Monday, July 31, 2023

Stopping the Tide


…the primary achievement of the new medieval Byzantium was to prevent Muslim efforts to capture Constantinople, which would have opened the way to a rapid conquest of the Balkans, central Europe, and probably Rome itself.

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

I have mentioned often the turning point represented by the victory of Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732; just as often I have mentioned King John III Sobieski at the Battle of Vienna in 1683.  In both cases, the turning back of Muslim forces intent on penetrating further into Europe.

This will be a story of the role of Byzantium.  Despite losing significant territory to the Muslims, Constantinople was held until the mid-fifteenth century, giving Western Europe time to reform after the fall of Rome.

A decade of warfare against the Persians in the 620s and constant invasion by the Slavs into the Balkans was followed by attacks and invasion by desert tribes from Arabia into the eastern Mediterranean.  At one point the situation became so dire that the emperor would relocate to Sicily in the 660s.

The defenses of the empire were stretched to the breaking point.  To the west and north, Slavonic and Avar tribes would cross the Danube and capture major cities, allowing them to move south with their families to take advantage of better pastures.

Following further losses, Roman troops refused to campaign north of the Danube, instead turning to Constantinople and overthrowing the emperor.  In the meantime, Persians would overrun the eastern frontier, devastating major cities in Asia Minor.  Antioch succumbed, and Jerusalem was sacked.  Alexandria was occupied, and the grain shipments relied on from Egypt were prevented.

In 628, however, a major victory over Persia.  The Shah of Shahs was overthrown, and his palace was sacked.  The True Cross, lost in the sacking of Jerusalem, was recovered.  A few short years later, Mohammed died, and Arab Muslims replaced Persian Zoroastrians.

In their post-victory confidence, imperial officials refused the tribute traditionally paid to tribes who guarded the edge of the desert and had previously provided an early-warning system.

In hindsight, a mistake.  By the time of his passing, Mohammed had united the disparate Arab tribes.  With the death of the Prophet, the Arabs were determined to spread Islamic domination throughout the known world.

Damascus, Gaza, Antioch, Jerusalem.  One by one these would fall, from 634 to 638.  No one envisioned such losses were permanent, but these proved irreversible.  With their capital at Damascus now established, they would plan regular campaigns into Byzantium.

Within a decade, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt would all be occupied.  About two-thirds of imperial territory would be lost – and the rest was in sight.  The loss of Jerusalem was a deep humiliation to the Christian world; the loss of Egypt required a complete change to the economic system.

Using their knowledge of astronomy for travel through the desert, the Arabs would turn that knowledge into travel by sea, now threatening the islands and coastlines of the empire.  North Africa and southern Europe were in sight – a complete restoration of the Roman Empire, this time under Muslim Arab control.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Holy Wisdom


The power of the church’s profile dominates the skyline, the sheer bulk of the immense structure grows as one approaches by sea.

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

Hagia Sophia; Holy Wisdom.  The scale and beauty were almost unknown even to visitors from the west in medieval times.  The dome, as form, was known to architects in the west, but at the time of construction virtually unknown in the east.

The art, however, was well known; a continuation of the forms, styles, and materials as known in antiquity: statues, reliefs, and portraits, using precious metals, enamel, and ivory.  Silk cloth from China was unraveled to provide thread for looms – the silk coming from China, at least until silkworms were (allegedly) smuggled from China by some monks and presented to Justinian.

The gradual increase of Christian images: loaves and fishes became Christ on coins became Christ Pantokrator.  This would eventually lead to the iconoclast controversies, which will be covered later.

Returning to the construction.  Those who observed the finished work were at a loss to explain how such a large dome could be supported by a structure pierced with forty windows that allowed light into the vast cavern below.  “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.”  So it is reported that Justinian would remark when he saw the completed work. 

How it (and the many other structures built during Justinian’s reign) was financed was another matter, and that part of the story remains unclear.  There were many battles and negotiations, yet the cost remains unknown and almost incalculable.

An earthquake would damage the dome twenty-one years later.  Isadore the Younger, son of the original architect, would secure the dome by raising it seven meters, making it narrower and steeper.


During his forty-year reign, Justinian would achieve much.  But nothing would compare to the construction of Hagia Sophia. 


Not to be missed during this time was what became known as the Nika Rebellion.  The Greens and the Blues – two groups responsible for Hippodrome entertainment – organized a challenge to the emperor’s power.  Normally rivals, they allied on the basis of antagonism towards Justinian’s financial policies.

They set fire to the center of the city.  Justinian considered fleeing the city, but his wife, Empress Theodora, would have nothing of this:

“Purple makes a fine shroud.  I would prefer to die in this imperial cloth.”

So inspired, Justinian would use force rather than negotiate.  A massacre of unarmed Byzantines followed.  Half the city was burned or destroyed; tens of thousands killed.  It was the burned-out area that gave room for the emperor’s massive construction project.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Reformation Myth-Busting

“Martin Luther was the first Protestant, and yet he was more Catholic than many of his Roman Catholic opponents.”

-          Jaroslav Pelikan

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

To be clear, the Reformers did not think of the Reformation as a return to exhaustive continuity with the past – that myth is not the claim of this book.  At the same time, the Reformers did not think of their Reformation as a radical break with the past – a caricature this book seeks to remedy.

The Reformation is enveloped in a narrative, some of it with basis in fact, some not.  It is an oppositional narrative – a narrative that presents the Reformers as merely opposing the current.  Barrett offers four such false threads in this oppositional narrative and will, through his book, examine these.  But, to summarize:

First…the Reformation was anti-tradition.  The Reformers believed sola scriptura, and that meant the Bible was the only authority for the church.

Second, the Reformation was not only anti-Catholic (Roman Catholic) but also anti-catholic (universal church), as if the true gospel and the true church had been lost since the days of the apostles…

Third, the Reformation was anti-medieval, specifically anti-Scholastic.  The Reformers thoughts Scholasticism represented everything wrong with the church, both its beliefs and practices.

Fourth, the Reformation was anti-philosophy, convinced Christianity was antithetical to Plato and Aristotle.

Evangelical academics avoid this simplistic narrative, and present the history with nuance.  However, the interested masses – even among the evangelicals – still see things this way; an oppositional narrative, and not at all accurate – certainly not complete.

Certainly, some can find something in some Reformers that would support one or another of these views.  But, per Barrett, not on the whole.  There were radicals and schismatics that came out of the Reformation – identified as such by other Reformers – that held such views, but these were on the fringes of the movement.

There were primarily two specific areas in which the Reformers disagreed with the Roman Church: soteriology, and ecclesiology.  Much of their writing focused on and around these two issues.  As Richard Muller would write:

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Quit Blaming Luther for the Ills of Today


…a straight, unqualified line of transition between the nominalism of the via moderna and the Reformation must be challenged…

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

I have been somewhat guilty of accepting this line myself, while at the same time seeing some of the fallacies that such a simple connection presents.  Barrett, in this introduction, will summarize that which he will describe in further detail in later chapters.

What is the simple connection?  Luther to Reformation to nominalism to secularism to modernism to post-modernism.  In other words, it was the schism of the Reformation that set the West on its destructive course, the fruits of which we have seen in the twentieth century wars and “isms” and the insanity of which we see today.

What is the standard narrative?  Combine the priesthood of all believers with sola scriptura and you create individual Christians each with his own reality.  It was not only a revolutionary idea; it inspired revolution.  Further, even the label “Protestant” reveals a fixation on a protest, a discontinuity that is destructive for Christianity – its past, present and future. 

Let’s see how Barrett unpacks and deconstructs this.  He first points to the reality that the move toward nominalism began well before the Reformation and well within the Roman Church – beginning with Duns Scotus and culminating with the via moderna of William of Ockham in the fourteenth century and Gabriel Biel in the fifteenth century.

The via moderna was a reaction against the via Antigua (old way), especially as it was embodied in Thomas Aquinas.

Out with universals, in with nominalism.  The realist metaphysic that explained how reality participates in the likeness of God and that could trace itself from the Cappadocians to Augustine, and from Boethius to Aquinas, was out – and it was sent packing by the scholastics within the Roman Church.

Ockham considered universals illogical.  …his nominalism redirected attention away from universals to individual objects.

Therefore, at least some blame for the advent of modernity rests here.  But this does not yet absolve the Reformers from the possibility that they were carrying this virus.  Did they run with this notion?  To answer “yes” is too simplistic; the path is both complicated and variegated.  Barrett offers a few reasons why this is so:

First, the secularization narrative’s categories are not nuanced enough.

Yes, the Reformers reacted against Rome, and did so via a strong polemic.  Accused of dualism: church vs. state, God’s agency vs. human agency, sacred vs. secular, etc.  But, citing Horton, such a charge assumes too much:

The “charge assumes that distinctions are separations, which is certainly not characteristic of the Lutheran or Reformed treatment of these topics.”

In later chapters, Barrett will argue that the German Reformation started because Martin Luther revolted against Ockham and Biel’s voluntaristic, nominalist justification theology.  And Luther would come to believe more and more, with each passing year, that his protest put him in continuity with the church catholic – the historic church and the historic traditions.

Second, the secularization narrative fails to consider the Reformation’s relationship to classical theism and its orthodoxy…

The first generation of Reformers didn’t abandon the realist metaphysic of the via antqua – they didn’t even address such matters.  Yes, Luther would make sweeping condemnations of scholastic metaphysics, but in each case his comments were addressing a specific something or someone.

Monday, July 3, 2023

Establishing the East

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

Capturing a few interesting tidbits from Herrin’s work:

Transforming the Roman World

August 9, 378.  The Goths inflicted a massive defeat on the Romans at Adrianople.  Emperor Valens marched out without waiting for western reinforcements; he was killed in the battle.  Theodosius, after several campaigns against the Goths, made peace with them in 380; he was declared emperor by his troops and thereafter entered Constantinople in triumph.  Now emperor, he had never previously seen the city.

Theodosius I, a strict Christian would call a council in 381 to condemn the Arian heresy.  While Constantinople gained in stature, Rome would fall – sacked in 410 and 455 before Odovacer, a Hun, deposed the last Roman emperor in 476.

Monasteries were established, Latin and Greek grammar were taught, along with rhetoric, philosophy and law.  Constantinople was the center of higher learning in the Christian world.  It was believed that only the Chinese surpassed the Greeks in applied arts.  Trade – from Syria, from the Slavs, from Rus, and others – would bring wealth, as evidenced by silk and caviar.

New walls were erected, walls that would serve Constantinople well until 1204.  Arabs, Bulgars, Russians all would fail at attempts to take the city.  In 1204, the Latins did not – aided by guile, treachery and internal weakness.  After 57 years, the Greeks would once again control the city.

Muslims long had designs on the city.  In the thirteenth century, al-Harawi would offer: “May God in his grace and generosity deign to make it the capital of Islam.”  The Ottoman Turks succeeded at this, with the city finally falling to the Muslims in 1453.

Why Greek Orthodoxy?

Why did the adherents of Apollo, Isis, Zoroaster, Mithras, and other established gods accept Christianity?

Death and martyrdom.  The Sermon on the Mount offered the basic instructions of how a Christian should live – and suffer.  The Roman officials found it extraordinary that so many would choose to die for this faith.  The martyrs were convinced that death was not the end.  Long before Constantine, a network of churches was established throughout the empire.  Whole communities would choose to die rather than burn incense in honor of the Roman rulers.

Not something one would consider an effective marketing campaign today.  Then came Constantine.  Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.  Church councils.  The Arian heresy – one that did not go away easily.  Nestorius, who may or may not have believed the heresy that has taken his name.  In 451, Chalcedon, after which the Coptic, the Armenians, and others would split.

Church and State

Theoretically, [the emperor] was limited to choosing one of three candidates [for patriarch] whose names were put forward by the clergy of the cathedral church of Constantinople.

But it didn’t always go this way.  Sometimes a son or favorite monk would get the nod.  Then there were the conflicts.  St. John Chrysostom, elected in 398, was one of the first of such casualties.  He was exiled to Armenia in 404 for denouncing Empress Eudoxia for erecting a statue of herself with pagan pomp and ceremony.  He would die three years later.