Friday, November 07, 2014

Stump the Priest: Caesaropapism

The Emperor Constantine Copronymous

Question: "I have heard it argued that since the time of Constantine, the Orthodox Church has been under the thumb of the state, and has done whatever the powers that be told them to do. What would you say to those who argue that we reject that Pope, but embraces "Caesaropapism""?

If you look at the Bible, you see that there was no separation of Church and State in the Old Testament, and the Kings of Israel and Judah were not merely secular leaders, but had a role to play in the spiritual lives of their people, either for good or for evil... and those who promoted righteous are praised in Scripture, and those who led the people astray are condemned. Likewise, with the conversion of St. Constantine the Great, the emperors of the Roman and East Roman Empires played a similar role. However, the fact that the Church did not go along with the emperors when they tried to take the Church in a heretical direction is seen by the reaction of the Church to another Emperor Constantine... Constantine V, known to the Church as Constantine Copronymous. "Copronymous" was not his given name, but a name which according to tradition derived from his baptism. When he was baptized, it is said that he relieved himself in the font, and so foreshadowed the fact that he would attempt to defile the Church with his heresy. "Copronymous" means literally, "the namesake of crap." Constantine Copronymous was an Iconoclast, and he vigorously persecuted those who resisted him... and the faithful of the Church did resist him throughout his reign, and the reign of his son, Leo IV. Then after the 7th Ecumenical Council condemned the Iconoclast heresy, and after a mere 28 year respite, Iconoclasm was revived by the Emperor Leo V, but again, after another quarter century of the persecution of the Orthodox, Iconoclasm was again defeated, but this time for good. Had the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire had any concept of Caesaropapism, the Church would have embraced Iconoclasm, but instead it resisted Iconoclasm tooth and claw, until it finally triumphed over it.

The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

Often, when charges of "Caesaropapism" are brought up, the Orthodox Church under Communism is brought up, and the claim is made that the Church was the obedient servant of the Communist authorities. This claim is belied by the fact that in just the first 9 years of Bolshevik rule, 78 bishops, 2,700 priests, 2,000 monks, and 3,400 nuns had been killed by the Communists. By the 1960s, the number of priests who had been killed was estimated to have risen to 12,000. At one time, there were an estimated 150 bishops in Soviet gulags -- and before the revolution, there were only 130 active bishops, and so this means that not only were most bishops imprisoned, but their replacements were rapidly being imprisoned (Timothy Ware [now Metropolitan Kallistos] The Orthodox Church, (London: Penguin, 1964), p. 155f). The number of laymen killed for their faith is unknown, but it is believed to be in the millions. This is hardly a story of obedient servant doing the bidding of its master. The story is a complex one, and some resisted to martyrdom, others resisted and suffered in other ways. It is certainly true that many did capitulate, but this is true of any intense persecution in the history of the Church.

As Alexei Khomiakov pointed out:

"...all Protestants are Crypto-Papists; and, indeed, it would be a very easy task to show that in their Theology (as well as philosophy) all the definitions of all the objects of creed or understanding are merely taken out of the old Latin System, though often made negative in the application. In short, if it was to be expressed in the concise language of algebra, all the West knows but one datum, a; whether it be preceded by the positive sign +, as with the Latins, or with the negative −, as with the Protestants, the a remains the same. Now, a passage to Orthodoxy seems indeed like an apostasy from the past, from its science, creed, and life. It is rushing into a new and unknown world, a bold step to take, or even to advise" (Alexei Khomiakov, Third Letter to William Palmer (This is also the quote that Metropolitan Kallistos began his classic book "The Orthodox Church")).

Because the west tends to see things either in terms of papism, or anti-papism (which is really democratized papism, i.e., every man is his own Pope), the west in inclined to want to impose some variation of the theme on the Orthodox, and so they claim we are Caesaropapists. The reality is, however, that we choose not to participate in papism of any variety. If you want to understand what Orthodoxy is, you have to understand it on its own terms, apart from papism.

For More Information:

For a fair minded history of the Russian Church under the Soviet yoke, see:

A Long Walk to Church, by Nathaniel Davis.

For more on Icons and Iconoclasm, see The Icon FAQ.