23 November 2012

Church History 6.2: The arrival of Islam and the triumph of Rome

The Emperor Constantine in a mosaic in the great basilica of Aghia Sophia

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Church History Elective (TH 7864)

Friday 23 November 2012, 10.15 a.m.:

Church History 6.2:

The arrival of Islam and the triumph of Rome


This morning, we have been looking at the development of doctrine, the creeds and the canon of Scripture, the problems that the Early Church faced with first articulation of heresies, and how this agenda came together at the first four great or ecumenical councils of the Church.

Doctrine was affirmed, heresy was combated, and unity was expressed in the pronouncements of the councils and the formulations of the Creeds.

But it must be striking for you that the locus for all these activities is the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria, the Syrian and Egyptian deserts, and the great commercial and cultural centres of western Anatolia, such as Ephesus and Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from Byzantium.

An icon of the Council of Nicaea, with the Emperor Constantine and the bishops holding a scroll with the words of the Nicene Creed

When Constantine moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330, the centre of Christianity moved from the Old Rome to the New Rome, and the Eastern rim of the Mediterranean basin became the centre of Christian intellectual activity and debate as the western empire was crumbling and collapsing.

A mosaic of Saint John Chrysostom in the Aghia Sophia in Constantinople

But divisions began to afflict the Eastern Church too, as illustrated by the story of the fate of Saint John Chrysostom.

Saint John Chrysostom (Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος, “John the Golden-Mouthed” (ca 347–407), Patriarch of Constantinople, is known for his eloquent preaching and his denunciation of the abuse of power and privilege. He has given his name to the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and the “Prayer of Saint Chrysostom” in The Book of Common Prayer.

He was a monk and a priest in Antioch when he was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 397. He quickly became unpopular with the ruling class, the wealthy citizens and the clergy of Constantinople, and his reforms proved unpopular.

At a synod in 403, he was deposed and banished. But on the night of his arrest an earthquake hit the city, and the Empress Eudoxia saw this as a sign of God’s anger, and John was reinstated.

But this peace was short-lived, and John compared Eudoxia with Herodias, who “desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” This time, John was banished to the Caucasus in Armenia. In exile, he appealed for support to three Church leaders in the West, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, the Bishop of Milan and the Bishop of Aquileia, as the champions of an ecclesiastical discipline he was unable to enforce or establish.

Pope Innocent sent a delegation to intercede on John’s behalf, but the three bishops he sent were not allowed to enter Constantinople, and John was exiled to furthest eastern end of the Black Sea. On the gruelling journey there he died in Comana in Cappadocia on 14 September 407.

After his death, relations between Rome and Constantinople were broken off, and were not restored for 11 years. Eventually, his relics were returned to Constantinople in the year 438. But his deposition, his appeal to Rome, the treatment of the Roman delegation by Byzantium, and the breach in communion for over a decade would set the agenda and paved the way for further divisions between the Church of the East and the Church of the West.

Two long-lasting divisions

The pyramids at sunset ... much of the intellectual impetus for the great debates came from the monks of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, two further divisions beset the Church in the East – the heresies labelled as Nestorianism and Monophystitism.

Monophysitism was born in the theological School of Alexandria, which began its Christological analysis with the divine eternal Son or Word of God and sought to explain how this eternal Word had become incarnate as a man. In contrast, the School of Antioch, the birthplace of Nestorianism, began with the human Jesus of the Gospels and sought to explain how this man is united with the eternal Word in the Incarnation.

Both sides agreed, of course, that Christ is both human and divine. But the School of Alexandria emphasised the Divinity of Christ, including the concept that the divine nature was itself “impassible” or immune to suffering. On the other hand, the Antiochines emphasised humanity of Christ, including the limited knowledge and growth in wisdom of the Christ of the Gospels.

In reality, individual Monophysite and Nestorian theologians rarely believed the extreme views attributed to them by their opponents, even if some of their followers may have.

Nestorius and Nestorians

Saint Mary’s Basilica … the Double Church where the Council of Ephesus met and Nestorius was condemned met in 431 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nestorius (Νεστόριος, ca 386–ca 451) was the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to August 431. His teachings included a rejection of the long-used title of Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) for the Virgin Mary, and were understood by many to imply that he did not believe that Christ was truly God.

However, Nestorius actually was concerned that the use of the term Θεοτόκος ran the risk of venerating the Virgin Mary as a goddess. His position soon brought Nestorius into conflict with other prominent church leaders and theologians of the time.

Saint Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, accused Nestorius of heresy. Nestorius sought to defend himself at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 – a year before Saint Patrick is traditionally said to have landed in Ireland to begin his mission. But a majority of the bishops at the council formally condemned Nestorius for heresy. Later that year, the Emperor Theodosius II, who had initially supported Nestorius, confirmed the condemnation and he was removed from his see.

On his own request, Nestorius retired to his former monastery near Antioch. In 435 Theodosius II sent him into exile in Upper Egypt, where he lived until 450 or 451, strenuously defending his orthodoxy. He was anathematised in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

A copy of the Nestorian stele in the Mien Church in Shanghai ... the followers of Nestorius had brought Christianity to China within two centuries of his death (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Assyrian or Chaldean Church, which also calls itself the Church of the East, never accepted his condemnation. At the time, this Church in eastern Mesopotamia and Persia was under Sassanian rule, and was subsequently treated by other churches, East and West, as the “Nestorian Church,” although it was not founded by him and never regarded him as an authoritative teacher.

It is now generally agreed that Nestorius and his ideas were not as far from those that eventually emerged as orthodox. But the orthodoxy of his formulation of the doctrine of Christ remains controversial, and the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 confirmed the validity of the condemnation of Nestorius.

By the early seventh century, we know, Nestorian missionaries were firmly established in China under the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The so-called “Nestorian stele” records a mission under Alopen, a Persian Christian, who introduced Nestorian Christianity to China in 635.

Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in 644, the Persian Church became a protected faith community under the Caliphate. The church and its communities flourished under the Caliphate, and by the 10th century this church had 15 metropolitan sees within the territories of the Caliphs, and another five beyond, including in China and India.

Monophysites and Monophysitism

The interior of Aghia Sophia ... with the end of the great doctrinal and creedal debates, Aghia Sophia remain the largest church in Christendom for centuries

The Monophysite concepts developed in reaction to Nestorianism. This new teaching asserted that Christ had but one nature, his human nature being absorbed into his divinity. This doctrine was condemned in 451 at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, he Council of Chalcedon.

The Chalcedonian decrees were accepted by the Patriarchal Sees of Rome, Constantinople and Antioch, but were resisted strongly in Alexandria and in the Egyptian monasteries. This led eventually to the schism between the Chalcedonian churches and the Oriental Orthodox churches.

Monophysitism was later attributed mistakenly to the non-Chalcedonian churches, including the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Egyptian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches (Copts), and many of the Syrian Orthodox Churches in the Middle East and India, although today it is condemned as heresy in the modern Oriental Orthodox churches.

Later, monothelitism – the belief that Christ was two natures in one person except that he only had a divine will and no human will – was developed as an attempt to bridge the gap between the Chalcedonian position and the Monophysite. However, it too was rejected by the members of the Chalcedonian synod, despite at times having the support of Byzantine emperors and once avoiding being condemned by the Pope of the day, Honorius I.

Orthodoxy was now triumphant in Byzantium, and that triumph was symbolised by Aghia Sophia (Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας or more simply Ἁγία Σοφία), the great Church of Holy Wisdom, built by Justinian in Constantinople in 537. Justinian built other great churches, including those in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai and in Ravenna in Italy. Aghia Sophia would remain the largest cathedral in the Christian world for almost 1,000 years.

The rise of Islam

A map showing the rise of Islam on the borders of the Byzantine and Persian empires

But the greatest threat to the East at the time was posed not by internal divisions, not by the rival claims of Rome and the Church in West, but by the Rise of Islam.

It is one of those strange coincidences or convergences in history that the fertile crescent of the Middle East is the birth place of great ancient kingdoms such as Babylon, Jerusalem and Persia, and of three of the great surviving monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Just five centuries after the start of Christianity, Muhammad was born ca 570, little more than a generation after the completion of Aghia Sophia, and Islam would rise as a religious, political and social force in the Middle East.

Muhammad was a member of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca in the Arabian peninsula, Around the years 610-613, he claimed to have received revelations from God through the Angel Gabriel, that he was a prophet in the same line of prophets as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and calling him to preach the religious message of Islam.

At first, he shared his ideas with a close circle of family members, neighbours and friends. After three years, however, he found the courage to proclaim this faith publicly and gained a growing number of followers. But his monotheistic message was not well received in Mecca, a centre of polytheistic worship that profited from pagan pilgrims to the Kaaba. The early Muslim converts faced persecution, and Muhammad and his followers were forced to leave Mecca and flee to Medina in the hejira in the year 622.

From his new base in Medina, Muhammad sent his followers out to raid the merchant caravans of the pagan Arabs. In the year 624, the Muslims attacked and defeated a heavily guarded merchant caravan and took many captives. This Battle of Badr is the first major battle in the Muslim conquest of Arabia.

Over the next few years, he expanded his territorial control over the area to the north of Medina and waged war with a number of both pagan and Jewish Arab tribes. But, as his power and influence grew, relations with the three Jewish tribes of Medina began to deteriorate.

In 630, Muhammad conquered Mecca and over the next two years he sent his armies throughout western Arabia to conquer the remaining tribes. He demolished the temples of his defeated enemies and refused to accept their surrender until they agreed to convert to his religion.

After the death of Muhammad in 632, the Muslims were led by a series of Caliphs who had been his closest companions. They continued his aggressive territorial expansion, first in the Arabian peninsula and then attacking the two major powers in the region, the Byzantine Empire of the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Sassanid Empire of Persia. Both empires had been in a state of almost continuous war with each other for an entire century. Each was now were in a weak state and unable to mount an effective resistance.

In the year 638, Jerusalem was captured by the Muslims. During the Caliphate of Umar, Muslim armies conquered almost the entire Middle East, including the Levant, Egypt, and much of Persia. The rest of Persia was conquered under the reigns of the two subsequent Caliphs, Uttman and Ali. Islam spread quickly to northern Africa and east as far as India, which Muslims interpret as a sign of their favour in the eyes of God.

Yet many historians point out that none of these first Caliphs ever mention Muhammad’s name or refer to Islam on any of their inscriptions or coins. This has led scholars to suggest that the first Caliphs were not nearly as pious as later Islamic historians made them out to be, and some even suggest that much of Islamic belief may have been constructed in later periods.

During the Umayyad Caliphate, from the year 661, the pace of conquests began to slow down. When the Muslim armies reached the Maghreb or north-west Africa, they met stiff resistance from both Byzantine and Berber forces.

But once all of North Africa had come under the rule of the Caliphate, the Muslim forces quickly crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and invaded Europe. The Visigoths of Spain were defeated within a few years. Islam reached as far west as the Iberian Peninsula and pressed north, almost reaching Paris before Charles Martel checked its advance and defeated the Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours in 732.

Should we regard this as the battle that saved Europe for Christianity? Certainly, the expansion of Islam was astonishing in its days. In just 100 years, Islam had conquered all of Arabia and then expanded, conquering vast territories as far west as Spain and as far east as Afghanistan.

The village mosque in Sirinçe, is now the only public place of worship in the former Greek-speaking village in Anatolia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Islamic Caliphate was now the largest empire the world had yet known, controlling some of the most important centres of civilisation. Of the five Christian Patriarchates, three had fallen under Islamic rule – Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch. Indeed, there is evidence that in some places, including Alexandria in Egypt and Damascus in Syria, that Christians who had been living under oppressive rule welcomed the Muslim conquerors.

Only Rome and Constantinople remained in Christian hands. From this point on, much of Mediterranean history would be marked by the struggles between Christianity and Islam, with Christianity dominating the northern shores of the Mediterranean and Islam the southern shores. The battlegrounds would be Spain, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and the islands caught in the middle.

Meanwhile, way out West

The Coliseum in Rome ... it took centuries for Rome to reclaim its privileges and authority (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In all these debates, Rome seemed to be little more than a provincial backwater, and it took centuries for the “Eternal City” to claim or reclaim its authority and its claims to primacy.

When Constantine moved his capital to Constantinople, the empire was divided into east and west, and while many parts of what we know today as Italy – including Ravenna, southern Italy and Sicily – remained within the Greek sphere of influence, the western Empire was vulnerable and was under assault.

Saint Jerome had translated the Bible in his Latin Vulgate version in the year 404. But only six years later, in 410, Rome was sacked by Alaric and the Goths, sending shockwaves throughout the civilised world. It is seldom remembered that Alaric was an Arian, and that he left the great churches of Rome untouched. Pelagianism rather than Arianism appeared to be the heresy that posed the greatest threat in Rome until Pelagius moved to North Africa and there he clashed with Augustine of Hippo.

Nevertheless, the old order seemed to be crumbling and Christianity appeared to be under siege, inspiring Augustine to write his City of God ca 413-427. Leo the Great, who became Pope in 440, was the first Bishop of Rome to assume the title of Pontifex Maximus, a title previously used only by the emperors.

Leo’s meeting with Attila the Hun (Raphael, 1531)

But Leo was not present at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and a year later, in 452, Attila the Hun and his forces arrived in Italy. At an encounter in Mantua, Leo persuaded Attila and his forces to turn back from Rome, but the Vandals captured Rome in 455, and spent a fortnight looting and sacking the city.

Less than two decades later, in 476, the German warrior Odoacer became the first barbarian King of Rome. The links between the Old Rome and the New Rome were now merely nominal and not always respected.

The Baptism of Clovis in Rheims Cathedral

When the Frankish king Clovis sought to be baptised in Rheims Cathedral ca 500, he consciously modelled himself on the Emperor Constantine almost two centuries earlier.

Saint Gregory the Great ... his papacy marks the recovery of the Latin Church

But the recovery of the Latin Church only truly begins with the Papacy of Gregory I, Saint Gregory the Great, who was Pope from 590 until his death in 604. Gregory is respected for his prolific writings, and for his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman liturgy of his day.

He was the first of the popes to come from a monastic background, and he is revered by Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Anglicans and Lutherans. Even Calvin admired Gregory the Great, and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope.

Gregory is credited with re-energising the Church’s missionary work in northern Europe. In 596, he sent Augustine on a mission to England, and he is counted as the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in Rome on Christmas Day 800

Rome was beginning its recovery and would eventually triumph. With the defeat of the Muslims at Tours by Charles Martel in 732, the ground was prepared for the reunion of the Frankish kingdoms. The link between the reunified Frankish kingdoms and the Papacy was consolidated when Charles the Great, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day 800.

Although the Vikings were still plundering the monasteries of northern Europe, the Moors were ensconced in Spain and Jerusalem, and the Byzantine Empire was holding out in the East, the Vikings and the Slavs were learning to write, and Christian kingdoms were emerging throughout northern and western Europe. Western Christianity appeared to have triumphed in the face of adversity and the next four centuries, between 800 and 1200, saw a new relationship between Church and State.

The monastic houses were providing renewal and learning, and Anselm was asking his great questions about God, Faith and Understanding.

But the divisions already created between Greek East and Latin West continued to simmer.

The debate on the filioque clause reached its climax in Aghia Sophia when Cardinal Humbert excommunicated Patriarch Michael Keroularios

In a defence against the Arianism of the Visigoths in Spain, the filioque clause had been inserted in the Latin version of the Nicene Creed used in the West. By 800, it was being used in the chapels of Charlemagne. At first its use was opposed by the Popes, and East and West agreed in Constantinople in 879 that all additions to the Creed were prohibited. But it was soon accepted quiescently; and finally it was accepted without any conciliar approval and against the wishes of the Church in the East, to the point that delegates from Rome to Constantinople even accused the Greeks of removing the filioque from the Creed.

The Church in East had already been weakened externally by the assaults from its Muslim neighbours and internally by the frictions created by the iconoclast controversy.

The debate about the filioque was a result of rather than the cause of the divisions between East and West. On16 July 1054, the Papal Legate, Cardinal Humbert, stormed into Aghia Sophia with his retinue, interrupted the Divine Liturgy, marched up to the high altar, and laid down a Bull of Excommunication against Patriarch Michael Keroularios. The Patriarch responded in kind, and the schism, exacerbated by the Crusades, has continued to divide the Church ever since.



External and internal priorities: the Crusades and the Monasteries

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 23 November 2012 was part of the Church History Elective (TH 7864) on the MTh course, Year I.

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