The Triumph of Orthodoxy – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 27 Part 4

Triumph of Orthodoxy

Gregory of Nazianzus has an enviable reputation among the leading lights of church history.  But it his ideas and writings that are remembered.  His actual achievements in the real world are less impressive.  His biggest one, his appointment as bishop of Constantinople by Theodosius – probably the top job in Christianity at the time – didn’t last long.  Once again it was politics that let him down.  Some intrigues originating in Egypt (where else?) aimed to replace him. Given how hard he had worked for the cause of Orthodoxy that was at the very least ungrateful.  Gregory ostentatiously resigned, no doubt as a manoeuvre.

I wonder how many people in history have resigned under the impression that they were in some way indispensable.  Theodosius seems to have been unimpressed and simply got on with appointing someone else.  Gregory retreated back to his home town where he spent the rest of his life writing.  He found time to condemn the avaricious behaviour of many of the clergy and to point out how flexible many of them were on doctrinal matters when their own self interest was involved.  But his reputation is based on his theology which emphasised practical action to help others.  He is one of the handful of Christians who actually seem to not only believe in the thing, but to also act accordingly.  It is hard not to like the courageous, principled and honest side of his character.  That he was also misguided and politically inept adds to his charm.  He operated on a higher plane than the rest of us.

But I imagine Theodosius was glad to see the back of him.  Idealists are the last people you need on a practical project, and Theodosius was engaged on a big one.  He wanted to purge the church of heresy.  The religious controversies were causing  too many problems and  so he set out to establish one universal creed.  Unlike Gregory, he had no qualms about how to do it.  He had an army, and that gave him an argument that was more effective than any theological one.  The triumph of orthodoxy would be enforced by the edge of the sword.

Whatever the moral implications of having someone like Theodosius determining doctrine, you can’t argue with the results.  Arians were removed from positions of authority, or persuaded to rethink their ideas.  This was all done with military thoroughness.  Resistance was minimal.  Given the way ithe coup was carried out it would in any case have been futile.  Action on the ground was followed up with legislation. Arians were forbidden to preach  their doctrine.  To do so would have led to their property being confiscated and exile.  Their literature was destroyed so effectively that none has survived, so we have to infer what the Arians believed from the writings of their opponents. But it has to be remembered that the Arians were Christians and their heresy was not that far from orthodoxy.  I don’t think someone who turned up at a church today with Arian views would be turned away.  In fact I don’t think anybody would even notice.  But if you treat such a mild heresy with such harshness, you have to be consistent and be even tougher on more extreme forms.

For example there were the Macedonians.  These were fairly common in Macedonia and the surrounding provinces as it happened, but they got their name from the founder of their heresy, Macedonius, who didn’t accept the existence of the holy spirit, leaving God had only two natures one short of the standard.  Even this heresy doesn’t seem particularly troublesome to us, but in the fourth century professing it made all your possessions subject to confiscation when you died.

The number one heresy was Manichaeism which credited the Devil with equal powers to God.  This at least was a real break with what we consider mainstream Christianity.  This was reflected in the penalty it attracted, which was death.

These sanctions certainly sound tyrannical, but in practice were not as bad as they sounded.  Theodosius the general knew that if your army is big and strong enough, it can achieve its objective without fighting.  Likewise, make the penalties for heresy severe enough and you will never have to use them.  And this strategy worked.  The Arians realised that they were beaten and gave up.  There is no record of any of the blood curdling edicts that issued from Constantinople being put to use to actually kill anyone.

But in the West, the story was different.  Here, for the first time, an emperor killed some of his subjects for heresy.  The victims were a Spaniard called Priscillian and some of his followers.  Priscillian was a bishop who had a somewhat idiosyncratic take on the Christian faith.   For instance, he allowed women equal status during prayers.  Christ would probably have approved, but the church of the fourth century certainly did not.  He also thought that sex was something that a good Christian should not partake of, even if married.  Clearly these weren’t the kinds of thing a bishop should be saying, so something needed to be done about him. Given that the western emperor Gratian was very much influenced by the church, he had been duly taking action.  When Maximus suddenly took over, Priscillian happened to arrive at the court with the intention of appealing against Gratian’s treatment of him.  So Priscillian appealed to Maximus instead.  It wasn’t a very successful appeal. Maximus had him tortured and killed. Six of his companions suffered the same fate.

Not everyone was happy about this, and the influential Ambrose of Milan amongst others objected to it, even though it is highly likely that he had played the key part in instigating the situation in the first place.  But Gibbon examines his complaint and finds that Ambrose’s problem was not with the sentence but with the way it was carried out.  He thought that an errant churchman should be dealt with by the church and not by the secular authorities.  So it was more of a turf war than an expression of compassion.  Gibbon identifies this incident as the origin of the Inquisition.  This was something that I missed the previous times I read this book, but rereading it for this episode I realised that the account is rather spine chilling because, of course, the inquisition was still very much in operation in Gibbon’s day.  Its writ didn’t run in protestant England, so Gibbon was free to write and publish a book which would quite likely have got him killed in some of the Catholic countries of the day.  He goes into how the inquisition had perfected its mode of operation so that its victims would be handed over to regular magistrates for the actual punishment to be meted out.

Anti-theists are sometimes a bit disappointed, in the perverse way of these things, that the statistics for people killed by the Inquisition are actually quite modest.  It depends a lot on how you count them and whether you trace them all the way back to the death of Priscillian.  But the total number is only in the thousands and probably the low thousands at that. Spread over 1500 years that doesn’t sound too bad.  It is still an appalling amount of death and suffering but it doesn’t seem to really match up to the evil reputation of the Inquisition.  But the explanation is that the Inquisition worked closely with the lay authorities and it was them that did most of the heavy lifting.  Victims would be transferred to the regular penal system to be dealt with in all but the most high profile cases.  The Inquisition was every bit as nasty as it is portrayed, but was a lot more sophisticated in the way it operated than most people imagine.

But in any case I don’t think the Inquisition actually can be traced back to this early incident.  I think that it was much more a development later in the history of the Catholic Church.  It is worth remembering that the eastern and western churches are still united at this stage and didn’t yet show any sign of a split, and that the final actual separation wouldn’t come for another six hundred years.  What we now know as the Greek Orthodox Church and its relatives would never have their own Inquisition despite their common origin with Roman Catholicism, so I think that it has to be considered a later innovation.

But the reign of Theodosius certainly did lay the foundations for the later history of the Orthodox churches and the entity which we now call the Byzantine Empire.  Although administratively there was never a break in continuity between the emperors of the east and their predecessors in the west, the Byzantine Empire deserves its new name.  It was distinctly different in character from the empire ruled from Rome, and that difference was crystallised by the reforms of Theodosius.  The new state would be a theocracy where the emperors derived their authority from being representatives of God.  It was a state where there was one official religion, and deviation from it could not be tolerated.  If one feature symbolised the difference it was the title the emperors were given in Greek.  Basileus.  This meant king.  In the west, even to the end the emperors never dared insult the memory of the long dead republic by assuming that title.

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