Constantine and the Christian Bishops (1)

This is the 5th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Constantine’s Triumph Over Imperial Rivals.   This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

Part of the issue of evaluating Constantine’s own commitment to Christianity is that though he submitted his life to baptism just before his death, prior to that dying with Christ, Constantine was an active and ambitious emperor who carried out with full force and intention his will as a monarch.  Though he oversaw some changes in civil ritual which moved the empire away from pagan animal sacrifice to the bloodless worship of Christians, Constantine kept firm reign on his personal imperial power over the empire.  So did he recognize a new authority in his life to whom he answered- the Church?     Leithart and Stephenson evaluate Constantine quite differently on his relationship to Church authority as represented by the bishops of the Church.

 “Constantine considered the bishops another group of subordinates, whose spiritual and pragmatic authority was not qualitatively different to his own, just less abundant.  As a general, not a bishop, Constantine understood that loyalty to the commander-in-chief was achieved not through consultation but through the chain of command.  His generals and their subordinate officers, so long as they were loyal, guaranteed the efficacy of the fighting force and its devotion to the emperor and his goals.  So it would be with the Christian Church and its generals, the bishops, who were his imperial subjects.  Thus, ‘like a universal bishop appointed by God he convoked councils of the ministers of God…”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 258-259)

Stephenson accepts a notion that with Constantine begins that Constantinian effect on the church of the church becoming subservient to the emperor.  The bishops like subordinate officers in the military are to be loyal to their commander in chief.  However Leithart quoting J. Liebeschuetz strongly objects:

  “The Church could never be simply the religious department of the republica, as the old religion had been.  The Church had its own officers, the clergy, who were absolutely distinct from the officers of the state.  It accepted the authority of sacred writings and of traditions which were not part of the Graeco-Roman civilization. . . . The weekly services, sermons, the discipline of penance, and religious instruction offered the clergy means of indoctrination which had no precedent. . . . The incorporation of the Church involved a fundamental transformation of Roman institutions, with consequences that were bound to be very great indeed.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  153)

So the two modern historians looking at the same historical documentation reach two different conclusions.  Stephenson has Constantine bringing the bishops in line with his will as commander-in-chief.  Leithart does not believe this happened seeing that the church had a parallel hierarchy and structure to the state and it never submitted itself to state ritual or control.  The church had its own teachings and sense of obedience to God.   This was part of what had led to the persecution of the church by the state to begin with.  Leithart does not see the church as meekly submitting to the state, but rather as triumphing over the state and then working out a new relationship with its former enemy now won over by the love of Christ. As mentioned in a previous blog, Leithart has Eusebius declaring victory for the church over the empire.

“For many Christians, such as Eusebius, the task of the hour was not to integrate the church into the empire.  The empire had lost the battle with the church, and it was the empire that should make concessions.  The church was not incorporated but victorious; the martyrs’ faith had been vindicated, and the task was now to integrate the emperor into the church.”   (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   183)

Next:  Constantine and the Bishops (2)

Constantine’s Triumph Over Imperial Rivals

This is the 4th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Did Constantine become Christian?  This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

Two of the important sources of information about Constantine are the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339AD) and the rhetorician  Lactantius (d. ca 325AD).   Because they often write in praise of Constantine, some modern historians are leery of their objectivity as historians.  However, we can learn something about historians just by looking at how Leithart and Stephenson deal with Lactantius.    Below is a quote from each of the modern historians dealing with a similar topic – Lactantius evaluation of Constantine’s competing co-emperors who were not tolerant of Christianity.   The comments of Leithart and Stephenson betray or reveal their own assumptions (one can see how changing a word – reveal or betray – can change the meaning of a sentence).

 “Not only did Lactantius delight in the misfortune and demise of the persecuting emperors, he also attributed them to the intervention of the god of the Christians, defending the interests of the faithful.  Such an approach rejected the very premise on which martyrs had accepted death at the hands of their persecutors: that their god did not meddle in earthly affairs o bring misfortune upon Roman emperors.  This was the first step in articulating a new Christian triumphalistic rhetoric…  In doing so, Lactantius drew on an Old Testament model, the Second Book of Maccabees, which still forms an accepted part of the Orthodox canon.  Thus, the opening refrain of each text thanks God for punishing the wicked, and the agonizing death of Galerius mirrors that of Antiochus Epiphanes (2 Maccabees 9).  And just as Judas Maccabeus is promised divine aid in a dream before his victory over Nicanor, so Constantine dreams that he will conquer his rival Maxentius.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  109)

Stephenson casts Lactantius in a more negative light, but makes an insightful comparison to 2 Maccabees which helps us understand Lactantius desire to show Constantine is in the same religious tradition which includes Judas Maccabeus and Christ.  Leithart sees the same tendency in Lactanius to rejoice in the demise of Constantine’s opposition but he then interprets this through the lens of “freedom of conscience.”   Leithart sees Lactantius as interpreting Constantine as the defender of religious toleration and opposing those other tyrannical emperors who were persecuting the Christians.

“Though he detested the persecuting emperors and merrily detailed their gruesome deaths, Lactantius’s basic plea was for freedom of conscience.  ‘Religion is the one field in which freedom has pitched her tent,’ Lactantius wrote, ‘for religion is, first and foremost, a matter of free will, and no man can be forced under compulsion to adore what he has no will to adore.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  107)

Stephenson interprets Lactantius’delight in the rise of Christianity as betraying an earlier Christianity – the Christianity of the martyrs.  According to Stephenson the martyrs accepted their persecution and death because they were trying to demonstrate to the empire that Christianity was no threat to emperors or the empire and therefore should be tolerated.   According to Stephenson, Lactantius completely abandons this ideal, reveling in his heavy Christian partisanship by rejoicing that the God of the Christians was in fact overthrowing the emperors.  Stephenson’s thesis though seems to ignore the fact that Christians had a strong proselytizing ethic, believing that God’s dominion extended over everything including the entire Roman empire.   Indeed when the Christians were a persecuted minority they had to deal with questions about why they were suffering and why God allowed evil to triumph and why they were persecuted.   The Christians seem to have dealt pretty successfully with these questions:  despite their suffering persecution withtheir leaders being martyred, the faith continued to spread and the Church continued to grow.

Leithart sees Lactantius well within the tradition of the early martyrs for in Leithart’s read of history just as the martyrs appealed to Rome for toleration of their practices (we accept martyrdom under the hand of the emperors: we will die for our faith but not kill for it) when the political fortunes changed and Christians were no longer being persecuted Leithart sees Lactanius as continuing to argue for freedom of conscious.  Lactantius indeed rejoiced in the reversal of fortune he witnessed for his fellow Christians but at least according to Leithart he does not abandon the idea that each of us is called to exercise a freedom of conscience in choosing what we believe about God.  The triumph of Christianity was not an immediate narrowing of the mind of the Christians but was cause for them to rejoice in what God was doing on their behalf.

Next:  Constantine and the Christian Bishops (1)

Did Constantine become Christian?

This is the 3rd blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   The previous blog is Constantine Comes to Power.   This blog series is ruminating on Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

The entire Roman Empire in the 4th Century was undergoing a religious conversion whether it realized it or not.  Polytheism was increasingly being replaced by the ideas of henotheism (a belief that among the gods there is one who is supreme) and in some by monotheism.   Christians, who had been at times ridiculed, at times despised and declared illegal and at times persecuted, also continued to proselytize throughout the empire.  The Christians had become significant minorities in areas of the empire and in a few had actually attained a majority status.   They were a force that had to be reckoned with.  The policy of the toleration of Christianity may have been no more than a tacit admission that the Christians were there to stay, but at least in the case of Constantine seems to have resulted from his coming to appreciate some of the values of this upstart religion.

“From the days of his youth Constantine probably had been sympathetic to Christianity, and in 312 he experienced a religious conversion which profoundly affected his conception of himself.  After 312 Constantine considered that his main duty as emperor was to inculcate virtue in his subjects and to persuade them to worship God.  Constantine’s character is not wholly enigmatic; with all his faults and despite an intense ambition for personal power, he nevertheless sincerely believed that God had given him a special mission to convert the Roman Empire to Christianity.”  (Timothy Barnes quoted in Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p  96)

Constantine’s full embrace of Christianity, may have been a result of his own realistic assessment of the Roman Empire in relationship to Christianity.  Leithart notes the attitude of Christian historian Eusebius (d. 339AD)  which saw the triumph of Christianity as being obvious – for this was God’s will for the empire.

“For many Christians, such as Eusebius, the task of the hour was not to integrate the church into the empire.  The empire had lost the battle with the church, and it was the empire that should make concessions.  The church was not incorporated but victorious; the martyrs’ faith had been vindicated, and the task was now to integrate the emperor into the church.”   (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   183)

Stephenson points out that Constantine’s “conversion” was not a complete and total abandonment of all things pagan.  He still was the emperor of an empire that was mostly pagan, and he was astute enough as a politician to realize that.  Constantine while moving in the direction of Christian faith and ethics continued to fulfill his obligations to the empire as he understood them.

“But through Constantine’s success, the god of the Christians had clearly emerged as a god of victory. … the brand of Christianity that Constantine espoused did not preclude participation in regular public rituals.  Constantine notoriously remained pontifex maximus, head of the Roman colleges of priests, throughout his life, although by 315 he had refused to participate in sacrifices.  … Nor was military discipline to be affected by notions of Christian charity.  Punishment meted out for transgressions by officers, Christians or not, remained severe … Imperial Christianity was not a religion of peace and forgiveness.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  230)

Despite a slow and organic transition to Christianity, it does become obvious that Constantine is embracing Christian values and begins enforcing them throughout the empire.  It was a gradual transition, but in areas that he actually controlled –for example forbidding the offering of animal sacrifices at public rituals – Constantine refused pagan rites and increasingly replaced them with Christian symbols.  Leithart looking at the historical evidence is convinced:

“… the Constantine we are examining was a Christian.  Flawed, no doubt; sometimes inconsistent with his stated ethic, certainly; an infant in faith.  Yet a Christian.”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p   96)

Leithart emphasizes that Constantine must be measured against 4th Century Christianity in determining how Christian he had become.  He cannot be evaluated in terms of 21st Century American Christian values regarding issues, for we have 1700 years of Christians wrestling with issues of morality and ethics more than Constantine had.  He was setting a precedent.  He did not have the advantage that we have – 1700 years to see how his decisions worked themselves out in history.

Next:  Constantine’s Triumph Over Imperial Rivals

Constantine Comes to Power

This is the 2nd blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great.   This blog series is ruminating on Constantine the Great as presented in two books:  Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR  and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.

In this blog just a couple of comments about Constantine’s faith and theology.  While the Roman empire was largely polytheistic, some of the emperor’s leading up to Constantine as well as Constantine himself paid homage to one god as superior above the other gods.  This belief is defined by Stephenson and Leithart as follows:

“…henotheism, the belief in a greatest god, who surpassed in power all other deities.”   (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 30)

“…henotheistic (believing in a chief, though not exclusive , high God).”  (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 40). 

There was a growing trend in the paganism of the empire towards henotheism.  Some see this as a step toward monotheism.  It enabled military leaders to call their troops to rally around one god – the god who was giving them victories.

“As the empire’s crisis deepened in the middle years of the third century, Roman emperors resorted more fully to rhetoric, becoming unconquerable generals whose actions in war demonstrated the support and manifested the will of a single greatest god (summus deus).”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p  75)

Constantine at one point honored the Unconquerable Sun as leading him to victory, but eventually transferred his allegiance to the God of the Christians whom he credited with his military success.

 “Constantine exploited the traditional interaction between faith and military power, the imperial theology of victory, to construct for himself the image of ‘unconquered emperor’; he took as his patron the ‘greatest god’, whose identity was revealed to him in a vision; and later, having established his hold on power, he transformed himself from ‘unconquered emperor’, a style enjoyed by so many of his predecessors, to Christian Victor, a title unique to Constantine.”   (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, p 87)

Constantine’s soldiers followed the henotheism of their leader.

“Troops were ordered to pray to the greatest god who favoured their commander but did so in neutral terms.  This is clear from the words of a prayer preserved by Eusebius …:

You alone we know as god,

You are the king we acknowledge,

You are the help we summon.

By you we have won victories,

Through you we have overcome our enemies.

To you we render thanks for good things past,

You also we hope for as giver of those to come.

To you we all come to supplicate for our emperor

Constantine and his god-beloved sons:

That he may be kept safe and victorious for us in long, long life, we plead.”  (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 228-229)

While the praise and prayer of the troops loyal to Constantine can be read as fairly generic rather than as particularly Christian, one would expect as much.  If the history showed a sudden, total and completely inexplicable embrace of Christianity, one would suspect that the Christian writers of history had in fact rewritten the story to fit their own mythology.  As it is, the history as recorded in the hymn above shows a more expected and gradual move of the people surrounding Constantine from polytheism to henotheism to the Monotheism of Christianity.  As Constantine demonstrated his ability to be successful, the troops had ever more reason to trust him and to embrace the God to whom Constantine attributed his success.

Next:  Did Constantine become Christian?

Two Versions of Constantine the Great

I recently finished reading two books about the Emperor Constantine who is also recognized as a saint of the Church since ancient times.  The first is Paul Stephenson’s  CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR (you can read my short review of this book).   The book was a good history read, and portrays Constantine riding the military to power, but giving some credit to the unconquerable and greatest God – that of the Christians – which brought him to power.   The second book is Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE (you can read my short review of this book).  Leithart’s book is polemical in that he is refuting the Anabaptist version of Christian history promulgated by John Yoder.  Yoder basically seems to say with Constantine the Church abandoned Christianity.  Leithart’s  persuasive argument is that one has to measure Constantine in terms of 4th Century Christianity, not in terms of 21st Century post-Enlightenment liberalism.  Constantine does embrace Christianity as he understands it as the Emperor of Rome.  His embrace of Christianity is real and does bring a change to the empire, but it also changes Christianity whose 4th Century leadership probably wasn’t prepared to deal with what it meant to be the religion aligned with political power rather than the subject of its persecution.

I’m not interested in taking up Leithart’s thesis regarding Yoder since I consider that an internal dispute in the Reformed tradition.  But I do intend in the next several blogs to write about Constantine and what his conversion meant for the Church.  I will do this by offering quotes from Leithart and Stephenson’s books.   The two authors have different interests and perspectives, and in comparing the two we will get some sense about why some say there is no such thing as history (meaning the facts about what happened) but rather there is always an interpretation of the facts.   For example on 6 August 1945 a massive explosion occurred over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.  That is a fact but it tells us nothing about the meaning of that event in world history.

Stephenson writes a history with a critical eye on how Constantine’s ‘conversion to Christianity’ came about and what it meant for history.   He is critical of the exact nature of Constantine’s faith and to what extent Constantine lived the Christian life.  Yet his critique is not without sympathy for Christianity and for Constantine.

Leithart on the other hand has a more determined agenda – to refute a worldview (Yoder’s) in which Christianity is a totally pacifist religion which is hijacked by Constantine for his own ambitions and goals.   Leithart is much more sympathetic to Constantine and sees Constantine as simply adding a new dimension to Christianity – namely that of state power.  In some sense if Christians were doing what Christ commissioned them to do (Matthew 28), the day would come when Christians would have to wrestle with the issue of government power, or at least with what it means that a Christian holds supreme power in an empire.  Leithart assumes God intended Christians to come to power in the world at some point.

Had Christianity rejected any notion that its members could hold positions of supreme government power, how would that have changed the course of Church history?   In as much as Christians were becoming a significant minority in the Roman empire, it could have led to the demise of Rome even faster than it actually happened in history as it would have meant a significant part of the imperial population would have refused to participate in government or the army.    Persia probably would have succeeded in conquering Rome, and no one can know what that change would have meant to the world or to Christianity.  (Constantine at one point made some overtures to the Persian leaders to get them to embrace Christianity which they rejected).

My intention in this blog series is to look at ideas I gathered from the two authors and their interpretation of Constantine, of history and of the Church.

Next:  Constantine Comes to Power

Orthodoxy in the World: The Roman Empire

This is the 2nd blog in this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.  The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World:  Beginnings.


            The Christians were also much more active proselytizers than most other Jews who often saw their inclusion in the people of God as a birthright.  But the Christian penchant for converting others to the faith soon brought them into conflict with the religious mores of the polytheistic and pagan Roman Empire.  The Empire with its diverse religions and philosophies needed tolerance among religions for there to be peace within the Empire.  But the Christians were fiercely  monotheistic as the Jews had been, but unlike the Jews were also aggressive proselytizers.   As Christian populations grew they began to draw the attention of others because they had an economic impact on localities, refusing to participate in local religious festivals.  The Roman government attempted to  force the Christians to be more like all of the other religions of the Empire, and tried both persuasion and persecution to stop the growing movement or to get it to recognize the equality of all gods and religions. But the Christians proved to be recalcitrant and steadfastly held to their beliefs.   Despite official imperial persecution of the religion, Christianity continued to grow and spread.

            It was at this time that another historical development would take place which would change Christianity for ever.   The Roman Empire at the beginning of the 4th Century BCE was governed by four co-reigning emperors.   One of those Emperors, Constantine, who came from the far Western regions of the Empire, had a vision of an Empire united under one Emperor.   And he began through force to impose his will on the Empire and he proved himself to be a successful politician and general.  He also knew he needed something more than military force to unite the Empire.    He saw in Christianity such a force – a religious force to help him bring unity to the Roman world.   Christianity offered one God for all people, and was accepting of all people of any race or nationality or language.   Constantine brought an end to the persecution of Christianity and in the 4th Century helped turn Christianity from a persecuted religion of a sizeable minority into the official religion of the Roman Empire.

            He also did one other thing to shape the world and Christianity.  He moved the capital city of the Empire from Rome to a location which was much more central to the heart of Christianity.   He founded the imperial capital in what eventually would be known as Constantinople.   He picked a location that put him at the heart of the Greek speaking world.   And from that time on, officially the Roman Empire, the Empire of the Caesars, would be Greek in language and in culture.   Not until Charlemagne around 800 attempted to found a Roman Empire of the West would Christianity as a Greek religion be challenged by another Christian Empire.   The Greek Roman world centered in Constantinople was homeland to that form of Christianity known as Eastern Orthodoxy.   It is a world outside of the developments that occurred in Rome where the Papacy grew in power in the absence of imperial influence.  It is a Christianity that remained outside of the major split which would occur in Western Christendom – the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation of the Latin Church.

Next:  History – The Byzantine Period

The Church of the Future: From Hierarch to Shepherd?

afanasievThis is the 3rd and final blog in this series which has been considering the writings of Nicholas Afanasiev’s book, THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.    The first blog in the series is  The Grace of the Bishop and the 2nd is From Shepherd to Hierarch. 

Afanasiev took a long and serious look at church history and the changing understanding of the Church and of hierarchy.   Though he acknowledges subtle yet profound changes in primitive Christian thinking, a major re-visioning of the Church occurs with the acceptance of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine.

“While the great miracle of history was the emperor became Christian, the Christians would forget the problem bearing on them:  would Caesar be able to become a Christian and remain Caesar?   ….   No change, no metanoia took place which could make the empire Christian.  Caesar could not see any usefulness in repentance for the state, certainly nothing useful in rejecting the very principles upon which the empire was itself built.   …. thus the Roman state became the church under the rule of EmperorCaesar…  St. Augustine contrasted Christ to Caesar, noting that the Jews and following them others, had preferred Caesar to Christ … ‘we have no king but Caesar.’ …  They welcomed Caesar as the king of the city of God on earth, forgetting that Christians have no permanent city but seek for the one that is to come (Heb 13:14).  … The protests of Christians against a totally alien yoke did not produce much in the way of tangible results, because it was not the emperor who was seen as problematic, only the abuse of imperial power.  We do not know what was the reaction of the twelfth-century church to the solemn declaration of the emperor which said:

Everything is permitted to the emperors, because there is on earth no difference between divine and imperial power.  All is allowed the emperors and they can use the name of God together with their own, because they have received the imperial dignity of God and there is distance between God and themselves.

But we know that in twelfth-century Byzantium they believed firmly that the anointing of the emperor washed away all his sin.  One could ask if the imperial cult had disappeared in the Christian empire or if it continued even the very fall of Byzantium.  The Christian Caesar remained an Augustus.   Everything that had any relationship to the person of the emperor became by this very fact sacred.”

Afanasiev is critical of this development institutionalizing the church and making it ever more fashioned after the notions of hierarchy, law and order found in the Byzantine Empire.   He believes the price paid by the Church for this imperial stability was immense.  The Roman Emperor did not repent nor even see the value for the empire in his own repentance or the repentance of the state.  Instead the empire was giving to the Church protection and stability and so the Christians embraced imperial Christianity with little critical reflection of how Christianity was being changed by merging its identity with that of the empire.   And the office of pastor, episcokos, bishop, was swallowed by the imperial hierarchic order making the bishops into princes. 

met_jonahThis process of the imperialization of the Church, so Metropolitan Jonah asserts, was only confronted in the Church with the Russian Church Council of 1917.   As Metropolitan Jonah said in his address at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in June:

“The Great Council of 1917, and the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church that it began, are aspects of the de-imperialization of the Orthodox Church and its canonical structures.  This began a process of the transcendence of the imperial domination of Orthodox ecclesiology, which reigned from Constantine and Theodosius to Nicholas II, and the beginning of the adaptation to a new era in which the Church is independent of the state.  This was the beginning of a new conciliar vision, which has developed significantly over the past century.  What it did is to set up a new set of structural and canonical interpretations, demanding a worldwide rethinking of Orthodox ecclesiology. 

The fruit of this vision, partially, is the Orthodox Church in America, and her autocephaly.  The conflict with the old ecclesiological and canonical interpretations forms the context for the issues surrounding the acceptance or rejection of the autocephaly.  This conflict is, however, also the fruitful ground for a creative resolution to the issues confronting the OCA, and the Orthodox Church throughout the world.”

Confronting the imperial mindset of the Church is not and has not been easy.  Yet nothing short of the very purpose and existence of the Church is at stake.   We cannot go back in history and try to restore some golden age of Christianity.  We can however be faithful to the tradition that unfolded and bring to the forefront of our memories aspects of the Church which have been forgotten or abandoned.   We can do this by constantly making Jesus Christ the center of Church life, and the Lord of every aspect of our own personal lives.

Afanasiev concluded his book saying:

“In recognizing in the Church the existence of a power other than that of love, one diminishes or even denies grace, for this would be to diminish or deny the common charism of love without which there could be no ministry.”

It is not an imperial vision, nor even a hierarchical vision, which empowers the Church.  Rather it is faithfulness to Christ and His Gospel which purifies the Church and allows the Church to be renewed in every generation and culture.

From Shepherd to Hierarch

afanasievThis is the 2nd blog in a series based upon the book, THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY SPIRIT by Russian Orthodox priest and scholar Nicholas Afanasiev.   The first blog in the series is  The Grace of the Bishop

As in the first blog, I intend to mostly quote Afanasiev to let him speak for himself.  He offers in the book an historical overview of the development of hierarchy and clergy in the Church while defending the priesthood of all believers and noting that all in the Church (including priests and bishops) are also always part of the laity of the church and part of the flock of the One True Shepherd, Jesus Christ. 

“The faithful are shepherded by Christ, and only in a narrow sense of the word by their bishops, for all are Christ’s sheep and are in God’s flock.  Bishop preside over God’s flock, being themselves the sheep of this flock, just as the rest of the sheep led by Christ.”

“Tend the flock of God that is your charge… not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock.”  (1 Peter 5:2-3)

Afanasiev writes that in the early church (he calls it the primitive Church), the entire people of God shared the responsibility of discerning the will of God.   This is not a job for the bishop alone, for the Church is a living community, the Body of Christ and requires all members to be active for the Body to be healthy.

“The ecclesial assembly is the place where God’s will is revealed, while it is the people of the Church who examine the revelation and attest to its truthfulness.”

“In the early Church all administration, just as the whole life of the Church, was public.  Everything began and ended at the ecclesial assembly.”

“As with all of history, that of the Church is irreversible.  We cannot return to the time of early Christianity, not only because of radically changed historical conditions but also because the experience of the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the church accumulated through the passage of time, cannot be laid aside.”

The early Church in Afanasiev’s thinking is not just an ideal, a golden age, to which we must go back, but it did represent a very unique moment in the Church’s history which shaped the  growing Christian movement and was shaped by multitude of issues the expanding Christianity faced.

MysticalSupperChange, sometimes subtly occurred.   For example, “The episcopal principle of unity of the local church replaces the eucharist.”   Afanasiev strongly believes that the Eucharist was the original unifying symbol of the Church.   The Church is the Body of Christ and this is made manifest in the Eucharistic assembly where the Bread and Wine are shown to be the Body of Christ because the Church is present and manifest in the Assembly of all believers.  But as the role of the presiders of the Eucharistic assembly subtly changed, so did the focus of the assembly.  The bishop became to be seen as the unifying factor in the assembly and all were to be in unity with him and he alone presided at the Eucharist.   This setting apart of the bishop meant he was no longer seen as part of the royal priesthood of all believers, but that he had a special priesthood that the rest – the laity – did not.   As the roles of the bishop and presbyter became more standardized in the emerging church, the bishop eventually replaces the senior presbyter as the one who presides at the Eucharist in each assembly.    As the bishops role became more clear, the role of the presbyters became less pronounced.    As time moved on the bishops become more diocesan hierarchs who then gave priestly ministry to the parish priests.   The presbyters role re-emerged as priest while the bishops became archpriests, hierarchs.

“Beginning with the era of Constantine, the Church becomes a body governed by law in the eyes of the Roman state authorities.  It is quite natural, but in turn, the Church recognizes the law as indispensableRussianbishops for itself.  This was the step that inevitably led to destruction of the primordial concordance or symphony between the people and the bishop.  The bishop becomes a high official and prince of the Church whose subjects are the people and clergy.”

Afanasiev claims that the increased emphasis on the apostolic succession used to combat heresies and false teachers eventually was combined with a notion that emerged over time in the Church: the notion of the high priesthood of the apostles.    Basically the argument which evolved was that  Christ was the high priest and the apostles received and preserved the high priesthood of Christ.   The apostles then passed on the high priesthood to the bishops.    This is how the bishop’s role changed in emphases from being pastor/shepherd to high priest (hierarch).

Next:  The Church of the Future: From Hierarch back to Shepherd?

Was Constantine’s Vision Dreamt Up?

I’ve been slowly reading through Mark Allman’s new book WHO WOULD JESUS KILL?: WAR, PEACE AND THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION.    Two comments by St. Augustine which in my opinion are thought provoking:

 “For every man is in quest of peace, even in waging war, whereas no one is in quest of war when making peace.” 

War is thus never a goal, but serves only as a means to an end, whereas peace is a goal, a desired end.  It makes me think of the Patristic idea that evil has no substance, it is only a negation of the good, whereas good exists, founded in God.  Good is substantive, but also is of God’s will and energy as well.  Evil is none of these, literally!

Commenting on Matt 26:51-52, Augustine wrote:  “The Lord, indeed, had told His disciples to carry a sword; but He did not tell them to use it.”

It is a very interesting observation.   Jesus does not command the use of the sword.  St. Paul believes the sword in the hands of rulers/authority to be approved by God for its use, though he nowhere comments about a Christian being the authority to use it.    In the Koran there is command to use the sword but there is no approval for pacifism as Allah says when it comes to war humans may not want to fight, but that God knows better as He knows what humans do not know and so humans must obey Him when the call to arms comes. 

Allman’s book has brought a question to my mind:

emperorPrior to Constantine both the Roman Empire and the Christian Church forbade Christians to serve in the military.   The story of Constantine seeing a vision (“by this sign you shall conquer”) before going to battle, seems to have become a justification for Christians embracing the military – it shows God using the Roman Emperor and His military to achieve God’s will, so the use of military would be God ordained.  But if I remember my history correctly, the story of Constantine’s vision is only first reported many years after Constantine had come to power but not at the time it supposedly happened.  I thought I even remember it being attributed to Eusebius, the very pro-Constantine Church historian for whom Constantine is a hero.   I wonder if anyone has researched whether Eusebius promoted or even concocted the story to justify Christians being in the military?   After all Constantine could hardly embrace a religion that forbade military service especially since he used the military to defeat the other co-reigning emperors to become the sole emperor of the Roman empire.  And once in power, he wouldn’t be able to defend his position or the empire itself if Christianity maintained its pacifist stance.   So is it possible that Constantine’s “vision” was “dreamt” up (as it were) to justify the melding of militarism and Christianity? 

It apparently is St. Ambrose in the post-Constantine era who first writes about the Roman Empire as the instrument of God’s peace.    According to Allman Ambrose simply  “imported the Greek philosopher’s concern for social justice into the Christian understanding of war.”  Ambrose, himself a former Roman governor, assumed that political leaders receive their legitimate authority from God and thus if the emperor orders Christians to war, the Christians are to assume this is God’s will.

Augustine, following his teacher, Ambrose, accepted from the Greek philosophers a notion that order in the world is good and that government has the job of imposing order on the sinful world which otherwise tends toward evil.  Thus, according to Allman, Augustine opined that  “governmental authority and power are instruments God uses to frustrate the power of sin.” 

Christians believing in the omnipotent God accepted the notion that Constantine’s conversion was ordained by God (it did after all signal the end of Christian persecution by the Empire) and thus anything Constantine ordered must be God-ordained as well.    I wonder if there is any research already done on this.