Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium (Part One)


Constantine the Great


Well, as you all know, it has been a long time since Clint or I have posted anything remotely resembling a series (or even a real and original post) on this blog.  Since last August, both of us have been swamped with our work for our MA's in History, plus our "day jobs", our family responsibilities, and our work for our parish.  I (Fr. James) have just finished my work for my summer course, and I'll have a little bit of a break from school until the end of August.  Because of this, I thought I would offer up a series of historical articles.

This series comes from a paper I wrote back in January for a course I took on Church and State in Eastern Europe, 300-1700.  The paper started out as a book review of Sir Steven Runciman's excellent book The Byzantine Theocracy, in which Runciman argues persuasively that the relationship between the Byzantine government and the Orthodox Church was not really a simple case of "Caesaropapism", as has often been claimed by Western scholars.  The reality was much more complicated.

While I was writing, the review sort of took on a life of its own, and before I was done, I had over 4200 words (the suggested maximum was 2000 words).  Therefore, I had to drastically edit the version that I eventually turned in.  But I also kept the longer version with the intention of later publishing it on this blog.  Here, for your enjoyment (I hope, anyway!) is the first installment.  I think you will find it informative and readable, even if you have not read the book. I welcome your comments and questions.


The Byzantine Empire, perhaps more than any other long-lasting political entity in history, borrowed from diverse political, legal, cultural, and religious traditions that did not always fit well together. The makers of the Empire’s institutions struggled to merge Roman law, Greek philosophy and political theory, and Christian faith and practice into a single culture and polity. A key problem the Byzantines faced was the relationship between God, the Emperor, and the Church. In his book The Byzantine Theocracy, British historian Sir Steven Runciman chronicles the efforts of Byzantine Emperors, bishops, scholars, and other leaders to define and work out this key relationship from the Empire’s beginning until its tragic fall in 1453. Runciman clearly and concisely shows how Byzantines struggled to adapt their governmental ideal with the political realities and vicissitudes they encountered in the Empire’s long history.

The majority of Runciman’s first chapter, “The Christian Empire: The Image of God on Earth,” is devoted to a brief yet solid narration of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and his attempts to settle the Donatist and Arian controversies. After this, Runciman turns to the main topic of the chapter: the establishment of the role of the Emperor vis-à-vis the church. Prior to Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, the Church had governed itself. Other than conducting occasional persecutions, Constantine’s predecessors had not involved themselves significantly in Church affairs.

Roman emperors, had, however, played an extremely active role in the Roman state religion, including holding the office of pontifex maximus, or highest priest. In classical Rome, there was no separation of religion and state; emperors believed it to be their responsibility to ensure that the gods were being worshipped properly. Given this, it is hardly surprising that Constantine continued this tradition of active involvement in the new favored religion when he became a Christian. By his use of state funds to finance the building and decoration of churches, the production of copies of Scripture and other sacred objects, and his intervention in theological controversies, Constantine set a standard of governance of the Church that would serve as the norm for all future East Roman Emperors.

Constantine’s friend, the scholar-bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, provided the theoretical basis of the relationship between Church and Emperor. Borrowing from and modifying the Hellenistic tradition, in which kings saw themselves as gods on earth, Eusebius argued that the king was
the imitation of God, ruling a realm which could now become the imitation of Heaven…He has been specially appointed and is continually inspired by God, the friend of God, the interpreter of the Word of God. His eyes look upward, to receive the messages of God.
In the Eusebian model, the Emperor was not divine, but was the Viceroy of God, appointed by God to rule the world in His place. But as Runciman points out, “it was a splendid ideal; but it left many questions unanswered” (23). These questions included the relationship of the Emperor to the priestly hierarchy and the law of the Empire, as well as what the ruler’s subjects could do when he proved unfit for his role. The working out of answers to these questions would occupy the Byzantines for the remainder of the Empire’s existence.

2 comments:

Youth Director said...

Thanks for the post, Fr James, I look forward to reading more!

Joel said...

Likewise, I plan on reading along and it's good and practical for you to share your research and writing. Well done!