Tuesday, October 27, 2009

History Repeats Itself: the First Church Property Suit

Eusebius, the great historian of the early Church, recounts in one passage what has to be one of the earliest lawsuits over Church property. The setting is the center of early Christianity, the city of Antioch in Syria, where followers first called themselves Christians. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire, and by the third century had become the seat of a patriarchate founded by St. Peter himself, before he went to Rome.

By the third century as well, the Roman Empire was in an advanced state of decline from its days of glory during the reign of Augustus, while Jesus was still a young man. In 235 A.D. Roman soldiers murdered their emperor, Alexander Severus. Shortly afterwards, the Romans were defeated in a campaign against the Sassanid Empire to the east. Following its defeat, the Roman army broke up into quarreling factions, each led by a general vying for power. In 260, one such general who had clawed his way to the top, the Emperor Valerian, was actually captured by the Goths after his defeat at the Battle of Edessa. As the towns and villages at the borders of the Empire were being ransacked by invading barbarians, and Rome remained unable to coordinate a defense, the western provinces of Britain, Gaul and Hispania broke off, to form the Gallic Empire.

In the East, the governor Septimus Odaenathus, who had been bestowed the title of King of Palmyra by Valerian's son, Gallienus, had a very powerful and influential wife, Zenobia. When Septimus, at her urging, was on the point of also breaking away from the greatly weakened Roman Empire, his nephew assassinated him in revenge for having been briefly incarcerated. Zenobia immediately had her infant son Vaballathus crowned King of what now became the Palmyrene Empire, but she was the actual ruler behind the throne. Without any opposition from Rome, her legions conquered Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Asia Minor.

In the city of Samosata, in what is now eastern Turkey (present-day Samsat, now surrounded by an artificial lake created by the Atatürk Dam), a major settlement on the banks of the upper Euphrates River which in the previous century had been the home of the Greek satirist Lucian, there was born in A.D. 200 a certain Paul, about whom we know little until he was made Bishop of Antioch in 260. Since as Bishop he remained known as "Paul of Samosata", he was probably active in the church for some years earlier. What little we know of him today is not flattering, however, and comes largely from a letter written to the bishops of Rome and Alexandria by the synod at Antioch in 269, when its members voted to depose Paul. This letter is quoted by Eusebius (Book VII, ch. 30), and you can read it online. At issue was a heresy which Paul preached, an early version of Adoptionism known as Monarchianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Paul's doctrine as follows:
We can gather these points: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are but a single Person (prosopon). The Son or Logos is without hypostasis, being merely the wisdom and science of God, which is in Him as reason is in a man. Before all worlds He was born as Son (Logos prophorikos) without a virgin; he is without shape and cannot be made visible to men. He worked in the Prophets, especially in Moses (let us remember that Zenobia was a Jewess, and that this monarchianism may have been intended to please her), and in a far higher way in the Son of David who was born by the Holy Ghost of a Virgin. The Christ, the Saviour, is essentially a man, but the Holy Ghost inspired Him from above. The Father and the Son are one God, whereas Christ is from the earth with a personality of his own. Thus there are two Persons in Christ. . . . Mary did not bring forth the Word, for she did not exist before the worlds, but a man like to us. Paul [of Samosata] denied the inference that there are two Sons.

How could he deny that he was not describing two separate persons as one and the same Christ? Because he posited a mystical union of the divine personality with that of the human:
Union of two Persons is possible only by agreement of will, issuing in unity of action, and originating by love. By this kind of union Christ had merit; He could have had none had the union been by nature. By the unchangeableness of His will He is like God, and was united to Him by remaining pure from sin. By striving and suffering He conquered the sin of our first parent, and was joined to God, being one with Him in intention and action. God worked in Him to do miracles in order to prove Him the Redeemer and Saviour of the race. . . . The baptism of Christ, as usual, was regarded by Paul as a step in His junction with the Logos. If He had been God by nature, Paul argued, there would be two Gods. He forbade hymns to Christ, and openly attacked the older (Alexandrian) interpretations of Scripture.
The synod of bishops which gathered at Antioch had to meet several times to deal with Paul and his teachings, because at first he backed down when confronted, and promised to mend his ways. Eusebius quotes the letter they wrote after finally voting to depose him in 269:
“We sent for and called many of the bishops from a distance to relieve us from this deadly doctrine; as Dionysius of Alexandria and Firmilianus of Cappadocia, those blessed men. The first of these not considering the author of this delusion worthy to be addressed, sent a letter to Antioch, not written to him, but to the entire parish . . . .

4. But Firmilianus came twice and condemned his innovations, as we who were present know and testify, and many others understand. But as he promised to change his opinions, he believed him and hoped that without any reproach to the Word what was necessary would be done. So he delayed the matter, being deceived by him who denied even his own God and Lord, and had not kept the faith which he formerly held.
Eusebius then quotes a passage in which the Antioch Christians describe the manner of life which Paul of Samosata led:

7. “Whereas he has departed from the rule of faith, and has turned aside after base and spurious teachings, it is not necessary,—since he is without,—that we should pass judgment upon his practices: as for instance in that although formerly destitute and poor, and having received no wealth from his fathers, nor made anything by trade or business, he now possesses abundant wealth through his iniquities and sacrilegious acts, and through those things which he extorts from the brethren, depriving the injured of their rights and promising to assist them for reward, yet deceiving them, and plundering those who in their trouble are ready to give that they may obtain reconciliation with their oppressors, ‘supposing that gain is godliness’ [1 Tim. vi. 5] ;—

8. or in that he is haughty, and is puffed up, and assumes worldly dignities, preferring to be called ducenarius, rather than bishop [Paul was the “Procurator Ducenarius” of Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, an official so-called because his salary was 200 sestertia -- we know from Athanasius that he was a great favorite with Zenobia, and that to her he owed the privilege of retaining his bishopric after the synod had deposed him]; and struts in the market-places, reading letters and reciting them as he walks in public, attended by a body-guard, with a multitude preceding and following him, so that the faith is envied and hated on account of his pride and haughtiness of heart;—

9. or in that he practices chicanery in ecclesiastical assemblies, contrives to glorify himself, and deceive with appearances, and astonish the minds of the simple, preparing for himself a tribunal and lofty throne, —not like a disciple of Christ,—and possessing a ‘secretum’ [the name of the place where the civil magistrates and higher judges sat to decide cases, raised and enclosed with railings and curtains in order to separate it from the people; in the present case it means a sort of cabinet which Paul had at the side of the tribunal he had built, in which he could hold private conferences], —like the rulers of the world,— and so calling it, and striking his thigh with his hand, and stamping on the tribunal with his feet;—or in that he rebukes and insults those who do not applaud, and shake their handkerchiefs as in the theaters, and shout and leap about like the men and women that are stationed around him, and hear him in this unbecoming manner, but who listen reverently and orderly as in the house of God;—or in that he violently and coarsely assails in public the expounders of the Word that have departed this life, and magnifies himself, not as a bishop, but as a sophist and juggler,

10. and stops the psalms to our Lord Jesus Christ, as being the modern productions of modern men, and trains women to sing psalms to himself in the midst of the church on the great day of the passover, which any one might shudder to hear, and persuades the bishops and presbyters of the neighboring districts and cities who fawn upon him, to advance the same ideas in their discourses to the people.
Are you beginning to get the measure of the man? Quoting the letter, Eusebius adds even more damning detail (I will wager you had not heard of "subintroductæ" before):
11. For to anticipate something of what we shall presently write, he is unwilling to acknowledge that the Son of God has come down from heaven. And this is not a mere assertion, but it is abundantly proved from the records which we have sent you; and not least where he says ‘Jesus Christ is from below.’ But those singing to him and extolling him among the people say that their impious teacher has come down an angel from heaven. And he does not forbid such things; but the arrogant man is even present when they are uttered.

12. And there are the women, the ‘subintroductæ,’ as the people of Antioch call them [see also this link, and see Canon III adopted at Nicaea, quoted toward the bottom of the previous link], belonging to him and to the presbyters and deacons that are with him. Although he knows and has convicted these men, yet he connives at this and their other incurable sins, in order that they may be bound to him, and through fear for themselves may not dare to accuse him for his wicked words and deeds. But he has also made them rich; on which account he is loved and admired by those who covet such things.

13. We know, beloved, that the bishop and all the clergy should be an example to the people of all good works. And we are not ignorant how many have fallen or incurred suspicion, through the women whom they have thus brought in. So that even if we should allow that he commits no sinful act, yet he ought to avoid the suspicion which arises from such a thing, lest he scandalize some one, or lead others to imitate him.

14. For how can he reprove or admonish another not to be too familiar with women,—lest he fall, as it is written, —when he has himself sent one away already, and now has two with him, blooming and beautiful, and takes them with him wherever he goes, and at the same time lives in luxury and surfeiting?

15. Because of these things all mourn and lament by themselves; but they so fear his tyranny and power, that they dare not accuse him.
That last paragraph reminds me, somehow, of the situation today in a Church with which I am familiar. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose . . .

The editor of Eusebius' text adds a note at this point, as follows:
We get a glimpse here of the relative importance of orthodoxy and morality in the minds of these Fathers. Had Paul been orthodox, they would have asked him to explain his course, and would have endeavored to persuade him to reform his conduct; but since he was a heretic, it was not worth while. It is noticeable that he is not condemned because he is immoral, but because he is heretical. The implication is that he might have been even worse than he was in his morals and yet no decisive steps have been taken against him, had he not deviated from the orthodox faith. The Fathers, in fact, by their letters, put themselves in a sad dilemma. Either Paul was not as wicked as they try to make him out, or else they were shamefully indifferent to the moral character of their bishops, and even of the incumbents of their most prominent sees.
What about the lawsuit over Church property? you ask. I'm getting there; still setting the scene. After the council voted to depose and excommunicate him, Paul of Samosata invoked the protection of Zenobia, and continued to occupy the see in Antioch, and to conduct services as before. The same council of assembled bishops (afraid to let the local Diocese elect a new bishop on its own because they knew the hold which Paul had, through fear of retribution, on the local priests and deacons) themselves appointed a new bishop of Antioch, one Domnus by name. But Paul refused to let Domnus take his position, and retained his possession of the church in Antioch. Because of Zenobia's power, the assembled bishops could do nothing for the time being.

Roman politics were changing in the meantime, however -- a new soldier-emperor had emerged, the Emperor Aurelian. After consolidating his power in Rome, he systematically began reclaiming the parts of the Empire which had left, beginning with driving the Vandals and the Alemanni out of northern Italy, and the Goths out of the Balkans. In A.D. 272 he invaded Asia Minor, and Zenobia's Palmyrene Empire began to crumble. When Aurelian advanced to the gates of her capital, Zenobia tried to flee, and the city surrendered. Zenobia was captured and paraded in golden chains through the streets of Rome. She must have been an impressive woman still, because Aurelian freed her. He granted her a splendid villa in what is now Tivoli, and she became "a prominent philosopher, socialite and Roman matron."

Now to the lawsuit. With the capture of Zenobia, Paul of Samosata lost his protection. As Eusebius briefly recounts, the bishops appealed to the Emperor for assistance in removing him (probably while Aurelian was still in Asia Minor):
18. As Paul had fallen from the episcopate, as well as from the orthodox faith, Domnus, as has been said, became bishop of the church at Antioch.

19. But as Paul refused to surrender the church building, the Emperor Aurelian was petitioned; and he decided the matter most equitably, ordering the building to be given to those to whom the bishops of Italy and of the city of Rome should adjudge it.
This was unusual, to say the least, but it shows the advantages of universal Roman law. Even though Christianity had been a religion persecuted by many previous Emperors, Aurelian stepped into the dispute and in a precursor of what would become known as the "deference" approach, allowed the Church in Italy and Rome to adjudicate the ownership of the Church property at Antioch. Paul was finally removed from the building, and no more is heard of him ever again.

Eusebius adds this further note about Aurelian and the early Church:
20. Such was Aurelian’s treatment of us at that time; but in the course of his reign he changed his mind in regard to us, and was moved by certain advisers to institute a persecution against us. And there was great talk about this on every side.

21. But as he was about to do it, and was, so to speak, in the very act of signing the decrees against us, the divine judgment came upon him and restrained him at the very verge of his undertaking, showing in a manner that all could see clearly, that the rulers of this world can never find an opportunity against the churches of Christ, except the hand that defends them permits it, in divine and heavenly judgment, for the sake of discipline and correction, at such times as it sees best.

The "divine judgment" to which Eusebius refers was the murder of Aurelian by his own officers. Always a stickler for discipline, Aurelian had a secretary who feared the Emperor would find out about a trivial lie he had told. To forestall his punishment, the secretary forged a document under Aurelian's signature which purported to list high-ranking officers whom Aurelian planned to execute. The secretary showed the document to those who were named, and they plotted his murder instead. Over such trifles do the mighty fall!

The "Crisis of the Third Century" resumed with a rash of short-lived emperors. It continued until Diocletian came to power in 284, and set about once again rebuilding the Empire (until his abdication due to poor health in 305). That turned out to be very bad for the Christians in Rome and elsewhere, who had to endure renewed persecution until Constantine finally came to power and made Christianity the official State religion. And that elevation, as we now know, led to the gradual enmeshing of the Church in all manner of temporal affairs.

The first Church property lawsuit does not differ in its outward particulars much from the ones it still fights today. A holdover bishop is deposed, but with his followers retains possession of the church building, and the State is finally asked to intervene to determine the property's true and rightful owner. What has changed are the internal reasons for the bishop's "deposition" in the first place. Paul of Samosata was an energetic heretic, and the early Church could not allow him a base from which to spread his heresy. Today, the Church deposes its bishops for refusing to adopt a heresy, then lays claim to the property of all those it has forced out, and ends up putting it on the market, since it is surplus for which the Church has no other use.

The buildings and property once used to preach "the faith once delivered to the saints" -- meaning the faith as it was first preached in Antioch, long ago -- are left empty. The message goes on being preached, but from a new location. The Church thus demonstrates once again that it is people who make a church, not buildings and pews. And time marches on.

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