While writing my paper for my Augustine’s City of God class, I’ve been pondering the pagan idea that Augustine attacks in Book VIII that the earthly political order mirrors the heavenly order, such that what the (quasi) “divinized” rulers do on earth is naturally fully in accord with what the gods do in heaven. This is the idea of “sacral kingship” – the earthly king mirrors the heavenly King, God. As such, the earthly king cannot be questioned, and to depart from his will is simply evil rebellion.
Augustine attacks this idea in the person of the pagan philosopher Hermes Trismegestus, who actually wrote that the Kingdom of Egypt was a mirror of heaven, and that in the actions of the earthly Egyptian king we see incarnated images of heavenly realities. In this connection, two Scriptures came to my mind in a way I’d never thought of either before.
On the one hand there is the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” The language here indicates that insofar as the will of God goes, what is done on earth does, in fact, mirror what is done in heaven. This is one side of the “sacral kingship” claim: God Himself appears as the Sacral King. Typically, in Reformed theology this idea would expressed under the heading of the absolute sovereignty of God: nothing does occur – indeed nothing can occur – that is not fully within God’s ability to control and direct for His own purposes.
The kingship language of the Old Testament illuminates this doctrine well, with such claims as that God laughs all the plans of men to scorn, raises up and deposes kings as He wishes, turns the hearts of kings like a watercourse, and so forth.
On the other hand there is part of the grant of authority to the Apostles, “Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…” The language here seems to indicate that at least insofar as the Apostles went, God did indeed determine to ratify in heaven the decisions they made on the earth as His representatives. One can easily see how an entity such as, say, the Roman Catholic Church, connects this thought with the ancillary doctrine of apostolic succession – the idea that the Apostles actually passed a metaphysical-spiritual “charism” on to those who followed in their footsteps, giving them the very same divine “teaching authority” as the Apostles themselves had – and so arrives at the conclusion that the leaders of the Church are effectively unquestionable by their followers.
In this scheme, the leaders of the Church (most particularly the pope, of course) are, in effect, ecclesiastical “sacral kings,” and so to dissent from them, God’s appointed representatives whose word on earth comes to be reflected in heaven, is to enter the realm of open rebellion against God Himself.
This is a big reason why the issue of apostolic succession is so important to Roman Catholicism, and it is a big reason why we as Protestants need to consider the cultural foundations of the belief in “sacral kingship.” In reading Augustine’s critique of Hermes Trismegestus in City of God Book VIII, I cannot escape the nagging notion that there is something in it that is profoundly applicable to Rome’s doctrine of authority. The City of God is, of course, a sustained polemic against the pagan Roman ideas of authority and religion, and it is surely significant that much of the theoretical and practical structure of the Faith as it came to dominate the West was Roman.
The form of Christianity that organized itself under the tutelage of the Roman bishop took up many of the cultural norms of the Roman Empire as its own. Bishops came to see themselves as possessing auctoritas (superior prestige), and as fulfilling the role of patrones (patrons) to the “lower classes” of believers seen as clients (clients). As the political structure of the Western Empire fell apart and paganism declined everywhere, Christians stepped into the vacuum and retained the old language of potestas (power), ius (justice), and principatus (supremacy). The administrative structure of the Church followed that of the Empire very closely, and can be summed up by the phrase i>imitatio imperii (imitation of the Empire). Even the term for the “universal” Christian religion, “ecumenical,” came from the Greco-Roman idea of oikumene (the whole world), and partook of a decidedly imperialistic bent.
The popes themselves retained the ideological notion of the paterfamilias, the nearly unquestionable “head of the household,” whose power over his familias (family) often extended to matters of life and death. Over the centuries, Roman legal maxims such as principatus legibus solutus est (the prince is free from the laws) vied with others such as quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur (what concerns everyone must be approved by everyone) to create an uneasy arrangement of multiple authorities all striving against each other for either supremacy or balance.
Over the course of the first ten books of the City of God, Augustine masterfully eliminates the divine foundation of pagan Roman political theology, and demonstrates that for Christians, there is no single divinely-guaranteed form of political order in the world. It seems difficult to escape the implication that it is natural to extend his insights to the Christian form of divinized politics as it is found in Roman Catholicism.
To return to the Scriptures with which I opened, then, I would suggest the following reading as a tentative starting point. God Himself is indeed a sacral king – or rather, the Sacral King. To dissent from His will is indeed open rebellion, and is not permissible for any reason. God’s Word, whatever it may be, is law, and although God does not necessarily require us to suspend our rational faculties so as not to contemplate difficult issues of practical application in a fallen world, at the end of the day, all Christians must confess (even if they cannot explain) that the Lord’s ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and no matter what it looks like to us at any given time, He will never do any wrong.
What then of the second verse I adduced, which seems to extend the same power of authoritative declaration to certain men? In the Christian scheme of things, are there human sacral kings, the mirror images of God Himself? The way that the Christian tradition has worked itself out in the realm of secular politics is that the idea of “the divine right” of human kings has been firmly rejected, and the basic idea of the limitations of all human authorities under God affirmed and codified in various schemes of constitutional government. In secular politics, at least, the Western Christian tradition says no, there are no human sacral kings.
But what of spiritual politics? Here Western Christians part ways with each other. The Protestant traditions extend the denial of sacral kingship into the Church as well, pointing out that Christ said that authority in His kingdom is not to be exercised the way that the Gentile kings do, lording it over their subjects. Rather, in Christ’s kingdom, the last shall be first and the first shall be last, the greatest person is the humblest person, and the greatest virtue is not the possession of authority, but the exercise of charity. We know as well that people who want to sit in chairs right beside Christ are rebuked sternly for not contemplating what sorts of dire sacrifices will be required of them for wishing such a thing.
The Roman Catholic tradition, by contrast, adheres openly to the position espoused by Hermes Trismegestus: there is an earthly political structure that mirrors Heaven itself. Christ is King in Heaven, and on earth the pope is Christ’s vicarius (substitute). The structure of the Church, like the structure in Heaven, is metaphysically hierarchical – power flows down from the One at the top to the successive lesser levels below it. Like Christ’s own Word, the pope’s word is law, and all authorities beneath the pope have lesser power and are fully beholden to him. Like God, the pope raises up and deposes rulers as he wills, and (thanks to Vatican I), like God, he ultimately cannot be questioned, but only submitted to.
In theory, the pope is the servus servorum Dei (servant of the servants of God), but spiritual Rome’s idea of “service” to the rest of the Church is like the principate of Augustus Caesar: the outward language of the Republic is preserved for rhetorical effect, but inside is only the stark implacability of absolute monarchy. The Ecclesia docens (the teaching Church, the hierarchy) lords it over the Ecclesia discens (the learning Church, the laymen); the prestige of the Magisterium (master) supplants the humility of the ministerium (ministry). And, to borrow from the City of God again, spiritual Rome distorts her relations with all outside of her by embracing that which ultimately destroyed pagan Rome, the libido dominandi (the lust for domination).
Apostolic succession, which at first appears to be such a strong point in favor of this scheme, subsequently turns out to be a superficial biblical warrant. For again, in Christ’s Kingdom, the least are the greatest, the first shall be last, and no one who is not ready to give up everything – especially pride of place – for the sake of the Kingdom truly understands what the Kingdom is about.
When once one stops looking at the Scriptures through Roman cultural windows, it becomes clear that the New Testament’s understanding of succession has nothing to do with potestas or charismata or auctoritas (the things for which the Romans cared), but with fidelity to a body of Truth that stands outside of personal officeholders and to which all personal officeholders are subject. Paul repeatedly sends his readers – among whom were bishops – back to the Scriptures as the source of that Truth, not to conditions supposedly existing within themselves by quasi-metaphysical transfers occurring by the laying on of hands. He even warned everyone that after he was gone, savage wolves would arise from within the episcopate – proving that the episcopate per se is not the source of Truth.
As for the apparent mirroring of heavenly authority in the authority of the Apostles (“whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven), don’t we have to consider the times, and the perspective of the whole of inscripturated revelation? It could be argued that the Apostles stood in the place of Christ the same way the prophets of the Old Testament did – such offices were for special times of new revelation only, not for the ongoing life of the people of God. To try to preserve the time of the Apostles in perpetuity, and to make it the foundation of the esse (very being) of the Church looks like not only immaturity, but a reversal of the whole prior pattern of Scripture.
A lot more could be said about all of this, obviously. No doubt the Roman Catholic’s next move would be to attempt to connect the language of “the body of Christ” to the outward institutional structure of the Church, such that that structure is thought to be “the continuing incarnation of Christ” in the world. No doubt some would try to make sophisticated Christological arguments about alleged hypostatic unions between the Apostolic successors as vicarii of Christ to Christ Himself, allowing for the divinization of the earthly Roman Catholic theo-political system.
To such arguments, I think Augustine’s critique of Hermes Trismegestus remains the best starting point. No earthly political order is or even can be a mirror of the divine. Earth may aspire to heaven, but it does not and cannot mirror heaven. Whether in the temporal or spiritual spheres, there are no human sacral kings. That office belongs to God alone.