Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and the State
Fr. Sergei Bulgakov
The relationships between Church and state have greatly varied in different epochs. In the eyes of the primitive Church, the pagan state was “the beast wearing the crown adorned with cursings.” The Church's feeling toward the state was hostile, eschatological, “for the figure of this world passes,” and soon everything would be finished. The transition from eschatology to history is already marked in the Epistles of St. Paul, especially in the thirteenth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, where, face to face with the power of Nero, the Apostle proclaimed the principle: “There is no power but of God,” and where he admits the positive value of the state in connection with the historic ways of the Kingdom of God. This is in keeping with all the prophecies, in both Old and New Testament, that the way of the Kingdom of God includes the fate of the pagan world, includes the natural forces active in history, and among these the state.
Thus the relationships between Church and state remained wholly exterior so long as the Roman state remained pagan. But when this state, in the person of the Emperor Constantine, bowed before the Cross, the situation changed. The Church drew near to the state and took upon itself the responsibility for the latter's destiny. This rapprochement made a place for the Emperor in the Church. When he became a Christian sovereign, the Church poured out its gifts upon him, by means of unction;
and it loved the Anointed, not only as head of the state but as one who bore a special charisma, the charisma of rule;
as the bridegroom of the Church, possessing the image of Christ himself. The Emperor received a special place in the hierarchy. It is difficult to determine exactly what that place was, for the imperial function had many meanings;
on the one hand, the Emperor was venerated as the bearer of a special charisma;
on the other, he represented, in the Church, the people, the laity, the elect nation, the “royal priesthood”;
and finally, as holder of power, he was the first servant of the Church. In his person the state was crowned by the Cross. Constantine the Great himself defined this function as “bishop for external affairs.” He here returned to the title of bishop the meaning of watching over the financial and administrative affairs of the community which it had in the time of the Apostles. The influence of the Emperor in the Church was measured in fact by his power in the state. Owing to his position as “bishop for external affairs” he could exercise a great influence over the Church, he even convoked and presided at
a fact never objected to in the East or West.
The relationship between Church and state was established in principle on the pattern of a “symphony,” that is mutual harmony and independence of the two parts. The state recognized the ecclesiastical law as an interior guide for its activity;
the Church considered itself as under the state. This was not a Cæsaro-papism in which the ecclesiastical supremacy belonged to the Emperor.
was always an abuse;
never was it recognized, dogmatically or canonically. The “symphonic” relations between Church and state ended in the Emperor's directing all the domain of ecclesiastical life and legislation within the limits of his administration of the state. But, if that “symphony” became troubled by discord, if the Emperors attempted to impose on the Church dogmatic directions, which sometimes were heresies (Arianism, Iconoclasm), then the Church thought itself persecuted, and the real nature of its connection with the state became manifest;
was never a dogma. Still, the Church attached much importance to its alliance with the state, in so far as state was of use to Church and as the existence of a crowned head for the entire Orthodox world — the Orthodox Emperor — was considered one of the Church's essential attributes. The Emperor was the sign of the conquest of the world by the Cross;
he was the “architect” of the Kingdom of God on earth.
At the time of the fall of Byzantium, the Orthodox Emperor was succeeded by the Russian Tsar, who had put on the Byzantine crown and considered himself as the direct successor of the Orthodox Empire. In Russia, in modern times, the concept of the Tsar was not so simple and so logical as in Byzantium. Beginning with the time of Peter the Great this idea was complicated with Lutheran elements of the supremacy of the monarch in the Church, and this principle, false and inadmissible for the Church, penetrated — although with certain necessary restrictions — into the fundamental laws of the state, although it was never proclaimed as a law of the Church. Here certain elements of
crept in as abuses, for instance the transformation of the Church into an administrative department of the state, into “the department of the Orthodox confession.” In spite of these abuses, the idea of the Orthodox Emperor and of his place in the Church remained what it was of old, and had nothing in common with a papism personified in the Emperor (Cæsaro-papism). The Orthodox Church always wished to influence the power of the state as much as possible, but from within and not from without. The Roman theory of two powers, according to which the Pope instituted monarchs by anointing and deposed them by excommunication — according to which he was thus supreme dispenser of all political authority — has never existed in Orthodoxy.
When, in the person of the Emperor Constantine, glorified by the Church as “equal to the Apostles,” the state became Christian, it might seem that the question of the relations between Church and state was decided. The state ceased to be “the beast,” lost its pagan nature, entered into the Kingdom of God. At the same time the problem of the hieratic position of the Emperor was solved;
the imperial person entered the ecclesiastical hierarchy as the anointed of God. The relations between the Emperor and the episcopate and the place of the Emperor in the Church seemed as fixed as the unmovable foundations of the latter. But events have shown such a conclusion to be false;
the Orthodox Church has twice lost its Orthodox Emperor, once by the fall of Byzantium and again, in-our day, by the fall of the Russian Empire. Under these circumstances it has returned to the state of things which existed before Constantine. (The sovereigns of the Balkan states cannot be considered as heads of Orthodox empires equal to those of Byzantium and Russia.)
The Church now exists without an emperor, but its charismatic situation, the plenitude of its gifts, has not changed because of this. What then has happened?
In reality, it was not so simple and so easy as might be thought to transform a pagan into a Christian state. It was easy, by the edict of Milan, to change a persecuted religion into a tolerated religion, and later into the religion of the state and even to put on it an official dress. But the life of the state itself remained pagan from top to bottom: it remained impregnated with concepts of the Roman Empire and of oriental despotism. Byzantium — in the person of its Emperors-made considerable efforts to bring the laws of the state into accord with those of the Church, but that was only the beginning of a long historic journey, interrupted by catastrophe. The same thing happened in Russia. In the old Russia there were many beautiful traits of patriarchal piety, but there were also so many natural and pagan elements and in the Russian state so many elements of Prussian and Asiatic despotism, that it would have been premature to speak of a Christian state. This was the condition of the whole Christian world, in East and West, of that world which was raised from primitive barbarism to Christianity. The situation of the Orthodox Empire — Byzantine and Russian — was not different from that of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. The Christian Empires were only a symbol of what ought to be, and it would certainly be a grave error to identify the symbol or the dream with reality. Christian Emperors lead their peoples toward the Christ as far as such an orientation was possible. But this time is past, for life itself has put an end to any real representation of the people of the Church in the person of the prince, a representation which was the basis for the Emperor's authority in the Church. In this representation the power of the prince has become a fiction which leads to the worst forms of tyranny — ecclesiastical tyranny and the yoke of
The people have begun with their own life, apart from such representation of the people by the prince. And now if the state can be penetrated by the spirit of the Church, it must be from within, not from without;
not from above but from below.
We come, then, to a new aspect of the relations between Church and state, an aspect belonging to our own times. Here we have two questions to consider: one concerning the relations between Orthodoxy and the imperial power, and another touching the relations of Orthodoxy with the state in general. Is the connection between Orthodoxy and the Imperial power (“autocracy”)
Or is it not an accidental connection, formed in the course of history, which history has now abolished?
In the long centuries of the existence of the Orthodox Empire, the established order was considered immovable. This conviction never became a dogma, and could not become one, simply because it had no foundations in Christianity. The Emperor, God's anointed, the bearer of the charisma of power, the representative of the laity, occupied a certain place in the Church. But that place is not essential to the existence of the Church as is the hierarchy of the apostolic succession — the clergy and the episcopate. On the other hand, the laity, the people of God, the “royal priesthood, is as necessary to the Church as the hierarchy: the pastors cannot exist without the flock. But this importance of the laity cannot be allied to their representation in the person of the Emperor;
it is thoroughly possible now, as it was in the primitive Church for the people to have no personal representative. It is true that the idea of a king in the person of Christ is inherent in the Church. This is not a political idea, connected with a certain form of state organization, but an idea wholly religious. This idea may be realized in a democracy, by an elected representative of power, a president, quite as well as by an autocrat. It is, in general, the idea of the sanctification of power in the person of its supreme representative. It is the idea of the holy king, indicated beforehand in the Old Testament (psalms and prophetic books)
and symbolized in the image of the “king full of sweetness” making his entry into the royal city. It is allied to the promise “of the reign of the Saints with Christ,” at the first resurrection, of which the Apocalypse speaks (ch. 20). As a matter of history, the Imperial power strove to realize that idea, but instead denatured and obscured it. Perhaps it perished just because it did not conform interiorly to the idea of the sanctification of power. This apocalypse of power is an Orthodox “utopia,” a utopia founded on prophecies of the Old Testament. The Russian people loved the idea of a “white tsar,” of a holy king, who would realize the Kingdom of God on earth. Here we have the
of power, power which is no longer the power of the sword, but that of love.
This ideology of the individual sanctification of power has nothing in common with any particular sort of political régime, especially with bureaucratic monarchy. Such a confusion of ideas has often occurred, and certain political groups, for whom religion is — consciously or not — a political instrument, perpetuate the notion, even today. To establish a connection between Orthodoxy, the religion of liberty, and reactionary political tendencies is a crying contradiction that may be explained by history but not by Orthodox dogma. True it is that, for long centuries, Orthodoxy was allied with monarchy;
the latter rendered it many services, at the same time inflicting grave wounds. The “Christian state,” while assuring the Orthodox Church a “dominant” situation, was at the same time an impediment, an historic obstacle to its free development. The tragedy of historic Orthodoxy, the fall of Byzantium, the condition of Russia in our time, may be explained in part by this lack of equilibrium between the Church and the state. It is false to transform the history of the Orthodox Empire, which has its dark as well as its light sides, into an apocalypse glorifying the past: it is false to see in that past a lost paradise, the Kingdom of God on earth. At the price of unnumbered victims the revolution has freed Orthodoxy for ever from too close connection with the monarchical system. This connection, to tell the truth, was never of exclusive importance. The Orthodox Church has existed in various countries under different political régimes: in the republics of Novgorod and Pskov, as well as under the despotism of Ivan the Terrible, and under heterodox governments;
and never has it lost its fullness and its power.
Orthodoxy is free and must not serve any political régime. Its ideal of the sanctification of power is religious, not political. And this is not the ideal of the two swords, or that of an ecclesiastical state such as a pontifical monarchy which Catholicism still does not wish to renounce. Orthodoxy admits neither
The relations between Church and state have changed much in the course of history. Up to the revolution they were reduced to different forms of the “Christian state” in union with the Church. For a long time before the revolution the system of a state religion did not agree with the facts, for the modern state includes people of different confessions and even of different faiths. At present such a system (a state Church)
has become wholly inapplicable. A division has been made between Church and state, advantageous to both. Separation of Church and state, under different forms, has replaced the ancient alliance.
This separation, at first imposed by force, has been accepted by the Orthodox Church also, for it corresponds with its dignity and its vocation. In certain countries, the separation has not been completely effected, but even here the situation of the Orthodox Church is quite different from what it once was as a state Church. Since Orthodoxy has ceased to be a state Church, it has lost a situation to which various advantages are attached, but which also carried a heavy burden. This liberty is the régime most favorable to the Church, most normal for it;
it frees the Church from the temptations of clericalism, and assures it development without hindrance. Doubtless this system is valid only provisionally, depending upon its historic usefulness. The Soviet government although it proclaimed
the separation of Church and state, was
the only truly “confessional state” in the world. Here the dominant religion was the militant atheism of the communist doctrine. Other religions were not tolerated.
But the Church in accepting juridical separation from Cesar, from the state, and in seeing it as liberation, does not renounce its influence over the
of life. The ideal of the transformation of the state by the interior energies of the Church remains in all its force and without any restriction, at the very time of the separation of Church and state;
for that separation remains exterior and not interior. The Church's methods of influence change;
the work is no longer done outside, from above, but from within. Providence is leading the Church to free itself from heterogeneous, parasitic formations which have invaded its body during the centuries. The ultimate influence of the Church on life should only increase by separation of Church and state.
An hierarch becoming a lay ruler, or a lay ruler becoming the head of the Church.