THE IMPERIAL CHURCH
GROWTH OF POWER IN THE ROMAN CHURCH. DOWNFALL OF WESTERN ROMAN EMPIRE. LEADERS OF THE PERIOD.
We have seen the city of Rome supplanted by Constantinople as the capital of the world. We shall now see Rome asserted its right to be the capital of the church. Through this period the Roman Church was gaining in prestige and power, and the bishop of Rome, now entitled pope, was claiming the throne of authority over all the Christian world, and recognized as head of the church in all Europe west of the Adriatic Sea. This progress did not as yet reach the overweening demand of power over the state as well as over the church, which was manifested in the Middle Ages, but was strongly tending in that direction. Let us ascertain some of the cause promoting this movement.
The likeness of the church as an organization to the empire powerfully strengthened the tendency toward one head. In a state governed not from below by election, but from above as an autocracy, where one emperor ruled with absolute power, it was natural that the church should be governed in the same manner, having one head. Everywhere bishops controlled the churches, but the question was constantly arising who should control the bishops? What bishop should take the place of an emperor over the church? The presiding bishops in certain cities soon came to be called “metropolitans,” and afterward “patriarchs.” There were patriarchs at Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. The Roman bishop took the title of “papa, father,” afterward modified into pope, Between these five patriarchs were frequent contests for precedence and supremacy; but the question finally narrowed down to the choice between the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope of
Rome as head of the church.
Roman asserted apostolic authority for its claim. Rome was the only church which could name as its founder two apostles, and these the greatest of all the apostles, St.Peter and St. Paul. The tradition arose that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, whether true or false is uncertain. As bishop, Peter must have been pope. It was assumed that in the first century the title “bishop” meant the same as in the fourth century, a ruler over the same as in the fourth century, a ruler over the church; and that Peter, as chief of the apostles, must have possessed authority over the whole church. Two texts in the gospels were quoted as warrant for this claim. One of these may now be seen written gigantic letters in Latin, around the dome of St. Peter‘s Church in Rome “Thou art Peter; and on this Rock I will build my church.” The other is “Feed my sheep.” It was argued that if Peter was the first head of the church, then his successors, the popes of Rome, must continue his authority.
The character of the Roman Church and its early heads strongly supported these claims. The bishops at Rome were in the main, and in far greater measure than those in Constantinople, strong, wise, forceful men, who made themselves felt throughout the church. Much of the old imperial quality which had made Rome the mistress of the world still dwelt in the Roman nature. Herein Rome stood in contrast with Constantinople. Originally, Rome had made the emperors; while the emperors had made Constantinople, and peopled it with submissive subjects. The church at Rome had always been conservative in doctrine, little influenced by sects and heresies standing as a pillar for the orthodox teaching. The trait greatly added to its influence in the church at large.
Then, too, the church at Rome showed practical Christianity. No church excelled it in care for the poor, not only among its own members, but even for the needy among the heathen in times of famine or pestilence. It had given liberal aid to persecuted churches in other provinces. When a heathen official at Rome demanded the treasures of the church, the bishop assembled its poor members, saying, “These are our treasures.”
The transfer of the capital from Roman to Constantinople, instead of lessening the influence of the Roman bishop or pope, greatly increased it. We have seen that in Constantinople the emperor and his court dominated the church; the patriarch was generally subservient to the imperial palace. But in Rome there was no emperor to outrank and overawe the pope; he was the greatest potentate in that region. Europe had always looked to Rome with reverence; now that the capital was far away, and especially as the empire itself was in collapse, the feeling of loyalty toward the Roman pontiff began to take the place of that toward the Roman emperor.
Thus it came to pass that throughout the west, the Roman bishop or pope, as the head of the Roman Church, was regarded as the leading authority in the general church. For instance, at the Council of Constantinople in Asia Minor (381 A.D), Rome was placed first and Constantinople second. The way was being paved for the still higher assumptions of Rome and the pope in the ages to follow.
Throughout this period of the Imperial Church, however, another movement was in progress, that mightiest catastrophe in all history, the downfall of the western Roman Empire. In the reign of Constantine outwardly the realm seemed as well protected and impregnable as it had been in the reign of Marcus Aurelius or of political decay, and ready to collapse under invaders from every side who were eager to prey upon it. Within twenty-five years after Constantine’s death in 337 A.D. the barriers on the border of the western empire were broken down, and hordes of barbarians(a name applied by the Romans to all people except themselves, the Greek and the Jews) were everywhere pouring in upon the helpless seizing territory and establishing independent kingdoms. In less than a hundred and forty years the western Roman Empire, which had endured a thousand years, and whose subject people were contended under its sway, was swept out of existence. It is not difficult to find of this stupendous overthrow.
The riches of the empire were coveted by its barbarian neighbors. On one side of a boundary were wealthy cities living at ease, vast fields with harvests, people possessing all things desired by the poorer, uncivilized, wandering, but warlike, tribes just over the border. For centuries before the barbarian inroads, the main business of the Roman emperors had been the defense of the frontiers against the threatened attacks of these enemies. The sole reason for having several emperors reigning jointly, was the need, near these points of danger, of a ruler clothed with authority, who could act without waiting for orders from a distant capital.
Even at their best the Roman were evenly matched by the barbarians, man for man; and through centuries of peace, they had grown unused to war. In our time the civilized nations possess munitions of war far superior to those of the savage tribes; but in ancient days, both sides fought with swords and spears, and the only advantage of the Romans lay in the superb discipline of their legions. But that discipline was greatly relaxed in the times of the later emperors; and the barbarians were physically the stronger, the bolder, and more apt in warfare. What was worse for the degenerate Romans, they no longer served in their ow armies. The legions were manned by these very barbarians, who for a time often fought in defense of Rome against their own people. Most of the later armies, their generals, and even many of the emperors themselves came from the barbarian races. No people can long maintain their liberties who habitually hire foreigners to do their fighting when fighting is necessary.
The empire, not too strong in its resources of men, was also weakened by civil wars, carried on through generations by claimants to the imperial throne. The emperors were no longer chosen by the senate, but when was slain (as most of then were)each army in a different province set own candidate, and the decision was not by votes but by arms. In ninety years leaders were hailed as emperor and claiming the throne. At one time the emperors, so called, were plundered, armies were extravagantly paid, and the whole empire was impoverished by the ambition of men for power. As a result, garrisons were called away from the borders, and the land was left open and helpless again the barbarian invaders.
The immediate cause of many invasions lay in the movement of Asiatic tribes. When the barbarians on the east of the European provinces burst in upon the Romans, they declared that they had been driven from their own homes by the oncoming of an irresistible host of strange warriors accompanied by their families, who had changed their habitations from the interior of Asia. These people were called in general Huns. What led them to forsake their homes in central Asia can not be fully known; but is believed to have been a change in the climate and a lack of rain, turning fertile areas into deserts. Later, these Huns, under their fierce King Attila, came into direct contact with the Romans, and proved the most terrible of all their foes.
As ours is a history not of the Roman Empire but of the Christian Church, our account of these successive invading tribes must be a brief outline. The earlier invasions were from races between the Danube River and the Baltic Sea. The Visigoths (West Goths) led by their chieftain Alaric swept over Greece and Italy, captured and spoiled Rome, and set up a kingdom in southern France. The Vandals under Genseric marched across France to Spain, and thence into northern Africa, conquering these countries. The Burgundians crossed the Rhine, and established a kingdom having Strassburg as its center. The Franks, a German tribe, seized all northern Europe, largely by force, to the Christian religion. The Saxons and Angels from Denmark and the lands northward, finding that Britain had been deserted by the Roman legions, made inroads, generation after generation, and almost extirpated the ancient Christianity, until the Anglo-Saxon kingdom itself was converted through missionaries from Rome.
About 450 A.D. the terrible Huns, under their merciless king, Attila, invaded Italy, and threatened to destroy not only the Roman empire, but with it the kingdoms set up within its borders. Goths, Vandals and Franks, under the leadership of Rome, united against them; a great battle was fought at Chalons in northern France, the Huns were defeated with terrible slaughter, and by the death of Attila soon after, their power came to an end. The battle at Chalons (451 A.D) decided that Europe should not be overrun and ruled by Asiatics, but should develop into its own civilization.
By these successive invasions and disruptions, the once vast empire of Rome was reduced to a little territory around the capital. In 476 A.D. a comparatively small tribe of Germans, the Heruli, under their King Odoacer, took possession of the city, and dethroned the boy-emperor- whose name by a curious coincidence, Romulus Augustus, nicknamed “Augustulus, Augustus the Little.” Odoacer took the title “King of Italy,” and from that year, 476 A.D., the western Roman Empire was no more. From the foundation of the city and the to the fall of the empire was fifteen hundred years. The eastern empire, having Constantinople for its capital, endured until 1453 A.D.
Nearly all these invading tribes in their homelands had bee heathen. An exception was the Goths, who had been already converted to Arian Christianity, and had the Bible in their own language, of which the portions still extant form the earliest Teutonic literature. Nearly all these conquering tribes became Christians, partly through the Goths, but more through the people among whom they settled, and in time the Arians became orthodox believers. The Christianity of that decadent age was still vital and and aggressive, and won these conquering races. In turn, their vigorous blood contributed to make a new European race. We have already seen that the decline and fall of the imperial power at Rome only increased the influence throughout Europe the empire fell, the church still showed itself imperial.
We must now name some of the leaders in this period of the Imperial Church.
Athanasius(296-373 A.D.) was the great defender of the faith in the opening of the period. We have seen how he arose to prominence in the Arian controversy, and was the chief debater, though not a voter, in the Council of Nicaea, 325; soon after became bishop of Alexandria, when thirty-three years old; five times was exiled, but ever battling for the faith; and finally ending his life in peace and honor.
Ambrose of Milan (340-397 A.D), the earliest of the Latin fathers, was elected bishop while a layman. He was not baptized but received instruction for membership. Both Arians and orthodox united in his election. He became a commanding figure in the church, rebuked the emperor, Theodosius, for a cruel act, and compelled him to make confession and do penance. Afterward he was treated with the highest regard by the emperor,and was chosen to preach his funeral sermon. He was the author of many books, but his greatest honor was in receiving into the church the mighty Augustine.
John, surnamed Chrysostom, “the golden mouth,” because of his matchless eloquence, the greatest preacher of the period, was born at Antioch in 345 A.D. He became bishop or patriarch of Constantinople, 398, and preached to vast congregations in the Church of St. Stophia. But his fidelity, independence, reforming zeal, and courage displeased the court. He was banished, and died in exile 407 A.D., but after his death he was vindicated, and his body was brought back to Constantinople and buried in honor. He was a mighty preacher, a statesman, and an able expositor of the Bible.
Jerome(340-420 A.D.) was the most learned of the Latin fathers. He received at Rome an education in literature and oratory, but renounced worldly honors for a religious life, strongly tinged with asceticism. He established a monastery at Bethlehem, and lived there for many years. Of his numerous writings, the one of most far-reaching influence was his translation of the Bible into the Latin in common speech, which is still the authorized Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.
The most eminent name in all this period is that of Augustine, who was born 354 A.D. in northern Africa. In young manhood he was a brilliant scholar, but worldly, ambitious and pleasure-loving. At the age of thirty-three he became a Christian through the influence of his mother Monica, the teaching of Ambrose of Milan, and the study of St. Paul’s epistles.
He was made bishop of Hippo in northern Africa in 395, just as the barbarian invasions were beginning. Among his many works his “City of God” was a magnificent plea for Chriatianity to take the place of the dissolving empire; and his “Confessions” are a deep revelation of his own heart and life. But his fame and his influence rest upon his writings on Christian theology, of which Augustine was the greatest expositor since St. Paul. He died in 430 A.D.
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