A New Book on Discipline in the Early Church

Church-and-state scholars are showing a new interest in the Patristic period: consider new books from Steve Smith and Robert Louis Wilken. The Patristic period is so interesting, today, because it represents the last time in the West when Christianity was seriously challenged–if one may put it that way–as a social institution. Perhaps today’s Christians can learn something about thriving in an alien environment by examining the faith’s early centuries.

A new book from St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary Press, The Testament of the Lord: Worship and Discipline in the Early Church, looks interesting. The author is Alastair Stewart, an Anglican priest. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The Testament of the Lord is one of several ancient “Church Order” texts. Written in the first four centuries of the Church, they direct Christian conduct and morality, ecclesiastical organization and discipline, and the Church’s worship and liturgical life. Beginning with an apocalyptic section in which the risen Lord himself addresses the reader, The Testament then describes the building of a church, the mode of appointment for clergy and monastics, and the conduct of daily prayers and of other liturgical services.

The text is newly translated from the extant Syriac (with an eye to Ethiopic manuscripts), and the introduction makes the case for a fourth century Cappadocian redactor who gave the work its present shape, though much of its material goes back at least to the third century. Those who are interested in early Church Orders will also find the Didache and St Hippolytus’ On the Apostolic Tradition in the Popular Patristics Series (PPS 41 and 54).

Teitler, “The Last Pagan Emperor”

In March, the Oxford University Press released “The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity,” by H.C. Teitler.  The publisher’s description follows:

Flavius Claudius Julianus was the last pagan to sit on the Roman imperial throne (361-363). Born in Constantinople in 331 or 332, Julian was raised as a Christian, but 9780190626501.jpgapostatized, and during his short reign tried to revive paganism, which, after the conversion to Christianity of his uncle Constantine the Great early in the fourth century, began losing ground at an accelerating pace. Having become an orphan when he was still very young, Julian was taken care of by his cousin Constantius II, one of Constantine’s sons, who permitted him to study rhetoric and philosophy and even made him co-emperor in 355. But the relations between Julian and Constantius were strained from the beginning, and it was only Constantius’ sudden death in 361 which prevented an impending civil war.

As sole emperor, Julian restored the worship of the traditional gods. He opened pagan temples again, reintroduced animal sacrifices, and propagated paganism through both the spoken and the written word. In his treatise Against the Galilaeans he sharply criticised the religion of the followers of Jesus whom he disparagingly called ‘Galilaeans’. He put his words into action, and issued laws which were displeasing to Christians–the most notorious being his School Edict. This provoked the anger of the Christians, who reacted fiercely, and accused Julian of being a persecutor like his predecessors Nero, Decius, and Diocletian. Violent conflicts between pagans and Christians made themselves felt all over the empire. It is disputed whether or not Julian himself was behind such outbursts. Accusations against the Apostate continued to be uttered even after the emperor’s early death. In this book, the feasibility of such charges is examined.

Christianity and the Rise of “the Problem of Church and State”

I have begun reading the British legal historian Theodore F.T. Plucknett’s massive work, A Concise History of the Common Law, a wonderful treatment of the subject written in the mid-twentieth century. Here’s something from early in the book:

While imperial Rome was slowly declining, Christianity was entering on a period of remarkable growth. At first it was hardly noticed among the numerous new cults which were fashionable importations from the Near East, some of which were extremely popular. After being ignored, it was later persecuted, then under the great Constantine it was at last tolerated (324). So far, the established “Hellenistic” religion had been considered as an official department, and its priests as civil servants. Attempts had been made to incorporate with it the religions of Isis, Mithras, Christ, and others, on a similar footing, combining all the known gods in one vast polytheism, whose cult was to be maintained and controlled by the State. It was soon evident, however, that Christianity would not accept this inferior position. Although some things were Caesar’s, others were God’s, and from this fundamental conflict arose the problem of Church and State, which has lasted from Constantine’s day to our own. The controversy took a variety of forms in the course of the succeeding sixteen centuries. Stated in its broadest and most general terms, it means that many earnest thinkers find it impossible to accept the State as the highest form of human society, and that they recognize some situations in which they would feel bound to obey some other duty than that imposed by the State. On the continent it lay at the root of the long conflict between the Empire and the papacy; in England it took such varied forms as the conflict with Thomas Becket, the discussion in Bracton as to the real position of the King (who is subject, he says, to God “and the law”), the Puritan revolution–and may even be traced in the American constitutions, for the modern attempts to curb the power of the State by means of constitutional limitations are the result of the same distrust of the State as was expressed in former days in the conflict between religion and the secular power.

It was also during the reign of Constantine that the great Council of Nicaea was held (325), attended by almost three hundred bishops from all parts of the world. Besides settling many fundamental matters of doctrine, this council gave an imposing demonstration of the world-wide organisation of the Church, and from this point onwards that organisation grew increasingly effective, and the Church became more and more a world power. As a result, the Empire had to admit the presence first of a potent ally, and soon of a vigorous rival.

The Nicene canons are the earliest code that can be called canon law of the whole Church, and at least in the West they enjoyed something like the same finality in the realm of discipline that the Nicene Creed enjoyed in the realm of doctrine. [citing C.H. Turner, Cambridge Mediaeval History]

Indeed, while the organization of the Empire was slowly breaking down, that of the Church was steadily growing, with the result that the Church soon offered a career comparable to, if not better than, that afforded by the State to men of ability who felt called to public life. Some specialised in the study of theology; others took up the work of creating the great body of canon law which for a long time was to perpetuate the old Roman ideal of universal law. With all this, the growth of the episcopate, and particularly of the papacy, was to give a new aspect to the ancient city of Rome, and slowly, but certainly, the Empire ruled from Rome was being replaced for many purposes by Christendom ruled by the papacy. [4-5]

St. Paul’s Punishment Theory, Part I

Did St. Paul have a theory of punishment? In The Mighty and the Almighty, Paul Writing to the RomansProfessor Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that he did. In this post, I’ll lay out Prof. Wolterstorff’s claims. In the next, I’ll consider them and ask some questions about his interpretation and also about the merits of the punishment theory he ascribes to Paul.

Here’s the context. In Chapter 8 of the book, Wolterstorff has in mind only one of the two dualities of authority that make up his core thesis–the issue of state authority mediating divine authority. In discussing that issue, he explores the extremely difficult and dense Epistle of Paul to the Romans, and specifically Romans 12 and 13. Here Paul is giving some advice to members of the Church about how they should behave toward and within the various institutions that formed civil society: the family, business relationships, and the Roman empire, for example. In Chapter 12, Paul instructs Church members never to “avenge” themselves, but to “leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'” Here is the text of the first seven verses of Chapter 13:

1. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

7 Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Wolterstorff says that one standard interpretation of these two Chapters is that 12 contains instructions as to individual conduct, while 13 describes official state action. On that interpretation, the individual is not to “avenge” himself against wrongdoing, but the state may “avenge” that same wrongdoing. Wolterstorff equates “vengeance” with retribution, and so possibly with retributivist reasons for punishment. “The core idea of retribution,” he writes, “is paying back evil with evil, redressing the harm done to the victim with an equivalent harm done to the wrongdoer.” And in rejecting the standard interpretation of Romans 12 and 13, Wolterstorff claims that retributivism understood in this fashion is completely at odds with Jesus’s rejection of this sort of code of reciprocity, a rejection that Paul (at earlier points in Chapter 12 of the Epistle) repeats. From this, Wolterstorff ascribes to Jesus, and so also to Paul, a consequentialist understanding of punishment: “If hard treatment is to be imposed on the wrongdoer, let it be for the sake of achieving some good in his life and/or the lives of others.”

But there is a problem with this interpretation. For in Chapter 13, verse 4 of the Epistle, Paul speaks of the government “execut[ing] wrath upon him that doeth evil.” How does a minister of justice, who is himself also a minister of God in the Christian understanding advanced by Wolterstorff, execute wrath (God’s wrath?) upon the wicked without imposing punishment for retributivist reasons?

Wolterstorff offers the following solution. What this passage means is that the state is empowered to reprove and punish the evil-doer in the way that a parent reproves and punishes his or her children. Government, as the servant of God, has a “God-assigned task”: its function is not retribution but the expression of wrath in response to evil-doing, and the concomitant expression of support for the doing of good. Here is Wolterstorff:

As to what God authorizes the state to do, I am reminded of a way of understanding punishment that has recently entered the lists and that I find compelling, the so-called expressive theory….The expressive theory says that punishment of a wrongdoer should not be understood as retribution–redressing harm with harm–but as a way of reproving what he did and of expressing anger at him for having done it. Speaking anachronistically, Paul was employing the expressive theory of punishment rather than the retributive theory in stating what God assigns government to do. (88-89)

Yet Wolterstorff does not believe that Paul is urging the state to express God’s wrath; precisely whose wrath the state is empowered to express is left unclear. In fact, in light of the “social benefits that Paul cites of government carrying out its assignment,” it seems that the expression of (somebody’s) wrath is only one sort of consequentialist justification for state-imposed punishment. Wolterstorff interprets Paul as advocating a more broadly liberal, consequentialist theory of punishment, to include deterring wrongful conduct: “The God-assigned task of government is to exercise governance over the public for the curbing of wrongdoing.” (90)

These are the broad outlines of Wolterstorff’s interpretation of St. Paul’s theory of punishment. In my next post, I will raise some questions both about the interpretation and about expressivist theories more broadly.

Reflections from the City of God: On the Role of Religion in Inculcating Civic Virtue

I’ve been delayed in writing about my next selection from the City of God–this view_of_rome_as_the_city_of_god_poster-r332f2a9125be4d48b9f3d29d2e055265_wve_8byvr_512one from early in Book II, a book devoted to exploring the extent to which the Roman gods did not protect Romans from sundry disasters. But the particular disasters Augustine has in mind are moral disasters–not disasters of the body but disasters of the soul–and he highlights the vice and civic decay not only enabled but positively stimulated by the Roman gods. Here is Book II, Chapter 6, in full:

This is the reason why those divinities [MOD: in the previous chapter Augustine discusses Cybele, the “Earth Mother,” in particular] quite neglected the lives and morals of the cities and nations who worshipped them, and threw no dreadful prohibition in their way to hinder them from becoming utterly corrupt, and to preserve them from those terrible and detestable evils which visit not harvests and vintages, not house and possessions, not the body which is subject to the soul, but the soul itself, the spirit that rules the whole man. If there was any such prohibition, let it be produced, let it be proved. They will tell us that purity and probity were inculcated upon those who were initiated in the mysteries of religion, and that secret incitements to virtue were whispered in the ear of the elite; but this is an idle boast. Let them show or name to us the places which were at any time consecrated to assemblages in which, instead of the obscene songs and licentious acting of players, instead of the celebration of those most filthy and shameless Fugalia [MOD: civil feasts] (well called Fugalia, since they banish modesty and right feeling) [MOD: I think that Augustine is relying here on the root, ‘fuga,’ meaning ‘flight’], the people were commanded in the name of the gods to restrain avarice, bridle impurity, and conquer ambition; where, in short, they might learn in that school which Persius vehemently lashes them to, when he says:

Be taught, ye abandoned creatures, and ascertain the causes of things; what we are, and for what end we are born; what is the law of our success in life; and by what art we may turn the goal without making shipwreck; what limit we should put to our wealth, what we may lawfully desire, and what uses filthy lucre serves; how much we should bestow upon our country and our family; learn, in short, what God meant you to be, and what place He has ordered you to fill.

Let them name to us the places where such instructions were wont to be communicated from the gods, and where the people who worshiped them were accustomed to resort to hear them, as we can point to our churches built for this purpose in every land where the Christian religion is received.

One of the interesting features of the this chapter and, indeed, the entire book is the extent to which Augustine believes it to be religion’s role to inculcate virtue–including civic virtue–in its adherents. The morality that Augustine is discussing is not a private or interior morality, at least not solely. In the previous chapter, he castigates the Romans for bestowing their finest citizens with the honor of a statue of “that demon Cybele.” Robert Dodaro writes: “[E]ven Rome’s best citizens are deceived by Cybele, the ‘Mother of the Gods.'” Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine 45. And here, Augustine specifically mentions the morality not of individuals, or even of families, but of “cities and nations.” The context in which he condemns Roman vice is not personal, but public–the feast of Fugalia, which so far as I can tell is a civic feast celebrating the expulsion of the Roman kings. And the fragment he quotes from the stoic Roman satirist Persius concerns both private and public virtue (“how much we should bestow upon our country and our family”).

Augustine clearly believes that it is an important function of religion to inculcate civic or public virtue and honor. Religion is not a privatized or purely personal phenomenon, and any religion worth its salt must do more than “whisper” “secret incitements to virtue” “to the elite” (notice that by highlighting the “elite,” Augustine is emphasizing the importance of religion’s influence on the powerful, including the politically powerful). It must inform their private and public lives. It must provide a public forum–a place of assembly–for the discussion of virtue to occur (not just a private “whispering”). And it must “vehemently lash” public men. Christianity, Augustine believes, performs these functions, while the Roman gods failed to do so.

A final aside: I was struck by the fragment of Persius, because it sounds so much like the words that Dante puts into the mouth of Ulysses in Canto XXVI of Inferno as he sails to the ends of the earth (118-20):

Considerate la vostra semenza:

Fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

“Consider your origins: You were not made to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Unfortunately for wandering Ulysses (at least in Dante’s telling), he was not in the end able to discover “by what art we may turn the goal without making shipwreck.”

From Gibbon’s Volume 2: Christianity and the Civil Authority

Until Judge Posner’s recent dissent in the Elmbrook School District case (discussed here and here), I don’t think I can remember the last time a judge cited to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (a quick Westlaw search shows only a handful of citations).  If evidence were needed that Judge Posner writes his own opinions, one could probably stop with that quotation.  I’ve got an old 1925 edition of the seven volumes edited by J.B. Bury which had been gathering dust here at home, and I started paging through it last night (a 12-volume on-line set may be found here).  The beginning of Volume 2 (Chapters 15 and 16) is all about the rise of Christianity and the early Christians’ view of the existing Roman civil power.  Here’s a bit from Chapter 15 where Gibbon’s, one might say, ambivalent view of the early Christians shines through:

The Christians were not less averse to the business [of war] than to the pleasures of this world.  The defence of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults.  Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life, nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community.*  It was acknowledged that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven, by inspired prophets and by anointed kings.  The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors.  But, while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire.  Some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes.  

* The same patient principles have ben revived since the Reformation by the Socinians, the modern Anabaptists, and the Quakers . . . . [MOD note: see Philip Hamburger’s piece about 6 years ago, Religious Freedom in Philadelphia, for parallel disagreements between the Revolutionaries and the Quakers on the question of conscientious objection to military service]

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