“Separation of Church and State,” as the common phrase runs, is enshrined as one of the fundamental tenets of the United States of America. While the phrase “separation of Church and State” is not found directly in the Constitution or founding documents of the country—it stems from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson—the concept is derived from the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, in what is known as the establishment and free exercise clauses: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Scholars have debated the exact intent and result of this phrase. Some have suggested that in America, the goal is to avoid government imposition of religion on individuals without taking much of a stand on religious institutions themselves, while in Europe there has been a stronger control over religion’s place in public life. In America, many court cases, including several that have reached the Supreme Court, have tried to figure out exactly the extent of these two clauses. Yet, whatever the result of the court cases and whatever the difference between America and Europe, this notion of “separation of church and state” is deeply ingrained in American thinking.
As Armenian Christians, however, we pray every Badarak for “all saintly and pious kings and God-loving princes,” as well as specific “devout kings,” including King Drtad, whom we commemorate this Saturday alongside Queen Ashkhen. The celebrant of the Badarak, near the very end of the service, also prays that God grant peace to “Christian rulers and to their armed forces,” customarily adding the specific countries of the United States (or the country where the Badarak is being celebrated), Armenia, and often the Republic of Artsakh. Where does this leave the Armenian Christian in relation to the deeply ingrained American value of the “separation of church and state?” Does the Armenian Apostolic Church take a stand on politics? What does it mean to pray for a king or a queen or for any form of government?
Today, we will only begin to try to make sense of some these questions. Using this coming Saturday’s commemoration of King Drtad and Queen Ashkhen—the king and queen central to Armenia’s conversion, the story of which is told by the historian Agathangelos, and which we have discussed many times, usually in relation to the central figure of St. Gregory the Illuminator—as a starting point, we can begin to think about one of the most controversial questions in Christianity: the relation between heavenly and earthly authority. For Christians, we can perhaps trace this question back to Jesus’ famous statement on the payment of taxes to Roman Empire: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, offers a long discussion of authority. In a passage that is arguably the first of many interpretations or exegeses of Christ’s statement, St. Paul writes, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1). In City of God, St. Augustine, one of the most influential theologians of the Western Church, offers a rich elaboration of the distinction between spheres of authority. For Augustine, however, the central distinction was between the eternal Jerusalem and all aspects of our inherently fallen earthly existence. In the West, however, his arguments set thinking on a path that culminates in the “separation of church and state.”
|History of the Armenians||By Agathangelos and translated by Robert W. Thomson, this early and important Armenian history is the source for the story of the conversion of Armenia and for details about King Drtad and Queen Ashkhen.|
|Law in Paul’s Thought||Developing important Pauline questions about the law, this book offers interpretations of passages, including the one from Romans mentioned as well as St. Paul’s discussion of salvation, faith, and the law in Galatians 3. By Hans Hübner.|
|Basic Writings of St. Augustine||A collection of the writings of the highly influential theologian St. Augustine of Hippo, including selections from his take on the authority of God and how the Christian is to live in the world, City of God.|
In the Eastern Orthodox Church centered at Constantinople and long coextensive with the territories under the control of the Byzantine Empire, the development of what we can call political theology took a decidedly different turn. Broadly, political theology is the name given to these discussions about divine and earthly authority, the concepts and systems of governance that take their cues from scripture as much as from other sources, and the relation between different spheres of authority. Byzantine political theology was developed largely during the time of Emperor Constantine and developed with Emperor Justinian I. While some writers have called the Byzantine Empire the ultimate example of caesaropapism, the complete melding of imperial and ecclesial authority wherein the church is often subordinated to the rule of the emperor, the actual doctrine known as symphonia stresses a complementary power-sharing where the imperial and the ecclesial mutually uphold the Byzantine Empire as a Christian power. Whether we see a dangerous melding or a harmonious symphony, the Byzantine system was an imperial solution.
Armenia, only briefly an empire under Tigran the Great and often not even an independent kingdom, developed a very different set of answers to the question of how to organize the Church in relation to earthly powers. Christianity was adopted during the reign of the Armenian Arshakuni or Arsacid dynasty, the dynasty of kings from which King Drtad hailed and that ruled Armenia until the marzpanate period of increased Persian control in mid-400s. During the Arshakuni dynasty, the ruling dynasty was supported by several important noble families, known as nakharar families. Many of these families held important hereditary governmental positions, passed on from father to son. For instance, the Mamikonian family was always the sparapet, the head of the armies. In the early years of Christianity in Armenia, the organization of the Church’s ecclesial hierarchy fit into the logic of the nakharar system: the office of Catholicos, the head of the Church, was passed on hereditarily to the descendants of St. Gregory the Illuminator. So, the “political theology” of early Armenia worked within the nakharar system—though early on, for instance with St. Nersess the Great, there were consequential conflicts between the Catholicos and the King.
After the fall of the Arshakuni dynasty, the situation changed substantially. Many have suggested that the Church itself acted like a state or a government, the one thing that held Armenians together when there was no independent country. Canon law and church hierarchs often did administer justice and organize collective life for Armenians. In addition to these practical matters, a number of important concepts in Armenian thinking are attributed to both God and to kings. For instance, the idea of փառք/park (glory) described last week in relation to relics, is a concept that describes the power and authority not only of God but also of nobles and kings. A full investigation of “Armenian political theology” would take account of concepts such as park in order to understand how Armenians have imagined earthly and divine authority and their relations through the centuries.
From this, it should be clear that the “political theology” of the Armenian Apostolic Church starts from a different set of assumptions, a different worldview, from the one that gives us “separation of church and state.” The other thing to stress, looking at these sources of thinking about religion and politics, is that the context and practical application of a “political theology” changes over time and across circumstances. There is today no Armenian nobility or nakharar system. In America, we do not live in a homogenous society full of only Christians or only Armenians. The doctrine of “separation of church and state” functions to allow everyone—including Armenian Christians—to worship according to their conscience without threat from the government. King Drtad decreed Christianity the state religion over a more homogenous society held together by a loosely centralized nakharar system. These situations are incredibly different. Yet, thinking about the “political theology” of Armenians over time allows us to contemplate our own situation better—and to appreciate both the complexity of living as Christians on earth and the simplicity of St. Paul’s insistence that “there is no authority except from God.”
|Political Theology: A New Introduction||An excellent introduction to the concept of “political theology” by Michael Kirwan. Includes a discussion of the term, its meaning, and many important debates in the field.|
|History of the Byzantine State||One of many books written over the centuries about the Byzantine Empire and its system of governance. By George Ostrogorsky, it considers the role of the Church in the Byzantine State.|
|The epic histories attributed to Pʿawstos Buzand (Buzandaran patmutʿiwnkʿ)||This important early Armenian history, known as the Buzandaran was translated by the great Armenian scholar Dr. Nina Garsoïan. The text itself, as well as her extensive notes, provide details on the nakharar system and on important concept like park (glory).|
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