THE GROWING AUTHORITY OF THE ROMAN
There are indeed two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled,
the sacred authority of the pontiffs and the royal power. Of the two, the
priesthood has the greater weight to the degree that it must render an
account for kings themselves in matters divine. Know then, although you
preside with dignity in human affairs, as to divine, you are to submit
your neck to those from whom you look for salvation. You are to be subject
rather than to rule in the religious sphere and bow to the judgement of
the priests rather than seek to lend them your will. (Gelasius, Edict XII,
translated in Bainton, 1962: 108).
It is this stance by Gelasius, who was Pontiff in Rome between 492
- 496 AD, as he instructs the Emperor Anastasius on the limits of his power,
which was prevalent earlier in the fourth and fifth century, especially
during the reign of Constantine. The extract is attempting to illuminate
the hierarchical nature of the Church. The period following the four Church
councils at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon saw the Church
coming to ascendancy. Instead of its being persecuted, it became dominant,
and the relationship between Church and State was accelerated, based on
mutual needs and concerns.
Eusebius, in his writings on "Church History", stresses
an inter-dependence of Church and State often interweaving accounts and
political affairs of State with issues that related to ecclesial matters.
The emperors had converted to Christianity and in so doing, it obligated
them to offer the Church protection and support even to the point of convening
synods to quell internal dissent and theological heresy (Schaff, 1979).
As the ruler empowered from above, Constantine viewed himself as the
protector of the Church. He laboured on its behalf, making evident his intention
to make Christianity the preferred religion of the empire. In his mind,
the bishops were commissioned to care for the inner life of the Church,
while he cared for the external affairs. It was his verdict that if the
Church was to be of the greatest assistance of the empire, it must be united.
Its policies, activities, teachings and liturgy were being influenced more
by political necessity than by the Gospels.
There appeared at this time to be a growing conviction that bishops
were more than officers charged with caring for the Church, governing its
affairs and defending it against internal and external threats. They were
viewed as having a special sacred character which separated them from the
community as a whole. They were not longer simply representatives of the
people. In time, the priest presiding at the Eucharist was no longer viewed
as the offerer of the prayers of the community but as another Christ making
sacrifices for the sake of the people. This development indeed illuminates
the conditions of the time and makes apparent, the Church was on the road
to institutionalization characterised by a distinct hierarchy, and it appears
that this situation was necessary for the continuance and welfare of the
Christianity had become in many striking ways a mirror image of the
empire itself. It was catholic, universal, orderly, multi-racial and increasingly
legalistic. It was administered by a professional class of literates, wealthy
landowners, urban bourgeoisie who functioned like bureaucrats, and its bishops
like imperial governors. It appeared to be a marriage of convenience between
State and Church.
In an epistle from Constantine to the clergy in which the emperor
commands that the rulers of the Church be exempted from all political duties,
it appears that the emperor attempted to diffuse the clergy and get them
on side in order to exercise some power over them. He also began to transfer
other privileges to the Christian clergy, which implies a class status situation.
Later Emperor Theodosius strove to establish and maintain a unified society
also, which was to be the centre of the Christian faith. To achieve this,
he exerted authority in and over the Church, for it was inconceivable to
him, as emperor, that the emperor's should be independent of imperial power.
The bishop of the Roman community continued to see his role, as the
successor of Peter, to be responsible for the unity and purity of the Christian
faith. Deference was paid to the bishop of Rome by the bishops of Asia Minor,
Spain, North Africa; Synods respected the politics shaped and implemented
within Rome. This was recognized by the State and emperor Gratian (375-378
AD) in 378 AD passed a State law which acknowledged the pre-eminence of
the Pontiff in relation to all other bishops. In that same year, Pope Damasus
I (366-384 AD) held a Synod "at the sublime and holy Apostolic See".
It was to be the first time that the Roman Church was addressed in this
manner. A new consciousness began to arise that the power and primary of
the Roman bishop echoed the words of the Lord and Saviour: "You are
Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church" (Mt. 16:18).
Under Damasus, the liturgy became more elaborate and formalized. Latin
was taken over from the secular world and introduced as the language of
the liturgy replacing Greek; the use of colourful vestments, gold and silver
ornaments, incense and candles became commonly associated with the pomp
and pageantry of worship.
Under Damasus' secretary, Jerome, the Old and New Testaments were
translated into Latin (Vulgate). By the end of the fifth century the Church
had become the main religion in the empire. In your further readings you
may wish to explore the contributions of the three great theologians of
the 4th and 5th century: Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and Jerome.
Each in his own way not only shaped the Christianity of his own day,
but would have far reaching effects in the way the Church would develop
its theology for centuries to come. Ambrose, in the twenty-five years he
ruled the Church in Milan (375-393 AD), influenced the policies of three
western emperors: Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius. He was a skilled
administrator who structured the basic models of the medieval cathedral.
Under him, the cult of relics, and particularly the veneration of the Virgin
Mary, strongly developed. It was under his influence that Augustine entered
Ambrose advocated the autonomy of the Church. He wanted the Church
to have the right to self-determination and the freedom of its ministers,
as representatives of the Church, to speak and act as they deemed necessary;
to be a herald who is there to receive the message of God and is commissioned
to pass it on. Ultimately, he saw the Church's responsibility as being not
necessarily to produce conversion, still less to build the Kingdom of God,
but really to evangelize all the nations in accordance with the commission
given by Jesus in Matthew's Gospel.
Ambrose realised the Church was increasing in wealth, due to imperial
favour, but in accepting such things it was indebted to the emperor and
lost its autonomy. If the Church was freed from its links to the State,
Ambrose deduced, it could fulfil its prophetic role, reminding the people
that the State was not absolute and was in need of reform. Ambrose and Augustine
had a similar notion that the Church was a higher and independent society
in comparison to the State.
Aurelius Augustinus was born in 354 AD and died in 430 AD living most
of his life in Roman north Africa. In his youth he had been a Manichee,
and the pessimism of Manichean philosophy coloured his post-conversion Christian
thinking particularly in relation to views on sexuality. The religion of
Mani, intermingled astrology with occult theosophy, taught that "the
lower half of the body was the disgusting work of the devil... Mani also
denied any presumption of the goodness of the material order of creation...
and interpreted everything he took from Christianity within a dualistic
and pantheistic framework" (Chadwick, 1990: 11 - 12). In 384 AD Augustine
took up the post as professor of rhetoric in Milan, where he was influenced
by Christian intellectuals, particularly the cities' bishop, Ambrose. After
his conversion, Augustine was destined to become one of the greatest thinkers
of ancient Christianity; through his work the Christian faith was to be
filtered through the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy.
Augustine believed that the Church's teaching mandate was catholic
(universal). He also believed that the Christian society was Christ's mystical
body where Christ existed as the eternal Word, the mediator God-man:
Of the Church as the body of Christ Augustine used lyrical language.
The word and sacraments entrusted to the Church were the very means and
instruments of salvation. So the Church is the dove or the beloved Bride
of the Song of Songs; the society of all faithful people; the body of which
Christ is so inseparably head that 'the whole Christ' is the Lord and his
Church indissolubly together; the body of which the Holy Spirit is the
soul. The Church militant and the Church triumphant were symbolized by
Martha and Mary (Luke 10), symbols of the active and the contemplative
(Chadwick, 1990: 84).
Within the community of believers, Christ is its leader and head,
and the people are members through baptism. Booty (1979: 40) expresses this
unity within the community in this way: "It is not a case of His being
one and our being many, but we who are many are a unity in Him."
Augustine also believed that the Church is a fellowship of love, its
members being united with one another as one body as an organic entity.
This notion represents in some way the mystical communion model which is
much more democratic than the institutional or hierarchical model. It emphasises
the immediate relationship of all believers to the Holy Spirit, who directs
the whole Church. Attention is focussed on the mutual service of the particular
good of any one group to that of the whole people. Augustine developed the
image of the Body of Christ with particular stress on the mystical all invisible
communion that binds together all those who are enlivened by the grace of
Christ. He speaks of a Church that includes both earthly and heavenly aspects.
The Edict of Milan, although making the way free for people to worship
and practice openly, did not lead to a total unity within the Church. On
the contrary, there was separation, because different groups saw the Church,
as it stood, not fulfilling their needs.
The Donatists, Montanists, Novantianists and Apotactites were several
Church groups that separated themselves from the mainstream Church. They
did so in search of a more fulfilling existence, less hampered by institutional
structures and persecution (under Diocletian 303-305 AD) and with the promise
of accounting for their own needs. These groups, to some extent, reflect
the pilgrim model.
The Donatists, for example, were conscious of their identity, and
for them the true Church consisted of the pure in heart and in outward discipleship,
and seeing that they had been called to make a positive contribution to
all humanity by following Jesus' example and coming not to be served but
It has been stated that the Church was based on the institutional
model to an extreme degree. By the time of Emperor Julian's rule (361 -
363 AD), the Church was becoming wealthy and powerful and it was continually
extending its legal privileges. In his brief reign, Julian, who had been
raised as a Christian, attempted unsuccessfully to revive paganism. Contrary
to some Christian apologists who branded him as 'Julian the Apostate' he
did not persecute the Christians: "Those who are in the wrong in matters
of supreme importance, are objects of pity rather than of hate." On
his deathbed he is supposed to have said, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean"
(Betterson, 1943: 28).
Critics of the early Church included St. Jerome who states, "Our
walls glitter with gold... yet Christ is dying at our doors in the persons
of His poor and hungry" (Jerome quoted in Johnson, 1976: 111). There
seems to be a contradiction with the models of communion and service stressed
by Augustine. Jerome, who appears to have a bleak outlook on life, sees
the mission of the Church proclaiming the Word of God to the whole world.
The Church is not held responsible for human failure to listen and act upon
God's Word but it is only to proclaim it diligently. Jerome saw God as an
agent, who encourages us to improve in a continuous process and move slowly
towards God. He saw the Christian message was addressed to all humanity
and ultimately all would be accommodated in the forgiveness and benevolence
By the fourth century the Church had built up an impressive following:
it began to act like a State Church. Christianity was the true and ancient
religion of the empire. The only real model that appeared to flourish was
the institutional, the others seemed to be lost in the day to day happenings,
Councils and the like.
They appeared so concerned with the theological truths like explaining
the Divinity of God and whether the Son was subordinate to the Father, and
with gaining more wealth, that they lost their true mission, as stressed
by Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose. Rome itself was experiencing vast political
upheavals. The process of integration of Church and State which had been
begun by Constantine continued to involve the Church more and more in State
politics, and the State, more and more in ecclesial affairs. Many bishops
assumed the role of "defenders of the State" (defensor civitatis)
and by 455 AD when Attila the Hun threatened Rome, it was the Pope who played
a major role in negotiating with hostile forces.
Why was this so? Since the fourth century, more and more bishops came
from the aristocratic land owning Roman ruling classes, and under their
leadership the Church began to make inroads into new areas by penetrating
northwards to convert the Franks and Burgundians in France, the Goths and
the Vandals in Germany. In all this, the See of Rome stood supreme, and
new bishoprics all over the west increasingly looked to it for support and
guidance. With its growing political strength, Rome became a symbol of the
increasing power of faith as expressed by the Council Fathers in Chalcedon
in 451 AD: "This is the faith of the Fathers and of the Apostles. Through
Leo, Peter has spoken." The same Pontiff described Rome as the "Seat
of Peter, the head of the world" (caput orbis).