The Christian Prince: A Punishment for Sins?

I recently saw one Reformed commentator declare—I think sincerely rather than tongue-in-cheek—that Constantine’s engagement and oversight of church affairs was a smashing success worth emulating (in not so many words). This reminded me of a passage in Socrates Scholasticus, a Christian historian and likely a legal scholar living in Constantinople. Writing between 439 and 450, Socrates was just over a century removed from Nicaea at the time of writing. So how was the “Constantinian” project going?

Socrates begins the fifth book of his history this way:

Before we begin this history’s fifth book, we tell those about to encounter its argument not to complain to us that we, proposing to write up an ecclesiastical history, are mixing in with it wars that occurred in the moment, as many of which wars whose history we were able to determine with the truth. We are doing this, you see, for many reasons: [not only] for making known events but also that readers not be filled solely from the bishops’ pursuit of contentiousness and by what ways they made mischief for one another. [1]

Socrates is under no delusions about the church itself, knowing full well that the churchmen in his narrative (from Constantine up to his own day) were often bad-faith actors, manifestly guilty of philoneikia (see Luke 22:24 for an example). That’s one problem.

Another is politics. As he says in a passage that needs a careful reading, he has to include non-ecclesiastical events in the history

so that it might be known that when the commonwealth (τῶν δημοσίων) was unsettled, the churches’ affairs were also unsettled as though from some affinity. For if someone will look carefully, he will find both public evils and the churches’ difficulties co-flourishing! For he will find suchwise: either the one being moved by or following the other: when the churches’ (problems) lead, then the public ones follow in turn, and vice versa. So I think the sequence of these matters occurred not by some coincidence but take root from our errors, bringing on the evils as a punishment, if really, according to the apostle, “the sins of some men are obvious, going forth to judgment; for others, their sins follow them.”[2]

The passage of Paul’s in question, 1 Timothy 5:24, is all about fit and unfit clerics, interestingly. And Paul stresses in this verse and the next that good and evil deeds alike are plain to observers. This is, I suspect, Socrates’ way of saying he is reporting the deeds of various actors and letting them speak for themselves, including bishops.

In any case, he is more direct in underscoring how ecclesiastical matters were mixed up with those of the “public” or “commonwealth,” which in today’s idiom, we would call “politics.” For Socrates, this is not the inevitable order of things. The unhappy arrangement, he suggests, is a recompense for sin. He then explains how long this has been this case:

For this reason, we are adding some of the public affairs to the ecclesiastical history. We were, on one hand, not able to discover things that happened concerning wars in Constantine’s day a long time ago, but of things afterwards, as much as we learned from those yet living, we make mention in brief summary. And we continuously include emperors in this history because, since the time they began to Christianize, the churches’ affairs were hanging on them, and the greatest councils have occurred and even occur with their judgment.[3]

The episcopacy is not the only institution under the microscope. My own reading of this passage leads me to think Socrates is being coy here, as ancient historians often had to be if they wanted to offer anything like criticism of the present regime. After all, Socrates cannot come right out and say (amidst the Theodosian dynasty), “This whole Christian-emperor thing stinks.”

But do the arithmetic. On one hand, church and politics are mixed up as a punishment for sin. On the other, it is plain from the rest of the passage (and common sense) that this dynamic grew out of the Constantinian arrangement. The churches’ business now depends on the emperors (i.e., since Constantine) and their opinion. Indeed, that final sentence about the councils happening “with the judgment” of the emperors is marvelously ambiguous. It might simply mean the emperors have facilitated the councils, but it can also mean (and I think this is what Socrates actually intends) that the emperors’ opinions—or those of the court more generally—predetermined the outcomes of these councils. The emperors’ “facilitation” of the councils should, I reason, be read in conjunction with the earlier paragraph about the intermingling of public and ecclesiastical. Besides, it was in the emperor that public affairs most directly intersected with the church, as anyone on the street of Constantinople knew c. 440.

So what?

For as much as I tend to defend Constantine’s actual and contextualized religious policies from their modern caricatures, many of his successors were less adept at filling the role he had carved out. Had you asked an intelligent Christian like Socrates, who was much closer to the real Christian princes than theorists today, he would have told you that no, not everything was peachy, that there were major downsides to this arrangement, and that welding church and commonwealth so closely had caused all sorts of trouble for both. If we doubt this, perhaps we need to better acquaint ourselves with the actual history of the Christian prince.

  1. Πρὶν ἀρξώμεθα τῆς ἱστορίας τοῦ πέμπτου βιβλίου, φαμὲν πρὸς τοὺς μέλλοντας ἐντυγχάνειν τῇδε τῇ ὑποθέσει μὴ μέμψασθαι ἡμῖν, ὅτι προθέμενοι ἐκκλησιαστικὴν ἱστορίαν συγγράψασθαι ἐπιμίγνυμεν αὐτῇ καὶ τοὺς κατὰ καιρὸν γενομένους πολέμους, ὅσων τὴν ἱστορίαν μετὰ τῆς ἀληθείας ἠδυνήθημεν γνῶναι. Τοῦτο γὰρ πολλῶν ἕνεκα ποιοῦμεν· <οὐ μόνον> τοῦ εἰς γνῶσιν ἄγειν τὰ γινόμενα, ἀλλὰ γὰρ καὶ τοῦ τοὺς ἐντυγχάνοντας μὴ προσκορεῖς γενέσθαι ἐκ τοῦ μόνῃ σχολάζειν τῇ φιλονεικίᾳ τῶν ἐπισκόπων καὶ οἷς κατ’ ἀλλήλων ἐτύρευσαν. All translations are my own.
  2. πρὸ δὲ τούτων, ἵνα γνωσθῇ, ὅπως τῶν δημοσίων ταραττομένων ὡς ἔκ τινος συμπαθείας καὶ τὰ τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν ἐταράττετο. Εἰ γάρ τις παρατηρήσει, συνακμάσαντα εὑρήσει τά τε δημόσια κακὰ καὶ τὰ τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν δυσχερῆ· ἢ γὰρ κατὰ ταὐτὸν κινηθέντα εὑρήσει ἢ ἐπακολουθοῦντα ἀλλήλοις, καὶ ποτὲ μὲν τὰ τῶν ἐκκλησιῶν ἡγούμενα, εἶτα αὖθις ἐπακολουθοῦντα τὰ δημόσια, ποτὲ δὲ τοὔμπαλιν, ὥστε με τὸ διάδοχον τούτων μὴ ἔκ τινος συντυχίας γενέσθαι νομίζειν, ἀλλ’ ἐκ τῶν ἡμετέρων πλημμελημάτων λαμβάνειν τὰς ἀρχάς, τιμωρίας δὲ ἕνεκεν ἐπιφέρεσθαι τὰ κακά, εἴγε κατὰ τὸν ἀπόστολον «τινῶν ἀνθρώπων αἱ ἁμαρτίαι πρόδηλοί εἰσιν, εἰσάγουσαι εἰς κρίσιν· τισὶ δὲ καὶ ἐπακολουθοῦσιν.»

  3. Διὰ ταύτην δὴ τὴν αἰτίαν, τῇ ἐκκλησιαστικῇ ἱστορίᾳ καί τινα τῶν δημοσίων πραγμάτων ἐπισυμπλέκομεν. Τὰ μὲν γὰρ ἐπὶ Κωνσταντίνου περὶ τοὺς πολέμους γενόμενα διὰ χρόνου μῆκος εὑρεῖν οὐκ ἰσχύσαμεν, τῶν δὲ μετὰ ταῦτα, ὅσα παρὰ τῶν ἔτι ζώντων ἐμάθομεν, ἐν ἐπιδρομῇ ποιούμεθα μνήμην. Συνεχῶς δὲ καὶ τοὺς βασιλεῖς τῇ ἱστορίᾳ περιλαμβάνομεν, διότι, ἀφ’ οὗ χριστιανίζειν ἤρξαντο, τὰ τῆς ἐκκλησίας πράγματα ἤρτητο ἐξ αὐτῶν, καὶ αἱ μέγισται σύνοδοι τῇ αὐτῶν γνώμῃ γεγόνασίν τε καὶ γίνονται.


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