A wee note on Christology and the Constantinian arrangement

In Hoc Signo Vinces

Perhaps no dominical injunction has been rendered by christological elaboration more difficult in Christian practice, personal and corporate, than Jesus’ supposedly simple distinction between the proper claims of Caesar and God. (G. H. Williams)

Amid pressure from Nazi defenders for a ‘positive Christianity’, Erik Peterson, in his essay ‘Kaiser Augustus im Urteil des antiken Christentums’ (1933), argues that despite the persecutions in the early centuries of the Christian community, there was – from Luke through Quadratus, Melito of Sardis, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Orosius – a somewhat positive evaluation of the Empire. And in his book Der Monotheismus als politisches Problem. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der politischen Theologie im Imperium Romanum (1935), Peterson further develops the claim that there existed something of a convergence of interests between pagan and Christian monotheism, a convergence which illustrates how positive evaluations of the Empire in terms of the Logos, and related notions in the Ante-Nicene period, ill-prepared the Christian bishops for handling the vastly enlarged risks and opportunities that lay before them. As G. H. Williams (who was, of all the odd creatures to be, a Unitarian) has noted in a fine article on ‘Christology and Church-State Relations in the Fourth Century’, this meeting of interests at first betrayed the bishops into championing ‘an uncritical acceptance of political support, until at length a fully understood Trinitarianism proved itself capable of resisting the exploitation of Christian monotheism as a means of sanctioning political unity and securing social cohesion’.

John Heartfield - O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Bent are Thy Branches, 1934

At the centre of this discussion lies the question of christology; more particularly, an ancient debate, as Williams has shown, between first ‘the Catholic insistence upon the consubstantiality of the Son and the championship of the independence of the Church of which he is the Head’, and second, ‘between the Arian preference for Christological subordination and the Arian disposition to subordinate the Church to the State’, correlations much obscured by the fact that Christological orthodoxy was at first defined under the presidency of a sole emperor and following a half century of controversy manufactured by another. Yet, as Williams proceeds to note, ‘all who have worked through the fourth century have sensed some affinity between Arianism and Caesaropapism on the one hand and on the other between Nicene orthodoxy and the recovery of a measure of ecclesiastical independence’. He continues:

In insisting that the God of Creation, of Redemption, and the Final Assize is essentially one God, the Catholics were contending that the Lord of Calvary is also the Lord of the Capitol. But for this very reason the typical Nicenes were unwilling to accommodate revelation to reason purely in the interest of enhancing the cohesive value of Christianity for the Empire. In contrast, the Arians, having a comparatively low Christology were pleased to find in their emperor a divine epiphany or instrument or indeed a demigod like Christ himself. Thus the Arians were more disposed than the Nicenes to accept the will of an emperor as a canon and to defer to him as bishops, because the canons, tradition, and scriptural law centering in the historical Christ could not possibly in their eyes take precedence over the living law (nomos empsuchos) of the emperor ordained by the eternal Logos.

One comment

  1. I’ve read something similar from Yoder in his class room lectures. I’m inclined to agree, but I’ve never seen such evidence. Certainly when Arianism was on the ascendency, Athansius and his party were hunted by imperial soldiers. Surely that must’ve bred some cynicism.

    Do you have any evidence of the assertion that Arianism was favorable to the Empire besides mere implications? Or any other works dealing with this? I know Eusebius of Caesarea (Imperial-theologian par excellence) was rather ambiguous, and always was on the fence. This stuff is fascinating for someone such as myself working in the confines of the American Empire.



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