Empire & Desert: Antinomies of Christian History

Feast of the Righteous John Cassian the Confessor

Justinian_Square.jpegCHRISTIANITY entered history as a new social order, or rather a new social dimension. From the very beginning Christianity was not primarily a “doctrine,” but exactly a “community.” There was not only a “Message” to be proclaimed and delivered, and “Good News” to be declared. There was precisely a New Community, distinct and peculiar, in the process of growth and formation, to which members were called and recruited. Indeed, “fellowship” (koinonia) was the basic category of Christian existence. Primitive Christians felt themselves to be closely knit and bound together in a unity which radically transcended all human boundaries—of race, of culture, of social rank, and indeed the whole dimension of “this world.” They were brethren to each other, members of “One Body,” even of the “Body of Christ.” This glorious phrase of St. Paul admirably summarizes the common experience of the faithful. In spite of the radical novelty of Christian experience, basic categories of interpretation were taken over from the Old Testament, of which the New Covenant was conceived to be the fulfillment and consummation. Christians were indeed “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart” (1 Pet. 2:9). They were the New Israel, the “Little Flock,” that is, that faithful “Remnant” to which it was God’s good pleasure to give the Kingdom (Lk. 12:32). Scattered sheep had to be brought together into “one fold,” and assembled. The Church was exactly this “Assembly,” ekklesia tou Theou—a permanent Assembly of the new “Chosen People” of God, never to be adjourned.

In “this world” Christians could be but pilgrims and strangers. Their true “citizenship,” politeuma, was “in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). The Church herself was peregrinating through this world (paroikousa). “The Christian fellowship was a bit of extra-territorial jurisdiction on earth of the world above” (Frank Gavin). The Church was an “outpost of heaven” on the earth, or a “colony of heaven.” It may be true that this attitude of radical detachment had originally an “apocalyptic” connotation, and was inspired by the expectation of an imminent parousia. Yet, even as an enduring historical society, the Church was bound to be detached from the world. An ethos of “spiritual segregation” was inherent in the very fabric of the Christian faith, as it was inherent in the faith of Ancient Israel. The Church herself was “a city,” a polis, a new and peculiar “polity.” In their baptismal profession Christians had “to renounce” this world, with all its vanity, and pride, and pomp—but also with all its natural ties, even family ties, and to take a solemn oath of allegiance to Christ the King, the only true King on earth and in heaven, to Whom all “authority” has been given. By this baptismal commitment Christians were radically separated from “this world.” In this world they had no “permanent city.” They were “citizens” of the “City to come,” of which God Himself was builder and maker (Heb. 13:14; cf. 11:10).

The Early Christians were often suspected and accused of civic indifference, and even of morbid “misanthropy,” odium generis humani—which should be probably contrasted with the alleged “philanthropy” of the Roman Empire. The charge was not without substance. In his famous reply to Celsus, Origen was ready to admit the charge. Yet, what else could Christians have done, he asked. In every city, he explained, “we have another system of allegiance,” alio systema tes patriaos (Contra Celsum, VIII 75). Along with the civil community, the local Church. And she was for Christians their true home, or their “fatherland,” and not their actual “native city.” The anonymous writer of the admirable “Letter to Diognetus,” written probably in the early years of the second century, elaborated this point with an elegant precision. Christians do not dwell in cities of their own, nor do they differ from the rest of men in speech and customs. “Yet, while they dwell in the cities of Greeks and Barbarians, as the lot of each is cast, the structure of their own polity is peculiar and paradoxical. . . . Every foreign land is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign land. . . . Their conversation is on the earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.” There was no passion in this attitude, no hostility, and no actual retirement from daily life. But there was a strong note of spiritual estrangement: “and every fatherland is a foreign land.” It was coupled, however, with an acute sense of responsibility. Christians were confined in the world, “kept” there as in prison; but they also “kept the world together,” just as the soul holds the body together. Moreover, this was precisely the task allotted to Christians by God, “which it is unlawful to decline” (Ad Diognetum, 5, 6). Christians might stay in their native cities, and faithfully perform their daily duties. But they were unable to give their full allegiance to any polity of this world, because their true commitment was elsewhere. They were socially committed and engaged in the Church, and not in the world. “For us nothing is more alien than public affairs,” declared Tertullian: nec ulla magis res aliena quam publica (Apologeticum, 38:3). “I have withdrawn myself from the society,” he said on another occasion: secessi de populo (De Pallio, 5). Christians were in this sense “outside society,” voluntary outcasts and outlaws—outside of the social order of this world.

It would be utterly misleading to interpret the tension between Christians and the Roman Empire as a conflict or clash between the Church and the State. Indeed, the Christian Church was more than “a church,” just as ancient Israel was at once a “church” and a “nation.” Christians also were a nation, a “peculiar people,” the People of God, tertium genus, neither Jew nor Greek. The Church was not just a “gathered community,” or a voluntary association, for “religious” purposes alone. She was, and claimed to be, a distinct and autonomous “society,” a distinct “polity.” On the other hand, the Roman Empire was, and claimed to be, much more than just “a state.” Since the Augustan reconstruction, in any case, Rome claimed to be just the City, a permanent and “eternal” City, Urbs aeterna, and an ultimate City also. In a sense, it claimed for itself an “eschatological dimension.” It posed as an ultimate solution of the human problem. It was a Universal Commonwealth, “a single Cosmopolis of the inhabited earth,” the Oikoumene. Rome was offering “Peace,” the Pax Romana, and “Justice” to all men and all nations under its rule and sway. It claimed to be the final embodiment of “Humanity,” of all human values and achievements. “The Empire was, in effect, a politico-ecclesiastical institution. It was a ‘church’ as well as a ‘state’; if it had not been both, it would have been alien from the ideas of the Ancient World” (Sir Ernest Baker). In the ancient society—in the ancient polis, in Hellenistic monarchies, in the Roman republic—“religious” convictions were regarded as an integral part of the political creed. “Religion” was an integral part of the “political” structure. No division of competence and “authority” could ever be admitted, and accordingly no division of loyalty or allegiance. The State was omnicompetent, and accordingly the allegiance had to be complete and unconditional. Loyalty to the State was itself a kind of religious devotion, in whatever particular form it might have been prescribed or imposed. In the Roman Empire it was the Cult of Caesars. The whole structure of the Empire was indivisibly “political” and “religious.” The main purpose of the Imperial rule was usually defined as “Philanthropy,” and often even as “Salvation.” Accordingly, the Emperors were described as “Saviors.”

In retrospect all these claims may seem to be but Utopian delusions and wishful dreams, vain and futile, which they were indeed. Yet, these dreams were dreamt by the best people of that time—it is enough to mention Vergil. And the Utopian dream of the “Eternal Rome” survived the collapse of the actual Empire and dominated the political thinking of Europe for centuries. Paradoxically, this dream was often cherished even by those who, by the logic of their faith, should have been better protected against its deceiving charm and thrill. In fact, the vision of an abiding or “Eternal Rome” dominated also the Christian thought in the Middle Ages, both in the East, and in the West.

There was nothing anarchical in the attitude of Early Christians toward the Roman Empire.  The “divine” origin of the State and of its authority was formally acknowledged already by St. Paul, and he himself had no difficulty in appealing to the protection of Roman magistrates and of Roman law. The positive value and function of the State were commonly admitted in the Christian circles. Even the violent invective in the book of Revelation was no exception. What was denounced there was iniquity and injustice of the actual Rome, but not the principle of political order. Christians could, in full sincerity and in good faith, protest their political innocence in the Roman courts and plead their loyalty to the Empire. In fact, Early Christians were devoutedly praying for the State, for peace and order, and even for Caesars themselves. One finds a high appraisal of the Roman Empire even in those Christian writers of that time, who were notorious for their resistance, such as Origen and Tertullian. The theological “justification” of the Empire originated already in the period of persecutions. Yet, Christian loyalty was, of necessity, a restricted loyalty. Of course, Christianity was in no sense a seditious plot, and Christians never intended to overthrow the existing order, although they did believe that it had ultimately to wither away. From the Roman point of view, however, Christians could not fail to appear seditious, not because they were in any sense mixed in politics, but precisely because they were not. Their political “indifference” was irritating to the Romans. They kept themselves away from the concerns of the Commonwealth at a critical time of its struggle for existence. Not only did they claim “religious freedom” for themselves. They also claimed supreme authority for the Church. Although the Kingdom of God was emphatically “not of this world,” it seemed to be a threat to the omnicompetent Kingdom of Man. The Church was, in a sense, a kind of “Resistance Movement” in the Empire. As Christopher Dawson has aptly said, “Christianity was the only remaining power in the world which could not be absorbed in the gigantic mechanism of the new servile state.” Christians were not a political faction. Yet, their religious allegiance had an immediate “political” connotation. It has been well observed that monotheism itself was a “political problem” in the ancient world (Eric Peterson). Christians were bound to claim “autonomy” for themselves and for the Church. And this was precisely what the Empire could neither concede, nor even understand. Thus, the clash was inevitable, although it could be delayed.

The Church was a challenge to the Empire, and the Empire was a stumbling block for the Christians.


THE AGE of Constantine is commonly regarded as a turning point of Christian history. After a protracted struggle with the Church, the Roman Empire at last capitulated. The Caesar himself was converted, and humbly applied for admission into the Church. Religious freedom was formally promulgated, and was emphatically extended to Christians. The confiscated property was restored to Christian communities. Those Christians who suffered disability and deportation in the years of persecution were now ordered back, and were received with honors. In fact, Constantine was offering to the Church not only peace and freedom, but also protection and close cooperation. Indeed, he was urging the Church and her leaders to join with him in the “Renovation” of the Empire. This new turn of Imperial policy and tactics was received by Christians with appreciation, but not without some embarrassment and surprise. Christian response to the new situation was by no means unanimous. There were many among Christian leaders who were quite prepared to welcome unreservedly the conversion of Emperor and the prospective conversion of the Empire. But there were not a few who were apprehensive of the Imperial move. To be sure, one could but rejoice in the cessation of hostilities and in that freedom of public worship which now had been legally secured. But the major problem had not yet been solved, and it was a problem of extreme complexity. Indeed, it was a highly paradoxical problem.

Already Tertullian was asking certain awkward questions, although in his own time they were  no more than rhetorical questions. Could Caesars accept Christ, and believe in Him? Now, Caesars obviously belonged to “the world.” They were an integral part of the “secular” fabric, necessarii saeculo. Could then a Christian be Caesar, that is, belong at once to two conflicting orders, the Church and the World (Apologeticum, 21:24)? In the time of Constantine this concept of the “Christian Caesar” was still a riddle and a puzzle, despite the eloquent effort of Eusebius of Caesarea to elaborate the idea of the “Christian Empire.” For many Christians there was an inner contradiction in the concept itself. Caesars were necessarily committed to the cause of “this world.” But the Church was not of this world. The office of Caesars was intrinsically “secular.” Was there really any room for Emperors, as Emperors, in the structure of Christian Community? It has been recently suggested that probably Constantine himself was rather uneasy and uncertain precisely at this very point. It seems that one of the reasons for which he was delaying his own baptism, till his very last days, was precisely his dim feeling that it was inconvenient to be “Christian” and “Caesar” at the same time. Constantine’s personal conversion constituted no problem. But as Emperor he was committed. He had to carry the burden of his exalted position in the Empire. He was still a “Divine Caesar.” As Emperor, he was heavily involved in the traditions of the Empire, as much as he actually endeavored to disentangle himself. The transfer of the Imperial residence to a new City, away from the memories of the old pagan Rome, was a spectacular symbol of this noble effort. Yet, the Empire itself was still much the same as before, with its autocratic ethos and habits, with all its pagan practices, including the adoration and apotheosis of Caesars. We have good reasons to trust Constantine’s personal sincerity. No doubt, he was deeply convinced that Christianity was the only power which could quicken the sick body of the Empire and supply a new principle of cohesion in the time of social disintegration. But obviously he was unable to abdicate his sovereign authority, or to renounce the world. Indeed, Constantine was firmly convinced that, by Divine Providence, he was entrusted with a high and holy mission, that he was chosen to reestablish the Empire, and to reestablish it on a Christian foundation. This conviction, more than any particular political theory, was the decisive factor in his policy, and in his actual mode of ruling.

The situation was intensely ambiguous. Had the Church to accept the Imperial offer and to assume the new task? Was it a welcome opportunity, or rather a dangerous compromise? In fact, the experience of close cooperation with the Empire was never altogether happy and encouraging for Christians, even in the days of Constantine himself. The Empire did not appear to be an easy or comfortable ally and partner for the Church. Under Constantine’s successors all inconveniences of “cooperation” became quite evident, even if we ignore the abortive attempt of Julian to reinstate Paganism. The leaders of the Church were compelled, time and again, to challenge the persistent attempts of Caesars to exercise their supreme authority also in religious matters. The rise of monasticism in the fourth century was no accident. It was rather an attempt to escape the Imperial problem, and to build an “autonomous” Christian Society outside of the boundaries of the Empire, “outside the camp.” On the other hand, the Church could not evade her responsibility for the world, or surrender her missionary task. Indeed, the Church was concerned not only with individuals, but also with society, even with the whole of mankind. Even kingdoms of this world had to be brought ultimately into obedience to Christ. Nor was the Empire prepared to leave the Church alone, or to dispense with her help and service. The Church was already a strong institution, strong by her faith and discipline, and spread everywhere, even to the remote corners of the inhabited earth. Thus, the Church was forced finally into alliance with the Empire, by the double pressure of her own missionary vocation and of the traditional logic of Empire.

By the end of the fourth century Christianity was ultimately established as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Under Theodosius the Great, the Roman Empire formally committed itself to the Christian cause. Paganism was legally disavowed and proscribed, “Heresy” was also outlawed.  The State formally engaged in the maintenance of the Orthodox Faith. The basic presupposition of the new arrangement was the Unity of the Christian Commonwealth. There was but One and comprehensive Christian Society, which was at once a Church and a State. In this one society there were different orders or “powers,” clearly distinguished but closely correlated—“spiritual” and “temporal,” “ecclesiastical” and “political.” But the “Society” itself was intrinsically One. This idea was by no means a new one. Ancient Israel was at once a Kingdom and a Church. The Roman Empire had always been a “politico-ecclesiastical institution,” and it also retained this double character after it had been “christened.” In the Christian Commonwealth “Churchmanship” and “Citizenship” were not only “co-extensive,” but simply identical. Only Christians could be citizens. And all citizens were obliged to be Orthodox in belief and behavior. The Christian Commonwealth was conceived as a single “theocratic” structure. Moreover, the Roman Empire always regarded itself as a “Universal Kingdom,” the only “Empire.” As there was but One Church, the Church Universal, so there could be but One Kingdom, the Ecumenical Empire. The Church and the Kingdom were in effect but One Society, indivisible and undivided. One Civitas—Respublica Christiana. “The One Commonwealth of all mankind, conceived partly as an Empire—the surviving image of ancient Rome, but mainly and generally as a Church, is the essential society of that long period of human history which we call by the name of the Middle Ages. It was a fact, and not merely an idea; and yet it was also an idea, and not altogether a fact” (Sir Ernest Baker).

It was a momentous and magnificent achievement, a glorious vision, an ambitious claim. But it was also an ominous and ambiguous achievement. In fact, the two orders, “spiritual” and “temporal,” could never be truly integrated into one system. Old tensions continued inside of the “One Society,” and the balance of “powers” in the Christian Commonwealth has been always unstable and insecure. It would be an anachronism to describe this internal tension between “powers” in the Medieval Commonwealth as a conflict or competition between the Church and the State, conceived as two distinct societies, with an appropriate sphere of competence and jurisdiction. In the Middle Ages, Church and State, as two distinct societies, simply did not exist. The conflict was between the two “powers” in the same society, and precisely for that very reason it was so vigorous and acute. In this respect there was no basic difference between the Christian East and the Christian West, as different as the actual course of events has been in these two areas of the Christian Commonwealth. The major problem was the same, in the East and in the West—the problem of a “Christian Society,” of a “Holy Empire.” It was but natural that this problem should assume special urgency and dimension precisely in the East. In the East “the Holy Empire” was a formidable reality, “a tangible fact in an actual world,” in the phrase of James Bryce, while in the West it was rather an idea, or just a claim. Since Constantine the heart of the Empire was at Constantinople, and no longer in the old City of Rome. The story of Byzantium was an immediate continuation of Roman history. In the West, Roman order disintegrated at an early date. In the East, it survived for centuries. Even in Oriental garb, Byzantium continued to be “the Kingdom of the Romans,” up to its very end. The main problem of Byzantium was precisely the problem of “the Eternal Rome.” The whole weight of the Empire was felt there much more than ever in the West. It is highly significant, however, that all “Byzantine problems” reappear in the West, with the same urgency and the same ambiguity, as soon as “Empire” had been reconstituted there, under Charlemagne and his successors. Indeed, Charlemagne regarded himself as a lawful successor to Constantine and Justinian. His claims and policy in the matters religious were almost identical with those of the Byzantine Caesars.

It has been often contended that in Byzantium the Church had surrendered her “freedom” into the hands of Caesars. The Byzantine system has been derogatorily labeled as a “Caesaropapism,” with the assumption that Emperor was the actual ruler of the Church, even if he was never formally acknowledged to be her head. It has been said more than once that in Byzantium the Church simply  ceased to exist, that is, to exist as an “independent institution,” and was practically reduced to the status of a “liturgical department of the Empire.” The evidence quoted in support of these charges, at first glance, may seem to be abundant and overwhelming. But it does not stand a closer examination. The charge of “Caesaropapism” is still maintained in certain quarters. It has been emphatically rejected by many competent students of Byzantium as a sheer misunderstanding, as a biased anachronism. Emperors were indeed rulers in the Christian Society, also in religious matters, but never rulers over the Church. The story of Byzantium was an adventure in Christian politics. It was an unsuccessful and probably an unfortunate experiment. Yet it should be judged on its own terms.


JUSTINIAN has clearly stated that basic principle of the Byzantine political system in the preface to his Sixth Novel, dated March 16, 535:

There are two major gifts which God has given unto men of His supernal clemency, the priesthood and the imperial authority—hierosyne and basileia; sacerdotium and Imperium. Of these, the former is concerned with things divine; the latter presides over the human affairs and takes care of them. Proceeding from the same source, both adorn human life. Nothing is of greater concern for the emperors than the dignity of the priesthood, so that priests may in their turn pray to God for them. Now, if one is in every respect blameless and filled with confidence toward God, and the other does rightly and properly maintain in order the commonwealth entrusted to it, there will be a certain fair harmony established which will furnish whatsoever may be needful for mankind. We therefore are highly concerned for the true doctrines inspired by God and for the dignity of priests. We are convinced that, if they maintain their dignity, great benefits will be bestowed by God on us, and we shall firmly hold whatever we now possess, and in addition shall acquire those things which we have not yet secured. A happy ending always crowns those things which were undertaken in a proper manner, acceptable to God. This is the case, when sacred canons are carefully observed, which the glorious Apostles, the venerable eye-witnesses and ministers of the Divine Word, have handed down to us, and the holy Fathers have kept and explained.

This was at once a summary, and a program.

Justinian did not speak of State, or of Church. He spoke of two ministries, or of two agencies, which were established in the Christian Commonwealth. They were appointed by the same Divine authority and for the same ultimate purpose. As a “Divine gift,” the Imperial power, Imperium, was “independent” from the Priesthood, sacerdotium. Yet it was “dependent” upon, and “subordinate” to, that purpose for which it had been Divinely established. This purpose was the faithful maintenance and promotion of the Christian truth. Thus, if “the Empire” as such was not subordinate to the Hierarchy, it was nevertheless subordinate to the Church, which was a Divinely appointed custodian of the Christian truth. In other words, the Imperial power was “legitimate” only within the Church. In any case, it was essentially subordinate to the Christian Faith, was bound by the precepts of the Apostles and Fathers, and in this respect “limited” by them. The legal status of the Emperor in the Commonwealth depended upon his good standing in the Church, under her doctrinal and canonical discipline. Imperium was at once an authority, and a service. And the terms of this service were set in rules and regulations of the Church. In his coronation oath, the Emperor had to profess the Orthodox faith and to take a vow of obedience to the decrees of the ecclesiastical Councils. This was no mere formality. “Orthodoxy was, as it were, the supernationality of Byzantium, the basic element of  the life of the State and people” (I. I. Sokolov).

The place of Emperor in the Byzantine system was high and exalted. He was surrounded with a halo of theocratical splendor. The court ceremonial was rich and elaborate, and it was distinctively a religious ceremonial, a ritual, almost a kind of “Imperial liturgy.” Yet, the Emperor was no more than a layman. He had a certain position in the Church, and a very prominent and high position. But it was a lay position. There was, as it were, a special office in the Church reserved for a layman. Emperors did not belong to the regular hierarchy of the Church. They were in no sense “ministers of Word and sacraments.” Some special “priestly” character might be conceded to them, and indeed has been often claimed and asserted. In any case, it was a very specific “Royal priesthood,” clearly distinguishable from the “Ministerial priesthood” of the clergy. Certainly, the Emperor was a high dignitary in the Church, but in a very special sense, which it is not easy to define exactly. Whatever the original meaning of the rite of Imperial Coronation might have been—and it seems that originally it was definitely a strictly “secular” ceremony, in which even the Patriarch acted as a civil servant—gradually it developed into a sacred rite, a sacramentale, if not a regular “sacrament,” especially since it was combined with the rite of “anointment,” a distinctively ecclesiastical rite, conferred by the Church. The rites of Imperial Coronation convey a thoroughly “consecrational” conception of the “temporal power.” Probably, this “theocratical” emphasis was even stronger in the West than in Byzantium. It is specifically significant that the rite included a solemn oath to obey faithfully all rules of the Church, and above all to keep inviolate the Orthodox faith, in conformity with the Holy Scripture and the ordinances of the Councils.

The crux of the problem is in the claim of the “temporal” rulers, and in their endeavor, “to be Christian” and to perform accordingly certain Christian duties in their own right, as their own assignment. This claim implied a conviction that basically “the secular” itself was, in a certain sense, “sacred.” In a Christian society nothing can be simply “secular.” It may be argued that this claim was often insincere, no more than a disguise for worldly motives and concerns. Yet it is obvious that in many instances—and one should emphasize, in all major and crucial instances—this claim was utterly sincere. Both Justinian and Charlemagne—to quote but the most spectacular cases—were deeply sincere in their endeavor to be “Christian rulers” and to promote the cause of Christ, as much as their actual policies were open to criticism. It was commonly conceded that the Emperor’s duty was “to defend” the Faith and the Church, by all available means at his disposal, including even “the sword,” but probably first of all by appropriate legislation. A tension would arise every time that Emperors displayed their concern for matters religious, as many Byzantine Emperors, and most of all Justinian, actually did on many occasions. In principle, this was not beyond their lawful competence. Neither “the purity of the Faith,” nor “the strictness of the Canons,” is a purely “clerical concern.” Emperors should care for the “right belief” of the people. Nor could they be prohibited from holding theological convictions. If the right of formal decision in the matters of faith and discipline belonged to the Priesthood—and this right was never contested or abrogated—the right of being concerned about doctrinal issues could never be denied even to laymen, nor the right to voice their religious convictions, especially in the periods of doctrinal strife or confusion. Obviously, Emperors could raise their voice more powerfully and impressively than anybody else, and use their “power” (potestas) in order to enforce those convictions which they might, in full honesty, believe to be Orthodox. Yet even in this case Emperors would have to act through appropriate channels. They would have to impose their will, or their mind, upon the hierarchy of the Church, which they actually attempted to do more than once, using sometimes violence, threat, and other objectionable methods. The legal or canonical form had to be observed in any case. To act in religious matters without the consent and concurrence of the Priesthood was obviously ultra vires of the Imperial power, beyond its lawful competence. Flagrant abuses by Byzantine Caesars should not  be ignored. On the other hand, it is obvious that in no case were Emperors successful when they attempted to go against the Faith of the Church. The Church in Byzantium was strong enough to resist the Imperial pressure. Emperors failed to impose upon the Church a compromise with the Arians, a premature reconciliation with the Monophysites, Iconoclasm, and, at a later date, an ambiguous “reunion” with Rome:

Nothing could be more false than the charge of Caesaropapism which is generally brought against the Byzantine Church—the accusation that the Church rendered servile obedience to the orders of the Emperor even in the religious sphere. It is true that the Emperor always concerned himself with ecclesiastical affairs; he endeavored to maintain or to impose unity in dogma, but his claims were by no means always submissively recognized. Indeed, the Byzantines became accustomed to the idea that organized opposition to the Imperial will in religious matters was normal and legitimate. . . . Without any suspicion of paradox the religious history of Byzantium could be represented as a conflict between the Church and the State, a conflict from which the Church emerged unquestionably the victor (Henry Grégoire).

It can be argued that, in the course of time, the actual influence and the prestige of the Church in Byzantium were steadily growing. In this connection, the Epanagoge, a constitutional document of the late ninth century, is especially significant and instructive. It was apparently no more than a draft, which has never been officially promulgated. The draft was prepared probably by Photius, the famous Patriarch. Certain portions of the document were incorporated in the later legal compilations and received wide circulation. In any case, the document reflected the current conception of the normal relationship between the Emperor and the hierarchy, prevailing at that time. The main principle was still the same as in Justinian. But now it was elaborated with greater emphasis and precision.

The Commonwealth, politeia, is composed of several parts and members. Of these the most important, and the most necessary, are the Emperor and the Patriarch. There is an obvious parallelism between the two powers. The peace and prosperity of the people depend upon the accord and unanimity between the Imperial power and the Priesthood. The Emperor is the supreme ruler, yet the purpose of the Imperial rule is Beneficence, euergesia. It is an old idea, inherited from Hellenistic political philosophy. In his rule the Emperor must enforce justice. The Emperor must be well instructed in the doctrines of faith and piety. He must defend and promote the teachings of the Scripture and of the Councils. His main task is to secure peace and happiness for the soul and the body of his subjects. The place of the Patriarch is no less exalted. “The Patriarch is a living and animate image of Christ.” In all his words and deeds he must exhibit truth. He must be crucified to the world, and live in Christ. To the infidel he must appeal by the holiness of his life. In the believers he must strengthen piety and honesty of life. He must endeavor to bring back the heretics into the fold of the true Church. He must be just and impartial to all men. Before the Emperors he must speak without shame in the defense of the right faith. To the Patriarch alone is given the authority to interpret the rules of the Fathers, and to rule about their lawful application.

Of course, this was an idealized picture. The actual reality was much darker and more ambiguous. The Emperors were always able to influence the election of the Patriarchs and to arrange, by various devices, for the deposition of the unsuitable occupants of the throne. On the other hand, the Patriarchs also had ample resources in their eventual resistance to the imperial power, of which suspension and excommunication were not the least significant. Nevertheless, the ideal pattern, as depicted in the Epanagoge and elsewhere, has never been forgotten. “The really significant theory was that of the Epanagoge: Patriarch and Emperor, as allies not rivals, both essential  for the prosperity of the East Roman polity—both parts of a single organism” (Norman H. Baynes).

The theory of a “dual government” in the single Commonwealth was commonly accepted in the Middle Ages, both in the East and in the West. The theory had various and divergent versions. It was the common background of both competing parties in the West, the Curialist and the Imperialist, the Papacy and the Holy Empire. The Church has been victorious in her struggle with the Empire in the West. But it was a precarious victory. The meaning of Canossa was ambiguous. The theocratic claims of the Empire were defeated. But, in the long run, this only led to the acute “secularization” of the temporal power in Western Society. A purely “secular” Society emerged, for the first time in Christian history. Accordingly, the “spiritual” Society, the Church, has been thoroughly “clericalized.” Tensions did not diminish, nor were they calmed or tamed. But the “theocratic” mission of the Church was sorely reduced and compromised. The Unity of the Christian Commonwealth was broken. In the East, the Church won no spectacular victories over the Empire. The impact of the Imperial power on Ecclesiastical affairs has been ponderous, and often detrimental. Yet, in spite of all imperial abuses and failures, the Byzantine Commonwealth retained to the very end its Christian and “consecrational” character. Religion and polity were never divorced or separated from each other. Byzantium collapsed as a Christian Kingdom, under the burden of its tremendous claims.


MONASTICISM was, to a great extent, an attempt to evade the Imperial problem. The period of the bitter struggle between the Church and the Empire, under the Arianizing Caesars of the fourth century, was also the period of Monastic expansion. It was a kind of a new and impressive “Exodus.” And the Empire always regarded this “Exodus,” the flight into the Desert, as a threat to its very existence, from the times of St. Athanasius to the cruel persecution of monks by the Iconoclastic Emperors. It is often suggested that people were leaving “the world” simply to escape the burden of social life, with its duties and labors. It is difficult to see in what sense life in the wilderness could be “easy” and “leisurely.” It was, indeed, a strenuous life, with its own burdens and dangers. It is true that in the West at that time the Roman order was falling to pieces, was sorely endangered, and partly destroyed by barbarian invasions, and apocalyptic fears and apprehensions might have crept into many hearts, an expectation of an imminent end of history. Yet, we do not find many traces of this apocalyptic dread in the writings of the Desert Fathers. Their motives for desertion were quite different. In the East, where the Monastic Movement originated, the Christian Empire was in the process of growth. In spite of all its ambiguities and shortcomings, it was still an impressive sight. After so many decades of suffering and persecution, “this World” seemed to have been opened for the Christian conquest. The prospect of success was rather bright. Those who fled into the wilderness did not share these expectations. They had no trust in the “christened Empire.” They rather distrusted the whole scheme altogether. They were leaving the earthly Kingdom, as much as it might have been actually “christened,” in order to build the true Kingdom of Christ in the new land of promise, “outside the gates,” in the Desert. They fled not so much from the world’s disasters, as from the “worldly cares,” from the involvement with the world, even under the banner of Christ, from the prosperity and wrong security of the world.

Nor was the Monastic endeavor a search for “extraordinary” or “supererogatory” deeds and exploits. The main ascetical emphasis, at least at the early stage of development, was not on taking “special” or “exceptional” vows, but rather on accomplishing those common and essential vows, which every Christian had to take at his baptism. Monasticism meant first of all a “renunciation,” a total renunciation of “this world,” with all its lust and pomp. And all Christians were bound to renounce “the world” and to pledge an undivided loyalty to the only Lord, Christ Jesus. Indeed,  every Christian was actually taking this oath of undivided allegiance at this Christian initiation. It is highly significant that the rite of Monastic profession, when it was finally established, was made precisely on the pattern of the baptismal rite, and the Monastic profession came to be regarded as a kind of “second baptism.” If there was a search for “perfection” in the Monastic endeavor, “perfection” itself was not regarded as something “peculiar” and optional, but rather as a normal and obligatory way of life. If it was a “rigorism,” this rigorism could claim for itself the authority of the Gospel.

It is also significant that, from the very beginning, the main emphasis in the Monastic oath was placed precisely on “social” renunciation. The novice had to disown the world, to become a stranger and pilgrim, a foreigner in the world, in all earthly cities, just as the Church herself was but a “stranger” in the earthly City, paroikousa on earth. Obviously, this was but a confirmation of the common baptismal vows. Indeed, all Christians were supposed to disown the world, and to dwell in this world as strangers. This did not necessarily imply a contempt for the world. The precept could also be construed as a call to its reform and salvation. St. Basil the Great, the first legislator of Eastern Monasticism, was desperately concerned with the problem of social reconstruction. He watched with grave apprehension the process of social disintegration, which was so conspicuously advanced in his time. His call to the formation of monastic communities was, in effect, an attempt to rekindle the spirit of mutuality in a world which seemed to have lost any force of cohesion and any sense of social responsibility. Now, Christians had to set a model for the new society, in order to counterbalance the disruptive tendencies of the age. St. Basil was strong in his conviction that man was essentially a social or “political” being, not a solitary one—zoon koinonikon. He could have learned this both from the Scriptures and from Aristotle. But the present society was built on a wrong foundation. Consequently, one had first of all to retire or withdraw from it. According to St. Basil, a monk had to be “homeless” in the world, aoikos, his only home being the Church. He had to go out, or to be taken out, of all existing social structures—family, city, Empire. He had to disown all orders of the world, to sever all social ties and commitments. He had to start afresh. The later custom or rule to change the name in taking the habit was a spectacular symbol of this radical break with the previous life. But monks leave the society of this world in order to join another society, or rather to actualize in full their membership in another community, which is the Church. The prevailing form of Monasticism was “coenobitical,” the life in common. The solitary life might be praised as an exception for a few peculiar persons, but it was firmly discouraged as a common rule. The main emphasis was on obedience, on the submission of will. “Community” was always regarded as a normal and more adequate manner of ascetical life. A monastery was a corporation, “a body,” a small Church. Even hermits usually did dwell together, in special colonies, under the direction of a common spiritual leader or guide. This communal character of Monasticism was strongly reemphasized by St. Theodore of Studium, the great reformer of Byzantine Monasticism (A.D. 759-826). St. Theodore insisted that there was no commandment of solitary life in the Gospel. Our Lord Himself lived in a “community” with His disciples. Christians are not independent individuals, but brethren, members of the Body of Christ. Moreover, only in community could Christian virtues of charity and obedience be properly developed and exercised.

Thus, monks were leaving the world in order to build, on the virginal soil of the Desert, a New Society, to organize there, on the Evangelical pattern, the true Christian Community. Early Monasticism was not an ecclesiastical institution. It was precisely a spontaneous movement, a drive. And it was distinctively a lay movement. The taking of Holy Orders was definitely discouraged, except by order of the superiors, and even abbots were often laymen. In early times, secular priests from the vicinity were invited to conduct services for the community, or else the neighboring Church was attended on Sundays. The monastic state was clearly distinguished from the clerical. “Priesthood”  was a dignity and an authority, and as such was regarded as hardly compatible with the life of obedience and penitence, which was the core and the heart of monastic existence. Certain concessions were made, however, time and again, but rather reluctantly. On the whole, in the East Monasticism has preserved its lay character till the present day. In the communities of Mount Athos, this last remnant of the old monastic regime, only a few are in Holy Orders, and most do not seek them, as a rule. This is highly significant. Monasticism cut across the basic distinction between clergy and laity in the Church. It was a peculiar order in its own right.

Monasteries were at once worshipping communities and working teams. Monasticism created a special “theology of labor,” even of manual labor in particular. Labor was by no means a secondary or subsidiary element of monastic life. It belonged to its very essence. “Idleness” was regarded as a primary and grievous vice, spiritually destructive. Man was created for work. But work should not be selfish. One had to work for common purpose and benefit, and especially to be able to help the needy. As St. Basil stated it, “in labor the purpose set before everyone, is the support of the needy, not one’s own necessity” (Regulae fusius tractatae, 42). Labor was to be, as it were, an expression of social solidarity, as well as a basis of social service and charity. From St. Basil this principle was taken over by St. Benedict. But already St. Pachomius, the first promoter of coenobitical Monasticism in Egypt, was preaching “the Gospel of continued work” (to use the able phrase of the late Bishop Kenneth Kirk). His coenobium at Tabennisi was at once a settlement, a college, and a working community, in principle a “non-acquisitive society.” One of the main monastic vows was the complete denial of all possessions, not only a promise of poverty. There was no room whatsoever for any kind of “private property” in the life of a coenobitical monk. And this rule was sometimes enforced with rigidity. Monks should not have even private desires. The spirit of “ownership” was strongly repudiated as an ultimate seed of corruption in human life. St. John Chrysostom regarded “private property” as the root of all social ills. The cold distinction between “mine” and “thine” was, in his opinion, quite incompatible with the pattern of loving brotherhood, set forth in the Gospel. He could have added at this point also the authority of Cicero: nulla autem privata natura. Indeed, for St. John, “property” was man’s wicked invention, not of God’s design. He was prepared to force upon the whole world the rigid monastic discipline of “non-possession” and obedience, for the sake of the world’s relief. In his opinion, separate monasteries should exist now, in order that one day the whole world might become like a monastery.

As it has been well said recently, “Monasticism was an instinctive reaction of the Christian spirit against that fallacious reconciliation with the present age which the conversion of the Empire might seem to have justified” (Père Louis Bouyer). It was a vigorous reminder of the radical “otherworldliness” of the Christian Church. It was also a mighty challenge to the Christian Empire, then in the process of construction. This challenge could not go without a rejoinder. The Emperors, and especially Justinian, made a desperate effort to integrate the Monastic Movement into the general structure of their Christian Empire. Considerable concessions had to be made. Monasteries, as a rule, were exempt from taxation and granted various immunities. In practice, these privileges only led ultimately to an acute secularization of Monasticism. But originally they meant a recognition, quite unwillingly granted, of a certain Monastic “extra-territoriality.” On the other hand, many monasteries were canonically exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishops. During the Iconoclastic controversy, the independence of Monasticism was conspicuously manifested in Byzantium. Up to the end of Byzantium, Monasticism continued as a peculiar social order, in perpetual tension and competition with the Empire.

Obviously, actual Monasticism was never up to its own principles and claims. But its historical significance lies precisely in its principles. Whereas in the pagan Empire the Church herself was a kind of “Resistance Movement,” Monasticism was a permanent “Resistance Movement” in the Christian  Society.


IN THE NEW Testament the word “Church,” ekklesia, has been used in two different senses. On the one hand, it denoted the One Church, the Church Catholic and Universal, the one great Community of all believers, united “in Christ.” It was a theological and dogmatic use of the term. On the other hand, the term, used in the plural, denoted local Christian Communities, or Christian congregations in particular places. It was a descriptive use of the word. Each local community, or Church, was in a sense self-sufficient and independent. It was the basic unit or element of the whole ecclesiastical structure. It was precisely the Church in a particular locality, the Church “peregrinating,” paroikousa, in this or that particular city. It had, within itself, the fullness of the sacramental life. It had its own ministry. It can be asserted with great assurance that in the early second century, at least, each local community was headed by its own Bishop, episcopos. He was the main, and probably exclusive, minister of all sacraments in his Church, for his flock. His rights in his own community were commonly recognized, and the equality of all local Bishops was acknowledged. This is still the basic principle of the Catholic canon law. The unity of all local communities was also commonly acknowledged, as an article of faith. All local Churches, as scattered and dispersed as they actually were in the world, like islands in a stormy sea, were essentially One Church Catholic, mia ekklesia catholike. It was, first of all, the “unity of faith” and the “unity of sacraments,” testified by mutual acknowledgement and recognition, in the bonds of love. Local communities were in frequent contact, according to the circumstances. The Oneness of the Church was strongly felt in this primitive period, and was formally professed in manifold ways: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5, 6). The external organization was loose. In the early years of the Church, contacts were maintained by travels and supervision of the Apostles. In the post-apostolic age they were maintained by occasional visits of the Bishops, by correspondence, and in other similar ways. By the end of the second century, under the pressure of common concerns, the custom of having “Synods,” that is, the gatherings of Bishops, developed. But “Synods,” that is, councils, were still but occasional meetings, except probably for North Africa, for a special purpose, and in a restricted area. They had not yet developed into a permanent institution. Only in the third century did the process of consolidation advance, and lead to the formation of “ecclesiastical provinces,” in which several local Churches in a particular area were coordinated, under the presidency of the Bishop in the capital of the province. The emerging organizations seem to have followed the administrative divisions of the Empire, which was practically the only natural procedure. The local “autonomy” was still firmly preserved and safeguarded. The chief Bishop of the province, the Metropolitan, was no more than a president of the episcopal body of the province and chairman of the synods, and had some executive authority and a right of supervision only in behalf of all Bishops. He was not authorized to interfere with the regular administration of particular local episcopal districts, which came to be known as “dioceses.” Although in principle the equality of all Bishops has been strongly maintained, certain particular sees came to prominence: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, to mention but the most important.

The new situation obtained in the fourth century. On the one hand, it was a century of Synods. Most of these Synods, or Councils, were extraordinary meetings, convened for particular purposes, to discuss some urgent matters of common concern. Most of these Councils dealt with the matters of faith and doctrine. The aim was to achieve unanimity and agreement on principal points, and to enforce a certain measure of uniformity in order and administration. On the other hand, the Church had now to face a new problem. The tacit assumption of the basic identity between the Church and the Empire demanded a further development of administrative pattern. The provincial system, already in existence, was formally accepted and enforced. And a further centralization was  envisaged. As the Commonwealth was one and indivisible, a certain parallelism had to be established between the organization of the Empire and the administrative structure of the Church. Gradually, a theory of five Patriarchates, a pentarchy, was promoted. Five principal episcopal sees were suggested, as centers of administrative centralization: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. An independent status was conceded to the Church of Cyprus, in consideration of its Apostolic origin and ancient glory. What was more important, the Synod system was formally enforced. The Council of Nicea ruled that Provincial Synods should be regularly held twice in the course of the year (Canon 5). According to the established custom, their competence included, first, all matters which might emerge in the province, and also appeals from the local congregations. It does not seem that the system worked well or smoothly. The Council of Chalcedon observed that Synods were not regularly held, which led to the neglect of important business and disorder, and reconfirmed the earlier rule (Canon 19). And still the system did not work. Justinian had to concede that Synods might meet but once each year (Novel 137.4). The Council in Trullo (A.D. 691-692), which codified all earlier canonical legislation, also ruled that meetings should be held yearly, and the absentees should be brotherly admonished (Canon 8). And finally, the Second Council of Nicea confirmed that all Bishops of the province should meet yearly, to discuss “canonical and evangelical matters” and to deal with “questions” of canonical character. The aim of the system was obvious. It was an attempt to create a “higher” instance in administration, above the episcopal office, in order to achieve more uniformity and cohesion. Yet, the principle of episcopal authority in local communities was still firmly upheld. Only, by that time, a Bishop was no longer the head of a single local community, but “a diocesan,” that is, the head of a certain district, composed of several communities which were committed to the immediate charge of priests, or presbyters. Only acting Bishops, that is, those who were actually in office, had jurisdiction, and the authority to function as Bishops, although the retired Bishops were keeping their rank and honor. Nobody could be consecrated as a Bishop, or ordained as a priest, except to a definite “title,” that is, for a particular flock. There was no ministry “at large.”

The logic of the single Christian Commonwealth seemed to imply one further step. The Imperial power was centered in one Emperor. Was it not logical that the Priesthood, the Hierarchy, should also have one Head? This has been actually claimed, if for completely different reasons, by the Popes of Rome. The actual basis of the “Roman claims” was in the Primacy of St. Peter and in the Apostolic privileges of his See. But, in the context of the Commonwealth-idea, these claims were inevitably understood as claims for the Primacy of the Empire. The “primacy of honor” was readily conceded to the Bishop of Rome, with the emphasis on the fact that Rome was the ancient capital of the Empire. But now, with the transfer of the capital to the New City of Constantine, which had become a “New Rome,” the privileges of the Bishop of Constantinople also had to be safeguarded. Accordingly, the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, A.D. 381) accorded to the Bishop of Constantinople “the privilege of honor,” ta presbeia tes times, after the Bishop of Rome, with an open reference to the fact that “Constantinople was the New Rome” (Canon 3). This put the Bishop of Constantinople above that of Alexandria in the list of ecclesiastical precedence, to the great anger and offence of the latter. In this connection it was strongly urged that this exaltation of the Constantinopolitan See violated the prerogatives of the “Apostolic Sees,” that is, those founded by the Apostles, of which Alexandria was one of the most renowned, as the See of St. Mark. Nevertheless, the Council of Chalcedon reconfirmed the decision of 381. Privileges of Rome were grounded in that it was the Capital City. For the same reason it seemed to be fair that the See of the New Rome, the residence of the Emperor and of the Senate, should have similar privileges (Canon 28). This decision provoked violent indignation in Rome, and the 28th Canon of Chalcedon was repudiated by the Roman Church. It was inevitable, however, that the prestige and influence of the  Constantinopolitan Bishop should grow. In the Christian Commonwealth it was but natural for the Bishop of the Imperial City to be in the center of the ecclesiastical administration. By the time of the Council of Chalcedon, there was in Constantinople, along with the Bishop, a consultative body of resident Bishops, synodos endemousa, acting as a kind of permanent “Council.” It was also logical that, in the course of time, the Bishop of Constantinople should assume the title of an “Ecumenical Patriarch,” whatever exact meaning might have been originally connected with the name. The first Bishop who actually assumed the title was John the Faster (582-593), and this again could not fail to provoke the protest from Rome. St. Gregory the Great, the Pope, accused the Patriarch of pride and arrogance. There was no personal arrogance—the Patriarch was a severe and humble ascetic, “the Faster”—there was but the logic of the Christian Empire. Political catastrophes in the East, that is, the Persian invasion and Arab conquest, together with the secession of Monophysites and Nestorians in Syria and Egypt, reduced the role of the ancient great Sees in those areas, and this accelerated the rise of the Constantinopolitan See. At least de facto, the Patriarch had become the chief Bishop of the Church in the Eastern Empire. It is significant that the Epanargoge spoke plainly of the Patriarch, meaning of course the Patriarch of Constantinople. He was the opposite number to the Emperor. By that time the political unity of the Christian Commonwealth had been already broken. Byzantium had actually become precisely an Eastern Empire. And another, and rival, Empire had been founded in the West, under Charlemagne. After a period of indecision, the See of Rome finally took the side of Charlemagne. On the other hand, the missionary expansion among the Slavs in the ninth and tenth centuries greatly enlarged the area of the Constantinopolitan jurisdiction.

It is commonly admitted that “Roman Unity,” the Pax Romana, facilitated the missionary expansion of the Church, which only in rare cases went beyond the boundaries of the Empire, the limes Romanus. It is also obvious that the empirical unity of the Church had been so speedily realized precisely because the Empire was one, at least in principle and in theory. Those countries which were outside of the Empire were also loosely fitted into the institutional unity of the Church. The factual identity of the main ecclesiastical organization with the Empire created considerable difficulty for those Churches which were beyond the Imperial border. The most conspicuous example is the Church in Persia, which was compelled to withdraw from the unity with the West already in A.D. 410 and constitute itself into an independent unit, precisely because the Church in the West was too closely connected with the Roman Empire, an enemy of Persia. The split was caused by non-theological factors, and was limited to the level of administration. Thus, “Roman Unity” was at once a great advantage and a handicap for the Church’s mission.

Now, it can be reasonably contended that in the period before Constantine the Church did not evolve any organization which could have enabled her to act authoritatively on a really “ecumenical” scale. The first truly “ecumenical” action was the Council in Nicea, in A.D. 325, the First Ecumenical Council. Councils were already in the tradition of the Church. But Nicea was the first Council of the whole Church, and it became the pattern on which all subsequent Ecumenical Councils were held. For the first time the voice of the whole Church was heard. The membership of the Council, however, was hardly ecumenical, in the sense of actual representation. There were but four Bishops from the West, and the Roman Bishop was represented by two presbyters. Few missionary Bishops from the East were present. The majority of Bishops present came from Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. The same is true of all subsequent Ecumenical Councils, recognized in the Eastern Orthodox Church, up to the Second Council of Nicea, A.D. 787. Strangely enough, we do not find in our primary sources any regulations concerning the organization of the Ecumenical Councils. It does not seem that there were any fixed rules or patterns. In the canonical sources there is no single mention of the Ecumenical Council, as a permanent institution, which should be periodically convened, according to some authoritative scheme. The Ecumenical Councils were not an integral part of the Church’s  constitution, nor of her basic administrative structure. In this respect they differed substantially from those provincial and local Councils which were supposed to meet yearly, to transact current matters and to exercise the function of unifying supervision. The authority of the Ecumenical Councils was high, ultimate, and binding. But Councils themselves were rather occasional and extraordinary gatherings. This explains why no Ecumenical Councils have been held since A.D. 787. In the East there was a widely spread conviction that no further Councils should be held, beyond the sacred number “Seven.” There was no theory of the Ecumenical Councils in Eastern theology, or in the canon law of the East. Seven Councils were, as it were, the seven gifts of God, as there were seven gifts of the Spirit, or seven Sacraments. The ecumenical authority of those Seven Councils was of a “super-canonical” character. The Eastern Church, at least, did not know any “conciliar theory” of administration, except on a local level. Such a theory was elaborated in the West, in the late Middle Ages, during the so-called “Conciliar Movement” in the Western Church, in the struggle with the growing Papal centralization. It has no connection with the organization of the Ancient Church, especially in the East.

It is well known that Emperors were taking an active part in the Ecumenical Councils, and sometimes participated in the conciliar deliberations, as, for example, Constantine at Nicea. Councils were usually convened by Imperial decrees, and their decisions were confirmed by the Imperial approval, by which they were given the legally binding authority in the Empire. In certain cases, the initiative was taken by the Emperor, as it was with the Fifth Ecumenical Council, at Constantinople, A.D. 553, at which the pressure and violence of the Emperor, the great Justinian himself, was so conspicuous and distressing. These are the facts which are usually quoted as proof of the Byzantine Caesaropapism. Whatever influence the Emperors might have had on the councils, and however real their pressure might have been, the Councils were definitely gatherings of Bishops, and only they had the authority to vote. The Imperial pressure was a fact, and not a right. The active role of the Emperors in the convocation of the Council, and their great concern in the matter, are completely understandable in the context of an indivisible Christian Commonwealth. It is obviously true that Ecumenical Councils were in a certain sense “Imperial Councils,” die Reichskonzilien, the Councils of the Empire. But we should not forget that the Empire itself was an Oikoumene. If “ecumenical” meant just “Imperial,” “Imperial” meant no less than “Universal.” The Empire, by conviction, always acted in behalf of the whole of mankind, as gratuitous as this assumption might have been. Attempts have been made, by modern scholars, to construe the Ecumenical Councils as an Imperial institution, and, in particular, to draw a parallel between them and the Senate. This suggestion is hardly tenable. First of all, if the Senate was an institution, the Councils were just occasional events. Secondly, the Emperor’s position at the Council was radically different from his position in the Senate. The vote belonged solely to the Bishops. Decisions were “acclaimed” in their name. The Emperor was an obedient son of the Church and was bound by the voice and will of the hierarchy. The number of Bishops present was, in a sense, irrelevant. They were expected to reveal the common mind of the Church, to testify to her “tradition.” Moreover, decisions had to be unanimous: no majority vote was permissible in matters of eternal truth. If no unanimity could be achieved, the Council would be disrupted, and this disruption would reveal the existence of a schism in the Church. In any case, Bishops in the Council did not act as officials of the Empire, but precisely as “Angels of the Church,” by the authority of the Church, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Above all, as Edward Schwartz, the greatest modern authority on the history of the Councils, has aptly said, “the Emperor was a mortal, the Church was not.”


THE CHURCH is not of this world, as her Lord, Christ, was also not of the world. But He was in  this world, having “humbled” Himself to the condition of that world which He came to save and to redeem. The Church also had to pass through a process of the historical kenosis, in the exercise of her redemptive mission in the world. Her purpose was not only to redeem men out of this world, but also to redeem the world itself. In particular, since man was essentially a “social being,” the Church had to wrestle with the task of the “redemption of society.” She was herself a society, a new pattern of social relationship, in the unity of faith and in the bond of peace. The task proved to be exceedingly arduous and ambiguous. It would be idle to pretend that it has ever been completed.

The “Holy Empire” of the Middle Ages was an obvious failure, both in its Western and its Eastern forms. It was at once a utopia and a compromise. The “old world” was still continuing under the Christian guise. Yet it did not continue unchanged. The impact of the Christian faith was conspicuous and profound in all walks of life. The faith and the hope were impatient. People really did believe that “this world” could be “christened” and converted, not only that it was “forgiven.” There was a firm belief in the possibility of an ultimate renewal of the entire historical existence. In this conviction all historical tasks have been undertaken. There was always a double danger involved in the endeavor: to mistake partial achievements for ultimate ones, or to be satisfied with relative achievements, since the ultimate goal was not attainable. It is here that the spirit of compromise is rooted. On the whole, the only ultimate authority which has been commonly accepted at this time is that of the Christian truth, in whatever manner this truth might have been expounded and specified. The myth of “the dark Middle Ages” has been dispelled by an impartial study of the past. There has even been a shift in the opposite direction. Already Romantics have started preaching a “return” to the Middle Ages, precisely as an “Age of Faith.” They are impressed by the spiritual unity of the Medieval world, in striking contrast with the “anarchy” and “confusion” of Modern times. Obviously, the Medieval world was also a “world of tensions.” Yet, tensions seemed to be overarched by certain crucial convictions, or coordinated in the common obedience to the supreme authority of God. The sore shortcomings of the Medieval settlement should not be ignored or concealed. But the nobility of the task also should not be overlooked. The aim of the Medieval man was to build a truly Christian Society. The urgency of this aim has been recently rediscovered and recognized. Whatever may be said about the failures and abuses of the Medieval period, its guiding principle has been vindicated. The idea of a Christian Commonwealth is now again taken quite seriously, as much as it is still enveloped in fog and doubt, and in whatever particular manner it may be phrased in our own days. In this perspective, the Byzantine politico-ecclesiastical experiment also appears in a new light. It was an earnest attempt to solve a real problem. The experiment probably should not be reenacted, nor, indeed, can it be actually repeated in the changed situation. But lessons of the past should not be forgotten or unlearned. The Byzantine experiment was not just a “provincial,” an “Eastern” experiment. It had an “ecumenical” significance. And much in the Western legacy is actually “Byzantine,” both good and bad.

For obvious reasons, Monasticism could never become a common way of life. It could be, of necessity, but a way for the few, for the elect, for those who might have chosen it. An emphasis on the free decision was implied. One can be born into a Christian Society, one can be but re-born into Monasticism, by an act of choice. The impact of Monasticism was much wider than its own ranks, nor did the monks always abstain from a direct historical action, at least by the way of criticism and admonition. Monasticism was an attempt to fulfill the Christian obligation, to organize human life exclusively on a Christian basis, in opposition to “the world.” The failures of historical Monasticism must be admitted and duly acknowledged. They were constantly exposed and denounced by the Monastic leaders themselves, and drastic reforms have been periodically undertaken. Monastic “degeneration” has been a favorite theme of many modern historians. And again, in recent times “the call of the Desert” has assumed a new urgency and thrill, not only attracting those who are tired  of the world and are dreaming of “escape” or “refuge,” but also awakening those who are zealous to enforce a “renewal” upon a world confused by fear and despair. Monasticism attracts now not only as a school of contemplation, but also as a school of obedience, as a social experiment, as an experiment in common life. Here lies the modern thrill of the cloister. In the context of this new experience, the legacy of the Eastern and Byzantine Monasticism is being readily and gratefully received and reassessed by an increasing number of fervent Christians in the West and elsewhere.

The Church, which establishes herself in the world, is always exposed to the temptation of an excessive adjustment to the environment, to what is usually described as “worldliness.” The Church which separates herself from the world, in feeling her own radical “otherworldliness,” is exposed to an opposite danger, to the danger of excessive detachment. But there is also a third danger, which has probably been the major danger of Christian history. It is the danger of double standards. This danger has been precipitated by the rise of Monasticism. Monasticism was not meant originally to be just a way for the few. It was conceived rather as a consequent application of common and general Christian vows. It served as a powerful challenge and reminder in the midst of all historical compromises. Yet a worse compromise was invented, when Monasticism became reinterpreted as an exceptional way. Not only was the Christian Society sorely rent asunder and split into the groups of “religious” and “secular,” but the Christian ideal itself was split in twain and, as it were, “polarized,” by a subtle distinction between “essential” and “secondary,” between “binding” and “optional,” between “precept” and “advice.” In fact, all Christian “precepts” are but calls and advice, to be embraced in free obedience, and all “advice” is binding. The spirit of compromise creeps into Christian action when the “second best” is formally permitted and even encouraged. This “compromise” may be practically unavoidable, but it should be frankly acknowledged as a compromise. A multiplicity of the manners of Christian living, of course, should be admitted. What should not be admitted is their grading in the scale of “perfection.” Indeed, “perfection” is not an advice, but a precept, which can never be dispensed with. One of the greatest merits of Byzantium was in that it could never admit in principle the duality of standards in Christian life.

Byzantium had failed, grievously failed, to establish an unambiguous and adequate relationship between the Church and the larger Commonwealth. It did not succeed in unlocking the gate of the Paradise Lost. Yet nobody else has succeeded, either. The gate is still locked. The Byzantine key was not the right one. Neither were the other keys. And probably there is no earthly or historical key for that ultimate lock. There is only an eschatological key, the true “Key of David.”  Yet Byzantium was for centuries wrestling, with fervent commitment and dedication, with a real problem. And in our own days, when we are wrestling with the same problem, we may get some more light for ourselves through an impartial study of the Eastern experiment, both in its hope and in its failure.


*Originally published in Cross Currents 9:3 (Summer 1959), 233-253; reprinted in Christianity and Culture: Collected Works Vol. 2, 67-100. Out of print.

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