Monday, August 27, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Nine: The Final Years

Emperor Andronicus II Palaiologos

Note:  This is the last part of the series.

Church-State relations improved during the thirty-nine-year reign of Michael’s son Andronicus (II). Andronicus gained initial popularity by repudiating the Union of Lyons. But the hardline followers of Arsenius remained opposed to Andronicus, despite the many gestures he made to reach out to them. Andronicus struggled with his Patriarchs, of whom there were no fewer than nine during his reign. Due in part to the political meddling of the Patriarch Athanasius, Andronicus often left the see of Constantinople vacant. This enabled him to have a freer hand in appointing and deposing bishops and reorganizing the Church, an effort made essential by the Empire’s extensive loss of territory to the Turks.

After Andronicus’ death, the Empire was plagued by continual political instability. Various individuals, including one Patriarch, vied for control of the government. The Hesychast controversy of the mid-fourteenth century provided another source of internal disunity, although the majority of Church officials supported the Emperor John Cantcuzenus’ decision to accept the doctrine. Toward the end of the pro-Roman Emperor John V’s reign, the Emperor issued a statement that affirmed his absolute authority over the Church and its hierarchy. John’s successors exercised this authority in a variety of ways without opposition. His grandson John VIII, however, discovered the limits of imperial power when, accompanied a group of mostly reluctant bishops, he attended the Council of Ferrara-Florence. There John and his bishops submitted to a series of Roman demands, including the rule of the Pope over all Christians. When they returned home, however, the Byzantines encountered violent opposition to their action. Despite being Emperor, John was unable to implement the Council’s decision, and the Eastern Church remained in schism with the West. Events again showed that although the Emperor’s authority over the Church was theoretically absolute, in practice it had limits.

In The Byzantine Theocracy, Steven Runciman clearly shows how many scholars’ characterization of Church-State relations in the Byzantine Empire as “Caesaropapism,” or total subordination of the Church to the State, is far from accurate. Runciman argues that the upper hand between Church and Emperor repeatedly passed back and forth, even if it usually rested with the Emperor. Throughout most of its history, most Byzantines viewed the Emperor as the senior partner in the Church-State marriage. But as Runciman demonstrates time and again, the Church was not always willing to be totally submissive to every wish and act of an Emperor. When Emperors acted immorally or lawlessly, the Church was not shy to rebuke him or even to work for his removal.

Runciman has masterfully condensed over one thousand years of Church-State relations into a work of only 164 pages, making many extremely complex issues and events to be highly accessible to the average reader. His writing style is clear and engaging. Like nearly any historical writer, he commits a few minor errors, such as stating that the Emperor Theodore II died in 1268 rather than 1258. But such errors are understandable, inevitable, and forgivable. Perhaps the most glaring flaw of the book is Runciman’s continual use of the word “worship” to describe the iconodules’ treatment of icons. Runciman surely knew that the Orthodox Church has always made a distinction between worship (Greek latreia) and veneration (Greek proskynesis). Orthodox Christians are forbidden to give latreia to anyone or anything but God, while they are encouraged to give proskynesis to icons, crosses, Gospel books, relics, and other things. Runciman’s repeated claim that Orthodox Christians “worship” icons reveals a major misunderstanding of Orthodox faith and praxis. Despite these flaws, The Byzantine Theocracy is an outstanding book that should be read by everyone who wants to understand the history of Eastern Christianity and the Byzantine Empire.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Eight: The First Fall of Byzantium and its Restoration

The Sack of Constantinople, 1204

Runciman’s final two chapters chronicle the decline and fall of the Empire and the impact that the Empire’s decline had on Church-state relations. Since the time of the Iconoclasm Controversy, monasteries, especially those near Constantinople, increased in political influence. By the eleventh century, monastics formed a sort of political unit that frequently intervened in both Patriarchal and Imperial affairs. Monastics served as a check against Emperors’ efforts to increase their control of the Church. Together with the Patriarch, they succeeded in blocking the efforts of the Emperors Alexius, John II, and Manuel to improve relations with Rome. But in all other matters, these Emperors maintained a firm hold over the Church, who in turn willingly submitted to their control. The pendulum of Church-State power had returned to the Emperor.

After the sack and seizure of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, Byzantine princes established three rival states in Nicaea, Epirus, and Trebizond. Of these, Nicaea proved to be the most influential and the residence-in-exile of the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople. Faced by hostile enemies on all sides and struggling just to keep their kingdom alive, the Emperors of Nicaea and the Patriarchs had no choice but to work in close concert. The Patriarchs of this period acknowledged the supremacy of the Emperors over nearly all Church affairs. Runciman summaries the views of the Church hierarchy at this time:
the Emperor was above the law, both secular and religious…he along could introduce religious as well as secular legislation. It was his business to care for the souls as well as the bodies of his subjects. The only thing beyond his power to dictate on was doctrine.
The hierarchy officially supported the Nicaean Emperors, even if they disapproved of their efforts to court the favor of Rome.

Even though the Emperor was above the law in theory, his lay and clerical subjects still expected him to follow Christian moral precepts. After the death in 1258 of the Nicaean Emperor Theodore Lascaris, an Emperor’s moral lapses led to what Runciman calls “the last great quarrel between Church and State in Byzantium.” When Theodore died, his son and heir John IV was only eight years old. The general Michael Palaeologus murdered John’s regent and assumed his place. After his recapture of Constantinople three years later, Michael blinded John and had himself crowned as Emperor. Michael’s sins were too flagrant for the Patriarch Arensius, who excommunicated Michael and barred him from entering the Church of St. Sophia.

These actions led to a rift in Byzantine society. Most of the monks and the hierarchy supported Arsenius. Much of the aristocracy and the common people, however, while they acknowledged that Michael committed terrible acts, nonetheless supported him due in large part to his great ability as a general and a governor. The schism was party healed until six years later, when Michael publicly knelt before the new Patriarch Joseph and confessed his sin. The Chuch restored Michael to communion. Despite this, as Runciman writes, Michael’s confession was “a triumph for the Church as the guardian of morality. The Emperor had been forced to admit that he had sinned as a man.”

Still, the rift was not completely ended. Followers of the former Patriarch Arsenius, whom Michael had deposed, continued to protest against both Michael’s actions and the hierarchy’s rapprochement with him. The situation was further worsened when Michael sent representatives to the Council of Lyons, which brought about formal union between the Western and Eastern Churches on terms highly favorable to Rome. Only a handful of Byzantines accepted the Council’s decision, and Michael imprisoned and even tortured many of his subjects for their refusal to obey his religious policy. When Michael died in 1282, Church-State relations in Byzantium had seldom been worse.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Seven: The Macedonian Emperors

Byzantine Emperor Basil II "The Bulgar Slayer"

The Emperor Basil I, who usurped the throne in 867, attempted to clarify relations between Church and State. In his update of the Byzantine legal codes, Basil affirmed that “the peace and prosperity of the citizens, in body and soul, depends on the concord of the kingship and the priesthood.” Basil, however, made a sharp break from the policies of nearly all of his predecessors. As Runciman writes, Basil’s law code “gives no precedence to the kingship. He raises the Patriarch to be in effect the equal partner of the Emperor.”

Relations between Church and Emperor soured under Basil’s son Leo VI. Leo’s first three wives each died while still young, and none provided him with an heir. When Leo sought the blessing of Patriarch Nicholas for a fourth marriage, the Patriarch refused. The crisis lasted for some time until Leo, with the blessing of the Pope of Rome, deposed Nicholas and replaced him with a more pliant Patriarch. But after Leo’s death, his successor Alexander restored Nicholas to the Patriarchate. When Alexander died soon afterward, Nicholas became head of a Regency council for Leo’s young son Constantine VII. During this time, Nicholas ran the government and was Emperor in all but name. However, neither the ruling class nor the populace liked to see a cleric exercising secular power, and less than a year after Alexander’s death, Leo’s wife Zoe replaced Nicholas as regent, strictly warning the Patriarch to limit himself to Church affairs. Despite this rebuke, however, the Church’s power vis-à-vis the state had never been higher.

But this triumph was not to last. The strong Emperor Basil II reasserted Imperial control over the church, even leaving the Patriarchate of Constantinople empty for five years. In 1054, Basil’s eventual successor Constantine IX made the fateful decision to appoint Michael Cerularius as Patriarch. The ambitious Michael worked hard to increase the power of the Patriarchate at the expense not only of the State, but also over the rest of the Church. At the same time that Constantine was trying to improve relations with the Pope, Michael took several anti-Roman actions that led ultimately to a break in communion at 1054. As Runciman comments, the events that led to the Great Schism

Showed that where politics were intermingled with a religious issue a Patriarch who was sure of popular support could defy the Emperor and ruin Imperial policy. But…Cerularius found that when he tried to interfere in purely political matters he lost popular support…the career of Cerularius showed both the power and the limitations of the Patriarchate.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Six: The End of Iconoclasm

St. Theodore the Studite (11th-century mosaic from Nea Moni monastery on Chios)

Steven Runciman’s fourth chapter, “The Working Compromise: The Limits of Imperial Control,” chronicles Byzantine Church-State relations from the time of the empress Irene to the Great Schism of 1054. The Empress Irene’s reversal of the iconoclastic policies of her predecessors posed a problem for the traditional Byzantine view of the Emperor as the Viceroy of God: “If a new priest-king were to promulgate a doctrine completely opposed to his predecessors’, there must be something wrong with the priesthood.” Fortunately, Irene was neither a king nor a priest, so the problem could be sidestepped. Since she served at this time only as regent for her son, not as Empress in her own right, she was forced to work through the Church in order to restore the veneration of icons. As a result, the balance of power between the imperial power and the Church was again tipped in the latter’s favor.

In 814, the recently-crowned Emperor Leo V summoned a group of bishops to the palace to discuss the propriety of icon veneration. When Theodore, abbot of the Studion monastery, perceived that the Emperor’s goal was to restore iconoclasm, he cried out “To you, Emperor, has been entrusted the political government and the army. Look after them, and leave the Church to its shepherds and teachers, as the Apostle ordained.” That Theodore could say this in the imperial presence shows how much influence over the Church that the state had lost: “never before had the ecclesiastical authority of the Emperor been so brusquely challenged to his face.” Leo exiled Theodore and many other pro-icon church officials and reinstituted iconoclasm. But he had to severely persecute iconodules in order to maintain the ban on images, showing that while the Church had not achieved independence from the State, it had nonetheless placed limits on imperial control over it. Leo’s successors moderated his iconoclastic policy as iconoclasm gradually lost the little support it had enjoyed among the populace. Finally, in 843, the Empess Theodora, acting as regent for her son Michael III, summoned a council which brought a permanent end to iconoclasm.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Five: The Iconoclastic Emperors

Coin bearing the image of Emperor Leo III "The Isaurian"

Justinian II’s reign ended in anarchy, which lasted through the next six years, during which two additional Emperors briefly held power. Order was restored when Leo III seized power in 717. Leo was an able general and civil ruler who sought to reform the administrative and military structure of the Empire. As a pious Christian, however, he desired ecclesiastical and theological reform. In the preface to his law code the Ecloga, he affirmed that since God had given him the office of Emperor, it was his right and responsibility to care for the Church. For Leo, Runciman writes,
It is the Patriarch’s business to see to the spiritual well-being of the Empire. But it is the Emperor alone who can give to the recommendations of the Patriarch the force of law. His is the ultimate decision on religious as well as civil affairs. He is still the Viceroy of God.
Leo’s firm conviction of his right to govern the Church led him to institute religious reform. The most significant change he introduced was state support for iconoclasm, the destroying of religious images. Leo initiated his campaign of iconoclasm by making public speeches and sermons against the veneration of icons. He then removed the long-standing icon of Christ that hung over the Palace gate, prompting a riot among the people of Constantinople. Leo severely punished the rioters. When the Patriarch Germanus protested, Leo removed him from office. When the Pope protested, excommunicating all those who destroyed icons, Leo transferred the province of Illyria from the jurisdiction of Rome to that of Constantinople. Leo justified his actions to the Pope by calling himself Pontifex, or priest-king.

Leo’s son Constantine V carried Leo’s policies to a more extreme level. He initiated a persecution of iconodules (icon venerators) that was far more severe than any persecution that his father had carried out. He especially targeted monastics, whom he saw as a hotbed of icon veneration and even rebellion against Imperial policy. Unlike his father, he saw limitations on his own authority over the Church; as a result, he sought ecclesiastical sanction for iconoclasm. In 754, he summoned a council that, under pressure from the Emperor, denounced iconoclasm as a heresy and set forth strict ecclesiastical and legal penalties for anyone caught making or venerating an icon. Leo and Constantine’s iconoclastic policies were continued, albeit in a more moderate form, by their immediate successor. But they were not accepted by the overwhelming majority of the Byzantine people. This demonstrated the limitations of the powers of the Viceroy of God; as Runciman states, “even the Holy Emperor, the Priest-King, as he claimed to be, could not permanently force upon his people a theology that the people disliked.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Four: The Seventh Century

St. Maximos the Confessor

In his third chapter, Steven Runciman chronicles the efforts of late-sixth and seventh-century Emperors to restore unity to the Church and help it to maintain doctrinal purity (as they understood it). Justinian’s successors Justin II, Maurice, and Phocas used a combination of legislation, wooing, and persecution to bring the Monophysites into the fold, but they had little success. The Emperor Heraclius went a step further, placing forth a doctrinal compromise called monoenergism, which stated that while Christ had two natures, he only had one energy. When this effort was rejected by Chalcedonians, the Patriarch Sergius, with Heraclius’ reluctant blessing, published a new statement of faith that forbade any further discussion about Christ’s energies and set forth another new idea. This new doctrine, called monothelitism, affirmed that Christ had two natures, but only one will, was also rejected by Chalcedonian believers.

Heraclius’ successor Constans II continued the policy of imperial support for monothelitism, even though by that time the Muslim conquests of the Near East and Egypt had deprived the Empire of most of its Monophysite territories, eliminating the political purpose of the new doctrine. Constans followed the example of Justinian toward prominent dissenters to his religious policy, jailing and torturing Pope Martin and Maximos the Confessor, the two most notable critics of monothelitism.

Constans’ son and successor Constantine IV reversed his father’s policy of Imperial support for monothelitism. He summoned a council in Constantinople that condemned the doctrine along with major religious figures (though no emperors) who had advanced it. This council, which came to be recognized as the Sixth Ecumenical Council, once again restored unity to the Church, at least the parts still under Byzantine control. But this peace was not to last. In 692, Constantine’s son Justinian II summoned another council to complete the work of the Fifth and Sixth Councils by issuing canons to deal with many problems of church order and discipline. This council, referred to as Quinisext or Trullo, ruled against many customs and practices of the Western Church. The Pope refused to recognize this council, resulting in schism between Rome and Constantinople that would last nearly twenty years.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Update from Floyd and Ancuta Frantz in Romania

Greetings, and I hope that this finds you well today, and in good spirits on this most beautiful and blessed of days. 
     First of all, I would like to thank you for looking over this newsletter for the Protection of the Theotokos Family Center. It is my wife Ancuta's project here in Cluj, which is for the prevention of abandonment of children. Currently she has about 30 families in her program. Many  of  you already know about it and have asked for her newsletter. I hope that you will not mind having it in your mailbox from time to time.  
Andreea, Stefania, and Maria
"The First Steps of a Dream"
Twenty one year old Andreea was only 6 years old when because of the poverty in her village her parents moved from the village into the city to find a better life. 
Unfortunately, life in the city became even worse for the family, and eventually the father abandoned the family. The situation became overwhelming for the mother and children. Andreea left the house in her early teens and began life on the streets of Romania. At age 17 she got into a relationship and soon found herself pregnant. When her boyfriend found out, he abandoned her to her fate. Andreea tried renting a place with a group of friends but found that she could not cope financially and asked for help from a maternal center. This was when her case was first brought to our attention, through our caring for little Stefania, her newborn child.
The young mother needed much more than financial help. We quickly saw her need for affection, acceptance, and help in organizing her personal objectives. But we also began to see that she was not taking her role as a mother very seriously, and that she was taking little responsibility for her families' future. When we encouraged her to continue her studies or to get a job, she seemed unmotivated. In her quest to find a healthy nurturing home life she was instead becoming a slave to short term relationships and one night stands. We soon discovered another reason that her attention was not on her little girl. She was hiding the fact that she was pregnant again, and was secretly planning to give the baby up for adoption. But God seemed to have other plans for her. It was only after she gave birth to Maria, her second daughter, that she allowed The Protection of the Theotokos Family Center to become actively involved in helping her to change her life.
Because she was pregnant, they were admitted into a maternity center until Marie was born, and then we took her also into our program. We found a sponsor that paid a few months rent for family, till Andreea could find a job. Then, she went back and finished her high school. Today she is living independently, and taking care of her family. Andreea has finally found the acceptance she craved through our PTFC 'family'. She not only changed her mind about keeping her baby but started to take responsibility to learn how to make a good home life. In a time when Andreea was lacking any resources, the spiritual and material support that she received through the Protection Center was a strong motivation factor in her decision to keep her second baby rather than to abort, or give it up to the state for adoption. Now, little Stefania and Maria have a chance at the real home life that Andreea dreamed of. 
Their life is not easy, especially since most of her salary goes toward paying the rent, and she still struggles with the fear that she will not have money for food or for other daily expenses. But she knows she has a real chance thanks to PTFC and people like you who give sacrificially to help her learn how to achieve her dream of a happy, healthy home life.
 Adreeana, Stephiana and Marie
  I will close for now by wishing you a most blessed day, and with the hope that our most gracious Lord will fill your heart with every good thing from His heavenly treasures.
Thank you for your interest in our work, please do keep us in your prayers, we all need them.
In His Love,  
One Day at a Time,  
Floyd & Ancuta Frantz, OCMC Missionaries to Romania
As as a final note, please remember that as OCMC missionaries we are 100 % reliant upon your financial support to continue our ministries in Romania and Alaska. Please consider a small gift through OCMC so that we can spend our time doing the Lord's work.
If you can make such a donation, send it to:
220 Mason Manatee Way
St. Augustine, Fl. 32086, 
Please mark the donation "Frantz/Romania" so that we can have full use the funds. 
Online and credit card donations are possible also. Thank you.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Three: Fifth-and Sixth-Century Emperors

Emperor Justinian I

Fifth-century Emperors continued to work to keep the Church unified, but their own lack of tact, talent and charisma, together with the increasingly bitter, sometimes violent, nature of the fifth-century theological controversies, resulted in limited success. Unlike the Arians, many proponents of both the Nestorian and Monophysite movements never accepted the rulings of the councils that opposed them, and they formed separate church structures that endure until this day. Even high-handed efforts like the Emperor Zeno’s issuing of the henotikon, in which he attempted to conciliate the Monophysites by effectively reversing the ruling of the Council of Chalcedon, failed. Many bishops, especially the Popes, told the Emperors to stay out of the Church’s theology and government. The inability of fifth-century Emperors to maintain theological unity in the Church proved to be a serious blow to their image as God’s Viceroy.

The balance of power shifted back to the Emperor under the reign of Justinian I, whose reign Steven Runciman describes as “the zenith of Imperial dominance over the Church.” Runciman further points out that
Justinian drew a distinction between the sacerdotum and the imperium and rated the former as the higher, stating that their harmony is essential to the welfare of the world. But it is for the Emperor to secure that harmony. The imperium will always, he says, support the support the decision and the authority of the priests; but his words…show where he believed the ultimate authority to lie.
Justinian made many canons of the Church into civil law. Like his predecessors, Justinian worked to reconcile the various factions of the Church, but the measures he took, including his condemnation of the supposedly Nestorian Three Chapters and having them condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and his having a Pope dragged to Constantinople, imprisoned, and physically abused, exceeded those of prior Emperors in their zeal and heavy-handedness. Justinian at times reached out to the Monophysites and at other times persecuted them. His efforts did little but offend Church authorities on all sides, and they resulted in more, not less, disunity in the Church: “Already before he had died separated Churches had arisen to which he was no longer the Viceroy of God.”

Friday, August 3, 2012

Church and State in Byzantium, Part Two: Fourth-Century Emperors after Constantine

Emperor Theodosius I "The Great"

In his second chapter, “The Viceroy of God: The Image of God Upon Earth,” Steven Runciman chronicles how Constantine’s successors through Justinian I struggled to live out the Eusebian ideal for a Christian Empire. Constantine’s son Constantius followed his father’s example, summoning several Church councils that attempted to resolve the Arian controversy, which continued despite the ruling of the Council of Nicaea. Constantius’ involvement in Church affairs, unlike that of his father, was not met with universal approval, as the rebuke he received from his father’s spiritual advisor Hosius of Cordova reveals: “Do not meddle in Church affairs nor give orders on them. Rather take instruction from us…as we are not permitted to govern the world, so you are not permitted to swing the censer.”

Constantius was succeeded by Julian, who immediately declared himself a pagan. This turn of events severely tested the Eusebian model. How could a pagan serve as the Viceroy of God in a Christian Empire? The crisis passed rather quickly, however, when Julian died in battle only two years after becoming Emperor. After the relatively brief reign of the Arian emperor Valens, the throne was assumed by Theodosius, a deeply devout Christian who was strongly opposed to Arianism. Like Constantine, Theodosius made the unity of the Church his top priority. In 381, he summoned a Council in Constantinople that reaffirmed the faith of Nicaea and again condemned Arianism. Theodosius went further than Constantine in acting as guardian of the faith, issuing laws against rejecting the faith and canons of the new Council, suppressing paganism, and ultimately making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Still, Theodosius’ powers as the Viceroy of God were not seen by the leading churchmen of his time as unlimited. The Cappadocian Fathers Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, who were very influential in Theodosius’ understanding of Christianity, “opposed the use of physical force in dealing with heretics. Their attitude toward the Emperor was Eusebian. He was the Viceroy of God; but it was the duty of the priesthood to guide him into the true spiritual path. He needed its help to become the Christian philosopher-king.”

Theodosius’ son and successor Arcadius, despite being a weak-willed and ineffectual ruler, nevertheless made an important contribution to the Byzantine conception of the Emperor. He was the first Emperor to reside exclusively in Constantinople. He seldom left the imperial palace, which made it possible for elaborate court ceremonies to develop and be standardized. Under Arcadius, Runciman points out, “the Emperor began to be a remote figure who only appeared in public on ritual occasions…surrounded by the pomp and the mystery that befitted the Viceroy of God.” Arcadius, then, began the long-standing tradition of Byzantine Emperors attempting to make themselves seem more divine than human to those outside the palace.

Despite this self-elevation, Arcadius did not find himself to be exempt from criticism from the Church. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople during much of Arcadius’ reign, often criticized the nobility in general and the Empress Eudoxia in particular for their lavish displays of wealth and neglect of the poor. Although John never directly criticized the Emperor in public, his attacks on the Empress were nevertheless indirect attacks on the Emperor. For Runciman, John’s actions “established the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople as keeper of the Empire’s conscience. On matters of morals the Emperor must listen to the priesthood.”

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.