Friday, June 30, 2023

The City of Constantine

Constantine resolved to make the city a home fit for an emperor….

-          Zosimus, New History, c. 501

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin

Herrin starts at the beginning, with the founding of Constantinople and its namesake, the Emperor Constantine.  Looking for a new capital for the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, he found a location well-suited to control land and sea routes between Asia and Europe.

Born in the central Balkans, the son of one of the four rulers established by Diocletian – so divided as an attempt to bring some stability to the vast Roman world – Constantine was declared emperor by his troops upon his father’s death in York in 306.  Unfortunately, this would cause a problem as Galerius, the senior emperor in the east, did not recognize him as such.

Three men claimed the western throne, and Constantine would fight and defeat the others, culminating in the victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312.  He entered Rome triumphant, and was acclaimed by the Senate as emperor of the west.  But he did not thank the gods, claiming that his vision of the Cross in the sky offered the promise of victory.

A year later he would meet with Licinius, Emperor of the East.  They consolidated their relationship via marriage alliances, and issued the Edict of Toleration, proclaiming all religions could be celebrated freely as long as everyone offered prayers for the well-being of the Roman Empire and the emperor.

Eleven years later, Constantine defeated Licinius, exiled him, and then had him assassinated.  He was now ruler of both east and west, having fought his way from the far west in England to the far east of Byzantium.

And here he would build a new capital, closer to the major rival of Persia.  Byzantion, as the city was known, was built on an elevation surrounded on three sides by water, therefore requiring fortification only on the western side. 

In addition, Byzantion commanded the routes for the lucrative sea-borne transport of amber, furs, metal and wood from the north; oil, grain, papyrus, and flax from the Mediterranean; spices imported from the Far East, as well as overland trade between the West and Asia.

In 324, a line was ploughed to mark the new walls for the city that would bear his name, Constantinople.  The city would be inaugurated in 330, with ceremonies and horse and chariot races.  Bath houses were opened for public use and money was distributed to the inhabitants.

And then there were the gold coins, perhaps the most remarkable example of stable and honest money in history.  Constantine introduced the solidus (in Greek, numisma) in the West in 309.  It was a 24-carat gold coin, and it became the most reliable currency of Late Antiquity and the Byzantine world.

Until the early eleventh century, all emperors minted gold coins of comparable fineness and quality, maintaining a stable standard for over seven hundred years, an extraordinary achievement.

Yes, I would say.  No doubt contributing to the significant wealth and trade that came to and through the empire.  These Byzantine gold coins would be later excavated in places as far away as Scandinavia, western Europe, Russia, Persia, and Ceylon.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Just Who is Catholic?

With this [universal/catholic] Church we deny that we have any disagreement.  Nay, rather, as we revere her as out mother, so we desire to remain in her bosom.

-          John Calvin, Reply to Sadoleto

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

Shocking, perhaps.  Clarifying Calvin’s words requires shedding one’s self of the idea that the word “catholic” only has meaning when preceded by the word “Roman.”  Calvin would define the word “catholic” as the “society of all the saints…spread over the whole world.”

It is the purpose of Barrett’s work to clarify just this, that it was the Reformers who were aimed at the earliest traditions and doctrines of the catholic (universal) Church, and not the Roman Catholics.  As he writes:

Whether one thinks the Reformers were correct is a theological matter that is not the burden of this book.  Whether the Reformers defined themselves by this theological conviction however, is a historical matter, one that defined the Reformation as a whole.

Which, as I mentioned in my first post on this book – and is true whenever I write on such topics – is my purpose as well.  The history, not the theology.  What were the ancient Christian historical doctrines, beliefs, practices, dogmas, etc., and were the Reformers speaking to this or not?  That is the question.  Whether these were theologically sound is a different matter – and a topic which I try to avoid when writing here, and encourage commenters here to avoid as well.

It was, according to history, the Reformers that were the heretics.  This is true if one defines “heretic” as one who does not conform to the current teaching and will of the Roman church.  Jacopo Sadoleto, a Cardinal in good standing, would write to the Geneva church in 1539.  His timing was such that it was shortly after Calvin was exiled.  Yet, the Geneva church asked Calvin to respond.  And he did, with both barrels.

He told Sadoleto that the Reformation is not only catholic but more catholic than Rome.  …The Reformers believed that their teachings, in contrast to Rome’s, were not only faithful to the sacred Scriptures but allegiant to the catholic tradition that embodied those same biblical teachings.

That was the calm part.

Calvin said to Sadoleto, We are more catholic than you.  “Our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours,” Calvin insisted.

The purpose of the Reformers was to renew this connection to antiquity, which had been sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character.  The Reformers believed that they had not only the Bible, but also the major dogmas on their side.  Per David Steinmetz:

The goal of the reformers was a reformed catholic church, built upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles, purged of the medieval innovations that had distorted the gospel….

It was an appeal to Christian antiquity.  There was nothing less revolutionary in the sixteenth century than an appeal to the past – to that which was sound and tested.  And with this, Calvin would continue in his response to Sadoleto:

“Where, pray, exist among you any vestiges of that true and holy discipline which the ancient bishops exercised in the Church?  Have you not scorned all their institutions?  Have you not trampled all the canons under foot?  Then, your nefarious profanation of the sacraments I cannot think of without the utmost horror.”

Monday, June 26, 2023

Refuge in the Hills…

…and the sidearm….

Instead of trying to understand why religions perish, we should perhaps be asking why they survive at all under such difficult circumstances.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

Jenkins compares the situation in Egypt as opposed to Algeria / Tunisia.  Why did Christianity, via the Copts, continue as a significant minority in the former, and Christianity virtually disappeared in the latter?

This almost immediately after the time when what we know as Algeria and Tunisia today could be considered as much a center of Christian life as any.  Carthage was the source of Latin traditions – at least as much as, if not more than, Rome.  This part of Africa was the home of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.  By the late fifth century, North Africa had five or six hundred bishoprics. 

Yet within fifty years of the Arab conquests, Christians could scarcely be found: local Muslim rulers apologized to the caliphs that they could no longer provide Christian slaves, as almost none could be found.  There were gaps of decades and even centuries in many bishoprics.  From the 1,500 miles of coastline spreading from the western side of Egypt to the Atlantic, North Africa had almost zero Christian presence. 

Jenkins points to the failures of the Christian Church in spreading beyond the major cities of this region; the world of native peoples was almost untouched, with the church making little progress in taking the faith to the villages and countryside.  There was little effort to translate the Scriptures into the local languages.  One could consider the Christianity of North Africa (excluding Egypt) as the religion of the colonial conquerors.

On the other side, the Copts of Egypt.  Here, the natives were reached.  Even the name Copt is a corruption of the ancient word for native Egyptians.  The hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone were translated by using the liturgies of the Coptic Church!  While the Alexandrians wrote and thought in Greek, Coptic was from the beginning a sophisticated language of Christian literature.

In other words, Christianity was well-engrained in the culture, language, and tradition of the large portion of the Egyptian population.  Even the coming of the Arabic language was not enough to erase this depth.  At the end of the fourteenth century, a Muslim chronicler would complain that the Copts declared that Egypt still belonged to them.

Jenkins takes a look next at Western Europe, and his doing so has strengthened the reality for me that The Battle of Tours in 732 may very well have saved Christianity for the whole of Europe.  At this time, the early to mid-eighth century, it is not as if Christianity was well developed throughout the European population (much like North Africa, as noted above).  Yes, in Italy, Gaul, and the Rhineland, Christianity had developed well.  But what of the north and east?  Germany, the Netherlands, even England.  The ground was shaky at best.

A suggestive story written around 700 tells of English peasants happily watching an immanent shipwreck that was about to claim the lives of some monks.

When they were rebuked by a clergyman, they responded:

“Let no man pray for them, and may God have no mercy on any one of them, for they have robbed men of their old ways of worship, and how the new worship is to be conducted, nobody knows.”

Returning to the original case of Africa, between the fifth and the ninth centuries the sea routes of the Mediterranean shrank in significance relative to the land routes over the Middle East and Central Asia.  Carthage and Antioch would shrink to almost nothing.  Cairo, in the meantime, stood at an important crossroads of these new networks.

Jenkins next turns to the geography of survival, and this section reminds me of one of the earliest reviews I have done of any book: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott.  In this book, it was the mountains and borderlands that allowed independence from the emperor in China.  Jenkins will tell a similar story here.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Reforming the Reformation

The Reformation has been caricatured as a carrier of three viruses, nominalism, secularism, and individualism, which many blame for the downfall of the West.

-          R. Scott Clark

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

I know I have been guilty of this in the past.  I recently came across this book by Barrett, and I think it will help bring some balance to the often uncritically accepted narrative.

Barrett has done extensive work.  The book comprises 888 pages, which include footnotes at the bottom of most pages.  Beyond this, he includes a bibliography of fifty pages, with each page listing about twenty-five items.  One is free to disagree with his conclusions, but to do so you better bring a lunch…and a sleeping bag.

The cite at the beginning of this post, by Clark, is one of a few dozen such remarks from others who have reviewed the work.  In this opening post regarding this book, I will offer several of these, to give some idea of the field of play.  Most of these, as you would expect, are individuals affiliated with a protestant institution.  That doesn’t make their comments any less true.

For a long time, the Reformation has been misrepresented by polemical scholarship.

-          Michael Horton

Far too long Protestants have imbibed from the fountain of pop history of the Reformation…

-          J.V. Fesko

It is this that Barrett aims to rectify.  Apparently, much work has been done by others over the last sixty years on the same issue, albeit the stereotypes remain. 

…central theological contributions of Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were in broad continuity with Augustine and the Augustinian tradition as it was refracted through the writings of various scholastic theologians, including Thomas Aquinas.

-          Scott Manetsch

[Barrett] defends the Augustinian-Thomistic theology that was advocated by a number of first- and second-generation Reformers.

-          Matthew Levering

I have also contrasted Luther to Aquinas in the past, labeling Luther a nominalist.  Dr. Jordan Cooper (a Lutheran) has argued that this is a false picture of Luther.  It seems Barrett will do the same.  I have since come to learn that the scholasticism that Luther wrote against was the later scholasticism of those such as Scotus…which is reflected in the following comment:

…this book helps us to see [the Reformation] as the rejection of late medieval scholasticism, the via moderna, and the recovery of an older Augustinian-Thomistic tradition.  Radical philosophical ideas central to the via moderna such as univocity, voluntarism, and nominalism, were advocated by thinkers such as Scotus, Ockham, and Biel in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.

-          Craig A. Carter

Even the staunchest Catholic apologist must recognize the change from Aquinas to Scotus, and must recognize the significant corruptions in the Roman Church that motivated Luther and others at the time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The First Christian Empire

For in contrast to other medieval societies both in the West and among the Muslims, Byzantium was old, many centuries old by the time of Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid in AD 800….

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin

I have been wanting for some time to learn something more about Byzantium, its history, the Church that developed in and through and around this empire, and, ultimately, its demise.  This book has been sitting on my shelf long enough, and as I am coming to a close on other topics, it seemed time to pick it up.

Byzantium conjures many images – in some cases exaggerations and caricatures, in some cases deserved (but not unique to it).  Despite modern views, the Byzantines had no monopoly on complexity or treachery or hypocrisy.  They were not unique in pursuing riches and wealth.  They generally avoided burning people at the stake and never developed what could be described as an Inquisition. 

Further, per Herrin:

…I want you to understand that the modern western world, which developed from Europe, could not have existed had it not been shielded and inspired by what transpired further to the east in Byzantium.

A mix of pagan, Christian, Greek and Roman influences, the empire would wax and wane, but is generally recognized as encompassing the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, and Anatolia.  Constantinople was the grandest of cities, its roots going back to the beginning of the decline of Rome. 

It nurtured the earliest Christian monastic traditions on mountains such as Sinai and Athos.  It converted the Bulgarians, Serbs, and Russians.  It maintained contact with many of the Christian centers that fell under Muslim rule during the seventh century – including Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, and, in varying degrees (and at some times better than other times) Ethiopia, Persia and Armenia.

Hagia Sophia held the title of the largest dome for a thousand years, from the sixth century until the completion of St. Peter’s in Rome.  Constantinople considered itself the center of the world, and the replacement for fallen Rome. 

Until the Muslim invasions, it encompassed regions stretching from western North Africa to Mt. Ararat, southern Italy, Greece and the Balkans.  In the early years of the Church, it was the Church – protecting the Christian West in the early Middle Ages. 

Had Byzantium not halted their expansion in 678, Muslim forces charged by the additional resources of the capitol city would have spread Islam throughout the Balkans, into Italy and the West during the seventh century, at a time when political fragmentation reduced the possibility of organized defence. 

Thus, a Christian Europe was made possible.  Just over half-a-century later, Charles Martel would win the decisive battle over the Muslims near Poitiers in central France. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Heading Toward the Grave

When Christian communities are destroyed, they rarely vanish entirely or immediately, and survivors often maintain a clandestine existence for many years afterward.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

The last Christian priests were expelled from Japan in 1650.  Tens of thousands of lay Christians perished; Christian loyalty could lead to death (as a personal note, if you haven’t done so, watch the movie “Silence”).  Japan remained a closed society for the next 200 years.  When Christian missionaries arrived, they were met with a surprise:

…in 1865, a Catholic priest received some surprising visitors.  Nervously, in constant fear of detection, fifteen elderly Japanese peasants wanted to ask him what he knew about the faith they had maintained secretly for so long.

They asked about God, Jesus, and the Blessed Virgin; upon seeing the Madonna and Child, they thought of Christmas.  This story is not unique, as such communities have been found – at times even centuries after the passing of Christian dominance – in China, Turkey, the Balkans, and elsewhere.  Further, remnants from these communities established churches in diaspora lands – this as early as the Syrians in the eighth century and the Greeks in the twelfth. 

Further, in a beloved center of the Shinto religion – the Suwa shrine in Nagasaki – one will find three sacred images, one of which was almost certainly inherited from a destroyed Catholic church that once stood nearby.  The figure is almost certainly a Spanish or Portuguese statue of the Madonna and Child.

Of course, the far more common story is that of takeover – mosques built over churches; churches built over pagan temples.  Back and forth, depending on which side won the last war.  You get the idea. 

Hagia Sophia is the most well-known example, but it is not alone.  The cathedral in Ani was converted to a mosque before it was retaken in 1214; the church of St. Athanasius in Alexandria became a mosque after the Arab conquest.  Cordoba offers many such stories and examples.  Budapest, Cyprus, the Balkans.  The Armenian Cathedral in Edessa remained a fire station until the 1990s, when it was then converted to a mosque.

Jenkins proceeds with an extensive examination of the relationship of Christianity – especially Eastern Christianity – and Islam.  The details of this are outside of the scope of my interest, but fit within his view that despite the overtaking of much of the Christian East by Muslims, the Christian faith influenced Muslim practices and perhaps even the Quran itself – more than commonly understood.

Yet, the momentum and pressure was the other way, of course.  Under Muslim rule, the Christians remained at best, second class citizens; at worst, persecuted until conversion or death.  In the eighteenth century, one Egyptian sheikh would write of the burdens that should be enforced on non-Muslims:

·       they should not be allowed to clothe themselves in costly fabric;

·       they should not be permitted to employ mounts like the Muslims, nor use saddles or stirrups;

·       while in public, they should not be allowed to portray themselves as if they are Muslim;

·       their dwellings should be less than ours, and their building lower;

·       they should walk single file, and step aside in narrow lanes…

Non-Muslims could not testify against Muslims; they could not retaliate or respond against insult.  In nineteenth-century Persia, the Nestorian was not allowed a place at the bazaar; he could not aspire to a trade higher than mason or carpenter.

“The absence of every mark of consideration toward them is obligatory for us…”

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Cleansing

The bloodstained annals of the East contain no record of massacres more unprovoked, more widespread or more terrible than those perpetrated by the Turkish government upon the Christians of Anatolia and Armenia in 1915.

-          James Bryce, the 1st Viscount Bryce

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

This genocide certainly wasn’t the first salvo in the drastic reduction of Christianity in the Middle East and Central Asia, and it hasn’t been the last.  But it is here where Jenkins introduces his chapter: The Last Christians.

Especially in the West, we consider Christianity as revolving around Rome – either for (Catholic), or against (Protestant). The farthest east we go is Constantinople, but these so-called schismatics were swept away by the Ottomans in 1453 – ancient history.  But it is not only here where the persecutions occurred.  Further to the east (and south), all remnants of Christianity were at risk.

Christianity declined in these regions in two major phases.  First, in the Middle Ages, when Christians were reduced to minority status under Muslim rule.  The second, more recent – barely a century old, when Christian communities in these regions almost ceased to exist.  In both phases, the causes were the same and could be summarized: massacre, expulsion, and forced migration. 

At the same time, it cannot be said that the reductions and the actions all ran in a straight line – there were times of relative calm punctuated by events of significant disaster.

The most important force during this time was that of the Ottoman Empire.  After the Mongols destroyed the Seljuk Turk state, the Ottoman Turks began to build and consolidate an empire.  The Balkans, the Black Sea region, and from Persia to Algiers; all under Ottoman rule.  The advances would continue into Hungary, ending only with the Christian victory at Vienna in 1683.

The Ottomans were more aggressively anti-Christian than were the original Arab conquerors of the same lands.  Churches confiscated or razed; countless thousands forcibly converted.  Christian families required to give some number of children to be raised by the state as slaves or elite soldiers.

Then, as the West advanced and trade routes opened up to the East by sea, Western Christians would come into contact with these remnant Christian communities – even as far to the east as China.  But these were hardly seen as “Christian” by the westerners.  For example, in 1723, a French Jesuit would report on the Copts in Egypt:

“…the Copts in Egypt are a strange people far removed from the kingdom of God… scarcely anything human can be detected in them.”

Another Jesuit observer would note of the arrogance of the Ethiopian king, who believed that they were the only true Christians in the world – shunning the Jesuits as heretics for their views on the Virgin Mary.

In the mid-sixteenth century, a Portuguese traveler in India was surprised to learn from Christians there that they owed their allegiance to a head in Babylon – having never heard of a Pope in Rome.  Indian Nestorians referred to the Patriarch in Babylon as the universal head of the Catholic Church.

There were also examples of agreement – for example, where Chaldeans accepted Roman rule under a new patriarch in exchange for Roman support, all-the-while retaining their separate and unique customs.  Further, many European churches would come under Rome – known as Uniate churches, or Eastern-rite Catholics.

Yet, while pressured by both Muslims and Western Christians, many of these remnant communities survived.  Within the Ottoman Empire, nearly half the population was Christian, although the proportion was significantly lower in the lands east of Constantinople.

Sultans would often use Christians as administrators as, among other reasons, the Christian’s total dependence on the Sultan’s favor would make such administrators more likely to be trustworthy.  Greeks were the sailors; Armenians the merchants and traders.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Obliteration and Destruction

Because the churches of their provinces have been obliterated completely and Christ’s people, that is the Christians, have been utterly destroyed.

-          Anonymous Greek churchman, c. 1480

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

Fifty-one metropolitanates, eighteen archbishoprics, and 478 bishoprics – all desolate; barely a few priests, monks and layman remain.  Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

As I have noted before, Jenkins moves freely between the church of the farther east (call these Nestorian or Syriac), and the Church of the East (what we today know as Eastern and Oriental Orthodox).  But the message is the same: where there once was a vast stretch of Christianity (albeit the Nestorians not recognized as such by the Orthodox), there remained almost nothing.  This will be examined in Jenkins’ chapter, The Great Tribulation.

It's 1354.  Mobs demand the Christians recite the Muslim profession of faith or face being burned alive.  Monastic estates were confiscated, striking at the financial basis of the Coptic Church.  Churches were razed or converted to Mosques.  Many Christians would accept Islam.

Not just Egypt.  The fourteenth century would mark the decisive collapse of Christianity in the Middle East, Asia, and much of Africa.  This raises an interesting question: Why then?  Why not with the rise of Islam and its rapid military conquests?  Was it the relative strength of the Christian culture at the time, or was it the change in the approach by Muslim leaders against Christians? 

As Jenkins notes, the idea that early Islam was uniformly and consistently tolerant toward Christians really is a false narrative.  It must be kept in mind that early Islam spread by the sword, via conquest.  Yet, changes were not systemic and permanent.  Suffice it to say, Muslims were no more nor no less tolerant of other religions than were Christians (or others).  Persecutions would come and go (and examples are offered by Jenkins), but rarely a total change…until the fourteenth century.

In any case, early on, the Christians in the east favored, in many ways, the Muslim rulers over the Byzantine.  Having been persecuted over the decades due to their “heresies,” this was not an issue under Muslim rule.  In the 650s, the Nestorian patriarch would write:

“The Arabs to whom God has granted at this time the government of the world…do not persecute the Christian religion; on the contrary they favor it, honor our priests and the saints of the Lord and confer benefits on churches and monasteries.”

Others would write similarly.  Whatever the faults of the Muslim rulers, at least they weren’t Byzantine Christians. 

In 869, the Melkite (Orthodox) patriarch of Jerusalem would write of the Muslims, “They are just, and do us no wrong or violence of any kind.”

Often, a regime of personal law was allowed: Christians would by judged based on Christian, not Muslim, law (at least when the conflicts were between Christians).  In remote areas, local Christian leaders would retain significant control.  New bishoprics would be established – even in Arabia! 

But the changes in political rule and authority were, in any case, real: many Christians under Muslim rule would see these changes as God’s punishment for the heresies of the Byzantines.  A later Coptic history would offer:

“And the Lord abandoned the army of the Romans before him, as punishment for their corrupt faith, and because of the anathemas uttered against them, on account of the council of Chalcedon, by the ancient fathers.”

Of course, Byzantine Christian rule last much longer than Christian rule in Egypt, so using the logic offered in this Coptic historical interpretation, one might come to an even less flattering interpretation for these opponents of Chalcedon.

Instead, a more reasonable interpretation, if one wants to see God’s hand in this loss of Byzantium, is offered by Michael the Syrian (a Jacobite):