Christian Authorities - Emperors


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    For I have done your bidding, I have slain mine enemies in your name. I have put women and children to death in your honour, I have caused great pain among them, for your glory.
    Psalms, 5:4-10


    When one of the branches of the Christian Church became the official Church of the Roman Empire, the Emperor soon became its official head. He occupied a position as a sort of supreme patriarch among patriarchs, and supreme bishop among bishops. On 27 February 380, the Emperor Theodosius I formally established Nicene Christianity as the state church of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica. From now on, this one form of Christianity would be the sole permissible religion Justinian definitively established a system of church government, now called Caesaropapism, believing "he had the right and duty of regulating by his laws the minutest details of worship and discipline, and also of dictating the theological opinions to be held in the Church". 1

    The Emperor exercised absolute control over the Church just as he exercised absolute control over the state, and it was not long before the arrangement was confirmed by declaring the Emperor to be infallible. For many centuries it was accepted Christian doctrine that the Emperor was the head of the Christian Church - Pontifex Maximus and Bishop of Bishops, that senior churchmen could be appointed by him, or at least appointed with his approval, that he alone convoked and presided over Universal Church Councils, that he enjoyed privileged direct communication with God, and that he was able to declare doctrine without reference to anyone else. Emperors such as Basiliscus, Zeno, Justinian I, Heraclius, and Constans II convoked councils to issue the edicts they had written, and in some cases they issued edicts themselves without reference to Church council or anyone else. The Emperor protected and favoured the Christian Church, and managed its administration. He not only appointed Patriarchs, but also set the territorial boundaries of their Patriarchies.

    The system of Caesaropapism extended throughout Christendom. At this time The Western ("Roman Catholic") Church was still one of the Patriarchies of the Orthodox Church, and was subject to caesaropapism just as much as the Eastern patriarchies. Bishops of Rome often took advantage of disputes between the East and West to try to escape from the power of the Emperor based in Constantinople, but without success. When the Emperor Justinian I reconquered the Italian peninsula in the Gothic War (535-554) he reestablished traditional arrangements, and appointed the next three bishops of Rome. This practice was continued by his successors and was later delegated to the Exarch of Ravenna. Once again, popes required the approval of the Byzantine Emperor for their Episcopal consecration, and a long string of them were appointed from the East. With the exception of Pope Martin I, none of the 33 popes during this period questioned the authority of the Byzantine monarch to confirm the election of the bishop of Rome before consecration could occur2, and it is instructive to review what happened to Martin.

    Pope Martin I was consecrated without waiting for imperial approval. He also convoked a purported Church Council on his own authority. As a result, he was arrested by imperial troops, taken to Constantinople, tried and found guilty of treason, and exiled to Crimea where he died in 655. While he still lived a replacement pope, Pope Eugene I was appointed to replace him.

    After 752, the Emperor was not able to enforce the traditional caesaropapal system, and soon the Papacy was finding ways the exploit the power vacuum. Instead of the Church being subject the Emperor, it would be much better for the Western Church to have the Empire being subject to the Bishop of Rome. This was the occasion for the creation of a forgery known as the Donation of Constantine. According to this eighth century forgery, the Emperor Constantine had given the papacy supreme temporal power, including the right to appoint Emperors. Church and State were still one, but now the caesaropapal system was replaced by a theocracy. All that was needed now was an unsuspecting ruler to play the part of subordinate Emperor. Charles I, King of the Franks and King of Italy, was duly crowned as a Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800. Charlemagne, as he is better known, became first emperor in western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire three centuries earlier. A long line of German successors were also considered to be Roman Emperors. It is for this reason that up until 1918, the King of the Germans was styled caesar, or in German, Kaiser.

    The prerogatives of the real emperors still resident in Constantinople in AD 800 were now claimed by the papacy. Now the Pope was Pontifex Maximus and Bishop of Bishops. Now he was supreme head of the Church. Now, he appointed Patriarchs and convoked Church Councils. Now, he enjoyed direct communication with God. Now, his opinions were infallible. Of course, the Eastern Emperor and his patriarchs immediately saw the imposture, but they were powerless to react. Soon, the Kings and nobles of Europe would feel the implications too. For centuries they had regarded Church offices as their personal possessions, to be awarded as gifts, bribes and prizes. Normal practice had been for a ruler to appoint his second son to the local bishopric. Soon the Church would be preventing rulers from appointing their own nominees, and reserving this lucrative practice to the Church. This so-called "investiture controversy" was in fact a number of controversies spread across Christendom, over many centuries.

    On the left a coin of Caesar Augustus. 27 B.C. - A.D. 14: Lugdunum (Lyon) mint.
    On the right a coin of Pope Leo XIII
    They both bear the abreviation PONT MAX, standing for Pontifex Maximus
    - one of many examples of popes apropriating imperial titles.

    The first controversy arose because in practice the new Emperors soon became more powerful than popes, and much preferred a version of the traditional arrangement where Emperors appointed puppet popes, rather than the new arrangement, which they correctly suspected of being fraudulent, where popes appointed puppet emperors. A crisis was precipitated when a group within the church appropriated the power of investiture from the Holy Roman Emperor and handing it to the Church. This had not been possible as long as the emperor maintained the physical power to appoint and depose the pope, so a first step had been to remove the papacy from the control of the emperor. An opportunity came in 1056 when Henry IV became German king at the age of six years. Churchmen seized the opportunity to take the papacy by force while Henry was still a child and unable to react. In 1059 a church council in Rome declared, with In nomine domini, that members of the secular nobility could have no part in the selection of popes. They created a new electoral college, the College of Cardinals, made up entirely of church officials. They now had a new alternative method of creating popes.

    Bolstered by forgeries and his College of Cardinals, Pope Gregory VII was soon in a position to assert his new authority against the now adult emperor Henry IV. In 1075 Gregory claimed in his Dictatus papae that the deposition of an emperor lay within the sole power of the pope. The document declared that the Roman church was founded by God alone and that papal power was the sole universal power. A council held in the Lateran in February the same year decreed that the pope alone could appoint or depose churchmen or move them from see to see.

    Fantasy recorded as fact. The Emperor Constantine hands his tiara (phrygium) to Sylvester, Bishop of Rome - ceding temporal power.
    This fresco of the imaginary donation is in Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome, and dates from 1246


    Henry IV continued to appoint his own bishops and reacted to Dictatus papae by sending Pope Gregory VII a letter in which he withdrew imperial support. His letter started, "Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk". It called for the election of a new pope. His letter ended, "I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages." The situation was exacerbated when Henry IV installed his chaplain, Tedald, as Bishop of Milan. Gregory responded in 1076 by excommunicating Henry and purporting to depose him as German king. Both King and Pope ended up humiliated in the battles that followed. At one stage,Henry was forced to beg forgiveness (a favourite theme in Catholic art). At another, to save his life, Gregory VII called on his Norman allies who rescued him in 1085. While doing this, the Normans sacked Rome, causing the citizens to rise against Gregory. The pope was forced to flee Rome and died soon afterwards. For the moment, the problem was resolved, but Investiture controversies would continue for centuries. The final compromise was that neither pope nor emperor purported to have the right to appoint the other, and both accepted that the other did have a right of veto over elections. So it was that for centuries reigning popes held a right of veto over the election of new emperors, and reigning emperors held a right of veto over the election of new popes.

    The Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was at one stage reduced to begging for mercy from Pope Gregory VII.
    Here he is, along with his wife and young son, being watched by those inside the Pope's residence,, spending three days barefoot in the snow at Canossa before the door is opened to him.


    In the Languedoc, investiture controversies provided a sub-text to the crusade against the Cathars in the first half of the thirteenth century. Assisted by the might of crusaders, the traditional practice of noblemen appointing family members to bishoprics was replaced by a new practice of papal nominations. Soon the French Kings would be challenged in a similar way, but the immediate challenge was overcome by the expedient of imposing a distinctively French form of caesaropapism, where French Kings appointed a string of seven puppet Popes and kept them under a watchful royal eye, close at hand, in Avignon. This was the period of the so-called Babylonian Exile of the papacy which lasted from 1309 to 1376. Once the papacy escaped French control, the French investiture controversy continued up until the French Revolution.

    The Palace of the Popes, in Avignon, now in France


    The idea of caesaropapism had a clear appeal to anyone who stood to benefit from it, and in different forms it appeared not only in the French Church, but also Russian and English Churches. Back in the East, the original form of caesaropapism continued in Constantinople, with Byzantine Emperors heading and controlling the Orthodox Church. When Constantinople fell to the Moslem Turks in 1453, caesaropapism did not end. By 1554 it had been revived, later to multiply into Greek, Cypriot and Russian variations.

    Within the Greek Orthodox Church it morphed into a strange new form of Caesaropapism inside the Ottoman Empire with a Muslim Emperor (the Sultan) appointing the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The Sultan was called Kayser-i-Rûm "Caesar of Rome", while the Patriarch was the millet-bashi (Ethnarch) of the Millet of Rûm. Under the Sultan, the Patriarch administered a separate Orthodox legal system, based on Justinian's code, enjoying the power to fine, imprison and exile. This system continued until 1923, and even today the Patriarch retains control over Mount Athos, more properly known as the "Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain".

    Another caesarolopalist system survived even longer in Cyprus. When Michail Christodolou Mouskos became Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus in 1950 his role was not only the head of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus, but also the Ethnarch, the secular leader of the country. This dual role survived up until his death in 1977.

    After it became clear that Constantinople would never be recovered for Christendom, the Russian Orthodox Church adapted itself to the new reality. Moscow was declared the "Third Rome" - the third Christian capital after Rome and Constantinople. At the same time Russian rulers became Emperors. They referred to themselves as Caesars, or in the Russian form, Czars. Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) formally assumed the title Czar in 1547 and subordinated the Russian Orthodox Church to the state, in imitation of the original Orthodox model. In 1721, Peter the Great abolished the patriarchate and made the church a department of government, copying the original model even more closely.

    An Orthodox Bishop
    wearing a distinctive mitre-crown

    A Russian Czar,
    also wearing a distinctive mitre-crown


    In England, kings had always enjoyed jurisdiction over the Christian Churches, both Celtic and Roman. This was made explicit in law by the first line of Magna Carta:

    In primis concessisse Deo et hac presenti carta nostra confirmasse, pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum, quod Anglicana ecclesie libera sit, ...

    First, We have granted to God, and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for Us and our Heirs for ever, that the Church of England shall be free ...

    The intention is ambiguous, but one fact is clear - the Church of England was seen as the king's to dispose of as he wished - it did not belong to pope; it did not even belong to God; it belonged to the English Crown. For most of the time the question of who owned the Church of England was academic as long as the king and the pope shared common opinions. The question of caesaropapism and investiture bubbled under the surface for many centuries, erupting when kings appointed bishops of whom the pope did not approve, or when popes appointed bishops of whom the king did not approve, or when Archbishops of Canterbury fell out with the King. The question had already exploded under King Henry II when Henry had wanted Thomas Becket to reform the dysfunctional application of Church Law in England. It exploded again under King John over the appointment of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury (one of the factors that would lead to the creation of Magna Carta). The question famously exploded once again under King Henry VIII, when the question of supreme authority over the church in England became critical. The king had no difficulty in finding precedents to prove that he, and not the pope, was the head of the Catholic Church in his own realm, and that the Bishop of Rome had no authority there. Henry claimed to enjoy direct communication with God, so as Supreme head of the Church in England, he was able to determine Church doctrine personally.

    Of course, caesaropapism is now something of an embarrassment to the Christian Churches, Orthodox and Catholic alike, and to a lesser extent the Anglican Church as well. The idea that God might give Emperors absolute jurisdiction over His Church, and provide them with infallible doctrine is now widely regarded as absurd. Consequently, historical examples are downplayed by modern Churches. Most Christians are unaware that Caesaropapism was part of standard Christian doctrine for many centuries, nor that significant Christian doctrine was determined by lay Emperors, some of whom had no understanding of theology and all of whom tended to fix doctrine in accordance with their own political interests. Neither the Orthodox nor Catholic Churches are willing to publish a list of doctrines declared by infallible Emperors, and much ink is dispensed by Christian apologists in giving the impression that various forms of caesaropapism were curious aberrations with no implications on Christian history.

    Vestiges of caesaropapism have become ever more ethereal as France, Russia, Germany, Turkey, and Cyprus successively became republics, and the French caesar, Ottoman Kayser-i-Rûm, Russian Csar, and German Kaiser were consigned to history along with the Cypriot Ethnarch.

    A Holy Roman Emperor tried to veto a papal election in the early twentieth century, but now the Austro-Hungarian Empire has gone too, along with any possibility of an emperor trying that again. The only significant vestige today is the British Monarch. British Kings and Queens are still Supreme Governors of the Church of England, and they still undergo a special sort of religious ordination and anointing during their coronation, based on the anointing of Jewish priest-kings and early Christian emperors. In practice the British monarch "rules" the Church through Parliament and other organs of state. Questions of doctrine such as the reality of hell are determined by the Privy Council, so the Church of England is in reality a department of state, just as the Orthodox Church was under the Christian Emperors of Rome.



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    1 Ayer, John Cullen, ed. (1913). A Source Book for Ancient Church History. Mundus Publishing (2008 reprint). p. 538

    2. Thirty three Byzantine popes from 537 to 752. Many of them had served as papal apocrisiarii (or Byzantine ambassador) in Constantinople.]

    Pope Vigilius (537-555), former apocrisiarius (Byzantine ambassador)
    Pope Pelagius I (556-561), former apocrisiarius (Byzantine ambassador)
    Pope John III (561-574)
    Pope Benedict I (575-579)
    Pope Pelagius II (579-590)
    Pope Gregory I, "the Great" (590-604), former apocrisiarius (Byzantine ambassador)
    Pope Sabinian (604-606), former apocrisiarius (Byzantine ambassador)
    Pope Boniface III (607), former apocrisiarius (Byzantine ambassador)
    Pope Boniface IV (608-615)
    Pope Adeodatus I (615-618)
    Pope Boniface V (619-625)
    Pope Honorius I (625-638)
    Pope Severinus (640)
    Pope John IV (640-642),
    Pope Theodore I (642-649),
    Pope Martin I (649-653), former apocrisiarius (Byzantine ambassador)
    Pope Eugene I (654-657)
    Pope Vitalian (657-672),
    Pope Adeodatus II (672-676)
    Pope Donus (676-678)
    Pope Agatho (678-681),
    Pope Leo II (682-683),
    Pope Benedict II (684-685)
    Pope John V (685-686),
    Pope Conon (686-687),
    Pope Sergius I (687-701) + Antipope Theodore (687) & Antipope Paschal (687)
    Pope John VI (701-705),
    Pope John VII (705-707),
    Pope Sisinnius (708),
    Pope Constantine (708-715),
    Pope Gregory II (715-731)
    Pope Gregory III (731-741),
    Pope Zachary (741-752),



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