Archive for the ‘holy roman empire’ Tag

Not-So Holy Roman Empire   1 comment

I’m not sure we can truly appreciate how the world worked in the Medieval era because we here in the United States are so used to the concept of self-governance and separation of church and state.

The Roman Empire had provided unity of most of western Europe. With the inclusion of Christianity as the exclusive religion of the Empire, it could dictate to the daily behaviors of European peasants. When the Empire went away, it became unsafe to travel the roads, cities became disease-ridden (because sewers want maintenance) and trade became very difficult beyond a few miles from any village. People craved the sense of unity that the Roman Empire had engendered and the concept of hierarchial political organization that called for one ultimate head over all existing states.

The Holy Roman Empire was an attempt to reacquire those ideals. It never completely worked. France and England, for example, never acknowledged any  real subordination to the emperor, although they recognized a vague supremacy in him. The German kings, once elected by the German princes, considered themselves entitled to become Roman emperor as soon as they could arrange the coronation, which was supposed to be done at the hands of the Pope. Whoever the ruler was, he considered the imperial title to establish his right to control Italy and Burgundy as well as Germany because of their potential source of power, wealth and prestige. The Empire’s vast size and diversity of population were serious obstacles to effective rule and good government.

Thus, the Roman Catholic Church was essential in solidifying secular control. Churchmen crowned the emperors, so actually sustained the Empire, considering it to be the Church’s secular arm, sharing responsibility for the welfare and spread of Roman Christianity and duty-bound to protect the Papacy. That’s how it worked in principle. However, the partnership seldom worked smoothly as one side of the other would try to dominate the other. There were frequent fluctuations in power and changes in the prevailing political and theological theories that various rulers and churchmen adopted.

From AD 962 to 1250, the Empire was dominated by strong emperors of the Saxon, Franconian, and Hohenstaufen dynasties, who were powerful enough to depose Popes they though to be unsatisfactory. They generally governed through existing officials such as counts and bishops rather than creating a direct administrative system. This made the Roman Catholic Church central to the needs of the state because the Church recorded births, coming of age (confirmation), marriages, and deaths. If a ruler needed a list of who was living in a particular area, say for an effective military levee, he had only to ask the Church for that information. As everyone who wanted to get into heaven was required to submit to Church dogmas like infant baptism and marriage rites, the peasants lined up for a virtual census, unaware that they were being tracked by the medieval equivalent of the NSA.

By cleverly entangling church with government, the Holy Roman Empire left people with little recourse. Romans 13 said Christians must obey. That the government sometimes asked you to do immoral things had been a good reason for early Christians to say “no”, but when the government was also the Church ….

Believers were between a rock and a hard place and every way they turned, there was no choice in the matter … unless they knew the Bible. Ah, yes, but so few did.

Cracks in the Monolith   1 comment

Christianity underwent a metamorphosis when it became the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire. Jesus had told Christians that they would be outcasts in society as a result of their beliefs and for the first three centuries they were.  Then Theodosius made Christianity the exclusive religion of the Roman Empire and all that changed. Not too long later, the Roman Catholic Church became the acknowledged “gate to heaven” and the kings it crowned were considered divinely appointed.

We are usually taught in our history classes that the Roman Catholic Church ruled unchallenged for 1500 years until Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. This is not exactly true.

While the Roman Catholic Church was the state religion of almost every kingdom of Europe during that time, there is ample historical evidence for evangelical outbreaks in medieval times. Leonard Verduin’s book “The Reformers and their Stepchildren” suggests a continuous line of underground believers that is interesting, but not really proven. If you step away from the concept of apostolic succession and remember that Christianity was originally based on the individual believer accepting Jesus Christ and acting upon that transformation, protestant groups look a whole lot less like heretics and a whole lot more like true believers who didn’t agree with the Roman Catholic Church.

It’s likely that the churches before Nicea contained congregations that were not integrated into the Roman scheme of things. We know that some of the Patristic Fathers complained about how the church at Rome was overstepping its authority. It’s entirely possible that there were congregations which understood truths not validated by the Roman church. Unfortunately, most of what we know about these “heretics” is what the Roman Catholic Church said about them.

They were called many terms of abuse — anabaptists (rebaptizers), enthusiasts (for their supposed lack of sensible thought), Cathars (referencing an older more gnostic heresy), revolutionaries, donatists (another reference to ancient “heresy”). They were said to deny baptism, the Eucharist and the authority of the priesthood and some were accused of fomenting revolution.

Clearly these were groups who did not think that Romans 13 required them to be obedient to the authorities.

Divine Right of Kings   1 comment

Ancient kings discovered it was a lot easier to keep their subjects in line if the subjects thought of them as gods. Thus the Egyptian pharaohs moved from the ceremonial title “son of Ra” to being gods themselves. Caesar Augustus claimed to be descended from Aeneas, son of the goddess Aphrodite, but after he died, the Roman Senate declared him to be a god. Two generations later the Caesars (even when not related to Augustus) were being worshipped in many parts of the Roman Empire.

When the Roman Empire appropriated Christianity as its exclusive religion, all the pagan god-king rhetoric had to be set aside. I suspect Theodosius didn’t think ahead on that. What did he know of the Bible, actually? Deuteronomy 17:15 made clear that human government is a cooperative process between God and His believers:

“When you come to the land the Lord God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, ‘I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me,’ you must select (absolutely) without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king ….”

Well, that obviously wasn’t going to work in a dictatorship, so it’s a good thing the Bible wasn’t in wide circulation. In less than a generation, Rome would collapse anyway, leaving the whole God-king-citizen issue for others to sort out.

During the early Dark Ages there was no real government besides the Roman Catholic Church. The popes could (dubiously) claim to be God’s voice upon the earth using the specter of apostolic succession, but as the nobility rose to rule, the Church needed to provide legitimacy to these rulers as well. Thus, they created the  doctrine of the divine right of kings.

Christianity rejected any concept of men who are gods. There is nothing above God and placing any human equal to God is idolatry. So “Christian” kings couldn’t claim they were gods, but they could use the Church to advance the idea that the kings were authorized by God to rule.

The subversion of Scripture was easy. Most people couldn’t read. Even the priests themselves often could not read. They read portions of the Scripture to the congregation, but selective readings allow them to ignore parts like Deuteronomy 17:15. And, in the translation of Romans 13 from Greek to Roman, they changed the emphasis of the word “submit” from a voluntary act of cooperation to a requirement commanded by God.

Under the Holy Roman Empire, the divine right of kings created two heads of state working in harmony for the maintenance of peace and ordered conduct among Christians. Christ was seen as the ultimate King and Pope and kings were His vice-regents. Using Romans 13, the Church – which decided the disposition of men’s souls – put its priests between man and God in matters of faith and put the king between man and God in matters of state and they backed one another up if ever there was a conflict of conscience.

If people objected to some abuse by their government, they were told that Romans 13 said they must submit to the government because the king is God’s representative and good Christians are supposed to submit to God. Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church put forth that believers could not question the dogmas of the Church because the Pope and his priests are the representatives of God on earth and good Christians are supposed to submit to God in all circumstances.

Nobody questions you because to do so is a matter of faith and the pope, the king’s brother, holds the keys to heaven and if you really believe God wants you to obey Him ….

Nice deal, huh? And, it worked … for a while.


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