Tag Archives: History of Christianity

Christianity and the Rise of “the Problem of Church and State”

I have begun reading the British legal historian Theodore F.T. Plucknett’s massive work, A Concise History of the Common Law, a wonderful treatment of the subject written in the mid-twentieth century. Here’s something from early in the book:

While imperial Rome was slowly declining, Christianity was entering on a period of remarkable growth. At first it was hardly noticed among the numerous new cults which were fashionable importations from the Near East, some of which were extremely popular. After being ignored, it was later persecuted, then under the great Constantine it was at last tolerated (324). So far, the established “Hellenistic” religion had been considered as an official department, and its priests as civil servants. Attempts had been made to incorporate with it the religions of Isis, Mithras, Christ, and others, on a similar footing, combining all the known gods in one vast polytheism, whose cult was to be maintained and controlled by the State. It was soon evident, however, that Christianity would not accept this inferior position. Although some things were Caesar’s, others were God’s, and from this fundamental conflict arose the problem of Church and State, which has lasted from Constantine’s day to our own. The controversy took a variety of forms in the course of the succeeding sixteen centuries. Stated in its broadest and most general terms, it means that many earnest thinkers find it impossible to accept the State as the highest form of human society, and that they recognize some situations in which they would feel bound to obey some other duty than that imposed by the State. On the continent it lay at the root of the long conflict between the Empire and the papacy; in England it took such varied forms as the conflict with Thomas Becket, the discussion in Bracton as to the real position of the King (who is subject, he says, to God “and the law”), the Puritan revolution–and may even be traced in the American constitutions, for the modern attempts to curb the power of the State by means of constitutional limitations are the result of the same distrust of the State as was expressed in former days in the conflict between religion and the secular power.

It was also during the reign of Constantine that the great Council of Nicaea was held (325), attended by almost three hundred bishops from all parts of the world. Besides settling many fundamental matters of doctrine, this council gave an imposing demonstration of the world-wide organisation of the Church, and from this point onwards that organisation grew increasingly effective, and the Church became more and more a world power. As a result, the Empire had to admit the presence first of a potent ally, and soon of a vigorous rival.

The Nicene canons are the earliest code that can be called canon law of the whole Church, and at least in the West they enjoyed something like the same finality in the realm of discipline that the Nicene Creed enjoyed in the realm of doctrine. [citing C.H. Turner, Cambridge Mediaeval History]

Indeed, while the organization of the Empire was slowly breaking down, that of the Church was steadily growing, with the result that the Church soon offered a career comparable to, if not better than, that afforded by the State to men of ability who felt called to public life. Some specialised in the study of theology; others took up the work of creating the great body of canon law which for a long time was to perpetuate the old Roman ideal of universal law. With all this, the growth of the episcopate, and particularly of the papacy, was to give a new aspect to the ancient city of Rome, and slowly, but certainly, the Empire ruled from Rome was being replaced for many purposes by Christendom ruled by the papacy. [4-5]

Horwitz, “Freedom of the Church Without Romance”

For those interested in the exploding work on the freedom of the church (and you should all be!), do see Paul Horwitz’s new tour de force draft article, Freedom of the Church Without Romance, a typically graduated and thoughtful piece by a defender of ecclesial liberty.

I haven’t yet read the entire piece, but what I have read is rich and very interesting. I touch on ideas of liberty of the church in my chapter on free exercise applications of the tragic-historic method in The Tragedy of Religious Freedom–in Chapter 9 where I discuss the Hosanna-Tabor case. But because (I think!) my view of freedom of the church is perhaps not quite as potent in certain ways as is Paul’s (it is subject to perhaps greater particularistic assessment by courts and is less committed to the general superstructure of Horwitzian First Amendment institutionalism, even as qualified in this piece), I wonder whether, for me, the suggestion of embracing a “strong non-establishment regime” follows as powerfully as it does for Paul (if one understands a “strong” disestablishmentarian regime in the way that I suspect Paul does). Some of Paul’s questions toward the end of the piece about arguments involving church freedom alongside others concerning equal access of religious entities in the provision of services do not seem to me to give churches “a competitive advantage” that is troubling for Establishment Clause purposes (one can believe this, I think, and also agree with Paul about the importance of the economics of religion quite apart from the issue of its constitutional weight), though I understand the point that Paul is making. At any rate, the piece is well worth a good, long read. The abstract follows.

This Article is part of a symposium issue titled “Freedom of the Church in the Modern Era.” Freedom of the church, roughly, connotes the independent nature or sovereignty of the church. The most dramatic moment in its development was the eleventh century Investiture Controversy, with its confrontation between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV at Canossa, but it has a long prior and subsequent history. Recently, with the renewed scholarly interest in the institutional rights of churches and religious organizations and the Supreme Court’s decision affirming the “ministerial exception” doctrine in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC,the idea of “freedom of the church” has taken on new champions–and critics.

This Article, from an author who has written supportively about freedom of the church and/or religious institutionalism in prior work, takes a deliberately unromantic look at freedom of the church. It evaluates it through two useful disciplinary lenses: history, and the economics of religion.

Both historical and economic analysis of the concept of”freedom of the church” suggest the following conclusions: (1) The concept should be treated carefully and with a full awareness of its mixed history, without undue romanticism on the part of its champions–or a confident conclusion on the part of its critics that it is no longer necessary. (2) Whatever the concept of “freedom of the church” means today, the present version is decidedly diminished and chastened, a shadow of the medieval version. Supporters of freedom of the church should welcome that fact. Freedom of the church persists, and may have continuing value, precisely because it has become so domesticated. (3) There are solid historical and economic grounds for some form of freedom of the church or religious institutional autonomy. In particular, religion’s status as a credence good, whose value and reliability is certified by religious agents such as ministers, strongly suggests that state interference with religious employment relations can be dangerous to a church’s well-being and long-term survival. (4) The history and economics of religion also teach us something about the optimal conditions for freedom of the church–the conditions under which it is likely to do the most good and the least harm. In particular, they suggest that champions of freedom of the church ought to welcome religious pluralism and a strong non-establishment regime.

The Article closes with some speculation about why there has been a recent revival of interest in freedom of the church, including the possibility that its resurgence, even if it is fully justified, also involves an element of rent-seeking by religious institutions.

There are two broader underlying suggestions as well. First, there are good reasons to support some version of freedom of the church, but it deserves a more critical and nuanced examination by friends and adversaries alike. Second, legal scholars writing on church-state issues have paid far too little attention to the literature on the economics of religion.

Skotnicki, “The Last Judgment: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture”

last-judgment-christian-ethics-in-a-legal-cultureIn March, Ashgate published The Last Judgment: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture by Andrew Skotnicki (Manhattan College). The publisher’s description follows.

In a culture obsessed with law, judgment, and violence, this book challenges Christians to remember that Jesus urged his followers to judge no one, bring harm upon no one, and follow no law save the law of altruistic love. It traces Christian history first to show that Christians of an earlier age took very seriously the gospel injunctions against punitive legal judgment and then how the advent of formal legal codes and philosophical dualism undermined that perspective to create a division between a private Christian spirituality and a public morality of order and legally sanctioned violence. This historical approach is accompanied by an argument that the recovery of a Christian ethic based upon unconditional love and forgiveness cannot be accomplished without the renewal of a Christian spirituality that mirrors the contemplative spirituality of Jesus.

Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle”

As a break from grading exams over the last couple of weeks, I worked my way through Peter Brown’s immense new work, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West (Princeton 2012). Brown is the greatest living historian of late antiquity, and in this work he sets out to show how the Christian church gradually attracted the rich and powerful in the century or so following the conversion of Constantine. According to Brown, it was Christianity’s ability to attract the Roman super rich, rather than the moderately wealthy people who had made up the bulk of the pre-Constantinian church, that really “marks the turning point in the Christianization of Europe” — not the conversion of Constantine itself, which had little immediate effect on Roman society. It’s a useful lesson for law and religion scholars, who tend to assume, the way lawyers do, that official acts like Constantine’s are the most important force in social change. Brown’s erudition is incredible and the book offers many insights about late Roman culture and society. Many readers will love the immersion in the past — though, candidly, some might think Brown’s obsessive attention to detail occasionally detracts from the sweep of his narrative. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world’s foremost scholar of late antiquity.

Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.

Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity’s growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.

McGuckin, “The Ascent of Christian Law”

We’re a little late getting to it, but earlier this year Byzantinist John McGuckin (Columbia/Union Theological Seminary) wrote a new monograph as part of Emory’s Christian Jurisprudence series, The Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Reformulations of Greco-Roman Attitudes in the Making of a Christian Civilization (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2012). The volume looks to be an important contribution to an unfortunately underwritten field: law in the Eastern Christian tradition.  Here’s the publisher’s description:

This volume aims to fill a large gap in the historical materials available to students of early Christian and Byzantine Christian studies. To that extent, it will be designed as a wide-ranging historical survey that covers the varying attitudes among the major early Christian theorists of law and governance issues as the church moved in its condition from a minority of resistance to the imperial church. The field of early studies of Christian law is dominated by scholars of Western canon law (though often microscopically treated). Eastern canon law remains massively neglected, relegated to studies by Orthodox canonists who have been concerned largely with issues of ecclesiastical precedence and protocol, rather than with large questions of the role of law in culture-making.

This book intends to consider questions such as: “What difference did Christianity make as a builder of civilization?” To what extent did the church, in presenting to late Roman society a vision of a Continue reading

Hashmi (ed.), “Just Wars, Holy Wars, & Jihads”

Here is a very interesting collection of essays on religious perspectives on military engagements of various kinds: Just Wars, Holy Wars, & Jihads: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Encounters and Exchanges (OUP 2012), edited by Sohail H. Hashmi (Mount Holyoke).  The publisher’s description follows.

Just Wars, Holy Wars, and Jihads explores the development of ideas of morally justified or legitimate war in Western and Islamic civilizations. Historically, these ideas have been grouped under three labels: just war, holy war, and jihad. A large body of literature exists exploring the development of just war and holy war concepts in the West and of jihad in Islam. Yet, to date, no book has investigated in depth the historical interaction between Western notions of just or holy war and Muslim definitions of jihad. This book is a major contribution to the comparative study of the ethics of war and peace in the West and Islam. Its twenty chapters explore two broad questions:

1. What historical evidence exists that Christian and Jewish writers on just war and holy war and Muslim writers on jihad knew of the other tradition?

2. What is the evidence in treatises, chronicles, speeches, ballads, and other historical records, or in practice, that either tradition influenced the other?

The book surveys the period from the rise of Islam in the early seventh century to the present day. Part One surveys the impact of the early Islamic conquests upon Byzantine, Syriac, and Muslim thinking on justified war. Part Two probes developments during the Crusades. Part Three focuses on the early modern period in Europe and the Ottoman Empire, followed by analysis of the era of European imperialism in Part Four. Part Five brings the discussion into the present period, with chapters analyzing the impact of international law and terrorism on conceptions of just war and jihad.

Levy, “Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages”

An absolutely wonderful looking book dealing with religion and political and legal authority round about the 15th century by Ian Christopher Levy (Providence College), Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages (Notre Dame 2012).  And note some very similar issues of textual interpretation which we see in our own day.  The publisher’s description follows.

All participants in late medieval debates recognized Holy Scripture as the principal authority in matters of Catholic doctrine. Popes, theologians, lawyers—all were bound by the divine truth it conveyed. Yet the church possessed no absolute means of determining the final authoritative meaning of the biblical text—hence the range of appeals to antiquity, to the papacy, and to councils, none of which were ultimately conclusive. Authority in the late medieval church was a vexing issue precisely because it was not resolved.

Ian Christopher Levy’s book focuses on the quest for such authority between 1370 and 1430, from John Wyclif to Thomas Netter, thereby encompassing the struggle over Holy Scripture waged between Wycliffites and Hussites on the one hand, and their British and Continental opponents on the other. Levy demonstrates that the Wycliffite/Hussite “heretics” and their opponents—the theologians William Woodford, Thomas Netter, and Jean Gerson—in fact shared a large and undisputed common ground. They held recognized licenses of expertise, venerated tradition, esteemed the church fathers, and embraced Holy Scripture as the ultimate authority in Christendom. What is more, they utilized similar hermeneutical strategies with regard to authorial intention, the literal sense, and the appeal to the fathers and holy doctors in order to open up the text. Yet it is precisely this commonality, according to Levy, that rendered the situation virtually intractable; he argues that the erroneous assumption persists today that Netter and Gerson spoke for “the church,” whereas Wyclif and Hus sought to destroy it.

Levy’s sophisticated study in historical theology, which reconsiders the paradigm of heresy and orthodoxy, offers a necessary adjustment in our view of church authority at the turn of the fifteenth century.

Frankopan, “The First Crusade”

Peter Frankopan (Oxford) offers an unexpected historical account in The First Crusade: The Call From the East (HUP 2012) which emphasizes the eastern causes of the conflict.  The publisher’s description follows.

According to tradition, the First Crusade began at the instigation of Pope Urban II and culminated in July 1099, when thousands of western European knights liberated Jerusalem from the rising menace of Islam. But what if the First Crusade’s real catalyst lay far to the east of Rome? In this groundbreaking book, countering nearly a millennium of scholarship, Peter Frankopan reveals the untold history of the First Crusade.

Nearly all historians of the First Crusade focus on the papacy and its willing warriors in the West, along with innumerable popular tales of bravery, tragedy, and resilience. In sharp contrast, Frankopan examines events from the East, in particular from Constantinople, seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire. The result is revelatory. The true instigator of the First Crusade, we see, was the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who in 1095, with his realm under siege from the Turks and on the point of collapse, begged the pope for military support.

Basing his account on long-ignored eastern sources, Frankopan also gives a provocative and highly original explanation of the world-changing events that followed the First Crusade. The Vatican’s victory cemented papal power, while Constantinople, the heart of the still-vital Byzantine empire, never recovered. As a result, both Alexios and Byzantium were consigned to the margins of history. From Frankopan’s revolutionary work, we gain a more faithful understanding of the way the taking of Jerusalem set the stage for western Europe’s dominance up to the present day and shaped the modern world.