From the time of Emperor Nero (54-68), there was conflict between the allegiance of Christians to the one God and the allegiance demanded of them by the state: it was a major reason for systematic persecution of Christians in the first few centuries of the Common Era. Whilst Christians might see their 'abiding city' as heaven, they lived in an increasingly complex world on earth, and the tensions between these two were acted out by those with any power, be it secular or sacred. The mimicking of Roman imperial structures by the Ecumenical Councils noted above is a classic example of the conflation of secular and sacred. A state could easily see its citizens' loyalty to God as subversive of the civilization it supported. One solution was the absorption of two roles into one person, as achieved by the Emperor Constantine, whose expedient 'conversion' to Christianity enabled him to declare 'I have been established by God as the supervisor of the external affairs of the Church'.
Although seen by some as a coup for Christianity, Constantine's conversion also demonstrates the first Byzantine example of caesaropapism, defined by Alexander Kazhdan as 'the allegedly unlimited power of the Byzantine emperor over the Church, including the unilateral intervention in doctrinal questions ordinarily reserved to ecclesiastical authorities'. An element of reciprocity existed, however, between the two: the contemporary Lactantius (250-320) saw Christianity as the sole defender of Roman civilization. This dynamic between emperor and patriarch was neither simple nor quite as biased towards the subordination of the sacred to the imperial cult as might appear. There are instances of the emperor becoming extremely involved in church politics and doctrine: arguably the height of caesaropapism is expressed by the roles of Empresses Irene and Theodora in their intervention in defence of the holy icons during the eighth and ninth centuries. But there were also challenges to imperial authority from the church establishment: between the fourth and ninth centuries, no fewer than twelve emperors defended positions that were later declared to be heretical. Between 906 and 920, the Church as represented by Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos and Leo VI (r. 886912) clashed violently over the affair of the tetragamy, the emperor's controversial fourth marriage. As often in the Byzantine context, this articulates as much political as doctrinal difference: modern scholars suggest that the issue was less to do with the imperial marriage and more to do with the fact that Leo had replaced Patriarch Nicholas with Euthymius whose decisions about ordinations were then called into question.
From the time of the first Ecumenical Councils, the emperor's duty and liability to defend orthodox teaching - whether from a deeply informed theological standpoint or through the advice of his clerics - makes him a key player in the fortunes of the Church, and must surely have involved a measure of respectful understanding of the peculiar role and character of priesthood. In the fourth and fifth centuries, this dynamic between divine and human kingship was expressed through the concept of symphonia, an extension of the Hebraic concept that God's chosen people were in a covenantal relationship with the Almighty. Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395) explains it thus in one of his orations:
if the Emperor followed the will of God and the people preserved faith, then God would bless the affairs of the earthly dominion with his protection and favour. A symphonia of earth and heaven would result, especially seen in the protection of the Christian imperium from its enemies.
Such a concept enabled emperors such as Constantine to attribute military success to divine approbation; mention is made below in the discussion of iconoclasm of similar instances.
Whilst emperors did sometimes dominate the 'external' matters of the Church, such as its finances, and appointment of senior clergy, they were not usually so involved with its internal affairs. There were specific roles for the emperor to play within liturgical worship, but the main challenge to the patriarch's authority was often not from the emperor but from monks, whose machinations during some of the Ecumenical Councils reflected the influence they also held over the emperor. The charismatic authority of monks, whose rapid spread is demonstrated by the number of monasteries in Constantinople, formed effectively a third power base to add to that of imperium and sacerdotum. The role of monks in defending the veneration of holy icons was merely the start of their influence on affairs of state. Rivalry within the Byzantine Church caused much squabbling about the validity of ordinations (as noted above) and about the problems of being in communion with certain clergy colleagues as a result. The ordination question came to a head in the case of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople during 858-67 and again in 877-86. He was a controversial figure because of his prior calling as a politician and the fact that he was installed as patriarch whilst still a layman. His unstable relationships with emperors epitomize the fickleness of state favour in the Byzantine period.
Influential monks included Theodore of Studios (759-826), whose devotional advice shaped monastic thought and practices far beyond the Monastery of Studios itself; he also played a significant role in the Moechian controversy (the remarriage of Constantine VI). From the tenth century, Athanasios (c.920-1003) of Mount Athos provided further weight for the importance of contemplation in the life of the Byzantine Christian. The articulation of the charismatic power of the monks as effectively a third source of authority alongside that of patriarch and emperor was highlighted by Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), whose supposed cult of his spiritual father, Eulabes, at the turn of the eleventh century, was ostensibly supported by Patriarch Nicholas Chrysoberges. He sent incense and candles to support the veneration of the elder Eulabes, a Studite monk who had died around 986; this prompted Symeon, his disciple, to compose a kontakion (hymn). His practice of sending incense and candles continued for sixteen years but during this period Symeon fell foul of the church court and was ultimately exiled by the Holy Synod for his part in a conflict with Stephen, one time Metropolitan of Nicomedia, on the matter of the imperative that a priest only teach from direct experience of God. A previous patriarch, Sisinnios, had supported Symeon when a number of his monks rebelled against him, so clearly the charismatic stance adopted by Symeon at times served the Church and at times was seen to threaten it. The emperor of the time, Basil II (976-1025), had an ambivalent relationship with the Church; on the one hand he invoked almighty power in the manner of Constantine at Milvian Bridge; on the other, he introduced heavy taxes against large landowners, of which the Church was a prime example. Basil's equivocal attitude towards the Church is a classic example of the complexity of this aspect of Byzantine Christianity.
One aspect of church organization which demonstrated relative independence from the imperial structures was that of canon law. Modern scholarship has sought to categorize canon law according to content or period; the actuality is that 'laws' to do with church organization and administration, ethical and judicial matters affecting both the lay and religious world, grew up in a sprawling mass of documentation. Much of it inevitably involved the secular administration of the Byzantine world, but since the beginnings of canon law were in the 85 Apostolic Canons, the theological ownership of canon law was clearly established. The apostolic canons were enlarged and amended by the canons of both ecumenical and local councils (fourth to late ninth century), some of which, as mentioned elsewhere in this study, concerned themselves with non-religious governmental matters. For example, fifth-century anathemas against Arians and other heretics were similar to subsequent decrees against Jews, Muslims and other non-Christian members of the Byzantine state. Canon laws about marriage were of particular sensitivity when invoked with regard to imperial marriages (such as that of Leo VI, and Theodore of Studios' rejection of Constantine VI's remarriage).
Under three emperors, Constantine I in the fourth century, Justinian I in the sixth century and Leo VI in the tenth century, matters of church law were not so completely autonomous. Justinian's Codex and Novellae were hugely significant in shaping and collating legal practices that affected both Church and state. Cooperation between the two was articulated by the codifying work of Patriarch John III Scholasticus (565-77), who had been a lawyer in his secular life.
The conciliar phase of canon law was followed by one in which particular patriarchs dominated the field, between the late ninth and eleventh centuries. Photius supervised the Nomocanon in Fourteen Titles, in which the canons were arranged according to content; this grew out of the 879-80 Council in Constantinople (sometimes called the 'Eighth Ecumenical', being the last to issue canons which were recognized by both East and West). The final phase of canon law was shaped by a number of canonists; in the twelfth century, Alexius Aristenos, John Zonaras, and Theodore Balsamon, were particularly influential. Zonaras imposed a system on existing canons according to his sense of their relative importance; his idiosyncratic approach attributed more authority to apostolic and ecumenical than to conciliar or local canons. Aristenos focused on the context of canons, and Balsamon was commissioned by patriarch and emperor to impose some coherence between imperial and ecclesiastical laws. In the fourteenth century, further commentaries on canon law were undertaken by Matthew Blastares and Constantine Harmenopolous, among others.
Was this article helpful?