JOHN OF SALISBURY

The church declared her independence from the state in the Investiture Struggle, which began in 1075.  Pope Hildebrand declared that from that point church officers would not be appointed by the civil leader. John of Salisbury was the first to attempt a definition of the new relation between church and state.  He developed the “body politic” idea and incorrectly put the state under the church on the basis of natural law. 

Who was John of Salisbury? (1120-1180)  John of Salisbury was a French scholar and theologian.  He is known as the father of modern political science.  He studied under Peter Abelard and gained political experience from Thomas Beckett.  Beckett was the revered  Archbishop of Canterbury. John’s Policraticus, or “Statesman’s Book” (1159) was dedicated to Thomas Becket.  Beckett  was soon to be martyred in the emerging church-state conflict.

Historical context. Prior to the 11th Century church and state were regarded as complementary parts of one overarching unity.  That was  the body of Christ or the kingdom of God on earth. This unity was more fully realized in the Eastern Roman Empire.  There the Emperor held sway over church and state.  He could even  administer the sacraments by virtue of the alleged sacrament of Coronation. There was more dynamic tension in the West as the Papacy rose in power and the East and West split in 1054.  This was the Great Schism. The Eastern Church called “foul” on certain jurisdictional moves of the Western church.  The West in turn opposed the subjection of the East to the Emperor (Caesaropapism). The conflict came to a head in 1054 when church leaders excommunicated each other in Constantinople.

By 1122 the investiture struggle had run its course on the European Continent.  With some give and take on both sides, the church threw off the shackles of civil control.

In England the old sores festered. Thomas Beckett had incurred the anger of his former friend, England’s King Henry II.  He rejected Henry’s attempts in the Constitutions of Clarendon to require civil trial of clergy accused of a crime. Four of the king’s knights murdered Beckett in his own chapel. They were acting on their own, but were prodded by an outburst of royal temper.  Beckett’s death triggered on-going pilgrimages to his tomb and great popular sympathy for his cause.  This doubtless contributed to the acceptance of many of the ideas in Policraticus.

Summary of John of Salisbury’s teaching. There is much in John of Salisbury to praise and much to criticize. John described the new political paradigm in terms of a body.  He was probably the first to use the term “body politic.” The idea finds a parallel in St. Paul’s analogy of the church as a body in I Corinthians 12. John’s was an elaborate analogy in which senate, judges, soldiers, farmers, etc. each correspond to a particular body part.  The prince was the head.  John gave shape to the new idea that every citizen is ruled at the same time by two separate authorities — the temporal and the priestly. In modern terms, John was the first to wrestle with the doctrine of separation of church and state. Many  thinkers have tried to subject the church, making her merely a department of state. John turned this around. “The prince” he said, “is, then, as it were, a minister of the priestly power, and one who exercises that side of the sacred offices which seems unworthy of the hands of the priesthood.” From this platform, John touched on issues of  succession, tyranny, and regicide.  That is he sought to explain if and when a tyrant might be killed by a subject (tyrannicide).

Implications for subsequent history. The basic flaw in John’s work was its syncretism. He drew from many authorities, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, and the glossated Justinian Code.  Finally, he quoted the Bible as but one word among many. Rather than making the Bible the final authority, John used all of these sources to judge the others. This fatal habit has plagued Western political thought — indeed Western civilization — ever since. This is the main sense in which John of Salisbury is the father of modern political science. Thus, in the short-run John confirmed the newly won power of the Papacy.  But in the long run he eroded the church by deposing Bible law.

Biblical analysis. To this the Bible says, “…if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). This is like building one’s political house upon a foundation of sand.  When the rains and the wind comes it falls, “and great was the fall of it.” (Matt. 7:27). The Bible brooks no rivals, nor do its rivals brook the Bible. Moreover, it appears that John of Salisbury failed to make a proper separation of the two offices.  He described the ruler as a minister of the priestly office rather than a minister of God. In so doing he violated the biblical definition of the magistrate at Rom. 13:4 — “He is the minister of God to thee for good.”

Corrective or prescriptive actions. The civil magistrate must as a private person be covenantally bound to Christ through the church before he can hold office. In this sense we may think of the civil ruler as subordinate to the church.  He must be one of her sons and subject to her discipline and counsel. Thus, Emperor Theodosius, after ordering a massacre of civilians in Thessalonica, submitted to the rebuke of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Likewise, Henry II was punished for provoking the murder of Thomas Becket.