The effect of the Byzantine environment on Christianity

What effects did the Byzantine environment have upon the Christianity which was so closely associated with it? We have seen that the Eastern and Western wings of the Catholic Church tended to drift apart and we have noted some of the differences which were the ostensible causes of the friction between Latin and Greek Christianity. But were there other characteristics, perhaps permeating more deeply the genius of the Eastern wing, which can be attributed to the Greek and Byzantine influence?

We must say at the outset that the Byzantine Church was Catholic, That is to say, it inherited those features of the Catholic Church which had been developed in the first five centuries. Its administrative structure, with its bishops and patriarchs, was that which had arisen in the Roman Empire and in its main outlines it remained much as we have already met it. It accepted the creeds and the doctrine which are associated with the first four ecumenical councils and assented to the findings of the three councils held in the period covered by this chapter. Its liturgy, its sacraments, and its monasticism were a continuation and outgrowth of those of the earlier centuries. Indeed, it thought of itself, as do its successors, the Orthodox Churches of today, as the guardian of true Christianity, the possessor and custodian of the Catholic faith.

Yet this Byzantine Christianity displayed features which were peculiar to it and which must be attributed in part to the milieu in which it inescapably had its existence. These were not in formal dogmas, for those remained substantially unaltered, but were, rather, in practices and in temper.

First of all we must remind ourselves of what we have again and again had occasion to notice, the effect upon the Church of the close relation with the state. Beginning with Constantine, the first formally to accept the Christian faith, the Emperors sought to control the Church and to make it serve the state and society as they had the non-Christian official cults. That tradition was strengthened in the sixth and seventh centuries by Justinian and other strong Emperors, and was what has been termed c^saropapism. The Emperors called church councils and presided at them either in person or by deputies. They issued decrees on ecclesiastical matters. Although technically they had only the right of nomination, they often virtually appointed the Patriarch of Constantinople. No Patriarch could hold office without their consent. Until late in the eighth century elections to the Papacy were confirmed by them. The subordination of Church to state persisted and today is seen in the family of Orthodox Churches.

Yet the Church was not as fully mastered by the state as the pre-Christian official cults had been. From time to time individuals and groups within the Church protested, and by the middle of the tenth century a partial independence had been achieved. At times the Church forced the Emperor to make concessions. We have noted that the monks, who in theory had given themselves fully to the Christian faith, repeatedly refused to conform to the orders of the state. This was seen especially under the iconoclastic Emperors, when they spear-headed the opposition to the government's efforts to remove the images. The Studites, led by their most famous member, Theodore, were particularly uncompromising in the later stages of the struggle. After the controversy had been decided in their favour, they opposed the imperial policy on some other issues. The Patriarch Tarasius rather than the Emperor or one of the latter's representatives from among the civil officials presided over the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in 787. From time to time a Patriarch or some other spokesman for the Church insisted that the Emperor and other high officials must in morals be fully as subject to the discipline of the Church as the humblest Christian, The principle came to be recognized that to be valid the coronation of the Emperor must be by the Patriarch of Constantinople as the ranking bishop in the Eastern wing of the Church. A strong Patriarch might exact promises from a compliant Emperor as a condition for officiating. Thus early in the ninth century the Patriarch obtained from the incoming Emperor a written pledge to preserve the orthodox faith, not to shed the blood of Christians, and not to scourge ecclesiastics.

Theology continued to be a major subject of study and writing. The Patriarch Photius, for example, was deeply learned in that field as in so many others. Yet, as we have seen, the most famous theological work of this period, The Fountain of Knowledge by John of Damascus, had in it little that was new, but owed its fame to its competent and comprehensive summary of views already endorsed by the Catholic Church.

Why this sterility? We do not know. As we have suggested, it may have been because of the fact that the Byzantine realm was prevailingly on the defensive, fighting to preserve its waning remnant of the Roman Empire against encroaching invaders and that this made it conservative, hostile to major change of any kind. This was especially the case after Justinian, and notably so after the beginning of the Arab invasions.

A third characteristic was the emphasis upon the public services and especially upon the liturgy through which the Eucharist was celebrated. They were marked by ornate pomp. Much of this may have been because of the prosperity of Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire centred about that city and was dominated by it. As the metropolis of Europe, living primarily by its commerce, it was wealthy and its upper classes were luxurious. The imperial court was noted for its splendour. To this Justinian had added. It was to be expected that the great church built by him, Saint Sophia, would be rich in mosaics and that ceremonies in it would match those in the imperial court. Since it was the cathedral church of the Patriarch and the leading ecclesiastical structure of the realm, in the other church edifices so far as possible efforts were made to duplicate what was done in it.

From this emphasis upon the formal public worship of the Church may have come the tendency to regard religion as primarily the correct performance of the liturgy. Religion was by no means completely divorced from ethics, nor were morals regarded as purely private. The state was supposed to follow Christian principles and ascetic anchorites gave spiritual and moral counsel, not only to private individuals on matters of faith and conduct, but also to high officials, including Emperors, on policies of state. Yet there was in this Byzantine Christianity less of activism and more of other-worldliness than in its Latin counterpart.

This other-worldliness may also have been seen in the stress on Easter and the resurrection. The Latin wing, while by no means belittling that festival, made more of the crucifixion and the atonement. This may have reflected the tendency in the Greek tradition as it developed in Hellenistic times to emphasize the distinction between matter and spirit, to regard the former as evil and the latter as good, and to think of salvation and immortality as the emancipation of spirit from flesh. Latin Christianity, on the other hand, may have reflected the Roman regard for law and administration, with the desire to real ize an ideal society here and now and the conviction that conformity to good morals is one of the essential features of such a society.

A fourth characteristic of Byzantine religion, and especially of Byzantine monasticism, seemingly related to this last, was the trend towards ascetic withdrawal from the world, with mysticism and contemplation. This can easily be exaggerated. The same characteristic was to be found in the Christianity of the West. Yet as the centuries passed, the activist clement in Latin monasticism became increasingly prominent and the contemplative, non-resisting, non-activist, mystical strain in Byzantine monasticism and especially in its most numerous offspring, Russian monks and monasteries, became more marked. It is significant that for centuries the most widely used writings on mysticism in Christian circles were those ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite and that they were written in the East and were profoundly shaped by Neoplatonism.

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