Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Eastern Symphony


But Augustine lived a long way from Constantinople, and the Byzantine establishment found the more celebratory cosmology of Eusebius more to its liking.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

It is not the cosmology of Eusebius that concerns me, but the political arrangement that this pointed to.  As better developed in my previous post: the emperor was to be subject to divine law; the bishops would be subject to the emperor.  This, in distinction to Augustine’s two cities.

Justinian famously codified Roman law, integrating religion, culture and politics – as had to be the case given this Eastern cosmology.  He legislated nearly all aspects of Christianity, including the place of the clergy in society.  His vision of the Christian state can be defined as symphony, or caesaropapism; of these two terms, he coined the former.  As explained by Strickland:

…it is not a symphony between Church and state, or even between clergy and ruler.  It assumes that the two are one, and that the purpose and identity of both groupings is identical.

For the early part of medieval Europe, this was the case – changed, per Strickland, only with the reform papacy of the eleventh century: Christendom would assign the clergy a new role of supervision and earthly transcendence.  This role – and the division it allowed regarding governance – would survive until the Protestant Reformation, when it collapsed once again, with the clergy having no legitimate role in the political life of society.

In theory, this Eastern symphony held that the bishops were to ensure that the emperor remained subject to divine law, but it rarely worked out this way given the power relationship.  When Justinian slaughtered thirty thousand citizens during the Nika Riots, no bishop came forward to speak truth to power.  Conversely, the emperor had no hesitation to ask the bishops for support, regardless of policy.

He could be tyrannical, but Justinian also passed many new and unique laws: laws in support of women, laws against infanticide, property rights of women were increased, and women convicted of adultery were no longer under penalty of death.  Sex slavery was forbidden, and crown resources were used to help women escape prostitution.

By now, Rome had been successfully invaded by the Visigoth Alaric.  Justinian, the emperor housed in Constantinople, would spend significant time and treasure in a battle for reunification.  At this time, the emperor was still “Emperor of the Romans”; official documents were still written in Latin, not Greek; and the capital was still officially called “New Rome.”

This battle for reunification was a waste of lives and resources; nothing was gained, or regained.  In the meantime, the Lombards would cross the Alps into Italy.  Rome and Ravenna would remain firmly in the hands of Constantinople for another two hundred years, but much of northern Italy was lost to the barbarians.

Therefore, it was Constantinople that would be the center of both the Roman and Christian world.  Even those few who remained and survived in Old Rome would agree with this.  The greatest temples and the best scholarship were all to be found in the East.

Which left the Roman bishop as the sole governance entity in the West.  As the political element was disappearing from Rome, the ecclesiastical element was taking its place.  But it would go further, in the person of Pope Leo the Great…

…who claimed, largely without precedent, that the papacy exercised jurisdictional preeminence (principatus) throughout the universal Church.

This certainly opened up a rivalry with the emperor; even more, it dismayed Eastern Bishops: the other recognized centers of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem did not take kindly to such a notion.

[Leo] was one of the first to claim that because the Apostle Peter had died in Rome, the bishop that ruled there was Peter’s unique heir.

The line from this point to the Great Schism is not a straight one.  Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, was a pope who held close ties to Constantinople – holding to the ties that bound East and West.  Gregory himself spent seven years in Constantinople, prior to his election; he had a deep understanding of Eastern Christianity.  Gregory would not claim papal supremacy, as Leo had done; in fact, he wrote against such a practice of supremacy by any of the five bishops (including his) over any of the others.


Politically and militarily, Christendom was under attack: from the east, Persia; from the south – in the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe – from Islam.  In the east and Middle East, much of Christendom was lost – primarily the areas populated by Monophysites, known under the umbrella of Oriental Orthodoxy, and distinct from the Eastern Orthodox. 

The Monophysites were given preferential treatment by the conquering Arabs, given the former’s tensions with the Orthodox Byzantines.  But clearly, these invasions would shape Christendom both religiously and politically in the decades and centuries to come.


I intend to minimize as much as possible the review of the various doctrinal points and differences in this history, staying focused on the issues that effect differences in governance.  I offer the following, however, due to its significance – for those both interested in and unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy.  It regards St. Maximos the Confessor, called “the father of Byzantine theology.”

At the heart of his theological vision was deification, the doctrine that man, as the biblically defined image of God, can experience direct communion with God through the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church.

As Maximos would write:

…[man], the image of God, becomes God by deification…. Thus God and those worthy of God possess in all things one and the same energy, or rather, this common energy is the energy of God alone, since he communicates himself wholly to those who are wholly worthy.

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