Whenever you delve into the early church fathers, it becomes a journey—not only a historical one, but a theological one. There is a recognition that when you take these spiritual forefathers on their own footing, you can see the differing and unique contexts in which they operated, and which informed their theological view (for both good and ill). There is also a cognisance that while there was a level of theological maturity that was occurring over the span of the early history of the church (which, arguably, is still occuring), certain other, clear, doctrinal positions were already formulated. Often, reactively and out of necessity.
Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200-258), my favourite of the church fathers, was brought into particular relevance this year due to the current pandemic which has engulfed the world. Cyprian has wise words for the modern church, not only of action during such circumstances, but of hope. Reminding us that Christians are not to look at situations the same as others, for we have an eternal hope, whereby we can say, like Paul, “to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
Yet, John of Damascus (c. 675-749) too has something that can profit the church in its understanding of dealings in the current climate. Notably in the dealings between the state and the church, the magisterial and the ecclesiastical. For John had been a monk, located outside of Byzantium, and a defender of images. That is, he was a defender of the practice of image veneration that still continues within the Catholic and Orthodox churches. However, when a state policy, under the emperor Leo III, was launched to destroy the practice, John found himself penning several treatises against what he saw was a great wrong.
(Now, I should add that I have no love for image-veneration. I am a Reformed Baptist of the 1689 persuasion, and I have more sympathy for the policy of iconoclasm (that is, the destroying of images) than for general pro-image (vis, iconodulic) position advocated by John. Yet, to read the church fathers, one realises that, often, they do not align to our own theological presuppositions in toto.)
John, specifically, was living in a context where the state, as representing the Byzantine throne, was seeking to enforce its will and policies upon the church. In many respects, this period of Byzantine history—called the iconoclast controversy—was a conflict between magisterial authority and ecclesiastical autonomy. As such, pushing back against the imposition of the state, John states the following:
“It is not for emperors to legislate for the Church. For look what the divine apostle says: “And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints,”c.f. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph 4:11-12.—he did not say emperors—and again “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account.”Heb. 13:17. And again, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word; consider the outcome of their lives, and be zealous for their faith.”c.f. Heb. 13:7. Emperors did not speak to us the word, but apostles and prophets, pastors and teachers. When God commanded David to build him a house, he said to him “it is not you who are to build me a house, since you are a man of blood.”C.f. 1 Chr. 28:3
“Pay all of them their dues,” the apostle Paul cries out, “honor to whom honor is due, fear to whom fear is due, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due.”c.f. Rom. 13:7. Political good order is the concern of emperors, the ecclesiastical constitution that of pastors and teachers. This is a piratical attack, brothers. Saul tore the garment of Samuel, and what happened? God tore from his kingdom and gave it to David the most meek. Jezebel persecuted Elias, and the dogs bathed in her blood. Herod did away with John, and he gave up his life eaten of worms. And now the blessed Germanos, radiant in his life and his words, is flogged and sent into exile, and many other bishops and fathers, whose names we do not know. Is not this piracy? The Lord, when the scribes and Pharisees approached him to tempt him that they might ensnare him in an argument, and asked him, if “it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” replied to them, “Fetch me a nomisma.” And to those who brought it, he said “Whose is the image?” and when they replied “Caesar’s,” he said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
We submit to you, O Emperor, in the matters of this life, taxes, revenues, commercial dues, in which our concerns are entrusted to you. For the ecclesiastical constitution we have pastors who speak to us the word and represent the ecclesiastical ordinance. We do not remove the ancient boundaries, set in place by our fathers, but we hold fast to the traditions, as we have received them. For if we begin to remove even a tiny part of the structure of the Church, in a short time the whole edifice will be destroyed.” John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 68-69. II.12.
I leave this here without comment.