. To Home Page .......... To Site "Contents" ......... Back to Notes for The Revelation chapter 2

Back to "The Original Sunday Law"

 

The change

from

Christianity (a family dependent on God)

to

Churchianity (a group dependent on man)

 

between

31AD and 538AD


as explained in

THE HUTCHINSON

HISTORY

OF THE

WORLD

by

J. M. Roberts

Pages 322 - 335

 

HUTCHINSON OF NEW ZEALAND

 

Hutchinson Publishing Group Ltd

(Incorporated in England)

32-34 View Road, Glenfield, P.O. Box 40086 Auckland 1

New Zealand

 

London Melbourne Sydney Auckland

Wellington Johannesburg and agencies

throughout the world

First published 1976

© J. M. Roberts 1976

Maps and diagrams © Hutchinson Publishing Group Ltd 1976

This book has been set in Monotype Ehrhardt and

printed in Great Britain by litho by The Anchor Press Ltd

Tiptree, Essex, and bound by Wm Brendon & Son Ltd

also of Tiptree

ISBN 0 09 126970 9


Page number positioning is only approximate to enable sentences to be kept intact. Headings are in the original. Emphasis has been added.


Page 322

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT

Persecution [in the first two centuries] had shown, nevertheless, that it would require great efforts and prolonged determination to eradicate the new sect; it may even have been already beyond the capacities of Roman government to carry out such an eradication. The exclusiveness and isolation of early Christianity had waned. Christians were increasingly prominent in local affairs in the Asian and African provinces. Bishops were often public figures with whom officials expected to do business; the development of distinct traditions within the Faith (those of the churches of Rome, Alexandria and Carthage being the most important) spoke for the degree to which it was rooted in local society and could express local needs.

Outside the empire, too, there had been signs that favourable conjunctures for the new religion might lie ahead. The local rulers of the client states under the shadow of Persia could not afford to neglect any source of local support. Respect for widely held religious views was at least prudent. In Syria, Cilicia and Cappadocia Christianity had been very successful in its missionary work and in some towns Christians formed a social elite. Simple superstition was another factor in convincing kings; the Christian god might prove powerful and it could hardly be damaging to insure against his ill-will. Thus Christianity's political and civic prospects improved.

Christians noted with some satisfaction that their persecutors did not prosper; the Goths slew Decius, and Valerian was said to have been skinned alive by the Persians (and stuffed). But Diocletian [245–313] did not appear to draw any conclusions from this and in 303 launched the last great Roman persecution. It was not at first harsh. The main targets were Christian officials, clergy and the books and buildings of the Church. The books were to be handed over for burning but for some time there was no death penalty for failing to sacrifice. (Many Christians none the less did sacrifice, the bishop at Rome among them.) Constantius, the Caesar of the West, did not enforce the persecution after 305 when Diocletian abdicated, though his eastern colleague (Diocletian's successor Galerius) felt strongly about it, ordering a general sacrifice on pain of death. This meant that persecution was worst in Egypt and Asia where it was kept up a few years longer. But before this it had been cut across by the complicated politics which led to the emergence of the emperor Constantine the Great.

This was the son of Constantius, who died in Britain in 3o6, a year after his accession as Augustus. Constantine [274–338] was there at the time and although he had not been his father's [choice of] Caesar he was hailed as emperor by the army at York. A troubled period of nearly two decades followed. Its intricate struggles demonstrated the failure of Diocletian's arrangements for the peaceful transmission of the empire and only ended in 324 when Constantine reunited the empire under one ruler.

By this time he had already addressed himself vigorously and effectively to its problems though with more success as a soldier than as an administrator. Often with barbarian recruits, he built up a powerful field army distinct from the frontier guards; it was stationed in cities within the empire. This was a strategically sound decision which proved itself in the fighting power the empire showed in the East for the next two centuries. Constantine also disbanded the Praetorian Guard and created a new, German, bodyguard. He restored a stable gold currency and paved the way to the abolition of payments of taxes in kind and the restoration of a money economy. His fiscal reforms had more mixed results but attempted some readjustment of the weight of taxation so that more should be borne by the rich. None of these things, though, so struck contemporaries as his attitude to Christianity.

[The following caption is for a picture which is not included here].

A huge seated statue of Constantine, more than 30 feet tall, dominated his basilica in Rome.

It represented a new kind of imperial iconography setting the emperor far above other men and foreshadowing the later exaltation of the emperor's image under the Christian empire of Byzantium [the eastern section based in Constantinople].

(page 323 is the picture)

page 324

CONSTANTINE AND CHRISTIANITY

Constantine was the emperor who gave the Church official houseroom. He thus played a more important part in shaping its future than any other Christian layman and was to be called the 'thirteenth Apostle'. Yet his personal relationship to Christianity was complicated. He grew up intellectually with the monotheistic predisposition of many late classical men and was in the end undoubtedly a convinced believer (it was not then unusual for Christians to do as he did and postpone baptism until their deathbed). But he believed from fear and hope, for the god he worshipped was a god of power. His first adherence was to the sun-god whose sign he bore and whose cult was already officially associated with that of the emperor. Then, in 312, on the eve of battle and as a result of what he believed to be a vision he ordered his soldiers to put on their shields a Christian monogram. This showed a willingness to show suitable respect to whatever gods there might be. He won the battle and thenceforth, though continuing publicly to acknowledge the cult of the sun, he began to show important favours to the Christians and their god.

One manifestation of this was an edict the following year which was issued by another of the contenders for the empire, after agreement with Constantine at Milan. It restored to Christians their property, and granted them the toleration that other religions enjoyed. The justification may reveal Constantine's own thinking as well as his wish to arrive at a satisfactory compromise formula with his colleague, for it explained its provisions by the hope 'that whatever divinity dwells in the heavenly seat may be appeased and be propitious towards us and to all who are placed under our authority'. Constantine went on to make considerable gifts of property to the churches, favouring, in particular, that of Rome. Besides providing important tax concessions to the clergy, an unlimited right to receive bequests was conferred on the Church. Yet for years his coins continued to honour pagan gods, notably the 'Unconquered Sun'.

Constantine gradually came to see himself as having a quasi-sacerdotal [partly religious] role, and this was of the first importance in the further evolution of the imperial office. He saw himself as responsible to God for the well-being of the Church to which he more and more publicly and unequivocally adhered. After 320 the sun no longer appeared on his coins and his soldiers had to attend church parades. But he was always cautious of the susceptibilities of his pagan subjects. Though he later despoiled temples of their gold while building splendid Christian churches and encouraging converts by preferment, he did not cease to tolerate the old cults.

In some of Constantine's work (like that of Diocletian) there was the development of things latent and implicit in the past, an extension of earlier precedents. This was true of his interventions in the internal affairs of the Church. As early as 272, the Christians of Antioch had appealed to the emperor to remove a bishop and Constantine himself in 316 tried to settle a controversy in North Africa by installing a bishop of Carthage against the will of a local sectarian group known as Donatists. Constantine came to believe that the emperor owed to God more than a grant of freedom to the Church or even an endowment [of cash]. His conception of his role evolved towards that of the guarantor and, if need be, the imposer of the unity which God required as the price of His continuing favour. When he turned on the Donatists it was this view of his duty which gave them the unhappy distinction of being the first schismatics [separatists, or offshoots] to be persecuted by a Christian government. Constantine was the creator of Caesaropapism, the belief that the secular ruler has divine authority [as a ‘father’] to settle religious belief, and of the notion of established [government sponsored] religion in Europe for the next thousand years.

Constantine's greatest act in the ordering of religion came just after he had formally declared himself a Christian in 324 (a declaration preceded by another victory over an imperial rival who had, interestingly, been persecuting Christians). This was the calling of the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea.

Page 325

CONSTANTINE AND THE CHURCH

It met for the first time in 325, nearly 3oo bishops being present, and Constantine presided over it. Its task was to settle the response of the Church to a new heresy, Arianism. Its founder, Arius, taught that the Son did not share the divinity of the Father; though technical and theological, the nice [or subtle] issues to which this gave rise prompted enormous controversy. Grave scandal was alleged by Arius' opponents. Constantine sought to heal the division and the Council laid down a Creed which decided against the Arians, but went on in a second reunion to readmit Arius to communion after suitable declarations. That this did not satisfy all the bishops (and that there were few from the West at Nicaea) was less important than that Constantine had presided at this crucial juncture; this proclaimed the emperor's enjoyment of special authority and responsibility. The Church was clothed in the imperial purple.

There were other great implications, too. Behind the hair-splitting of the theologians lay a great question both of practice and principle: in the new ideological unity given to the empire by the official establishment of Christianity, what was to be the place of diverging Christian traditions which were social and political, as well as liturgical [concerning rituals] and theological [concerning doctrines], realities? The churches of Syria and Egypt, for example, were strongly tinctured [influenced] by their inheritance of thought and custom both from the Hellenistic [Greek] culture and the popular religion of those regions. The importance of such considerations helps to explain why the practical outcome of Constantine's ecclesiastical policy was less than he had hoped. The Council did not produce an emollient [healing] formula to make easier a general reconciliation in a spirit of compromise. Constantine's own attitude to the Arians soon relaxed (in the end, it was to be an Arian bishop who baptized him as he lay dying) but the opponents of Arius, led by the formidable Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, were relentless. The quarrel remained unsettled when Arius died, and Constantine's own death followed not long after though Arianism was not to prosper in the East. Its last successes, instead, were won by Arian missionaries to the Germanic tribes of south-cast Russia; borne by these barbarian nations, Arianism was to survive until the seventh century in the West - but this is to anticipate.

How much of the Church's rise was in the end inevitable it is not profitable to consider. Certainly - in spite of a North African Christian tradition which saw the state as an irrelevancysomething so positively important as Christianity could hardly have remained for ever unrecognized by the civil power.

[Another caption for a picture. It has an interesting comment about Christ.]

Who is depicted in this ivory, one of the finest surviving from antiquity, is not certainly known; it may be Justinian, it may be another emperor. It is a triumphal piece; Scythians and Indians bring tribute to the emperor, a general stands by with a classical statuette of victory and Christ (at this time still usually portrayed without a beard) raises his hand in blessing.

Page 326

CHRISTIANITY AND THE EMPIRE

Yet someone had to begin and Constantine was the man who took the crucial steps which linked Church and empire for so long as the empire should last. His choices were historically decisive. The Church gained most, for it acquired the charisma of Rome. The empire seemed less changed. Yet Constantine’s sons were brought up as Christians and even if the fragility of much in the new establishment was to appear soon after his death in 337, he had registered a decisive break with the tradition of classical Rome. Ultimately, and unwittingly, he was founding Christian Europe and, therefore, the modern world.

Page 327

COLLAPSE OF THE WESTERN EMPIRE

One of his decisions only slightly less enduring in its effects was his foundation, 'on the command of God', he said, of a city to rival Rome on the site of the old Greek colony of Byzantium [in Turkey]. There, at the entrance to the Black Sea, it was dedicated in 33o as Constantinople [today it is called Istanbul]. Though his own court remained at Nicomedia and no emperor was to reside there permanently until another fifty years were past, Constantine was again shaping the future. For a thousand years [till about 1299] Constantinople would be a Christian capital, unsullied by pagan rites. After that, for five hundred years more [till 1840], it would be a pagan capital and the constant ambition of would-be successors to its traditions.

Once again, though, this is anticipating too much. We must return to the empire as Constantine left it, still coterminous with [or, exactly the same as] civilization itself in Roman eyes. Its frontiers ran for the most part along natural features which recognized, more or less, the demarcations of distinct geographical or historical regions. Hadrian's wall in Britannia [English/Scottish border] was their northern limit; in continental Europe they followed the lines of the Rhine and Danube. The Black Sea coasts north of the mouths of the Danube had been lost to barbarians by 305 BC, but Asia Minor remained in the empire; it stretched as far east as the shifting boundary with Persia. Further south, the Levant coast and Palestine were within a frontier which ran to the Red Sea. The lower Nile valley was still held by the empire and so was the North African coast; the African frontiers were the Atlas and the desert.

This unity was, for all Constantine's great work, in large measure an illusion. As the first experiments with co-emperors had shown, the world of Roman civilization had grown too big for a unified political structure, however desirable the preservation of the myth of unity might be. Growing cultural differentiation between a Greek-speaking East and a Latin-speaking West, the new importance of Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt (in all of which there were large Christian communities) after the establishment of Christianity and the continuing stimulus of direct contact with Asia in the East all drove the point home. After 364 the two parts of the old empire were only once more and then only briefly ruled by the same man. Their institutions diverged further and further. In the East the emperor was a theological as well as a juridical [state] figure [a god/king]; the identity of Empire and Christendom and the emperor's standing as the expression of divine intention were unambiguous [absolutely believed]. The West, on the other hand, had by 400 already seen adumbrated [toned down] the distinction of' the roles of Church and State which was to father one of the most creative arguments of European politics [the divine rights of kings]. There was an economic contrast, too: the East was populous and could still raise great revenues, while the West was by 3oo already unable to feed itself without Africa and the Mediterranean islands. It now seems obvious that two distinct civilizations were to emerge, but it was a long time before any of the participants could see that.

Instead, they saw something much more appalling: the western empire simply disappeared. By 500 when the boundaries of the eastern empire were still much what they had been under Constantine, and his successors were still holding their own against the Persians, the last western emperor had been deposed and his insignia sent to Constantinople by a barbarian king who claimed to rule as the eastern emperor's representative in the West.

This is striking: what, actually had collapsed? What had declined or fallen? Fifth-century writers bewailed it so much that it is easy to have the impression, heightened by such dramatic episodes as two sackings of Rome itself, that the whole of society fell apart. This was not so. It was the state apparatus which collapsed, some of its functions ceasing to be carried out, and some passing into other hands. This was quite enough to explain the alarm which was felt. Institutions with a thousand years of history behind them gave way within a half-century. It is hardly surprising that people have asked why ever since.

[Return to Notes for The Revelation chapter 8]

Page 328

DECLINE OF THE ARMY

One explanation is cumulative: the state apparatus in the West gradually seized up after the recovery of the fourth century. The whole concern became too big for the demographic [the diversity of people], fiscal [money matters] and economic base [manufacturing and agricultural systems] which carried it. The main purpose of raising revenue was to pay for the military machine, but it became more and more difficult to raise enough. There were no more conquests after Dacia to bring in new tribute. Soon the measures adopted to squeeze more taxes out of them drove rich and poor alike to devices for avoiding them. The effect was to make agricultural estates rely more and more upon meeting their own needs and becoming self-supporting, rather than producing for the market. Parallel with this went a crumbling of urban government as trade languished and the rich withdrew to the countryside.

The military result was an army recruited from inferior material, because better could not be paid for. Even the reform of dividing it into mobile and garrison forces had its defects, for the first lost their fighting spirit by being stationed at the imperial residence and becoming used to the pampering and privileges that went with city postings, while the second turned into settled colonists, unwilling to take risks which would jeopardize their homesteads. Another descent in the unending spiral of decline logically followed. A weaker army drove the empire to rely still more on the very barbarians the army was supposed to keep at bay. As they had to be recruited as mercenaries, soothing and conciliatory policies were needed to keep them sweet. This led the Romans to concede more to the barbarians just when the pressure of the Germanic folk-movements was reaching a new climax. Migration and the attractive prospect of paid service with the empire probably counted for much more in the barbarian contribution to imperial collapse than the simple desire for loot. The prospect of booty might animate a raiding-party but could hardly bring down an empire.

Page 329

GERMANIC VÖLKERWANDERUNG

(the wandering of the people)

At the beginning of the fourth century Germanic peoples were stretched along the whole length of the frontier from the Rhine to the Black Sea, but it was in the south that the most formidable concentration was at that moment assembled. These were the Gothic peoples, Ostrogoth and Visigoth who waited beyond the Danube. Some of them were already Christian, though in the Arian form. Together with Vandals, Burgundians and Lombards, they made up an east Germanic group. To the north were the west Germans: Franks, Alamanni, Saxons, Frisians and Thuringians. They would move into action in the second phase of the VÖlkerwanderung of the fourth and fifth centuries.

The crisis began in the last quarter of the fourth century. The pressure on the Huns, a formidable nomadic people from central Asia, was mounting after 370. They overran the Ostrogothic territory, defeated the Alans and then turned on the Visigoths near the Dniester. Unable to hold them, the Visigoths fled for refuge to the empire and in 376 were allowed to cross the Danube to settle within the frontier. The Emperor Valens intended to disarm them; it was not done and instead there was fighting. At the battle of Adrianople in 378 the emperor was killed and a Roman army defeated by the Visigoth cavalry. The Visigoths ravaged Thrace.

This was in more than one way a turning-point. Germans had already been employed as soldiers and had risen high in the Roman army; now whole tribes were enrolled as confederates foederati, a word first used in 4o6 - and entered Roman territory to serve against other barbarians under their own chiefs. A temporary settlement with the Visigoths could not be maintained and the eastern empire was helpless to protect its European territories outside Constantinople, but when the Visigothic armies moved north towards Italy early in the fifth century, they were checked for a while by a Vandal general. By now the imperial position in Italy, the old heart of the empire, was entirely dependent on barbarian auxiliaries and soon even this was not enough; Constantinople might be held, but in 41o Alaric the Goth sacked Rome. After an abortive move to the south, with a view to seizing Africa, the Visigoths again turned north, crossed the Alps into Gaul and eventually settled as the new kingdom of Toulouse in 419, a Gothic state within the empire, where a Gothic aristocracy shared its overlordship with the old Gallo-Roman landlords.

These are confused events, difficult to follow, but there is still one other major movement of peoples which has to be noticed in order to explain the fifth-century re-making of the European racial and cultural map. In return for their settlement in Aquitania, the western emperor had succeeded in getting the Visigoths to promise that they would help him to clear Spain of other barbarians. Of these the most important were the Vandals. In 4o6 the Rhine frontier, denuded of soldiers sent to defend Italy against the Visigoths, had given way too and the Vandals and Alans had broken into Gaul, from which they made their way southward, sacking and looting as they went. In 409 they crossed the Pyrenees to establish a Vandal state in Spain. From there they were tempted to Africa twenty years later by a dissident Roman governor who wanted their help. Visigothic attacks encouraged the removal. By 439 they had taken Carthage and the Vandal kingdom of Africa had a naval base. They were to stay there for nearly a century and in 455 they, too, crossed to sack Rome and leave their name to history as a synonym for mindless destructiveness. Terrible as this was, though, it was less important than the seizure of Africa. The western empire had lost much of its economic base. Thus disasters unrolled and trouble accumulated. Though great efforts could and would still be made in the West by eastern emperors, the empire there was on its last legs. The dependence on one barbarian against another was a fatal handicap. The cumulative impact of fresh pressure made recovery impossible. The protection of Italy meant abandoning Gaul and Spain to the Vandals; their invasion of Africa meant the loss of Rome's grain-growing provinces.

Page 330

HUNS AND GOTHS

The collapse was completed in Europe in the third quarter of the century. It followed the greatest of the Hun assaults. These nomads had followed the Germanic tribes into the Balkans and central Europe after a preliminary diversion to ravage Anatolia and Syria. By 440 the Huns were led by Attila, under whom their power was at its height. From Hungary, where the great steppe corridor of Asia peters out, he drove west for the last time with a huge army of allies, but was defeated near Troyes in 451 by a 'Roman' army of Visigoths under a commander of barbarian origin. This was the end of the Hun threat; Attila died two years later, apparently scheming to marry the western emperor's sister and perhaps become emperor himself. A great revolt the following year by the Huns’ subjects in Hungary finally broke them and they are thenceforth almost lost to sight. In Asia, their home, new confederations of nomads were forming to play a similar part in the future, but their story can wait. [The Mongols and Tartars].

The Huns had all but delivered the coup de grace in the West; one emperor had sent the pope to intercede with Attila. The last western emperor was deposed by a Germanic warlord, Odoacer, in 476 and formal sovereignty passed to the eastern emperors. It was a real end, not a formal one, for though Italy, like the rest of the former western provinces, was henceforth a barbarian kingdom, independent in all but name, Italians regarded their sovereign as now resident in Constantinople.

The structure which had finally given way under these blows has in its last decades something of the Cheshire cat about it. It was fading away all the time; it is not particularly meaningful to pick one date rather than another as its end. The barbarian kingdoms were only a logical development of the reliance upon barbarian troops for the field army and their settlement as foederati within the frontiers. The barbarians themselves usually wanted no more, unless it was simple loot. Certainly they did not plan to replace imperial authority with their own. It is a Goth, Alaric's successor, who is reported saying, 'I hope to go down to posterity as the restorer of Rome, since it is not possible that I should be its supplanter.' Other dangers were greater and more fundamental than barbarian swagger.

Socially and economically, the tale of the third century had been resumed in the fifth as cities decayed and population fell. The civil service fell deeper into disorder as officials sought to protect themselves against inflation by taking payment for carrying out their duties. Though revenue declined as provinces were lost, the sale of offices somehow kept up the lavish expenditure of the court. But independence of action was gone. From being emperors whose power rested on their armies, the last emperors of the West declined through the stage of being the equals in negotiation of barbarian warlords whom they had to placate, to being their puppets, cooped up in the last imperial capital, Ravenna. Contemporaries had been right in this sense to see the sack of Rome in 410 as the end of an age, for then it was revealed that the empire could no longer preserve the very heart of romanitas [the Roman way].

[Return to Notes for The Revelation chapter 8]

One of the great minds of the later classical world specifically bent itself to the task of explaining the significance of that event to a stunned world. The result was a masterpiece, the book called The City of God. The first striking thing about St. Augustine's book is its explicit intention [he died 605]: if so tremendous an event was to be understood, he argued, it was to be understood by the Christian religion and interpreted by the guardians of its traditions. Such a claim (and the absence of challenge to it) showed how far the Church had come since Constantine had established Christianity as the official cult. Almost a quarter of a century after his death the last emperor of his house, Julian, began a brief reign (361-3) during which he tried to restore the pagan cults: he earned himself historical fame (or, in Christian eyes, infamy) and the title 'the Apostate', but he was not successful. He believed that a restoration of the old sacrifices would ensure the return of prosperity, but he had too little time to test the proposition.

Page 331

CHRISTIANITY CONSOLIDATED

What is now perhaps more striking is the unquestioned assumption that religion and public life were inseparably intertwined, on which his policy was based and which commanded general agreement; it was an assumption whose origins were Roman, not Christian. In any case, Julian did not threaten Constantine's work for he reigned too briefly to do so and Theodosius, the last ruler of a united empire, at last forbade the worship of the ancient/ gods.

What this meant in practice is hard to say. In Egypt it seems to have been the final landmark in the process of overcoming the ancient/ civilisation which had been going on for eight centuries or so. The victory of Greek ideas first won by the philosophers of Alexandria was now confirmed by the clergy. The priests of the ancient/ cults were now to be harried as pagans. Roman paganism found outspoken defenders still in the fifth century and only at the end of it were pagan teachers expelled from the universities at Athens and Constantinople. None the less a great turning-point had been reached; in principle the closed Christian society of the Middle Ages was now in existence.

Christian emperors soon set about developing it in a particular direction which became only too familiar by depriving Jews, the most easily identifiable of groups alien to the closed society, of their juridical equality with other citizens. Here was another turning-point. Judaism had long been the only monotheistic representative in the pluralistic religious world of Rome and now it was ousted by its derivative, Christianity. A prohibition on proselytising was the first blow and others soon followed. In 425 the patriarchate under which Jews had enjoyed administrative autonomy was abolished. When pogroms [religious persecutions] occurred, Jews began to withdraw to Persian territory. Their growing alienation from the empire was to be of great importance, for they could soon call for help upon Rome's enemies and there were Jewish Arab states, as well, which lay along trade-routes to Asia through the Red Sea, able to inflict damage on Roman interests in support of their co-religionists. Ideological rigour bore a high price.

Theodosius’ reign is also notable in Christian history because of his quarrel with St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. In 39o, after an insurrection at Thessalonica, Theodosius pitilessly massacred thousands of its inhabitants. To the amazement of contemporaries, the emperor was soon seen standing in penance for the deed in a Milan church. Ambrose had refused him communion. The superstition of the age had won the first round of one of the great battles of humanity and enlightenment. Other men of might were to be tamed by excommunication or its threat, but this was the first time the spiritual arm had been so exercised and it is significant that it happened in the western Church. Ambrose had alleged a higher duty for his office than that owed to the emperor. It is the inauguration of a great theme of western European history, the tension of spiritual and secular claims which was time and time again to pull it back into a progressive channel, the conflict of Church and State.

By then, a glorious century for Christianity was almost over. It had been a great age of evangelization, in which missionaries had penetrated as far afield as Ethiopia, a brilliant age of theology and, above all, the age of establishment.

Page 332

HERESY AND THE CHURCH

Yet the Christianity of the age has about it much which now seems repellent and bilious [sickening]. Establishment [government recognition as the sole religion] gave Christians power they did not hesitate to use. 'We look on the same stars, the same heavens are above us all,' pleaded one pagan to St. Ambrose, 'the same universe surrounds us. What matters it by what method each of us arrives at the truth?' But Symmachus asked in vain. East and West, the temper of the Christian Churches was intransigent [unbending] and enthusiastic; if there was a distinction between the two, it lay between the Greeks' conviction of the almost limitless authority of a Christianized empire, blending spiritual and secular power, and the defensive, suspicious hostility to the whole secular world, state included, of a Latin tradition which taught Christians to see themselves as a saving remnant, tossed on the seas of sin and paganism in the Noah's Ark of the Church. Yet to be fair to the Fathers, or to understand their anxieties and fears, a modern observer has to recognize the forces of superstition and mystery which hung over the whole late classical world. Christianity shared and expressed much of this. The demons among whom Christians walked their earthly ways were real to them and to pagans alike, and a fifth century pope consulted the augurs in order to find out what to do about the Goths.

This is part of the explanation of the bitter pursuit of heresy and schism. Arianism had not been finished off at Nicaea; far from it, it flourished among the Gothic peoples. Arian Christianity was therefore the dominant religion over much of Italy, Gaul and Spain. The Catholic Church was not persecuted in the Arian barbarian kingdoms, but it was neglected there and when everything depended on the patronage of rulers and the great, neglect could be dangerous. Another threat was the Donatist schism in Africa, which had taken on a social content and broke out in violent conflicts of town and country. In Africa, too, the old threat of Gnosticism lived again in Manichaeism which came to the West from Persia; another heresy, Pelagianism, showed the readiness of some Christians in Latinized Europe to welcome a version of Christianity reminiscent of stoic teaching, in which mystery and sacramentalism were subordinated to the moral aim of living a good life.

Few men were better fitted by temperament or education to discern, analyse and combat such dangers than was St. Augustine. He was the greatest of the Fathers. It was important that he came from Africa - that is to say, the Roman province of that name, which corresponded roughly to Tunisia and eastern Algeria - where he was born in 354. African Christianity had more than a century's life behind it by then but was still a minority affair. The African Church had a special temper of its own since the days of Tertullian, its great founding figure.

Page 333

ST. AUGUSTINE

Its roots were not those of the Hellenized cities of the East, but in soil laid down by the religions of Carthage and Numidia which lingered on amid the Berber peasantry. The humanized deities of Olympus had never been at home in Africa. The local traditions were of remote gods dwelling in mountains and high places, worshipped in savage and ecstatic rituals (the Carthaginians are supposed to have practised child sacrifice).

The intransigent, violent temper of the African Christianity which grew up against this background was reflected to the full in Augustine's own personality. He responded to the same psychological stimuli and felt the need to confront the fact of an evil lurking in himself. One answer was available and popular. The stark dualism of Manichaecism had a very wide appeal in Africa; Augustine became a Manichee for nearly ten years. Characteristically, he then reacted against his errors with great violence.

Before adulthood and Manichaeism, Augustine's education had orientated him towards a public career in the western empire. That education was overwhelmingly Latin (Augustine probably spoke only that language and certainly found Greek difficult) and very selective. Its skills were those of rhetoric and it was in them that Augustine first won prizes, but as for ideas, it was barren. Augustine taught himself by reading; his first great step forward was the discovery of the philosophical works of Cicero, probably his first contact, though at secondhand, with the classical Athenian tradition.

Augustine's lay career ended in Milan (where he had gone to teach rhetoric) with his baptism as a Catholic by St. Ambrose himself in 387. At that time Ambrose exercised an authority which rivalled that of the empire itself in one of its most important cities and Augustine's observation of the relation of religion and secular power confirmed him in views very different from those of Greek churchmen, who welcomed the conflation [joining together] of lay and religious authority in the emperor which followed establishment. Augustine then returned to Africa, first to live as a monk at Hippo and then, reluctantly, to become its bishop. There he remained until his death in 430, building up Catholicism's position against the Donatists and almost by the way, thanks to vast correspondence and a huge literary output, becoming a dominant personality of the western Church.

In his lifetime Augustine was best known for his attacks on the Donatists and the Pelagians. The first was really a political question: which of two rival Churches was to dominate Roman Africa?

The second raised wider issues.

Page 334

‘THE CITY OF GOD'

They must seem abstruse to a non-theologically minded age but on them turned much future European history. Essentially, the Pelagians preached a kind of stoicism; they were part of the classical world and tradition, dressed up in Christian theological language though it might be. The danger this presented - if it was a danger - was that the distinctiveness of Christianity would be lost and the Church simply become the vehicle of one strain in classical Mediterranean civilization, with the strengths and weaknesses which that implied. Augustine was uncompromisingly other-worldly and theological; for him the only possibility of redemption for mankind lay in the Grace which God conferred and no man could command by his works. In the history of the human spirit Augustine deserves a place for having laid out more comprehensively than any predecessor the lines of the great debate between predestination and free will, Grace and Works, belief and motive which was to run for so long through European history. Almost incidentally, he established Latin Christianity firmly on the rock of the Church's unique power of access to the source of Grace through the sacraments.

This is now largely forgotten except by specialists. St. Augustine now enjoys instead some notoriety as one of the most forceful and insistent exponents of a distrust of the flesh which was long especially to mark Christian sexual attitudes and thereby the whole of western culture. He stands in strange company - with Plato, for example - as a Founding Father of puritanism. But his intellectual legacy was far richer than this suggests. In his writings can also be found the foundations of much medieval political thought in so far as they are not Aristotelian or legalistic, and a view of history which would long dominate Christian society in the West and would affect it as importantly as the words of Christ himself.

The book now called The City of God contains the writing of Augustine which had most future impact. It is not so much a matter of specific ideas or doctrines - there is difficulty in locating his precise influence on medieval political thinkers, perhaps because there is much ambiguity about what he says - as of an attitude. He laid out in this book a way of looking at history and the government of men which became inseparable from Christian thinking for a thousand years and more. The subtitle of the book is Against the Pagans. This makes explicit his aim: to refute the reactionary and pagan charge that the troubles crowding in on the empire were to be blamed on Christianity. He was inspired to write by Alaric's sack of Rome; his overriding aim was to demonstrate that the understanding of even such an appalling event was possible for a Christian, but his book swoops far and wide over the past, from the importance of chastity to the philosophy of Thales of Miletus, and expounds the civil wars of Marius and Sulla as carefully as the meaning of God's promises to David.

Page 335

ST. AUGUSTINE

It is impossible to summarize this huge work: 'It may be too much for some, too little for others', said Augustine wryly in his last paragraph. It is a Christian interpretation of a whole civilization and what went to its making. Its most remarkable feature is its central judgement: that the whole earthly tissue of things is dispensable, and culture and institutions - even the great empire itself - of no final value, if God so wills.

That God did so will was suggested by Augustine's central image of two cities. One was earthly, founded in men's lower nature, imperfect and made with sinful hands, however glorious its appearance and however important the part it might from time to time have to play in the divine scheme. Sometime its sinful aspect predominates and it is clear that men must flee the earthly city - but Babylon, too, had had its part in the divine plan. The other city was the heavenly city of God, the community founded on the assurance of God's promise of salvation, a goal towards which mankind might make a fearful pilgrimage from the earthly city, led and inspired by the Church. In the Church was to be found both the symbol of the City of God and the means of reaching it. History had changed with the appearance of the Church: from that moment the struggle of good and evil was clear in the world and human salvation rested upon its defence. Such arguments would be heard long into modern times.

The two cities sometimes make other appearances in St. Augustine's argument, too. They are sometimes two groups of men, those who are condemned to punishment in the next world and those who are making the pilgrimage to glory. At this level the cities are divisions of the actual human race, here and now, as well as of all those since Adam who have already passed to judgement. But Augustine did not think that membership of the Church explicitly defines one group, the rest of humanity being the other. Perhaps the power of Augustine's vision was all the greater because of its ambiguities, dangling threads of argument and suggestion. The state was not merely earthly and wicked; it had its role in the divine scheme and government, in its nature, was divinely given. Much would be heard about that; the state would be asked to serve the Church by preserving it from its carnal enemies and by using its own power to enforce the purity of the Faith. Yet the Mandate of Heaven (as another civilization might put it) could be withdrawn and, when it was, even an event like the sack of Rome was only a landmark in the working of judgement on sin. In the end the City of God would prevail.

St. Augustine escapes simple definition in his greatest book, but perhaps he escapes it in every sense. Much remains to be said about him for which there is no room here. He was, for example, a careful and conscientious bishop, the loving pastor of his flock; he was also a persecutor with the dubious distinction of having persuaded the imperial government to use force against the Donatists. He wrote a fascinating spiritual study which, though profoundly misleading on the facts of his early life, virtually founded the literary genre of romantic and introspective autobiography. He could be an artist with words - Latin ones, not Greek (he had to ask St. Jerome for help with Greek translation) - and a prize-winning scholar, but his artistry was born of passion rather than of craftsmanship and his Latin is often poor. Yet he was soaked in the classical Roman past and it was from the high ground of his mastery of this tradition that he looked out with the eyes of Christian faith to a cloudy, uncertain and, to other men, frightening future. He embodied two cultures more completely, perhaps, than any other man of those divided times and perhaps this is why, fifteen hundred years later, he still seems to dominate them.

 

 

Back to Notes on The Revelation Chapter Two

 

Back to "The Original Sunday Law"


Back to Home Page ............ Back to Site "Contents"