The Deep Roots of Separation of State from Church

Adapted from When God Speaks for Himself: The Words of God You’ll NEVER Hear in Church or Sunday School, by Mark Tier and George Forrai (Inverse Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Mark Tier.

From Chapter 4: Reason, Science and the Church

The Separation of State from Church

Although the separation of church and state appears to be an innovation enshrined for the first time in the Constitution of the United States, it has far deeper roots. Indeed, it began with the collapse of the Roman Empire — not as a matter of principle but as a matter of necessity. While the Catholic Church, centered in Rome, held a monolithic sway over the heavenly realm, secular power was divided into dozens of kingly states and petty principalities.

The church held an awesome — but one-off — power over kings and princes: excommunication, effective when it cost the king or prince his domestic support. But in his own territory the monarch ruled on a day-to-day basis and could resist (up to a point) encroachment on his authority whether by ecclesiastical power in Rome, or the secular power of a neighboring monarch.

But not even excommunication guaranteed Papal supremacy. A vicious dispute between Pope Boniface VIII and King Philip “the Fair” of France came to an abrupt end when Boniface excommunicated Philip in 1302. Philip responded by sending an army to Rome to unseat Boniface and appoint his own, tame, Pope instead.

The Catholic Church had lost a power retained by its counterparts in the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, where the heavenly and secular powers were united: the ability to call on the police power of the state to forcibly suppress any dissent from the official theological opinion.

Into this mix of countervailing and disputatious powers was added the universitas which, as a separate legal entity, jealously guarded its own powers and was also able to resist (up to a point) encroachment on its authority from any outside source.

The prime ideological issues at stake in 1277 and the decades before included:

The eternity of the world: Aristotle’s conclusion in his On the Heavens — “the world as a whole was not generated and cannot be destroyed, as some allege, but is unique and eternal, having no beginning or end of its whole life”[1] — quite obviously conflicts with the story of creation in Genesis. Twenty-seven of Tempier’s 219 propositions “thou shalt not think” were devoted to “not thinking about” the eternity of the world.

Double Truth: the idea that there could be two truths: those of faith and those of reason.

Arts masters claimed they merely taught natural philosophy — “the nature of things.” Nevertheless, conclusions from the study of “the nature of things” conflicted, more often than not, with the scriptures. The Arts masters would then simply affirm the superiority of revelation — but leave the conflict hanging. As Boethius of Dacia put it: “we incur foolishness by seeking a proof where none is possible or incur heresy by refusing to believe what ought to be held on faith.”

This attitude infuriated the theologians, and was condemned by Tempier in his preamble: “For they say that these things are true according to philosophy but not according to the Catholic faith, as if there were two contrary truths….”

Limitations on the power of God: Tempier condemned various Aristotelian conclusions that limited God’s power to do anything he wants, including that everything must have a cause [Proposition 23]; that God could not create several worlds [34] or create man “without an agent” [i.e., parents, 35].

But on top of the ideological conflicts were several others:

Radical Aristotelians vs. everybody else: the appearance of a group of radical Aristotelians within the Arts faculty led by Siger de Brabant “taught a number of [Aristotelian] doctrines that seemed to contradict the fundamental teachings of Christianity”[2] which, the conservatives felt, threatened the hierarchy of church and university. The election for rector of the Arts faculty in 1272 resulted in defeat for the radicals’ candidate Siger at the hands of the conservative Alberic of Rhiems. The radicals refused to recognize the election and elected a rector of their own. For three years — until the Pope intervened to settle the matter in favor of the conservatives — there were, in effect, two Arts faculties at the University of Paris.

Arts vs. Theology: the Arts faculty sought equal status with Theology, which the faculty of Theology, convinced that revelation was superior to all other forms of knowledge, naturally resisted. In another apparent victory for the conservative forces, one of Alberic’s first acts as rector was to adopt “new statutes forbidding the arts masters to either reach theological conclusions in their lectures or to ‘teach against the faith’ in philosophical matters.”[3]

The Franciscans vs. the Dominicans: Led by Bonaventure, the Franciscans attempted to place limits on the teaching of Aristotle and attacked Aquinas among others; the Dominicans rallied behind their most prominent thinker. Aquinas was accused of “drinking too deeply of Aristotelian wine,”[4] and of holding beliefs barely distinguishable from Siger and his radical followers. In an apparent victory for the Franciscans, Bishop Tempier pushed Aquinas’ leading disciple, Giles of Rome, out of his position at the faculty of theology at the University of Paris.

In the 1280s, Archbishop Peckham, a Franciscan, “condemned a master of theology [at Oxford] for teaching Thomas’ views on the soul,”[5] and was supported by the then-Pope, Nicholas IV — a former Franciscan. To all appearances, the conservatives had won.

Yet, in 1323, Aquinas was canonized, and two years later the Bishop of Paris withdrew the Condemnation.

Why? Aristotle was firmly entrenched at other universities — and even in the Catholic Church itself, which no longer had the power to enforce theological purity (however defined) across western Christendom. Ultimately, the Condemnation of Paris was a tactical (and local) victory, but a strategic defeat.

In the end, Aquinas (and Aristotle) prevailed over Augustine in both the universities and the church, while the “separation of powers” continued with the disintegration of the monolithic Roman church itself in the Reformation.

Excerpted from When God Speaks for Himself by Mark Tier and George Forrai. Copyright © Mark Tier and Pronto Express, 2010. All rights reserved.


[1] Aristotle, On the Heavens, quoted in Grant, op. cit., p74.

[2] Rubenstein, op. cit., p210.

[3] ibid, p229.

[4] ibid, p225.

[5] ibid, p236.

Mark TierMark Tier, an Australian based in Hong Kong, started writing when he was 14 – and hasn’t stopped since. His first work, Understanding Inflation, was a bestseller in his native Australia in 1974. That was followed by The Nature of Market Cycles, How To Get A Second Passport, and The Winning Investment Habits of Warren Buffett & George Soros, which has been published in 3 English (New York, London, & Hong Kong) and 11 other-language editions. Once labelled “the Eclectic Investor” for his wide range of interests, he co-edited two science fiction anthologies which won a Prometheus Award in 2005, an analysis of Christianity, When God Speaks for Himself, and a political thriller, Trust Your Enemies. His website is marktier.com.

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