01 March 2004

Byzantine Studies, Kilkenny, 2004:
7: Byzantine theology and Church life

The Library of Celsus in Ephesus ... the Council of Ephesus met in 431 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Liberal Studies Group,

Maynooth University Campus

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny,

Monday, 1 March 2004

Byzantine theology and Church life

This morning [1 March 2004] we are looking at Byzantine theology and schisms, icons and spirituality.

First, we look at Byzantine theology and Church life; the Councils of the Church; schisms and heresies; iconoclasm; and the intrigues in the Patriarchates.

Then, later this morning, we look at Icons and Byzantine spirituality.


The creation of a schism:

Orthodoxy has never seen itself as being merely ‘Eastern Orthodox.’ Although present-day Orthodox churches trace their origins back to the four eastern partriarchates, Rome is still seen as the other fifth patriarchate, and the Pope as its patriarch, and still with the right of a primacy of honour, if Rome and the Orthodox world were to be reconciled.

The Orthodox will say that the faith of Orthodoxy is the faith of the church before division, with nothing added, and nothing taken away from their perspective. Dangers: no room for innovation, in terms of development of doctrine, or in the development of tradition (e.g. the ordination of women), and so tradition, which should be living to be tradition, rather than being a matter for antiquarian discourse, is frozen.

They will say that Orthodoxy is not an Eastern Mediterranean faith, no more than the Bible is holy scripture only for those in the Eastern Mediterranean, even though it is a product of that part of the world, and the Scriptures we have received are essentially Greek: the Septuagint Old Testament, and the Greek new Testament.

And yet we cannot understand Orthodoxy without understanding that the Orthodox Church is a Byzantine church. Nor can we understand Byzantium without understanding the place of the Church and Orthodoxy in its life.

The early church was successful in its early missionary work partly because it was working throughout a region that shared a common Graeco-Roman civilisation, in which Latin was the language of administration and Greek the language of the people, of everyday commerce. Our whole New Testament, including the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul and Peter, are written in Greek.

But over the centuries, the coherence of that civilisation began to crumble gradually. The empire, although theoretically one, was often divided into two parts. Constantine furthered the process by moving Rome to Constantinople.

The Barbarian invasions from the 5th century helped hasten the division of Greek East and Latin West. And the once-easy commerce between the two was further strained by both the invasion of the Balkans by the Avars and Slavs, and the conquest of the southern Mediterranean shores by the Arabs in the wake of the rise of Islam.

Old Rome became more distant from the New Rome, during the Iconoclast controversy, and the division of the old empire into two entities was sealed – sealed sacramentally – on Christmas Day 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charles the Great, King of the Franks, as Holy Roman Emperor.

To divide the Empire was to divide the church, and the division deepened culturally in the years that followed: Photius, the greatest scholar in ninth century Constantinople, could not read Latin; in 864, the ‘Roman’ Emperor at Byzantium, Michael III, even called the language in which Virgil wrote ‘a barbarian and Scythian tongue.’ Charlemagne, who appears to have been semi-iconclast in his views, also condemned the Greeks for not using the filioque in the Creed.

In the East, all episcopal sees were seen as sharing in the heritage of the apostles (all the apostles, not just but including Peter), while in the West, Rome was seen as deriving its status from Peter, and it became not only the Petrine see but the Apostolic See, and the only Apostolic see.

While the doctrinal definitions of the seven councils were accepted, albeit reluctantly on occasions, the canonical rulings were often flouted, ignored, or countermanded, and the Bishop of Rome ruled like a monarch, or even like the emperor, rather than as one member of the college, council or synod of bishops.

The Councils of the Church:

[*** Handout on the councils of the Church ***]

Seven Ecumenical Councils:

The Church could be said to come of age with three events: the Edict of Milan, the foundation of the New Rome, and the Council of Nicaea. After the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem, there were seven further Councils of the Church regarded as doctrinally definitive by the Orthodox Church. They clarified the visible organisation of the Church, gave the five Patriarchates their authority, and defined once and for all the Church’s teachings on the fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith – the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Each Council was held in a Byzantine city that was part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate:

1, Nicaea I (325):

The Emperor Constantine presided at Nicaea I. This council condemned Arianism and elaborated the contents of faith, and it gave us the Nicene Creed. Nicaea I also dealt with the visible structures of the Church, recognising three great cities of the Empire – Rome, Alexandria and Antioch – as Patriarchates (Canon VI). A similar status was given out of honour to Jerusalem. However. Constantinople was not mentioned – the New Rome was not established as the new capital until five years later.

2, Constantinople I (381):

The second council met in the new capital in 381. This council expanded the Creed, especially the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which it affirmed to be God even as the Father and the Son are God, and gave full meaning to the classical summary of the Trinitarian doctrine, ‘three persons in one essence.’
After 381, Arianism ceased to be a real force. The council also assigned Constantinople a place among the Patriarchates ‘because it is the New Rome.’ This position was not accepted or recognised by Rome until the Lateran Council (1215) – seven years after the Crusaders had razed Byzantium – and was resented by Alexandria, which had first place in the East and was founded by Saint Mark.

3, Ephesus (431):

The doctrinal problems at Ephesus were not about the Trinity but about the person of Christ. The principal controversialists were Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. The council affirmed the title of Theotokos (God-bearer) for the Virgin Mary, but Nestorius refused to give her the title of ‘Mother of God,’ preferring ‘Mother of Christ.’ (Note, Ephesus is traditionally said to be the Virgin Mary’s home).

4, Chalcedon (451):

Chalcedon was summoned by Emperor Marcian. There the pendulum swung back towards the Antiochene school of theology, and the council rejected the extreme position of Alexandria as ‘Monophysite.’ The council was a defining moment in Orthodoxy: Canon XXVIII confirmed position of Patriarch of Constantinople, with five Patriarchates in the four principle cities of the empire and the city where Christ died. Pope Leo repudiated Canon XXVIII, but the Orthodox would argue you cannot have an a la carte approach to the councils.

5, Constantinople II (553):

This council was convened by the Emperor Justinian II to condemn the Nestorians and conciliate the Monophysites. Its decrees were rejected by the Pope Vigilius, who had refused to attend, until he was pressed into going by the Emperor.

6, Constantinople III (680-681):

Constantinople III in 680-681 condemned Pope Honorious I (d. 638) and anathematised him for holding the Monothelite heresy. At this time, a new threat to Orthodoxy came not from schism or heresy but from the rise of Islam. A key figure at this time was John of Damascus (d. 749), who was in the frontline for Orthodoxy with the rise of Islam and in the dispute over icons.

7, Nicaea II (787):

The last Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, was marked by the ‘Victory of the Icons.’ A new attack on the use of icons and their veneration came in 815, and the final “victory of the holy images” in 843 is commemorated as ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy’ on ‘Orthodox Sunday,’ the first Sunday in Lent.

The emperors and the patriarchs:

The role of the emperors in calling and presiding at the seven Great Councils of the Church underpins the reality that in the Byzantine world it would have been impossible to separate church and state: they were an organic whole. The emperor and his government could not operate without the sanction of the Church, nor could the bishops and the patriarchs serve the church without imperial support.

Eusebius spoke of the emperor as God’s representative on earth, or as a living icon of Christ. Byzantine emperors were allowed to enter the inner sanctuary of the Great Church and to receive the sacrament with the clergy. However, the emperor remained technically a layman, despite calling and presiding over church councils, implementing their decisions, playing a key role in resolving doctrinal disputes, and sanctioning the appointments of patriarchs and bishops.

After Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria fell to the Muslim Arabs, the Patriarch of Constantinople came increasingly to represent the whole church at the court of the Emperor. With Rome claiming an apostolic lineage back to Peter – which was claimed by Antioch too – Alexandria claiming a line that went back to the Evangelist Mark, and Jerusalem claiming an unmatchable source for its foundation, the Patriarchs of Constantinople soon started to claim that their see had been founded by Saint Peter’s brother, Saint Andrew, and began using the title Ecumenical Patriarch.

The title ecumenical is drawn from the Greek word oikumene, meaning the whole inhabited world. On a number of occasions, however, emperors came into conflict with bishops, and patriarchs with emperors.

When the Emperor Leo III introduced iconoclasm as an imperial policy, he was strongly opposed by the Patriarch Germanos I, who felt morally incapable of remaining in office and resigned as Ecumenical Patriarch in 730.

In 795, the Emperor Constantine VI divorced his wife and remarried. The Patriarch Tarasios was widely condemned by his fellow bishops for allowing the emperor to remarry, and there were calls for the excommunication of the priest Joseph who officiated at the wedding.

When iconoclasm was reintroduced by Leo V, the Patriarch Nicophoros was placed under house arrest after Christmas 815, resigned his office, and although an old man was exiled to the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Others too challenged the role of the Emperor in the Church. Saint John of Damascus asked: ‘What right have emperors to style themselves lawgivers in the Church?’

Remarriage (after widowhood, not without divorce) became a controversy again at the end of the 10th century when Leo VI (886-912) caused a major problem with his fourth marriage. His first three wives had died without children or in childbirth, and after he became was a widow for the third time, a mistress gave birth to a future heir, a child who would become Constantine VII.

Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos, accepted the child as heir but refused to forgive the emperor for his behaviour, prohibited Leo VI from entering the Great Church and turned him back from its doors at Christmas and Epiphany 906-907. The emperor retorted by deposing the patriarch, seeking pardon from the Pope in Rome, and secretly marrying his consort. However, when he died in 912, Nicholas was reinstated as Patriarch, thus vindicating his firm stance against the Emperor.

Michael VIII (1259-1282) was excommunicated by the Patriarch Arsenios for usurping the throne, and so Michael deposed and exiled the patriarch. And so, we can say that church and state did not represent one entity in the Eastern Roman Empire – although they often aspired to this as an ideal. Michael VIII then conspired at reunion with Rome, although his efforts came to naught, and were seen not only as a way seeking vengeance on the Patriarch, but on threatening the survival of the culture of Byzantium.

If emperors could depose patriarchs, then patriarchs could also find them themselves being deposed due to conspiracies and intrigues in Byzantium, or because they were being accused of heresy.

John I Chrysostom was one of many saintly patriarchs to be sent into exile in 404; Nestorius was Patriarch of Constantinople when he was deposed in 431, accused of Nestorianism; others, such as Paul III or Tarasios, were installed as Patriarchs even though they were laymen, to satisfy an imperial whim or to settle an old score. Some were mere civic functionaries, others were corrupt, time servers, but there many great saints, some martyrs, and not a few great scholars.

The Great Schism:

The events surrounding the Papal excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054 are often presented in a dramatic form as if this were the moment of open breach between the church of the west and the churches of the east. But we should see the schism as a process rather than one event.

It was a schism marked at first less by theological division than by social, political, economic, linguistic division, and at first it might even have been a schism of temperaments, the divide between Byzantine East and Latin West. Although its fundamental cause, as the Orthodox writer (Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware, says, was not secular but theological, we have to consider the way Byzantine theology, the old theology of the New Rome, shaped the Church in different patterns than Latin theology, the new theology of the Old Rome.

Latin theology became more juridical and legalistic, while the Greeks continued to understand that theology was best expressed through worship and the Holy Liturgy. The two breaking points in the process that led to the Great schism were the Papal claims, and the use of the filioque in the Creed.

The filioque – the word that means ‘and from the Son’ describing the procession of the Holy Spirit – does not appear in the original text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. This clause originated in Spain as a safeguard against Arianism. It received its sanction by the Spanish Church at the Third Council of Toledo, and spread from there to France and Germany, was welcomed by Charlemagne, and was adopted by the semi-iconoclast Council of Frankfort (794).

Charlemagne accused the Greeks of heresy for not using the filioque, yet in 808 Pope Leo III wrote to Charlemagne, saying while he believed the filioque to be doctrinally sound, he considered it a mistake to tamper with the words of the Creed, and had silver plaques inscribed with the Creed (without the filioque) and set up in Saint Peter’s in Rome.

Indeed, Rome continued to use the creed without the filioque until the start of the 11th century. For their part, the Orthodox point out that the Creed was the common possession of the whole church, and change could only be made by an ecumenical council. The west has altered the Creed without consulting the whole church in council, and so is accused of sin against the unity of the church.

Most Orthodox believe the filioque to be theologically and scripturally unsound; there are some who consider it admissible as theological opinion, though not as dogma, provided it is properly expressed, and still see it, nevertheless, as an unauthorised addition or insertion.

There were other points of irritation, even if not of doctrinal division. These included the marriage of clergy; the use leavened or unleavened bread in the Eucharist; the rules on fasting; divorce. The dispute over purgatory only emerged in the 13th century.

A schism unfolds

There were four principal, important events in the unfolding of the schism:

1, The ‘Photian schism’: A quarrel between Patriarch Photius and Pope Nicolas I (Photian schism in the west, the schism of Nicolas in the East). A row over the deposition of one Patriarch, the election of Photius, his subsequent deposition in 867 by the emperor and the restoration of his predecessor, and the eventual restoration of Photius in 877. The row was over the Pope’s claim to rule on who was the rightful patriarch. Although the schism was healed on the surface, the stirrings underneath now ran deeply and were troubling.

2, The Diptychs dispute of 1009: A dispute between Pope Sergius IV and Patriarch Sergius: The Pope’s name not included in the list of those patriarchs regarded as Orthodox and prayed for in Constantinople. The Papacy was making claims to universal jurisdiction, and relations deteriorated further through political events: the Norman invasion and conquest of Byzantine areas of Italy, especially Sicily (‘the Sicilian Vespers’).

3, The Great Schism of 1054: In 1054, Cardinal Humbert and two other Papal legates burst into the Church of Aghia Sophia in the middle of the sacred liturgy, placed a bill of excommunication on the holy table, and, on leaving, the cardinal shook the dust from his feet. A distressed deacon who ran after him begged him to take back the bull; Humbert refused, and it was dropped in the street.

Note: Patriarch Cerularius anathematised Humbert, but not the Pope. Friendly relations could continue.

4, The Crusades: The Crusades made the division definitive. They introduced a new spirit of bitterness and hatred, exacerbated in 1098 when Antioch was captured, in 1099 when Jerusalem was captured, and more particularly in 1204, when Constantinople was captured by the Fourth Crusade and sacked. Rival Latin Patriarchs were installed in these cities, and even remained in Jerusalem after Saladin recaptured the Holy City in 1187.

The Church could struggle at times to see itself as one, and there still could be efforts at reconciliation: in 1106-1107, a Roman pilgrim in Jerusalem noted Greeks and Latins worshipping in harmony at Easter. But the establishment of a Latin Patriarchate in Byzantium, and the division of the city so that Genoese, Venetians and other westerners could each claim their own quarter marked the permanency of the rift.

Three failed efforts at reunion:

Then there were three failed efforts at reunion.

Council of Lyons, 1274: During the reign of Emperor Michael VIII (1259-1282), the Orthodox Church sent delegates to the Council of Lyons, 1274, but the agreement reached there was so disagreeable to the Orthodox that the Emperor’s sister declared: ‘Better that my brother’s Empire should perish than the purity of the Orthodox faith.’

The two churches continued to grow apart: in the West, theology was marked by Scholasticism; in the East, Byzantine theology was shaped by the Hesychast controversy, the mystical tradition, and the emphasis on inner stillness.

Council of Florence, 1438-1439: This council was attended by the Emperor John VIII and the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Florentine Union proposed unanimity in matters of doctrine, and mutual respect for legitimate rites and traditions peculiar to each church.

But the reunion agreed at Florence was no more a reality than the union reached at Lyons, over a century and a half later. Many of the Byzantine clergy who signed the agreement at Florence later claimed they had been put under undue pressure and revoked their signatures when they returned home. One Greek leader, Lukas Notaras, proclaimed: ‘I would rather see the Muslim turban in the midst of the City [Byzantium] than the Latin mitre.’

When Constantinople came under the final, fatal siege, the West did not respond, and the New Rome was captured by the Turks on 29 May 1453. The last liturgy in Aghia Sophia united Orthodox and Latin Christians, supporters and opponents of the Florentine Union.

Dialogue and divisions continue:

Council of Brest-Litovsk, 1596: This council marked a Rome-ward movement of many Orthodox in areas that are now part of Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Romania, and the formation of the Greek Catholic Uniate church. This new church accepted the Council of Florence and retained their Byzantine liturgy, icons, married clergy, &c. But there were sad consequences in the embittered relations between Rome and the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe. Although the Greek Church briefly became open to the influence of Roman theology, but under the Patriarch Cyril Lukaris, who had been one of the delegates, the church also took a dramatic turn away from Rome, taking an interest in Calvinism.

1725: In 1725, a large part of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch submitted to Rome. This too created a new anti-Rome impulse, with the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria in 1755 declaring Latin baptism to be entirely invalid – a ruling now largely ignored and discarded in practice.

There were other efforts at reunion, including those initiated by the Nonjurors, dissenting Anglicans in England and Scotland, in the 18th century. There has even been a mutual recognition of sorts between Anglicans and the Romanian Orthodox Church, and, very briefly, between Anglicans and the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which is a Byzantine church too.

Can there be reunion today?

Among Roman Catholics and Anglicans, I think we have been approaching the prospect of unity with the Orthodox Church from a perspective that is alien to them.
The recent Vatican documents on inter-communion, say the Orthodox cannot be excluded from communion, and that Roman Catholics are free to receive communion in Orthodox Churches.

But that is not the reality from the Orthodox perspective. Anglicans have rejoiced in various statements that appeared to move the Orthodox Churches towards recognising our orders.

But once again, we were approaching the topic from the wrong end. Can we only have unity when there is unity in faith, and then will there be a unity of sacramental life, a unity in diversity, and diversity in unity?

Do we share the same faith?

Is the filioque a barrier?

Are the Papal claims a barrier?

Are our models of episcopate a barrier

Let us take a break before we consider the riches Byzantine icons and spirituality have to offer us today.

Next, 8: icons and Byzantine spirituality.

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