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§ 25. Intrusion of Politics into Religion.


With the union of the church and the state begins the long and tedious history of their collisions and their mutual struggles for the mastery: the state seeking to subject the church to the empire, the church to subject the state to the hierarchy, and both very often transgressing the limits prescribed to their power in that word of the Lord: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” From the time of Constantine, therefore, the history of the church and that of the world in Europe are so closely interwoven, that neither can be understood without the other. On the one hand, the political rulers, as the highest members and the patrons of the church, claimed a right to a share in her government, and interfered in various ways in her external and internal affairs, either to her profit or to her prejudice. On the other hand, the bishops and patriarchs, as the highest dignitaries and officers of the state religion, became involved in all sorts of secular matters and in the intrigues of the Byzantine court. This mutual intermixture, on the whole, was of more injury than benefit to the church and to religion, and fettered her free and natural development.

Of a separation of religion and politics, of the spiritual power from the temporal, heathen antiquity knew nothing, because it regarded religion itself only from a natural point of view, and subjected it to the purposes of the all-ruling state, the highest known form of human society. The Egyptian kings, as Plutarch tells us, were at the same time priests, or were received into the priesthood at their election. In Greece the civil magistrate had supervision of the priests and sanctuaries.235235   This overseer was called βασιλεύς of the ἱερεῖς and ἱερά. In Rome, after the time of Numa, this supervision was intrusted to a senator, and afterward united with the imperial office. All the pagan emperors, from Augustus236236   Augustus took the dignity of Pontifex Maximus after the death of Lepidus, a.u.742, and thenceforth that office remained inherent in the imperial, though it was usually conferred by a decree of the senate. Formerly the pontifex maximus was elected by the people for life, could take no civil office, must never leave Italy, touch a corpse, or contract a second marriage; and he dwelt in the old king’s house, the regia. Augustus himself exercised the office despotically enough, though with great prudence. He nominated and increased at pleasure the members of the sacerdotal college, chose the vestal virgins, determined the authority of the vaticinia, purged the Sibylline books of apocryphal interpolations, continued the reform of the calendar begun by Caesar, and changed the month Sextius into Augustus in his own honor, as Quintius, the birth-month of Julius Caesar, had before been rebaptized Julius. Comp. Charles Merivale: Hist. of the Romans under the Empire, vol. iii. (Lond. 1851), p, 478 sqq. (This work, which stops where Gibbon begins, has been republished in 7 vols. in New York, 1863.) to Julian the Apostate, were at the same time supreme pontiffs (Pontifices Maximi), the heads of the state religion, emperor-popes. As such they could not only perform all priestly functions, even to offering sacrifices, when superstition or policy prompted them to do so, but they also stood at the head of the highest sacerdotal college (of fifteen or more Pontifices), which in turn regulated and superintended the three lower classes of priests (the Epulones, Quindecemviri, and Augures), the temples and altars, the sacrifices, divinations, feasts, and ceremonies, the exposition of the Sibylline books, the calendar, in short, all public worship, and in part even the affairs of marriage and inheritance.

Now it may easily be supposed that the Christian emperors, who, down to Gratian (about 380), even retained the name and the insignia of the Pontifex Maximus, claimed the same oversight of the Christian religion established in the empire, which their predecessors had had of the heathen; only with this material difference, that they found here a stricter separation between the religious element and the political, the ecclesiastical and the secular, and were obliged to bind themselves to the already existing doctrines, usages, and traditions of the church which claimed divine institution and authority.



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