Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson The Two Kingdoms

Greenslade on the Dualism of Church and State

S.L. Greenslade, in his delightful little book Church and State from Constantine to Theodosius1 (Greenwood Press, 1981 [repr. of 1954 ed. by SCM Press]), which unfortunately suffers from the defect, significant especially given the book’s title, of  providing readers a definition of neither “church” nor “state,” has some thought-provoking paragraphs about how the differences between the two institutions (for he primarily speaks of  the church in institutional terms) are to be understood, and the problems attendant upon trying to theorize them.

What he calls the “dualist solution” is useful in securing a certain amount of liberty for the church and her members, for it requires the recognition that there are certain things that are outside of the purview of central government:

Is the dualist solution of the problem of Church and State the correct one? Let  it be said at once that it possesses the outstanding merit of giving the lie to the omnicompetent, totalitarian State. There are realms of life over which the State as such has no absolute rights. Render unto God the things that are God’s! In some degree the Church of the fourth century, with all its concessions and failures, was successful in inducing the State to respect this principle; and how vital it is that the Church should stand firm by this demand is manifest to all of us children of an age in which the powers and requirements of the State increase daily. (60)

But the way in which the dualism is articulated requires great care; it cannot be made an excuse for retreatism or escapism, for instance:

Nevertheless, the dualist principle is never easy of application…..We cannot as a Church withdraw from the world, abandoning society to paganism or materialism. Fourth century monasticism was already tending to do this, in reaction from the secularization of Christianity which accompanied the removal of persecution and the favour of the State. But the Church in general intended not a complete severance, but  a cooperation between two bodies, each autonomous in certain respects yet having much to do with each other. Now if the dualism is not to be absolute, the difficulty of deciding what belongs to each sphere will be all the greater. One can quickly enumerate some particulars. The State will keep the peace, collect taxes, the Church will preach the  Gospel, administer the Sacraments… (60-1)

The type of dualism of which he speaks works well, he thinks, provided that we operate with a minimalist view of what the state is supposed to do. Things become more complicated, however, when we move beyond that:

So long as the functions of the State are taken to lie in the maintenance of order (and it was chiefly as a coercive power restraining evil that early Christianity recognized the State’s God-given authority), or within the field of material benefits and economic organization, the distinction between its activities and those of the Church may seem clear. The more good the State tries to do, the more difficult it is to find a distinction of principle, something that goes beyond naming a few individual points of autonomy….But it is not to the discredit of the modern State, dangerous though it may be, that it concerns itself with the knowledge and cultivation of good. Conversely, the Church is somehow concerned with every action of the State which raises a moral issue, and  this is, in the last resort, with almost everything. The question is, how may the Church show its concern? What may it do? (61-2)

Independence, too, can bring its own perils in Greenslade’s view:

There remains also a problem to which reference was made in the first chapter. The more independent the Church becomes, the more necessary it  is to avoid clericalism, and the resulting anticlericalism. As the Western churchmen  of the fourth century saw the problem of Church and State, it was largely a question of the relations between emperor and bishops. But what are the proper limits of episcopal, or any ministerial activity?… (62)

And given historical circumstances, the interplay between liberty and involvement sometimes yields results that are surprising to modern eyes, as it did in the fourth century:

There is no easy answer to these and similar questions, even when the Church  possesses its own representative organs. Disestablishment, though it might become necessary through circumstances, is not in itself an answer. In the fourth century, at any rate, the demand for ecclesiastical liberty somehow culminated in an established Church, with the approval of all catholic Christians. (62)

What is to be learned from such occurrences, then? If nothing else, Greenslade observes, we can mark that the transition from principles to practice is not easy, and that due attention must always be paid to the circumstances in which one finds oneself:

The inference to be drawn from such puzzles is not that the dualist principle is wrong or  wholly impracticable, but that it must not be too doctrinaire. Sometimes, in given historical circumstance, what the Church must demand or resist will be quite clear; sometimes the issues will be confused. The detailed working-out  of the principle will always turn upon the contemporary situation  of both Church and State. That is, we must always be ready for a change in the existing relations, and not cling to past forms  which may not be principles. (62-3)


Still, there are constants in human nature–namely, abiding sin–that make the relative independence and counterbalancing of what we might call magistracy and ministerium, even if the corpus Christianum underlies both in a given region, attractive if not imperative:

But the principle itself, the notion that Church and State ought to work out their respective spheres of autonomy, while possibly unnecessary if all men were paragons, must presumably be accepted as a necessary conclusion from the only too obvious fact that in human history neither State nor Church is ever perfect. (63)

  1. Originally given as the Frederick Denison Maurice Lectures at King’s College London in 1953.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.