Caesar has been made irrelevant in light of Christ’s rule which has ushered in a new creation as proleptically witnessed to by the shared lifeworld of the church. Thus, as we read in the letters of Paul, the language associated with Caesar has been disassociated from the emperor and recalibrated around Christ. Caesar is no longer Lord of the world, he is no longer the Son of God, he is no longer the object of the gospel, he is no longer the benefactor of grace and peace, and he is no longer the pontiff who sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the citizens of Rome; now Christ is all of this: he is the Lord of the world, the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose once-for-all sacrifice takes away the sins of the world.
Caesar in effect has been reduced to a mere servant, a punisher of evil. No more, no less. To the extent that Caesar operates according to this relativization, he is to be revered and obeyed. To the extent that he violates this relativization, there are no more severe critics of his diabolical tyranny than the church.
Now, the defining moment of this new relationship between the church and the state was the incident between Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, and Emperor Theodosius I, who ruled from 379-395, in what is known as the ‘Massacre of Thessalonica’. Theodosius was a devout Christian, and in the year 380 he proclaimed Christianity the official faith of the imperial realm, and by 382, most if not all the pagan temples were converted into museums or churches.
But in the winter of 390, Theodosius was sojourning in Milan where Ambrose was bishop. It came to Theodosius’ attention that there was a riot in Thessalonica in response to the imprisonment of a favorite local charioteer. When the public’s demands for his release were rejected, there arose an armed rebellion which brutally murdered the imperial governor and his assistants. Now, the old Roman order got the best of Theodosius, who interpreted such an act as an insult to his authority. And Caesars have a certain way of dealing with insults to their authority. Theodosius ordered his soldiers to go into Thessalonica and bring back a number of heads, regardless of guilt or innocence, and that is precisely what they did, and 7,000 people were indiscriminately slaughtered.
News of the massacre came to Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, who subsequently sent a letter to the Emperor (Letter 51). In it, Ambrose told Theodosius that what he did was akin to King David’s sin of murder and adultery, and that like David, Theodosius must publicly repent of this crime. Until then, Theodosius would not be admitted to communion in the church.
Theodosius was devastated and quite ashamed over the bishop’s words. And so, after several months had passed, to everyone’s shock, Theodosius entered the church, in common clothing, and laid himself prone upon the floor and prayed for forgiveness. And, rising to his feet in penitence and contrition, Ambrose gave Theodosius communion.
Commenting on this historical scene, theologian David Bentley Hart writes:
This was unprecedented. The old cults had certainly never wielded any power like this or arrogated to themselves a sacred office higher than that of the emperor himself. Here, though, for perhaps the first time in the history of the West, the supreme power of the state surrendered to the still higher power of the church, and a spectacular demonstration was given of the transcendence of divine over human law. It was now clear that the one true sacred community was the church, of which even the temporal sovereign was only one member, and of which even the empire was only one ‘local’ region. This same drama, or one very like it, would be played out again and again throughout the history of Christendom, and often – though not always – the temporal power would emerge victorious over the spiritual. Still, a principle had been established on the day of Theodosius’s penance: the state could never again enjoy the unquestioned divine authority or legitimacy it had possessed before the rise of Christianity. (Atheist Delusions, 195-6)
For the first time in human history, the supreme power of the state was voluntarily surrendered before the powerlessness of the crucified one. The love of the sacraments had in fact relativized the power of the sword; the emperor was brought to his knees by a shepherd. From this day forward, a new public order had dawned, and the world would never be the same.
Make sure to sign-up on our email list and get your FREE ebook: Devotions at Dawn: Morning Prayers through the Ages.