Church History for Orthodox | 6


1. The High Middle Ages.

During the 12th century, the Greek Church struggled to hold its own against the geographic expansion of the Islamic religion.

Already, the Byzantine Empire was much reduced in size and influence, largely because its borders continued to be absorbed into the Muslim sphere.

But as Greek Christendom shrank, the Church gained new wings in the conversion of the Slavic peoples:

The 12th century , for example, was a Golden Age of Christianity in Kievan Rus (now Russia and the Ukraine). The characteristics of this Golden Age are worth noting:

a deep faith among the people, tireless efforts by the hierarchy of the Church to eradicate old pagan ways, missionary fervour, a healthy monastic presence with a charitable rather than legalistic bent, and the penetration of Orthodoxy into every area of the people’s lives.

A fire at Kiev in 1124 destroyed 600 churches — which is some indication of the attention paid to Divine worship by the inhabitants of that city.

In the same century, the Serbian Christians , another Slav people, formed a strong Orthodox nation under the leadership of St. Sava .

2. Western developments.

Meanwhile, in the now-heterodox West, the Papacy was amassing its power with daring and calculation:

The Popes acquired the right to appoint and depose kings and emperors, and applied to themselves the sole authority to enrol saints in the calendar of the new Roman Catholic Church.

Rapid changes were sweeping through the West, changes which have prompted one historian to comment that an early Christian would have felt at home in the Western Church of the 11th century, but out of place in that of the 12th century.

A new emphasis was being placed on emotions in the spiritual life, a trend which only gathered steam throughout the Middle Ages and resulted in such fantastical phenomena as stigmata (the appearance of wounds said to be like Christ’s on the bodies of those in an ecstatic or trance state).

Another result was that the centrality of the Resurrection of Christ came to be usurped by an emphasis on the Death of Christ.

In popular devotion, Christ was approached more as a suffering fellow-man than as the God-Man.

In art, the mystical iconography which had emphasized Divine qualities and theologically instructed the people came more and more to be replaced by passionate art, which depicted in a familiar, worldly, realistic manner events of great joy or pathos in the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints.

3. Western Church reorganized.

In the High Middle Ages, a new order was manifesting itself in the church of Catholicism from top to bottom:

Instead of a college of ruling Bishops with honorary Metropolitans and Patriarchs among them, as envisioned by the Seven Councils, a college of ruling bishops subject to a powerful Pope characterized the hierarchy.

The West held many councils, considering them ecumenical , since the participation of the Orthodox was thought unnecessary.

New religious orders were invented to allow men and women to pursue particular emphases (i.e. ,

Cistercians were formed so that manual labour could be pursued,
Dominicans for the sake of preaching,
Franciscans for the sake of begging,
Carthusians for the sake of solitude, etc. ).

The married priesthood was vigorously suppressed at this time and faded out of the people’s daily experience of Christianity.

The worship of the Church was now considered the exclusive province of the clergy , and the idea took root of having a Mass which is not sung, or at which no one attends but the priest himself.

On the tactical side, the Pope began to appoint legates and cardinals to represent him throughout Europe; often, they carried more authority than the local bishop or archbishop.

A doctrine of Purgatory was devised and soon afterwards a doctrine of Indulgences , which was fairly complete by the year 1300 .

Legalism reigned supreme as ordinary Christians donated money to construction funds to receive 200 or 300 days off their sentence in Purgatory (and, over time, indulgences were beset by inflation).

The official teaching on the nature of witchcraft managed an about-face, and now the Roman Catholic leaders came to believe that witches had genuine independent powers, could travel supernaturally, and could assume various shapes at will.

There was a persistent decline in the Western Christians’ fasting discipline, and a more legal approach to fasting, as local officials granted “dispensations ” from fasting or “commutations ” in return for donations or directed labour.

The Eucharist came to be viewed quite differently:

Originally , the bread and wine of the Eucharist were considered principally as the mystical Presence of Christ among Christians, a matter of prayer and praise and song, and the taking of Communion. The Eucharist was an Action .

The medieval Western view of the Eucharistic elements, both popular and official, was of a Thing to be objectively adored, something to “visit ,” something to “keep company ,”

something to be displayed to the people for worship, something to be carried around outside of the Liturgy, even to be carried around as a character or prop in religious dramas

— the Eucharist as an Object , however greatly honoured.

Gradually, the sense of Christ’s presence among His faithful was replaced by a more restricted sense of His presence in the Eucharistic bread exclusively.

The nature of the Eucharist as a community endeavour was forgotten, and the Mass became a time for private devotions.

The last change worth mentioning is that Human Reason came to occupy a more prominent place in Western theology:

Rationalism, in an attempted wedding with Christianity, spawned Scholasticism , a system of interconnected philosophical and theological doctrines, encompassing the spheres of astronomy and canon law as well as Christian dogma.

It must be remembered that all this was not an overnight process:

The drifting of the Roman/Western clergy and people from Orthodox Christianity into what is now called Catholicism was dramatic, but gradual and incremental compared with, say, the Protestant explosion .

While change characterized the West, the Eastern Orthodox faithful remained tenaciously unchanging in their expression of Christianity.

4. Century 13th.

In the 13th century, the conditions under which Christians laboured were rather polarized:

In the East the faithful were suffering at the hands of the Muslims, of the Mongolian Tartars (Russia), and, most tragically, of the Catholics.

In Western and Central Europe, the sovereignty of the Roman church was undisputed, and its political clout and property holdings grew simply immense; this is referred to as the Golden Age of the Papacy .

The Scholastic system , intertwining Christian teaching and rational philosophy, was promoted by such men as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus and slowly gained ground.

For the first time, the Sacraments were numbered at 7 and the exact way they “work ” was sought.

It was during this century that the split of Rome from Orthodoxy was made final and irrevocable. Ironically, a council was assembled at this very time to effect the reunion of the Eastern and Western churches.

5. False Council of Lyons — 1274 A.D.

In 1261 Michael VIII recovered Constantinople from the Western conquerors:

His empire was very weak, however — it was subject in the West to attacks from Charles of Anjou (ruler of Sicily) and, in the East, from the Muslims.

Out of sheer self-preservation, he engineered a council to reunite the Christians of East and West, and it met at Lyons in France in 1274 .

All but one of the Eastern delegates agreed to recognize the Pope as sole master of the Church and to add filioque to the Creed.

The marvellous thing is that this meeting, considered an Ecumenical Council by the Catholics, proved to be no more than a paper agreement, since as soon as the compromising Bishops returned to the East, faithful clergy and people disowned them .

This was not the first time in history that common Orthodox people foiled the schemes of a politically-motivated hierarchy by sheer stubborn fidelity to our sacred Religion.

As the Emperor Michael's sister put it, “Better that my brother's Empire should perish, than the purity of the Orthodox Faith. ” As soon as Michael died, the engineered Union was joyfully repudiated.

6. Century 14th.

It is sometimes thought that the Ecumenical Councils were the last defining moments in the Church's theology. This is not quite true:

In the 14th century, for example, a fierce battle raged within the Orthodox Church over the principles of hesychasm :

Hesychasm is a rigorous method by which great stillness and unceasing prayer of mind and heart unite the Christian with God.

Hesychasts , in short, are those who by unceasing prayer, most frequently through the Jesus Prayer , experience God Himself and behold His Uncreated Light, that Divine radiance wherewith Christ shone on Mt. Tabor (Mt 17:2).

In 1326 , the Greek monk Barlaam , came to Constantinople:

He and a circle of sophisticates ridiculed the notion that man could experience God directly, citing the Fathers who taught that God is unknowable and transcendent.

Barlaam charged that God can be known only indirectly , that the physical method of the Hesychasts' prayer was a falsely materialistic conception of prayer,

and that the light beheld by those who achieved this great nearness to God was a created, not an Uncreated, light.

The great St. Gregory Palamas arose in defence of the Hesychasts and defended their physical labours (such as uniting their breathing to their prayers) and that the light they beheld was truly Uncreated .

He did this by resurrecting the teaching of St. Basil the Great (+379) which distinguished between the energies and the essence of God .

In His energies , which are God Himself in His revelation to man and His action in the universe, God can be known by the pure of heart who see Him;

in His essence , He is absolutely incomprehensible and above all things.

This Hesychast teaching was championed at councils held at Constantinople in 1341 and 1351 . (Disappointed, Barlaam joined the Roman church).

One contemporary of St. Gregory was Blessed Nicholas Kabasilas , who wrote about the Saviour as being closer to us than our own soul, and stressed the life given through the Sacraments in the Church.

St. Gregory seemed to emphasize ceaseless interior prayer, and Bl. Nicholas the external, sacramental life of the Church, but in reality they were expressing two sides of one coin:

there is no true mysticism without the hierarchy and Sacraments of the Orthodox Church, nor is an externally correct Christianity enough, for we must all strive to enkindle our hearts with the very Light of Christ.

After one has studied medieval Orthodox thought in all its vitality, the common objection to Orthodoxy summed up by the author Dom Gregory Dix seems rather indefensible:

Into the closed world of Byzantium, no really fresh impulse ever came after the 6th century. Sleep began in the 9th century.

Ortho-doxy did not add new beliefs to Christianity, being very content with the apostolic faith - but she certainly was not asleep!

7. Western councils of Constance & Basel.

From 1378 to 1417 , there were two, and later three , claimants to the Papacy , each supported by certain bishops and secular rulers:

This divisive scenario is called the Western Schism (not to be confused with the “Great Schism ” of 1054) and it was terminated when the influential “ecumenicalcouncil of Constance , a purely Western council, elected a fourth man, Martin V , as Pope .

Martin V convoked yet another council, that of Basel , which opened in 1431 , in order to combat ecclesiastical corruption and deal with dissenting movements in Europe.

This council entered into a tug-of-war with Martin's successor, Eugene IV :

The council subpoenaed the Pope; the Pope dissolved the council. The prelates of Basel refused to disperse and, in fact, deposed the Pope.

8. Yet another false union.

The Council of Basel then announced a council to unite the Greeks with Rome, that is, to accomplish their submission to Rome.

The Byzantine Empire was now in such imminent danger of collapse that the Emperor's Bishops were ready to consider joining Rome to secure military aid .

However, as long as Papacy and Council were battling, the unionist Greeks were not sure which side to enter into communion with, and the Council of Basel could not agree on a location.

Seizing the moment, Eugene IV summoned a reunion council at Ferrara , and in 1438 it was called to order. The Greeks soon arrived and discussions began, centred on the Trinity , the Papacy , and Purgatory .

The Greeks at first maintained the Orthodox teachings on all these points. The disputes grew long and wearisome, and the Greek prelates wished to return home.

Eugene IV convinced them to adjourn at Florence and discuss the filioque :

At Florence, they were placed under virtual house arrest and were told that they could not leave until they had kissed the Pope's slippers.

Food and supplies were withheld from them, and eventually all the Greek Bishops acquiesced to Catholicism in the 3 disputed teachings - all the Bishops, that is, except one.

St. Mark of Ephesus , the most learned theologian present, refused, saying, “There can be no compromise in matters of the Orthodox Faith.

9. "Union” (1439) & the fall of Constantinople (1453).

In July, 1439 , a union between the Orthodox East and the Western church was declared:

Throughout the West there was rejoicing - all the bells of England were rung in commemoration. But like the false union at Lyons, this “ecumenical ” council also proved in the end to be a political farce .

Military aid from the West, the whole reason for the Byzantine submission, never materialized.

The Byzantine Emperor did not even dare to publicly announce the union until December of 1452 , and almost immediately afterwards, in May of 1453 , Constantinople fell to the Muslim Turks and the Christian Empire of the East ceased to exist.

This was not the end of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, however; the next Patriarch thoroughly repudiated the false union, as did the whole Orthodox people.

In the West, Catholicism continued to prevail; in Byzantium and the Balkans, the faithful groaned under the heavy Turkish Yoke , clinging to their ancestral Faith and Liturgy more tightly than ever;

in Russia, which had now broken free of the Tartars, a new nation was forged, the only great power in the Orthodox world.

The Russian Christians saw themselves as the defenders and heirs of the true Orthodox Faith, and many of them believed that Byzantium had perished precisely because of its tryst with Rome.