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Chapter Seven

Political Theology East and West

Anatomyzing Divinity

By James L. Kelley

From the fifth century to the eighth century, the decline of the Western half of the Roman Empire into a chaotic cultural backwater was accompanied by what has been described as the rise of Hellenistic monarchy in the Eastern part of the Empire, centered of course in Constantinople New Rome.25 It is essential to note that in Eastern Roman society (and until the Carolingian period, Western Roman society as well), the regnum was thought of in terms of a cooperative relationship with the sacerdotium, that is, the Church and Her Patriarch. The development of the coronation ceremony, which became centered more and more on the ecclesial basis of kingly power though it retained the element of popular assent through acclamation, has been misinterpreted in Western scholarship as evidence either of “caesaropapism” or of an abiding “secular” element in the Eastern Roman conception of imperium.26 A quotation from scholar Janet L. Nelson elucidates the profound differences between the Eastern Roman and the later Western conceptions of the imperium:

Of course, the clerical hierarchy existed as a specialist institution in eastern as in western Christendom. But in Byzantium it produced no hierocratic theory, laid no claim to monopolise active participation in the church — which in a sociological sense was coterminous with the community of Christian believers. The divine will was believed to operate directly through all members of this community. Thus sixth-century theorists focussed [sic] not on the coronation…but on election and consent as the crucial elements in imperial inauguration. And in election and consent, leading officials, senators and people… are all involved in the expression of the divine choice, and precisely their coincidence generates a lawful succession’ (ennomos anarresis). In such an inclusive cosmology, the patriarch took his place without friction alongside other channels of divine communication.27

In this conception of the emperor as fulfilling a divine ministry alongside the other ministries of “Church” and “people,” there is no system of “checks and balances” rife with coercive tension as in modern “democracies” nor is there any idea of an autocratic secular ruler who mediates literally between God and Law, as in the later developments of the medieval West.28 Instead, there is a symphonia between the emperor, the Church, and the people, a harmonization of purpose based upon the Orthodoxy of each individual within each tangential sphere. The purity of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy was the basis of all politics, art, and wisdom in the Eastern Roman Empire, because the purity of belief undergirt the proper fulfilling of each charismatic ministry, from the lowliest farmer to the emperor himself. Some may try to refute this notion of an Eastern Roman Orthodox symphonia as a hopelessly idealistic notion that never actually existed in practice. However, just as the notion of a capitalist free market (or a pre-capitalist free market) is based largely upon negations—such as the absence of centralized planning, etc.—which are not absolute but rather indications of aspiration and purpose, so the Orthodox symphonia consists in apophatic principles which gesture toward the correlating ministries of emperor, Church, and people without a cataphatic, positive, and therefore legalistic definition of absolute vectors of power.29 Because of its basis in Orthodox apophasis, the Eastern Romans refused to place ultimate authority in any external body per se, even that of an Ecumenical Council. This is why Westerners, who know only cataphasis in politics and faith, and who thus can point to neat, absolute structures of power, which they mistakenly equate with good order or “rational governance,” see nothing but confusion and disorder in an East Roman society that refuses to accept the many varieties of feudalistic oppression which have developed in the West, instead following the original politeia of Christian Hellenism. This Orthodox view of politics sees society as the coming together of the people of God in an ascetic, communal “work of the people” (leitourgeia) which accepts no final authority save that based in communion with God. Needless to say, the divine-human communion of the Eastern Roman society is opposed to that of the supposedly divine princes of the West, who have become deified through their anointing with uncreated Holy Oil and/or through the simple fact that they have blue Frankish blood in their veins.30 Rather, the Orthodox society places all hope in theosis, the union with the energies of the Holy Trinity achieved by prophets, apostles and saints, some of whom have been emperors, farmers, soldiers, and Patriarchs.

In the cataphatic formulation of Western or Frankish Civilization, sacred kings and imperial bishops—each enthroned on one side of a dialectically opposed, divinely constituted binary of power—locked horns in the notorious Investiture Contest.31 To skip ahead for a moment, let us not forget that Philip the Fair s kidnapping and mauling of Pope Boniface VIII through the offices of William of Nogaret is the last pathetic scene in the drama of Investiture.32 No equivalent to the sorry spectacle of Investiture ever did, nor ever could transpire in the Eastern Roman Empire, for there was no Frankish Civilization (feudalism) in the East, until rapacious Frankish crusaders brought it there in the thirteenth century, perpetrating unspeakable outrages against the Orthodox Romans they tried to enslave there.33 Needless to say, wherever and whenever the Franks were ousted, it was a simultaneous eradication of feudal institutions and feudal law.


25. N.H. Baynes, “Eusebius and the Christian Empire,” AnnuairedeI’institutdephilology et d’histoire orientales 2 (1933-1934): 13-18.

26. For a refutation of the West’s notion of an Eastern Roman “caesaropapism,” see Deno J. Geanakoplos, “Church and State in the Byzantine Empire: A Reconsideration of the Problem of Caesaropapism,” in Byzantine East and Latin West: Two Worlds of Christendom in Middle Ages and Renaissance: Studies in Ecclesiastical and Cultural History (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), 55-83. Also see Geanakoplos’s bibliography on “caesaropapism,” ibid., 195-196. On the histo-riographical fiction of a secular Eastern Roman imperium see the comments and citations in Janet L. Nelson, “National Synods, Kingship as Office, and Royal Anointing: An Early Medieval Syndrome,” in Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London and Ronceverte: Hambledon Press, 1986), 239-281. Originally published in Studies in Church History 13 (1976): 97-119.

27. Nelson, “Politics and Ritual,”267-268. Later in the same insightful article, Nelson further outlines the differences between Eastern and Western notions of im-perium: “Where a western king prostrated himself before his inauguration a Byzantine emperor remained standing throughout his acclamation and coronation alike. Thus the coronation, unlike the western anointing, effected no symbolic rebirth, was not dynamic: it was a static representation of a pre-existing fact, an articulated icon. (-) Hence the exercise of full governmental powers by a ‘new’ emperor during the time-lag between anagoreusis and coronation; and hence also, I suggest, the absence in Byzantium of anything equivalent to the western ‘coronation’oath. (-) The Byzantine inauguration ritual was never devised and managed exclusively by clerics. Its details were revised by the emperors themselves, according to Constantine Porphyrogenitus, ‘in whatever way each thinks fit'” (271-272). As opposed to the Regnum Francorum, which was tension-ridden owing to its racial/economic divide between Franks (free nobles) and villains (unfree, non-Frankish serfs), the Eastern Roman Empire saw the entire society of persons as anointed, not just the higher clergy and the king, as in Frankish Civilization: “Conversely, [in the East,] the anointed, the Christian Romans, formed a single community, within which the emphasis was not on boundaries but on communications. Characteristic of Byzantine society were rituals of mass participation: the processions of the emperor or of relics or images through the great cities, the adventus, the acclamations in the vernacular of the crowds in the hippodromes, and in the great churches the elaborate preparation of chrism by the patriarch ‘before all the people.’To the pure, all things are holy” (276).

28. For the king as a mediator of God and Law see Kantorowicz, King’s Two Bodies, 87-192.

29. Fr. John Meyendorff, in his Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary Press, 1989), provides a more than adequate presentation and analysis of the Orthodox Roman concept of “symphonia”:

In Justinian’s view, the issue was not—as it is for us—in defining relations between ‘Church and ‘State,’ as two distinct social structures. For Justinian, in terms of geographical extension, general goals and membership, the two coincided. God’s will was to unite the’inhabited earth’…under Himself, as Creator and Savior. The Christian Roman emperor was entrusted with this task and in this sense he was accomplishing on earth the ministry of Christ himself. The Church, however, was to realize sacra mentally that which was implied by the Christian faith. The people of God were therefore to be led by two distinct hierarchies: the one, responsible for external order, welfare, security and administration, and the other leading the people of God into the sacramental anticipation of the Kingdom of God. Their competencies were, therefore, distinct, but inseparable. Their activities and practical responsibilities necessarily overlapped. The bishops presided over the Eucharist and taught the faith, but the emperor alone could provide them with the means of getting together, of enjoying enough ‘good order’ to be able to exercise their ministry properly….

The most famous text issued by Justinian on this subject is his Novella 6, a “new” law, to be added to the Code.… In the preamble to the Novella, the emperor defines a formal ideological principle:

“There are two great gifts which God, in his love for man, has granted from on high: the priesthood…and the imperial dignity (Basileia).The first serves divine things, while the latter directs and administers human affairs; both, however, proceed from the same origin and adorn the life of mankind. Hence, nothing should be such a source of care to the emperors as the dignity of the priests, since it is for their (imperial) welfare that they constantly implore God. For if the priesthood is in every way free from blame and possesses access to God, and if the emperors administer equitably and judiciously the state entrusted to their care, general harmony (symphonia tis agathe) will result and whatever is beneficial will be bestowed upon the human race.”

What Justinian obviously could not—or would not—define is how harmony or ‘symphony’ was to be established between the eschatological reality of the Kingdom of God, manifested in the Church and its sacraments, on the one hand, and, on the other, such ‘human affairs,’ inevitable in any society, as violence, war, social injustice, etc., which the state by itself is neither capable, no willing to avoid. Therefore, the preamble of the Sixth Novella describes nothing but an aspiration (208-210. cited in Farrell, Outline, section entitled “God, History, and Dialectic: Explorations of the Philosophical and Theological Foundations of the Two Europes,”v-vi).

30. For the origin of the Frankish Holy Ampoule and its oil, see Sergio Bertelli, The King’s Body: Sacred Rituals of Power in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, trans. R. Burr Litchfield (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001 [1990]), 25-26. The Frankish kings believed that they, and they alone, could be referred to as “Most Christian King,” on the basis of their exclusive access to the oil of the Ampoule. For a full exposition of the notion of “Most Christian King” which also analyses Frankish royal religion in general, see Jean de Pange, LeRoi Tres Chretien (Paris: Librairie Artheme Fayard, 1949).

31. On investiture see U.R. Blumenthal, The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century (Philadelphia, 1988).

32. For a narrative account of Nogaret’s abduction of Pope Boniface VIII at Agnani, seeT.S.R. Boase, Boniface VIII (London: Constable and Co., 1933), 344-351.

33. For an analysis of Frankish feudalism and the attempt to force it on the Eastern Roman Empire see Ernst H. Kantorowicz, “‘Feudalism’in the Byzantine Empire,” in Feudalism in History, ed. Rushton Coulborn (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1965), 151-166. On the Fourth Crusade of 1204 see Papadakis and Meyendorff, 199-238.

James L. Kelley

Posted with the kind permission of the author.