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Yuri Koszarycz


    There are indeed two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled, the sacred authority of the pontiffs and the royal power. Of the two, the priesthood has the greater weight to the degree that it must render an account for kings themselves in matters divine. Know then, although you preside with dignity in human affairs, as to divine, you are to submit your neck to those from whom you look for salvation. You are to be subject rather than to rule in the religious sphere and bow to the judgement of the priests rather than seek to lend them your will. (Gelasius, Edict XII, translated in Bainton, 1962: 108).

It is this stance by Gelasius, who was Pontiff in Rome between 492 - 496 AD, as he instructs the Emperor Anastasius on the limits of his power, which was prevalent earlier in the fourth and fifth century, especially during the reign of Constantine. The extract is attempting to illuminate the hierarchical nature of the Church. The period following the four Church councils at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon saw the Church coming to ascendancy. Instead of its being persecuted, it became dominant, and the relationship between Church and State was accelerated, based on mutual needs and concerns.

Eusebius, in his writings on "Church History", stresses an inter-dependence of Church and State often interweaving accounts and political affairs of State with issues that related to ecclesial matters. The emperors had converted to Christianity and in so doing, it obligated them to offer the Church protection and support even to the point of convening synods to quell internal dissent and theological heresy (Schaff, 1979).

As the ruler empowered from above, Constantine viewed himself as the protector of the Church. He laboured on its behalf, making evident his intention to make Christianity the preferred religion of the empire. In his mind, the bishops were commissioned to care for the inner life of the Church, while he cared for the external affairs. It was his verdict that if the Church was to be of the greatest assistance of the empire, it must be united. Its policies, activities, teachings and liturgy were being influenced more by political necessity than by the Gospels.

There appeared at this time to be a growing conviction that bishops were more than officers charged with caring for the Church, governing its affairs and defending it against internal and external threats. They were viewed as having a special sacred character which separated them from the community as a whole. They were not longer simply representatives of the people. In time, the priest presiding at the Eucharist was no longer viewed as the offerer of the prayers of the community but as another Christ making sacrifices for the sake of the people. This development indeed illuminates the conditions of the time and makes apparent, the Church was on the road to institutionalization characterised by a distinct hierarchy, and it appears that this situation was necessary for the continuance and welfare of the community.

Christianity had become in many striking ways a mirror image of the empire itself. It was catholic, universal, orderly, multi-racial and increasingly legalistic. It was administered by a professional class of literates, wealthy landowners, urban bourgeoisie who functioned like bureaucrats, and its bishops like imperial governors. It appeared to be a marriage of convenience between State and Church.

In an epistle from Constantine to the clergy in which the emperor commands that the rulers of the Church be exempted from all political duties, it appears that the emperor attempted to diffuse the clergy and get them on side in order to exercise some power over them. He also began to transfer other privileges to the Christian clergy, which implies a class status situation. Later Emperor Theodosius strove to establish and maintain a unified society also, which was to be the centre of the Christian faith. To achieve this, he exerted authority in and over the Church, for it was inconceivable to him, as emperor, that the emperor's should be independent of imperial power.

The bishop of the Roman community continued to see his role, as the successor of Peter, to be responsible for the unity and purity of the Christian faith. Deference was paid to the bishop of Rome by the bishops of Asia Minor, Spain, North Africa; Synods respected the politics shaped and implemented within Rome. This was recognized by the State and emperor Gratian (375-378 AD) in 378 AD passed a State law which acknowledged the pre-eminence of the Pontiff in relation to all other bishops. In that same year, Pope Damasus I (366-384 AD) held a Synod "at the sublime and holy Apostolic See". It was to be the first time that the Roman Church was addressed in this manner. A new consciousness began to arise that the power and primary of the Roman bishop echoed the words of the Lord and Saviour: "You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church" (Mt. 16:18).

Under Damasus, the liturgy became more elaborate and formalized. Latin was taken over from the secular world and introduced as the language of the liturgy replacing Greek; the use of colourful vestments, gold and silver ornaments, incense and candles became commonly associated with the pomp and pageantry of worship.

Under Damasus' secretary, Jerome, the Old and New Testaments were translated into Latin (Vulgate). By the end of the fifth century the Church had become the main religion in the empire. In your further readings you may wish to explore the contributions of the three great theologians of the 4th and 5th century: Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Jerome.

Each in his own way not only shaped the Christianity of his own day, but would have far reaching effects in the way the Church would develop its theology for centuries to come. Ambrose, in the twenty-five years he ruled the Church in Milan (375-393 AD), influenced the policies of three western emperors: Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius. He was a skilled administrator who structured the basic models of the medieval cathedral. Under him, the cult of relics, and particularly the veneration of the Virgin Mary, strongly developed. It was under his influence that Augustine entered the Church.

Ambrose advocated the autonomy of the Church. He wanted the Church to have the right to self-determination and the freedom of its ministers, as representatives of the Church, to speak and act as they deemed necessary; to be a herald who is there to receive the message of God and is commissioned to pass it on. Ultimately, he saw the Church's responsibility as being not necessarily to produce conversion, still less to build the Kingdom of God, but really to evangelize all the nations in accordance with the commission given by Jesus in Matthew's Gospel.

Ambrose realised the Church was increasing in wealth, due to imperial favour, but in accepting such things it was indebted to the emperor and lost its autonomy. If the Church was freed from its links to the State, Ambrose deduced, it could fulfil its prophetic role, reminding the people that the State was not absolute and was in need of reform. Ambrose and Augustine had a similar notion that the Church was a higher and independent society in comparison to the State.

Aurelius Augustinus was born in 354 AD and died in 430 AD living most of his life in Roman north Africa. In his youth he had been a Manichee, and the pessimism of Manichean philosophy coloured his post-conversion Christian thinking particularly in relation to views on sexuality. The religion of Mani, intermingled astrology with occult theosophy, taught that "the lower half of the body was the disgusting work of the devil... Mani also denied any presumption of the goodness of the material order of creation... and interpreted everything he took from Christianity within a dualistic and pantheistic framework" (Chadwick, 1990: 11 - 12). In 384 AD Augustine took up the post as professor of rhetoric in Milan, where he was influenced by Christian intellectuals, particularly the cities' bishop, Ambrose. After his conversion, Augustine was destined to become one of the greatest thinkers of ancient Christianity; through his work the Christian faith was to be filtered through the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy.

Augustine believed that the Church's teaching mandate was catholic (universal). He also believed that the Christian society was Christ's mystical body where Christ existed as the eternal Word, the mediator God-man:

    Of the Church as the body of Christ Augustine used lyrical language. The word and sacraments entrusted to the Church were the very means and instruments of salvation. So the Church is the dove or the beloved Bride of the Song of Songs; the society of all faithful people; the body of which Christ is so inseparably head that 'the whole Christ' is the Lord and his Church indissolubly together; the body of which the Holy Spirit is the soul. The Church militant and the Church triumphant were symbolized by Martha and Mary (Luke 10), symbols of the active and the contemplative (Chadwick, 1990: 84).

Within the community of believers, Christ is its leader and head, and the people are members through baptism. Booty (1979: 40) expresses this unity within the community in this way: "It is not a case of His being one and our being many, but we who are many are a unity in Him."

Augustine also believed that the Church is a fellowship of love, its members being united with one another as one body as an organic entity. This notion represents in some way the mystical communion model which is much more democratic than the institutional or hierarchical model. It emphasises the immediate relationship of all believers to the Holy Spirit, who directs the whole Church. Attention is focussed on the mutual service of the particular good of any one group to that of the whole people. Augustine developed the image of the Body of Christ with particular stress on the mystical all invisible communion that binds together all those who are enlivened by the grace of Christ. He speaks of a Church that includes both earthly and heavenly aspects.

The Edict of Milan, although making the way free for people to worship and practice openly, did not lead to a total unity within the Church. On the contrary, there was separation, because different groups saw the Church, as it stood, not fulfilling their needs.

The Donatists, Montanists, Novantianists and Apotactites were several Church groups that separated themselves from the mainstream Church. They did so in search of a more fulfilling existence, less hampered by institutional structures and persecution (under Diocletian 303-305 AD) and with the promise of accounting for their own needs. These groups, to some extent, reflect the pilgrim model.

The Donatists, for example, were conscious of their identity, and for them the true Church consisted of the pure in heart and in outward discipleship, and seeing that they had been called to make a positive contribution to all humanity by following Jesus' example and coming not to be served but to serve.

It has been stated that the Church was based on the institutional model to an extreme degree. By the time of Emperor Julian's rule (361 - 363 AD), the Church was becoming wealthy and powerful and it was continually extending its legal privileges. In his brief reign, Julian, who had been raised as a Christian, attempted unsuccessfully to revive paganism. Contrary to some Christian apologists who branded him as 'Julian the Apostate' he did not persecute the Christians: "Those who are in the wrong in matters of supreme importance, are objects of pity rather than of hate." On his deathbed he is supposed to have said, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean" (Betterson, 1943: 28).

Critics of the early Church included St. Jerome who states, "Our walls glitter with gold... yet Christ is dying at our doors in the persons of His poor and hungry" (Jerome quoted in Johnson, 1976: 111). There seems to be a contradiction with the models of communion and service stressed by Augustine. Jerome, who appears to have a bleak outlook on life, sees the mission of the Church proclaiming the Word of God to the whole world. The Church is not held responsible for human failure to listen and act upon God's Word but it is only to proclaim it diligently. Jerome saw God as an agent, who encourages us to improve in a continuous process and move slowly towards God. He saw the Christian message was addressed to all humanity and ultimately all would be accommodated in the forgiveness and benevolence of God.

By the fourth century the Church had built up an impressive following: it began to act like a State Church. Christianity was the true and ancient religion of the empire. The only real model that appeared to flourish was the institutional, the others seemed to be lost in the day to day happenings, Councils and the like.

They appeared so concerned with the theological truths like explaining the Divinity of God and whether the Son was subordinate to the Father, and with gaining more wealth, that they lost their true mission, as stressed by Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose. Rome itself was experiencing vast political upheavals. The process of integration of Church and State which had been begun by Constantine continued to involve the Church more and more in State politics, and the State, more and more in ecclesial affairs. Many bishops assumed the role of "defenders of the State" (defensor civitatis) and by 455 AD when Attila the Hun threatened Rome, it was the Pope who played a major role in negotiating with hostile forces.

Why was this so? Since the fourth century, more and more bishops came from the aristocratic land owning Roman ruling classes, and under their leadership the Church began to make inroads into new areas by penetrating northwards to convert the Franks and Burgundians in France, the Goths and the Vandals in Germany. In all this, the See of Rome stood supreme, and new bishoprics all over the west increasingly looked to it for support and guidance. With its growing political strength, Rome became a symbol of the increasing power of faith as expressed by the Council Fathers in Chalcedon in 451 AD: "This is the faith of the Fathers and of the Apostles. Through Leo, Peter has spoken." The same Pontiff described Rome as the "Seat of Peter, the head of the world" (caput orbis).

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Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.