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Liberty, Dominion, and The Two Swords: On the Origins of Western Political Theology, (180-398).

LIBERTY, DOMINION, AND THE TWO SWORDS: ON THE ORIGINS OF WESTERN POLITICAL THEOLOGY (180-398). By Lester L. Field, Jr. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1998. Pp. xviii + 542. $95.

This book deals with early Western Christian attempts to reconcile liberty and government, both inside and outside the constantly changing ecclesia.

The Christian notion of liberty originally had an apocalyptic character which it never lost. Tertullian "distinguished free will from eschatological freedom and then emphasized human culpability" (8). Humans chose to sin, thus losing the libertas they enjoyed by having been made in God's image. This view quickly became standard in Africa and would be justified at length by Augustine. For Tertullian, martyrdom became the ultimate act of freedom as martyrs overcame the effects of sin and liberated themselves from worldly concerns and desires.

Cyprian followed the master, emphasizing that "(true) freedom (is) from sin and death" (19) rather than from imperial oppression since the devil worked through persecutions to effect sin and death. This eschatological view of human government could easily carry over into the Church, and many third-century Christians tried to reconcile themselves to what Field calls ecclesiastical dominion. Tertullian gladly used apostolic succession against the Gnostics but found himself in a bind when the successors of the apostles opposed the Montanist prophets. Yet Cyprian saw the future and helped to bring it into being: "The episcopacy superseded as the true measure of one's membership in the Church" (41). Libertas had taken on ecclesiastico-political dimensions. The bishops would safeguard it, and the martyrs would draw the line between the faith and the state.

Then came Constantine. Initially he recommended toleration for all, a boon to the Christians, but after his conversion, the bishops in a Christian empire faced an unfamiliar question, the toleration of pagans and Jews--or, as the question quickly became, the toleration of error. True libertas did not reside in human choice but in the person of God. Constantine inherited the pagan tradition of being responsible to the divine for the welfare of the empire. Would the one Christian deity bless Rome if the ruler patronized error? "If God were to favor the Roman state, it had to favor the Church" (87). F. concentrates on Christian issues, but he does not review the policies of pagan emperors on this point, not even the continuation of the pagan policy against the Manichees.

Abetted by the bishops, Christian emperors steadily eroded the political freedom of pagans and Jews in the hope that they might turn to the true freedom of Christianity. But as early as the 320s Donatism forced Christians to ask what true freedom meant. Since Constantine supported the Catholic party in Africa, the Donatists redefined libertas as freedom from a Christian emperor who was in league with the devil. The post-Nicaea disputes between bishops and bishops and between emperor and emperor soon forced a regional African question upon the entire Church. A heretical emperor (depending upon which side one was on) could not ipso facto use his dominion to protect Christian libertas, a point brought home to the Western Christians when the Arianizing emperor Constantius II (337-361) deposed and exiled several prominent Western bishops who opposed him (Hilary of Poitiers, Liberius of Rome, Lucifer of Caligari). Eschatological liberty still existed, but it provided no feasible option. The empire was Christian, and someone had to work out notions of libertas and dominion in that context.

Ambrose believed that original sin had deprived humanity of true freedom and "(as) a result of Adam's sin, people simply could not govern themselves" (187). Christ redeemed them from the slavery of sin; the freedom he gives is found only in the Church. Emperors did not always recognize the Church's freedom or its role as a giver of freedom, but Ambrose rejected martyrdom as a solution to imperial pressure. The Church would win its place in society "by virtue of successful episcopal challenges to imperial policy, custom established this freedom (of episcopal speech) as a bishop's constitutional right" (197). Criticism of an emperor's lapses of faith or morals was a "moral and civic duty, not seditio or laesa maiestas" (199). Ambrose never shrank from that duty, which passed to the fifth-century popes and their medieval successors. F. comes a bit late to the papal role and could have spent more space on the relation between Ambrose's acknowledgment of Rome's primacy and his own very personal dealing with the Christian emperors.

This is a thorough survey, extensively researched (79 pages of bibliography) and documented (179 pages of endnotes). F. skillfully places intellectual issues within their historical context. He does a particularly good job demonstrating how notions of liberty and dominion related to the larger question of ecclesiology.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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