Date of Award
Dr. Terry Carter
Dr. J. Scott Duvall
Dr. Tom Auffenberg
In 313 C.E., Constantine I and Licinius, co-augusti of the Roman empire, issued an edict of toleration for all religions, legalizing Christianity and ending the last great persecution of the early church. This event is seen by most, and rightfully so, as being of inestimable significance in the development of the church. The question has been raised, however, and this also rightfully so, about the dangers of Constantine's caesaropapism and the blurring of distinction between Christian and State polity. Has the effect of this event been to take one step forward and two steps back? How has Christianity been affected by this union? Is it better, like the Anabaptists and their fellows, the Mennonites and Amish, to have no part in political life whatsoever, and to reject from communion those who do? Or are we rather to follow the example of many American churches (the early Puritan church serves as a valuable example here) and embrace the government and accept the role of the church as ministering through the State, a unity that detracts from neither and is of benefit to the purpose of both the heavenly and earthly kingdoms?
These questions have been of great significance to the church throughout its history. From 313 even to present day Christians have struggled with the question of what to do if afforded the opportunity to take a position of political authority. The Scriptural witness does not speak directly to this issue, and so Christians are left with few passages with which to work. This leaves American Christians living in a democratic republic with a difficult situation, we have no explicit Scriptural instruction as to the responsibility of Christian politicians and no examples of any repute to look to before 313 C.E.
It is possible that there were Christian rulers before this time. Indeed, tradition suggests that Agbar V, king of Edessa (a city-state in modern day Turkey), converted to Christianity within the lifetime of Jesus himself. Though this is a dubious claim there is less question, however, that Edessa had Christian rulers no later than the time of Julius Africanus, c.220 C.E. Our knowledge of these kings is very limited, however, and they have proved insignificant to the historical debate surrounding Christian political involvement. This source is of little help in our understanding of what the early church viewed as an individual Christian's political duty.
Where then, can a solution be found? It is the purpose of this paper to examine the witnesses of the early Christian Fathers, beginning with the Ante-Nicene Fathers who immediately succeed the Canonical writers and continuing through to the Father who wrote during and after Constantine's reign in the fourth century. This examination will lend a voice to those who lived in a time less culturally and intellectually removed from the Apostles and Christ himself.
Again, it is important to reiterate that the earliest Fathers lived in a different political climate than our own and had little or no opportunity to influence the government in any substantial way, and the question of a Christian actually being involved in government affairs seems to be first addressed in Tertullian's On Idolatry c. 200 C.E. This means that before this time there was no question as to how a Christian should behave in a position of power. There was no reason to address this potentiality. The significant statements in the earliest church Fathers discuss not what Christians should do in a position of political power but instead how Christians should respond to Government authorities when they are subject to them. This too is significant because it betrays both the understanding of the early church concerning political life and the church's self-understanding as well.
This paper will discuss the development and growth of the relationship between the early church and the Roman state, both the relationship of individual Christians as citizens and subjects to political authority and Christians in positions of political power. The primary means of evaluating this relationship will be to allow the church Fathers to speak for themselves by taking relevant texts from the primary documents of the early church and discussing their views of the government and a Christian’s relationship to it. The first place of examination must be the New Testament itself. While it is true that there are relatively few passages that speak directly to the issue of political life, there are a few such passages. It is important to recognize the themes in the New Testament that will be significant in the development of early Christian thought on this issue.
Darr, Will, "Into the Hands of Christian Princes" (2009). Honors Theses. 61.