Church History for Orthodox | 4


1. Icon-Smashers.

The 8th century was one of general doctrinal stability and harmony in the Western churches, but one of great turmoil for the Eastern churches.

A succession of Byzantine Emperors called the iconoclasts or “icon-smashers ” condemned the general Christian practice of venerating images ("icons ”) of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints, and raised a bloody persecution against those who would not surrender their images for destruction.

The iconoclasts quoted Scripture itself — had not God forbidden His people to adore graven images? The icon-venerators, mostly pious women and monks, persevered in the face of torture and death.

2. The Seventh Ecumenical Council — 787 A.D.

Finally, in 787 A.D ., a General Council was convened at Nicaea by Empress Irene . This was the Seventh and Last Ecumenical Council of the Church (Nicaea II ).

The Holy Fathers declared that the veneration of icons is not only possible but integral to the Christian faith .

They saw the whole conflict as Christological — that is, they took the objection that God cannot be depicted as a denial that God truly took flesh:

No man can see the invisible God.

In Jesus Christ , however, the Invisible has willed to be made visible , as Christ told Philip at the Last Supper, “Philip, he that sees Me, sees My Father also.”

The Fathers carefully defined , however, that we dare not worship the icons themselves — they are but wood and paint — but rather, through them, we honour the prototype, what they were made to represent.

We do not honour our country's flag, for example, because we wish to worship cotton, but because of what the flag stands for.

The Council also proclaimed that icons are “the Gospel in paint ,” and are necessary for the biblical instruction of those who cannot read.

3. The icon-smashers return.

Despite the stance taken at Nicaea, the battle over icons raged on:

In 792 , Charlemagne sent books to the Pope condemning the veneration of icons in the Nicene sense. They likewise excoriated the East for “dropping(!) filioque from the Creed.

Charlemagne's plan was to de-legitimize the Eastern Roman Empire in order to build his own new Roman Empire. His political plans were successful, but his assault on our Creed and the holy icons was not:

Alarmed by his theological pretensions, Pope St. Leo III , the same man who had crowned him eight years previously, had the original Creed (without filioque ), engraved on plates of gold and silver, in Greek and Latin , and affixed to the left and to the right of St. Peter's tomb.

In 802 Empress Irene died and a fierce iconoclast captured the Byzantine throne.

It was not until 843 that the icons were permanently restored in the East, this time by another Empress — St. Theodora :

As the wife of the iconoclastic Emperor, she had managed to keep her icons by calling them her “dolls .” Upon his death, she ascended the throne and renewed Constantinople's allegiance to the Seventh Council.

For all its wavering during the Patristic era, Constantinople proved to be as staunchly Orthodox after the Seventh Council as Rome had been before it.

4. East and West drift apart.

Very early on, the Eastern and Western halves of the Church began to drift apart:

The Greek language prevailed in the East; Latin prevailed in the West.
The Byzantine liturgy predominated in the East; the Roman liturgy in the West.
The Easterners tended to a mystical outlook; the Westerners to practicality.

When considering God, the Latins started with the Unity and moved on to the Trinity;
the Greeks began with the Trinity and then passed to the Unity.

When considering the Crucifixion,
the Latins stressed Christ as Sacrifice, the Greeks Christ as Victor.

Westerners spoke more of redemption, Easterners more of deification, and so on. It was easy for misunderstandings to arise and difficult to dispel them.

Still, the unity of the Church was preserved and indeed prevented the individual emphasis of any one area of the Church from upsetting the balance of Christian thought as a whole.

Unity in diversity was the ideal, though in practice Eastern and Western believers were relating to each other, more and more often, as strangers.

5. Power plays.

We know that in the West the Popes of Rome began as early as the 5th century to play a role more monarchical and unilateral than that of their Eastern colleagues:

Ever since the faithful had been granted freedom by the government of the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome , the capital city, had been awarded a primacy of honour by the other Bishops of the world.

Disputes between Bishops were referred to the area's Metropolitan (Bishop of a major city), and disputes between Metropolitans and other thorny cases were brought before the Pope of Rome , though even his decisions were not considered absolutely binding.

In fact, because of Rome's consistent Orthodoxy, even religious disputes were referred there. Of course, the absence of political stability in Italy forced its Popes to be benevolent rulers of a para-secular sort:

Many Popes handled this necessity admirably, but others, heedless of St. Jerome's dictum Let the lust for Roman power cease , escalated a relentless campaign to increase the scope of their authority.

By the year 850 , the Pope could act not only as an elder brother, but, in the West at least, as a master. This was, of course, precisely the complaint Pope St. Gregory, 250 years before, had hurled at Patriarch John.

6. Church unity is interrupted.

In 858 , 15 years after Theodora restored the icons, the seething question over Papal prerogative boiled over:

In that year St. Ignatius , Patriarch of Constantinople , was replaced as patriarch by the brilliant St. Photius the Great . Pope Nicholas I saw an opportunity to increase his influence:

He claimed that St. Ignatius , who was in fact Photius' friend, had been unjustly ousted, called Photius an impostor, and sent three representatives to New Rome to try Photios' “case .”

St. Photius received the delegates with honour and invited them to preside over a hearing, at which they tried his case. The result was that they endorsed his legitimacy without reservations.

When they returned to Rome,
Nicholas balked at their decision and held his own hearing, deposing Photius.

No one in the East paid any attention to his sentence, and there was an open breach in Rome's communion with Constantinople as long as Nicholas was pope.

7. Crossed Creeds.

East-West conflict acquired a theological dimension when German missionaries (who added filioque to the Creed ) and Greek missionaries (who did not) were both evangelizing newly-Christian Bulgaria , at Constantinople's back door:

Rome itself did not use the filioque, but Pope Nicholas fully supported the Germans in promulgating it. Bulgaria See sawed between the Old Rome and the New.

St. Photius wrote a learned work on the filioque , showing that it is not a doctrine of the Holy Fathers of the Church.

The dispute was not resolved, however, since no theological terms with which to discuss it had been settled upon. Bulgaria opted for the East, and Nicholas' successor, John VIII , restored communion with Constantinople.

This was far from a happy ending, however; neither of the sticking points, Papal mastery and the filioque, were substantively addressed;

they were merely patched over, while the shadow cast by West-East estrangement lengthened and deepened.

8. Worship.

Because the very name Orthodoxy shows that the Church’s beliefs are inseparably intertwined with her rites of worship (doxa implies both right belief and right worship ), a word of explanation must be given about how we adore God.

The living Body of Christ , the Holy Church , grew and developed as a human body does. In the infancy of the Church, only the people of Judea made up this body.

Growing, and guided at all times by the Holy Spirit, the Church gained an experience and wisdom which the Fathers enshrined in their writings and in the holy canons , to be passed to future generations.

In her liturgical life , too, the Church matured, perfecting a liturgy which brought together the very best of Scripture, the Sacraments bequeathed by the Apostles, religious poetry, and sacred art and music — to offer the soul and body, the complete man, everything that can be offered at a service.

Just as Christ was perfectly omniscient as a child, though possessing the tiny body of a child,

so also the nascent Church was fully aware of the Faith and in full intimacy with the Holy Spirit , though its liturgy was somewhat unformed and the liturgical arts had not been fully developed.

Also like Christ, the life of the Church, when finished on earth, will resume in eternity in Heaven. Imperfect here, she shall be “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing ” in the coming Kingdom. (Eph. 5:27).

It is in the Church’s worship that we both prepare ourselves for and joyfully anticipate that heavenly feast, and it is in the Church’s worship that we find the true centre and heart of the Church — not any one leader or organizational structure.

9. Liturgical diversity — pros and cons.

We saw already how great adaptations were made in Christian worship in the 200 years after the Apostles taught us the basics.

By the 10th century, a very definite rite of worship had been established throughout Christendom;

by no means, however, was it uniform from place to place — rather, distinct traditions were preserved in different regions, and in these wide areas there were local ritual variances.

In the East, the predominant rite was the Byzantine , but other Eastern Rites were also widespread. There was the Liturgy of St. Mark in Egypt, the Liturgy of St. James in Syria, and others.

By 1200 A.D. , due to imperial pressure, the Byzantine Rite had largely replaced the other Eastern Rites within the Empire:

This forcible standardization of worship was hailed in the capital as a stroke of civilizing genius, but it was catastrophic for the Church of Christ,

for its end result was to disaffect the native Christians of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Syria from the “Foreign ” Church and to rally them around “their ” church, around the Monophysite leaders who preserved the ancient rites of their peoples.

In the West, the Liturgy of St. Gregory , the Roman Rite , was also exported with a heavy hand:

Charlemagne ordered it to displace the native Gallican Rite in his dominions, and about 1060 A.D. it was forced by the Pope upon the Christians of Spain, who had used their own Mozarabic or Visigothic Rite .

In the West, as in the East, the new fashion of liturgical standardization bore bitter fruit;

eventually the identity of the various national Churches of the West was so seriously weakened that they lost their ability to act apart from Rome.

The weight given to liturgical matters in Christian history, and in Orthodoxy today, must appear extreme to anyone raised in today’s secular culture.

It does tell us one thing, however: the faith of the Christians in these early centuries found powerful expression both in their daily lives and in the keystone of daily life, the liturgy .

Theirs was not a faith confined to the margins of life, but a faith prayed and sung and experienced every day.

The symbols of the liturgy were closely identified with the doctrines they expressed, so closely that if a ceremony or prayer especially significant in one rite was noticed missing or sharply varying in another rite, the orthodoxy of those who held that rite might be called into question.

This dynamic must be borne in mind as we examine the vicissitudes of Church history.