time in Christian history the Orthodox model in which the king is the head of the church and each country has its own church. By this time, a true papacy had not yet arisen, so the Church of Rome, while influential, could not be considered the flagship of the universal church. During this time, conflict grew between Christians and non-Christians, led by imperial distain for pagans. Although it is difficult to argue that any real systemic oppression was set forth against non-Christians, the personal disdain Constantine maintained in his edicts for the evils of paganism rippled throughout the church an attitude of animosity towards the unconverted. Street fights did occasionally break out—especially in Alexandria, a city which seemed to have a propensity for street fights in general—but the most common act seemed to be vandalism of pagan shrines. This must be at once surprising and unsurprising: given their still recent history of being victims of persecution, one would expect the church to have had more tolerance for those who did not stand among their ranks. At the same time, it was not the pagan they hated, but rather the evils of paganism; the destruction of the shrines was a radical but loving attempt to bring the pagans out of their old ways and into the light of Christianity. To be sure, chaos broke out from both sides, as the pagans were unused to being the inferior religion. It was a turbulent time for the Roman Empire, but the violence that did break out tended to be spontaneous and local, even if inspired by Constantine’s negative attitude. Another scene of violence, however, took place: one within Christianity. Christians continued to treat others with love—both those within the Christian community and non-Christians—despite the occasional antagonism. However, Christians (or, rather, heretics) with bad doctrine were seen as traitors to the faith. Indeed, the most heinous crime a person could commit in the eyes of a Christian was the corruption of the most holy of religions. For this reason, internal disagreements on doctrine incited furious confrontations. Ramsay MacMullen tells us, “In their official high meetings together, Christians thus could not keep their own disagreements within the bounds of civil language; their continual quarrels required the intervention of the civil authorities; and all this was well known.” In Alexandria, a scene of doctrinal alignment escalated to the levels of tribalism as conflict arose between the archbishop Peter and Meletius, bishop of Antioch. Thus, even as Constantine put forth efforts to unify the church, the process of unification stirred up the many doctrinal disagreements between Christians. [4]

Following the model of Constantine’s church leadership arose an era of caesaropapism. The state held its sovereignty as the sole authority over law and order. Constantine’s involvement with the church was simply one of beneficence. Remaining largely in the fashion of the early church, he gained massive influence through his contributions to the church. It only happened to be the case that Constantine was the head of the state. However, a starker dynamic took place between church and state shortly after Constantine. As it developed, caesaropapism came to give more and more power and right of way to the church. Constantine may have followed the model of the early church to an extent, but he opened the doors wide for a more direct relationship between the two entities. The split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church demonstrated this conflict. The Orthodox Church, in a sense, was an extension of the tradition of caesaropapism that Constantine had started, in which the king, as the greatest benefactor of the national church, was also the head of the church. With the king as the head of the church, Christians were guaranteed safety from persecution. However, the Roman Catholic Church, led by the bishop of Rome (i.e. the pope), took on a different dynamic with the state. In the late fifth century, Pope Gelasius I wrote to Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus, declaring the Theory of the Two Swords. By this time, the dichotomy of church and state was much clearer: “There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled: namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power.” Pope Gelasius argued for precedence of religion over state. And so it was that, not long after Constantine’s nationalization of Christianity, the foothold of help the church had in the state became a foothold of power and influence. The state may have had influence on the church, but now the church certainly possessed a growing influence on the state. The reasons were largely religious, as Pope Gelasius laid out:

[The authority] of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation. In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly mysteries you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these matters you depend on their judgment rather than wish to force them to follow your will.

This communication is considered a seminal moment in the waxing of the church’s influence in the Roman Empire. While the tables did not immediately turn, this set the trajectory in stone for many years to come. Moreover, this was a clear distinction of the rise of the church as a ruling power in Europe. It represented, as Colin Morris puts it, “the affirmation that God had provided two powers for the government of men, the royal and the priestly, regnum and sacerdotium. Gelasius… had been clear in his declaration of the duality.” [5]

Yet, even as this dichotomy between church and state developed, the true relationship was not dichotomous. This communication was between two elites: the Pope and the Emperor. Those high up in the church hierarchy were now high up in society. The poorer local priests did not necessarily stand with the archbishops and popes who represented the higher ranks of the church. The drama that took place between church and state became largely removed from the Christian masses and those ruled by the state.

[1] “For a long time past we have made it our aim that freedom of worship should not be denied, but that every man, according to his own inclination and wish, should be given permission ot practise his religion as he chose. We hade therefore given command that Christians and non-Christians alike should be allowed to keep the faith of their own religious beliefs and worship.” Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. (New York: Penguin, 1989) 322.

[2] Ibid. 326-7. “Copy of an Imperial Letter Making Grants of Money to the Churches.”

[3] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: A.D. 100-400. (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1984) 86.

[4] See Ibid. chapter “Conversion by Coersion.”

[5] Colin Morris, The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) 17.


One response to “Church and State Part Two: Caesaropapism”

  1. Daniel Sutkowski Avatar
    Daniel Sutkowski

    Yep! I disagree with parts (as if the Church didn’t have a notion of heresy before Constantine) >_> Expect a response!

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