Introduction to "Church
and State in Early Christianity" | Hugo Rahner, S.J. | IgnatiusInsight.com
Introduction to Church
and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.
The first edition of this book appeared seventeen years ago when the struggle
between Church and state in Nazi Germany was at its height. It then bore
the title: The Liberty of the Western Church, Documents Concerning
Church-State Relations in Early Christianity (Einsiedeln-Cologne:
Benziger, 1943). Since then times have become more tranquil, but only
in a superficial and impermanent way. Thus the question of the relations
between Church and state remains as interesting as ever; it is a continuing
problem in America and Russia and could at any moment reappear in Germany
now that it has again become a world power. This alone would justify a
The book remains substantially unchanged in form and fundamental ideas.
It provides the living witness of the early Church to the solution of
the ever-recurring problem touching us as citizens of a state and members
of the Church because all persons, in addition to the complex of influences
affecting their personality and status as citizens, are in the Church
or are called to her. For the Church is the "Kyriaké", the queen
just as Christ is the King. She must, therefore, proclaim to all generations
and to all states the revelation that Christ the Redeemer has brought
to mankind in his power and majesty, And the state is called to listen
to the Church. But both those who make the proclamation and those who
hear it must do so in a way that neither exceeds nor blurs the limits
of the mutual autonomy that God the Creator has set for the state, and
God the Redeemer for the Church. Because citizens of the state and the
members of the Church are the same individuals, the problem of the just
relationship between Church and state remains a difficult and vital question
The history of this problem has been a turbulent one right down to our
own times. Its solution has risen out of struggle and death ever since
Christ in masterly fashion drew a distinction between God and emperor
while at the same time decreeing obedience to both God and emperor 
a fact that did not prevent the imperial procurator's condemnation
of Christ to death on the cross.  The struggle continued at the time
that Paul wrote from Rome during Nero's tyranny that the "existing authorities
are instituted by God",  and Peter from that same "Babylon" advised
the people of Asia Minor, especially prone to emperor worship, "Fear God,
honor the emperor"  efforts that did not hinder their being dragged
before "kings and judges", as enemies of the state liable to capital punishment.
Notwithstanding their loyalty to the head of state combined with adherence
to Christianity, the principle-one must obey God rather than man-was understood
by them in concrete situations as meaning that the Church is superior
to the state any time a claim dangerous to the fundamentals of the Church
demands such a decisive delimitation of authority. "God is greater than
the emperor", was the claim of the Church of the martyrs as she courageously
faced the threat of death. Ambrose said frankly, before an imperial tyranny
even when it had become Christian, in a phrase that was never forgotten
in subsequent centuries and which became a classic formula: "The emperor
is in the Church, not above her. A good emperor seeks to
help the Church not to combat her. We say this with a humility equal to
our determination, even when threatened with torture, execution or exile.
As servants of Christ we put aside all fear."
It seems then that from the beginning the relationship of Church to state
consisted of a clash rising out of that "necessary sin of Adam" of which
Augustine speaks, a necessary consequence of the fact that men, weighed
down by original sin, fall into the prime sin of pride, a worship of their
own creation as they build up a state. This can happen as well to the
Church as she strives toward spiritual liberty and toward her supernatural
goal yet is tempted in the course of her struggle to build a theocracy
purely of this world. This is a necessary struggle, for only in the course
of it do the combatants on either side, caught up in the unfolding of
history, constantly tempted to excessive demands and enmeshed in the slow
evolution of state and Church, come to recognize the limits which separate
them, limits which are marked by a border not a wall. Their mutual relationship
has its roots in the personal unity of the Creator and the Redeemer but
it should not become confused resulting in the dominance of the state
over the Church (caesaropapism) or of the Church over the state (papal
The two-thousand-year history of the Church has revealed every facet of
this relationship. From the days of the apostles to our own, the Church
has been tried before kings and judges and has fought for freedom to pursue
her other-worldly goals; but she has also run the risk of being king and
judge over the people, from the period of late antiquity when Constantine
called himself "the apostles' equal" and "bishop for external affairs";
from the reign of Justinian, the "priest-emperor" and of his tyrannous
successors on the Byzantine throne to whom the Eastern Church was subservient
to the extent of surrendering her own rights; from the Middle Ages when
the Church, victorious in the mortal combat against imperial power, for
a while regarded herself as possessing the "two keys" of spiritual and
temporal power as an exclusive and inalienable right,
However, when we analyze the main phases of the history of Church and
state down to our own days, we are forced to the conclusion that most
frequently it has been the state which picked the quarrel with the Church,
and as a result it was the Church that had to defend herself in a life
or death struggle to maintain her freedom to fulfill her calling. This
is true of the struggle between Church and state as it developed in Roman
times even as Christ founded his Church; thus the story of this struggle
between the Church and Roman imperial power, both in its pre-Christian
and Christian periods, is well worth analyzing, even today. The texts
which tell of the victories and defeats in this ancient struggle read
as if they were written for our own age.
Our choice of texts has been designed to make the ancient Church's struggle
for freedom live again. To do this we have to pull these historic events
from the clouds of abstract principles and legalism and root them in a
living context. So we have tried to evoke the various phases of the struggle
with a variety of texts: sermons and prayers, apologetics, legal decisions,
and papal letters.
The period we have chosen to study is not delineated by merely arbitrary
limits. We have attempted to trace the relations between the Church and
the Roman empire, the introductory chapter of the Church's history, a
paradigm of all the future relations between Church and state, the importance
of which ought not be forgotten and the consequences of which retained
their fundamental value from the early Middle Ages to the Second Vatican
Council. By the Roman Empire, we mean both the pagan state of Augustus'
successors (from Decius to Diocletian aggressively pagan) and the empire
converted to Christianity under Constantine and become radically Christian
under Theodosius, a state which declined in power in the West during the
second half of the fifth century but flourished in the East under Justinian.
In this political atmosphere, during a period of eight hundred years,
the Church arrived at an ever clearer conception of her relation to the
state. in the varied circumstances of her existence from the time of Pope
Clement I, who had known the apostles, to that of Pope Nicholas 1, who
lived through the beginnings of the break between Eastern and Western
Churches, the Church groped toward a just balance, oscillating between
two poles: the recognition that the institution of the state is willed
by God, to which the Church conformed and from which she sought protection;
and the defense of her own autonomy and of her superiority in origin and
goal to the purely worldly nature of the state.
The history of this struggle has always been a lively but sad series of
divisions. Thus the Church, always maturing as she groped for a just balance
in her relations with the state for eight hundred years, finally broke
in two, each part exhibiting a possible alternative solution to the problem.
In the Eastern half of the Christian empire, in the new Rome founded by
Constantine, divided from the West by her inheritance of Hellenistic culture
and continuing the division of the empire into two blocks existing from
the time of Diocletian to that of Theodosius, the Church succumbed to
the state. Or would it be more exact to say that the state succumbed to
the Church? The difference between the two formulas depends on one's judgment
are we faced with an imperial Byzantine Church or a theocratic
state? However, if we look at the actual result, the two are identical,
however we analyze the identification of Church and state. After Justinian,
this political situation lasted for a thousand years, continuing the confusion
between the spheres of the religious-ecclesiastical and the nationalpolitical.
That this type of organization was fundamentally flawed became clear in
the successive five hundred years as the Holy Russian Empire inherited
the Byzantine system, leaving the Church defenceless before the state
and before the onslaught of atheism. 
The other alternative has had even a greater historical role to play.
In the Latin West, the Church, under the guidance of the Pope and her
bishops, vindicated her freedom before the state. In this she was helped
by a variety of external developments. Not the least of these is the fact
that in the West, the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, and
the papacy remained the only rock of cultural unity among the states that
rose in the aftermath of the invasions. It is often said that the freedom
of the Western Church was built only on the ruins of the civil power;
but the Church had in fact defended her freedom against Emperor Constantius
and later against Byzantine despotism, which weighed heavily on Rome and
the West from the sixth to the eighth century, What favored the Western
Church's victorious struggle for her freedom was, above all, the fact
that in Latin culture the sense of human freedom, especially religious
freedom, had deeper roots than in the East. When Ambrose, a noble Roman
citizen, launched his attacks against the tyranny of an empire that threatened
to enslave the Church, one can detect what E. Caspar describes as: "The
freedom of a Christian and the libertas of the ancient Roman citizen fused
in a single concept, which must have sounded strange to the heir of the
orientalizing and despotic system of Diocletian." 
But the most important internal resource from which the Western Church
drew renewed strength in her struggle for freedom was the guiding role
of the papacy, growing increasingly conscious of the rights granted to
it by Christ as it sought to respond to the needs of a Church basically
solid but ever struggling even in a Christian empire. It is a fact grasped
not only by faith but also seen in history that all the churches who wish
to withdraw from the unity of the Church dogmatically first of all seek
refuge with the state but soon are absorbed by the state and fall with
it. As proof we can cite the Arians settled in the Germanic states of
the West or the Eastern Greek church and those who seceded from her because
of christological differences, whose sad remnants are still to be found
in the Near East.
It was precisely in the midst of its struggle with the late Roman Empire
that the papacy arrived at the almost definitive expression of its own
nature and was able to spread the freedom of the Church among the Germanic
peoples who entrusted their future to that Faith of which the See of Peter
is the guardian, though they would find it necessary in the course of
another struggle prolonged through several centuries of the Middle Ages
to discover a more nuanced relationship between Church and state. Even
in this medieval conflict, the arms used were those forged by Popes Gelasius,
Leo, and Nicholas. So the relation between Church and state during the
early Christian era stands for successive centuries as an example which
is worth studying if one wishes to understand the problems still with
The justification and historical importance of the documents presented
here are furnished in rather detailed introductions. By means of them
we have tried to situate the conflicts, the outcome of which was far from
certain, in the rich and lively context of each period giving birth to
these texts which have acquired a permanent historic importance. Like
considerations have determined the choice and order of the selections.
The first introduction traces the history of the relations between Church
and state of the age of martyrs before the peace of Constantine. A solid
grasp of this first period is necessary for any understanding of the succeeding
conflicts. In the course of these three centuries, each side took the
measure of the other, estimating the strength and determination of its
adversary, The Roman Empire embodied the ancient Italic concept of the
head of state as the "supreme Priest", "king of the sacrifices", gradually
absorbing too the influences of the imperial cult current in the East.
It stubbornly insisted on treating religion as an exclusively political
factor. On the other hand, the Christian Church, profoundly religious
in outlook though accepting the institution of the state as willed by
God, remained on the defensive in order to protect her freedom from any
stifling embrace of the state, even at the risk of death.
The real problem arose only later when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity.
Constantine, and his successors even more, still harboring the pagan idea
of caesar-as-priest, attempted to fit the Church into their political
programs. The struggle for freedom began at this point. It ended in victory
for the Church: Theodosius the Great accepted Christianity as the only
religion recognized by the state while the Church escaped total submission
to the state.
But this victory carried in it the seeds of a new danger. This became
clear in the fifth century in "separation of powers". While the Church
in the East succumbed to the power of the state without prolonged resistance,
the Western Church defended her freedom, guided by the growing strength
of the papacy. At the height of this struggle Pope Gelasius I formulated
the principle "of two powers by which mankind is ruled". The speculations
of Augustine and the policies of Pope Leo I combined in the ideal of the
papacy aimed at by all succeeding occupants of Peter's See even during
its periods of worst decline.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, there still remained an
adversary of immense strength-the Eastern Empire and its absolute master,
Justinian, who again wanted to unite Pontifex and Imperator
in a single person. The struggle was now against a state Church, and the
Church's freedom had its ups and downs. But the very violence of the state's
blows against the Church raised up thinkers whose courage has yet to be
surpassed. The Church relearned during the vicissitudes of history the
prime principle of her Master: she triumphs through suffering.
The last chapter is entitled "Rome and Constantinople"; it shows the Church's
freedom dying in the state prisons of Constantinople. Nevertheless, the
victory lay with the papacy, with the West, from which the modern world
stems. The ecclesiastical policies of the suffering Church of this period
resulted in a historic victory. Pope Gregory II looked to the new Germanic
states on their way to a future of immense importance and left the East
to its own resources. Pope Nicholas I, at the dawn of the Middle Ages
took up again the old struggle for the Church's freedom which further
strained the slender ties between the Eastern and Western Churches. With
his letter which is redolent of the spirit of Rome embued with Christianity,
we bring our series of texts to an end. It is an epilogue by a Roman Pope
to the history of Roman freedom baptized Christian resounding with the
ideas of Pope Gelasius.
It echoes the words of one of those defenders of liberty during the struggle
with Emperor Justinian: "Let us listen to the song of Christian freedom,
calling to us, ringing all about us from times past."
 Mt 22:21; Lk 20:25.
 Jn 19:15-16; Mt 27:26.
 Rom 13:1.
 1 Pet 2:17.
 Acta Saturnini, II (T. Ruinart, Acta Martyrum, Regensburg,
1859), p. 419.
 Sermo contra Auxentium 36 (PL 16, 1018b).
 H. Rahner, Vom ersten bis zum dritten Rom (Innsbruck, 1950).
 E. Caspar, Geschichte der Papttums, I (Tubingen, 1930), p.
Father Hugo Rahner, S.J., was born in 1900 at Pluffendorg-Baden.
His younger brother was the influential theologian Karl Rahner. Entering
the Society of Jesus in 1919, he completed his theological studies at the
University of Innsbruck in Austria, and from 1931 to 1934 pursued doctoral
studies in Church history in Bonn under J. Dölger. Professor of Church
history and patristics at Innsbruck in 1937, he was forced the next year
into exile until the end of the Second World War. In 1945 he returned to
Innsbruck as dean of the theological faculty and then from 1949 to 1950
as rector of the university. Ill health forced him to retire from teaching
in 1962. He wrote numerous books, including Our
Lady and the Church. He died in 1968.
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about
every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com
articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!