Monday, August 23, 2021

More on Eastern Symphony


Jonathan Pageau is having a discussion with Dr. Mario Baghos, a lecturer at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College (Sydney College of Divinity).  It is part of a very interesting series Pageau is working through on Universal History.

In this section, there is some light shed on the vision of Constantinople and the Eastern Orthodox idea of Symphony – where the emperor rules all, but with guidance by the bishops.  A monopoly authority, but one guided by the Church.  The discussion regards the time early in the life of Constantinople, the fourth century.  I will paraphrase or summarize their comments.

Pageau offers:

In mini-cycles in history, you see little images of the Kingdom of God appearing in different places in the world where things come together and we see – like Constantinople, where Constantinople is a little image of the New Jerusalem.

It’s not a complete image; it still has its faults, has its difficulties, but nonetheless is a little glimpse of the giant cosmic one that we see in Revelation.

Given who rules over New Jerusalem, Pageau seems to be saying that this is the model for the emperor to follow.  It is consistent with what I have come to understand of this idea of Symphony.

Baghos offers:

That’s the standard now.  Everything we look forward to regarding the final emperor is a deviation of that standard.  It could be a benign deviation, but many false christs have come throughout history – especially around the time of the Reformation, but we may talk about that later…

They don’t get to that later in the discussion.

According to Eusebius’s The Life of the blessed emperor Constantine….

Now, you will recall Eusebius from the earlier posts on Strickland’s work.  He wrote of the governance idea of Symphony.  This in contrast to Augustine’s idea of two cities, one of God and one of man.

…he [Eusebius] describes a Christogram, with a lance pointing down below it and a cross over the lance; the point of the lance is driven down on the serpent.  You can interpret this spiritually, that the emperor is driving out evil.

But there is also a historicist way, as the emperor defeating his terrestrial enemies, and they are the actual evil ones – and not the evil one behind them, the devil. 

This particular image…what is it?  What do you do with it?

Pageau replies:

The interesting thing about it, at least the image – if you take the symbolism of the image itself, and we don’t try to historically, like what the dragon is; let’s just say it’s a dragon – there is a sense that this could be the image of a proper emperor.

I can agree that it is the role of the proper emperor.  But through history, such proper emperors can be counted on one, maybe two, hands.

You have the image of Christ at the top, then below you have the king and his descendants, and below them, they – as a tool of Christ – are the ones who will drive out evil from the world.

Then you have the other way, the cynical way, to see the emperor as using Christ to justify whatever they want to do politically.  Those are the two images of civilization, and you always hear the one version, especially in modern times, we hear the cynical version, that kings or the Church use the excuse of Christ or God to then do whatever it is they want to do and defeat their enemies.

This describes the overwhelming reality of history.  Is this cynical, or merely realistic?  Does it suggest something about which model – that of Eusebius or that of Augustine – offers the lessor probability of abuse?

But I think we always need to understand the two interpretations, because it is also true that God uses our civil authorities to hold chaos at bay. I know, because I have lived in places where civilization is breaking down.  It doesn’t look like a nice place where happy people hold hands.

Unfortunately, when it is the civil authorities leading the abuse and when authority is monopolized, we find civilization breaking down.

Baghos then points to the concept of Caesaropapism in the East:

Often Christendom, especially Byzantium, is accused of caesaropapism – the fact that the emperor was both priest and king in a way that kind of made him semi- or quasi-divine.  Notwithstanding the fact that such divine language was used to describe the emperor, and not withstanding the fact that the emperor would often represent himself with a halo, nevertheless, caesaropapism did not necessarily apply because the more suitable model in an environment that is conditioned by Christ and His saints through the Church and its shepherds and teachers and bishops is the Old Testament model; it’s not the pagan model.

That might be the model, but does it describe the reality?  Not really, at least not from what I have read from Strickland and not from how I understood Pageau.

Every time you have this imposition of the state – because the state lapses into this hubris several times in Byzantium – giving the impression that they are in charge of the Church, God raises up shepherds of the Church (bishops, monks, nuns, laity) who tell the emperor to take care of the world outside of the Church and leave the Church to its shepherds and teachers.

In fact, the Church is never under the emperor in Byzantium, which is a mistake many scholars make when assessing this empire.  Even in examples where the Church is working with the state, such as at the Council of Nicaea called by Constantine, it was the bishop of the Church presiding at the council.

So, we need to make this very clear: the Church is one thing and the state is another.  When the state would attempt to impose a heretical doctrine, the Church would often accuse it of such and castigated it.  This happened often throughout the history of the empire.


I am not qualified to settle this debate.  However, I can say: while in the Latin Church there are examples of the pope excommunicating kings and emperors (hence, a means of checking abuses of authority), I have yet to read an example of this (or more specifically in the Eastern Church, anathematizing) in Strickland’s book regarding the East.  Maybe examples exist, but I don’t recall reading any in his book or elsewhere.


  1. Thanks, as always, Mr. Bionic Mosquito, for getting our attention away from the hideous (and scary) present to a wider perspective for evaluating our predicament. The best example I can think of regarding the Eastern equivalence of papal or episcopal (St. Thomas Becket) excommunication of kings/emperors is the Byzantine monastic community's resistance to imperial Iconoclasm. I believe Augustine is more reliable as a political guide than Eusebius, despite my allegiance to Eastern Orthodoxy. Incidentally I gave a lecture on this issuefor the Fordham chapter of the Thomistic Institute: "St. Augustine, Antonio Gramsci, and the City of God".

    1. "I believe Augustine is more reliable as a political guide than Eusebius..."

      It still strikes me that this is the case.

      As to your lecture, I found an announcement but no video or recording. Does one exist>

  2. There are instances in the Orthodox Church of kings being rebuked by hierarchs and so forth. Here are a few -

    St Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow, and his opposition to the blood-stained reign of Ivan IV:

    St Nicholas the Fool for Christ of Pskov restrained Ivan IV from a murderous adventure:

    St Sava, Archbishop of Serbia, healed a civil war being fought by his brothers Stephen and Vukan:

    1. Walt, I will do my best to eventually get to your emails and even these links. I have much going on these days....