The Medieval Church

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Every student of history knows quite well the tremendous contributions of the Greeks to Christianity during the millennium of the Byzantine Empire. This was the period of the Great Greek Fathers, of immense missionary enterprises, of Christian thought, poetry, and literature. It was the period of local and ecumenical synods, which formed and defined the Christian faith basic to all Christian churches and denominations today. It was also an era of great social concern and cultural activity in the Church.

The Greek Orthodox today consider the following events as the chief landmarks of their medieval heritage. From the year 325 to 787, seven ecumenical synods were convened to discuss the common concerns of the universal Church: to define the Christian faith, to issue uniform canons, to plan their common destiny. The first and second ecumenical synods (Nicaea, 325, and Constantinople, 381) dealt with the Holy Trinity, while the third (Ephesus, 431) and fourth (Chalcedon, 451) dealt with the person of Jesus Christ.

It is true that most major heresies originated in the Greek East. But all of them were defeated on the same ground by the intellect, the logic, the mystical intuition, and the biblical scholarship of the Greek Fathers, or their Hellenized allies of the Near East. The Christian West a that time was going through a period of crisis and readjustment and there was little room for intellectual curiosity, discussion, inquiry, or theological or philosophical speculation. Thus, indeed, few heresies arose there. The Christian West was to produce its own great Fathers, such as Jerome, Ambrose, and especially Augustine. But early Christian theology was the work of the Greek rather than the Latin mind.

The seventh ecumenical synod (Nicaea II, of 787), was again a victory of the Greek mind and Christian understanding over the Semitic and Oriental mind. Its decisions were reaffirmed by the synod of 843, which proclaimed the legitimate place of icons, symbols, and representations in Christian worship. In other synods, such as those during the episcopacy of Photios, the synodal and democratic administrative system of the church was proclaimed, thus reaffirming the ancient apostolic tradition.

During this period there were several ecclesiastical centers that survive today as centers of Orthodoxy: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and the island of Cyprus. With the exception of Antioch and Jerusalem, whose present-day Christians are Syrian and Arabic Orthodox, all the others maintain strong Greek-speaking Orthodox sees.

The great Church Fathers, theologians, monastics, and missionaries flourished during this same early medieval period. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Athanasios, Cyril, Eusebius of Caesarea, Maximos the Confessor, Leontios Byzantios, Romanos Melodos, John of Damascus, Theodore Studites, Tarasios, John Eleemon, Photios, Cyril and Methodios, Nicholas Mystikos, Michael Kerularios, and Symeon the New Theologian are a few of the many churchmen who made Christianity a vital and redeeming force in the Middle Ages.

One cannot overemphasize the outstanding contributions of the Church of Constantinople in the propagation of the Christian faith to the peoples of Asia Minor as well as to those of Central and Eastern Europe. The Greek brothers Cyril and Methodios from Thessaloniki, apostles to the Slavs, were missionaries of culture and civilization as well as of religion.

Highly educated, Cyril and Methodios undertook to form a written alphabet for the Slav nations so as to translate the Bible and sacred books into their tongue, shape their worship, and enable them to adopt new ways of thinking and living. Bulgarians, Pannonians, Moravians, Czechs, Russians, and other tribes "rejoiced to hear the Greatness of God extolled in their native tongue," as the Russian Primary Chronicle put it.

The Church manifested a brilliant social consciousness during this period. Saint Basil, John Chrysostom, John Eleemon, Justinian, Theophilos, Constantine IX, John II Komnenos, and many other churchmen and emperors inaugurated considerable social welfare programs, all of which were under the aegis of the Church. Hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, reformatory institutions, hospices, leprosaria, and other philanthropic institutions were built next to churches and monasteries. The monastic communities of such cities and regions as Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Athos, Ephesus were great social forces in the work of the Church.

The development and cultivation of literature, art, and culture during the Middle Ages is another important chapter in the history of the Greek Church. Greek Church poetry is indeed brilliant and comprises many large volumes used in the Church today. Byzantine art, which is becoming more and more popular, is an achievement in itself. Monasteries were praying communities as well as working and artistic laboratories. The art of calligraphy, together with the transcription of the works of classical authors and Church Fathers, was strongly encouraged by the Church.

In brief, notwithstanding its shortcomings, and they were many, the Greek medieval Church was a very positive and constructive institution for the propagation of Christianity and the preservation of Greek and Roman culture. It was during this period, however, that Latin Christianity, which had been isolated for several centuries, broke away from its roots and its unity with Greek Christianity. The great schism of 1054 was the result of many factors, linguistic, cultural, theological, and political.

It was the Western Church that estranged herself from the Eastern Church. Constantinople had been the capital of the Empire since AD 330. The city of Constantine was the commanding center of the orbis Romanorum. By abandoning old Rome and moving to the Greek East, Constantine indicated that the future of the empire lay in the East. The Byzantine Greeks almost ignored the developments in the Western Church, where the bishop of Rome was the sole patriarch. True, the Eastern Church acknowledged and honored the bishop of the old capital as the first among equals (primus inter pares) in honor, but she did not consider him Pontifex Maximus (chief bishop) or vicar of Christ on earth.

Appeals to Rome from the clergy of the Eastern Church in disciplinary or theological matters were rare. When bishops were elected patriarchs of Eastern sees they did not ask for confirmation by the pope but simply announced their elevation and added their confession of faith in order to declare that their faith was the same as that of the first patriarchal sees. The same announcement and declaration of faith or a very similar one were sent to each of the other patriarchs. Even Roman Catholic and other Western theologians and historians, such as Francis Dvornik and H. Grotz, acknowledge that the heads of the Eastern patriarchates acted independently in disciplinary matters in their jurisdictions. No Church rules existed that obliged the Eastern or Greek patriarchs to submit themselves to Rome before the ninth century. It was in the middle of the ninth century that the Roman pope made claims of supreme jurisdiction over all patriarchs and bishops of Christendom. But even those claims were formulated on the basis of spurious documents, the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. The strain in relation between the two parts of Christendom was intensified after the ninth century, when several powerful popes like Nicholas I (858-867) thought of extending to the East the authority they exercised in the West.

H. Grotz, an eminent contemporary Roman Catholic Church historian, analyzing the development of the papal primacy in Western Christendom, writes:

In the West the extraordinary position of the Pope had relatively crystallized [in the ninth century] owing to the progress made by theological speculations, due to the Germanic devotional piety towards Rome, thanks also to the political development which promoted the Pope almost to a guardian of the imperial crown, but also thanks to the legend of Pope Sylvester, to the legendary Donation of Constantine and to the appearance of the Pseudo-Decretals.

But the Western understanding of the papacy was foreign tot he Eastern mind, which believed that the supreme authority of the Church rested with the ecumenical synod and that the universal Church honored the heads of the five patriarchates above all other bishops, amongst whom the patriarch or pope of Rome was the first.

When disputes arose among the clergy of the Eastern Church, the ultimate authority was Constantinople, not Rome. The ninth Canon of the fourth ecumenical synod (451) clearly prescribes:

If any clergyman has a dispute with another…let him first submit his case to his own bishop, or let it be tried by referees chosen by both parties and approved by the bishop. Let anyone who acts contrary be liable to canonical penalties. If, on the other hand, a clergyman has a dispute with his own bishop or with some other bishop, let it be tried by the synod of the province. But if any bishop or clergyman has a dispute with the metropolitan of the same province, let him apply either to the exarch of the diocese or to the throne of the imperial capital Constantinople, and let it be tried before him.

The Eastern Church, whether in the past or in the present, has never accepted a patriarch or a pope as infallible. In fact, she has condemned some as heretics. For example, the third ecumenical synod (431) condemned Patriarch Nestorios for heresy, and the sixth ecumenical synod (681) condemned Pope Honorius for heresy.

In any case, after several confrontations between the Eastern and Western, or Greek and Latin, churches, there came a crisis in the year 1054, which is the traditional date of the great schism. The major problem in the dispute was the Roman claim to primacy in arbitrating all matters of faith, morals, and administration. The Greek East, which knew of no precedent for this claim, had refused to accept it. The Orthodox position toward the Roman claims can be found in the answer of Niketas, archbishop of Nikomedia, to Anselm, bishop of Havelberg, in the twelfth century. To several accusations of Anselm’s, Niketas responded as follows:

My dearest brother, we do not deny to the Roman Church the primacy amongst the five sister patriarchates [Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem], and we recognize her right to the most honorable seat at an ecumenical synod. But, she has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy which does not belong to her office…How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory, wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us and our churches not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure, what kind of brotherhood or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We would be the slaves not the sons of such of church, and the Roman see would not the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves…In such a case what could have been the use of the scriptures? The writings and the teachings of the Fathers would be useless. The authority of the Roman pontiff would nullify the value of all because he would be the only bishop, the sole teacher and master.

The two worlds were further divided as a result of the barbarism of the Crusades and the brutalities they inflicted upon the Greek East. The Crusader’ "macabre expression of a pagan death-wish," in the words of a modern Western historian, brought the final rupture between Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. The fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204 marked the beginning of the end of the medieval period of the Greek Church, which then entered into her darkest centuries.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Greek Orthodox Church became a "nation" under the Turks. At the beginning the Church seemed to thrive under the privileges that were granted her by the conqueror Mohammed II. The patriarch and actually every bishop in his own diocese was invested with religious and civil powers, and each one of them became the spokesman of his flock.

The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, as well as the heads of other autocephalous, or self-governing, churches, came to be known as "ethnarchs," a title that the archbishop of Cyprus retains today, and that denotes the religious and national spokesman of their constituents. However, the ecumenical patriarch, who had been acknowledged as the "first among equals" in the East, became the most important religious leader of all Christians under the Turks. A few of them proved unworthy hierarchs, but others rose above the temptations, the corruption, and the pressures of the sultan as worthy representatives and even martyrs.

Many patriarchs and other clerics of the Orthodox Church who refused to obey the whim of the sultans were dethroned or exiled or in most cases put to death. A few cases may suffice to substantiate this point. Joachim I (1504) was dethroned; Cyril Loukaris (1638), Cyril Kontaris (1639), Parthenios (1504), Parthenios III (1657), Gregory V (1821), and others were put to death. Neophytos (1707) was thrown into the galleys, and several others, such as Jeremia II (1769), Anthimos III (1824), Chrysanthos (1826), and Agathagelos (1830) were exiled. In addition to heavy taxation of the Christians, as well as insults and arbitrary actions on the part of the Turkish autocracy, the Church suffered from confiscation of its houses of worship and property, and Christians were forced to deny their faith and adopt the Moslem religion.

Notwithstanding many outbreaks of Islamic fanaticism during those four centuries, the Greek Church manifested a great deal of vitality. No epoch that produces martyrs can be described as morbid and corrupt. In particular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many Orthodox witnessed to their faith "unto death." The Greek Church commemorates the names of many neomartyrs, who preferred to die rather than deny their Christian faith, among them Michael Mavroides, Gabriel II, Theodore of Mytilene, Christodoulos, Cyril of Thessaloniki (burned alive in July 1566, at the age of 22), Mark Kyriakopoulos (beheaded in 1643 at Smyrna), John (put to death in 1652, at the age of 14) – 172 in all.

Objective information about all of this has been transmitted not only through Greek primary sources, but through the observation of Western travelers or civil servants who served in various cities of the Ottoman Empire. For example, the British consul Paul Ricaut, stationed in Smyrna, wrote about 1678 a vivid account of the state of the Greek and the Armenian churches under the Turks.

The increase and prevalence of the Christian faith against the violence of kings and emperors, and all the terrors of death, is a demonstration of its verity; so the stable perseverance in these our days [i.e., 1678] of the Greek Church therein, notwithstanding the oppression and contempt put upon it by the Turk, and the allurements and pleasures of this world, is a confirmation no less convincing than the miracles and power which attended its first beginnings: for indeed it is admirable to see and consider with what constancy, Resolution, and Simplicity, ignorant and poor men kept their Faith; and that the proffer of worldly preferments and the privilege which they enjoy be becoming Turks, the mode and Fashion of that country which they inhabit…would have induced the Greeks to denounce their faith.

Ricaut adds that much of their perseverance "is to be attributed to the grace of God and the promises of the gospel."

On the one hand the Greek Church suffered from the Turkish and Islamic oppression and persecution, and on the other, she also suffered from the propaganda, the intrigues, and the proselytizing activities of Western European Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Paul Ricaut adds:

But not only hath the Greek Church the Turks for an enemy and an oppressor, but also the Latines; who not being able by their missionaries to gain them to their party, and persuade them to renounce the jurisdiction of their Patriarchs, and own the authority and supremacy of the Roman Bishop do never omit those occasions which may bring them under the lash of the Turk, and engage them in a constant and continual expense, hoping that the people being oppressed and tired, and in no condition of having relief under the protection of their own Governors, may at length be induced to embrace a foreign Head, who hath riches and power to defend them. Moreover, besides their wiles, the Roman priests frequent all places, where the Greeks inhabit, endeavoring to draw them unto their side both by preachings and writings.

On account of this the late British scholar A. H. Hore of Trinity College, Oxford observed: "The fall of the Eastern Europe Empire and the low state to which the persecuted Greek Church fell, and from which it is little less than a miracle that it should now be recovering, is a chapter of dishonor and disgrace in the history of Western Europe."

No doubt the Greek Church found herself between various adversaries whose only objective was to convert her faithful to their own creeds. However, much decay originated from within the administration of the Church herself. Simony, quarrels, and poverty among the clergy contributed tot he already low state of the Church. I agree with several modern historians who believe that "the survival of the Greek Church under four centuries of Turkish rule is no less than a miracle."

The Greek Orthodox Church is not to be confused with the "Greek Catholic Church," which is a branch of the Roman Church. In fact, the Church of Rome includes members of the Byzantine Rite. The Orthodox on the other hand, who commonly use the name "Greek Catholic," use it always with other attributes such as Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic, Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic, etc. "Greek Catholic" alone refers to the Roman branch of Greek liturgical background, also known as "Uniate," i.e., in the union with the Roman Catholic Church.

There are several major differences between the Orthodox and the Roman churches, including the following: The primacy and infallibility of the Roman pope; the Filioque clause, that is, the teaching concerning the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son; the teachings on purgatory, and on the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption of the Theotokos (Mary the God-bearer). All these are rejected by the Orthodox. In addition there are other doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and administrative differences between the Orthodox and the Latin Churches. The Greek Church recognizes only a primacy of honor due to the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Constantinople, and other Church leaders, for historical reasons. The institution of the Roman papacy as it evolved in the West after the ninth century was foreign to the early Church; thus it has never been accepted in the East. The development of the Roman primacy was one of the major causes of the schism between the Latin West and the Greek East, and it continues to be a stumbling block for the reunion of Christendom, since it has become an element of the doctrinal teaching of the Roman Catholic faith. No doubt the idea of the primacy of the bishop of Rome is in harmony with the Roman imperial tradition, but in Orthodox eyes it is alien to the teaching Christ and the early Church. The Roman Catholic Church after Charlemagne transformed the primacy of honor into a primacy of leadership and authority, and the bishop of Rome claimed to be the Pontifex Maximus over all Christendom. These claims brought about the rupture between the Latin West and the Greek East in the eleventh century.

Both the New Testament and the documents of the late first and early second centuries support the Orthodox teaching that the early Church was governed by a board or a synod of bishops. Christ entrusted His gospel to the Apostles "appointed their successors…to bishops…of those who were to receive the faith," as Saint Clement of Rome writes. A work of visions called The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the first half of the second century, speaks about "those who rule the Church of Rome…and the presbyters who are set over the Church."

Another Father of the Church, Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (248-258), points out that "the episcopal office and the organization of the Church have come down to us so that the Church is founded upon the bishops and every act of the Church is controlled by these same officers." He further emphasizes that all the bishops are equal in rank and authority. He adds that "neither does any of us [bishops] set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience…Our Lord Jesus Christ…is the only one that has the power of preferring us [the bishops] as the government of His Church." Cyprian’s views about the equality of the bishops in Church were shared by other writers of the first three centuries. Firmilian, bishop of Caesarea (c. 256) is another witness to this principle.

But even in the West each bishop was essentially independent of higher ecclesiastical authority, and only after the ninth century is there a strong tendency on the part of the bishop of Rome to assert himself over the rest of the bishops, who because of their weakness, needed protection from some strong political or ecclesiastical leader. Political circumstances contributed to the emergence of a supreme ecclesiastical authority in Western Christendom. Unification under effective head, who could exercise authority over all the clergy and protect them from secular lords, became desirable. The papacy, as it is understood today, appears essentially in the eleventh century, when it was strengthened especially by the activities of the Clunaic movement, which aspired to see the Church united and purified under a central bishop – the pope of Rome.

It should be emphasized that as long as the Roman Catholic Church teaches the supremacy in authority and power of the bishop of Rome over all Christendom, there is little hope for progress in the ecumenical dialogue on the reunion of the Churches. The Orthodox Church would have no hesitation in accepting the bishop of Rome as the primus inter pares, the first among equals. But she would yield no other ground on that important subject. To be sure, there are many similarities between the two churches, and they possess a common heritage in doctrine, ethics, and worship on various aspects of Church life, the two differ only in outlook and method. For example concerning their attitude toward the mission of the Church in the world, "Catholics see the extension the Church and the numbers of the faithful; the Orthodox see the depth of the Church and the quality of its members...; the exterior, social, quantitative or statistical facts are of little importance to them [the Orthodox]" in the words of the Roman Catholic theologian and metropolitan Andrew Sheptysky.

There were several trends in Medieval Greek Christianity, which to some degree persist to the present day. There is evangelical and fundamentalist Orthodox Christianity, emphasizing traditionalism and Biblicism as the major criteria of Orthodoxy. This has been the faith of the monks, the conservative clergy, and the common folk, and it can be traced back to theologians like Anastasios Sinaites, John Chrysostom, Theodore Studites, and others. Mysticism has nurtured several independent minds and has been a powerful trend in Orthodoxy from as early as the Byzantine era. In the persons of Maximos the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Palamas, and Nicholas Kabasilas, Orthodox mysticism was developed into a profound theology that has become the subject of many studies in recent years. But we have more to say on mysticism in another chapter.


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