Christian Culture in the Ancient World

CHRISTOPHER DAWSON

The present article is intended as an abstract of a basic course on the elements of Christian culture for the first of these phases (i.e., Christianity in the Ancient, the Medieval, and the Modern World).

It is planned to show the relation between the historical, theological and literary aspects of the subject. In this first age Liturgy is the key, and its importance diminishes in the later periods, since the liturgical achievements of the first period were retained almost completely. Nevertheless it is true to say that the same six elements given below recur in the following periods.

  1. The Church and its Institutions
  2. The Bible and its Tradition
  3. The Liturgy and its Symbolism
    (a) Hymnology and Christian Poetry
  4. The Fathers and the Development of Christian Theology
  5. The Lives of the Saints and the Development of Christian Spirituality
    (a) The Monastic Institution and the Development of the Monastic Order
  6. Christian Society in Relation to the State

1. The Church and its Institutions

The study of Christian culture must begin with the study of the Christian Church, since this was the spiritual source of the cultural revolution which transformed the Roman into the Byzantine world. First of all we must study the history of the extraordinary movement of expansion by which the little group of Jewish disciples of Jesus who met in the upper chamber at Jerusalem became in three centuries a vast world organization which covered the whole Roman Empire and extended beyond its frontiers.

This movement has three phases: first the very rapid phase which transformed the original community of Jewish Christians into the Church of the Gentiles. Secondly the long slow phase of growth in which the Church was a kind of underground movement often persecuted and carrying on a desperate struggle for existence in all the great cities of the Empire which were its primary centers of diffusion. Lastly a very rapid process of expansion when the Church became first tolerated and finally recognized as the official religion of the Empire.


Throughout these three phases Christianity was marked by an intense social consciousness and a sense of world mission which were far stronger than anything we know in modern times.


During the first phase the Church still possessed the inheritance of Jewish culture — the strongest and most individual type of religious culture which existed in the ancient world. In the second phase there was no Christian culture, since the Christians were united in faith but separated from the pagan culture that surrounded them and often divided from one another by the diversity of their cultural backgrounds. In the third phase we see the emergence of a Christian culture in the full sense of the word and the gradual remolding of ancient society and its political order under the influence of Christian values and ideas.

Throughout these three phases Christianity was marked by an intense social consciousness and a sense of world mission which were far stronger than anything we know in modern times. From the beginning Christians had inherited the Jewish social consciousness — the belief that they were “the people of God" in the fullest sense of the words. As St. Clement of Rome wrote, "Behold the Lord taketh to himself a nation from the midst of the nations, as a man taketh the first fruits of his threshing floor" (I Clement XXIX). And this sense of separateness, as the spiritual Israel or the Third Race, was fortified by centuries of persecution and exclusion from full civic life. The catacombs provide evidence of this stage of Christian development, when there was as yet no Christian culture, but a new society out of which a new Christian culture was destined to emerge. Therefore in order to understand the basis of Christian culture, we must first study the community life of the primitive Church, and the institutions by which it was maintained.

Especially important, from this point of view, are the ancient rites of Christian initiation and the institution of the catechumenate, the lengthy preparatory stage through which converts had to pass before becoming full members of the Church. Nowhere is the spirit of the ancient Church more fully manifested than in the rite of baptism and the associated rites and ceremonies which have left such a deep mark on the Roman liturgy of Lent and Easter and Pentecost. We have also the evidence of the art of the catacombs and the ancient Christian baptisteries, especially that of St. John Lateran with the inscription of Pope Xystus III.

But these final rites were preceded by the long period of instruction of the catechumenate, of which we have examples in the discourses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and the homilies of St. Augustine. This was the first Christian education by which the new Christians were initiated into the sacred tradition of the Scriptures. And this was not only the source of Christian theology, it was also one of the primary elements in the formation of a Christian culture. For behind the change of culture, there is the spiritual change, "the recreation of a new people," the theme that runs through all those liturgical rites and which finds poetical expression in the above-mentioned inscription of Pope Xystus.

2. The Bible and its Tradition

(i) The fundamental importance of the Scriptures for the origins of Christian culture.

The inheritance of the Old Testament by the early Church gave the first Christians the elements of an intellectual culture which set them apart from the Gentile world from which they came and in which they lived. It gave them, first of all, a sacred history which took the place of the pagan mythology and provided a whole world of sacred archetypes and a wealth of symbolic imagery; it gave them a new poetry — utterly different in spirit and form from that of the Hellenistic world: it gave them a sacred literature which had consequently developed its own traditions of scholarship and textual criticism which were transmitted, at any rate in part, from the Synagogue to the Church.

It has often been noted that all the world religions are Religions of the Book, and that the influence of this canonical or classical literature permeates the whole culture through its system of education and its tradition of scholarship. Christianity is unique in that it has taken over bodily the sacred literature of an older religion, so that the link between Judaism and Christianity is far closer and more internal than that between Buddhism and Brahmanism or between Islam and Christianity itself. The addition of the New Testament to the Old in no way destroyed this link; indeed it strengthened it by providing the Gentile converts with the necessary key to the Christian interpretation of the Jewish sacred literature.

It was not without difficulty that this tradition was preserved, since there were powerful forces at work which sought to detach the new religion from its roots in the Hebraic past. While on the one hand the Church was striving to establish the Christian way of life in the midst of a pagan society, on the other, she had to defend the Old Testament tradition against those, like Marcion, who rejected it en bloc and made a new Bible of their own. These conflicts though primarily theological were also of immense cultural importance, since they determined the general lines of development which Christian culture was to follow throughout the patristic period.

In a later period when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion of the Empire, Christian culture was obliged to give a much larger place to the traditions of Hellenic and Latin culture than it had done in the post-apostolic age. From the time of Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian to that of St. Jerome and St. Augustine and Theodoret, the Fathers were men who were steeped in the literary and philosophic culture of the classical world and they had to adapt the sacred literature of the Church to the needs of a public which accepted the standards and values of classical culture. Thus the educated Christian belonged to two worlds, and had inherited the cultural traditions of both of them. The task of explaining the language and thought of the Bible to men who thought in different terms and regarded anything that did not conform to Hellenistic standards as barbarous, was one of immense difficulty. There is in fact a dualism in early Christian and patristic culture, moving between two different worlds of thought: the contrast that we see between the Latin of Jerome's letters and that of his translation of the Bible, or again between the old classical poetry of Juvencus and the new liturgical poetry of the author of the Te Deum.

Nevertheless the main intellectual effort of the patristic age was devoted to the development of the Biblical tradition and its adaptation to the understanding and needs of Gentile culture. As the late Cuthbert Turner wrote: "There is a sense in which nearly the whole of the writings of the early Christian Fathers may be truly said to be the exposition of Holy Scripture." and in the later periods the Fathers who were mostly Greek in culture, like Origen and St. John Chrysostom and Theodoret, were also the ones who did most for the study and exposition of the Bible.

3. The Liturgy and its Symbolism


And the liturgy itself was a work of art which became in the course of time the most elaborate work of art ever created by man. Everything that the Christian world possessed of doctrine and poetry and music and art was poured into the liturgy and molded into an organic whole which centered round the Divine Mysteries.


The Liturgy, which is the most intimate expression of the faith and common life of the ancient Church, also provided the first expression of Christian culture. The first external result of the Peace of the Church was the erection of the first Constantinian basilicas in which all the artistic inheritance of the Roman-Hellenistic culture was subordinated to the service of the worship of the Church. And the liturgy itself was a work of art which became in the course of time the most elaborate work of art ever created by man. Everything that the Christian world possessed of doctrine and poetry and music and art was poured into the liturgy and molded into an organic whole which centered round the Divine Mysteries.

It is true that the liturgy was not the creation of any human mind: it is the anonymous work of centuries of growth, so that it may be compared to the growth of a natural organism rather than a work of art in the ordinary sense of the word. As a modern Austrian writer — Sigismond von Radeck — has well said, "It is not art, but rather the archetype toward which art strives to ascend" (Wort und Wunder, p. 51 [1942]).

It is difficult for us today to realize the immense importance of the Liturgy in the life of the Christian community in the first centuries after the Peace of the Church. It was their literature and poetry and drama and art, but above all it was a common social act which occupied the central place in their lives. It even came to dominate secular activities, as we see in Constantine Porphyrogenitus' account of the public ceremonies of the Byzantine court in the tenth century. For in the Byzantine Empire Church ceremonies and state ceremonies were very closely related, since the latter, as Constantine says, were intended to "reflect in their rhythm and order the harmony and movement of the divine order of the universe." It is this liturgical character of Byzantine culture which differentiates it most sharply from that of the modern world. To us the social aspects of secular and sacred activities are essentially disparate and unconnected; to them there was one sacred order running through everything, and it was only natural that the Church and the Empire should resemble one another in their external behavior.

In the West this unity did not exist, owing first to the more gradual conversion of the Western provinces to Christianity and the strength of the pagan opposition within the Empire, and secondly, to the cultural opposition between the barbarian State and the Latin Church. Nevertheless the cumulative influence of the liturgy on Western culture was no less strong. Indeed in some respects it was even stronger because of the fact that Western culture was in a more fluid state and the influence of classical literature and art was too weak to compete with that of the Liturgy. In the newly converted countries like Anglo-Saxon England the only centers of higher culture were the monasteries, and the culture of the monasteries was entirely religious and liturgical.

Moreover since the laity in the new kingdoms of the West were entirely illiterate, the Liturgy was practically the only channel for the diffusion of Christian culture, and the whole life of the people revolved round the Church and followed its annual cycle of feasts and fasts.

(a) Hymnology and Christian Poetry

The development of a new poetry is one of the decisive factors in the rise of Christian culture. For a new poetry is the expression of a new soul and it involves new psychological attitudes and new emotional reactions to life.

Now the Christian Church started off with the inheritance of the Jewish poetry of the Psalms, which had already been employed for liturgical purposes by the synagogue. This was a new poetry indeed. It expressed what had never been expressed in classical poetry and it expressed it in a new language and a new rhythm. And yet it became immediately popular with the Gentile converts as well as with the Jewish Christians. It expressed spiritual things with a much greater intensity and with greater personal feeling than classical poetry had ever attained even in a narrower range and on a lower level. It was a poetry which could be applied by the individual Christian to express his own thoughts and feelings, yet it was at the same time the voice of the Church and the voice of Christ, as St. Augustine writes in a wonderful passage:

"Who is this one man who calls from the ends of the earth? Only that heritage of which it was said to the Son, 'Desire of me and I will give the heathen for thine inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.' This is Christ's inheritance, this is Christ's possession, this Body of Christ, this one Church of Christ, this unity that we are, calling from the ends of the earth. He moves us Himself through all nations, in the whole world, in great glory but in great temptation. He is in heaviness and He calls to God from the ends of the earth, but He is not forsaken. It is His voice we hear in all the Psalms, vel psallentem vel gementem, vel laetantem in spe, vel suspirantem in re."


It was peculiarly fortunate that the rise of Latin hymnology should have been dominated by St. Ambrose, for it meant that the standard of Latin liturgical poetry was set by a man who even more than St. Augustine or St. Jerome united in himself the Latin genius and the Christian spirit.


Now this tradition of Hebrew psalmody was continued in the early Church — first in the four evangelical canticles of St. Luke's Gospel, and then in the "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" of which St. Paul speaks. The first thing that the Church did was to sing, and it continued to sing, until out of that song a new Christian poetry was developed both in Greek and Latin and in Syriac.

The Latin tradition is perhaps the most interesting of all, for there we see most clearly how the tradition of Hebrew psalmody met that of classical Latin poetry and how their meeting produced the Latin hymn which was a living literary form for a thousand years and which apart from its liturgical importance has had a deep and wide influence on Western religious poetry.

We are exceptionally well informed about the genesis of this literature, owing to the fact that St. Augustine was a witness of the circumstances under which the new liturgical poetry was popularized at Milan by St. Ambrose; and he also provides evidence for the genuineness of several of the existing Ambrosian hymns. It was peculiarly fortunate that the rise of Latin hymnology should have been dominated by St. Ambrose, for it meant that the standard of Latin liturgical poetry was set by a man who even more than St. Augustine or St. Jerome united in himself the Latin genius and the Christian spirit.

As Archbishop Trench wrote more than a century ago, "Only after a while does one learn to feel the grandeur of this unadorned meter, and the profound, though it may have been more instinctive than conscious, wisdom of the poet in choosing it; or to appreciate that noble confidence in the surpassing interest of his theme, which has rendered him indifferent to any but its simplest setting forth. It is as though, building an altar to the living God, he would observe the Levitical precept, and rear it of unhewn stones, upon which no tool had been lifted. The great objects of faith in their simplest expression are felt by him so sufficient to stir all the deepest affections of the heart, that any attempt to dress them up, to array them in moving language, were merely superfluous. The passion is there, but it is latent and repressed, a fire burning inwardly, the glow of an austere enthusiasm, which reveals itself indeed, but not to every careless beholder. Nor do we presently fail to observe how truly these poems belonged to their time and to the circumstances under which they were produced — how suitably the faith which was in actual conflict with, and was just triumphing over, the powers of this world, found its utterance in hymns such as these, wherein is no softness, perhaps little tenderness; but a rock-like firmness, the old Roman stoicism transmuted and glorified into that nobler Christian courage, which encountered and at length overcame the world" (R.C. Trench, Sacred Latin Poetry, pp. 81-82).

The Ambrosian use of the iambic dimeter was not the only early form of Christian Latin poetry. On the other hand, we have the more elaborate and literary Christian poetry of Prudentius who may have been a greater poet than St. Ambrose, but who was so conscious of his classical learning and tradition that he fails to give full expression, as Ambrose had done in his simpler style, to the new spirit which was represented by the poetry of the Psalter and the liturgy. And on the other hand we have the great rhythmical prose poem of Nicetus of Remesiana — the Te Deum — which is much closer to the tradition of Hebrew psalmody but which stands practically alone and founded no tradition. It was the Ambrosian type of hymn which became the archetype of Western hymnology, and its influence has survived all the changes in fashion and metrical form and has continued to bear fruit down to modern times, as we see in the hymns of J. B. de Santeuil in the seventeenth century and of Charles Coffin in the eighteenth.

4. The Fathers and the Development of Christian Theology

The most substantial relic that we possess of the first period of Christian culture is the great mass of the work of the Fathers of the Church, "the parents of Christian thought and belief and life." This is an inexhaustible mine for the student of Christian antiquity, but it is preeminently a subject for the advanced student who specializes in the period; and the man who is studying Christian culture as a whole from the historical point of view can hardly touch more than the outlines of the subject.


Nevertheless many of the Fathers were great writers, most of them were great men, and all of them were concerned with the essentials of the Christian faith, so that their writings are of great importance not only for the theologian, but also for the student of Christian culture since it gives him direct insight into the thought of the leaders of Christian culture during its formative period.


The Age of the Fathers is roughly conterminous with the later centuries of the Roman Empire and the early Byzantine period, from the time of Marcus Aurelius to the Modammedan conquest of the Eastern provinces, so that their writings record the whole process of the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity, and the development of Christian doctrine through the conflict with paganism and heresy down to its final definition by the great Ecumenical Councils. And these conditions determine its character. It is essentially a theological literature and it is a literature of conflict, most of it written under the immediate stress of some particular controversy. And this is the chief cause of its difficulty to the modern reader, since we find it difficult to understand the nature of the beliefs and the mentality of the writers with which the Fathers had to deal. Nevertheless many of the Fathers were great writers, most of them were great men, and all of them were concerned with the essentials of the Christian faith, so that their writings are of great importance not only for the theologian, but also for the student of Christian culture since it gives him direct insight into the thought of the leaders of Christian culture during its formative period.

The Greek part of this literature is by far the most important as well as the most extensive and it is also the work of the ablest and most learned writers from the time of Clement of Alexandria and Origen to that of St. John Chrysostom and Theodoret. It is however much more metaphysical in character than that of Latin Europe, and consequently more difficult for the modern reader to understand: for it belongs to the same world as the Neo-Platonists.

The Christian literature of Latin Africa stands by itself. It produced two of the greatest Christian writers: Tertullian who perhaps shows more literary originality than any of the Greek Fathers, inferior as he is to them in thought, and finally St. Augustine — who "if not the greatest of Latin writers is assuredly the greatest man who ever wrote Latin" (A. Souter, The Earliest Latin Commentaries on the Epistles of St. Paul, ch. iv [Oxford, 1947]).

Unlike the rest of the Latin Fathers St. Augustine was profoundly interested in philosophical problems: indeed he surpasses all the other Fathers both Greek and Latin in originality and profundity of thought. He was unique in his awareness of psychological problems and of the problem of time and history in a way which puts him nearer to the modern writer's mind than any other patristic or medieval writer. Moreover his thought so dominates the subsequent development of Western theology that even the most elementary study of the latter requires some knowledge of his work. Nevertheless he is not an easy writer, partly owing to the sheer bulk of his work and partly because he wrote according to the needs of the moment in the intervals of his active pastoral career. Thus The City of God, which is in some respects his greatest book, was written at intervals during fourteen years and is full of digressions and excursions which distract the attention of the reader and sometimes obscure the central idea of the work.

Thus there is room for an Augustinian digest, and though this has been attempted, for example by Father Przywara, it has not hitherto been successfully accomplished.

This is not the case with the Confessions, which is unique and incomparable, and is probably better known than any other Patristic writing. And there are also the early dialogues like the Soliloquies, which do not give us St. Augustine's mature thought, but which nevertheless are of great interest for the history of his thought.

In the case of the Greek Fathers there are several works which can be studied as representative of their theological thought: such as the Catechetical Discourse of St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Five Theological Discourses of St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Athanasius On the Incarnation and St. Basil On the Holy Spirit.

Finally, standing rather apart from the rest, there are the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, which show the metaphysical tendencies of Byzantine theology in their most extreme form. They exercised a most important influence on later Christian theology both in East and West, and still more on Western mysticism from the thirteenth century onwards, and, through the mystics, on vernacular literature. The treatises On the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies are also of great importance for the study of medieval cosmology and aesthetics, as we can see if we trace the numerous references to and reminiscences of Dionysius in Dante's Divina Commedia.

The influence of Dionysius outlived the Middle Ages and was still strong in the seventeenth century, both in Catholic and Protestant Europe.

5. The Lives of the Saints and the Development of Christian Spirituality


Christian culture is essentially a spiritual culture and it finds its supreme expression in the personalities of the saints, the men who followed the Christian way of life to its ultimate conclusion. The saints influenced culture not only because they were spiritual leaders, but because they were the mirrors of perfection and the ideals of Christian behavior toward which popular devotion aspired.


Christian culture is essentially a spiritual culture and it finds its supreme expression in the personalities of the saints, the men who followed the Christian way of life to its ultimate conclusion. The saints influenced culture not only because they were spiritual leaders, but because they were the mirrors of perfection and the ideals of Christian behavior toward which popular devotion aspired. Moreover side by side with the authentic records of the historical saints, we have the growth of a Christian mythology, embracing the legends and fantasies which surrounded the cult of the saints. For the student of Christian culture this legendary material is hardly less important than the authentic records, since it shows us how the masses conceived the Christian ideal and what they wanted the saints to be. And in so far as these two types of material differ, they throw considerable light on the culture of the masses, which is not to be found in the writings of the theologians and the ecclesiastical historians.

In the first age of the Church, the ideal of sanctity was above all that of the martyr, the man who bears witness with his blood to the Christian faith. The ideal and even the name go back to the very beginning of Christianity — to St. Stephen, to Antipas "my faithful witness who was slain among you" (Apocalypse II), and to St. John's reference to the three witnesses — the spirit, the water (of baptism) and the blood (of martyrdom) (I John v, 8); and throughout the age of persecution down to the fourth century the martyrs hold an increasingly important place in Christian ideology and cult. Some of the earliest authentic records, like the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the Letter of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne, the Acts of Perpetua and her companions and the Acts of St. Cyprian give us a more intimate knowledge of early Christian mentality than any other documents. They show us how the expectation of martyrdom was one of the permanent factors in Christian life and how the triumph of the martyrs was regarded as a visible proof of Christian truth and was shared by all the faithful as their common possession and their common glory.

Thus in early Christian culture the figure of the martyr took the place of that of the hero in pagan culture, and the lives and legends of the martyrs replaced the heroic myths and legends which were one of the most popular and persistent elements in the old culture.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the ideal and cult of the martyrs for Christian culture. Every important church had its own martyrs who were regarded as its special intercessors and whose cult strengthened the solidarity of the spiritual community. And there were also more famous figures whose story was familiar to the whole Christian world, "megalo-martyres" as they were called by the Byzantines, like St. George and St. Sergius and SS. Cosmas and Damian, whose cult was equally widely diffused in the East and West, from Persia to Gaul.

The cult of the martyrs also found very early expression in art and architecture, as in the art of the catacombs and in the influence of the "martyrion" or tomb chamber on the development of the circular type of church plan.

No less important than the ideal of martyrdom was that of virginity, which also goes back to the first age of the Church. Indeed the two ideals were associated — first by the cult of the virgin martyrs, like St. Agnes, which was so popular, and secondly by the idea that virginity was a kind of living martyrdom, a witness to the power of the faith to transcend human weakness. So too the ideal of asceticism as an heroic struggle to overcome the world and the flesh goes back to the beginnings and is associated by the early Christian writers both with the idea of martyrdom and with that of virginity. In the word of St. Cyprian, "Habet et pax coronas suas."

And as both the confessors and the virgins had a recognized status — an ordo — in the early Church, so was it with the ascetics. The "Sons of the Covenant" — Benai Queyama — to whom St. Aphraates, the earliest Syriac teacher, writes, were not monks, but they came very near to the monastic life, since they were Christians living an ascetic and celibate life which distinguished them from the rest of the faithful. They were, so to speak, pre-monks, and it is easy to understand how such an institution would inevitably develop into the full monastic life under favorable circumstances.

(a) The Monastic Institutes


Thus at the very moment when the conversion of the Empire exposed the Christian society to the dangers of secularization, the monastic institution created a way of life which could subsist outside the economic life of the city and the political life of the state and constituted an autonomous society based on purely Christian principles.


The rise of monasticism in Egypt about the time of the Peace of the Church and its rapid expansion throughout the Christian world during the fourth century, is an event of revolutionary importance in the history of Christian spirituality and Christian culture. The hermits — the Fathers of the Desert — like St. Antony and St. Amoun took the place of the martyrs as the ideal pattern of the Christian life; and almost at the same time, with the foundation of St. Pachomius' first monastery at Tabennisi in 323 A.D., there developed the organized life of the Coenobium or monastic community under a common rule.

Thus at the very moment when the conversion of the Empire exposed the Christian society to the dangers of secularization, the monastic institution created a way of life which could subsist outside the economic life of the city and the political life of the state and constituted an autonomous society based on purely Christian principles.

In this way the monasteries which spread so rapidly throughout the ancient world from Persia to Britain and Ireland were islands of Christian culture in a sea of barbarism and set standards of the Christian life for the urban and peasant masses within the empire. And as the standards of material culture declined in the West during the fifth century and in the East after the age of Justinian, the monasteries became more and more the spiritual nerve centers of a new civilization. It is hardly necessary to mention the cultural importance of the monastic centers in the West, Lerins, Vivarium, Monte Cassino, etc., for their influence extends forward into the Middle Ages so that there is no break between them and the monasticism of Ireland and Northumbria, which in turn transmitted the monastic culture back to the continent. And the same process took place in the East, for it was the monasteries which were the main transmitters of Christian culture to Persia and Armenia, to Georgia and Ethiopia.

This development produced an immense literature, much of it contemporary, from St. Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony onwards into the Middle Ages. It consists of lives of the monastic fathers, the monastic rules, treatises on the monastic life and collections of anecdotes and sayings.

Among the most valuable for the study of Christian culture are Palladius' account of his tour of monastic Egypt during the last decade of the fourth century — known as The Lausiac History; John Cassian's account in Latin of similar experiences during the same period; and above all the Sayings of the Fathers or Apothegmata, which are exceptionally valuable since they take us back to the original oral tradition. The fullest English translation is that by Wallis Budge of the Syriac version, which forms the second volume of his Paradise of the Fathers (2 vols., 1907).

Further, we have the Rule of St. Benedict, the so-called Rules of St. Basil, and earliest of all, the Rule and Life of St. Pachomius. The writings of Sulpicius Severus on St. Martin are the earliest sources for the history of the monastic life in the West, and they are also of great importance for the history of Christian hagiology.

6. Christian Society in Relation to the State

Christianity and the Empire: The relations of the Church to the State are among the most important factors in the development of Christian culture. But their relations underwent a revolutionary change in the course of the fourth century, so that we have to study two entirely different situations.


Hence from the time of Constantine to that of Heraclius there was a series of conflicts between Church and State, due not to religious persecution in the ordinary sense of the word, but to the tendency of the Emperors to impose their own solution in dogmatic differences.


In the first period the relation is one of opposition and contradiction. The Empire and the City are the enemies of the Church which depends entirely on its own internal resources for its survival.

In the second period Christianity becomes the religion of the Empire, and the Church eventually becomes a State Church with immense wealth and privileges. The Emperor presides at the general councils and includes the canon law of the Church in the official Code of Canon Law. The bishop is a great civic functionary as well as the head of the Christian community.

Nevertheless, the attitudes and ideas of the earlier periods survived in the changed circumstances of later times. They permeate St. Augustine's philosophy of history with its dualism of the Two Cities and they continue to influence the action of the Church and of the individual Christian whenever the State attempts to interfere in religious matters. The religious policy of the Empire was twofold. On the one hand, it sought to suppress religious minorities and to support the Church against heresy. On the other hand, whenever there was a controversy which produced schism and threatened the unity of the Church, the Emperor intervened as a peacemaker and frequently attempted to enforce a compromise solution on both parties. Hence from the time of Constantine to that of Heraclius there was a series of conflicts between Church and State, due not to religious persecution in the ordinary sense of the word, but to the tendency of the Emperors to impose their own solution in dogmatic differences. This is the true nature of the Byzantine Caesaro-Papism which finds its typical expression in the ecclesiastical policy of Constantius regarding the Arian controversy, and that of Zeno and Justinian with regard to the Monophysites.

In the West the situation was different. There was hardly time for the Church to become acclimatized to the new conditions before the Christian Empire had been replaced in Gaul and Spain and North Italy and Africa by the barbarian kingdoms which were generally Arian and which in some cases, especially in Africa, subjected the Catholics to severe persecution. Thus the tradition of the early Church with regard to the attitude of Christians toward the State survived with hardly a break from the apostolic age to the beginning of the Middle Ages. Even when the conversion of the West was completed, the State possessed no aura of sacred authority and religious prestige as it had in the Byzantine Empire, for it was the Church and not the State that was representative of the tradition of Rome and of the classical culture.

It was not until the Carolingian age that the Western State recovered this prestige, and the Carolingian empire was founded on an Augustinian rather than a Byzantine ideology.

Rome occupied an intermediate position in these developments. For centuries it formed part of the Byzantine bridgehead in Western Europe and looked to the Christian Empire as the source of political authority. But its cultural relations with the East were obstructed by the barrier of languages. St. Gregory the Great spent years at Constantinople as representative of the Holy See, yet he did not speak or read Greek. More and more the attention and activity of the Papacy was directed toward the new lands, like Britain and later Germany, which lay entirely outside the sphere of Byzantine culture. Thus the Papacy became increasingly detached from the Byzantine Empire, while retaining its independence against the new barbarian states. So that already in the centuries between the age of Pope Leo I and that of Gregory III the foundations had been laid of that super-political position as the head of Christendom and the leader of Western society which was to characterize the medieval Papacy.

It is important to distinguish this position, which was a cultural (and in a sense a temporal) one, from the apostolic primacy of the Holy See, which is theological and universal.

Conclusion

The essential achievement of this period was the synthesis of Eastern religion and Western Culture, or, to be more precise, the uniting of the spiritual traditions of Israel and of the Christian Church with the intellectual and artistic traditions of Hellenism and the political and social traditions of Rome. This synthesis has remained the foundation of Western culture and has never been destroyed in spite of the tendency of the Reformation to re-Hebraize Christianity and that of the Renaissance to re-Hellenize culture.

And this synthesis has been no less important for Christianity itself. No form of Christianity since the days of Marcion has attempted to disavow its basis in the Old Testament, and Catholic Christianity has always been fully conscious of its debt to Hellenic thought, primarily in the theology of the Fathers and the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, but also in a secondary degree in Greek philosophy and Latin jurisprudence. Nor do the Oriental forms of Christianity reject this Hellenic element. Syrian Christian literature derives from the same traditions as that of the West. There has been no attempt to produce an exclusively Oriental version of the Christian faith.

The only true Oriental Christianity is that of the Syriac Churches, which became separated from Byzantine orthodoxy in the fifth century. Nevertheless, in spite of their primitive and ultra-conservative tradition, they represent a similar synthesis of Christian and Hellenic traditions to that of the rest of Christendom. They also look back to the literature of the Patristic period as the source of their religious culture. And it was through them that Greek philosophy and science, above all the works of Aristotle, were transmitted to the medieval Moslem world.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dawson, Christopher. “Christian Culture in the Ancient World.” Folia Magazine, 1954, Volume VIII, No. 2.

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.

THE AUTHOR

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 2007 Julian Philip Scott




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