The Holy Apostles and Martyrs in the time of the pagan Roman empire believed, on the one hand, that the emperor’s power was established by God and should be obeyed whenever possible, and on the other hand, that he should be disobeyed if he commanded something contrary to God’s commandments. No authority, whether political or ecclesiastical, should be listened to if it contradicted the supreme authority, which is God. As the Apostles said to the Jewish Sanhedrin: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge” (Acts 4.19).
According to Protestant writers, after the persecutions ended and the empire became Christian, the Church lost her independence and entered into a union with the State that made her a slave of the Emperors. Paradoxically, therefore, according to the Protestants, the triumph of the Church under St. Constantine was at the same time the end of the Church as an independent institution. Worse than that: according to some Protestants, as Fr. Irenaeos Plac writes, “the Church apostasized with the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, around 311-313 AD. The argument goes that with actual tolerance and later acceptance by the government, Church affairs became about power and worldly things, leading to the apostasy of the Church. This argument is rather easily disposed of, as many of the conventions these Protestants name as evidences of the apostasy are historically established to have been practiced well before the legalization of the Church. Whether it is icons, veneration of the Virgin mother, authority of bishops or most any other practice, the historical evidence for the universal practice of these marks of the faith are numerous. From the writings of St. Ignatius on bishops, to the excavation of 3rd century church buildings replete with icons, to ancient papyrus scrolls with hymns to the Theotokos, the idea that ‘everything changed in the Church with the edicts of Constantine is simply historically disprovable.“
As regards the Church’s relationship to the State, the Protestants are also wrong: the fourth-century Fathers showed a heroic independence even in relation to the most Christian of the Emperors. Of course, the accession of the first Christian Emperor with its many major benefits for the Church and for the spreading of Christianity was welcomed by the Church, and the bishops willingly entered into a “symphony of powers” between Church and State. But when the Emperors betrayed the Faith – as did, for example, most of the emperors in the fifty-year period between St. Constantine the Great and St. Theodosius the Great – the Holy Fathers rose up in protest against them, using language that was as strong as anything uttered against the pagan emperors.
Thus when St. Constantine’s son Constantius apostasized from Orthodoxy and converted to the Arian heresy, believing that Christ was not the pre-eternal God and Creator but a created being, St. Athanasius, who had previously addressed him as “very pious”, a “worshipper of God”, “beloved of God” and a successor of David and Solomon, now denounced him as “patron of impiety and Emperor of heresy,… godless, unholy,.. this modern Ahab, this second Belshazzar”, like Pharaoh, worse than Pilate and a forerunner of the Antichrist. Again, St. Hilary of Poitiers wrote to Constantius: “You are fighting against God, you are raging against the Church, you are persecuting the saints, you hate the preachers of Christ, you are annulling religion; you are a tyrant no longer only in the human, but in the divine sphere… You lyingly declare yourself a Christian, but are a new enemy of Christ. You are a precursor of Antichrist, and you work the mysteries of his secrets.”
Constantius’ heretical cast of mind made it easier for him to assume the place of Christ as head of the Church. Thus at the Council of Milan in 355, he said: “My will is law”. To which St. Osius of Cordoba, replied: “Stop, I beseech you. Remember that you are a mortal man, fear the Day of Judgement, preserve yourself pure for that. Do not interfere in matters that are essentially ecclesiastical and do not give us orders about them, but rather accept teaching from us. God has entrusted you with the Empire, and to us He has entrusted the affairs of the Church. And just as one who seizes for himself your power contradicts the institution of God, so fear lest you, in taking into your own hands the affairs of the Church, do not become guilty of a serious offence. As it is written, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. We are not permitted to exercise an earthly role; and you, Sire, are not authorised to burn incense.”
At about this time, the Persian King Shapur started to kill the clergy, confiscate church property and raze the churches to the ground. He told St. Simeon, Bishop of Seleucia and Ctesiphon, that if he worshipped the sun, he would receive every possible honour and gift. But if he refused, Christianity in Persia would be utterly destroyed. In reply, St. Simeon not only refused to worship the sun but also refused to recognize the king by bowing to him. This omission of his previous respect for the king’s authority was noticed and questioned by the King. St. Simeon replied: “Before I bowed down to you, giving you honour as a king, but now I come being brought to deny my God and Faith. It is not good for me to bow before an enemy of my God!” The King then threatened to destroy the Church in his kingdom… He brought in about one hundred priests and about one thousand other Christians and killed them before the saint’s eyes. The saint encouraged them to hope in eternal life. And after everyone had been killed, he himself was martyred.
This shows that the Fathers and Martyrs of the Church recognized the authority of kings and emperors only so long as they did not persecute the Church of God. At the same time, non-recognition – that is, recognition of the power as tyrannical – did not necessarily mean rebellion. Thus the Fathers did not counsel rebellion against heretical emperors such as Constantius, but only resistance against those of his laws that encroached on Christian piety.
However, when Julian the Apostate (361-363) came to the throne, passive resistance turned into active, if not physical, attempts to have him removed. A baptized Christian who had studied together with SS. Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian in Athens, he tried to destroy the Orthodox Church and turn the empire back to paganism. Therefore St. Basil prayed for his defeat in his wars against the Persians, and it was through his prayers that the apostate was in fact killed.
St. Basil defined the difference between a true king and a tyrant as follows: “If the heart of the king is in the hands of God (Proverbs 21.1), then he is saved, not by force of arms, but by the guidance of God. But not everyone is in the hands of God, but only he who is worthy of the name of king. Some have defined kingly power as lawful dominion or sovereignty over all, without being subject to sin.” And again: “The difference between a tyrant and a king is that the tyrant strives in every way to carry out his own will. But the king does good to those whom he rules.” This definition seems very strict. For what Roman emperor was not subject to sin and always did good to those whom he ruled? By this definition almost all the emperors were in fact tyrants… However, we can bring St. Basil’s definition more into line with how the Christians actually regarded the emperors if we make two important distinctions. The first is between the personal evil of many of the emperors, on the one hand, and the goodness of the institution that they maintained and incarnated, on the other. And the second is between the status of the pagan emperors before Constantine, on the one hand, and the status of the pagan or heretical emperors after Constantine, on the other.
What made Julian the Apostate so terrible in the eyes of the Holy Fathers was precisely the fact that he was an apostate, a Christian emperor who then reverted to paganism. Apart from being an apostate, Julian was the first – and last – of the Byzantine emperors who openly trampled on the memory and legitimacy of St. Constantine, declaring that he “insolently usurped the throne”. In this way he questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Empire as such – a revolutionary position very rare in Byzantine history. If, as Paul Magdalino suggests, “each emperor’s accession was a conscious act of renewal of the imperial order instituted by Constantine the Great,” and “the idea of each new ruler as a new Constantine was implicit in the dynastic succession established by the founder of Constantinople”, then Julian’s rejection of Constantine was clearly a rejection of the imperial order as such. In this sense Julian was an anti-emperor as well as an anti-christ.
That this is how the Byzantines looked at it is suggested by what happened at the death of Julian and the accession of the Christian Emperor Jovian in 363: “Themistus assured the people of the city that what they were getting, after Constantine’s son Constantius and Constantine’s nephew Julian, was nothing less than a reincarnation of Constantine himself.” Jovian’s being a “new Constantine” was a guarantee that he represented a return to the old order and true, Christian Romanity (Romanitas). From this time new Byzantine emperors were often hailed as new Constantines, as were the Christian kings of the junior members of the Christian commonwealth of nations from England to Georgia.
Another act of Julian’s that elicited particular horror was his reversal of Emperor Hadrian’s decree forbidding the Jews from returning to Jerusalem and, still worse, his helping the Jews to rebuild the Temple…
By a miracle of God the rebuilding of the Temple was forcibly stopped. St. Gregory the Theologian tells how the Jews enthusiastically set about the rebuilding. But “suddenly they were driven from their work by a violent earthquake and whirlwind, and they rushed together for refuge to a neighbouring church… There are some who say that the church doors were closed against them by an invisible hand although these doors had been wide open a moment before… It is, moreover, affirmed and believed by all that as they strove to force their way in by violence, the fire, which burst from the foundation of the Temple, met and stopped them; some it burnt and destroyed, others it injured seriously… But the most wonderful thing was that a light, as of a cross within a circle, appeared in the heavens… and the mark of the cross was impressed on their garments… a mark which in art and elegance surpassed all painting and embroidery.”
But if Julian had succeeded, then, wondered the Christians, what would have prevented him from sitting in the Temple as God – that is, from becoming the Antichrist himself? And so it is from this time, as Gilbert Dagron points out, “that the face of each emperor or empress is scrutinized to try and recognize in it the characteristic traits of the Antichrist or of the sovereigns, good or bad, who precede his coming…”
It is instructive to consider how Julian died. In the Life of the Apostate’s contemporary, St. Julian the Hermit of Mesopotamia (October 18), we read that during the Apostate’s war with the Persians the believers asked St. Julian to pray that this enemy of the Christians should be overthrown. St. Julian prayed for this for ten days, and then heard a voice from heaven: “The unclean and abominable beast has perished.” And it was true: the Apostate had perished in the war.
And it was not only St. Julian’s prayers that effected it. St. Basil had also prayed for it before the tomb of the Great Martyr Mercurius. Then he noticed that the martyr’s sword had disappeared. A few days later, it reappeared, covered in blood. And it turned out that a mysterious warrior had appeared to the Apostate in the desert and thrust him through; last words were: “Galilean [Christ], you have conquered!”
St. Basil’s friend, St. Gregory the Theologian, rejoiced at the news of the Apostate’s death: “I call to spiritual rejoicing all those who constantly remained in fasting, in mourning and prayer, and by day and by night besought deliverance from the sorrows that surrounded us and found a reliable healing from the evils in unshakeable hope… What hoards of weapons, what myriads of men could have produced what our prayers and the will of God produced?”
Gregory called Julian not only an “apostate”, but also “universal enemy” and “general murderer”, a traitor to Romanity as well as to Christianity, explicitly denying that his was a power from God and therefore requiring obedience: “What demon instilled this thought in you? If every authority were acknowledged as sacred by the very fact of its existence, Christ the Savior would not have called Herod ‘that fox’. The Church would not hitherto have denounced ungodly rulers who defended heresies and persecuted Orthodoxy. Of course, if one judges an authority on the basis of its outward power, and not on its inner, moral worthiness, one may easily bow down to the beast, i.e. the Antichrist, ‘whose coming will be with all power and lying wonders’ (II Thessalonians 2.9), to whom ‘power was given… over all kindred, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwelt upon the earth shall worship him, whose names were not written in the book of life of the Lamb’ (Revelation 13.7-8).”
After Julian, nobody believed that all emperors were established by God. The principle of monarchical power was good and from God – that was what St. Paul meant when he said that “all authority is from God” in Romans 13.1. But St. Paul had specified what he meant by “power” by saying that the king was “a servant of God for good”, to reward the good and punish the evildoers. This could not apply to rulers such as Julian. They were not kings or authorities, but rebels and tyrants.
As St. John Chrysostom said, commenting on Romans 13.1: “Is every ruler, then, elected by God? This I do not say, he [Paul] answers. Nor am I now speaking about individual rulers, but about the thing in itself. For that there should be rulers, and some rule and others be ruled, and that all things should not just be carried on in one confusion, the people swaying like waves in this direction and that; this, I say, is the work of God’s wisdom. Hence he does not say, ‘for there is no ruler but of God’, but it is the thing [monarchical power as such] he speaks of, and says, ‘there is no power but of God’.”
And again he writes: “Is every ruler elected by God to the throne he occupies? Is every emperor, king, and prince chosen by rule? If so, is every law and decree promulgated by a ruler to be regarded as good, and thus to be obeyed without question? The answer to all these questions is, no. God has ordained that every society should have rulers, whose task it is to maintain order, so that people may live in peace. God allows rulers to employ soldiers, whose task it is to capture and imprison those who violate social order. Thus God will bless and guide any ruler and any soldier who acts according to these principles. But many rulers abuse their authority by amassing huge wealth for themselves at the expense of their people, by unjustly punishing those who dare to speak against their evil, and by making unjust wars against neighbors. Such rulers have not been elected by God, but rather have usurped the position that a righteous ruler should occupy. And if their laws are wrong, we should not obey them. The supreme authority in all matters is not the law of the land, but the law of God; and if one conflicts with the other, we must obey God’s law.”
Rulers like Julian, according to the Fathers, were not established by God, but were allowed to ascend the throne by Him in order to punish the people. As St. Isidore of Pelusium wrote: “If some evildoer unlawfully seizes power, we do not say that he is established by God, but we say that he is permitted, either in order to spit out all his craftiness, or in order to chasten those for whom cruelty is necessary, as the king of Babylon chastened the Jews.” And again St. Jerome said: “He often permits wicked kings to arise in order that they may in their wickedness punish the wicked.”
As for obedience to the rulers, the principle was the same in the post-Constantinian and post-Julian era as in the pre-Constantinian era. As St. Basil the Great put it: “It is right to submit to higher authority whenever a command of God is not violated thereby.” Again, Blessed Theodoret of Cyr wrote: “Paul does not incite us to obey even if we are being constrained to impiety…”
Perhaps the most famous example of the Church refusing to obey the State was provided by St. John Chrysostom in his relations with the Empress Eudoxia. In 403 a silver statue of the empress was erected in Constantinople, before which the public games were performed. “These,” writes Socrates Scholasticus, “John regarded as an insult offered to the Church, and having regained his ordinary freedom and keenness of tongue [after his first exile], he employed his tongue against those who did these things… The empress once more applied his expression to herself as indicating marked contempt towards her own person: she therefore endeavoured to procure the convocation of another council of bishops against him. When John became aware of this, he delivered in the church that celebrated oration beginning with: ‘Again Herodias raves, again she is troubled, again she dances, and again she desires to receive John’s head on a platter’.”
Not only apostate or heretical emperors were opposed by the Fathers, but also any emperor who transgressed the Law of God. For, as St. Basil the Great wrote: “The Emperors must defend the decrees of God”. And St. Gregory the Theologian wrote: “The law of Christ submits you to our power and our judgement. For we also rule, and our power is higher than yours. In fact, must the spirit bow before matter, the heavenly before the earthly?”
St. John Chrysostom wrote: “The priesthood is as far above the kingdom as the spirit is above the body. The king rules the body, but the priest – the king, which is why the king bows his head before the finger of the priest.” “The Church is not the sphere of Caesar, but of God. The decrees of the State authorities in matters of religion cannot have ecclesiastical significance. Only the will of God can be the source of Church law. He who bears the diadem is no better than the last citizen when he must be reproached and punished. Ecclesiastical authority must stand firmly for its rights if the State authorities interfere in its sphere. It must know that the boundaries of royal power do not coincide with those of the priesthood, and the latter is greater than the former.”
This teaching came to be embodied in the canon law of the Church, as in the 30th Apostolic Canon, which defrocked any cleric who had obtained his post with the help of the secular authorities. Again, in the Apostolic Constitutions we read: “The king occupies himself only with military matters, worrying about war and peace, so as to preserve the body, while the bishop covers the priesthood of God, protecting both body and soul from danger. Thus the priesthood surpasses the kingdom as much as the soul surpasses the body, for it binds and looses those worthy of punishment and forgiveness.”
It is commonly accepted among True Orthodox Christians that today we live in the times before the Antichrist. So we should be looking out for a figure similar to Julian the Apostate and getting ready to “flee to the mountains”. And indeed, there is no shortage of “scare stories”: one sees the number of the Antichrist in his income tax forms or in chips inserted under the skin, another sees him in Barak Obama or Donald Trump…
But the sad fact is that contemporary Orthodox Christians routinely fail to draw the obvious lesson to be drawn from the reaction of the Holy Fathers to Julian the Apostate: that the Antichrist will be an apostate Orthodox Christian. That apostasy need not be open. On the contrary, it is likely to be covered by the guise of external piety. But you cannot be an apostate from a religion you have never claimed to belong to. So that rules out any Western political or religious leader.
If we search out among the leaders of the so-called Orthodox world for a possible Antichrist figure then there is one obvious candidate: Vladimir Putin. Now Putin is obviously not the Antichrist – but he is definitely a forerunner of the Antichrist, whose “Orthodox Christianity” masks a hatred of truly Orthodox Christianity. Putin is, or claims to be, a baptized Orthodox Christian – but is seeking to return Russia to the antichristian Soviet Union, and clearly reveres Stalin more than “Bloody Nicholas” (as he once called Tsar Nicholas II on camera). Putin undoubtedly has pretensions to imperial greatness – but proudly belongs to an organization, the KGB, which killed the last legitimate Orthodox Christian emperor and heir of St. Constantine, Tsar Nicholas II, and fiercely persecuted all monarchists until 1991. Putin does not claim to be god – but does not object when so many people seem to worship him as hardly less than a god. Putin has no plans (as far as we know) to rebuild the Jerusalem temple – but he is the friend of many Jewish rabbis who do have such plans, and has himself wobbled in prayer with a Jewish hat on his head in front of the Wailing Wall. Like Julian, Putin wages war against the enemies of Orthodoxy – but, again like him, he will undoubtedly fall before those enemies, because he himself is the worst enemy of all…
However, the real tragedy is not in the appearance of Putin the Apostate. The real tragedy is that the majority of the Orthodox people, rejecting the example of the Holy Fathers in the time of Julian, hail the new apostate Putin as the true successor of St. Constantine and the Orthodox Christian emperors. Putin is not the Antichrist, but if the people that follow were to meet the real Antichrist, they would almost certainly lack the discernment to see him for what he is.
September 24 / October 7, 2016.