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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Religious Debate Influences Political Events

Alice C. Linsley

The religious and political events of the fourth century are extremely important in understanding subsequent church-state tensions in Europe.

Early Christian writers such as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great sought to distance Christianity from the pagan philosophies of Plato and Aristotle and from the Gnostics. Church Fathers also distanced Christianity and Christian interpretation of the Bible from the teachings of the rabbis. They were writing at a time when the old state religion of Rome was fading as a result of the conversion of Constantine I, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. After gaining control of the empire, Constantine established his capital at the site of ancient Byzantium in 330 AD. This was a time of doctrinal debates, some of which would find ecumenical resolution and state approval at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

By the 4th century, Plato’s thought began to exercise influence in the Latin Church through the writings of the neo-Platonist bishop, St. Augustine.

St. Augustine did not believe that God created everything in six consecutive 24-hour days, but he did believe that Adam and Eve’s disobedience had consequences for all of humanity. Their sin brought about the Fall of Man and the Fall can only be undone by an act of divine grace. Clearly, Augustine’s view of human nature is that something that was originally good has gone bad.  Yet this bad has no objective reality.  It is merely the absence of the Good. Augustine believed that God is present in human moral reasoning, but he did not conclude that humans can know the moral Good through fallen human reasoning, only through divine illumination.

From the 4th century there was great interest in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, although the Greek-speaking East interested Aristotle’s writings differently than the Latin-speaking West. The East saw continuity between Plato and his student Aristotle on the question of virtue, whereas the West saw discrepancies. In the East Aristotle was interpreted metaphysically, but in the West, Aristotle’s writings became the basis for early scientific approaches to knowledge (empiricism).

The tension between Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s empiricism expressed itself during the Medieval Period in various propositions about the relationship of Faith and Reason. Augustine's idea was that human reason and philosophy are useful only to those who already have faith. He wrote, “Credo ut intellegiam” (“I believe in order that I may understand”). 

Anselm believed that faith is necessary to lead us to the right use of reason. He approached Christianity as a belief system that we are capable of understanding through the exercise of human reason based on faith. He wrote, “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this I believe -- that unless I believe, I should not understand.” Here we a shift from Augustine’s idea of the necessity of divine illumination to Anslem’s idea of the necessity of faith and reason. 

Aristotle believed that a man is good when he exercises reason as a political creature, seeking personal happiness in both private and public life.  For Aristotle, this is what humans exist to do. Aquinas borrowed Aristotle’s notion of the good as fulfilling our final end, but claims that humanity’s end is not rational activity, but instead the contemplation of God (the “beatific vision”).

Erasmus believed that a good teacher could instill virtue in the student because the seeds of the good are in humans by nature.  Martin Luther argued that the Fall left the human will in bondage to sin and that there is nothing that humanity can do to save itself.

In the area of politics, most medieval writers believed that citizens had a moral authority to obey the ruler because God vested authority in the ruler. This is sometimes termed "divine right of kings." This is a continuation of the archaic idea of the monarch as an earthly representative of the Deity. However, conflicts arose when a Catholic ruler tried to impose Catholicism on Lutherans or when a Lutheran ruler tried to impose Lutheranism on Catholics. When this happened, Luther denied that the State has authority to dictate matters of faith. Luther also consistently maintained that rulers were to be obeyed.

During the late Middle Ages bloody religious and territorial battles tore Europe apart and this raised questions about the ethics of war. Most thinkers believed that the only person who could legitimately declare war was the head of State, but in the feudal system petty lords went to war against each other without regard to the King’s wishes.  Theories of war became a topic of discussion among scholars, clergy and statesmen.  The just war theory was further refined and divided into related ideas. Jus ad bellum addresses what justifies going to war and jus in bello addresses what may justly be done in war.

Related reading: Luther Was Wrong About the Priesthood; Ethical Concerns of the Middle Ages; What Constitutes Just War?

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