Unsavoury authorities: the corruption of the church started when?

I have been reading Cathleen Medwick’s biography of Teresa of Avila.  This describes how St. Teresa founded a series of Carmelite convents in the Spain of Philip II.  Each was a return to the primitive Carmelite rule, rather than the rather more comfortable ‘relaxed’ rule then in vogue, and motivated by sincere desire to do what God wanted.

But I was most interested in the mention at the end of a Genoese merchant-turned-friar, Nicholas Doria, who began to be useful as a man of business to Teresa in her last years.  His contacts in Rome proved useful to her; but he also had a talent for conspiracy.  It seems that this capable man, after Teresa’s death, induced her close friend Fr. Gracian to promote him to the second position in the order.  He then outmanouvered the naive Gracian, took over the order himself, and expelled Gracian from St. Teresa’s own order.  Thus within a few years the reformed Carmelite order was in the hands of a man who had arrived right at the end, who had taken no real part in its struggles and whose only claim to belong was that his worldly skills had been useful on a couple of occasions to the saint.

Down the centuries, whenever Christian organisations have come to control property or acquired reputation, there have been individuals who have made their way into them for their own advantage.  Such people are often very effective politicians; and every organisation that exists in this world has to be aware of politics.  But their loyalty is to themselves, not to God.

I believe that something rather similar happened to Methodism after the death of John Wesley; that men who don’t even feature in Wesley’s journal then tried to seize his empire.

Many Christians believe that the church became corrupt during the years after the first council of Nicaea.  Once Constantine had legalised the church, being a bishop was rather less risky, and much more profitable.  Indeed this process had already begun in the time of Diocletian.  Eusebius records in the History of the Martyrs of Palestine, in a sentence often abused to try to prove him a liar, that he proposes to record only those events which are edifying, or that show that the church deserved the persecution.

When the Arian controversy arose, it was a local matter between Arius and his bishop.  It was Eusebius of Nicomedia who made it a contest across the whole Christian world.  Eusebius had some links with the emperor Licinius, but he had not suffered in the persecutions and became, first bishop of Berytus and then of Nicomedia in 318 AD.  Arius appealed to Eusebius for help; and Eusebius deluged the East with letters demanding that bishops support Arius (and, by implication, himself).  His quest for power had a set-back at Nicaea, where the vote went against him and he was exiled, but he was soon back — as such flexible men always are.  In the years that followed he arranged for the removal of stalwarts of the Nicene party such as Marcellus of Ancyra, on one pretext or another, and the replacement of bishop after bishop with his partisans.  He crowned his career by being the bishop who baptised Constantine on his death bed.

Yet within 50 years Arianism was dead.  It was never truly an issue.  The whole matter was perhaps merely the excuse for the pursuit of power of a man with little interest in what God wanted.

Is the old position correct, that the legal church soon became a corrupt church?  There are many who would disagree, not least Catholics and East Orthodox.  But when one looks at some of the 5th century councils, the spectacle of worldly men fighting like rats over the church is hard to stomach.  If we do not simply take this view — that all of this is merely the triumph of the world over the church — then how do we explain this business?


11 thoughts on “Unsavoury authorities: the corruption of the church started when?

  1. Great post. Nice observations. Very worthy challenge at the end. Here, I believe, is another one:

    If we can’t “explain this business” very well, then what do we do? Ignore it? Promise to do better? Or try something else? Please note, one’s head, heart and spirit don’t always have the same response to this challenge. 😉

    Thanks for the post.

    PS: I don’t see a nametag/signature. Which one of you authors posted this, please?

  2. I think the “Peace of the Church” did bring certain new problems. Augustine observes a certain clericalism settling in, a two-tiered spirituality, with true holiness reserved for priests. But the problem you describe is older than Nicaea. There’s ample evidence of it in the New Testament, when the stakes were very low indeed. And it’s all over the history of the Roman Church in the early third century. There are hints of clerical prissiness and envy in the life of Origen as well. So I think the real story is sadder than the one you tell. The problem did not arrive with Constantine. It started with Adam. Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Antonio Rosmini prevailed not because their contemporaries understood them or deserved them, but because God did.

  3. Bill,

    Roger Pearse posted this. If you go to the top level, it shows under each post who posted what. I really ought to look for the code to include the author’s name, though. I’ll get on that.

    All the best,

    Chris Weimer

  4. Good question Bill. I’ll be interested to see what kind of reactions the question gets. I don’t have a fixed view. I know there are some splendid chaps later than Nicaea. But … how do we address Theophilus of Alexandria?

  5. Roger;

    This is definately an interesting post, but I wonder if it doesn’t differentiate enough between the various positions understood under the umbrella of Arianism. That is, we know of the strict followers of Arius and their successors (the Eutychians) who pretty much agreed on the difference in kind between Jesus and the Father. We also know that there was a body of ‘Arians’ who didn’t go as far as Arius, but who were equally troubled by the implications of the Nicene position (believed to tend towards Apollinarianism- the opposite error to Arianism, an over-emphasis on the unity of Jesus and the Father to the point of the person of Jesus disappearing into the Father). Arguably, Eusebius of Nicomedia and his allies belonged to this group and were the group with the imperial connections.

    I also think it is important to remember that the policy of Constantine and his son, Constantius, was to find a compromise solution. The Nicene solution was intended to be just that kind of compromise, but, when it became apparent that a large number of Eastern bishops had problems with the Nicene position, Constantine and Constantius began to back away from the Nicene solution. Clearly, there are politics involved in this and Eusebius of Nicomedia was up to his neck in it. Yet, I think we’d be wrong to dismiss it only with the politics.

    What really turned the tables was the Cappodocian effort to convince the moderates to return to an understanding of the Nicene solution which explicitly ruled out Apollinarian interpretations of the Nicene creed. It also didn’t hurt that an unambiguously Nicene emperor came to power.

    My point here is that the politics and the theology are inextricably intertwined. I think you know that, of course, but I wonder if focusing only on personalities may cause confusion.


  6. Acts 5–where you have fallible humans who can be tempted, there you will have corruption and graft in spite of high ideals.

  7. Phil,

    I don’t disagree with you a bit. Eusebius of Nicomedia held an extreme Arian position; the worries about Apollinarianism and Sabellianism hampered acceptance of the Nicene formula. Nor was Constantine wrong to seek consensus.

    But I think that we’re a little at cross-purposes. There is a case that all of this was the consequence of an ambitious man trying to force himself into eminence.

    Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote to every bishop, demanding that everyone define their positions on an issue on which the church had not spoken. Naturally a range of views emerged, in perfect sincerity, as people grappled with an unfamiliar concept and worried about how it related to existing heresies.

    But there is rich fishing in troubled waters, and was it not Eusebius of Nicomedia who stood to gain from it? Arius, after all, was a nobody.

    All the best,

    Roger Pearse

  8. Nice post. However, I don’t see that Catholics or especially Orthodox must deny widespread corruption in the Church. In fact there is nothing you say that they need or ought to deny. What they must deny is that, in the end, the gates of hell can prevail against the Church; that she can fall entirely away from the true faith.

    It would be a mistake to think there is some legal set of criteria that ensure a given council, for example, to be authoritative. (Catholics often think this, but most Orthodox do not.) We should not be thinking that what makes Ephesus, rather than the so called ‘robber council’ is some issue of canon law. The churchmen fought it out, but in the end it was the faith passed down from the Apostles that won out. This is what Orthodox, anyway, have to believe. God did not promise the Jews that they would make a bee-line for the promised land, just that they would get there.

  9. Ephesus is a good point. The whole thing was rigged by Cyril of Alexandria to reach the conclusion he wanted. But (trying to understand) is the argument that in fact, despite that, the true faith was set forth there?

    If so, how is this different from “the true faith is what the winners decide”?

    That isn’t a jeer — it’s genuine incomprehension, and I would like to understand.

  10. The idea is that the council’s validity rests on its orthodoxy. The claim that it does transmit or explicate the apostolic faith– which is what the Orthodox are committed to– is therefore falsifiable. For example, a persuasive argument that Nestorianism best fits the apostolic faith and practice would certainly be damaging. In this way it is unlike ‘spoils to the victor’, which is more of a concern if one embraces the development of doctrine

  11. ps. the main point is that the holiness of the members of the council is irrelevant; compare, among Protestants, the irrelevancy of the holiness of those who codified the canon of Scripture.

Leave a Reply