In my blog entry on ‘Nicaea the Movie’ (25 January 2014) I commented that I have seen little on the Web about Eighth Day Books’ symposium, ‘Constantine, Christendom and Cultural Renewal’ (16–18 January 2014), which contrasted the views on St Constantine the Great of the eminent Mennonite theologian and pacifist, John Howard Yoder (1927–97) and the Reformed minister and theologian Peter Leithart.
I recently came across an article by Tim Huber on the Mennonite World Review website, 3 February 2014, reporting the presentation to the symposium of Alan Kreider, retired professor of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Prof. Kreider published an essay in the collection edited by John D. Roth, Constantine Revisited: Leithart, Yoder and the Constantinian Debate, (Wipf and Stock, 2013), published in response to Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine.
Prof. Kreider remains unshaken in the Anabaptist conviction that ‘Constantine may have considered himself a pious ruler, but the early Christian church [by which he evidently means the pre-Constantinian church] would have found him an impious follower of Christ.’ He added that the Emperor’s baptism, which he put off until just before his death, shows that he and the church understood that state power was not compatible with the life of a Christian.
And yet it is common knowledge among church historians that Christians at that time put baptism off to the last possible moment. It was life in this world that was considered hazardous to our salvation, not just participation in state power.
The suggestion that state power is not compatible with the life of a Christian raises problems. The early Church required Christians to submit to state power. Note St Paul’s words: ‘I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.’ (1 Tim. 2: 1-2) And, famously—or notoriously— ‘… rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil … 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 … Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.’ (Rom. 13: 3-7)
The Christian, although enjoined to obedience, could not take full part in the public life of a pagan state, since it required pagan ritual sacrifice. But what would happen when most of the people considered themselves to be Christian—and when pagan sacrifice was no longer a condition of public office? Christians recognised that the state was necessary but how was it to be carried on in the changed circumstances? This was the question that needed to be answered at the time of Constantine.
Prof. Kreider is quoted as saying, ‘The more I study the early Christians, and I study them a lot, the more convinced I am they were nonviolent.’ This elicits comments on the website from two Orthodox priests, both of them scholars and historians.
First, Fr John W. Morris, Pastor of St George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and teacher of history at a number of universities, expresses disagreement with Yoder’s view (that ‘the obligation [of Christians] to participate in war … [is a tradition] which has prevailed in the churches since Constantine …’ The Politics of Jesus, 1994, p. 210): ‘The Eastern Orthodox Church … never accepted the ‘just war theory’ of Augustine … To this day, an Eastern Orthodox soldier who kills in battle is barred from Communion until after they have been to Confession and have served a penance. In Eastern Orthodox theology all war is evil. However, there are times when war is a lesser evil than allowing a foreign country to invade your country and oppress your people.’
This arouses Fr Alexander F.W. Webster, Pastor of St Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church (ROCOR) in Stafford, Virginia and retired professor of history and National Guard chaplain: ‘I must dissent from my esteemed Orthodox colleague Fr. John W. Morris’s mischaracterization of Eastern Orthodox moral tradition on the issues of war and peace … the ‘lesser evil’ approach to moral issues is decidedly not—and never has been—Orthodox.’
It would be difficult to find two Orthodox theologians who agree completely as to what is the Church’s doctrine concerning war and military service but there seems general agreement that the Church in the East is not explicitly pacifist but neither has it formulated anything as explicit as the Western just-war tradition—at least as far as the jus ad bellum goes; there is less agreement as to the jus in bello. Fr Alexander, however, spurred on by outrage at certain remarks made by the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (which is unusual among the Orthodox in espousing frank pacifism), co-authored with the Protestant Darrell Cole, professor of religion at Drew University, The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East & West (2004). They argue (convincingly, to my mind) that in fact the fundamental position of the Church East and West is and has always been the same—the position of which the Western just-war tradition is one expression. More specifically, Fr Alexander holds that the Orthodox Church holds in tension, in this as in other cases, two apparently contradictory notions: absolute pacifism and justifiable war. An unjustifiable war is evil; a justifiable war is not a lesser evil but a necessary work of charity.
Further to Fr John’s comment on the requirement of penance for a soldier, it is a fearful thing to kill another human being, even accidentally, and the Church has always required confession and penance. But St Basil the Great in his Canon 13 said, ‘Our Fathers did not consider homicides in war among homicides, it seems to me giving pardon to those who defend temperance and piety. But perhaps it is more advisable, as the hands are not clean, to abstain from Communion for three years only.’ The penance prescribed for a soldier who caused a death in battle is thus just a third of the penance prescribed for someone who has caused the death of another by pure accident.
Today the Church commemorates the Bishop of Rome who brought the monothelite controversy to an end at last after more than half a century. Here I continue the story begun in my blog entry of 21 January for St Maximus Confessor, taking it from St Maximus’s death in A.D. 662 to the convening of the 6th Œcumenical Council in 680.
This is a story of weak popes and strong popes. It begins properly with Pope Honorius I (625–638). When Sophronius was elected Patriarch of Jerusalem in 634 and rejected the monothelite compromise, Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople wrote a clever letter to Pope Honorius that led the pope to make a few imprudent remarks, which were thenceforth used by the supporters of the compromise as evidence that they had the support of Rome.
Pope Severinus was elected on the death of Honorius in 638 but the Emperor Heraclius refused to confirm him until he subscribed to the Ecthesis, the decree making monotheletism the official doctrine of the Empire. The stalemate lasted a year and a half before Heraclius backed down. Severinus was installed as pope in 640 and thereupon condemned the Ecthesis, but only lived two months longer. Pope John IV (640–642) also condemned the Ecthesis, although he attempted to justify Honorius, saying that, by one will in Christ, he meant only to say that there were not two contrary wills.
John was succeeded by a Greek born in Jerusalem, who became Pope Theodore I (642–649). He also condemned the Ecthesis, refusing to recognise the monothelite Paul II as the new Patriarch of Constantinople. Paul, trying to placate everyone, had the Emperor Constans II withdraw the Ecthesis and substitute the Typos in 648—instead of being required to profess one will in Christ, the faithful were forbidden to profess anything at all on the subject. Theodore planned the Lateran Council of 649 to address the issue of monotheletism but did not live to convene it. He is commemorated by the Orthodox Church as a saint, his feast on 18 May.
Pope Martin I (649–655) convened the Lateran Council of 649, representing the Western bishops. He had been Pope Theodore’s representative in Constantinople and was well-informed on the politics of the issue. St Maximus Confessor was in Rome by this time and some believe that he wrote the council’s Acta. The council condemned monotheletism and rejected both the Ecthesis and the Typos. The Emperor Constans responded by having him arrested in 653, along with St Maximus, and taken to Constantinople, where he was subjected to much mistreatment. He was sentenced to death but Patriarch Paul obtained the commutation of the sentence. He was exiled to the Crimea where he died in 656. The Orthodox Church commemorates him as a saint and confessor, his feast on 13 April.
By this point, there was no longer any ambiguity concerning the theological issues involved. The only question still open was whether political expediency or the doctrinal purity of the Church would prevail. After the arrest of Martin in 653, the papal see remained vacant for a little over a year, until Pope Eugene I was elected in 654. The fate of Saint Martin had its intended effect: the new pope avoided any mention of the number of wills in Christ. He died in 657.
His successor, Pope Vitalian (657–672), although orthodox on the question of the number of wills in Christ, followed in the footsteps of Eugene and kept quiet as long as Constans was alive.
On the death of Constans in 668, his son came to the throne as Constantine IV. Constantine had little interest in maintaining the monothelite heresy but did not oppose it either, fully occupied as he was defending the empire against Arab and Slav invasions. Thus, while Vitalian now openly criticised monetheletism, he made little impression on the other patriarchs. The subsequent popes, Adeodatus II (672–676) and Donus (676–678) were conciliatory on the question of monotheletism, not wishing to make waves.
It was the next pope, St Agatho (feast, 20 February), who broke the deadlock at last. He was born in Sicily, became a monk on his parents’ death, was noted for his erudition and deep humility, and had been serving as treasurer of the Roman Church when Pope Donus died. He succeeded him in July 678. The Patriarch of Constantinople at the time was the monothelite Theodore I.
Agatho summoned a council in Rome in 680 which professed the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s wills and then wrote two letters to the Emperor Constantine, refuting monotheletism and proposing a council to resolve the issue finally. A year earlier, Theodore had been succeeded by the orthodox George I as Patriarch of Constantinople, commemorated by the Church as a saint, feast together with Patriarch John V (669–675) on 18 August. Constantine now agreed and the council was duly held in Constantinople, November 680–September 681, the 6th Œcumenical Council, condemning monenergism and monotheletism. After the reading of the pope’s letter to the assembled prelates at its opening, they declared, ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Agatho,’ echoing the famous cry, ‘Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo,’ at Chalcedon. But before the council could conclude, the pope had already fallen asleep in the Lord on 11 January 681.
Leo II, not consecrated until August 682 because of disagreements with Constantinople over imperial control of papal elections, succeeded him and confirmed the acts of the council. This was the most important act in his brief reign. He attempted to mitigate the anathema of Honorius, pronounced by the council, saying that his fault was not heresy but being insufficiently active in refuting heresy. (A thousand years in the future, this anathema was to be hotly debated when the First Vatican Council (1869–70) defined the dogma of papal infallibility, although in fact it was quite irrelevant, Honorius having been musing rather than pronouncing ex cathedra.)
Today the Church remembers a ‘physician of souls, captain of the army of Christ and pilot of the ark of the Church buffeted by the storm of heresies’ in the troubled decades following the Council of Nicæa in A.D. 325. St Meletius, a humble and pious man, was elected Archbishop of Antioch, metropolitan see of the East, in 360 when the Arian Eudoxius was deposed.
The see had been racked by a schism ever since the earlier deposition of the orthodox St Eustathius in 330 but both the supporters of Nicæa and the Arians welcomed him, the former sure that his virtues could only be the reflection of purity of faith, the latter misled by his meekness to believe he would tolerate their heresy.
His enthronement took place before the Emperor Constantius, who favoured the Arians. The emperor proposed slyly that the bishops present expound the passage, ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old’ (Proverbs 8: 22), the classic proof text of Arianism. George of Cappadocia, who had been placed on the patriarchal throne of Alexandria on the banishment of St Athanasius, and Acacius of Cæsarea (described by St Gregory the Theologian as the ‘hand’ and ‘tongue’ of the Arians), first gave the Arian interpretation of the passage, by which the Logos was a creature, although before Creation. St Meletius then gave the orthodox interpretation, as declared by St Athanasius, that in this passage ‘created’ could not be taken to mean ‘he was made’ but rather ‘he was begotten.’ An Arian archdeacon attempted to silence the archbishop by putting his hand over his mouth but St Meletius extended his own hand to the people with three fingers together and the thumb and little finger folded over, a gesture that said that the three Persons of the Trinity are equal in nature and one only God.
St Meletius was exiled to Melitene by Constantius but was able to return to his see at the emperor’s death in November 361. However, the orthodox faithful of Antioch had become divided in the year he was absent between those who supported him and those who viewed his election as invalid because of the participation of Arians in it. The latter had elected Paulinus as archbishop, creating a schism that would last eighty-five years, long after the death of both men—the notorious Meletian Schism that weakened the Church in its struggle against Arianism while it lasted.
He was responsible for turning from secular learning to sacred studies one John, born in Antioch in 349, who would earn the epithet Chrysostom and be canonized a saint. He baptized him and later ordained him deacon.
St Meletius was exiled once again by the Arian emperor Valens (reigned 364–378). He went to Cappadocia, where he had the opportunity to meet St Basil the Great, one of the ‘Three Cappadocians’ who clarified the doctrine of the Trinity, the other two being St Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s brother, and St Gregory the Theologian, Basil’s friend.
The pious Emperor Theodosius the Great (reigned 379–395), just before his accession, had a vision in which St Meletius vested him with the purple and placed the diadem on his head. He determined to put an end to the Arian conflict, summoning the 2nd Œcumenical Council to meet at Constantinople in May 381, with St Meletius presiding. St Meletius gave up his soul to God not long after the council convened. St Gregory of Nyssa preached his funeral sermon, from which comes the quotation opening this entry. He was succeeded as president of the Council by St Gregory the Theologian, who had been made Patriarch of Constantinople by Theodosius shortly before.
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.