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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 13. The New Position of the Church in the Empire.


The previous chapter has shown us how Christianity gradually supplanted the Graeco-Roman heathenism and became the established religion in the empire of the Caesars. Since that time the church and the state, though frequently jarring, have remained united in Europe, either on the hierarchical basis, with the temporal power under the tutelage of the spiritual, or on the caesaro-papal, with the spiritual power merged in the temporal; while in the United States of America, since the end of the eighteenth century, the two powers have stood peacefully but independently side by side. The church could now act upon the state; but so could the state act upon the church; and this mutual influence became a source of both profit and loss, blessing and curse, on either side.

The martyrs and confessors of the first three centuries, in their expectation of the impending end of the world and their desire for the speedy return of the Lord, had never once thought of such a thing as the great and sudden change, which meets us at the beginning of this period in the relation of the Roman state to the Christian church. Tertullian had even held the Christian profession to be irreconcilable with the office of a Roman emperor.130130   Apologeticus, c. 21 “Sed et Caesares credidissent, si aut Caesares non essent saeculo necessarii, aut si et Christiani potuissent esse Caesares.” Nevertheless, clergy and people very soon and very easily accommodated themselves to the new order of things, and recognized in it a reproduction of the theocratic constitution of the people of God under the ancient covenant. Save that the dissenting sects, who derived no benefit from this union, but were rather subject to persecution from the state and from the established Catholicism, the Donatists for an especial instance, protested against the intermeddling of the temporal power with religious concerns.131131   Thus the bishop Donatus of Carthage in 347 rejected the imperial commissioners, Paulus and Macarius, with the exclamation: “Quid est imperatori cum ecclesia?” See Optatus Milev.: De schismate Donat. l. iii. c. 3. The Donatists, however, were the first to invoke the imperial intervention in their controversies, and would doubtless have spoken very differently, had the decision turned in their favor. The heathen, who now came over in a mass, had all along been accustomed to a union of politics with religion, of the imperial with the sacerdotal dignity. They could not imagine a state without some cultus, whatever might be its name. And as heathenism had outlived itself in the empire, and Judaism with its national exclusiveness and its stationary character was totally disqualified, Christianity must take the throne.

The change was as natural and inevitable as it was great. When Constantine planted the standard of the cross upon the forsaken temples of the gods, he but followed the irresistible current of history itself. Christianity had already, without a stroke of sword or of intrigue, achieved over the false religion the internal victory of spirit over matter, of truth over falsehood, of faith over superstition, of the worship of God over idolatry, of morality over corruption. Under a three hundred years’ oppression, it had preserved its irrepressible moral vigor, and abundantly earned its new social position. It could not possibly continue a despised sect, a homeless child of the wilderness, but, like its divine founder on the third day after his crucifixion, it must rise again, take the reins of the world into its hands, and, as an all-transforming principle, take state, science, and art to itself, to breathe into them a higher life and consecrate them to the service of God. The church, of course, continues to the end a servant, as Christ himself came not to be ministered unto, but to minister; and she must at all times suffer persecution, outwardly or inwardly, from the ungodly world. Yet is she also the bride of the Son of God, therefore of royal blood; and she is to make her purifying and sanctifying influence felt upon all orders of natural life and all forms of human society. And from this influence the state, of course, is not excepted. Union with the state is no more necessarily a profanation of holy things than union with science and art, which, in fact, themselves proceed from God, and must subserve his glory.

On the other hand, the state, as a necessary and divine institution for the protection of person and property, for the administration of law and justice, and for the promotion of earthly weal, could not possibly persist forever in her hostility to Christianity, but must at least allow it a legal existence and free play; and if she would attain a higher development and better answer her moral ends than she could in union with idolatry, she must surrender herself to its influence. The kingdom of the Father, to which the state belongs, is not essentially incompatible with the church, the kingdom of the Son; rather does “the Father draw to the Son,” and the Son leads back to the Father, till God become “all in all.” Henceforth should kings again be nursing fathers, and queens nursing mothers to the church,132132   Is. xlix. 23. and the prophecy begin to be fulfilled: “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”133133   Rev. xi. 15.

The American reparation of church and state, even if regarded as the best settlement of the true relation of the two, is not in the least inconsistent with this view. It is not a return to the pre-Constantinian basis, with its spirit of persecution, but rests upon the mutual reverential recognition and support of the two powers, and must be regarded as the continued result of that mighty revolution of the fourth century.

But the elevation of Christianity as the religion of the state presents also an opposite aspect to our contemplation. It involved great risk of degeneracy to the church. The Roman state, with its laws, institutions, and usages, was still deeply rooted in heathenism, and could not be transformed by a magical stroke. The christianizing of the state amounted therefore in great measure to a paganizing and secularizing of the church. The world overcame the church, as much as the church overcame the world, and the temporal gain of Christianity was in many respects cancelled by spiritual loss. The mass of the Roman empire was baptized only with water, not with the Spirit and fire of the gospel, and it smuggled heathen manners and practices into the sanctuary under a new name. The very combination of the cross with the military ensign by Constantine was a most doubtful omen, portending an unhappy mixture of the temporal and the spiritual powers, the kingdom which is of the earth, and that which is from heaven. The settlement of the boundary between the two powers, which, with all their unity, remain as essentially distinct as body and soul, law and gospel, was itself a prolific source of errors and vehement strifes about jurisdiction, which stretch through all the middle age, and still repeat themselves in these latest times, save where the amicable American separation has thus far forestalled collision.

Amidst all the bad consequences of the union of church and state, however, we must not forget that the deeper spirit of the gospel has ever reacted against the evils and abuses of it, whether under an imperial pope or a papal emperor, and has preserved its divine power for the salvation of men under every form of constitution. Though standing and working in the world, and in many ways linked with it, yet is Christianity not of the world, but stands above it.

Nor must we think the degeneracy of the church began with her union with the state.134134   This view is now very prevalent in America. It was not formerly so. Jonathan Edwards, in his “History of Redemption,” a practical and edifying survey of church history as an unfolding of the plan of redemption, even saw in the accession of Constantinea type of the future appearing of Christ in the clouds for the redemption of his people, and attributed to it the most beneficent results; to wit: ”(1) The Christian church was thereby wholly delivered from persecution .... (2) God now appeared to execute terrible judgments on their enemies .... (3) Heathenism now was in a great measure abolished throughout the Roman empire .... (4) The Christian church was brought into a state of great peace and prosperity.” ... “This revolution,” he further says, p. 312, “was the greatest that had occurred since the flood. Satan, the prince of darkness, that king and god of the heathen world, was cast out. The roaring lion was conquered by the Lamb of God in the strongest dominion he ever had. This was a remarkable accomplishment of Jerem. x. 11: ’The gods that have not made the heaven and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth and from the heavens.’ ” This work, still much read in America and England, was written, to be sure, Iong before the separation of church and state in New England, viz., in 1739 (first printed in Edinburgh in 1774, twenty-six years after the author’s death). But the great difference of the judgment of this renowned Puritan divine from the prevailing American opinion of the present day is an interesting proof that our view of history is very much determined by the ecclesiastical circumstances in which we live, and at the same time that the whole question of church and state is not at all essential in Christian theology and ethics. In America all confessions, even the Roman Catholics, are satisfied with the separation, while in Europe with few exceptions it is the reverse. Corruption and apostasy cannot attach to any one fact or personage, be he Constantine or Gregory I. or Gregory VII. They are rooted in the natural heart of man. They revealed themselves, at least in the germ, even in the apostolic age, and are by no means avoided, as the condition of America proves, by the separation of the two powers. We have among ourselves almost all the errors and abuses of the old world, not collected indeed in any one communion, but distributed among our various denominations and sects. The history of the church presents from the beginning a twofold development of good and of evil, an incessant antagonism of light and darkness, truth and falsehood, the mystery of godliness and the mystery of iniquity, Christianity and Antichrist. According to the Lord’s parables of the net and of the tares among the wheat, we cannot expect a complete separation before the final judgment, though in a relative sense the history of the church is a progressive judgment of the church, as the history of the world is a judgment of the world.



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